Recommended Reading, Late 2013–May 2014

Kara Walker

Around this time last year I posted a number of articles, essays, and interviews that I had enjoyed reading. Here is an equivalent list for 2014. Once again, the selection is of pieces I was able to save to Instapaper, and does not include things I read in print. These are listed in the order in which I read them; a quote accompanies each link.

Nick Faust, “Get Off,” The New Inquiry. “Artists are giving themselves over and opening themselves up to those things that stick out, that linger, that give pause, that provide both evident visible pleasure and inwardly-kept satisfaction, that they can’t get out of their head, that horrify them but they come back to, that humiliate and punish, that build and nurture, that annoy and tease, that they find themselves needing more and more of.”

Arthur Krystal, “The Missing Music in Today’s Poetry,” Chronicle of Higher Education. “Simply put: I miss what I used to enjoy. I miss the poetry I used to hear in my head after reading it on the page. I miss the sound it used to make. Very little of what I read now seems truly memorable in the sense that it lends itself to memorization.”

Thessaly La Force, “A Teacher and Her Student: Marilynne Robinson On Staying Out of Trouble,” Vice.  Robinson: “Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation [that is the mind’s role].”

Pico Iyer, “Hyderabad in Five Colors,” New York Review of Books online. “Now India is drawing from some of the global order’s latest fads, but only by superimposing them upon what still, poignantly, remains one of the most uncared-for and impoverished populations on earth.”

Mike Sperlinger, “Two Slight Returns: Chauncey Hare and Marianne Wex,” Afterall online. “In their choices, the vicissitudes of their reputations, and the political valencies of their work, there are parallels which suggest how vocations can unhinge careers, and how giving oneself over entirely to the work might mean abandoning it altogether.”

Jacob Mikanowski, “Papyralysis,” Los Angeles Review of Books. “The very fact that books are frail physical objects is part of what makes them endearing. They’re like us. We don’t live in a realm of pure thought, and neither do they.”

Brian Droitcour, “Splay Attention,” The New Inquiry. “For me, ten seconds can feel like an excruciatingly long time to look at a painting or a photograph. If I’m writing about a work, maybe I’ll suppress my impatience and give it a full sixty seconds. Looking at an image for fifteen minutes—even five!—is hard to fathom.”

Zadie Smith, “Man Vs. Corpse,” New York Review of Books. “I stared at this drawing, attempting a thought experiment, failing. Then I picked up a pen and wrote, in the margins of the page, most of what you have read up to this point. A simple experiment—more of a challenge, really. I tried to identify with the corpse.”

Suzanne Hudson, “Last Call,” “This trip to Venice was something else. My curiosity about what happened after the official story ended got the best of me.”

Mark Slouka, “Nobody’s Son,” The New Yorker online. “I lost my father this past year, and the word feels right because I keep looking for him. As if he were misplaced. As if he could just turn up, like a sock or a set of keys.”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Ghosting,” London Review of Books. “The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” The New Yorker online. “Public space, urban space, which serves at other times the purposes of the citizen, the member of society establishing contact with other members, is here the space in which to disappear from the bonds and binds of individual identity. Woolf is celebrating getting lost.”

Leslie Jamison, “Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City?” The New Republic. “I think the volume asks quite a bit more: Not so much whether writers can be taught but what it means that they are getting taught, and what it means that we keep asking this question about the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us. The volume asks who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.” [N.B.: Jamison also just published an essay collection titled The Empathy Exams, one of the best books I’ve read this year.]

Haley Mlotek, “Tracing Ana,” The New Inquiry. “There was no label large enough for all the art that Mendieta made. That is, until she died, and there was one label for what she was: gone.”

Hilton Als, “The Sugar Sphinx,” The New Yorker online. “The diary [Kara] Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black and white souls alike.”

Ruth Margalit, “The Unmothered,” The New Yorker online. “I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless, or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.”

Where’s the Rage? Kamila Shamsie and Pankaj Mishra In Conversation,” Guernica. Mishra: “It’s then that you begin to suspect that the asymmetries of power that have shaped relations between the West and the rest of the world also exist in the realm of literary criticism.”

Nick Thorpe, “Why We Should Love Material Things More,” Aeon. “If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?”

