Archive for February, 2010

A record: 140 pounds of books and two birds in a box

Friday, February 26th, 2010
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Glen Worthey and Chris Bourg discuss the topic of the day: books. (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

The Stanford Humanities Center held its annual “book celebration” on Tuesday, toting up the numbers for scholarly output.

The total take for humanities the last year was 114 physical books (and the laminated covers of two books that were unable to join the gathering), 9 binders of sheet music representing one digital publication of the 9 symphonies of Beethoven, 2 music CDs, 1 movie, 1 video weblink, 1 link to the Nine Symphonies of Beethoven (which is the same as the 9 binders of sheet music), 1 folder of playbills, and other material related to over 50 productions of a Mark Twain play (including one play in Romanian, video included), 1 scroll, and 1 box with two birds.
The total weight of all of this material (excluding the birds in the box) was a record 140 pounds. The total number of pages is a whopping 41,345. And this of course doesn’t count the hours of musical and video material – or the scroll and the birds in the box…

Last year’s total was 70 books, weighing  78.25 pounds and including 20,883 pages. So this is nearly an 80 percent increase in weight – and a 98 percent increase in pages. However, if you correct (as the economists say) for Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s 29 volume edition of the works of Mark Twain – the numbers adjust to 113 pounds and 29,314 pages — an increase of only 44 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

Stanford President John Hennessy was unpleasantly buoyed by the “incredibly prolific year,” nothing that “the humanities are truly extraordinary”:  “When the income goes down, the output goes up,” he crowed. After a little scholarly coughing around the room (much of it inaudible), German music scholar Stephen Hinton finally offered that “some of the projects may have been started in fatter times.”

In the spirit of university cost-cutting, the variety show style entertainment was “outsourced” to drama students, who had created to two sparky little songs on the perils of a life dedicated to the humanities.

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Derek Miller, right, and Mason Flink on piano entertain the crowd with songs lampooning the humanities as subject and profession at the humanities hoedown. Local luminaries were on hand: That's author Marilyn Yalom in the red coat, Aron Rodrigue next to her, Matthew Tiews behind them. John Hennessy is over Aron's shoulder, Stephen Hinton, next to him, looks unamused in a gold-colored shirt. Charles Junkerman listens as he quaffs his chardonnay. Joseph Frank, author of the acclaimed 5-volume Dostoevsky series, sits with his walker; wife Marguerite whispers to him. Dagmar Logie also keeps him company. John Felstiner, author of "Can Poetry Save the Earth?" stands in the doorway. (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

FYI: Bloggers are male, American, college-educated, lazy

Thursday, February 25th, 2010
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Who puts out the 133 million blogs out there in the blogosphere?  According to this report from intac, 2/3ds are male, 75 percent are college educated, nearly half are Americans, and more than a third are professional journalists.  Three-quarters spend ten hours a week or less on their blogs.

Guilty on several counts … but we can’t recall being asked…

Tonight! Still guilty at the Stanford Bookstore

Thursday, February 25th, 2010
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0804763615Herant Katchadourian will talk about guilt (what else?) at the Stanford Bookstore  tonight, at 6 p.m.  I wrote about Herant and his favorite topic last December, here.

Katchadourian, author of Guilt: The Bite of Conscience, is the first to study guilt from a wide variety of perspectives including those of psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, six major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism), four key moral philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Nietzsche), and the law.

Sounds heavy, but Katchadourian is fun. He is not against guilt — quite the contrary. He thinks it is “hardwired into us through evolution” and one of the ways of “maintaining ties with other people”:  “Excessive guilt is abnormal, but inadequate guilt makes you into a psychopath,” he said. “You shouldn’t overdo it, but there has to be an internal policeman.” He also notes that guilt is an equal opportunity employer:  it exists in all six major religions.  “This is not a monopoly — nobody has cornered the market.”

The event will include a reading and signing.

