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All Philosophy Coverage

In The Lonely City (2016), Olivia Laing traced a connection from her own experience of loneliness to the work of artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The result was a tapestry like no other, a tender exploration of art-making and human experience cast through an empathic prism. 

Everybody: A Book About Freedom finds Laing taking a similar approach as she masterfully shares stories of fascinating artists and historical figures. This time, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich is at the cosmic center of an even more wide-ranging inquiry that looks, with hope, at the idea of freedom from oppression related to skin color, sexual identity or gender.

Reich, a protégé of Sigmund Freud, believed that “the past is interred in our bodies, every trauma meticulously preserved, walled up alive.” Later in life he became known for his orgone boxes, pseudoscientific devices that attracted the attention of the FDA and led to his imprisonment. Which is to say that his legacy is a complicated, even tainted one, but Laing treats him with the same gentle perspicacity she extends to her other subjects, which include Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, sexual liberationists in Weimar Berlin, the artist Agnes Martin, Bayard Rustin and Nina Simone.

Her net, in short, is breathtakingly, ambitiously wide. Her stakes could not be higher—freedom for all bodies, “unharried by any hierarchy of form.” Along with Reich, Laing’s consistent interest here is the human body and its quest for pure freedom. How did each of these cultural and intellectual figures fight to liberate their body? How did the prevailing forces of the time work against them? These questions link Laing’s journey, which is as concerned with bodily freedom as with the way trauma can operate, years past its inception, as a barrier to said freedom. Along the way she peers inward to her past as an herbalist, environmental protestor and child of gay parents in the 1980s.

“I still don’t believe in orgone boxes,” Laing concludes, “but I do think Reich found his way to durable truths. I think the weight of history abides in our private bodies. Each of us carries a legacy of personal and inherited trauma, operating within an unequal grid of rules and laws that depends upon the kind of body we were born into. At the same time, we are porous and capable of mysterious effects on each other’s lives.” Everybody is a nonpareil study that delights the intellect.

Olivia Laing casts a breathtakingly, ambitiously wide net, and the stakes of her subject—freedom for all bodies—could not be higher.

To guide you on the path of positivity in the new year, four books provide support, affirmation and inspiration.

Beginners

In Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, author Tom Vanderbilt demonstrates the importance of cultivating curiosity and trying new skills on for size. Vanderbilt was looking for ways to reengage with life when—taking a cue from his inquisitive young daughter—he decided to immerse himself in activities he’d always wanted to tackle, including drawing, singing and surfing. “I was a quick study when it came to facts,” Vanderbilt writes, “but what had I actually learned to do lately?”

In Beginners, Vanderbilt reveals what it’s like to pick up skills as an adult novice. He blends his personal story with research into neuroscience, psychology and education and recounts his rookie experiences with humor and heart. His insights into midlife learning will resonate with readers who have a desire to try new pursuits but may need a little nudge. Beginners, he says, is not “a ‘how to do’ book as much as a ‘why to do’ book. . . . It’s about small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical.” As Vanderbilt proves, there’s no expiration date on the ability to learn. Pick up a copy of Beginners and make 2021 a time of discovery.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Tom Vanderbilt narrates the audiobook for Beginners, and it’s just the encouragement we all need.


This Book Will Make You Kinder

If becoming a nicer, more tolerant human is one of your objectives for the year ahead, then check out Henry James Garrett’s This Book Will Make You Kinder: An Empathy Handbook. Garrett’s academic background is in the field of metaethics, the study of the nature and meaning of morality, and he views empathy—“our capacity to experience those feelings we witness in others”—as the primary motivator of human kindness. In his new book, he offers guidance on how to maximize our empathetic impulse.

As he provides advice on overcoming limitations to empathy, building better listening skills and coming to grips with your own potential for not being nice, Garrett outlines concrete steps to help you increase your kindness quotient. A bang-up artist (you may have seen his Instagram account, Drawings of Dogs), his delightfully droll illustrations of talking animals and objects (e.g., two magic markers discuss the impact of coloring outside the lines) bring levity to his lessons. “If you don’t do the work of good listening, of paying attention,” Garrett writes, “you’ll continue to be cruel in ways you otherwise couldn’t and will fail to be outrageously kind in ways you otherwise would.” A total attitude-changer, this book will carry you into the new year on a tide of positivity.

Laziness Does Not Exist

In Laziness Does Not Exist, social psychologist Devon Price explores the culture of work and how our society’s emphasis on achievement is leading to burnout and exhaustion. From an early age, Price says, we’re conditioned to believe that productivity equals self-worth—an idea that’s part of what they call the “laziness lie,” which leads to feelings of guilt over not doing enough. “It’s also the force that compels us to work ourselves to sickness,” Price explains.