Recommended Reading, January–June 2013

101 Spring Street. Photo: Josh White.
101 Spring Street. Photo: Josh White.

Near the beginning of the year I began saving articles, essays, and interviews that I liked to a folder in Instapaper. Here is a selection of my favorites, in the order in which I came across them. Bear in mind that this does not include anything I read in print, or many things I read online; the article had to go into Instapaper first before it could be logged in my “favorites” folder. Nevertheless, get your preferred read-it-later bookmarklet or printer ready.

Wells Tower, “The Old Man at Burning Man,” GQ. The magazine’s description: “It’s something we’ve all been meaning to do. The father-son bonding adventure. You know: the big fishing excursion, the road trip down Route 66. Last year, Wells Tower took a completely different approach with his dad: Burning Man, the world’s largest chemically enhanced self-expression festival. They went to witness the Slut Olympics. They went to see the art. They went to discover what draws 60,000 people to one of the least hospitable places on Earth. Then they set up camp and took off their clothes. And things got truly interesting.”

Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu, “Imperfect Strollers, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan,” Los Angeles Review of Books. From the essay: “Two recent debut novels, Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, question such optimism in the transformative potential of the flâneur’s wandering gaze.”

Jhumpa Lahiri, “Notes from a Literary Apprenticeship,” the New Yorker. From the essay: “My love of writing led me to theft at an early age. The diamonds in the museum, what I schemed and broke the rules to obtain, were the blank notebooks in my teacher’s supply cabinet, stacked in neat rows, distributed for us to write out sentences or practice math.”

Ariel Dorfman, “My Lost Library: Books, Exile, and Identity,” Chronicle of Higher Education. From the essay: “The initial, customary words (“Ariel? Tengo malas noticias. I’ve got bad news.”), were followed by a surprise. The victim was not a human being. It was my library.”

Brian Blickenstaff, “The Saga of Tomsan,” Slate. On how an American journeyman revolutionized Japanese soccer—and why it isn’t happening in the U.S.

George Scialabba, “Progress and Prejudice,” Salmagundi. From the essay: “I, at least, am the lucky beneficiary of two or three centuries of progress. And since the carbon footprint of classical music, great novels, independent film, and most of my other chief pleasures is fairly low, it seems like sustainable, universalizable progress. Do I embody moral progress as well? That’s a harder case to make, but not impossible.”

George Packer, “Upgrade or Die,” the New Yorker online. Are perfectionism and inequality linked?

Rob Horning, “Google Alert for the Soul,” The New Inquiry. From the essay: “Earlier notions of authenticity were premised on a unique interior self that consumerism would help us express, but social media have made that untenable. In response, authenticity is shifting, describing not fidelity to an inner truth about the self but fidelity to the self posited by the synthesis of data captured in social media—what I here call the data self.”

Benjamin Kunkel, “Aftermath and Prelude,” n+1 online. From the essay: “I didn’t expatriate myself for political reasons. But a part of my reluctance to come back to live in the US, as I did in December, was political estrangement from this country, something easier for me to deal with when I’m abroad.”

Joshua Rothman, “The Impossible Decision,” the New Yorker online. On whether or not to go to graduate school.

Greg Allen, “101 Spring Street by Donald Judd (and ARO Architects),” Architect. Changing nothing about Donald Judd’s original vision for his cast-iron building home and studio made for an unprecedented restoration project for ARO.

Richard Nash, “What Is the Business of Literature?,” Virginia Quarterly Review. As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.

Justin Erik Halldór Smith, “Interpreting Tino Sehgal,” From the essay: “What generally happens is a sort of split between two possible approaches among the interpreters. One is to riff, to recount impressions of whatever the quotation might induce one to think (or even to feel). The other is to try, within the constraints imposed by the work, to be as scholarly as possible and to get at what the author might in fact have meant. I belong squarely in the latter camp.”

Adam Kirsch, “Rocket and Lightship,” Poetry. Billed as meditations on life and letters.

Sandra Allen, “In Patagonia in Patagonia,” the Paris Review Daily. From the essay: “By the time I’d finished Shakespeare’s introduction to the Chatwin, I felt convinced I’d never needed a book as badly as I needed In Patagonia in Patagonia.”

Ian Crouch, “The Curse of Reading and Forgetting,” the New Yorker online. From the essay: “Looking at my bookshelves, I am aware of another kind of forgetting—the spines look familiar; the names and titles bring to mind perhaps a character name, a turn of plot, often just a mood or feeling—but for the most part, the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting.”

