Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Johann N. Neem

Johann N. Neem is Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University and author of the recently released Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading two books. The first is Albert Camus' The Plague. I read it because I am, like so many, on a quest to find how humans create meaning in the world. The existentialists, while challenging, confront the possibility of meaninglessness. I believe that this confrontation need not lead to nihilism but might instead help us understand how we, as humans together in community, can forge a better society for ourselves.

I am also reading the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's classic essay, The Self and the Dramas of History. I am drawn to Niebuhr because he was aware that humanity's tendency to sin, in religious language, to self-interest in secular language, was always a dominant force. While individual human beings are capable of noble, moral things, we are always being pulled back by baser motives. Given American foreign policy during the past eight years, and the joy with which some Americans talked about torturing other human beings, the Rev. Niebuhr's writings remind us that we must confront human weakness and depravity for what it is before we can speak of what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
Read an excerpt from Neem's Creating a Nation of Joiners and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue