Thoughts: Citizen, An American Lyric

The first half (give or take) of Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, actually felt to me like a collection of short, flash fiction. It wasn’t until about that midpoint when the full force of Rankine’s work hit me and I suddenly understood what she had been doing. And it was powerful.

This collection hits particularly hard socially, right now, given all that’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it hits hard personally, too, because for weeks on end I’ve been unable to get Trayvon Martin out of my mind. I know we have lost a lot of young black men and women, and a lot of transgender black women. No, we haven’t lost them. They’ve been taken from us. And each and every one deserves justice. But it has been young Trayvon that I think about every day. The tribute Rankine pays him in this collection, the tribute she pays to so many, is hard to describe. It is a visceral experience even more than an emotional one, though of course the two go together. And Rankine’s genius is in the slow building momentum of her work, the kind that meets us where we are at the beginning and builds with us as we take in more, as we press forward despite the discomfort, as we too rage and cry, distraught, in the end. And she ends where perhaps a professor must: with a lesson. 

I think what I found most moving and profound about this work is the way Rankine weaves together the most mundane, seemingly innocuous acts of “everyday” racism with the more noteworthy ones. In the very beginning, for example, she includes alongside one of her poems a simple picture, as if taken glibly from someone’s cell phone camera. The photo shows a beautiful day in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. Near-center in the frame is typical street sign, bright green, at the crossroads of a neighborhood intersection. The sign reads, “Jim Crow Rd.” This is how Rankine works. She finds the most subtle, insidious reminders, the kinds we, most of us, might pass by day in and day out without much thought, and she drags our focus onto it, damning us and damning it together. And we deserve it because we’ve allowed so much to go unnoticed, unattended, uncorrected. 

Later, Rankine explores the more popular arenas, such as the spectacle of sports. Her love for tennis comes through in the way she writes about it, with such passion and such knowledge. But in her love she is forced to expose the deep faults and fatal flaws of a blatantly racist pastime. She takes us into the experiences of the Williams sisters, the mockery, the abuse, the psychological damage they faced for simply existing on the court and for being good. For being better than they should have been in a place where they shouldn’t have been. 

She connects these racist news events and these racist monuments and these racist pastimes with the personal moments of her life. The days at the office, the outings with her friends and colleagues, where even the pleasantries are miscast. She ponders freedom and language, memory and faith, life and death, with such careful precision that one feels the sting of the arrowhead’s penetration before we have even noticed Rankine drawing her bow. It is a difficult read because it is so effective, but it is an important read for the same reason. Rankine exposes us to ourselves.

“Words work as release,” she writes. “Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out — / To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting–” (69). Rankine’s cry is somehow beautiful in its heartbreak and its rage.

What is ours? 

Thoughts: How to Be an Antiracist

I’ve noticed there’s a fun(?) little trend happening this year about playing the “bingo card” of life. Murder hornets? Deadly kissing bugs? Global pandemic? It seems every few weeks, there’s something else to worry about, some new extravagant nightmare to “check” on one’s bingo card. Well, if you happened to have a square that reads, “Adam is reminded how to practice Buddhism by reading about antiracism,” bingo to you! Honestly, the experience of reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist right now was wild and humbling, and here is why.

For the last year or so, I’ve been beginning my Buddhist practice. For the most part, that has meant reading about Buddhism and Buddhist practice from a variety of sources, as well as taking one of the Great Courses in Buddhism. Something I’ve learned is that Buddhist practice is very much about checking one’s ego. It’s really much more about the process of unlearning than it is about learning; it’s about accepting what is and living in the moment rather than hoping for something or wishing for something. Enter Kendi’s book. Going into it, I thought I’d see myself and applaud myself, really. I thought I numbered among the enlightened few. I know how arrogant that must sound, but the truth is important. I’m an ally, a strong one, and I thought I knew what that meant. I thought I knew, mostly, how to act, how to stand up, how to speak up, what to say and not say, what to think and not think, and what to do and not do. My ego was large and glorious, and as it turns out, maddeningly obstructive. Maybe even destructive. 