Laura Owens, “‘It’s Spelled Motherfuckers.’—An Interview with Rachel Kushner,” the Believer Logger. Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers is one of the best books I’ve read this year. And her publicist deserves a raise for Kushner’s omnipresence in media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Christy Wampole, “The Essayification of Everything,” the New York Times. From the essay: “I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment ‘the essayification of everything.'”

John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” the Paris Review. The first line: “When I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade.”

Joanna Kakassis, “Austerity Lentils,” Foreign Policy. (Link may require you printing the article or logging in to the website to read it.) Subtitle: “What a country cooks when it’s collapsing.” That country: Greece.

James Fenton, “What Are We Going to Do About the New Philip Larkin?,” the Threepenny Review. From the essay: “In the story of Larkin’s estate we find examples of both radical tidying up and extensive preservation.”

Michael Sanchez, “2011: Art and Transmission,” Artforum. From the essay: “Art is no longer discovered in biennials and fairs and magazines, but on the phone.”

An Update

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.

In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.

In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.

In May, I spoke with artist Sara VanDerBeek about her new exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York. I’ve followed Sara’s work since the beginning of her career, and wrote about her for Aperture in 2011. I also commissioned photographer Barney Kulok, who recently published a book on Louis I. Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to review a new book about Le Corbusier’s relationship with photography. He turned in a much broader, more ambitious essay on the relationship between buildings and pictures that I was proud to publish. I also talked to photojournalist Michael Kamber, who was the New York Times’s principle photographer in Baghdad from 2003 to 2012. He had just published a new anthology of interviews with combat photojournalists called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. I also chatted with photographer Anne Hardy about her exhibition at Maureen Paley in London, where she exhibited, for the first time, standalone sculptures not used in the creation of her photographs. Lastly, in the just-published Summer 2013 issue of Aperture (#211), I introduced a portfolio of photographs by Lisa Oppenheim, whose work I’ve long admired.

This month, I spoke with an old friend, artist Tony Feher, about the newest iteration of his twenty-five-year survey exhibition, and about the process of looking back on more than two decades of artmaking and life. An edited version of our conversation was published on

“We Don’t Go ‘Gazing’ At Art”

Although Ingrid Rowland’s thoughtfully critical review of Hans Belting’s Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science is not available in full online, it contains a small disquisition on a topic of interest to theorists of and writers on contemporary art. The relevant excerpt:

Belting’s arguments suffer particular damage in English translation because they hinge so directly on the word almost always rendered as “gaze.” In academic English for the past three decades or so, “gaze” has conjured up a whole series of associations that originate with Jacques Lacan and his ideas about the way that sight shapes thought (or “scopic regimes,” which sounds only slightly less outré in French than it does in English). To our collective misfortune, “gaze” and “the gaze” entered the Anglophone vocabulary through a translator’s effort to find the right English word to match Lacan’s “regard.” But “gaze” is not that word. Lacan’s regard meant an incisive look that has nothing whatsoever to do with gazing. “Gaze,” like “berserk,” is one of the marvelous Scandinavian contributions to the English vocabulary for mental derangement. It means an unfocused, mindless kind of looking, the kind of stupefied contemplation that brings to mind operative lovers doting on miniature portraits of the beloved, the rapt stare that Narcissus showered upon his own reflection, and stargazers turned upward obsessively to the heavens in the minds of their unappreciative contemporaries. A gaze is, indeed, the exact opposite of a pointed and precise regard, or an equally pointed and precise German Blick. Translators of Chinese and japanese have usually used the word “view” for this kind of intelligent looking—a much more appropriate description of the activity at hand, as our own English usage proves: we say “point of view” and “viewer,” rather than “point of gaze” and “gazer,” because gazing never focuses on a point, and we don’t go “gazing” at art, or “gazing for” someone, we go “looking.” Tellingly, Belting drops the misleading term for his own discussion of Al-Hazen’s optics and speaks of “seeing” and “glancing.”

By now, however, one translator’s unhappy choice in rending Lacan has become the byword for two generations of English-speaking scholars who would classify themselves as “critical” and “theoretical” while accepting, uncritically and with utter lack of theoretical sophistication, a grossly misleading term for one of their fundamental concepts.

For the rest of Rowland’s review, see the December 29 issue of The New Republic.

