On the Shelf: Sue Halpern

The week’s recommended reading and culture from Orion authors and artists.

In the past decade or so it has become commonplace to highlight a distinction between local and global. “Think globally, act locally,” we like to say. Local is where we live. It is where we know. Global is out there somewhere else. It’s people we don’t know, populating landscapes where we’ve never been. Arguably, the real value of travel is not boots on the ground, or exotic meals, or the photos and memories we bring back. The real value is empathy, which is necessary to be able to think globally and even act it.

These distinctions are on my mind a lot these days, now that I’ve become the editor of an electronic books imprint at the New York Review of Books called NYRB Lit. With a mandate to find books that traditional U.S. publishing has bypassed, I’ve found myself reading literature from countries such as the Philippines, New Zealand, Switzerland, India, and Israel to name just a few. Last week, we published the memoir of a young Lebanese woman, Zena el Khalil, a visual artist and current TED fellow called “Beirut, I Love You,” who writes about coming of age in a city where on one block the club kids are dancing to techno music and getting high, while one street over, the militia kids are shooting at each other with similar abandon. Who knew?

And who of us who grew up in suburban America knew how raucous and rancorous and entertaining it might be to be raised in a Mumbai tenement, as Ravan and Eddie, two of the characters in another book in the NYRB Lit series, have been? In the past year, reading scores of books, I’ve traveled far, keeping my carbon footprint light. That’s important, of course, but so is being able to read the newspaper and feel a connection to what is happening in Aleppo or Manila. Books—novels, in my case—do this.

Lately I’ve been listening to a fantastic podcast produced by KCRW called “Strangers.” I’m drawn to stories of random encounters, which probably explains why I get excited when the postmistress hands over a new box of books whose contents are as much a mystery as the places from which they’ve come.

Sue Halpern is the author of five books, with another forthcoming, and the editor of NYRB Lit, a digital imprint of The New York Review of Books. Her conversation with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, “The Independent,” appears in the September/October 2012 issue of Orion.