July 30, 2010

"Bright books for dark times"


The news seems bleaker than usual these days, observes Jessa Crispin a her newest column for PBS, “Bright Books for Dark Times.” Worse: “It’s not just that the news is bleak, it’s the powerlessness that everyone feels. When it’s a torrent of oil spilling into our oceans, deep underground, it’s not the kind of thing you can roll up your sleeves and solve yourself. It’s the same with most of the news: everything is just too big to do anything about yourself. And watching the politicians squabble is not exactly reassuring.”

If you’re a literary person like Crispin, you turn to your books on occasions of powerlessness — and from her library, she offers “a reading list, about humor in dark times, the strength of community, and people who, no matter how far gone things seemed, shook off apathy and got to work at tipping the scales back to something resembling balance.”

Among the books on her list:

A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial
By H. L. Mencken

The axis of religion and science has become so sadly polarized that each side seems to believe that if they admit middle ground exists all is lost. So the “New Atheists” continue to insist that all belief in the divine is simply delusional, and fundamentalists want to alter our textbooks to omit basic scientific fact.

And while everyone is probably familiar with “Inherit the Wind,” the staid and slightly dreary films (it was remade – a lot) about the original fight for the teaching students evolution, less known is H.L. Mencken’s original account of the same trial, “A Religious Orgy in Tennessee.” It’s a wild story, and told in the usual rabblerousing Mencken style. It may be a battle we are still fighting, but it started with one teacher and one incomparable Clarence Darrow.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.