America’s colonial “power couple” a finalist for prize

Monday, February 22nd, 2010
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Edith Gelles

gellesJust in time for George Washington’s birthday:  Edith B. Gelles Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage has been named  one of three finalists for the $50,000 George Washington Book Prize — the largest prize for a book on early American history, and one of the largest literary prizes of any kind.  The judges noted that Gelles’s book is “not only a lively telling of a most important chapter in our nation’s history, but also – and appropriately – a romance.” Gelles began her research into the Adamses over thirty years ago and is the author of Abigail: Portia: The World of Abigail Adams (1992), a co-winner of the American Historical Association’s Herbert Feis Award, and Abigail Adams: A Writing Life (1998), an examination of Abigail’s life through her letters.

The two other finalists are Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution and R.B. Bernstein’s The Founding Fathers Reconsidered.  The winner will be named at a May 20 celebration at Mount Vernon.

Gelles wrote about the colonial “power couple” last year in a Daily Beast article here.

Take him up on his offer, Signor Segre

Sunday, February 21st, 2010
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segreJoseph Frank writes in The New Republic about Dan Vittorio Segre’s Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, republished by the University of Chicago Press two years ago.  (Frank is the author of a five-volume series on Dostoesky — I wrote about it here.)

“Why did the book strike me so forcibly? It is beautifully and sensitively written, but more importantly it traces the author’s remarkable journey from the very heights of Italian Fascist society to a kibbutz in pre-Israeli Palestine, and finally back to his native land as an officer in the Palestine (Jewish) regiment of the British Army.”

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Joseph Frank, and wife Marguerite (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

For Frank, it was part of an ongoing train of thought: “I had for a long time been struck by the differences between the anti-Semitism of Mussolini’s Fascism and that of Hitler’s Germany.  Why had the Italian variety been so much less severe and fanatical?”

Hannah Arendt explored the same question in her Eichmann in Jerusalem (a.k.a. The Banality of Evil): “Assimilation, that much abused word, was a sober fact in Italy.” That sober fact  included native Jews whose roots reached back into the Roman Empire. While in Denmark, Jewish lives were saved thanks to an elevated civic and moral sense, in Italy, she wrote that it was “the outcome of the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people.”

“Italian humanity, moreover, withstood the test of terror…” Arendt wrote that less than 10 percent of the 50,000 Jews living in Italy were killed — and the vast majority of those in the war’s panicky final months.  That is the lowest of any country in Europe, as I recall.

Frank would like to meet Segre.  “He is now head of the Institute of Mediterranean Studies in the Italian Swiss University of Luano.  Unfortunately, Google was unable to inform me whether he is still teaching.  But if he is, and I were a student, I would take the next train, plane, or boat to Lugano.”

Are you listening, Signor Segre?

UPDATE:  Signor Segre was indeed listening — even before we wrote this post.  Reply from Joseph Frank: “Dan Segre wrote me a very warm letter about my article and invited me to visit him in Switzerland.”  So is the nonagenarian professor — who, incidentally, was a friend of Arendt’s and thought the comments we cited were “absolutely perfect” — going to make the trek?  “I’m giving it serious thought if we get to Europe. And if you haven’t read the book, you should. It’s quite fascinating.”

(New podcast of Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky is up here.)

“Kotodama”

Friday, February 19th, 2010
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manyolusterKotodama: The spirit of language, the magical power that adheres to language.

In a nation where so few learn second languages, some may consider Ian Hideo Levy’s experience a  warning:  the Berkeley-born author picked up a passion for Japanese language and literature.  Then “a kind of crazy schizophrenic drive probably brought me to the point of writing Japanese.”

Now he holds the distinction of being the only gaijin to write award-winning books in Japanese.

“I haven’t spoken publicly in English for 20 years,” he told a largely Asian audience last week at the Humanities Center (20 years would put it back to the time he left a tenured position as a Stanford prof to move to Tokyo).  The audience laughed.  “This sounds like a very understanding audience, so I think this will go well.”

“I’ve said in lectures in Japan, when I was in my twenties if there if were a pill I could take to become a Japanese writer, I would have taken it.” Instead, he said, “it was a process that went on for twenty years.”

