Recommendations of forthcoming books can be curses as well as blessings. The sheer quantity of them is overwhelming, and their tendency to both gush and preach (in wearyingly predictable ways) has been known to induce nausea. Even so, I am grateful for the many occasions when such advance intelligence has given me an invigorating jolt of anticipation, and I have tried over the years to return the favor. Here are two forthcoming books that are worth reading not only for themselves but also for the larger conversations they represent.
To start with, consider Karen Bakker’s The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants, coming in October from Princeton University Press. What a counterintuitive premise. We are being told, over and over again, that increasingly dominant digital media are narrowing our “life-world” in ways that are sure to have malign consequences (and there is no doubt some truth to these concerns). But Bakker is talking about extension of our experience and our understanding and our sympathy in ways not possible before the advent of digital technology. Consider a few of the chapter titles: “Voice of the Turtle,” “Reef Lullaby,” “Bat Banter,” “How to Speak Honeybee,” “Listening to the Tree of Life.” If these don’t entice you, nothing more that I can say will avail. And that’s fine; there is always far more to read than any given person (myself included) has the time and inclination to take up. But if you are interested, here are some additional notes.
Bakker’s book takes its place in two ongoing conversations of particular interest just now. One regards animal intelligence. A number of recent books (too numerous to list) offer fascinating revelations about animal brains but also often traffic in tut-tutting about human exceptionalism, a temptation to which Bakker herself is not immune. Even so, this growing body of work is one of the most interesting currents in our “intellectual world” today. And the same is true of “sound studies,” which began in the 1960s (though that label wasn’t created until much later); the great Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong was a pioneering figure. In this domain, Bakker’s work continues a dynamic conversation that “general readers” as well as scholars should be following.
One last note, on another way in which this particular book is representative of our moment. The author’s bio notes that Bakker is both an academic (with a very impressive résumé) and a “tech entrepreneur.” This combination, which would have been quite rare in the university world as I first encountered it in the 1960s, is increasingly common today; like the old model, it has pluses and minuses both. I hope you will give The Sounds of Life a listen.
The second book I urge on you (imagine me on a street corner with a stack of copies, wearing my Bookman t-shirt) is Bruce Kuklick’s Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture, due in December from the University of Chicago Press. If you were to ask me to name the five living American historians I read with the greatest interest, I would dither a bit, but Bruce Kuklick would certainly be among them. I admire him for his immense intellectual range. He has written on an almost absurd variety of subjects—among his recent books, one of my favorites is Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba, written with Emmanuel Gerard—and you never know what he will take up next. He combines intellectual curiosity with steely integrity, rare common sense, resistance to fads, withering scorn (when scorn is due), and mordant irony. At first readers may be a bit surprised by this latest choice of topic, so fashionable these days, but his scorched-earth introduction will erase any puzzlement:
[F]ascism does not have a bundle of coherent significations. It expresses loathing more than it identifies a reality or a growing sense of realities. The verifiable ingredients have never compared to the deleterious emotional weight the word lays on the scale. Fascism does not so much describe as it accomplishes reproof. There is no elemental fascism or much empirical content. Every political posture has been christened as fascist. Unable to associate fascism with any stable observables over one hundred years, I am unconvinced that they exist.
Whoa. Kudos to the University of Chicago Press for being willing to publish a book the mere mention of which will leave many blue checks choking on their breakfast and sputtering coffee across the table. The outrage! I urge you to read Fascism Comes to America and make up your own mind.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.