Greek Lessons, by Han Kang, is a beautifully written, highly poetic meditation on personal loss, grief, our five fragile senses, and how we connect with one another despite our limitations. In this case the loss of language itself, and sight. How we must connect, it would seem, in order to be fully human. I liked it far more than her International Booker Prize winner, The Vegetarian, which was also strange and brilliant. But this novel drew me deeper into the story of the two main characters, especially the woman who had lost her ability to speak, and I wanted to dwell with them and note the way their minds worked and interacted.
While relatively short, at 192 pages, Greek Lessons has philosophical and emotional weight, but never gets too “sober” or solipsistic. Another author could easily have driven away the reader, given the subject matter and the seemingly oblique, aphoristic style. But Kang is one of a kind. She’s able to capture us, and the world as she imagines it for her characters, with short brushstrokes that suggest new worlds. I highly recommend it.
Reading Empireland, by Sathnam Sanghera, is a completely different experience. Unlike Kang’s book, the beauty of the language is not the focus. The data given, and its implications, dominate.
And the data given, some of which I already knew, but never within this much broader context, is devastating. The British Empire — and by extension, all empires — is held to account in a way that we do not typically encounter, at least not from the point of view of “Westerners.” Sathnam, along the way, reminds us of the trickiness of even that descriptor, as he was born in Britain (1976), to Punjabi Indian immigrants who arrived in the UK in 1968. His own story leads to a widening lens and deep dive into the relations between colonizers and the colonized, imperial centers and satellites, and the lingering effects as we moved toward post-colonial worlds and beyond. The writer brings yet another unique aspect to the discussion, because he notes his own learning curve, as he researched the book, his own discoveries, and the obvious need for a far more open and honest reckoning with the past.
This is a must-read, in my view, not only for the facts presented, but for the perspective of the writer. Without telling us directly to question our assumptions and the stories we’ve been told, we arrive at that conclusion on our own.
Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope, by Sarah Bakewell, is a wonderful primer on humanist philosophy in particular, and the love of learning in general. Key figures in the author’s overview include Petrarch, Spinoza, Erasmus, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Zora Neale Hurston, and the inventor of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhof. The over-arching theme of open inquiry runs throughout, but Bakewell is not averse to detailing moments of backsliding here and there. We wouldn’t be humans, of course, if we were perfect paragons of enlightenment, equanimity, and reason. We’d be post-human robots.
Bakewell’s previous books include How to Live, a biography of Montaigne; and At the Existentialist Cafe, a group biography of key existentialist philosophers, like Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty. She has an extensive background in philosophy, and it shows in all her works, as does her contagious enthusiasm for books, intellectual discoveries, and truly open societies. Bakewell has a gift for explaining difficult concepts and their historical contexts to laypersons and scholars alike, and she wears that gift lightly.