Books

Rise of the “Nones”

America’s rapidly changing religious landscape

AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Thomas Barker

In the two years leading up to his death this past February, the legal and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin was completing a slim volume with a weighty title. Religion without God, which began as a series of lectures in 2011, set a lofty goal: to propose a “religious attitude” in the absence of belief. Dworkin’s objective was not just theological. The book, he hoped, would help lower the temperature in the past decade’s battle between a group of scientists and philosophers dubbed the New Atheists and an array of critics who have accused them of everything from Islamophobia to fundamentalism to heresy.

We Shall Overwhelm

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

Four years ago, the modern Tea Party seemed to emerge from nowhere, leaving journalists bewildered and the public with few reference points to understand seemingly spontaneous rallies by middle-class people seeking lower tax rates. A search for the phrase “tea party” in connection with “politics” in major newspapers yielded fewer than 100 mentions in 2008—and when the words did appear linked together, they suggested studied formality and decorum. The next year, they appeared more than 1,500 times, often connected to “protest demonstration.”

Reagan's Court v. the Libertarians'

In 1983, Chief Justice Warren Burger asked Congress to create a new national appeals court to resolve cases the Supreme Court was too busy to hear. At the Reagan White House, a cheeky 28-year-old Harvard Law graduate named John G. Roberts was horrified.

On Seamus Heaney, Who Made Me Love Poetry

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate is dead at the age of 74. 

Seamus Heaney made me love poetry. There you have it, the schmaltz, right up top. But it is true, so I have to say it and today is as good a day as any to do so, because Seamus Heaney died while we were sleeping, at the age of 74. He was a teacher, a Nobel Laureate, and as you will surely read many times over in the coming days, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats and his swans.

Nikki Giovanni Remembers 1963 with a New Poem

AP Photo/Jim Wells

Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most famous poets. She is a New York Times bestseller, a one-time Woman of the Year winner from Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines, a recipient of the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and a holder of a Langston Hughes Medal. She wrote that “writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” Below is a poem she penned for the Prospect, reflecting on the March on Washington 50 years later.

Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

Flickr/Telstar2000

The non-fiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, "Heaven Is For Real," an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? "Heaven Is For Real" has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on the New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list.

The top spot on that list is held by this year's non-fiction publishing phenomenon, "Proof of Heaven," a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it have been a dream he had while emerging from his coma? Nah. And so what if he turns out to be something of a charlatan? Any way you slice it, near-death trips through the Pearly Gates are box-office boffo. Which is why a new study on what happens to rats when they reach the end of their terrestrial moment is particularly interesting:

Take Me Out with the Crowd

AP Images/Ron Frehm

Native Texans living elsewhere raise their children to be expats, fluent in the motherland’s culture. So, growing up in Virginia, I was well versed in the six flags of Texas and the Battle of the Alamo. I learned from my grandfather to shape my chubby toddler hands into the “Hook ’Em” shape every University of Texas fan knows. I understood that our family cheered for the Dallas Cowboys, and never the Washington Redskins. In baseball, in good, bad, and heart-wrenchingly disappointing times, we pulled for the Houston Astros, the team my father had rooted for since 1962, when (as the Colt .45s) they became the first major league team in Texas.

All the News that's Fit to Reprint

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP

The opening scene of The Newsroom’s second season, debuting Sunday on HBO, won’t do a hell of a lot to increase creator Aaron Sorkin’s popularity with women. Marcia Gay Harden guests as a brusque in-house attorney deposing news anchor Will McAvoy about a story the fictitious Atlantic Cable News channel blew badly—erroneously reporting that the Obama administration used nerve gas during a black-ops operation in Pakistan.

“Fuck me,” our lady lawyer finally snaps, exasperated by Will’s arch banter. (She’s not alone in that feeling, believe me.) After a pause, Will—ever the gentleman—turns to the other dudes in the room. “Well, would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday, please?” he asks. You have to feel for Harden when her character is obliged to soften, smile, and concede that the joke’s on her.

Coming to Do Good, Staying to Do Well

D.C. is filled with young, dizzying ambition. This Town wishes the old-timers knew better.  

AP Images/Stephen J. Boltano

For 20 years, since the weekend of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I have rented against all financial prudence an apartment in Washington, D.C. even though I really live in Manhattan. So, at least in a real-estate sense, I can rightfully claim to be both part of political Washington and an authentic subway-riding, theater-going, real-bagel-chomping outsider.

When It Comes to Kindles, Do You "Like" or Unlink?

Social reading will bring us together while restoring a long tradition in the history of the book. Still … 

flickr/kirainet

At night, I find incredible pleasure in my Kindle. I pick up all 7.8 ounces of it, palm it, turn out the lights. Then, the only physical act required is a small swipe of my finger across an index-card-size piece of glass. I can choose to go almost anywhere, as long as I am willing to pay.

