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1. Free e-book for September: Craig Packer’s Into Africa


Our free e-book for September:

Into Africa by Craig Packer


Craig Packer takes us into Africa for a journey of fifty-two days in the fall of 1991. But this is more than a tour of magnificent animals in an exotic, faraway place. A field biologist since 1972, Packer began his work studying primates at Gombe and then the lions of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater with his wife and colleague Anne Pusey. Here, he introduces us to the real world of fieldwork—initiating assistants to lion research in the Serengeti, helping a doctoral student collect data, collaborating with Jane Goodall on primate research.

As in the works of George Schaller and Cynthia Moss, Packer transports us to life in the field. He is addicted to this land—to the beauty of a male lion striding across the Serengeti plains, to the calls of a baboon troop through the rain forests of Gombe—and to understanding the animals that inhabit it. Through his vivid narration, we feel the dust and the bumps of the Arusha Road, smell the rosemary in the air at lunchtime on a Serengeti verandah, and hear the lyrics of the Grateful Dead playing off bootlegged tapes.

Into Africa also explores the social lives of the animals and the threats to their survival. Packer grapples with questions he has passionately tried to answer for more than two decades. Why do female lions raise their young in crèches? Why do male baboons move from troop to troop while male chimps band together? How can humans and animals continue to coexist in a world of diminishing resources? Immediate demands—logistical nightmares, political upheavals, physical exhaustion—yield to the larger inescapable issues of the interdependence of the land, the animals, and the people who inhabit it.

Download your free copy of Into Africa here.

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2. Jonathan Ames on Anthony Powell


The novelist and occasional raconteur Jonathan Ames was asked by the Big Issue to name his “Top 5 Books for American Anglophiles.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he named a cadre of authors instead, Anthony Powell among them, and Ames had this to say, in particular, about Powell and his work:

About 15 years ago some snobby writer in New York told me he was reading Powell’s epic 12-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, and wanting to be this writer’s intellectual peer (a hopeless endeavour), I set out to read it as well. I spent nearly a year absorbing all 12 books, and especially enjoyed the beautiful edition that had been put out by the University of Chicago Press—the spines of the books, when all lined up, formed the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, which had been, in part, Powell’s inspiration for the work. A lot of Dance was rather boring but it was also quite wonderful to follow Powell’s characters over 70 years, and I saw resonance in my own life—how we keep re-encountering the same people over and over, how we keep struggling with the same issues over and over. Powell certainly intended this, as he wished to demonstrate in his fiction, I believe, aspects of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence.

To read up on the many works of Anthony Powell published by the University of Chicago Press, click here.

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3. Ramie Targoff shortlisted for the Christian Gauss Award


The Phi Beta Kappa Society recently announced the shortlists for their 2015 book awards, and several books published by university presses made the cut. The awards include the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award (which honors the book “that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity”), and the Christian Gauss Award, described below:

The Christian Gauss Award goes to books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. The prize, created in 1960, honors the late Christian Gauss, the distinguished Princeton University scholar, teacher, and dean who also served as President of The Phi Beta Kappa Society.

Among those books shortlisted for the Gauss Award was Ramie Targoff’s Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England, which considers the boundaries that Renaissance English poets drew between earthly and heavenly existence, as they transformed the concept of posthumous love—so dominant in the days of Dante and Petrarch—and instead introduced a new mode of poetics that derived its emotional and aesthetic power from its insistence upon love’s mortal limits.

Winners—each of whom will receive a $10,000 prize—will be announced on October 1, 2015.

To read more about Posthumous Love, click here.

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4. Excerpt: The Dead Ladies Project


“Berlin/William James”

from Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries


Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience


“You’re in Berlin because you feel like a failure.”

I had met this man all of ten minutes ago and he was already summing me up neatly. I made subtle readjustments to my clothing, as if it had been a wayward bra strap or an upwardly mobile hemline that had given me away. More likely it was my blank stare in response to his question, “So, what brings you to Berlin?”

He has had to do this a lot, I imagine: greet lost boys and girls, still wild with jet lag, still unsure how to make ourselves look less obviously like what we are, we members of the Third Great Wave of American Expatriation to Berlin. This man before me was second on the list of names that everyone gets from worried friends when resettling overseas: Everyone I Know in the City to Which You Are Moving (Not Totally Vouched For). I had lasted about a week before I sent e-mails tinged with panic to everyone on my list. He had been the first to answer.

I must have blushed at the accuracy of his remark, because he immediately qualified it. “Everyone who moves to Berlin feels like a failure. That’s why we’re here. You’ll have good company.” Still embarrassed, I scanned the menu for one of the four German words I had mastered and, failing, pointed helplessly to a random item when the waiter returned. It would prove to be a strange Swiss soda of indeterminate flavor. It tasted like the branch of a tree, carbonated. It was not unpleasant. I had been shooting for something alcoholic, but I was already too laid bare to have admitting to a mistake and reordering left in me.

