Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Molly Worthen

Molly Worthen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill and is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and other publications.

Worthen's new book is Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Late last month I asked her about what she was reading. Worthen's reply:
I’ve just finished two marvelous and very different books. A few weeks ago, one of the many essays eulogizing the late philosopher Marshall Berman called his 1982 masterpiece, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, a “prose poem.” This description, even more than the rapturous reviews of Berman’s erudition and insight, prompted me to finally pick up this book. Berman’s thesis is that “ we have missed or broken the connection between our culture and our lives,” and “the modernisms of the past can give us back a sense of our own modern roots, roots that go back two hundred years.” The only way to escape from political and cultural despotism that leaves humans “pulverized by the dead hand of the future” is to recover the wisdom of the philosophers, novelists, and artists who first understood the perils that modern freedom and power entail. All That Is Solid had the same impact on me that I know it has had on a generation of readers. Berman persuaded me that to be a “modernist” is to attempt to find one’s bearings in the whirl, to try to become a subject, rather than a helpless object, of global capitalism’s relentless advance—and that Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky understood the citizens of the 21st-century better than we understand ourselves.

Berman tours the artistic minds of the 19th century in order to tell the story of the modern predicament and urge us to reconnect with fellow humans. Peter Trachtenberg makes this same essential point, but he tells his story through cats. Yes, cats. Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons is a pet memoir. Trachtenberg elevates this genre to a high philosophical art. His accounts of feline adventures and antics are by turns hysterical and heartrending (the book follows his search for his beloved ginger tabby, Biscuit, who has gone missing), and will ring true to any cat owner. But fundamentally, this is not just a book about hairballs and whiskers. Trachtenberg is not interested in either mocking or indulging humans’ irrational commitment to our furry four-legged friends. Rather, he wants to get us to see the true meaning of that affection. These beasts with whom we share our lives (and our beds, and food off our plates—and nearly every private and personal space) hold up a mirror to the human animals who love them.
Learn more about Apostles of Reason at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue