Archive for November, 2019

Happy birthday to the Book Haven! We’re ten years old!

Saturday, November 30th, 2019
Share

We began on November 19, 2009. And we’ve been going ever since. For years we’ve anticipated this special tenth anniversary (alright, alright, we’re eleven days late; we’ve been busy).

What did we imagine? We had envisioned champers and brie and little pink cakes! We had hoped for international acclaim and cybercards and cyberroses … oh well, why bother? Instead: one solitary woman at a computer, cranking out books and articles (and even the occasional blogpost) faster than any reasonable person should.

However, the occasion of our tenth anniversary was not entirely unmarked. The Book Haven has made it’s debut appearance in The Smithsonian Magazinewith this paragraph in the current issue, on a subject we know startlingly little about. It generated a scholarly query last week in my inbox, so it’s good to know our July 11, 2018, post is getting some attention

The end result, according to a blog post by Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven, was a masterful collection of 1,299 gouaches, 340 transparent text overlays and a total of 32,000 words. One painting finds the artist cuddling in bed with her mother; another shows a seemingly endless parade of Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Germany’s chancellor while swastikas swirl above their heads.

Maybe next year?

Read more here.

What else has happened, since we last wrote about ourselves, five years ago, here? Some time ago, we hit a record high of 45,000 hits in a month. However, gone are the days when we used to wake up in the morning, pull the laptop out from under the bed, and compulsively check our numbers on Google Analytics. We have our following, and we get our bouquets and our punches … and our letters. Like this one a few days ago, from the U.K.: “I am just writing a very quick thank you for introducing Edna St Vincent Millay to me. I had been searching for Sara Teasdale and found a wonderful article written by you at The Book Haven. If it wasn’t for your article I wouldn’t  have found and fallen in love with Edna.” We’re glad you did, sir!

This year alone: We’ve posted on the controversy surrounding the Stanford University Press here and here. After the death of the notable Johns Hopkins polymath and bibliophile Richard Macksey, we were quoted in The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun and wrote about his passing here and here and here. We’ve forged a partnership with The Los Angeles Review of Books to create an Entitled Opinions channel, as well as a series of articles.

Books, books, books. We’ve written about many books. We wrote about our debut in Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Nation, plus reviews of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. (Too many to list – put it in the Book Haven search engine). Plus… we were named a 2018-19 National Endowment for the Humanities public scholar, the inaugural Milton Cottage resident, and oohhh, so much more.

Sorry, maybe for 2020.

The Book Haven broke the national news of President Trump‘s plans to scuttle the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts – but other media outlets were close on our heels. We memorialized fallen greats at Stanford, many of them friends: Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and theater director and Brecht protégée Carl Weber, French intellectual Michel Serres and Milton Scholar Martin Evans, and of course, the French theorist René Girard. And, this month, another cherished friend, the French scholar Marilyn Yalom.

The Book Haven has taken you to Bergen, Sigtuna and Stockholm, Kraków and London, Warsaw, Paris, and Avignon, among other locales.

We’ve described how we brought about the acquisition of Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky Papers at Stanford, and our debut on Russian TV … and later the acquisition of Russian poet Regina Derieva‘s papers.

We’re still here. So many excellent blogs and online journals have folded – Elegant Variation, House of Mirth, Bookslut – and journals, too, such as Quarterly Conversation and Smart Set. We’re still here, and looking forward, in six weeks time, in joining you for the brand new decade for all of us.

C’mon, December, we’re ready to take you on – to the end of the year and beyond. Our vision going forward is 2020.

Happy birthday to us! Long may we live!

René Girard in Europe’s prestigious “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”!

Monday, November 25th, 2019
Share

Usually gifts are for Christmas and not Thanksgiving, but I’m getting my presents early! My article on René Girard was published over the weekend at Neue Zürcher Zeitung, one of Europe’s leading newspapers. The article (in German) is here. Or below, if you can read the tiny, tiny type.