Price proposes that we adjust our perspectives on work and stop using achievement as a benchmark for appraising personal value. In the book, they take a cleareyed look at the science and psychology behind the concepts of laziness and productivity and share stories from folks who have grappled with work-life balance.

Perhaps most importantly, the author stresses the necessity of simple relaxation: “It’s not evil to have limitations and to need breaks.” With tips on setting boundaries and integrating beneficial techniques like expressive writing into your daily routine, Price’s book will give you a fresh perspective on the meaning of success—and the confidence to schedule more “me-time” this year.

Friendshipping

Making friends is a basic element of socialization, yet the ability to bond doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and many people find that the process becomes more difficult as they get older. How can we break down the barriers that keep us from connecting with others? Authors Jenn Bane and Trin Garritano offer answers in Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends.

Hosts of the popular “Friendshipping” podcast, the authors have devoted many hours to the study of social networks large and small, and their chatty, accessible book collects the best of their advice, with suggestions on how to make new friends, how to handle a friendship that could be morphing into something more and how to call it quits when a friendship fails. The volume also includes valuable questions from podcast listeners and sample scripts that will kick-start your socialization skills.

Featuring fabulous illustrations by Jean Wei, Friendshipping provides readers with the right tools for building—and sustaining—valuable relationships. Whether you’re looking to enlarge your circle of intimates or cultivate more one-on-one connections this year, Bane and Garritano will help you develop habits and behaviors that will widen your world.

To guide you on the path of positivity in the new year, four books provide support, affirmation and inspiration.

Fans of felines will adore these four books, which offer fascinating new perspectives on cats and their indelible influence on our culture. Whether the giftee is a philosopher, artist, behaviorist, epistolist or some fabulous combination thereof, they’ll be thrilled with these edifying, heartfelt tributes to cats.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat

Nia Gould’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat: The Life and Times of Artistic Felines will be catnip for fans of cats, art, cat puns and expertly rendered illustrations in an impressive range of styles.

This visual feast of a book conjures up feline alter egos for 22 famous artists. For example: What if Frida Kahlo were a black cat with a white unibrow-esque marking, plus a penchant for putting flowers on her head? She’d be Frida Catlo, a specialist in “self-pawtraits.” And what if Pablo Picasso were a beret-wearing gray cat with an unusually shaped head? Why, he’d be Pablo Picatso, “one of art history’s most purr-found influences.”

Each section features a spot-on portrait of the cat artist and a well-researched biography detailing methods and influences, plus gorgeous cat-centric visual homages, from Roy Kittenstein’s dotty pop art to Mary Catsatt’s domesticity-influenced impressionism. Cat lovers and art aficionados will truly find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat (to borrow one of Gould’s words) “mesmeowerizing.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: If you think books about cats are great, you'll really love A Cat's Tale, which was allegedly written by a cat.


Cat vs. Cat

Pam Johnson-Bennett knows cats. The professional behaviorist has written multiple bestsellers (such as Think Like a Cat) and starred in an Animal Planet UK TV series called “Psycho Kitty.” Now, with her updated Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat, she’s ready to help ensure that multicat homes are characterized more by napping and playing than by hissing and errant pooping.

Of course, cats can’t tell us what they’re thinking (as far as we know . . . ), so Johnson-Bennett says it’s up to humans to learn to see things through a cat’s eyes. She points out that, whereas humans view a home as a single territory, a cat sees it as “numerous territories on many different levels, geographic and psychological, and negotiating them is a central part of maintaining cat family harmony.”

Whether readers are bringing a new cat into an existing cat household or just want to learn more about cats’ behaviors, Cat vs. Cat has it covered. It’s impressively researched with lots of suggestions, strategies and support throughout.

Letters of Note: Cats

Shaun Usher’s popular Letters of Note website launched in 2009, and his first compilation was published in 2013. Now cat people will be happy to learn there’s a volume just for them: Letters of Note: Cats.

Usher asserts that letters are “humans’ most precious, enjoyable, and endangered form of communication.” The 30 collected here are entertaining and memorable, not least because they were penned by famous actors, scientists, writers and more.

It’s thrilling to discover that a cat named Máčak was central to Nikola Tesla’s fascination with electricity—and amusing to learn Ayn Rand sent a terse missive to the editor of Cat Fancy. (She noted, “I subscribed to Cat Fancy primarily for the sake of the pictures.”) Other letter writers include Jack Lemmon, Anne Frank and T.S. Eliot, and the letters range from sentimental to satirical, whimsical to a bit rude.

