Summer Reading List 2021

Sunday, September 5, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 20, 2021

What Is It

As some parts of our lives return to a kind of normal, Josh and Ray ask authors and philosophers about what's been on their summer reading lists. 

  • Cory Doctorow on "Making Hay," his short story in Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future
  • Helen De Cruz from Saint Louis University, co-editor of Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: Exploring the Boundaries of the Possible

Plus a post-pandemic update from Stanford English colleague Michaela Bronstein and her thoughts on Richard Wright's newly-published The Man Who Lived Underground.

Listening Notes

In this episode, Josh and Ray compile their annual summer reading list. They begin by speaking with Michaela Bronstein, Professor of English at Stanford University. Michaela says that literature is currently helping her measure the inertia of the present, and she recommends Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground. Josh compares it to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and brings up the motif of religion. In response to Ray’s question about its relevance this summer, Michaela explains that a novel about police brutality is apt to read at a time when people are looking into the long history of law enforcement abuse against Black Americans. 

Next, the philosophers welcome science fiction writer and journalist Cory Doctorow to the show. Cory describes the inception of his newly-published short story “Making Hay.” Ray appreciates his optimistic tone that comes from facing challenges like climate change head on, whereas Josh brings up the realism that comes out of fearing the future. Cory believes that reading sci-fi can help us be more hopeful, since it primes our brains to be more noble when tragedies do occur. This effect has an opposite effect when reading dystopian and apocalyptic novels, which might prime us to be more suspicious of the people around us. 

In the last segment of the show, Josh and Ray are joined by Helen De Cruz, Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University. Helen explains why science fiction is inherently philosophical, as its futuristic settings are often similar to thought experiments. Josh asks how novels differ from philosophical papers in exploring philosophical questions, which prompts Helen to draw examples from multiple short stories in the anthology she recently co-edited. Ray wonders if there is a difference between those who identify as philosophers versus sci-fi writers in the way they approach their stories, but Helen thinks they are actually more similar than we might assume.    

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 1:01) → Holly J. McDede talks to poets about how they read, created, and connected over the past year. 

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:42) → Ian Shoales laments the decline of summer reading and reminisces on the literature of his past year.



Josh Landy  
Welcome to Philosophy Talk, the program that questions everything...

Ray Briggs  
...except your intelligence. I'm Ray Briggs.

Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 30, 2021 -- 2:39 PM

Is Consciousness Everywhere?

Is Consciousness Everywhere? Will that one be on your list? Out of MIT Press. Just asking, not 'axing'. You already know my take on this...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, May 26, 2021 -- 7:31 AM

Goff and Godfrey-Smith are

Goff and Godfrey-Smith are gaining traction. The first supports something called panpsychism, the latter, not so much. I am with the latter, although not in his intuition of where consciousness lies. I don't dispute the evolution of consciousness, you see. To get HERE, as humans, there had to be a 'where', from whence all this began. Godfrey-Smith's notion of gradualism is, to my mind, another way of saying natural selection: there is a feather's weight of difference. I contend panpsychism is a hoax. And, now, dualism and materialism are archaic modes of looking at things. We need to move on. Think better. Try harder. Where is consciousness? It is where you find it.
This ,will, no doubt, ruffle feathers. good.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, June 8, 2021 -- 11:10 PM

The last book I read was

The last book I read was 'Project Hail Mary' by Andy Weir. An astronaut awakens to amnesia and dead crewmates to find his purpose in life. This is hard science fiction by the author of 'The Martian,' which has inspired a movie and maybe future Martians in our midst.

I am no fan of space. We would do better investing in Earth, our failing ecology, and climate than indulging space fantasy. I like Weir's style, however, and share an interest in science, if not fanaticism. The book is a nice romp through Weir's previous tropes where characters science the crap out of their out of this world problems to enact nail-biting rescues and redemption. Very timely.

The philosophical issue here is identity and meaning. Grace, the main character, finds his purpose in the most unlikely of places. He is no James T. Kirk, but his world is as endangered as our own. A great and fast read.

I'm looking forward to other picks. Happy Summer!

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, June 20, 2021 -- 10:20 PM

Great show...

Great show...

One of the sorrows of the pandemic has been the forbidding sacrifice of future snow days to digital learning. Kids are under attack by electronic separation from nature and each other. The pandemic has made this worse.

One of the reader suggestions in the sidebar was already on my bookshelf, but I hadn’t read it until I came across the mention in the sidebar here. I’m nearly through it now if sleep deprived– if I can get some sleep tonight, I will finish it soon. Here is a section from it as a teaser.

