Individual Consciousness, Lengthy Biographies and Other Letters to the Editor

Seeing the Light

To the Editor:

In her review of Andrea Pitzer’s “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the Word” (Jan. 10), Rachel Slade concludes by writing: “‘Icebound’ is a reminder that there was once a time when things were unknown. And when their ships bumped up against the edge of the Arctic, the Europeans gazed with horror and awe at the sparkling ice and wondered what Edens lay beyond, waiting to be discovered.”

Discovered? Is that what “Icebound” and the history of human conquest of nature reveal? Or is it rather plundered and annihilated? Before this interpretation, we read that “the 16th-century Dutchmen didn’t hesitate to shoot, maim, club, collar and impale whatever they saw. ‘Slaughter emerged as the instinctive Dutch response to the Arctic landscape, a new theater that would see the same performance again and again with every European wave of arrivals,’ Pitzer notes.”

But that was then, some still say, now we know a great deal more. What shall we then make of The Times Magazine’s section in the same week, “Witness to an Extinction,” by Sam Anderson? “Mass extinction is the ultimate crisis, doom of all dooms, the disaster toward which all other disasters flow,” Anderson writes. “What could humans do that would be worse than killing the life all around us, irreversibly, at scale?”

We do know more now, but obviously not enough to know that we are inextricably enmeshed in a great web of life; killing swaths of our biosphere will in time kill perhaps all of it, all of us.

Peter London
Davis, Calif.

To the Editor:

In his review of “Himalaya,” by Ed Douglas (Jan. 10), Jeffrey Gettleman approvingly quotes Douglas’s statement, “It’s easy to see why a philosophy stressing the illusory nature of an individual consciousness, as Buddhism does, might prosper here.”

But it’s even easier to see that it takes an individual consciousness to believe that individual consciousness is illusory.

Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Providence, R.I.

The Divine

To the Editor:

I am puzzled how anyone can review “The Orchard,” by David Hopen (Dec. 13), without mentioning the paradigm Orchard — or “Pardes” — story appearing in the Talmud. Clearly, Hopen had this reference in mind.

Phyllis Shapiro
St. Louis

A Life in Letters

To the Editor:

The first thing I read in the Book Review each week is the Letters page. It is such a lively, interesting and literate discussion.

This week’s letters (Jan. 10) made me wish I had paid more attention to Daphne Merkin’s review of Heather Clark’s new look at Sylvia Plath’s troubled life.

I was also delighted by Barbara Matusow’s confession, reflecting the feelings of many readers (including myself), that long books — “doorstops,” she calls them — put off readers and discourage potential readers of biography.

And I was nodding my head as I read David Myers’s letter about the “poetry” in Michael Cunningham’s essay on Virginia Woolf. I then wanted to go back and reread that essay after reading Richard Gerber’s assessment of it.

David Tillyer
New York

To the Editor:

Au contraire to Barbara Matusow’s lament about lengthy biographies. Would she ignore Robert Caro’s majestic volumes on Lyndon Johnson? Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 1,000-plus pages on the 1,000 days of J.F.K.? The 1,152 pages by Andrew Roberts that bring Churchill to life?

Rather than judgment based on a book’s heft, a read of the opening chapter provides a superior clue to the splendor that may lurk within.

David Smollar
San Diego

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