Posts Tagged ‘David Palumbo-Liu’

John Hennessy likes big fat books.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
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Love’s much better, the second time around: Stanford prez on the joy of rereading books. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford prez John Hennessy is famously techie, right?  Here’s the surprise: the former computer scientist also likes ploughing through the big-hearted, super-retro, thousand-page classics of the 19th century. “I like sagas, a big story plus decades,” he confessed to a good-sized crowd at Piggott Hall last week during an exuberant, free-wheeling talk on “Why I Read Great Literature.”  You know the books he means: the kind that gets turned into a year’s worth of BBC Masterpiece Theatre viewing.

les_miserables_bookHe’s clearly a man after my own heart – he singled out Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables for particular praise, saying that he’s read the whole shebang several times. This is comforting to me personally, after watching René Girard, that anti-romantic sage and immortel, politely squelch a smirk when I told him of my childhood adoration of the book.

For Hennessy, an apparent turning point in his reading tastes occurred the summer before he entered high school – an over-the-vacation reading assignment that somewhat parallels Stanford’s Three Books program.  Clearly one of the books took hold of his imagination:  he’s read Charles Dickens‘s A Tale of Two Cities several times since.  And although he wasn’t up to reciting the magnificent 118-word opening sentence last week, he did refer to it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

How many books are enclosed by an immortal first and last sentence? Hennessy had better luck reciting the the famous close:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

copperfieldDickens “has proven enough times that I could read anything he writes,” said Hennessy. “He grapples with Victorian England, social injustices, a system that obviously tramples on people.”  As for nasty schoolmaster Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby: “If I ever met him, I would be forced to shoot him,” said Hennessy.  These books ask, he said, “How would I have approached that situation? What would I have done?”  Now we know. Hennessy would be compelled to commit homicide.  Fortunately, fortunately, Squeers must have died in Australia at least a century ago, presumably of natural causes.

Hennessy’s love for Dickens includes the worthy chestnut A Christmas Carol, which he rereads during the holiday season. As for David Copperfield, he gleefully quoted Mr. McCawber; apparently it’s one of his favorite lines: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Well, that’s the techie in him.  Throughout the talk he kept presenting numbered lists of thoughts – he likes counting.  I always wonder how you know that, when you say you have five points to make, it’s going to stay five points, and not meander into seven.  Or you’ll forget one and have only four left.  He seems to be good at keeping track.

Like many a young ‘un, he was frogmarched to the great classics.  Some books are not wise choices for teenage boys – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. “I wasn’t up to it. It was too deep, too much angst to it. High school angst is different.”

stendhal_5136“An author I was tortured by in high school was Edith Wharton,” he recalled pensively.  The inevitable high-school staple, Ethan Frome – it’s mercifully short, after all – was “not the right book for high school guys.”  What kid wants to read a tragic story of wasted lives?  They say love is much better the second time around – so it seems with these reheated feasts.  He’s warmed to Henry James, too, despite a premature exposure to “Turn of the Screw.”

I couldn’t agree more with his overall point, but I think the first exposure, however flawed, is important.  I’ve just rediscovered Stendhal in a big way after reading it in high school and finding it a little too cold-edged and cynical for my delicate teenage sensibilities.  It didn’t help that the class was reading it, for the most part, in French (we all cheated and found translations, of course – I now find it amusing that we thought Mademoiselle Vance didn’t expect us to do this). René Girard definitely approves of this late-life conversion to Stendhal.  I’ll have to have another go at Rabelais now, too.  These classics, reread at ten-year intervals, resonate within us at different layers of experience, but you do need a prime coat.

Hennessy’s passion is not restricted to Golden Oldies, or reheated feasts from early class assignments – he included some more recent fare in his endless list.  “Sometimes fiction is better at telling a story than non-fiction,” he said, citing this year’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (we’ve written about it here and here and here and, oh, lots of other places).  He also cited Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger, which helped prepare him for trips to India a few years ago.  Where does he get the time? Clearly, he doesn’t watch TV – I wrote about that here.

Orphan_Master_s_SonSepp Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, offered what he called “the biggest compliment” to Hennessy: “I did not anticipate half an hour when I would not think about football.”  He praised Hennessy for taking a firm departure from clever literary theory and speaking with “unbridled and deliberately naïve enthusiasm” about books.  He noted the words and phrases Hennessy used most frequently in his talk (apparently, he was counting, too, which would certainly keep his mind off football):  1) redemption, redeeming; 2) tragedy, justice; 3) sacrifice, vengeance.  It doesn’t get better than this, does it?

divinecomedyWell yes, it does. Hennessy didn’t forget the slash-and-burn, blood-and-guts classics, Homer’s Iliad and Dante’s Inferno.

And what does he read at the end of the day, before bedtime?  “Junk,” he said.  Just like the rest of us.

He escaped by a side door during the refreshments – but not before George Brown and I pleaded with him to reconsider the Purgatorio, the only book in the Divine Comedy where time counts for something – which it did for Hennessy, too, clearly, as he rushed to his next appointment.

