LRB Readings

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

Winged Words: On Muhammad

Tariq Ali, 17 June 2021

17 June 2021 · 28mins

Muhammad never claimed to be anything other than a human being: he was a Messenger of God, not the son of Allah, and not in direct communication with him. The visions were mainly aural: the Prophet heard the voice of Gabriel, who dictated the Quran on behalf of Allah. In a largely illiterate world, in which storytelling was rife and memories strong, history was transmitted orally.

Ghosts in the Land

Adam Shatz, 3 June 2021

22 May 2021 · 18mins

The violence that broke out inside Israel was ugly, a chaotic mixture of pogroms and score-settling; it is a threat to the delicate fabric of Arab-Jewish relations that no politician in Israel can afford to ignore. But the violence grew out of conditions that Israel itself has created: the power and arrogance of the settler movement, and the alienation and rage of young Palestinian citizens who, like all Palestinians, simply want to be free.

6 May 2021 · 44mins

Boris Johnson’s japes are comparable in neutralising effect to the softening charm of Tony Blair. How can such a matey, blokey person, ‘someone you could have a pint with’, possess darker, colder qualities, be flawed not merely by an indifference to the truth, but an indifference to the wellbeing of other people, including his wives, lovers and closest colleagues?

4 March 2021 · 38mins

I would like to read a different biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, one that is less hagiographic but more humane. Surely it is possible to acknowledge this remarkable woman’s foresight, determination, convictions and courage without shying away, as Holmes does, from addressing how her culture and upbringing could drive her to assert authority through self-sacrifice, almost as if she believed that whoever suffers the most, wins.

Gotcha, Pat! Highsmith in My Head

Terry Castle, 4 March 2021

4 March 2021 · 34mins

Patricia High­smith was able to dramatise the loss of con­trol so shockingly because she knew how it felt. Though not herself a homicidal maniac (as far as one knows), she could imagine what it was like to be one. Her brain had been arranged for it: she had blown out her own frontal lobes early on.

Ready to Go Off

Jenny Turner, 18 February 2021

18 February 2021 · 42mins

Kindred is an act of generosity, an embodiment of the hope that one day, it will be nothing to write home about when a Black woman sits in her new house with her white husband, happily surrounded by piles and piles of books. History, Octavia Butler often said, is also ‘another planet – the only one we know to bear any life’.

18 February 2021 · 38mins

Stone’s dozen days in Saigon were all passed in the shadow of the war. Everybody was in it, somehow, and talked about it non-stop, but the talk never went anywhere. It ran into the war and came to a full stop. The war refused to be won, or lost, or understood.

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.