The Art of Circular Yokes,ed. Kerry Bogert: Extensive directions on how to calculate your own circular yoke designs, which I didn’t try out but looked comprehensive, and some sample patterns, one of which I did. It was nice, though I used a differently fluffy yarn and got a different visual effect than the photos (less geometric than the “geometric” sweater), which is confirmation of the rule to be very sure of your yarn selection. I think patternmakers might well find it useful.
Lisa Damour, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls: Advocates giving our daughters permission to slack off, to be imperfect, to be not just beautiful in their own way but unbeautiful, even though it’s very hard for parents alone to be in control of those messages. I particularly noted the concept of “settling your glitter”—giving agitation time to calm down before reacting as a parent, and letting the girl do the same. And also the concept that we regularly expect boys to exert the minimum effort necessary to achieve an objective, like an A, but expect girls to go full throttle; girls can benefit a lot from figuring out when they can slack off—and from encouragement to do so.
Joshua Specht, Red Meat Republic: A history of how beef made the US, and then the US made modern beef. Covers land acquisition/destruction of Native American populations in the West, business innovations to centralize processing and destroy local butchers while also controlling ranchers who remained small and unorganized, and suppression of labor rights to keep prices low (which was the only way to make centralized processing profitable). Specht argues that nothing here was the inevitable result of technology, whether railroads or trucks or anything else, but rather was the product of political and social struggles, which seems right.
Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South: Merritt argues that black chattel slavery was vital to keeping poor whites poor in the antebellum South, and that many of the forms of control later imposed on freed blacks were developed to control and demean poor whites. Slave labor drove down white workers’ wages; many poor white men were forced to live apart from their families if they wanted the few jobs that were available, even as consolidation of landholding and slaveholding destroyed security for all but the wealthiest whites. The resulting social pathologies included lack of stable families, a disinclination of white men to take wage work because it was too demeaning (and often dangerous—building railroads, for example, was often white men’s work because it was too dangerous for valuable slaves), and a focus on violence instead of work as a source of masculinity. As the Civil War approached, enslavers feared an alliance of poor whites and blacks, and did what they could to avoid it: evicting poor whites from land near slave labor camps so that there couldn’t be trade between them; imprisoning poor whites for debt and for being unable to support themselves (and then selling their labor to rich whites); attempting to strictly control alcohol use and sexual behavior (which could again land a poor white child in indentured servitude because of their mother’s supposed immorality); disenfranchising poor whites with poll taxes and other voting restrictions; and increasingly arguing for chattel slavery for poor whites as well as blacks. Merritt argues that one reason enslavers, and thus elected Southern politicians, opposed free soil policies was that they didn’t want poor whites to have an outlet where they might become not-poor without slavery, as much as they wanted land reserved for wealthy slaveowners. Only after secession was the Congress able to enact laws giving land out in relatively small parcels. Emancipation ended up being very helpful to poor whites, both by giving them access to land and by making their political support important to rich whites, who finally consented to some redistribution and simultaneously succeeded in what they’d never fully accomplished during slavery: convincing poor whites that white supremacy was rewarding enough that poor and rich whites shared sufficient political interests to unite against African-Americans. Relatedly, the criminal justice system in the South shifted from being almost entirely populated by white convicts to almost entirely African-American.
Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Rambling (not necessarily a criticism) essays about millennial life and the ways in which existing systems, especially patriarchy, entrap us because even resistance constitutes engagement that might keep the old structures alive. (E.g., “as women have attempted to use #YesAllWomen and #MeToo to regain control of a narrative, these hashtags have at least partially reified the thing they’re trying to eradicate: the way that womanhood can feel like a story of loss of control. They have made feminist solidarity and shared vulnerability seem inextricable.”) A lot of the book is about the internet, which has allegedly heightened the risk that everything becomes personal/identity-based and not primarily political. Some of it is annoying to old folks like me (“In the five years since my graduation, feminism had become a dominant cultural perspective”—sure, fine, whatever), but many of the observations are sharp.