Letters of Note: Cats is a fascinating celebration of the timelessness of cat appreciation and a compelling argument for keeping letter writing alive. As Usher urges, “Rescue your last remaining pen from the cat, and write to someone.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Not a cat person? Check out these heartwarming reads about dogs instead.


Feline Philosophy

Whether snoozing in a sunbeam or frenziedly attacking a scratching post, cats live in the moment. And that’s why, John Gray explains in Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, “Cats have no need of philosophy. Obeying their nature, they are content with the life it gives them.”

But humans are quite the opposite, according to the retired professor and author of several books (notably 2018’s Seven Types of Atheism), because “the human animal never ceases striving to be something that it is not.”

Gray considers happiness, morality and egoism through the lens of philosophers including Decartes, Pascal, Montaigne and Spinoza. He also uses Patricia Highsmith’s short story “Ming’s Biggest Prey” as a jumping-off point for musings on affection. Again, cats have the upper hand (paw): “Cats do not love in order to divert themselves from loneliness, boredom, or despair. They love when the impulse takes them, and are in company they enjoy.”

It’s hard to deny the benefits of such an existence. As Gray asserts in Feline Philosophy, being open to what cats can teach us just might “lighten the load that comes with being human” via less catastrophizing and, one imagines, a lot more naps.

Fans of felines will adore these four books, which offer fascinating new perspectives on cats and their indelible influence on our culture.

Books by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard aren’t likely on many readers’ nightstands these days. After all, titles such as Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Repetition and The Concept of Anxiety don’t exactly inspire a desire to dig deeper into their contents (even though the latter title sounds at least like it might be fitting for our unsettling times.) Yet, as Clare Carlisle demonstrates in the absorbing and captivating Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, reading Kierkegaard is much like reading a good novel or a thoughtful poem. Above all, his work struggles artistically with what it means to be human and what it means to love, expressing these concerns in rhetorical styles that seduce the reader into complex philosophical sketches about aesthetics, ethics and religion.

Carlisle, Reader in Philosophy at King’s College London, eschews the contours of traditional biography, focusing instead on Kierkegaard’s growth and development as a writer through a careful look at his publications. Writing became the fabric of Kierkegaard’s existence, says Carlisle—the “most vibrant love of his life.” (“All his other loves flowed into it, and it swelled like the ocean that crashed against his native land.”) Among these other loves, Carlisle deftly illustrates the ways that Kierkegaard’s breakup with his fiancée, Regine Olsen, haunted him through all his life, weaving itself in some fashion or another through all of his writings. Carlisle points out that Kierkegaard’s work of “soul-searching, exploring his own anxiety and suffering,” deepens “his understanding of being human, and [gives] his philosophy a power to affect others.”

Philosopher of the Heart does what the best biographies do: It sends us back to Kierkegaard’s time so we can see for ourselves the beauty, intricacy and literary artistry of what he accomplished. Carlisle’s meticulous reading of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre reveals that his work deserves a wider audience for its insights into what it means to be human. This penetrating introduction will encourage us to put Fear and Trembling or Stages on Life’s Way on our nightstands.

Books by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard aren’t likely on many readers’ nightstands these days. After all, titles such as Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Repetition and The Concept of Anxiety don’t exactly inspire a desire to dig deeper into their contents (even though the latter title sounds at least like it might be fitting for our unsettling […]

The holidays are famously stressful. Arm yourself ahead of time with one of these relaxing reads.


The world is a tad intense these days. While books can’t make everything better—well, actually, who says they can’t? This holiday season, don’t hesitate to give your loved ones (or yourself) a helping hand in the form of these surefire finds.

The Poetry Remedy by William Sieghart
Some years ago, poetry enthusiast William Sieghart developed a project in which passersby could share a topic of concern and be “prescribed” a poem in response. The Poetry Pharmacy, as it was known, was a huge hit. “Suffering is the access point to poetry for a lot of people: that’s when they open their ears, hearts, and minds,” Sieghart writes in The Poetry Remedy: Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind, and Soul, which brings the pharmacy home. In it, he gathers poems for numerous struggles of the human spirit, from loneliness and glumness to social overload, one-sided love and everything in between, each with a brief introduction. With this book on your shelf, you’ll never be at a loss for comforting words. Pair with herbal tea and a comfy blanket.

