A veteran essayist for the New York Times collects some gems from his pile of precious—though not always popular—stones.
Fish (Law/Florida International Univ.; Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution, 2014, etc.) has arranged his pieces thematically (see subtitle); within each category, he proceeds mostly chronologically. He claims in several places that he’s more interested in presenting than in advocating issues, but this is a tad disingenuous: his attitudes generally hum like electricity, even if they are sometimes strung behind the drywall. Fish’s more intimate, biographical essays compose the first section, but he’s hardly hiding elsewhere. He frequently talks about his readers (and their responses, sometimes hostile), about his myriad teaching experiences, and about popular culture. There are surprises throughout. He says he really loved the recent film Les Misérables, and he calls True Grit (the Coen brothers’ version) “a truly religious movie.” Fish’s focused sections serve both to attract and warn readers. He includes, for instance, some dense essays about legal issues—especially involving the First Amendment, on which he is an authority)—and will either delight or alarm readers with his occasional agreements with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The author also links stand-your-ground laws to the ethos of old Western films, including Shane. Fish lets loose on those he calls the New Atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Basically, he calls them superficial, if not stupid. He also argues for defining academic freedom more sharply, urging teachers to discuss any issues they want—but not to proselytize. Fish fiercely advocates for the liberal arts and disdains so-called independent voters. Like other fine essayists, he clearly identifies issues, is both analytical and tendentious (he would not confess to the latter), and will annoy readers on both sides of our current political divide.
Lucid, sinewy sentences lash, tickle, and caress.