Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of Jan. 7th, 2008

Doc Humes is back. The late, legendary co-founder of The Paris Review and one-man pharmacological research lab is the subject of a documentary by his daughter, Immy Humes (opening in New York on Jan. 23 at the Film Forum); and his two cult novels from the late 1950’s, The Underground City (Random House, $15.95) and Men Die (Random House, $13.95), have been reprinted as handsome paperbacks—you’ll find them under “H.L. Humes” at your neighborhood bookstore. Here’s the first paragraph of his first novel, a view from an airplane approaching Paris (setting of The Underground City) on a cold January dawn: “The eastern sun, full and fiery orange, just risen clear of the horizon, began slowly to sink back into the gray ocean of clouds as the plane started down; the sky altered; clouds changed aspects. To the southeast, delicate as frozen breath, an icy herd of mare’s tails rode high and sparkling in the upper light of the vanishing sun; they were veiled in crystalline haze as the plane descended through stratocirrus, the sun in iridescent halo at its disappearing upper limb. And below, slowly rising closer, the soft floor of carpeting clouds gradually changed into an ugly boil of endless gray billows, ominous, huge. Against the east, rayed out in a vast standing fan: five fingers of the plummeting sun. …” Nice—and you can see why Doc’s old pal Peter Matthiessen calls it “heroically overwritten.”

OH, GOD—another God book. Slot this one near the middle of the now very long shelf that stretches from Christopher Hitchens to Mother Teresa—it wants to claim the narrow, contested patch of ground “between the fanaticism of some … and the nihilism of others.” Not surprisingly, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (Viking, $19.95) is mildly, calmly argued. What I found most peculiar is not that André Comte-Sponville, a French philosopher and committed atheist, should go to bat for spirituality, but that his rhapsodic description of a God-free mystical experience (it happened at night, in a forest, when he was about 25) eerily echoes the famous in-the-woods passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature.” The Frenchman found that his “ego had vanished”; Emerson found that “all mean egotism vanishes.” The difference, of course, is that the American also claimed to have become “a transparent eye-ball” (immortal phrase)—and “part or particle of God.”

WE HAVE MET the enemy and he is us: Daniel J. Solove’s frightening The Future of Reputation (Yale, $24) explores how the very human tendency to gossip and spread rumor is amplified by technology: Tittle-tattle is exponentially more powerful and damaging when blogged on the Internet. Though Mr. Solove worries about our sharp, wagging tongues and our eagerness to cast the first stone, he also points out the danger we pose to ourselves, the trap we set for ourselves with every item of personal data we post on the Web. He calls it “the self-exposure problem.” In my house, we call it Facebook.