When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask a Philosopher by Marie Robert
Is there any consolation quite like finding your modern-day woes reflected in the writings of ancient minds? We can’t help but feel less isolated when the ancient teachings of Spinoza, Plato and others seem to speak directly to our innermost questions. In Marie Robert’s slim, digestible When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask a Philosopher: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Dilemmas, she presents typical bummers and sticky situations, then reveals how philosophy can help you reframe and move on. Got a super-surly teen? Squandering your life on social media? Had to part with a beloved pet? The words of Levinas, Epicurus and Heidegger may not solve these problems per se, but they can give you refreshing insight, and sometimes that’s all you need. “Philosophy should make our lives more meaningful,” Robert says, and this down-to-earth book paves the way. Pair with a gift card to a favorite coffee shop and a new journal.

Good Mornings by Linnea Dunne
For some, mornings are best when started with a bang—a three-mile run or a vigorous yoga class. Others wake happily with quiet time among plants and furry friends. No matter your personal preference, thinking carefully about small daily rituals and fine-tuning them can be a step toward a healthier self. Linnea Dunne helps us see the potential for ritual everywhere (Face-washing? Yep. Journaling? Of course) and shares ideas for creating a valuable sense of ritual in your mornings, whether you’re “time-rich” or “time-poor,” in Good Mornings: Morning Rituals for Wellness, Peace and Purpose. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to rituals. The trick—and pleasure, particularly with this pretty book as your guide—is in discovering which rituals are meant for you. Pair with a basket of fresh fruit and granola, facial cleanser and a Turkish towel. 

The Official Bob Ross Coloring Book by Bob Ross
From the department of “Why Is This Just Now a Thing?” comes the coloring book to end all coloring books—The Official Bob Ross Coloring Book: The Colors of the Four Seasons. The coloring book trend may be on the down slope, but there will never not be room in our hearts and on our coffee tables for Bob Ross and his happy little trees and clouds. With this book, you can forgo painting technique, if that sort of thing stresses you out, and simply create green trees, blue skies and brown cabins to your heart’s content. Best of all are the Ross quotes on every other page. To wit: “Anything we don’t like, we’ll turn it into a happy little tree or something, because as you know, we don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.” Or: “Let’s put a few little highlights in here to make them little rascals just sparkle in the sun.” Or: “Let’s just dance in a happy little sky today.” Don’t you feel better just reading those words? Pair with colored pencils, CBD oil and a forest-scented candle. 

The world is a tad intense these days. While books can’t make everything better—well, actually, who says they can’t? This holiday season, don’t hesitate to give your loved ones (or yourself) a helping hand in the form of these surefire finds.

What does it mean to live in the wake of past crime? Susan Neiman tackles that question in her richly rewarding, consistently stimulating and beautifully written Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.

Neiman is a professional philosopher (director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, in fact) with the skills of an investigative journalist and historian. She deals with the most horrible experiences in the real world—slavery, racism and Nazism—and how we should consider remembering the events and their victims. Her background is unusual: She is a white Jewish woman who grew up in the segregated South in the United States, lived in Israel for several years and has been a resident of Berlin for most of her adult life. 

Alternating background information, firsthand accounts drawn from her many interviews in America and Europe, and insightful analysis, Neiman describes how the German people worked, with great difficulty, to acknowledge the evils their nation committed during the Nazi period. She points out that the highest proportion of Nazi Party members came from the educated classes. After vigorous and ongoing public debate, Germany has made many positive changes in school curricula and elsewhere and constructed the famous Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. German artist Gunter Demnig designed a much smaller but more unsettling reminder, with more than 61,000 “stumbling blocks” hammered into sidewalks in front of buildings where Jews lived before the war. Each plaque lists a name and the dates of birth and deportation.

Nothing comparable on this scale has been done to acknowledge the victims of racism and slavery in the United States. Americans may understand that wrongs were done, but we prefer narratives of progress. Neiman seeks to encourage a discussion of guilt and responsibility as serious as the one in Germany, “not in order to provide a set of directions, but rather a sense of orientation won through reflection that is no less passionate for being nuanced.” She provides the crucial facets of any successful attempt to work off a nation’s criminal past. They include a coherent and widely accepted national narrative that is conveyed by education and appropriate symbols.

Neiman spent an extended period of time in Mississippi interviewing civil rights icons, which gave her valuable insight into what she was up against, as well as hope. She was encouraged during an interview with Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and the creator of what is known informally as the National Lynching Memorial. He is the only public figure on record who has taken Germany’s confrontation with its terrible past as a model for the U.S. He said that nothing similar has been done here because of the lack of shame about what was done. 

This brief overview barely begins to convey the way this disturbing but hopeful and insightful book wrestles with the questions of who we are as human beings and what values we have as a nation. I strongly recommend it. 

What does it mean to live in the wake of past crime? Susan Neiman tackles that question in her richly rewarding, consistently stimulating and beautifully written Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. Neiman is a professional philosopher (director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, in fact) with the skills of […]

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