There’s more: Not only did the article look handsome on the page, but it was also presented on the cultural channel of the Swiss radio, which chooses an article from the Swiss/German press every morning and discusses it to bring it to the attention of potential readers.

Matching wits with Marilyn Yalom in Palo Alto: a game of chess in 2004

Friday, November 22nd, 2019
Share

How did the queen become so powerful? (Photo: Chris Stewart//San Francisco Chronicle)

No sooner did I tweet the news of author and French scholar Marilyn Yalom‘s death on Twitter, than lit critic John McMurtrie, formerly book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted right back. (See below.)

Since her death, a few people have asked me which is my favorite of Marilyn’s books. After John’s tweet, I think the answer would have to be the one I haven’t read yet: The Birth of the Chess QueenThat’s because of his story in the Chronicle fifteen years ago.

His charming tale of a memorable match in Palo Alto begins:

The chessboard before me is full, and my mind, it so happens, is suddenly a blank.

“My, these are nice-looking pieces,” I think to myself in a daze, scanning the dignified Nordic figures in this replica of the famous “Lewis chessmen” set from the Middle Ages. My pieces have their backs turned to me and they’re ready to enter the breach at my command. Now if I can only pull my thoughts together and put these little warriors in the right squares.

My opponent makes her first move. Here we go – time to kiss my kingdom goodbye.

On the opposite side of the board is Marilyn Yalom, the author of “Birth of the Chess Queen: A History” (HarperCollins, $24.95). The book explores the rise of the game’s queen vis-a-vis the rise of real queens in Europe. Yalom says she doesn’t play the game well, but surely she must be understating her prowess: She’s a senior scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Women and Gender who just wrote an entire book on chess. My knowledge of the game, on the other hand, never progressed much beyond childhood “matches” on the beach, when all it took to put an end to a game was the arrival of another game – any other game.

But there was no getting out of this match today. A challenge was laid down (silly me), and e-mail and phone calls were exchanged. As with war, once the plans have been drawn up, there is no easy way to back down. This battle was going to be waged.

Yalom, 72, stumbled upon this bit of knowledge six years ago and was intrigued. Many historians have written about the game’s evolution, she says, “but they’re not asking the questions that I’m asking.” Namely, what outside forces helped put a woman on the board, then made her the most powerful piece in the game?

In the midst of the chess game, John recalls “getting lost looking out the big back window of Yalom’s spacious house, taking in the soothing sounds of a nearby rooster. Amazing that one can be in Palo Alto, not far from Stanford, and still hear farm animals.” And it’s still that way. The redwood-and-stone home is where a reception after was held after her funeral today. She will be much missed. Read the rest of John’s story here

Matching wits at the July 23, 2004, game. (Photo: Chris Stewart//San Francisco Chronicle)

Remarkable spirit: remembering scholar, author, feminist Marilyn Yalom (1932-2019)

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
Share

In the pink: signing books at Kepler’s. (Photo: Margo Davis)

Marilyn Yalom, a popular French scholar and author, a founder of feminist studies at Stanford, and beloved wife of the celebrated author and psychiatrist Irv Yalom, died this morning of myeloma. She was 87.

Her illness was swift, but long enough for friends to express their love and appreciation. On September 1, a surprise party was held at her home by women writers who were part of her Bay Area women writers’ salon. A book of letters was presented to her then from the  salonnières.

Marie-Pierre Ulloa, a lecturer in Stanford’s French and Italian Department, also collected letters for a book, this time from the Stanford community. The fate of the book, which was presented to Marilyn in unfinished form a few days ago, remains up in the air, but Marie-Pierre is allowing me to publish my contribution here, as a sort of eulogy.

Dearest Marilyn,

You don’t remember our first meeting, so I’ll remind you: in 1983, I interviewed you to discuss your anthology, Women Writers of the West Coast.

