First, a link to an article that sheds some historical light on a recent literary controversy and makes me re-think my admiration for Wallace Stevens more than just a little. Historians often advise us to make allowances for the intolerance of those who lived in other eras, and they would advise us also to separate as much as possible the art a man creates from the kind of life he lives. Even when I do both of those things, however (as I have done many, many times in the past), I find Stevens’ overt racism toward Gwendolyn Brooks in 1952 disgusting and repugnant, inexcusable in an educated man, wholly unjustified, and well-nigh inexplicable in the life of someone who was a public figure (vice-president of the Hartford Insurance company) as well as a poet who presumably cared about the work of those who advance the expression of the English language.
Had Stevens made his remarks fifty or one hundred years earlier, I might be able to understand his willful racism a little better, but these words were said to other educated people in 1952, a time when the beastly racism of the Civil War era had already died its deserved death. In short, no: Stevens does not get a pass from me on this. And not for a long time to come.
On a happier note, let me mention a few books that make me thankful because they have fed my desire to understand the big picture of events on this planet:
Cosmos, by Carl Sagan–Read it; drink it in, pictures and all. It is now in e-book format, too.
The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Brownowski–Brownowski is really the intellectual ancestor of Sagan. No one–not even Sagan himself–is as good as Brownowski is at showing the cultural leaps the human race has made, and at showing the implicit connections between the sciences and the arts. Buy or rent the BBC TV series if you wish, but read the book.
The Penguin History of the World, by J.M. Roberts–Only specialists might carp at the things left out of a one-volume history of the world, but they cannot carp too much at this one. It’s a first-rate job on a nearly-impossible task. Roberts is aware of his Western biases, and he does a good job of setting the proportions of his history, and summarizing very complex issues in just a few sentences.
The Healing Hand: Man & Wound in the Ancient World, by Guido Majno–Published by Harvard University Press in 1975, this is a beautifully-written, beautifully-printed history of physical wounds among human beings, and our slow advancement in learning to treat them. Great text, great illustrations; a history of ancient medicine, really, seen from its chosen, limited perspective of the injuries humans get inflicted upon themselves.