You see, more than anything, Kendi’s book made me face my contradictions. It exposed me to thoughts that were antithetical to the ones that were at the core of my (seemingly) anti-racist identity. Kendi teaches his reader about the damaging effects of color-blindness, something which I only learned recently. He teaches his readers the difference between what seems helpful and what is helpful. For example, in one chapter he explains that black people can be racist and that the idea that “those without power cannot be racist” is a harmful fallacy. This particular revelation shook me to my core because, for a decade, I had been learning this very sentiment, that racism is a one-way street and those in power are the only negative actors. Kendi explains that, no, to think this way means to reinforce the idea that only one group of people has any power and that individuals cannot have power; that right there is the racist thought. If we excuse any person in a position of power, even a “minority,” from acting for the benefit of anti-racism (or worse, if we accept their actively racist actions as unavoidable or non-racist because they happen to be a “minority”), then we are reinforcing the false notion that black people, women, the differently-able, people of color, etc., cannot be powerful. And that’s not just a lie, it’s an attack. As he writes late in the book, “the problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance” (208). In other words, we are not racist simply because we are bad people (good people are racist) or because we are stupid to the facts (we can be racist even while knowing better), but because we–those in power–understand, either implicitly or explicitly, that our racism has its benefits and we want, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain those benefits, that power, at all costs. This pertains to any individual in any position of power and the choices that make at any moment. 

Of course, I don’t do justice to the way Kendi is able to explain antiracism, and there are so many more remarkable examples in the book that cover a range of perspectives, including his own struggles with homophobia and sexism, for example. I found these chapters a welcome surprise, too, as a scholar of gender and sexuality. His admissions, his willingness and ability to share how he too was wrong, and how he went about the long and arduous journey of changing, is an inspiration to any reader, and perhaps most of all to the reader who thinks she or he was already enlightened, was already doing the work. After all, those who believe they are doing the good work without reflecting on how they might be doing it incorrectly, are perhaps the bigger danger. It reminds me of the way the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season” (King 1963 para. 1). 

Professor Kendi asks us to be courageous, both in reading this book and hearing it, but also in the steps we take after reading it. Being antiracist means thinking and acting in ways that are sometimes contradictory to what we have been taught by our parents, our schools, our workplaces, our places of worship. And being antiracist also means thinking and acting in ways that are sometimes counter to what we thought were our own best practices. “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags,” Kendi writes, “that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other” (23). Just as the Buddhist knows he only exists from moment to moment, that the “self” today is not the “self” tomorrow, and therefore cannot be defined as a permanent identity, so too is the antiracist always a work in progress, always an identity of action and of choice. To claim to be an antiracist means to be doing the work every day, in every way, and to admit when you have failed. 

Every chapter in this book, from “Power” and “Biology” to “Body” and “Survival” has a powerful story to tell and fulfills a crucial function in learning how to be antiracist at one’s core. Taken together, the chapters–the book as a whole–provides the reader who is open to learning with a pathway to taking her first steps on what must be a lifelong walk.  Through use of dichotomous definitions, deep history, and clear examples, not to mention his own personal experiences, Kendi helps the reader understand the many ways, large and small, personal and systemic, that racism is perpetuated. Some of these are hard to read. Some are hard to understand. But hearing and seeing and accepting each piece is necessary for learning how to be truly antiracist in every moment. To make the choice, continuously. I am beyond grateful to Dr. Kendi for his courage and clarity in offering everyone a map. 

Notable Quotes 

“This is the consistent function of racist ideas–and of any kind of bigotry more broadly: to manipulate us into seeing people as the problem, instead of the politics that ensnare them” (8). 

“But crime bills have never correlated to crime any more than fear has correlated to actual violence. We are not meant to fear suits with policies that kill. We are not meant to fear good White males with AR-15s. No, we are to fear the weary, unarmed Latinx body from Latin America. The Arab body kneeling to Allah is to be feared. The Black body from hell is to be feared. Adept politicians and crime entrepreneurs manufacture the fear and stand before voters to deliver them–messiahs who will liberate them from fear of these other bodies” (76). 

“Some of us are restrained by fear of what could happen to us if we resist. In our naivete, we are less fearful of what could happen to us–or is already happening to us–if we don’t resist” (124). 