It seems “kind of silly and stupid” to him now.  Recalling his youthful illusions, he said, “I probably had a very arrogant feeling that I could become what people around me described as ‘Japanese.’  My sincerity, my youth, allowed me to believe this would happen,” he said.

“It was probably a very impure desire, from point of view of language.  I’ve gone beyond that.”

He settled for translation at first:  He began work on Man’yōshū (万葉集 “The 10,000  Leaves”), with its waka, an ancient form of poetry in a 7-5-7-5 syllabic 51qEDT6fXhL._AA240_pattern.  “Part of me was in the 7th and 8th century, the other part of me was in late 20th century Tokyo,”  he recalled.

But one voice stood out at about the point when he began to run out of “stock deification words” for describing the court rituals with the emperor-god.  “Once you go to heaven you may do as you please, but on earth, you do as the emperor wishes” almost jumped from the page. The words belonged not to the ritual Japanese praise, but to Asian continental thought — and to the 8th century poet who wrote them.

Kotodama had led him through time to a kindred spirit: the early poet Yamanoue no Okura (660–733 A.D.).  Recent research has revealed that the famous Japanese composer of court waka was, in fact, Korean – so Levy isn’t the first acclaimed gaijin writer.

His translation of the Japan’s masterpiece  anthology earned him a National Book Award in 1982.
It also led to an unanticipated consequence:  the author Kenji Nakagami wrote that Levy’s writing was good, but that he should write in Japanese next.

So he did. His debut novel in Japanese, Seijoki no kikoenai heya (A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot be Heard) received the Noma Prize for New Writers in 1992.  Other awards followed:  the Osaragi Jiro Prize for Chiji ni kudakete in 2005; the Japan Foundation Special Prize for Japanese Language in 2007, and the Ito Sei Prize for Literature for Kari no mizu last year.

“One begins writing because one reads something, and one wants to try oneself and see if one can write,” he said, in his slightly formal diction that is no longer quite at ease before English-speakers.

Now he’s reached a new turning point: “One who was a translator has become translated.” He just signed a contract for the first Chinese translation of his work.

And a forthcoming English translation of Levy’s debut novel, translated as Ando’s Room and Other Stories, by Christopher Scott, is forthcoming.

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“Spoiled Avocado Professor” and the “six-foot tall first-generation Turkish woman”

Thursday, February 18th, 2010
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More reviews of Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them — in New York magazine here, and The New York Times here.

UPDATE:  Reviews of The Professor pouring from the MSM in a Vesuvial flow:

  • At the New Republic here.
  • At Canada’s National Post here.
  • And the Huffington Post picked up the San Francisco Chronicle review here.
  • And there’s a podcast from a Santa Cruz radio interview here.

(New Republic review off the “wow” meter: “The Professor goes places no book ever written about professors has ever gone. And it understands more about the academic vocation, and the art of self-examination, than the shelf of grave and socially responsible studies of and by professors that have appeared in recent years. It is a superb weapon for tearing up that soul-destroying cardboard figure of fun its title names.”)

Meanwhile, Elif Batuman is guest-posting at the New Yorker here.

UPDATE:

And … and … and … Batuman’s book is reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle here:  ” … Batuman’s collection of ‘many unclear purposes’ is comic and baggy and wayward…”

ANOTHER UPDATE:

And here in the Christian Science Monitor:  “Part sleuth, part pundit, Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it”:

When a colleague maintains that Babel’s “Red Cavalry” cycle would never be totally accessible to her because of its “specifically Jewish alienation,” Batuman responds, “Right…. As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.” It goes right over his head.

