Thomas Mann, Guilty Pleasures and Other Letters to the Editor – The New York Times

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To the Editor:
Claire Barliant’s “More Bad Art Friends” (Nov. 7) imagines the line between being inspired by others’ lives and stealing from them. In “The Magician” (a novel based on the life of Thomas Mann), Colm Toibin casts Mann as the world’s worst “art friend,” but with an amusing twist.
Unlike the pilfering Bellow, Hemingway and Sebald evoked by Barliant, Mann showed a gift for unsolicited largess — endowing his fellow expatriate Arnold Schoenberg with a fictional venereal disease. He had borrowed bits and pieces of a not-too-well-disguised Schoenberg as a model for the syphilitic central character in “Doctor Faustus.”
In the hands of Toibin, we are left with the tragicomic image of the father of 12-tone musical composition, wandering the aisles of a Southern California suburban supermarket, frantically proclaiming to one and all that he is, in fact, S.T.D.-free.
Farley Helfant
Toronto

To the Editor:
In the fall of 1966, I was a graduate student at Yeshiva University, pursuing a degree in education. My fellow students and I were idealistic to a fault, certain that we could improve the prospects of inner-city children with our commitment and passion to right society’s wrongs. The faculty fueled our enthusiasm with weekly visits from civil rights leaders.
The review of Kate Clifford Larson’s “Walk With Me” and Keisha Blain’s “Until I Am Free” (Nov. 7) resurrected my feelings of astonishment when Fannie Lou Hamer spent an afternoon with us. She regaled us with tales of determination in the face of racism, violence and discrimination. Hamer was not bitter; she had a job to do — registering Black voters in the United States and undoing structural racism, though she would not have called it such.
At the end of her visit, we students were fired up and ready to march behind Hamer wherever she went. Larson and Blain, thank you for bringing Hamer’s legacy into the light.
Lynn Devaney Choquette
Chevy Chase, Md.

To the Editor:
Your review of “Walk With Me” and “Until I Am Free” brings attention to the underrecognized female civil rights leader.
A 2015 book, “Voice of Freedom,” written for children by Carole Boston Weatherford with wonderful illustrations by the Boston artist Ekua Holmes, introduces Hamer to a new generation and may inspire them to stand up for justice. The book has received numerous awards and should be added to the reading list of anyone wanting to know more about Hamer.
Ruth Hennig
Portland, Maine
To the Editor:
I write to make a small, gentle point that could be of help in our fraught times. I hope to do so in a constructive manner, without accusation, but with empathy. In Ben Ehrenreich’s review (Nov. 7), a comment made in Colin Thubron’s “The Amur River” — “the old Arab qualities remain …” — is said to appear “racist.”
That overlooks the possibility that it could be culture, rather than race, that is being described. Qualities such as “ever quixotically proud,” assuming they existed, would seem unlikely to be racial in origin. Could it in fact be unintentionally racist to think that racial origin is what is being asserted?
Generalizing from there, is it possible to criticize any aspect of a culture without appearing to criticize the humanity of its adherents? Tocqueville criticized us, and we’re the better for it. Otherwise, all is culturally relative. Cultural relativism is a useful notion. Its blanket application is suffocating.
Peter Yates
Culver City, Calif.
To the Editor:
I wish you’d stop asking By the Book luminaries to cite their “guilty pleasure” books. Why reinforce the proposition that anything we read does, or ought to, generate feelings of guilt?
Reading is not like smoking cigarettes or drinking liquor. You can indulge in reading as much as you want without fear of cancer or cirrhosis. I have zero guilt about my reading choices. Few people notice what I’m reading, and the ones who do notice withhold judgment.
Well, most of the time, that is. I arrived home one day about 30 years ago to the following message on my phone machine: “Mr. English, this is Agnes from the Somerville Library. The title you requested [she switches to an embarrassed whisper], ‘I Smell Esther Williams’ [back to normal speaking volume], is ready for you to check out.”
As I say, zero guilt. But, just to clarify, the aforementioned book is a surreal compilation of comic fiction by Mark Leyner. It is no more a book about Esther Williams than “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a book about Sherwin-Williams.
David English
Acton, Mass.
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