Books by Barry Sanders

HISTORY
Released: Nov. 7, 2003

"Given the powerful evidence they present, it seems a small price to pay for centuries of wrong—though 'an admission that the majority of white citizens seem unwilling to make.'"
Can whites and blacks ever coexist peaceably in America? The answer, to judge by this depressing essay, seems to be no. Read full book review >
THE PRIVATE DEATH OF PUBLIC DISCOURSE by Barry Sanders
HISTORY
Released: Jan. 26, 1998

A sprawling, provocative conversation with loose ends that are the forgivable product of a literate mind grappling with big issues. The various meanings of ``mean'' and its derivatives are the foundation of Sanders's (Sudden Glory, 1995, etc.; English/Pitzer Coll.) exploration of public discourse, and additional touchstones range from Huck Finn to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Mostly obituary but part prescription, this volume offers the basic argument that life has turned mean with the draining of meaning from public discourse. The private, interior life rooted in the literacy acquired through reading and writing has been lost through hours of staring at screens; reading a book is a private act, while watching TV blurs the distinction between public and private. Without an interior space offering distance from the immediate moment, reflection, thought, and the potential for meaningful participation in public discourse disappears. Life becomes the mindless pursuit of gratification, and ``gratification knows only one tense, the present.'' In this world the quintessential public spaces where everyone interacts on an equal footing are prisons and casinos, and pseudo-discourse replaces democratic discussion: ``Bluster passes for expansiveness, rant for power.'' The antidote for this depressingly convincing description of American society is a rebuilding of the country, ``a liberation through language.'' To regenerate public discourse, however, people must turn off their televisions and rebuild their inner lives by talking, reading, and writing. Unfortunately, Sanders describes nothing that suggests this will happen. Perhaps there is hope in what is missing: His historical account of the loss of interior life, as well as the connection between literacy and space—terms used metaphorically as well as literally—are not always clear and complete. But there may be an insurmountable problem here, for only those who already read books will read this one. Read full book review >
SUDDEN GLORY by Barry Sanders
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Sept. 18, 1995

Often ebullient, but sometimes just gassy, this ambitious study sketches a counterhistory of Western thought by tracing the salient roles of laughter. Toward the end of this book, Sanders (A is for Ox, 1994; English and History of Ideas/Pitzer College) reveals himself as a devotee of Lenny Bruce's comedy. Impassioned arguments for the cultural significance of Bruce's vitriolic routinese.g., that they exposed the workings of racismmake clear Sanders's investment in his titular theme of subversion. It's unfortunate that this meditation on Bruce doesn't go deeper and didn't come sooner, for Sanders never quite nails down why laughter should necessarily be considered subversive, and he only convinces the reader of his own passion for the subject when he gets to Bruce. That said, the landscape he tours is indeed a glorious one. Highlights include: the deep unity of laughter and weeping in the Hebrew tradition; the birth of irony in the Socratic style; the animus of the Christian tradition to laughter; and the revolutionary outbursts of humor in medieval carnivaleruptions brilliantly captured, Sanders shows, by Chaucer. Sanders astutely notes the links between jesting, aggression, and envy. He nevertheless insists on opposing humor to power, narrating how humor is a liberating force. It seems, however, that humor could just as well be a safety valve, a way of blowing off steam while leaving the system intact. There are other flaws here. Sanders takes too much delight in tracing out etymologies (which, like dreams, too often fall flat when recounted). Also, he repeatedly invokes the distinction between oral and literate modes of culture, a key theme in his previous work that can seem beside the point here. Overall, though, Sanders wears his learning lightly enough. Refreshing, although the promise of subversion fizzles. Read full book review >
NON-FICTION
Released: Oct. 27, 1994

An academic's meandering foray into the realms of the preliterate. Sanders (English and the History of Ideas/Pitzer College) fears for the fate of the printed word. Beginning with a history of literacy, he presents the ancient Greeks as the primary example of a people with a limited, verbal culture who flowered with their adaptation of the Semitic alphabet, which he contends not only allowed for superior intergenerational communication but also for the critical thinking that made Greek philosophy and ethics possible. Moving from human history to human development, the author posits that infants and people deprived of language cannot perceive in the abstract and are incapable of morality. He skates on thinner ice when he suggests that people stuck in verbal cultures, especially the functional illiterates of our inner cities, are a mindless, amoral mob. Here the humanities professor shows gaps in his hard and social science reading: Few of America's 70 million illiterates display the conscienceless violence of the sociopaths he fearfully describes. Displaying tinges of Eurocentrism when diagnosing the social problems of certain hyphenated Americans, Sanders also links illiteracy to feminism- -mothers not staying home to feed their children constant verbal stimulation. ``Among humans only women educate'' is a line that would resonate better were the author less obsessed with unproven theories about breast-feeding and the development of literacy. A volley fired at technology in general and computers specifically reads: ``Word processors have turned everyone into ghostwriters, so that technology...has sucked the very essence out of life.'' While TV and video games have pedagogic limitations, the author does not successfully demonstrate why trashy novels are better than classic films, why the confines of grammar are less stifling than the parameters of a video game, or why a TV show represents ``a shift from the human to the technical.'' A few pearls among the paranoia, but this flawed paean to literacy is as awkward as its title. Read full book review >