Literary gerrymandering

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
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Edelstein (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

Interesting discussion at Inside Higher Ed about “Gerrymandering the Canon” here. Dan Edelstein decries a recent comment in a New York Review of Books article by Harold Bloom:

“’In the two centuries since Byron died in Greece [...] only Shakespeare has been translated and read more, first on the Continent and then worldwide.’ Bloom does not cite any statistics, and one cannot help but wonder: Really? More than Homer and Dante, or, among the moderns, more than Sartre and Thomas Mann? Of course, what Bloom really means is that Byron was translated and read more than any other English writer, and he may well be correct on that count. Yet this omission is telling, as it highlights an unfortunate tendency (recently diagnosed by David Damrosch) among certain English professors to equate literature in general with literature written in English.  …  this pattern also raises a larger academic question: Why do we still partition the literary canon according to nationalist traditions? Is this really the most intellectually satisfying and authentic approach to literary studies?”

The letters are piling up for the piece — one raises the obvious rejoinder that translated works have been considered as the second-class baggage of lit courses, with too much lost in translation to make the effort worthwhile.  And of course foreign language departments often refuse to teach works of world literature other than in the target language — in other words, you have to learn Japanese to get Tale of Genji.

Cheer up.  It could get worse.  Robertson Davies satirized “Amcan” literature programs across his native Canada. The literary Balkanization has not gotten as bad as that.  At least not yet.

(By the by, I’ve written about Edelstein’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project here.)

Never knew literary conferences could be so lively…

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
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Isaac Babel

Literary conferences are mostly staid affairs, opportunities for academics to exhibit themselves.  But not always.

I discussed Elif Batuman’s book a few days ago here.  Her new book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was reviewed yesterday in the Los Angeles Times here.  Clearly, I should have made an effort to attend The Enigma of Isaac Babel: International Conference, held almost exactly six years ago.  A few highlights from that memorable event:

“Babel in California” tells how Batuman fell in love with Isaac Babel, the most electric of Russian writers, then shows that idealized literary love bumping up against actual life in the hilarious, chastening shape of a Babel conference at Stanford organized by her mentor, the great Babelogist Grisha Freidin. Batuman helps with an exhibit and discovers in the bowels of Stanford’s Hoover library a true wonderland of previously hidden connections between Babel and the 1933 movie “King Kong.” She’s sent to the airport to pick up Babel’s second wife and one of his daughters, two tired Russian women who keep firing questions about the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, a tiny stuffed Eeyore wearing a tiger suit, hanging from the mirror of the car that Batuman is driving.

Conference panels end in pandemonium; Russian scholars, upset by the presence of two Chinese filmmakers preparing a script from Babel elif2stories, mutter “We don’t mess with your ‘I-Ching’ “; and there’s a dinner “straight out of Dostoyevsky” in which Batuman and Freidin get the evil eye from a vain English translator in whose acclaimed Babel collection edition they have discovered mistakes. Yet even this isn’t the marvelous climax of the dinner, which comes when Babel’s daughter by his first wife stares at Babel’s second wife and shouts “THAT OLD WITCH WILL BURY US ALL.”

The writer, Richard Rayner, describes Babel as “the most electric of Russian writers.”  Not sure it’s the adjective I would have chosen (more electric than, say, Tsvetaeva?)  I wrote about Grisha Freidin’s work on the doomed Soviet writer today here.  See what you think.

The upshot:  Rayner praise’s Batuman’s “dazzling flair and originality”:  “If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book.”

When writers are sued, who pays? (cont.)

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010
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Some of you may recall my post about Carol Loeb Shloss, author of Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wakehere.

Shloss was triumphant in her David-and-Goliath case against the James Joyce estate, which I wrote about here.  The battle-scarred, but victorious scholar wrote an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, in part, argued that universities might consider footing the tab when their scholars face fair-use  lawsuits for their scholarship.

In two letters, academia responds.  The lawyers at the University of North Florida argued that university undertake legal defense when they have a stake in the output — for example, when they own patents.  Hence, the question is one of ownership.  Similarly, Pennsylvania State University Press argues that scholars might reconsider whether they want to risk having their output classified as “works made for hire” by the university. Sandy Thatcher, of the press, also had a lively role in the comment section of the Chronicle of Higher Ed article.

In any case, the Florida law folks agree that the situation is “lamentable” for scholars who face litigious literary behemoths.  So we’ll probably be hearing about the issue for some time to come.