Donna Tartt: The Secret History 

Tartt’s much bruited first novel is a huge (592 pages) rambling story that is sometimes ponderous, sometimes highly entertaining. Part psychological thriller, part chronicle of debauched, wasted youth, it suffers from a basically improbable plot, a fault Tartt often redeems through the bravado of her execution. Narrator Richard Papen comes from a lower-class family and a loveless California home to the “hermetic, overheated atmosphere” of Vermont’s Hampden College. Almost too easily, he is accepted into a clique of five socially sophisticated students who study Classics with an idiosyncratic, morally fraudulent professor. Despite their demanding curriculum (they quote Greek classics to each other at every opportunity) the friends spend most of their time drinking and taking pills. Finally they reveal to Richard that they accidentally killed a man during a bacchanalian frenzy; when one of their number seems ready to spill the secret, the group–now including Richard–must kill him, too. The best parts of the book occur after the second murder, when Tartt describes the effect of the death on a small community, the behavior of the victim’s family and the conspirators’ emotional disintegration. Here her gifts for social satire and character analysis are shown to good advantage and her writing is powerful and evocative. On the other hand, the plot’s many inconsistencies, the self-indulgent, high-flown references to classic literature and the reliance on melodrama make one wish this had been a tauter, more focused novel. In the final analysis, however, readers may enjoy the pull of a mysterious, richly detailed story told by a talented writer.

Publisher’s Weekly
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Reviews: 

New York Times
The Guardian
The New Canon

Additional Resources: 

Donna Tartt Interview, 1992 (video)
Donna Tartt Interview, 2017 (video)

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Chris Jennings: Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism 

In the wake of the Enlightenment and the onset of industrialism, a generation of dreamers took it upon themselves to confront the messiness and injustice of a rapidly changing world. To our eyes, the utopian communities that took root in America in the nineteenth century may seem ambitious to the point of delusion, but they attracted members willing to dedicate their lives to creating a new social order and to asking the bold question What should the future look like?
In Paradise Now, Chris Jennings tells the story of five interrelated utopian movements, revealing their relevance both to their time and to our own. Here is Mother Ann Lee, the prophet of the Shakers, who grew up in newly industrialized Manchester, England–and would come to build a quiet but fierce religious tradition on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Even as the society she founded spread across the United States, the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen came to the Indiana frontier to build an egalitarian, rationalist utopia he called the New Moral World. A decade later, followers of the French visionary Charles Fourier blanketed America with colonies devoted to inaugurating a new millennium of pleasure and fraternity. Meanwhile, the French radical tienne Cabet sailed to Texas with hopes of establishing a communist paradise dedicated to ideals that would be echoed in the next century. And in New York’s Oneida Community, a brilliant Vermonter named John Humphrey Noyes set about creating a new society in which the human spirit could finally be perfected in the image of God.
Over time, these movements fell apart, and the national mood that had inspired them was drowned out by the dream of westward expansion and the waking nightmare of the Civil War. Their most galvanizing ideas, however, lived on, and their audacity has influenced countless political movements since. Their stories remain an inspiration for everyone who seeks to build a better world, for all who ask, What should the future look like?

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Reviews: 

New York Times
The Economist
SF Gate

Additional Resources: 

The Rumpus Interview with Chris Jennings (text)
Chris Jennings: In Order to Form a Utopian Union (essay)
Chris Jennings: A French Communist Utopia in Texas (essay)
The Atlantic: 2 essays by Chris Jennings
Chris Jennings: Deep Dive into American Utopianism (podcast)
Ted Talk: High School Journalism (video)

James Elkins: The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing 

At first it appears that nothing could be easier than seeing. We just focus our eyes and take in whatever is before us. This ability seems detached, efficient and rational – as if the eyes were competent machines telling us everything about the world without distorting it in any way. But those ideas are just illusions, James Elkins argues, and he suggests that seeing is undependable, inconsistent and cauthg up in the threads of the unconscious. Blindness is not the opposite of vision, but its constant companion, and even the foundation of seeing itself. Using drawings, paintings, diagrams and photographs to illustrate his points, Elkins raises intriguing questions and offers astonishing perceptions about the nature of vision.
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Kirkus Reviews
Optometry and Vision Science Journal

Further Writings by the Author: 

How to Use Your Eyes (PDF)
Why Art Cannot be Taught: A Handbook for Students (PDF)
The Three Configurations of Practice Based PHDs (PDF)

Additional Resources: 

Author’s Website
Lecture: What is Research (video)
Lecture: On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (video)
Panel: Art History in a Post Secular Age (video)