I was a fan of this bit, as part of a discussion of the effects of clothing on how we behave: “athleisure frames the female body as a financial asset: an object that requires an initial investment and is divisible into smaller assets—the breasts, the abs, the butt—all of which are expected to appreciate in value, to continually bring back investor returns. Brutally expensive, with its thick disciplinary straps and taut peekaboo exposures, athleisure can be viewed as a sort of late-capitalist fetishwear: it is what you buy when you are compulsively gratified by the prospect of increasing your body’s performance on the market.” Tolentino, discussing scammers from Fyre to Trump, admits that “my own career has depended to some significant extent on feminism being monetizable. As a result, I live very close to this scam category, perhaps even inside.” Much of the story she tells is, sadly, pretty relatable: thinking herself immune from sexism because she was young and talented, then later on realizing that her UVa campus was fucked up—among other things, she got roofied and considered herself lucky that it made her violently ill, and also every Valentine’s day “flyers blanketed the campus with Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings depicted in cameo silhouette, and the cutesy slogan “TJ [heart]s Sally” below that.”
In an essay on difficult women, Tolentino discusses, among other things, the double bind of criticizing conservative women: sexism works on them too, and yet, “if you stripped away the sexism, you would still be left with Kellyanne Conway,” very worthy of condemnation. “Moreover, if you make the self-presentation of a White House spokesperson off-limits on principle, then you lose the ability to articulate the way she does her job.” Although it’s her job, she’s skeptical of “adjudicating inequality through cultural criticism,” which allows people like Ivanka Trump to claim feminist allyship (though not racial justice allyship, which seems important). It’s true that conservatives have learned to weaponize accusations of insufficient feminism, but I’m not sure that liberals did that (Tolentino thinks we taught them how) or that bad faith is avoidable in any particular way by progressives; it just has to be fought. Overall, a lot of wheat and a lot of chaff in here.
Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller: Odd little book, apparently a classic of the field. It’s hard to reconstruct the history of non-elites, and Ginzburg argues in opposition to those who say it can only be done through statistics. Reading records of an inquisition, Ginzburg identifies what he argues is a peasant tradition of religious belief that contradicted a lot of Catholic doctrine, which the titular miller expressed when he was hauled up on blasphemy charges. The miller definitely seems to have had a well developed and elaborate theory of religion, though he struck me as a classic outsider whose own theories might not have been based on anything directly from a peasant tradition.
Stephanie Burt, Don’t Read Poetry: Disclosure: Stephanie is a good friend and one of the smartest people I know. The conceit of the title is: don’t read poetry, read poems, which “are like pieces of music: by definition they all have something in common, but they vary widely in how they work, where they come from, and what they try to do.” One thing vital to the poetic project is the arrangement of language “to convey, share, or provoke emotions,” along with whatever else a poem does. Poems can also introduce us to characters, interest us with the play of their technique, and/or teach wisdom; Burt argues that you should look for poems that you find interesting, or beautiful, or provocative, or whatever. So, for example, lyric poems are about communicating across the divide of personhood: as Hera Lindsay Bird writes, a lyric poem can say “There is something wrong with you that is also wrong with me.” Lyric poems are the realm of mirrors, and windows, and both at once: they’re about seeing “both outside yourself and into yourself.”
By (partial) contrast, poems of character “are like people we could meet, and so it is no wonder that they so often compare themselves to portraits, photographs, paintings.” Poems as technique/form are “games that poets can play.” Understanding when and why the poet succeeds at her game (what Burt describes as “formal excellence combined with creativity”) is aided by recognizing how rhyme and rhyme-like euphonies work, but rhyme doesn’t have to be a part of it. Burt defends poems that don’t make consistent sense: “opaque or resistant language can instruct and delight, and … some non-or anti-sense in poetry can help us spot nonsense, or hypocrisy, or lies, in the rest of the world, outside poems.” This is one way that poems may share wisdom with us: calling us to recognize “either the injustice or the beauty that we would otherwise overlook. The goal of making the world weird again, either to like it more or to help it change,” can itself be wisdom, along with more conventional messages and lessons like Housman’s “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” a personal favorite of mine.