The setting was your charming home on Matadero Avenue, though I have few memories of the house that would eventually become so familiar to me. I disappeared from your life then, and returned nearly a quarter century later, when the legendary Diane Middlebrook died in 2007, and I somewhat timidly joined the Bay Area women writers salon that had become your own endeavor, extending the note that your closest friend had sounded.

Working on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, I came to know your academic beginnings as the French theorist’s first graduate student: a young woman in a high-powered program at Johns Hopkins, arriving in 1957. “The dedication to our work was, for me, beyond anything I had experienced at Wellesley or Columbia or the Sorbonne,” you told me. “We were true believers. The life of Johns Hopkins was the life of a scholar.” You received your doctorate with distinction. We would talk meet again in the redwood and stone home nestled among the oaks and tall pines – sometimes taking tea in Wedgwood cups, among the hundreds of books, the Balinese masks, the framed art photographs, and a serene Buddha; at other times, sharing a glass of your son Reid’s Cabernet at night, as we waited for your husband Irv to return home from a meeting.

We spoke about your years as a harried graduate student and mother of several children, living in the housing assigned to young psychiatrists in residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In that era of more limited expectations for women, perhaps few anticipated that you would become such a popular and acclaimed author in your own right, with a shelf of books to your credit. Our friendship ripened during the years you published How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance (HarperCollins, 2012) and then The Amorous Heart in 2018, a few months before my own book. I attended your public events for it, at Kepler’s, at the Stanford Humanities Center, and wrote about them (here and here).

That was the public part. But then there was the unseen part, the salon part: encouraging women to write; guiding their publishing decisions; coaching them to absorb your own authorial dignity and tact, though few of us mastered those lessons as well as you had. You even persuaded a few of us to get top-notch author’s photos from another friend, the notable photographer Margo Davis. At each gathering on Matadero or at your apartment in the City, the salonnières would describe our most recent triumphs and challenges, and one of two of us would present our newly published books. You did more: I remember the launch party for Evolution of Desire, with cases of fine French wine, guests from around the world, and armloads of orchids from my garden – and a special guest, the French consul Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens. You encouraged us to keep writing, keep writing, keep writing, as you did.

And as you do still. Even now, you are writing a book with Irv, jointly documenting this last year of your journey together, a story that began when you were teenagers in Washington D.C. In our most recent phone call a week or two ago, you assured me that illness had not stopped your work. You are still working on the manuscript, together.

I describe all this because it is an inspiring model for all of us. Your lifetime’s effort will live through us, and touch so many others who will never have a chance to meet you. I want it to be remembered, beyond this year and beyond Stanford. There is no one like you, and no one will take your place. Our gratitude to you is deep, and our love deeper still.

Postscript: One thing I should have written, and didn’t: She was a class act, a woman of extraordinary poise, graciousness, and charm.

A surprise party for Marilyn at her Palo Alto home in xxx. (Photo: Reid Yalom)

 

Emily Dickinson desecrated in biopic, George Eliot reworked in a novel.

Monday, November 18th, 2019
Share

Will the real Emily Dickinson stand up? And hurry.

Can’t we just leave her alone? Poet A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here and here) is not amused by the new re-creations of the life of Emily Dickinson. And he says so in the current issue of The Commentary, where he writes: 

“’Tis the season for digging up and desecrating Emily Dickinson. First came last year’s Wild Nights with Emily, a flimsy film starring Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon, which the Washington Post said threatened “to reduce the writer’s life to the punchline of a literary version of Rodney Dangerfield.” Now the perpetrator is Apple TV’s 10 half-hour episodes of its strange new series, Dickinson.”

I haven’t seen it, and for good reason. I avoided it. Mike Juster was not so wise, but we share a common grievance:

Definitely not this.

Read the whole thing here.

