Author: James Livingston

On Writing Good Sentences

At Facebook, Brian Connolly, a former Rutgers student, wonders if the music he’s listening to has an effect on the shape and sound of the sentences he’s writing.  Of course, I say.  How could it not? I used to say that the difference between fiction and non-fiction is pretty simple: fiction persuades without argument, by articulating a world that is substantial and believable—that is, inhabitable—and yet not quite real.  I don’t say that anymore because I’ve come to think that non-fiction also persuades without argument, mainly by imposing narrative forms on what was a random, or at least meaningless,...

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David Brooks, Meet Josiah Royce, Part I

David Brooks keeps pulling wabbits out of his hat—he keeps invoking writers, artists, and theorists who seem, at first glance, to stand athwart his conservative political agenda. But, having now combed through the entire Brooks archive, I can see that his that agenda boils down to a form of “personalism” (on which he wrote a previous column). This was the interwar creed conceived by its founders and followers as a “third way” between capitalism and communism, as a path toward social democracy.  Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, and Reinhold Niebuhr were among the figures associated with this “third...

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Mermaids Want Shoes

Speaking once again of “The Little Mermaid,” I took my 3-year old daughter to see it when it came out (she’s now a 31-year old attorney). She didn’t yet have the viewing skills to understand such a complicated story–not to mention the musical discourse, beyond the plot, where you’ll find most of the graceful gestures to ancient myth and modern literature, from Prometheus to Faust–so I wrote her a letter to be opened when she leaned to read. It was my crash course in writing plain speech rather than sticking to my adopted academic tongue, and it was so...

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St. Mawr

I don’t read a lot of fiction. I write a lot of it according to my colleagues among historians, who think my accounts of pragmatism are “fanciful” or “imaginative,” which is to say untethered to the non-fictional texts that are supposed to serve as our common denominator. Ever so politely, they suggest that I make shit up. Maybe they’re right, I always thought I’d be a novelist. But I’m not. Nor am I a literary critic. Still, I’m here to report on a remarkable fiction that came my way by the enthusiasm of friends, who have huddled around it...

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The Good Fight

I faithfully watched The Good Wife on Sunday nights for all seven seasons. It’s a melodrama centered on a big Chicago law firm, Gardner & Lockhart, a newly crafted yet creaking vessel that tries to steer an honorable course between the Scylla of financial success and the Charybdis of moral bankruptcy. Every lawyer there, every character I should say, knew what was at stake, and kept rolling the dice, hoping for the best and knowing “the best” is simply impossible under the legal system that regulates our modern lives, because there the protocols of argument, the procedures themselves—in theory,...

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