This year I acquired both a husband and a commute. Jared is a PhD candidate at Yale, and Commonweal’s offices are in Manhattan. Stamford, Connecticut, is our compromise. Coveted seats on the train and bus allow for about an hour of reading each way. I’m all for epics and heavy hardbacks. But this Christmas season, here are some suggestions for slender volumes: stocking stuffers for a commuter you love.
Mornings are for essays—assertions and evidence to go with my coffee. Perhaps Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, $17.95, 144 pp.), a pocket-sized treatise of aesthetic philosophy. Scarry prepares me to think about sentences. She insists that there is something world-bettering about precise language: that its beauty is not distracting, irrelevant, or irresponsible, but points its creators and observers toward justice. She works methodically through definitions and case studies, illustrating how we identify and respond (at times mistakenly) to beauty; for visual examples, she employs fine-grained sketches of palm trees. Such a book could be tedious and dry. But Scarry has a way of repeating her claims just often enough, ensuring that her readers are tracking, and, in good humor, anticipating what our “real-world” questions might be.
So too does Kristen Dombek in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (FSG Originals, $13, 150 pp.). The essay begins with a cultural commonplace: this is a narcissistic age, swarmed with psychopathic bosses, sanguine boyfriends, and vapid millennials. But Dombek picks apart that diagnosis, showing the cracks and contradictions in the social-psychology literature, psychoanalytic theory, and philosophic assumptions underlying who we believe the narcissist is, and who we believe we are in relation to him: empathetic and good as opposed to empty and evil. Is it really so simple? Spoiler alert: no. The book is absolutely engrossing, and convinces me of the danger of using pop psychology as a tool for casually analyzing others. But as I prepare for a day of copyediting, I study not what Dombek says, but how she says it: how she employs sources (assiduously, but not as a crutch), how she enters and exits digressions. She spreads out evidence, then goes in for the argumentative kill.
When we cross over the Harlem River, I fold a page corner and disembark for the last leg of my journey to work.