Bright Colors in the News

Police shoot water cannons as Jammu Kashmir state government employees shout anti government slogans during a protest outside the civil secretariat in Srinagar, India, May, 5, 2008. (Dar Yasin/AP)

The use of bright colors has entered the news in two unexpected ways this week. On Friday, Time’s Lightbox blog reported on the use of pink dye in the water cannons the government uses to fight political protesters in Uganda. The report included a stunning-looking—if dispiriting to think about—slide show demonstrating how the dyes, in a rainbow of colors, have been used elsewhere in recent decades. Today’s New York Times includes a story about the riotous colors—a “scourge” of tastelessness, according to some—used in the rebuilding of Baghdad. A slideshow accompanies the report.

Albert C. Barnes Before His Gallery

Earlier this week I read Nathaniel Peffer’s New Schools for Older Students (1926), part of a series of books about adult education in the United States produced for the Carnegie Corporation. Other titles in the series, published from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, address the university extension movement, chautauquas and lyceums, correspondence schools, and public libraries. New Schools for Older Students fills in the interstitial spaces of the picture, bringing together a miscellaneous sampling of institutions and endeavors that fostered learning for its own sake—what Peffer calls “cultural education.”

Each of the report’s seven sections encompasses a type of adult-education effort, with individual examples; the fifth focuses on “Corporation Educational Programs.” Peffer discusses courses conducted by the American Institute of Banking, the Standard Oil Company, and Westinghouse Electric, the latter of which enrolled roughly 5,000 of its employees in East Pittsburgh. The offerings of these companies are relatively straightforward, in that they mostly focus upon teaching employees skills they can use to get ahead in their careers at the company. Such initiatives conform to what historian Lizabeth Cohen has called “welfare capitalist” policies, which sought, in the wake of labor unrest and shop-floor organizing during the 1910s, to redirect incipient working-class solidarity into an attachment to the company.

Albert C. Barnes
Albert C. Barnes

“One unique venture should be noticed,” Peffer continues, “not because it has a general application to this field but because it is an interesting example of what may be done under special conditions. The Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia is the educational outgrowth of the A.C. Barnes Company, manufacturing chemists., but it is primarily the product of a unique personality…” So begins his introduction to an aspect of Albert C. Barnes’s educational efforts of which I was previously unaware. There is, of course, the famous art gallery Barnes set up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, home (for a little while longer, at least) to his spectacular, idiosyncratic—and idiosyncratically presented—collection of artworks, many of them modernist masterpieces. But even while he was amassing this amazing ensemble of paintings, sculptures, and other objects, Barnes was working (with John Dewey and others) to provide educational opportunities for the workers who manufactured Argyrol, the antimicrobial drug that made him immensely wealthy. Here is part of Peffer’s description of what went on, which I offer without further comment beyond a recommendation that you bear in mind when it was published.

His fortune was made in a few years and, as he says, having no interest in wealth or commercial success per se, he took advantage of his position to give free play to his ideas. His business absorbs little of his own time and not all the time of his employees. Philosophy, psychology and art share the attention and the time both of himself and his employees.

The plant is a study group or club as much as an industry. There are about twenty employees. The men are all Negroes; no white man has ever held a job there. The women, about equal in number, are all white. There is not much work to do; in summer there is non at all, as the materials used in the preparations manufactured by the company cannot be handled in hot weather. Finding, then, that all the work that needed to be done could be finished in five or six hours a day, while the customary workday was eight hours, Dr. Barnes asked himself what to do with the remaining hours. The answer came naturally out of his own inclinations: study. So they began to study. Continue reading Albert C. Barnes Before His Gallery

Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890

Detail view of the facade of the Reliance Building. Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr.
The Reliance Building (Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr)

This month I have been reading books on the history of Chicago. I’ve enjoyed several that are deemed classics in their fields—namely William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Carl Smith’s Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. But rather than sing their praises yet again, I want to mention a new book, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury’s Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City (University of Chicago Press, 2009). It’s a slim, engaging study that places a handful of the city’s first skyscrapers, including The Monadnock, the Masonic Temple, and the Reliance Building, in the context of the raucous decade during which they were erected. While Merwood-Salisbury does include some formal description, a far greater proportion of her book is given over to analysis of “architecture and anarchy,” strikes by building trades union members, and the skyscrapers’ relationship to civic reform efforts, such as sanitation. Even the technical innovations that allowed the skyscrapers to reach above ten stories in the first place, such as steel-frame construction, are examined from the standpoint of their impact upon the labor that goes in to their building. This push-and-pull between aesthetics and politics played out in the pages of The Inland Architect, the house journal of the city’s architecture professionals, and the newspaper and periodical press, which Merwood-Salisbury mines to strong effect.