I remember one particular snow day when I was in the eighth grade, that liminal stage when one has access to the realms of both childhood and adulthood. Almost a foot of snow had fallen in the night, followed by fierce winds and biting cold. In the morning, the world was utterly still and blindingly bright. My childhood companions were teenagers now, more interested in sleep than snow, but I could not resist the prospect of a transformed world. I bundled myself in down and wool and stepped outside. The air felt sharp in my lungs. Trees creaked and groaned in that peculiar way that signals deep cold. Trudging down the hill toward the stream below our house, I spotted a dab of red on a branch: a male cardinal huddled in the heatless sunshine. I walked toward the tree and was surprised that the bird didn’t seem to hear me. I drew closer still and then realized with repulsion and fascination that it was frozen on its perch in life position, like a glass-eyed specimen in a natural history museum. It was as if time had stopped in the woods, allowing me to see things that were normally a blur of motion.

Back inside that afternoon, savoring the gift of unallocated time, I heaved our big world atlas off the shelf and lay sprawled on the floor with it. I’ve always been drawn to maps; good ones are labyrinthine texts that reveal hidden histories. On this day, I happened to open the atlas to a two-page chart showing the boundaries of time zones around the globe—the kind with clocks running across the top, showing the relative hour in Chicago, Cairo, Bangkok. The pastel colors on the map ran in mostly longitudinal stripes except for some elaborate gerrymanders like China (all one time zone) and a few outliers, including Newfoundland, Nepal, and central Australia, where the clocks are set ahead or back relative to Greenwich Mean Time by some odd noninteger amount. There were also a few places—Antarctica, Outer Mongolia, and an Arctic archipelago called Svalbard—that were colored gray, which, according to the map legend, signified “No Official Time.” I was captivated by the idea of places that had resisted being shackled by measures of time—no minutes or hours, wholly exempt from the tyranny of a schedule. Was time there frozen like the cardinal on the branch? Or simply flowing, unmetered and unfettered, according to a wilder natural rhythm?

Years later, when, through coincidence or predestination, I ended up doing fieldwork for my PhD in geology on Svalbard, I discovered that in some ways, it was indeed a place beyond or outside time. The Ice Age had not yet loosened its grip. Relics of human history from disparate eras—whale bones discarded by seventeenth-century blubber renderers, graves of Russian hunters from the reign of Catherine the Great, the torn fuselage of a Luftwaffe bomber—lay strewn across great barren swaths of tundra as if in a poorly curated exhibition. I also learned that Svalbard’s “No Official Time” designation was actually due to a petty, long-running argument between the Russians and Norwegians about whether to observe Moscow or Oslo time there. But on that long-ago snow day, liberated temporarily from quotidian routines, on the cusp of adulthood yet still snug in my parents’ house, I had glimpsed the possibility that there were pockets where time remained undefined, amorphous—where one might even travel between past and present with equal freedom. With a dim premonition of the changes and losses that lay ahead, I wished that that perfect day could be my permanent home, from which I might venture but always return to find everything unchanged. This was the start of a complicated relationship with time.

Prologue – Timefulness - Marcia Bjornerud

I’m not sure who suggested that, but I am glad they did. Thanks for the pointer. So many books on my shelf would go completely unread if I didn’t have an occasional poke. Reading through the night is one of my favorite summer pastimes. All I need is a worthy book like this to do it.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, September 16, 2021 -- 10:38 AM

If no one else will go… I

If no one else will go… I will offer one more in light of the rebroadcast and final week of Summer 2021.

To read is to have been taught. To write is to have learned. A second language is a gift to the student and to the second culture who teaches. No computer will ever be able to decipher language without instruction. No human can figure out their own lives without a bit of nourishment, encouragement, and freedom. This is a story about a boy who attempts to figure out his life from an unlikely start. Fortunately for us, it is in America that he writes.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
by Ocean Vuong

Many paragraphs are koanish. Each word is a knife to spread preserves on the brain and to cut misconceptions from your conscious.

Where does identity, sexuality, and liberty spring? Vuong contemplates these philosophical questions in near-contemporary time with his first novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. The book is divided into three unnamed parts that could be summarized as life, love, and loss.

There is violent and sexual content in this book that is not for everyone. It was a challenging read for me and one I would not do twice without the need or good cause.

Recently I read Amia Srinivasan's The Right to Sex in preparation for a Philoso?hy Talk show that has since been canceled. There is much to learn from Ocean's book regarding the issues fleshed out in Srinivasan's work regarding the politics of desire. Novels are perhaps the best for this subject matter as very little scientific information is available.

You could cut up each page of Ocean's book into paragraphs, paste them on your wall and throw a dart to hit on some pithy thought. The first chapter reads as concatenated poetry. This book makes you think.

There is little commonality in sexual experience in Vuong's view as opposed to Srinivasan's. Ocean puts a weighty ton of paint on that picture that helps the reader come to terms with the issues and question your preconceptions, if nothing else.

I found this book on the top shelf parents section in a children's bookstore while a friend shopped for gifts. It is about a boy. It is for grown-ups only. Learning comes from unexpected places every time, even within our own lives and brains.

An excellent and challenging read. What was Lan or Rose or Mai's life ever going to become other than what it was and is? What will Ocean's next book say? Hopefully, there is greater pasture for this very great poet and novelist.

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