At this moment it seemed unlikely this American could commiserate. My own failings were too grandiose, the depths to which I had fallen too abysmal. I was narcissistic in my failings, and he looked like he was doing pretty okay. He sat across from me confident, knowledgeable. He had ordered in German. The people in the restaurant had greeted him by name. He talked about artistic projects he was working on. He was certainly sweating less than I was on this hot July day. Later a tale would unravel, one that mimicked the stories of so many of the Americans who had flocked here over the last decade. Unable to survive financially in New York without having to abandon their writing, their art, their music, they came to a city of cheap rents, national health insurance, and plentiful bartending jobs that could cover a reasonable cost of living. He had an apartment. It had hardwood floors. A failure, my eye.

In contrast, there I was, ten days into my new city and still stumbling around like a newborn calf. I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere. It was not a death wish, not really. Not anymore. I was hoping something in the environment, some sturdier, more German atoms, would replace them.

Because there does seem to be something about Berlin that calls out to the exhausted, the broke, the uninsurable with preexisting mental health disorders, the artistically spent, those trapped in the waning of careers, of inspiration, of family relations, and of ambition. To all those whose anxiety dreams play out as trying to steer a careening car while trapped in the backseat, come to us. We have a café culture and surprisingly affordable rents. Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand.

* * *

Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them. Let’s say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.

If that were the case, what to make of the fact that Berlin is built on sand? Situated on a plain with no natural defenses, no major river, no wealth of any particular resource, it’s a city that should not exist. It can’t be any wonder that Berlin has for hundreds of years—no, longer than that, past Napoleon, past the medieval days when suspected witches were lined up at the city gates and molten metal was poured between their clenched teeth, past the whispers of the Romans that those who inhabited these lands were not quite human, back to the days of the people residing here who are now known to us only by some pottery shards and bronze tools—been a little unstable. It would explain the city’s endless need to collapse and rebuild, even as the nation that engulfs it marches on confidently, linearly.

Perhaps its unstable nature is what beckons the unstable to its gates. The Lausitzer. The Jastorf. The Semnonen. The name-less and the preliterate. A shifting bunch of conquerors and the conquered. On through invaders and defenders, and populations reduced by half in war, disease, and the destruction of whoever pulled the short straw for being the scapegoat this century. The process merely sped up in the twentieth, oscillating madly through world wars and grotesque ideas, crashing economies and blind eyes turned.

It plays out seasonally as well here in the northern reaches of Germany. The lush highs of summer, everything green and tangled with a sun reluctant to leave its post at night and overly enthusiastically trying to rouse you from bed in the very early hours of the morning, crash endlessly down toward the darkness of the winter solstice. The trees that had been blooming in a state of fecund glory when I arrived in the city lost their leaves, revealing that the only things behind them were the endless concrete boxes of Soviet midcentury “architecture.” The sun shunned us and rarely peeked out from behind its thick cloud cover. When it deigned to, it gave off all the glow and heat of a porch light. The gray of the sky matched the gray of the buildings matched the gray of the thick coating of ice that remained on the sidewalks all winter. I fell on it one night, or early one morning, I guess, a little worse for wear, accompanied by a man I met at a bar, whose entire seduction strategy was just to follow me home, despite the fact that I kept trying to shoo him away like a stray dog.

I was six months into my Berlin residence. And from my akimbo position I threw the holy tantrum of a sailor-mouthed two-year-old. “Fuck this city. Fuck it. Why the fuck did I ever move here, god fucking damn it.”

“You’re strange,” said the German man, still resolutely standing by.

“Help me up.”

* * *

That’s when I took my William James essays off the shelf. I found in his works of philosophy a friend, a mentor, a professor, and some sort of idealized father. It was his works on the more mundane matters that I relied on—how to make changes in your life, how to believe you can make changes in your life, how to convince yourself to get out of bed in the morning, how not to be a worthless slug—rather than his more important pieces about war or whatever.

James is now a bit of an odd fellow in philosophy. More widely influential than widely known, his theory of pragmatism and his groundbreaking work in the field of psychology make him something of a hidden mover. If you do seek him out, it’s not generally in the way one reads Descartes or Kant or Nietzsche, as a refinement of the intellect or in the pursuit of one’s studies. One finds James when one needs him. He makes quiet sense of the world in all its glories and deprivations, its calamities and its beauties. As a philosopher, James is able to hold all of the sorrow and violence and pain of the world in his mind and remain somehow optimistic. It doesn’t wipe out the goodness of the world, it just sits beside it. It’s no wonder then that people get a little religious about this agnostic philosopher, this man who can restore your faith in the world without necessarily bringing god into it.

I sought out William James because I needed him. He and I were now separated by about a century of death, but we found ourselves occupying the same biographical eddy: bottoming out in Berlin.

