Media Diet: Barbara Ehrenreich

A social critic tackles the big questions


| May-June 1997



Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most prolific cultural thinkers of our time. An essayist, novelist, and columnist, she writes regularly for Time and the Guardian of London and is the author of many books, including the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (HarperCollins, 1990). In her new book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Henry Holt, $25), she explores the history of human beings as warriors. Full of compelling insight and detail, Blood Rites challenges deeply held assumptions about our propensity for violence, which Ehrenreich sees as rooted not in innate human bloodthirstiness, but in a worthy desire to defend family and clan.

Assistant editor Rebecca Scheib spoke with her about this 11-year project and more.

What are the magazines that you can’t live without?
The Nation is the one that I rely on most directly—to find out, in part, what some friends of mine, like Katha Pollitt, and other people I respect are thinking about issues of the week. My secret pleasure is reading magazines like Archeology and Scientific American. I was educated as a biologist, so science is my little parallel life.

If you could own only three books, what would they be?
They wouldn’t be fiction, because if you can only have three books, they’d better be pretty substantial. One book I have always set aside to read cover to cover some day is the Bible. I remember once reading that when Winnie Mandela was in prison, the only book she could have was the Bible. And that made me think I’d better hold off on reading it for now, so that if I ever get locked up there will be plenty of unforeseen plot twists to keep me entertained.

Which artists, writers, and thinkers have influenced you?
My interests are varied, so there have been different books that have stood out at different times, but they don’t really add up to a canon. Years ago, I was influenced by—or at least impressed by—Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death and Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. In recent years, it has been books that have something to do with war and sacred forms of violence. I was much influenced by Rene Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred.It was the first thing that I read about the subject, though now I know there are other books that lay out how much violence is at the core of what we think of as religion.

If you could create one law, what would it be?
This is a hard one, because usually I think of which laws I would like to see abolished. The obvious socially responsible law would be one that said every corporation had to have some of its rank-and-file workers, some of its customers, and representatives of the communities that it affects on its board of directors. We might want to question the very existence of corporations, the idea that some people can hide behind this fictional person, the Corporation, and not have to take responsibility for what it does.