Saturday, January 18, 2014

Whitney Strub

Whitney Strub is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark. His first book, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, recently arrived in paperback, alongside his new book, Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle over Sexual Expression, which combines a legal history of obscenity doctrine with a cultural history of the poet, publisher, and pornographer Samuel Roth, whose 1957 Supreme Court established the obscenity doctrine that still fundamentally governs American sexual expression today.

Not long ago I asked Strub about what he was reading. His reply:
Most of what I read these days is in the form of scholarly journal articles—important stuff, but I’m not sure how riveting it is to anyone to hear about, myself included (to wit: Monica Prasad’s recent Journal of Policy History article “The Popular Origins of Neoliberalism in the Reagan Tax Cut of 1981” offers a fresh new perspective on the incessant, economically idiotic tax-cuts-forever policy of the GOP for the past three decades, though it could perhaps use a slightly more enticing title. “Laffer Curves Without Learning Curves,” I was thinking, or “Slash and Don’t Learn”).

I travel more than I’d like, and try to offset the misery of airports and flying by reserving that for pleasure reading, mostly in the form of crime fiction. Donald Westlake, one of the masters of the genre, makes for perfect travel reading: wry, cynical, but lightweight enough that interruptions prove less jarring than they would for the more emotionally fraught novels of, say, Jim Thompson, where sustained tension is more central to their impact. Westlake works at a more airy register, but is no less a masterful genre craftsman for it. Most recently, his 1975 Two Much surprised me with its lecherousness; Westlake is usually a fairly chaste writer (aside from his anomalous but great Kahawa), but this story of a man wooing twin sisters while pretending to himself be twin brothers is as sleazy, convoluted, and sharp as a Restoration comedy. You rarely get this sort of thing in peer-reviewed form.

Otherwise, I’m reading as much as I can about Newark, where I teach. I’m endlessly frustrated by the sensationalized media narratives that have dominated broader understandings of the city since the 1967 riots; Newark has been hit hard by deindustrialization, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and crime, but it’s also the home of a vibrant, resilient, diverse community that continues to struggle mightily against great structural obstacles. Right now I’m working through No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark, written by investigative journalist Ronald Porambo in the early 1970s. It’s a tremendously researched work—unlike virtually anyone else in the media, Porambo actually bothered to talk with locals who witnessed and participated in the uprisings of the late 60s, and he presents a frankly irrefutable argument that the riots were caused by poverty, racism, and police violence. At the same time, the book is marred by his tendencies to skew toward some overly macho Norman Mailerisms in his prose (when it comes to the New Journalism, I’m Team Didion, all the way). Still, this is an important book that lays bare the struggles of ordinary people in the 1960s and 70s. It’s saddening to see how little some of these issues, particularly the quest for food, shelter, work, and basic human dignity, have changed in the four decades since—something that reflects poorly on our society, I’m afraid.
Visit Whitney Strub’s blog.

My Book, The Movie: Obscenity Rules.

--Marshal Zeringue