Union College political science professor Lori Marso, and director director of Women’s and Gender Studies, weighs in with her favorite reads of the last year:
2006 was the year I reread most of the work of political thinker, Hannah Arendt. October 14th would have been Arendt’s 100th birthday, had she not died in 1975 at the age of 69. Her work was celebrated, remembered, debated, and updated around the world this past year at conferences and seminars devoted to studying why Arendt’s work is still, and maybe even more, relevant than it was in the century when she wrote.
Arendt was a Jewish intellectual, an émigré to New York from Nazi Germany who subsequently published her best known work, the 600+ page Origins of Totalitarianism, in 1951. Arendt is one of the most unconventional and controversial political thinkers of the twentieth century. Known as an “outsider” and sometimes even a “pariah” in philosophical circles, she valued “thinking without banisters” (i.e. without foundational principles or moral precepts) resulting in anti-systematic and highly original work. Her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was first prepared as a series of New Yorker articles, sparked considerable controversy and criticism in the Jewish community in the United States. I also recommend the biographical Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of A Jewess, one of the first books Arendt wrote (finished in 1933, but not published until 1954), for its depiction of 19th century European anti-semitism and the difficulties and travails of assimilation for the Jewish woman.
Analyzing the horrors of the 20th century—the holocaust, potential nuclear destruction, the specificities of totalitarian societies, and the “banality of evil”—Arendt’s work is indispensable for an age facing environmental destruction, the ongoing war on terror, and the disintegration of civil liberties and spaces for political action. Arendt is indeed a writer for “dark times.”
Lori Marso is Professor of Political Science and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Union College. Her most recent book is Feminist Thinkers and the Demands of Femininity: The Live and Work of Intellectual Women(Routledge, 2006).