LRB Readings

Listen to LRB essays and reviews in full, either read by the author or produced by our audio partner, Audm.

A Pox on the Poor: The First Vaccine

Steven Shapin, 4 February 2021

4 February 2021 · 32mins

Long before there was a science called immunology, the barrier between bodily self and non-­self was culturally electrified. Cowpox came from cattle, and vaccination was the introduction to your body of material from an alien form of life. These considerations were important to some people.

4 February 2021 · 23mins

In this febrile yet curiously static environment of competing claims on our subjecthood and sympathy, we could all do with bearing in mind Wollstonecraft’s distinction between real and affected sentiment. For her, tolerant curiosity about other people – including those who disagreed with her – was an index of progress.

21 January 2021 · 25mins

Ursula Le Guin was able to direct a whole array of ‘what if?’ questions against the conventions of children’s fantasy. What if you don’t need heroic quests? What if keeping going and tending children through damage and disaster and getting home is the form of heroism that matters most? What if girls can be dragons?

If we had a real choice: Sophie Mackintosh

Madeleine Schwartz, 21 January 2021

21 January 2021 · 17mins

Sophie Mackintosh’s two novels could be classified as dystopias but they are more like hermetically sealed thought experiments. The worlds they describe are different from the one we wake up in, but neither more sophisticated nor more developed. Her novels are grounded in what her characters touch, eat and see. The books contain no politicians, grandparents, cousins; her characters have been reduced to the barest relationships and emotions.

Magic Beans, Baby

David Runciman, 7 January 2021

7 January 2021 · 40mins

Like Jerry Seinfeld and LeBron James, Obama exemplifies what can be done by super-talented individuals in a winner-take-all world. He won and did indeed take it all, including the $65 million he and Michelle received in a package deal that has produced A Promised Land. More power to him. But his example is not a recipe for structural change. Quite the contrary.

Who Betrayed Us? The November Revolution

Neal Ascherson, 17 December 2020

17 December 2020 · 36mins

What would the history of Germany have been if the SPD leaders had let the revolution take its course? Perhaps a radical but generous and democratic socialism, Marxist but not Leninist or Stalinist in its treatment of dissent. Perhaps – but would such a socialist state have been able to resist the vengeance of those who had lost power?

Twenty Types of Human: Among the Neanderthals

John Lanchester, 17 December 2020

John Lanchester, read by the author

17 December 2020 · 34mins

That feeling of similar-but-not-quite is present all through the history of our engagement with the Neanderthals: when we look at them we are looking at a distorted reflection in a mirror. As with a mirror-gazer, we have a tendency to want everything to be about us. The reflection is fascinating, unsettling, and it’s not quite clear what we want it to tell us.

To Die One’s Own Death

Jacqueline Rose, 19 November 2020

19 November 2020 · 51mins

Freud is offering a philosophy of grief. He helps us understand why what is happening among us now can feel as much an internal as an external catastrophe. Death in a pandemic is no way to die.

Why go high?

Adam Shatz, 19 November 2020

6 November 2020 · 16mins

Trump will cast a long shadow, especially overseas, where America’s image has suffered a calamitous blow. Every country is at times reduced to playing a crude caricature of itself, exhibiting its ugliest attributes. The question now is whether the US can move beyond its worst expression. We have a long way to go before America becomes, at last, what James Baldwin called ‘another country’.

They saw him coming: The Lockhart Plot

Neal Ascherson, 5 November 2020

5 November 2020 · 28mins

Secret emissaries promise that a certain army general will bring ten thousand soldiers across to you. Émigré ‘experts’ assure you that the peasantry of a certain province is itching to rise in arms as soon as you land and raise the rebel standard. How confident are you that any of this is true – or is it at best greedy con-men’s patter, at worst a trap?

Ah, how miserable! Three New Oresteias

Emily Wilson, 8 October 2020

8 October 2020 · 39mins

Misogynist tropes often involve present­ing women as interesting in precisely the ways that Aeschylus’ female characters are interesting: charming, articulate, danger­ous, deceitful, too clever by half, lustful, angry, violent, and consumed by excessive emotion.