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(Photo above has a gaggle of professors – the contemplative head-on-hand at far right belongs to Josh Landy.  Next to him with the snowy beard is Grisha Freidin.  The ponytail at his right belongs to Gabriella Safran.  Next to her (if you leap an aisle) is David Palumbo-Liu in black glasses, and the half-head to his right belongs to Sepp.  Humble Moi at far left with the black Mary Janes.  Many thanks for the excellent photography from Linda Cicero, which has often graced this site.)

 

Junot Díaz is now officially a f@$#ing genius.

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
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We knew it all the time.

Okay, I heard it first from David Palumbo-Liu on Sunday night.  He made a Facebook post that Junot Díaz had won the MacArthur “Genius” grant.  I asked him where he got the info.  He pulled the post – source unreliable, he said, he couldn’t be sure it was true.

It began leaking elsewhere.  According to the Los Angeles Times:

On Monday, news of who would be named the 2012 MacArthur Fellows leaked out early in reports by the Associated Press and elsewhere. Two writers are among the 23 artists, scientists and thinkers on the list: Junot Díaz and Dinaw Mengestu.

However it leaked, whoever knew it first, I didn’t want to let the day pass without saying how very chuffed I am that the 43-year-old author of the Pulitzer prizewinning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, last month, the short story collection This Is How You Lose Her will receive a no-strings-attached “genius grant” of $500,000. All MacArthur Fellows are awarded $100,000 a year for five years.

I’ve written lots about Díaz.  Most recently, I’ve excerpted bits from his long Boston Review interview here.  I’ve also written about his recent appearance at Stanford here.

My source.

Díaz was understandably pleased, according to the New York Observer.  “I was so fucking stunned,” is how he expressed it.

“It’s like finding the fucking golden ticket,” Mr. Diaz said. “It’s like finding an extra bedroom in your New York studio apartment.”

He said he’s going to use the money for writing his “crazy monster book.”

It’s not surprising David learned the truth from … somewhere.  Díaz himself learned of the award on September 12 – one day after he began the book tour for his news.  Is he the source of the leak?

“Some motherfucker leaked it,” said Mr. Díaz. “Not me. I’m still convinced they’ll take it away from me.”

 

“World within reach”? We think not. Stanford replies to Albany

Saturday, November 20th, 2010
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Safran knocks "disturbing" decision

Yesterday, we excerpted Gregory Petsko‘s  rather scalding letter to George Philip,  the president of the SUNY Albany, who recently announced that the university was cutting its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts departments.  Then we discovered Stanford’s own letter. Not as much fun, alas; nothing beats sarcasm — but still worth a look.

At a school whose motto is “The world within reach,” the elimination of modern languages other than Spanish indicates a confusion of purpose.  The study of modern languages at a high level offers a gateway to international business, diplomacy, and research in all fields.  The study of literature in foreign languages challenges students to cross cultural boundaries and teaches them how to do so effectively.  By rejecting these programs, SUNY Albany is reducing its students’ intellectual breadth and their competitiveness for a range of professions.  It is moving the world out of reach.

This decision is especially disturbing at a school that trains so many of New York State’s teachers.  Three of the programs cut – French, Italian, and Russian – are significant New York heritage languages, and a large French-speaking population lives right over the border in Quebec.  These are languages that New York K-12 students have motivation to study, and even to master.  By making it impossible for future Albany graduates to teach them, SUNY is reducing not only the education and competitiveness of its own students, but those of the state’s high school students as well.  In the case of Russian, where Albany houses the only major program in the SUNY system, this danger is especially real.

Edelstein signed, too

The elimination of modern language programs at Albany appears to be part of a larger reallocation of state funding.  Even while the university saves some $12 million by cutting these departments, $435 million in state funding is going toward a new Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery and Exploration, which has the stated goal of transforming the Albany region into a high-tech hub like California’s Silicon Valley.  Here at Stanford, located in the real Silicon Valley, it appears especially short-sighted to imagine that the way to foster innovation, investment, and job growth in our increasingly global economy is by rejecting the study of modern languages and cultures.  Rather than firing faculty who are experts in foreign languages, the university should turn to them for help in training students who are able to understand international consumers and investors.  Stanford has engaged its foreign language and literature faculty in creating new administrative structures that can respond effectively to the needs of students at all levels.  We challenge you at SUNY Albany to follow the example of Silicon Valley in deed, not just in words.

Signed by:  Gabriella Safran, Director, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; David Palumbo-Liu, Director, Department of Comparative Literature; Carolyn Springer, Director, Department of French and Italian Literatures; Russell Berman, Director, German Studies Department; Jorge Ruffinelli, Director, Iberian and Latin American Cultures Department; Elizabeth Bernhardt, Director, Language Center; Amir Eshel, Graduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; Dan Edelstein, Undergraduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

By the by, if you missed Stanley Fish’s column on this subject in the New York Times, it’s here.