Posts Tagged ‘Gabriella Safran’

John Hennessy likes big fat books.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

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.


(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.)


In good company: Gabriella Safran, Abbas Milani, Ian Morris discuss their books

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I know, I know – I keep promising Paris.  But here’s a down-payment, while I figure out how to download my photos.  A colleague recently sent me this youtube video from last April’s “A Company of Authors.”

Included in this excerpt from the day-long event are authors Gabriella Safran, Humble Moi (a.k.a. Cynthia Haven), Abbas Milani, and Ian Morris presenting our recently published books.  That’s Gabriella’s Wandering Soul, my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, Abbas’s Myth of the Great Satan/The Shah, and Ian’s Why the West Rules – For Now.

Writing quickly from Desk #39 at the BNF … more later

Tomorrow: Meet the authors, and celebrate birthdays with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Nabokov, and St. George

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Tomorrow, April 23, is William Shakespeare‘s birthday.  It’s also William Wordsworth‘s birthday, and Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday – and St. George’s Day, to boot.

It’s also the 8th annual “A Company of Authors” celebration at the Stanford Humanities Center, an all-afternoon gig celebrating the variety, richness and importance of the books produced by the Stanford community.  (More on the event here.)

This year’s auspicious date is not entirely a coincidence.  George Orwell biographer Peter Stansky, who founded the event along with the late, lamented Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, was particularly pleased by the possibilities offered by the juxtaposition.

Peter will open the event by reading a poem by George Steiner about the wisdom of choosing one’s birthday – you see, it’s Steiner’s birthday, too.

The event was inspired by the Los Angeles Times Book Fair and the annual Humanities Center Book party.  There’s a difference, however: the books will be available for sale at a 10 percent discount.  The fête kicks off at 1 p.m., and it’s free at the Humanities Center on Santa Teresa, and the company will be excellent, if I do say so myself.

“It is open to all who wish to come and learn more about the authors’ thinking behind their work, would like to chat with the authors in the periods between sessions and have the opportunity to purchase their books,” he said.  It has another purpose – “and that we can all feel that somehow we are in the tradition of Shakespeare!”

Authors include:  Charlotte Jacobs, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease;

Birthday boy

Susan Krieger, Traveling Blind; William Kays, Letters from a Soldier; Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator: S. An-sky; Abbas Milani, Myth of the Great Satan and The Shah; Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now; Karen Wigen, A Malleable Map; Elena Danielson, The Ethical Archivist; Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries; Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms; Myra Strober,  Interdisciplinary Conversations; Stina Katchadourian, The Lapp King’s Daughter; Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy; Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception; Debra Satz, Why Some Things Shouldn’t Be for Sale.  And you guessed it, Humble Moi – Cynthia Haven for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz.

No RSVP needed

According to Peter, “Most importantly in my view, the books reflect the most important aspect of the University: the life of the mind which sometimes gets forgotten in the many day to day events that take place at Stanford. In my view, this event represents the essence of the University.”

It is also J.M.W. Turner‘s birthday as well as Shirley Temple‘s, which he doesn’t mention.  “Perhaps you can arrange for Shirl ey Temple to come,” he suggested to me.  Do you think?

Postscript:  I know, I know … Shakespeare’s birthday is conjecture, based on his April 26 christening.  Usually, in the 16th century, a birth was followed post haste by a christening in anticipation of instant death.  And, given that he died on April 23, and that April 23 was St. George’s day, and, after all, he did need a birthday – the world fixed on April 23rd.  Good enough for me.  Hope for you, too.  See you tomorrow.

Postscript on 4/23/2013  We mistakenly reported that Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday is on April 23.  Wrong!  It’s June 6, 1799 (what a pleasant way to usher in a new century!)  The error has been corrected.  Thank you, Tatiana Pahlen, for pointing it out to us.

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

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

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.