Over at the Financial Times  reviews a fictional retelling of the author of Middlemarch and her vexed love life:

In this compelling fictional reworking of George Eliot’s later life, her second husband John Cross orders champagne on his wedding night with the words: “I want the best, because I have the best. I am married to the best.”

But by the time we reach their honeymoon in 1880, towards the end of the novel, Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s tender and haunting study suggests that for those who are acclaimed as the best, the most brilliant and most visionary, relationships can be fraught with misunderstanding.

Was it only men? Hardly. her charm apparently transfixed women as well: 

Not that she was short of female companionship. In Love with George Eliot recreates with touching, sometimes excruciating, precision the devotion that Evans inspired and expected from other women. “Nearly worshipful” is the look that her adoring friend Maria Congreve gives her, while poor Edith Simcox, the feminist writer who fell hopelessly for Evans and assiduously kept the George Eliot flame burning for years after her idol died, is consumed for the rest of her life by her “hungry love”.

Read the whole thing in the Financial Times here.

With author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt on the Baltic: “Literature teaches us how elaborate and intricate the human heart is.”

Saturday, November 16th, 2019
Share

Sopot on the Baltic. Czesław Miłosz Square at left. (All photos by Zygmunt Malinowski)

Our New York City based reporter/photographer Zygmunt Malinowski reports on literary events from Sopot, a city on the Baltic Coast. (Czesław Miłosz lived there at war’s end – Zygmunt documented that history here.) Our correspondent wrote to us earlier this fall, so we’re late getting this summertime post up. But on the brink of winter now, maybe it’s time to imagine yourself in the warm summer breezes off the sea… listening to a conversation with a writer not much discussed on this side of the Atlantic. (All photographs copyright Zygmunt Malinowski, of course.)

Schmitt with interviewer Katarzyna Janowska and translator

Summer on the Baltic is much cooler than in the States, and it’s very relaxing to spend a couple of hours with feet in the sand, in the shade with a light alcoholic drink, pleasant music, and a view of the beach and the sea in the background.

On the way to an open-air beach café in the Polish city of Sopot, I stopped to take a look at a gazette that I picked up at a kiosk. Literacki Sopot (Literary Sopot) featured a cover story about Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, a very popular European writer who lives in Belgium. Schmitt has written over fifty novels, short stories, and plays in French that have been translated into forty-six languages. He has been awarded the prestigious Prix Goncord.

He was scheduled for an onstage conversation that very day, within about half an hour. I immediately changed my plans. When I got to the town square and the National Gallery of Art where the interview was to take place, there was already a line of people waiting to get in. By the time I walked up the stairs, the spacious hall was filled.

His most famous book, Oscar and the Lady in Pink,  is part of his Cycle de l’invisble series, about a terminally ill boy who is encouraged by a hospital volunteer to live out his last twelve days as if each day were ten years long, is part of school curricula and has been adapted into a film. Among French readers, some place Oscar and the Pink Lady among the influential works, along with the Bible, Three Musketeers, and The Little Prince.

The line for the book signing at the National Gallery of Art

His latest book, Madame Pylinska and the Secret of Chopin is partly autobiographical. When Schmitt was nine years old, he discovered Chopin, fell in love with his music, and took piano lessons.

In later years,  an eccentric Madame Pylinska (a fictitious name based on a real person) tried to enlighten him about the mystery of Chopin. In one of the lessons, she instructed Schmitt to go to Luxemburg Park in the morning and pick flowers in such a way that the dewdrops would not fall off the petals. Chopin’s “own performances were know for their nuance and sensitivity,” she said. Schmitt’s pursuit and struggle of how to play Chopin did not make him the musician he envisioned but he learned instead how to be a better writer.

After a short introduction at the National Gallery, the interview turned to the obvious question about the author’s new book, although on a broader terms: What is the secret of art and where is its mystery?

Said Schmitt,  who has a PhD in philosophy: “Philosophy tries to explain life, art celebrates life. Paintings teach us how to observe the world; music how to listen to the world. Literature teaches us how elaborate and intricate the human heart is – our soul.

