If These Walls Could Sprechen

I’m delighted to share this recently published story of a small German country house that stood witness to nearly a century of history, two totalitarian regimes, and several generations of ordinary people. Humans will do remarkable (and sometimes terrible) things to persist and survive as wars, empires, and borders change around them.

A few miles west of Berlin, a little house sits on Groß Glienicke lake, a quiet eye in the storm of Europe’s worst century ever.

Nazi bureaucrats arrived at their Final Solution at nearby Wannsee. The Red Army poured through at the end of World War II. Churchill and Truman drove past on their way to meet Stalin in Potsdam. The Berlin Airlift rattled the cupboards as planes landed at and left Gatow airfield. Secret policemen lurked as the Berlin Wall rose. The house endured the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War, the fall of the Wall, and the reunification of Germany.

…Josef Stalin supposedly quipped that one death might be a tragedy but a million deaths are a mere statistic. Harding’s work stands in defiance of that heartless calculation. Against the No Life Matters ethos of the 20th century, The House by the Lake proves that history’s lethally impersonal forces, mass displacement, arbitrary borders, marching armies, and totalitarian dictatorships cannot fully erase the private joys and sorrows of individual lives.

Read more of my review of The House by the Lake at Reason Magazine.


The monsters that torment us – All your fears are well-founded

On Halloween The Wall Street Journal published my review of two books of cultural history that connect our horror stories with very real phenomena.

Haunted by Leo Braudy and Ghostland by Colin Dickey show us that our horror stories are not trivial entertainment, but expressions of profound human emotions and indirect responses to very tangible realities. Both authors make clear that folk tales, urban legends and ghostly visitors carry heavy burdens of historical, spiritual and even theological significance—and they suggest that by analyzing them we can learn a great deal about ourselves.

…from the Sirens that tempted Odysseus to the demons Sarah Michelle Gellar faced down in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “Each age has its own particular fears,” Mr. Braudy writes, “and the history of horror is the history of the disquiets of the soul, the inner life, made public, taking on the colorations of the era in which they appear.”

If you are a subscriber, you can read the full review of Haunted and Ghostland in The Wall Street Journal.


The action most worth watching is not at the center of things

“…the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where the edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.”

Anne Fadiman in the preface to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down