“Goldwater and his ideological descendants said little to nothing about rich White people who depended on the welfare of inheritances, tax cuts, government contracts, hookups, and bailouts. They said little to nothing about the White middle class depending on the welfare of the New Deal, the GI Bill, subsidized suburbs, and exclusive White networks. Welfare for middle- and upper-income people remained out of the discourse on “handouts,” as welfare for the Black poor became the true oppressor” (154). 

“They define capitalism as the freedom to exploit people into economic ruin; the freedom to assassinate unions; the freedom to prey on unprotected consumers, workers, and environments; the freedom to heave the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes; the freedom to commodify everything and everyone; the freedom to keep poor people poor and middle-income people struggling to stay middle income, and make rich people richer” (161). 

“[T]he power of the spoken word is in the power of the word spoken” (167). 

No Pride Without Black Lives

In February 2019, I published my book, From A Whisper to a Riot: The Gay Writers Who Crafted an American Literary Tradition. In it, I explore the long, quiet road that writers all over the United States took, the private communications they had, the many friendships they made and allies they found, and the difficult struggles they faced, not just as people but in the path to publication, for decades leading up to the infamous Stonewall Riots.
As a gay man, a writer, and an American, it was important for me to try to understand the history of my people and to share it with anyone I could. It’s important because we don’t tend to think contextually or historically in our everyday lives. We forget about the how and the why and the when of situations, and especially, the how long. Instead, we see only what happens immediately in front of us and wonder, “how could this have happened!?” Or worse, instead of listening to the cries of the people, we lecture them on how they share their pain.
The Stonewall Riots were commenced and successful in large part because of black, brown, and transgender people who had had enough abuse and intimidation. The Riots are important to remember, but they did not not materialize out of thin air. They were not an impromptu party. They were not a parade. And they did not happen as a first resort. In the years leading up to Stonewall, other, smaller protests were taking place in cities around the country because queer people were getting tired of being told how and when and where to live their authentic lives and because they were tired of authorities, mostly the police, invading their spaces to brutalize them, shame them, and expose them. So, yes, before Stonewall, there were other kinds of battles, other kinds of cries, and other kinds of actions, all of which were paving the way for a lasting impression. It is not enough just to remember Stonewall. We have to remember what made Stonewall necessary.
The road to equity and justice for the oppressed is always much longer and rockier than we recognize, particularly when there’s one flashy event happening in our time that is demanding our attention. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “riot is the language of the unheard.” It happens because nobody is listening in the first place. This is why, for Pride Month every June, I try to read and write about LGBTQ+ stories and to encourage others to join me in the process. I do the same in October, in honor of National Coming Out Day, which is October 11 in the U.S. Reading and listening are acts of love. The more we read about others’ lives, the more we truly listen to the history of those lives, the more empathy and understanding we can build, and the better we begin to understand that “riots” and “movements” and “monumental events,” the ones that we celebrate now, well, they didn’t happen overnight, and they were not always celebrated; they were often feared.
The Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage equality the law of this land did not happen because someone asked politely for a couple of years. That fight began decades earlier, and it was bloody and demoralizing. Martin Luther King Jr., who is so often quoted today, especially by white people looking to ease tension and call for peace, was not beloved by white people in his time, despite contemporary fantasies. He was on the list of America’s most hated people. We remember him for his peaceful protests, but by the same flawed logic, we forget that he was assassinated for it. We praise our nation’s progress through the Civil Rights movement, but we forget how long that fight was–still is–and who it is that have given their lives for it.
Angela Davis said, “it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” She is right. Considering all that is happening in our world right now, the murders of black men and women and the all too frequent inability of courts to bring their murderers to justice, I’ve decided not to focus on my story this year, but to amplify the stories of our black brothers and sisters who have been fighting this battle, often alone. White people, in particular, have always had and still maintain a special privilege in this country that allows them opportunity to speak and to be present in every space, without fear. That doesn’t mean we have it easy. But it does mean that the color of our skin has never made it harder. As a gay man, I know what it is to feel not just the active abuses of bigotry, but the severe, daily loneliness of existing differently and the deeply painful process of needing to “come out” every single day. But as a white man, I know that my personal struggles do not compare to those perpetuated by racism. I know that I am not looked at with skepticism, with fear, with distrust, and with animosity whenever I leave the house (at least not unless I signal myself). This racism is everywhere. It is in our systems. It is in our laws. It is even in the best intentions of our good people. And it is important that we stop asking our black brothers and sisters, and other people of color, to carry this load alone. We benefit from it. We need to end it.
I would like to share some resources for learning how to be antiracist; some voices that can be found on social media who should be heard; some books we can read to help us learn; and some ways for all of us to help right now. This list is minuscule, in the grand scheme of things, but it is a place to start. Black lives matter.