“In general, art does not help us to understand our world because there are matters that do not need to be understood. We need to learn how to interpret this life.”

Then he circled back to his book: “When I ask Madame Pylinska at the end of the book what is the secret of Chopin, she replies that it’s not possible to explain all of the secrets. We need to experience them because they are capable of enriching our lives. A beautiful life is a life where there are mysteries, and we need to live with these mysteries. We cannot resolve them all. It’s a bit dangerous for us, for interpretation of our life. Life is a mystery, every person is a mystery, to love is a mystery. We should live with these mysteries, be with them. Whenever we live in the illusion, the desire that we should understand all, than our life becomes very flat. If we accept its mysteries then life is full, people are full.”

“The beautiful life is not a life where there is no sadness,” he said.

The National Gallery of Art where the onstage interview happened.

It’s been 70 years since Europe’s last pogrom. Kielce is beginning to face its past. “Bogdan’s Journey” is the reason why.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
Share

Poland’s Kielce was the site of Europe’s last Jewish pogrom – only a year after World War II ended. In 1946, the city’s militia, soldiers and ordinary townspeople killed more than forty Holocaust survivors seeking shelter in a downtown building and injured eighty more around the city. As news of the pogrom spread across Poland, Jews fled the country. The Kielce pogrom became a symbol of Polish post-war anti-Semitism in the Jewish world. Under communism, the pogrom was a forbidden subject in Poland, but the event was never forgotten.

Sixty years later, Bogdan Białek, a Catholic Pole, psychologist, and journalist, began to talk publicly about the darkest moment of the city’s past, persuading the people of Kielce to confront its terrible history. He began alone, but attracted others as he went along. Together, they cut through the miasma of repression and denial in the city’s competing narratives, unveiling his fellow citizens’ deepest prejudices. He worked to reconnect Kielce with the outside Jewish community. Bogdan’s Journey tells his story, and took almost a decade to film.

Bogdan’s Journey tells a unique story about one man and how he redeems seventy years of bitter, contested memories – by telling the truth with love. This film contains subtitles.

Białek will attend the Santa Clara University screening on November 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the St. Clare Room in the library. Afterwards, there will be an onstage conversation with Bialek and the co-directors of the film, Michal Jaskulski of Warsaw, and Lawrence Loewinger of New York.

In 1946, Kielce’s city’s militia, soldiers and ordinary townspeople killed more than 40 Holocaust survivors seeking shelter. It never recovered. Can one man heal a community? The film will screen next Tuesday, 7 p.m., at Santa Clara University. Bogdan will be there. (Trailer included.)

Postscript: And thanks, as always, to George Jansen for his vigilant eyes.

“All I Have is What I Have Given Away”: an encounter with Dante, a reading with Robert Pinsky, and a Roman friendship

Monday, November 11th, 2019
Share

“When my time comes, I want to die here. Here on this ground.” (Photo: Patrick Troccolo)

“All I Have Is What I Have Given Away,” a smooth, enchanting, and elegant tale, is up at The Commonan Amherst journal. I am proud of my small role in encouraging its publication. Susan Troccolo tells the story of a meeting in Rome with an educator and Dantista who had been imprisoned as part of Italy’s WWII resistance. The encounter, decades ago, changed her life:

On that bright morning in November—the first day I saw her—Anna Lea Lelli wore the outfit that distinguished her on the streets of Rome: a long cape and beret. The beret emphasized her craggy jaw and prominent Roman nose. Under her Scottish wool cape, Lea wore a gray suit in gabardine and a cream-colored silk blouse with French cuffs and pearl cufflinks. Just the right amount of cuff showed under the suit, no doubt perfectly tailored to her years ago. At her neck was a silk scarf, on her hand a carnelian ring carved with the face of Mars. She held a cane with the silver head of a horse, the patina worn from the warmth and pressure of her hand.