Rorotoko, a website that publishes original first-person statements by authors that describe their books, featured Chicago 1890 at the beginning of the month. Here are a few of Merwood-Salisbury’s own words:

→ The book is firstly a reinterpretation of some well-known architectural masterpieces by Chicago architects Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, and John Wellborn Root, notably the Monadnock (1885-92) and the Reliance Building (1889-95). I examine these buildings not only as important artifacts in architectural history, but also as sites for a contentious debate about the future of the industrial city.

Chicago’s defining events, including the violent building trade strikes of the 1880s, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago— feature large in the book as the context in which the skyscraper, at the turn of the twentieth century, was imagined, built, and finally repudiated. This approach to architectural history provides a new way to look at the work of important American architects, understanding their designs as specific responses to modern urban phenomena.

To read more from this interview, click here. To see a video recording of a lecture on this subject that Merwood-Salisbury delivered at the Skyscraper Museum last year, click here.

David Blumenthal and James A. Morone, The Heart of Power

I’ve just finished David Blumenthal and James A. Morone’s The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office (University of California Press), which discusses eleven presidents’ encounters with illness alongside their attempts to influence health care policy. Blumenthal, professor of medicine and health policy at Harvard Medical School and an adviser to Barack Obama, and Morone, a professor and chair of political science at Brown, are certainly up to this task, and the book is a pretty good, if sometimes repetitious, read. Particularly engaging are chapters on the Democrats who dreamed of Heart_of_Powernational health insurance, from FDR and Harry Truman to JFK and Lyndon Johnson. The chapter on Johnson draws on newly released archival material to present a “secret history of Medicare” that counters the popular narrative granting credit for the program to Senator Wilbur Mills. It turns out that LBJ, master manipulator of Congress that he was, was in on Mills’s “surprise” packaging of three separate bills—the ones that became Medicare Part A, Medicare Part B, and Medicaid—all along, graciously working behind the scenes to clear the path for the senator to dramatically reverse his longstanding anti–health insurance stance (and even following this narrative line in his autobiography).

I’m neither a health care expert nor a scholar of Johnson, so I can’t assess how fresh this “secret history” really is. Yet the book, published by the University of California Press, is obviously aimed at a broad audience, ostensibly offering ballast to anyone debating health care in 2009 and 2010. The final chapter goes so far as to offer “eight rules for the Heart of Power,” among them “passion,” “speed,” “hush the economists,” “go public,” and “manage Congress.” Curiously, though, it seems that Sam Tanenhaus, editor of both the New York Times Book Review and the Times’s Week in Review section, is among the only editors to have responded to the book. I guess the vicissitudes of book publicity will always escape me: I would imagine that powerhouse academic authors plus reputable academic press plus hot-button topic would equal widespread review attention. But despite the fact that The Heart of Power was featured on the cover of the NYTBR, where it was reviewed by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and was the prompt for an article in the Week in Review, there’s not much else out there. (I canvassed the web and Lexis-Nexis.) Here’s an interview with Morone on Open Source, a radio program based at Brown. These pieces came out in September, so perhaps others are on their way. For what it’s worth, Reich’s assessment of the book, and his description of Obama’s action on the authors’ lessons, seems to me insightful and fair. Here are his thoughts on the latter topic:

The book was written before President Obama began his push for universal health care, but he seems to have anticipated many of its lessons. He’s moved as quickly on the issue as this terrible economy has let him, and he has outlined his goals but left most details to Congress. Nor has he been too rattled by naysaying economists (although the cost estimates of the Congressional Budget Office set him back). The question remains whether, in the months ahead, he can knock Congressional heads together to clinch a meaningful deal, and overcome those who inevitably feed public fears about a “government takeover” of health care and of budget-busting future expenditures. “The Heart of Power” suggests that the odds are not in his favor.

