August Reads

Some of the best writing I came across last month

Hi friends,

Going forward, in addition to the usual “irregularly scheduled programming” of my own writing on Patagonia and beyond, I’ll be sending out a quick run-down of articles, essays, and word-art that stood out to me over the past month. Here’s my first go at it. Enjoy and let me know what you think.

-Ben


What Have We Done to the Whale - Amia Srinivasan

“The whale’s aura lies in its unique synthesis of ineffability and mammality. Whales are enormous and strange. But—in their tight familial bonds, their cultural forms, their incessant chatter—they are also like us. Contained in their mystery is the possibility that they are even more like us than we know: that their inner lives are as sophisticated as our own, perhaps even more so. Indeed, contained in whales is the possibility that the creatures are like humans, only much better: brilliant, gentle, depthful gods of the sea.”

A beautiful piece, from the amazing Amia Srinivasan. More and more, philosophers are leaving their armchairs to study elephants, octopuses, and whales — creatures whose “alterity” challenges our most basic assumptions about the nature of thought, language, and community. This piece, more history than theory, is worth a read.


The History of Smallpox - Jason Crawford

I can’t stop thinking about this essay. Off the top of your head, how many people do you think died from smallpox in the 20th century alone? The staggering answer is at the beginning of Jason Crawford’s essay.

We’ve now eradicated smallpox completely from the globe, except for a pair of vials stored for scientific purposes. That achievement surely ranks among the greatest in human history. The twists and turns involved in arriving to complete eradication are fascinating — an early inoculation “start-up” in 18th-century England, theological interventions from the Puritans, and the use of village cows as disease incubators. And a lot more.

What would it take to notch another victory like this one, except over, for example, climate change?


Two Poems from Langston Hughes

These poems are reminders from Langston Hughes, writing in the mid-20th century, that the injustices we’re witnessing today are nothing new. We must end the madness of injustice faced by Black communities in the US.

Who But The Lord?

I looked and I saw
That man they call the Law.
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head
Of being laid out cold and dead,
Or else murdered
By the third degree.

I said, O, Lord, if you can,
Save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!

Now, I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?

Question

When the old junk man Death
Comes to gather up our bodies
And toss them into the sack of oblivion,
I wonder if he will find
The corpse of a white multi-millionaire
Worth more pennies of eternity
Than the black torso of
A Negro cotton-picker?


Sex Crimes Without Victims - Michael Winerip

This is a pretty challenging read. Prosecuting and jailing sex offenders feels like a no-brainer. But this piece makes a strong argument that some police departments have gone overboard and are baiting people into committing crimes without victims. There are parallels here with the FBI’s post-9/11 tendency to arrest would-be terrorists who posed no realistic threat to the country.


Is Social Media Killing Intellectual Humility? - Nicole Yeatman

Spoiler alert: Yes.

If you aren’t on Twitter, you may still live in a world where granting the benefit of the doubt and engaging in thoughtful disagreement feel possible. But it’s increasingly rare to see that sort of thing on Twitter, where blinding intellectual certainty and punchy self-assuredness dominate.

You might think: Well, that’s Twitter, but I live in the real world. The problem is that Twitter-style discourse is seeping into our politics and the academy. We’re doomed if we don’t protect space for uncertainty, open-mindedness, and growth.


The Hidden Toilet Humor in a Titian Masterpiece - Kelly Grovier

On a lighter note: Does a painting by one of the Renaissance’s most famous artists basically amount to a joke about flatulence? This scholarly analysis says: very much so.