At the Forum together (Photo: Patrick Troccolo)

I don’t know why I was drawn to her that day in Rome. She was eighty-three years old. I was thirty-two. We were clearly from different worlds, with nothing apparent in common. My husband and I had gone to live in Rome for what we thought would be one whirlwind year. Now that year had passed, and I felt I hadn’t really touched the heart of the place. I was in love with Italy, and wholly taken with the music of the language, but I wanted something deeper from my experience. …

It was only during our second visit that Lea began to inquire about my Italian studies. She could hear that I was a beginner, she said, but my accent was very natural. She studied me again with that penetrating gaze I never got used to and, in her refined English, said, “We have a space for you in the Dante class that meets here every Monday.” Motioning to me to pour her another cup of tea, she said, “You are young, but you have the quality of devotion. Devotion matters to Dante.”

We sipped our tea in silence for a moment. Her compliment had been unexpected, and it made me thoughtful. What did she mean by “devotion”What kind of devotion could a Dante class possibly require? As if she had heard the voice inside my head, Lea explained just how devoted I’d need to be: “You must first learn Italian. Then you will begin to learn the Italian of Dante. Our class meets once a week for three hours. Of course, the class must go on for three years, a canto a week….” Lea’s voice dropped low, as if she knew she might scare me off.

Susan sent me a draft of the story ages ago, and I helped with editorial suggestions. However, there is a coda to the story that didn’t survive the final cut. Since I know the cast of characters –both Robert Pinsky and Susan – I thought I’d include it here. Susan continued:

In November 1998, Robert Pinsky, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate at the time, did a reading at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. A few years earlier, he had completed a new bilingual verse translation of Dante’s masterpiece called The Inferno of Dante.

I arrived early and sat in the third row, with Pinsky’s new book in my hands and the sales slip as a bookmark. The reading was drawing a big crowd—a staffer was setting up extra chairs so everyone could have a seat.

Pinsky (Photo: J. van Otteren)

Robert Pinsky arrived and began to set up at the lectern. He was a handsome man with dark brooding eyes—heavy lidded with thick brows. Dante could have picked him personally from beyond the grave to represent his words.

The reading began and then Pinsky said something that floored me: he said he didn’t speak Italian. Yes, he could read Italian, as a poet, he could do a fresh translation.

But the real music of the language was something he could not lay claim to. Was there anyone here in this crowd who could read the original before he read his translation?

I froze. My mind raced and the book almost fell from my hands. What if I didn’t raise my hand? What if I let an opportunity like this pass by? Lea would never forgive me.

I raised my hand.

What happened next lives in a sun-lit corner of my mind. It lasted ten minutes. I recited what Pinsky pointed out in his copy, then he took back his book and read the English. Then, I showed him my favorite passages and recited them as music, as Lea had taught me. No book. Robert Pinsky replied with his magnificent translation.

After our reading, the line to have Mr. Pinsky sign his book was long. While we waited—all of us poetry lovers—people came up to me.

“You know, I didn’t understand you, but I did understand you, do you know what I mean?” Someone else said: “I think this is the first time I’ve ever really known that poetry is music.”

When my turn came, I thanked Mr. Pinsky for allowing me to share Dante with him. He was warm and enthusiastic: “Where do you teach? I don’t hear Dante like that. Where do you teach?” he repeated.

“I don’t teach, but you see…I had this friend…..in Rome…”

Read the whole story here. Or watch the video, filmed in Rome, 1990, and aired on San Francisco public television KQED. Part 1 on Youtube is here. Part 2 is here. Or stay put and watch the Vimeo clip below. (The video quality has not borne the burdens of time well – the youtube quality is a better than the short Vimeo clip below – but it will give you a taste.)

Omaggio: A Portrait of Anna Lea Lelli from Digital Bindery on Vimeo.

Director at JHU Press: “Stanford has a great university press. It’s not clear the Stanford committee believes this.”