David M. Henkin, City Reading

Henkin_City_ReadingDavid M. Henkin’s City Reading (Columbia University Press, 1998), the last book I read in 2009, comes close to my current ideal of the historian’s first book. It offers a fresh look at familiar territory: in this case, the public spaces of antebellum New York City. It’s short: based upon Henkin’s 300-page dissertation, the main text is a mere 180 or so pages. Despite that brevity, it engages a big idea: the formation of a new public in the wake of the city’s rapidly growing—and changing—population and economy. (This public is brought together, Henkin suggests, by reading in public, with commercial signage, handbills and posters, newspapers, paper currency, and the like as the citizenry’s common texts.) In doing so, Henkin is unafraid to push back against received wisdom: he suggests a somewhat novel conception of the nineteenth-century “public sphere” that counters Jürgen Habermas’s many followers, who lament everything after the demise of eighteenth-century coffeehouse culture. The book is rooted in thorough research: Henkin went through several archives’ worth of lithographs and photographs depicting the city, then interwove the insights he gained from them with contemporary observations drawn from New Yorkers’ diaries and visitors’ travelogues. He has marshaled enough evidence to convince readers that he isn’t extrapolating too broadly from too shallow a pool of sources. And the writing is largely free of obscurantist jargon. City Reading has weaknesses: to my mind, in striving to demonstrate the emergence and coherence of this new public Henkin underemphasizes the consistent confrontation among New York’s varied residents—which led to such clashes as the 1849 Astor Place Riot and the 1863 Draft Riots, both mentioned in passing in the book. (For more on this, see, for example, Lisa Keller’s 2008 book Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London, also published by Columbia.) Yet novelty, ambition, depth, and (especially) brevity seem to me admirable traits for a young scholar to aim for. To read reviews of Henkin’s book, click here and here.

Some Favorite Books Published in 2009

The editors of Frieze magazine invited me to write about some of my favorite books published this year. My response was paired with that of Amit Chaudhuri and is published in issue 128 (January-February 2010). To see the piece in context, and to read Chaudhuri’s list of the year’s literary highlights, click here. Of the books I mention, the only one I reviewed was by Steve Nicholls; read that review by clicking here.

My reading last year was a whiplash affair; I caromed between books on contemporary art and books on American history. Among my favourites were Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper), which expands upon the insights of his first book, No Place of Grace (1981). Whereas that earlier volume cast a series of late-19th-century anti-modern prophets as unwittingly complicit in the arrival of therapeutic consumer culture, in his new book Lears views the period as a cauldron of proactive revitalization. This search for new spiritual and physical beginnings led, he persuasively suggests, to unintended consequences – not least to martial ambition and America’s arrival on the world stage as an imperialist power.

Later in the summer, I enjoyed my friend Suzanne Hudson’s study Robert Ryman (MIT Press), subtitled ‘Used Paint’. The book not only shrewdly frames Ryman’s practice as a pragmatic ‘open inquiry’ made up of constituent parts (primer, paint, support, edge, wall) but also includes a brief and fascinating discussion of Victor D’Amico, an unknown-to-me pioneering art educator who worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from the 1930s to the ’60s. Another book from MIT will no doubt prove of enduring value: Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson’s Institutional Critique, an anthology of artists’ writings that follows their collection of artists’ writings on Conceptual art published in 2000. That the new anthology opens with a 1966 essay by Wiesław Borowski, Hanna Ptsazkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and that it interpolates early contributions from South America with more familiar texts by the likes of Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke and Allan Kaprow, indicates the editors’ attention to the art-historical shifts of the last decade. Institutional Critique will certainly be worked into the syllabuses of many graduate art history courses. Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, the latest 750-page brick in the multi-volume ‘Oxford History of the United States’ published by Oxford University Press, should likewise find its way onto the reading lists of US history surveys. My admiration for both Wood’s earlier books on the American Revolution and the OUP series is widely shared (by, for example, Pulitzer Prize committee members). Though I’ve only dipped into Empire of Liberty it seems as well-crafted a narrative and as talented a synthesis of recent scholarship as one would expect.

But of all the reading I did last year, nothing sticks out in my mind as brightly as does a hilarious brief passage in scientist and documentary filmmaker Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press). To depict nature’s bounty, Nicholls scrutinizes the copious written descriptions left behind by the first European explorers of North America. The abundance and vitality of flora and fauna worked both to the advantage of such adventurers and, as indicated by the words of one hunter in the Carolinas, occasionally to frustrating disadvantage: ‘We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.’