Monday, December 21, 2009

Devin's Picks

Whatever the rules for choosing one's favorite books of the year, the first is probably not to begin with self-reflexive commentary. Nevertheless, I want to start by explaining how my choices were made. I usually try to keep up on recent literature in both fiction and philosophy, but this year I was largely constrained by sacrificing my desire to read widely in order to complete my dissertation. This means that I basically missed the stand-out titles this year, and they remain unread on my bookshelf for next year. This includes The Signature of All Things, The Enemy of All, the Second manifeste pour la philosophie, and about 100 books that aren't as recent. Of the books I did read, I've excluded those that we've already reviewed (they get plenty of attention here) and tried to narrow the rest (including 2008 titles that appeared in paperback in 2009) down to only a few. Minimalism is the order of the day today. In 2010 it will be otherwise.

Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009)
In The Invention of the Jewish People (the original Hebrew title could be more literally translated as 'When and how were the Jewish people invented?') Shlomo Sand argues that the Jewish 'people' is not a nation long ago forced into exile by the Romans but, like other nations, a creation of the 19th century. In large part, Sand's book is a challenge to the accepted historiography of Israel, which has remained untouched by the recent work on nationalism, which include Benedict Anderson's classic Imagined Communities and the work of Ernest Gellner. Instead of assuming the uniqueness of Jewish history, he shows how the idea of a unique people created the Jewish people as a nation exiled from a homeland, even if many of these people are descended from North African, Mediterranean and Khazar converts. Were his book only an academic affair it would not have generated such a controversy (many of the reviews of his book are posted on his website; I highly recommend Gabriel Piterberg's in the New Left Review). Many of his negative reviewers are willing to grant much of the historiographical side of his argument (in the sense that "we've known all along about these converts, nevertheless...") in the same way that Americans are willing to acknowledge the history of the institution of slavery (or the genocide carried out on Native Americans): without contemporary political consequences such as reparations.

However, Sand's concluding chapter argues that the future of Israel is dependent on redefining what it means to be an Israeli. As he notes, Israel is an "ethnocracy with liberal features-- that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly ficticious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation" (307). His solution is to redefine Israel as a territorial state that includes all of its citizens regardless of their ethnos. As Piterberg points out, "The demand that a modern state be a normally territorial nation-state is, of course, not at all radical or dramatic, but in the context of Israeli and American Zionism, it is heresy." And yet counter-hegemonic texts wager that hegemony can be changed. As Sand writes, "I don't think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books."

Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American (Picador, 2008)
Hustvedt is a remarkable writer, able to capture the sense of loss that comes with the death of a close relative or friend. In The Sorrows of an American, the narrative follows Erik Davidsen as he discovers a mysterious incident in his recently deceased father's life, which he attempts to solve. Through the use of her own father's journals, Hustvedt tells both the story of Erik and his father, which stretches from New York City to rural Minnesota. Along the way Erik comes to grips with his own urban solitude and his memories of life long forgotten in the bustle of the big apple.

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (Penguin, 2009)
Pynchon's latest follows Doc Sportello, a private investigator and connoisseur of mind-altering substances, as he pursues the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend and a powerful developer from the Los Angeles area. It all seems to turn around a mysterious group and ship that share the name Golden Fang, and we just might figure it out if Doc could just lay off the drugs. Both a send up and tribute to an era that saw the higher ideals of the 60s give way to the power-hungry cynicism of the neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism (amongst the same people no less), Inherent Vice combines humor and paranoia in a way unique to Pynchon.

Ronald Aronson, Living Without God (Counterpoint, 2008)
If you only read one book, published in the last few years, about atheism, I recommend Living without God. I will admit that it isn't one of the controversial texts of the New Atheists, such as Dawkins, Dennett or Hitchens, but it's much more compelling. Like Sartre, from whom Aronson derives much of the philosophical framework for this book, Aronson emphasizes human freedom to show how atheists and secularists can live morally and politically within our complex world. What Aronson shares with Sartre on the idea that this freedom should give us courage to act (in fact, what is Being and Nothingness, if not a distended manual on courage?). Compared to the New Atheists, Aronson is much more politically astute (being a student of Marcuse can do that to you) and attuned to the idea that for atheism and secularism to be convincing as a way to live (and not just a lifestyle, wearing the shirt, all that…), it has to inspire some sense of courage and hope that is not just personal but collective.

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