Saturday, November 9th, 2019
Share

Britton on Twitter. Call him “His Dudeness.”

Last June, the Book Haven reported on some remarkable developments at Stanford University Press. We wrote about it here:

Passions ran high and emotions were raw at yesterday’s Stanford Faculty Senate meeting, which had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the crowd. One faculty said that the fury around this issue was unlike anything he’d seen at Stanford in more than a decade.

A recap: The university decided to terminate its support of Stanford University Press, which had been given $1.7 million supplements for several years. The amount, as many pointed out at the meeting, is chump change, about .027% of Stanford’s annual operating budget. The move, seeking to make the press “sustainable,” spurred national and international outcry and letters from thirteen Stanford departments, schools, and programs and sixteen letters from national and international learned societies, as well as extensive press coverage (including The Chronicle of Higher Education here). The controversy has been discussed on the Book Haven here and here and here.

Now the report from Stanford’s Office of the Provost is in. You can read it here. The reaction from Greg Britton, editorial director of Johns Hopkins University Press over at “Slouching Toward Palo Alto” at Inside Higher EducationAn excerpt:

200+ attended last June’s meeting. (Photo: Ge Wang)

What is clear from the report is that the administration does not think the press has achieved the same excellence as the university: “While the relationship between Stanford and its Press has some elements of the most successful presses, both the University and the Press have failed systematically to aspire to, and reach, this standard” (emphasis my own). Or later: “Yet, reaching the goal of a press that is equal to the status of Stanford University has been difficult.”

He continues:

Most remarkable about the report, however, is the committee’s preoccupation with the press’s status compared with its elite peers. The committee relied on a research assistant to search webpages of other academic presses to calculate the percentage of authors from elite institutions, although the exact methodology of this research isn’t described. They assumed that faculty at “the top 10 or 20 universities” must write better books, which presumably would sell better. The committee also admonishes the press to publish more senior faculty and fewer books by new scholars. The assumption, again, is that these will sell better, and, if not, at least bring luster to the operation. This ignores a core mission of a university – to foster, assess and support the work of junior scholars. Further, it ignores a truth that every editor knows: that that excellent work comes from scholars in every corner of higher education regardless of faculty rank or institutional ranking.

High passions at last June’s meeting. (Photo: Ge Wang)

This status obsession runs throughout higher education. In one sense, universities and their diplomas are Veblen goods – luxury products whose demand increases as their prices go up. (How else does one understand the Varsity Blues admissions scandal?) Because of this, universities are fiercely protective of their place in the rankings. Anything that detracts from that perceived status must be dealt with, including a university press.

In conclusion,

Lost in the recommendations for how to fix the Stanford situation is any recognition that university presses have continued to innovate their way out of this. University presses publish books that extend the reach of scholars beyond the gates of their universities. Yes, they produce field-specific monographs, but they also publish deeply thoughtful books that inform the human condition, solve problems and extend knowledge far and wide. Stanford University Press is no exception.

Stanford has a great university press. It’s not clear the Stanford committee believes this.

Read the whole thing here.

“For most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies”: Ted Gioia talks music with Tyler Cowen

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019
Share

“Most people in my generation had better sound systems as teenagers than they do now.”  (Photo: Brenda Ladd)

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia listens to three hours of new music per day and over 1,000 newly released recordings in a year. (We’ve written about him here and here and here.) His latest book, Music: A Subversive History covers the evolution of music from its origins in hunter-gatherer societies, to ancient Greece, to jazz, to its role in modern-day political protests such as those in Hong Kong. Over at Medium, he joined the popular economist Tyler Cowen to discuss music in a wide-ranging interview (the podcast is here) that also takes on the music industry, technology, and the reason for loud restaurant music (hint: René Girard).

