Friday, January 1, 2010

Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages (2009)

I listened to Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages while driving to Birmingham yesterday.

This is a nicely written reflection about the lives and significance of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Both men were born on the same day: February 12, 1809 (the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth was the reason for Mom's and my course at UVa this fall).

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There's a historiographical controversy about Lincoln's last words, as reported by Edwin Stanton. Traditionally, Stanton is believed to have said "Now he belongs to the ages." More recently, several writers have claimed that Stanton actually said "Now he belongs to the angels."

Gopnik uses the ages/angels dichotomy as a starting point for examining the ways in which Lincoln's and Darwin's lives and work give insight into the place of religion and science in our lives.

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I really like his essays about Lincoln (he alternates with essays about the two men). He argues that -- first and foremost -- Lincoln was a lawyer, and he brought a lawyer's perspective to his effort to save the Union and end slavery. In particular, he believed in the importance of "the grease" -- a term used during Lincoln's time to describe all of the tools, negotiations, and compromises that good attorneys use in order to resolve problems.

Here's a beautiful phrasing by Gopnik: "Law is the practice of rules in a context of deals." This is exactly right, and it is the kind of concise encapsulation of a big idea that makes good writing so fun to read (or, in this case, hear).

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