Thursday, March 24, 2011

Christopher Lane

Christopher Lane is the Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University and a recent Guggenheim fellow. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Slate, and many other newspapers and periodicals. He is the author of numerous essays and several books on literature, belief, and psychology, including Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

His new book is The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Lane what he was reading. His reply:
My study right now has small piles of books dotted around the floor, each tied to a particular project, course, or article. I read a lot for my classes and writing, so there are various contenders for mention here, but I recently went back to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, which I devoured when it first came out in 2009, and which I’m finding just as impressive on a reread. Ehrenreich, one of our most astute social commentators, begins with a somewhat bemused account of the teddy bears and crayons she was encouraged to enjoy after the shock of a cancer diagnosis (now mercifully in remission). For me, the full payoff of her argument comes in the book’s second half, when Ehrenreich goes to town on the limits of positive thinking for business gurus and management consultants, whose upbeat cheer was constitutionally incapable of predicting, much less addressing, the Stock Market tumble and financial crisis in 2008. Her embrace of our current difficulties is such a tonic after the endless platitudes she quotes that I found it surprisingly uplifting. “The [economic] threats we face are real,” she concludes unsparingly, “and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the ‘first responders’! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but—if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness—we can have a good time trying.”

Another standout in a nearby pile of books is the intriguingly titled study The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life, by Duke Psychology professor Mark R. Leary. I missed the book when it first appeared in 2004, but, rather like Ehrenreich’s critique of positive thinking, it aims to explain—to students, readers, and colleagues—why the self “is not an unmitigated blessing.” Focusing on the narrow, often-nebulous line between self-awareness and egotism, Leary sums up a number of predictable collisions between dream and reality. He argues that self-awareness is both necessary and a curse—enabling in countless ways (the ability to plan and self-evaluate, for instance), but also, just as often, a hindrance and cause of reproach, including precisely because our capacity to self-evaluate is almost limitless. “What most people need is a way to reduce the amount of time that the self is engaged,” he writes, in an argument designed “not to eliminate the self” so much as help readers “use it only when necessary”—a state, it’s reassuring to hear (especially to fellow drivers), he still thinks should be frequent.

Top of another nearby pile of great fiction is Christopher Shinn’s recent Dying City, a powerful, haunting play that takes place in the shadow of the war in Iraq. One of the three characters, Kelly, is struggling to get over the death of her boyfriend, Craig, who was killed in combat there. When his brother shows up unannounced several months later, partly in an effort to work through his own grief, inevitably and rather brutally he reminds her of issues she’s tried to forget, including about the suspect reasons for the war in the first place. Shinn has Craig return in several flashback scenes; he also asks the same actor to play the two brothers, Craig and Peter. On the back of my copy is a review by Ben Brantley, New York Times theater critic, who justly calls it “a crafty and unsettling play ... a quiet, transfixing tale of grief.” Shinn “hooks you with tantalizing exposition,” he continues, “and the lure of a wham-bang solution—and then leaves you alone with your racing mind in a forest of ambiguities.”
Learn more about The Age of Doubt at the Yale University Press website and Christopher Lane's website.

Author Interviews: Christopher Lane.

The Page 99 Test: The Age of Doubt.

--Marshal Zeringue