The news is not all good: “In fact, I would say that music is the only form of entertainment in which the technology has gotten worse during my lifetime. I go to movies now, and it’s this big screen and surround sound. Video games put the Pong that I used to play to shame. TV is so good, it’s being called a golden age of television. But in music, most of us listen to songs on these lousy handheld devices. Most people in my generation had better sound systems as teenagers than they do now. That worries me more than the whole idea of how songs are written. I’m really concerned about the technology lessening the whole listening experience.”

Ted’s first copies of his new book. (Via Twitter)

An excerpt:

COWEN: … Do you think our collective memory from music is decaying more rapidly because communications technologies move so much faster and preserve things so much better?

GIOIA: What people don’t understand is that, for most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies. I like to tell people that music is a technology for societies that don’t have semiconductors or spaceships. If you go to any traditional community, and you try to find the historian, generally it’s a singer. Music would preserve culture; it would preserve folklore.

Well, nowadays, we rely on cloud storage to be the preserver of these same things. And I think there’s a strange shift. Both we rely on the cloud to preserve our music, but also, we no longer rely on music to preserve our culture. This is potentially a dangerous thing because it could create a situation where our musical lives grow more and more distant from our actual social lives with the people around us in our larger community.

Here’s another excerpt:

COWEN: But what really embarrasses you? What admission can I squeeze out of you?

GIOIA: When I was a teenager, I listened to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

COWEN: Now that’s embarrassing.

GIOIA: Right before I discovered jazz, I was listening to Keith Emerson. This was the quandary I was in.

Economist Tyler Cowen asks an embarrassing question

COWEN: It was jazz, in a way.

GIOIA: It prepared me for jazz. It really did. When I was a teenager, I was playing piano, and this was the problem I faced. I liked rock because of its emotional immediacy, but it didn’t have the sophistication I wanted. Then I loved classical music like Bach for the sophistication, but it didn’t have the emotional immediacy. And I said, “I need something that brings together both.”

Then I walked into a jazz club. Literally, I walked into the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California. I was a high school student. I sat down, the music started, and within 10 seconds, I said to myself, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” Really, it was this epiphanal moment. But before that, it was Keith Emerson.

And a third, about one of my own pet peeves – loud restaurants:

COWEN: Why are restaurants so much noisier today? And they’re still getting noisier.

GIOIA: In fact, I’ve got to say I prefer the quiet restaurant, but I understand everybody else wants the noisy restaurant. And I do think we’re going back to René Girard territory, where everything’s imitation, where you choose the restaurant not on what’s the best food, but what other people are doing that I can imitate. There are two restaurants in town. You go in the one with the most people. I think that imitative behavior patterns explain much more in society than we care to admit.

Merci, René Girard.

COWEN: But there’s much more noise pollution more generally. Restaurants are noisier. It seems that music, in general, is louder. And in terms of dynamic compression, the range is much narrower. So why is there this general tendency toward more noise? Why are markets undersupplying peace and quiet?

GIOIA: Because they want to stand out. It’s interesting, in my book I talk about the very first musicians, who were hunter-gatherers. What they did was fascinating because back then there were no loud sounds. You could live your whole life in prehistoric times and maybe never hear a loud sound unless you went near a waterfall or maybe during a thunderstorm. But for the most part everything was quiet.

So that’s why there’s a plausible theory that the early hunter-gatherers invented choral singing to hunt. They were scavengers, and they didn’t try to kill the lion themselves. They let the lion kill the prey. Then they would sing together to scare away the lion, and they would get the food. That tells you that back then, loud sounds were so rare that they were an amazing expression of power.

The thing to remember is, even today, loud sounds are an expression of power, notoriety. So you have competition in terms of sound, and the restaurants believe — and maybe rightly — that they’re going to stand out with the noisier environment. Now, once again, I will avoid those restaurants. I’ll go to the quiet one, but I really think the same way there was an arms race in the 1960s, there’s a noise race in society right now.

There’s lots more. Read the whole thing here