How to Be Antiracist

Important Voices

Recommended Reading

How to Help

If you know of any other important voices, important resources, or important programs that need help, please feel free to share a little bit about them in the comments below. Thank you! Be safe out there.

The Water Dancer

Described as “boldly conjured,” The Water Dancer is the debut novel from non-fiction writer and National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. It tells the story of young Hiram Walker, son of a slave and a slave-owner, who struggles with the competing poles of freedom and family, of memory and power, and of duty to self and duty to the greater good. 

The story begins with a memory, or perhaps more accurately, the memory. It is the root and the truth that offers Hiram, called Hi, unparalleled power, but also the burden of deep pain. Just as Hiram is described as having a “magical gift,” the book’s opening is a magical gift to its reader. I was immediately drawn to this boy’s story, to his circumstance, and to the promise that is his destiny, made clear from the narrative’s atmosphere without so much as a word of it being spoken, or written. But then that magic, that promise, gets lost somewhere, and for most of the book, I read on only in hopes that it will return. 

Much as I appreciated Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant memoir, Between the World and Me, something about his prose fiction left me less invested and even a little bit skeptical. There are two major struggles I had with the book that made it both a bit of a trudge to get through and a concerning experience. In the first case, Hiram narrates much of what happens to him through the perspective of others. So, although the story is told in the first-person, the reader relies on what other characters think and feel and say about Hiram in order to get any real understanding of who Hi is supposed to be. Maybe that’s intentional, as Hiram is indeed lost to himself for most of his journey, but the problem is that it does not feel intentional. It feels like a lack in characterization. Hiram’s power; Hiram’s promise; Hiram’s goodness; Hiram’s appeal. The characters tell Hiram he has all of this, but this reader never saw it developed on its own. In other words, if someone in the story wasn’t relaying how remarkable Hiram is, how would we know it? 

And a little sociopolitical concern (not a critique of the narrative itself):

The second concern is one that I’ve been debating about including at all, and that is that this book falls into what seems to be a new trend in contemporary historical fiction, which is to treat real lives and real times with elements of fantasy or science-fiction. Other recent works that come to mind are Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Kasi Lemmon’s 2019 film, Harriet. As someone who is not a person of color, I don’t feel qualified to critique this trend, but as an ally, I can’t help but admit I’m concerned about how many real historic events and historic heroes, like Harriet Tubman, are being recast in fantasy roles, with magical abilities. Someone much smarter than me can probably explain the appeal of this, but I worry about how this might open the door for coordinated, bad-faith re-framing of historical truths. What I mean is, we know there are already alternative (false) narratives surrounding American history, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of non-white, non-straight, non-male persons in the United States (i.e. slavery, women, immigrants, indigenous people, homosexuals, etc). At first, these stories were simply muted; now, however, as various diverse cultural communities have begun to assert their voices and to tell their stories, they have been met with responses ranging from simple dismissal, to violent opposition, to assaults on their value or truth. 

We see this in the way some people treat the Civil War as, for example, “the war between the states,” or even more disingenuously, “the war of northern aggression.” There are people who now argue that slavery was a good thing, that black people were better off in the antebellum era, etc. We see this, too, in the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who believe (or who for reasons of politics and religious prejudice pretend to believe) that the Jewish holocaust of World War 2 was a hoax. A more optimistic reader might be thinking, right now, “Oh, come now, people can tell the difference between the historical figures and events and their fictional depictions.” Are we sure, though? And are we sure that in 50 or 100 years, after a couple of generations of recasting powerful, heroic historic figures like Harriet Tubman–who did real human work with real human skill–as fantasy figures, that their legacy won’t begin to be diminished by the very attempt these re-tellings make to elevate them? As a teacher/scholar of the history of narrative, I’m not convinced that the truth which becomes legend which becomes fantasy does much justice to the true history of a time and its people, but this is especially true when there are concerted efforts being made by powerful and organized forces who very much intend to capitalize on any opportunity to deny the narrative of traditionally marginalized and oppressed people, or to change it altogether. If they can make people believe it was fantasy, without any help from representative writers and allies, what will they be able to do once those very writers write-into the mode? If the original story and all its struggle is already lost to contemporary audiences, what makes us believe they’ll be able to simultaneously separate the fantasy fiction from the real story at its foundation?