The Kindle offers the purest form of immersive reading I have ever experienced. There is something narcotic about it. As scholar Alan Jacobs writes, “Once you start reading a book on the Kindle—and this is equally true of the other e-readers I’ve tried—the technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else.” The compulsion to keep reading stems partially from the lack of distractions: E-books, thin, gray, and under-designed, shear off the blurbs and author bios and test-marketed book-jacket covers.

But when I am reading on my Kindle, I am not alone.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Gay Equality 1, Civil Rights 0 – join us in wondering how to celebrate this Fourth of July. (Hint: not by seeing Johnny Depp’s new movie, that’s for sure.)

AP Photo/The Omaha World-Herald, Brynn Anderson

Call it coincidence, but my bedside reading for the past couple of weeks has been the new two-volume boxed set of the Library of America’s Reporting Civil Rights. Awe-inducing and frequently thrilling, this monumental anthology of on-the-scene coverage of the fight for black equality features contributions by scores of writers, some rightly renowned—James Baldwin, Garry Wills, et. al.—and some unjustly obscure. Part One deals with the years 1941-1963; Part Two tackles the pressure-cooker decade that followed King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Each volume also includes a sheaf of photographs, primarily of the writers themselves at the time. They’re often evocative ones, even if the era’s great photojournalism—no less worthy of commemoration—gets short shrift as a result.

Anyway, I won’t pretend I’ve made much more than a dent in the set’s almost 2,000 pages. But that’s not the point, since Reporting Civil Rights could easily keep my idle hours occupied until Christmas. (Not only was I kidding myself that I could somehow plow through it in time to write a full-fledged review this month, but yes, Monsieur Proust, you’ve lost out—again.) The point is that the Supreme Court sure does know how to cure me of any illusions that I’m reading about settled history.

Putin Loves Me, Putin Loves Me Not

A conversation with the author of a new book about the Russian president, touching on fomenting dissent in the country, Syria, and the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File

Russian President Vladimir Putin has earned Western fascination with his over-the-top motorcycle riding and judo-fighting public persona, aggressive foreign policy, and his seemingly captivating power over the Russian people. However, Putin’s third term has quickly proven that, with a restless Moscow middle class increasingly discontent with his authoritarianism and local activists fed up with the corruption of the capital, the love affair between Russia and Putin may not be one for the ages. In his new book, Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin (Yale University Presss) Ben Judah, who grew up the son of a Balkans reporter and whose earliest memories are of the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, explains Putin’s fall from popularity and its context in the greater narrative of modern Russia. Judah, a former reporter and current Russia analyst for the European Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to the Prospect about Syria, dissent outside of Moscow and what the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games mean to one of the world’s most enigmatic and athletic world leaders.

Mo' Children, Mo' Problems

Are the parents of only children selfish? Maybe, but Lauren Sandler’s new book says that's okay.

Courtesy of Nona Willis Aronowitz

When I was around six years old, I begged my parents for a younger sister. When she failed to materialize, I dreamed up Shelly, who showed up in family portraits I drew in art class with a frilly dress and a Pebbles ponytail. When friends came over, I told them she was with the babysitter. At school, I bragged about my bottle-feeding skills. After my teacher made a concerned phone call about my lies, my mother—a journalist and feminist activist who had me at 42—sat me on her lap, and we had a surprisingly candid conversation about why she wasn’t going to have another baby. In her late 40s, she could have copped out and told me that biology wouldn’t let her. Instead, she brushed a curl from my face and said: “We’re happy with just you.”

Agee, Before He Was Famous

Can a rediscovered first draft of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men speak more directly to our time than the finished masterpiece? 

Library of Congress

By age 26, James Agee had spent four years at Fortune, the glossy magazine created by Henry Luce to celebrate the American business class, filing un-bylined reportage on topics like orchid cultivation and cockfighting and the occasional skeptical item on how the new Tennessee Valley Authority was playing out. Most writers would consider it a plum job, especially in the early 1930s. But Agee, politically progressive and instinctively adversarial, was uneasy over the magazine’s thrall to the lavish life. He had ambitions worthy of a Blake or a Dostoevsky: highly personal, mythic literature meant to get “as near truth and whole truth as is humanly possible,” as he put it in a letter in early 1936.

George Packer's U.S.A.

AP Images/David Samson

In the quest to understand what happened to the U.S. economy since the 2008 meltdown and the recession that followed, the challenge has been figuring out how far back to pull the lens. Early books on the crisis zoomed in on airless rooms occupied by panicked CEOs and government officials during the pathetic last few months of the Bush administration and the beginning of this one. More expansively reported accounts looked at lower-level traders and fly-by-night firms, expanding the scope to recognize a decade of mortgage fraud and exploitation of would-be homeowners and investors, along with the Washington corruption that allowed the profiteers to thrive unpunished.

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