Category General Nonfiction

A Question From Marilynne Robinson: “What Are We Doing Here?”

So the United States, with plenty of company from around the world, is going through a terrible time. A devastating and wearisome pandemic, renewed inflation, climate change and its associated weather catastrophes, a reinflamed battle over abortion, a fight seemingly unto death over the very nature of how we acquire knowledge, see reality and practice democracy.

It’s hard to find optimists out there, and I wouldn’t claim you’ll discover a raging one in eminent novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson either.

What you will find throughout her work, though, and quite specifically in the title essay of her 2018 collection, “What Are We Doing Here?”, is a meticulously crafted case for the beauty and necessity of the humanities, and a passionate call for realizing the “grandeur” that, right along with our atavistic struggle for survival as high-functioning animals, is part and parcel of our humanity, if we can ...

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Sophie’s Choice After Choice After Choice At Kabul Airport

William Styron’s 1979 novel “Sophie’s Choice” stands as an iconic description of a moral dilemma pushed to the furthest extreme of human cruelty and torment. A Nazi physician stands at a train station fronting massed and miserable Jews in 1943, directing some left, some right. Word has spread that one group is bound straight for the crematorium, while the other will be spared for the moment by going on to Auschwitz.

Sophie is a Polish Catholic who has landed here for smuggling a ham for her ailing mother in violation of wartime rules reserving all meat for the military. As she approaches the doctor with her young daughter and son in tow, the following conversation ensues:

Doctor: You’re so beautiful. I’d like to get you into bed with me. I know you’re a Polack, but are you also another one of these filthy communists?
Sophie: I’m not Jewish!. Or my children—they’re not Jewish either!...

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The Coming Climate Catastrophe in Words and Song

Only the introductory portion of this post will be mine, and I hope the rest of it will ring loud alarm bells in your mind while also causing you to consider for a moment just how ardently you love this earth, and what you might do to defend it.  Two  different sources here: One is a review in the current “London Review of Books” of “The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future,” by David Wallace-Wells.

I have not read the book but the review itself has put a chill in my bones on this otherwise warming and pleasant summer Sunday morning that will not soon subside. Nor should it, as I trust you will realize soon enough.

The second is from Jackson Browne’s absolutely prescient and heart-rending 1974 song, “Before the Deluge,” written when he was 25 years old, and which I had often sung and hummed along with over the years without ever really picking up on the words’ prophetic power—until today...

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Life, Aging, Death, Self: Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal”

The problem isn’t so much that in the end, we die. It’s in all the time leading up to the end. Not death, but severe decline is what puts fear in our hearts. A long debilitating illness or just aging that cuts us off progressively (regressively, come to think of it) from all that we love.

We all peak physically at some 30 years of age, but robustness and increased life satisfaction can persist for decades longer as we go about building our lives and come to accept our aging and its limitations with equanimity and often, good doses of humor.

But the decline does march on, as inexorable as fall following summer.

At a certain point, we stop running, then hiking, then walking without assistance, then walking altogether.

We stop driving long distances, then at night, then at all.

No more foreign travel, then it’s no to flying anywhere, then no more leaving our town, our house, and finally our room (except t...

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Wild With Desire: Eleanor Bass’s “Yours Always: Letters of Longing”

I’ve been luxuriating, which is to say, “reading slowly,” through a lovely book of letters on the subject of “longing.” The type that one human being has for another, sometimes reciprocated and sometimes, tragically, not. The editor, Eleanor Bass, an academic from King’s College London, has compiled quite the lineup of literary and cultural all-stars here, most of them at their abject, somewhat-miserable-and-desperate but florid selves, with which anyone who has ever hurtled over a cliff of wild desire for another’s acknowledgement, presence, breath, word, smell, arched eyebrow, anything, can surely sympathize.

Charlotte Bronte, Winston Churchill, Henry the VIII, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Piaf, Graham Greene, Marie Curie—all here, plus quite a few more. That includes Richard Burton writing to that woman Liz who so tormented him, then her writing back, joining all the others who...

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