[A Note: Just a few years ago, I taught The Book Thief to two sections of College English–Freshman-level. The majority of my students in both sections had no basic knowledge about World War II or the Holocaust to begin with; I found myself having to teach the history in order to teach this one novel’s treatment of it. How do we expect most casual readers, then, to take a book about Harriet Tubman, which affords her magical powers, and not expect the ensuing cultural interpretation of that person to become the fantasy version? I’m thinking, now, of the way my generation used to think of Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan, when we were young. How long did it take most of us to learn about the real people behind those tall tales? How many of us bothered?]

I suppose I want these figures to be legends for the right reason, heroes for the right reason. I worry that if we turn them into something they are not, in the cultural lexicon they will become fantasy figures. And fantasies can be much more easily disregarded than historical facts. 

Anyhow, those are the two challenges I had, personally, reading this one. The first was, I thought, a problem in the narrative itself, particularly in characterization. After the initial connection the early chapters make, the romance fizzles out for me and I struggled to carry on, to feel invested, or to even believe in this Hiram, who so many other characters seemed to have such expectations for but without much articulated reason. The other challenge for me is, as explained, one about the larger conversation rather than about the story itself.

All that being said, Ta-Nehisi Coates is without doubt a powerful writer and thinker, and an insightful one. His philosophy, even the very conversation he has with his son in Between the World and Me, comes through in the telling of Hiram Walker’s tale, too. There’s a heavy focus on two elements, for example, which are the importance of memory and the importance of names or naming. Throughout the story, the narrator reminds us that without facing our own memories, especially the painful ones, we cannot really expect to develop into our full being or to take ownership of our own lives, choices, and destinies. Coates seems to suggest, rightly, I think, that to avoid where we came from is to deny from ourselves a complete future. Similarly, as makes sense with a story about slavery, is the power of one’s name, which sometimes means choosing a name for ourselves. This, too, is an ancient trope of fantasy fiction: the hero must know the villain’s name in order to disarm him. In this case, a free person must decide for him or herself by which name they will know the world, and let the world know them. 

This was an odd journey for me. I appreciate this book very much and particularly its philosophy. The idea that freedom isn’t free for everyone, and that it is indeed different for everyone at any point in his life, is a point well-taken and one that Coates weaves masterfully in and out of this story, from multiple perspectives. But the book is also part of a trend that troubles me. It’s strange for me to feel so conflicted about a novel, but hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time. 

Notable Quotes:

  • “She’d gone from the warm quilt of memory to the cold library of fact” (14). 
  • “I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown” (54). 
  • “The task does not bargain, does not compromise, it devours” (133). 
  • “Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend” (153). 
  • “We are all divided against ourselves. Sometimes part of us begins to speak for reasons we don’t even understand until years later (216).
  • “We forgot nothing, you and I . . . to forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die” (271). 
  • “There are parts of life that can’t be gotten out of, and I have had to learn, here, that we are all, at the end, held somehow. Just that up here you get to choose by who and by what” (303). 
  • “There is a reason we forget. And those of us who remember, well, it is hard on us. It exhausts us” (305). 
  • “To forgive was irrelevant, but to forget was death” (403).

The Age of Atheists

Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God is a book that I had long wanted to read and one that took me about as long to actually read it, after finally getting my hands on it! The time was well-spent, however, because this is one of the best books on religion or non-religion that I have read. Since the book is so long and complex, though, I would like to point out just a few of the things I appreciated about it, and then end with one minor note about something that may be challenging for others who are considering reading it. 

The first thing I like about the book is that it proceeds somewhat chronologically and that its chapters are thematic. This makes reading a long, complicated work a little bit easier, as if there’s a road-map to be followed and convenient rest stops along the journey. I never read more than one chapter at a time, for example, because each one is packed with information that requires time, attention, and reflection. To further clarify, there are three major “parts” to the book and each “part” has about 8 chapters in it. Each chapter is a closer look at something related to the larger part’s purpose. The book begins with Nietzsche (rightly so, since its purpose is to explore humanity’s relationship with religion since Nietzsche’s world-shaking statement that, “god is dead”) proceeds through the world wars, modernism, and postmodernism, and pretty much everything in between, up to about the present day. The book is certainly focused heavily on western civilization, but it is not without some insight into perspectives from around the world, including other religions and political systems.

The second component that I enjoyed and that kept me invested is that this book covers a range of issues; its focus is of course on those influential historical figures who either openly or privately lived and produced (created?) without a belief in god; however, this generalization doesn’t do justice to the incredible depth of knowledge in here. Watson explores science and religion, politics and history, art and literature. There are some particularly wonderful chapter sections on relationships between all of these, such as his synthesis of the 1950s “culture of spontaneity,” where he investigates the inter-connectedness of music, poetry, literature, dance, and even the physical arts, like pottery. This is an element of the Beat Generation that I hadn’t had much insight into before now, despite having read so many of the Beat writers & poets. And I think this is one of the things that Watson does best, illuminating the many ways that people were responding to different events and during various moments in time. 

The third item I want to point out specifically as an achievement in this text is its tone, set by Watson from the start and which persists throughout, right up to the end. Many texts written by atheists and which are designed to propel a pro-atheist perspective are, let’s admit it, rather combative in tone. (Not all of them, of course, but atheist philosophy has gotten a reputation for being harsh and arrogant for a reason). This book is not that, thankfully. Instead of going on the attack, Watson creates a rather inviting environment, one of open-mindedness and curious exploration. Yes, I think there are moments where his argument becomes more pronounced, but there is very little if any whiff of superiority. Instead, I think people of any religion (or none) could feel, if not comfortable, at least secure in reading this text as a fascinating, in-depth, and illuminating perspective on history and philosophy that does not get nearly as much attention as some of the more mainstream, Christian/Western texts have for the last many hundreds of years. Indeed, there is even a section where Watson explains how and why religious belief developed logically. In any case, Watson seems to be posing, quite genuinely, some open-ended questions about humanity’s nature with religion(s) and faith, none of which he answers definitely, but all of which are supported by the intensive study he has performed and the synthesis of thematic ideas he presents for the reader’s own edification and consideration. 

Lastly, a cautionary note of sorts. There are a lot of Goodreads reviews suggesting that this is a difficult read, and I don’t deny that. Readers have found it to be either too complicated/dry for the average reader and/or too much of a survey, meaning it lacks much depth and context for the many people, places, movements, and thoughts it covers. I can’t disagree with that, but I will say, I think Watson had every intention of this being a survey text. It reminds me of something one might read in an introductory college course on any subject, in that it exposes the reader to a great number of important figures and concepts, supports these with an excellent bibliography, and provides important connections between these figures, their times and places. It is certainly a challenging read and it is not meant to answer all questions or to be an endpoint for study. Personally, I’ve added about 45 texts to my reading list because they were mentioned or referenced in this one. I don’t find that to be a failing on the book’s part, as many have, but I’ll concede it’s something a reader should probably know before beginning it. (The book is 556-pages long and, according to Goodreads, it took me almost 5 months to read. I’m a very fast reader, usually, so this is saying something; namely, be prepared to take your time.) 

Strikingly, for me, Watson ends his tome with a discussion of narrative and of our (human beings’) purpose in life. What does make a good life? What constitutes a good person? Ultimately, he ends where I’ve been sitting for some time, which is with the idea of our responsibility to one another; he suggests that the only way forward is through action–meaning living for now rather than some hoped-for future–and, specifically, action that, through language, creates communities and societies that are more inclusive and have greater equality, liberty, and fairness. After a long trudge through history, philosophy, politics, science, mathematics, and art, Watson ends on a message of hope and togetherness. I understand that’s antithetical to the perception many have about atheism or atheists, but it’s exactly the kind of temperament I’ve seen in people who choose to live for people. What is it that Dumbledore says? “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”



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