* * *

Here is how William James found himself in Berlin: a failure. He had tried and failed to become a painter, failed to become a doctor, failed to become an adventurer. He was not yet a writer, but he was almost certainly still a virgin. He was in his mid-twenties and painfully aware that he had failed even in deciding what it was he wanted to do. He stood there, absolutely calcified with indecision and doubt, while his soon-to-be-famous friends like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made decisions and started careers, and his soon-to-be-famous younger brother, Henry, started his literary apprenticeship with the Atlantic.

Whereas he—well, he fled. First to Dresden and then to Berlin. He arrived under the pretext of furthering his education, but that may have simply been a way to convince his parents to pay for the trip because, despite his advancing age, he had yet to make an income. At any rate, he failed to go to class, ever. Instead he holed up in his Berlin guesthouse, learning German, training his telescope on the legs of the occupants of the all-girls’ school across the street, and failing to figure out a way to flirt with the pretty woman who played the piano downstairs. All the while in his letters to his brother he was alluding to a daily battle not to do himself in.

James lightly fictionalized this time in his life in Varieties of Religious Experience, passing off the breakdown to someone he knows who told him about it. (He’s French, you don’t know him.) In that work he described the sensation of his suicidal idyll as “desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one, and no other conception or sensation able to live for a moment in its presence.” And while his letters to his parents hint at some of this darkness, there he mostly chats about that other Berlin experience, the roast veal and the beer and the music and the philosophy.

Here is how Berlin responded to William James’s time in Berlin: they built a center in his name. At the place of his greatest misery and torment, they built a permanent structure. Although maybe at this point they couldn’t help it. After all the documentation they had to do of the horrors of the twentieth century, maybe now it’s an unconscious reflex to throw up a memorial on the site of every trauma.

Well, not really a structure, I guess. More like a small room. The minute I learned of the center’s existence, I sent off an e-mail to make an appointment. I expected a hall of philosophy on the university campus, maybe in that glorious red brick so many of the buildings in James’s time had been constructed with. I scribbled the address down on a piece of paper, and I took the train to the outskirts, to the University of Potsdam campus. It’s situated next to Sanssouci and its gardens, the former playground of the Prussian king. While the main path through the gardens is still marked with magnificent elm trees, most of the grounds have been allowed to go to seed. It’s not a tourist destination on par with Versailles, and so it is kept in only middling shape. There is a lovely rose garden, but that is surrounded by tangle and bramble. It’s been let go in the Berlin way, all of those straight German lines blurring a little into chaos.

Past the garden gates, into the campus, into the main philosophy hall, up the main staircase, down a hallway, to the left and then right, I came to my destination. It was a small door. The William James Center proved, despite its authoritative name, to be the work of one man. Herr Doktor Professor Logi Gunnarsson. Or is it Herr Professor Doktor . . . I should have remembered to look up the proper order before I left. “It’s Logi, call me Logi.” Luckily Dr. Logi is Icelandic and not beholden to the German titling system. The center’s archives are really just the contents of Dr. Logi’s office. A desk, a computer, some bookcases. Dr. Logi is slight and sandy, and he has the wonderful awkwardness that comes with too many hours spent in the company of dead men.

He is, he tells me, attempting to re-create William James’s personal library as part of his administration of the center, so that he can be surrounded by the same books that surrounded James. It’s a devotional act couched in a scholarly one. It’s an act I can understand. Dr. Logi pours me a cup of tea, and we chat about our good friend William James. Up for discussion, a traumatic encounter with a prostitute, alluded to in letters to his brother and in a journal. He did, it seems, either lose his virginity to the prostitute or, perhaps even more traumatically, fail to.

“The poor dear,” I say.

“Yes, quite. He was hopeless with women. It seems, though, that after he married Alice Howe Gibbens, the physical ailments he was treating in Berlin, the bad back and so on, disappeared.”

“Were they caused by the burden of a protracted virginity?”

“Perhaps. The poor dear.”

I am keeping Dr. Logi from professional duties, but I don’t care and it appears he doesn’t either. I imagine it might be a relief for him, as it is for me, to have someone to converse with about our favorite person. Or willingly converse, as I’m sure he inflicts William James on the people around him like I do.

“What do you make,” I ask slowly, “of the fact that his first book wasn’t published until he was forty-nine?”

Part of William’s freakout, Dr. Logi had mentioned earlier, sprang from an enormous need to be seen. By the public, by his friends, by his father. He wanted to “assert his reality” on the world, as he wrote in his letters, and it took approximately twenty years after writing that statement until he would.

“Surely not . . .” Dr. Logi starts, but then he does the math in his head. “I guess I knew that but had forgotten. I mean . . . And he could not have known he would eventually succeed.”

We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of the years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.

* * *

Whenever James was corresponding with a colleague or an inquirer, Dr. Logi told me, he would request from them a portrait. It was important for him to see the whole of the person, at least a bit of their humanity, and not only their written representation.

In that spirit, I have before me two images of William James. The first was taken around the time he moved to Berlin. He looks stricken, pale and withdrawn. It is as if he had recoiled into a permanent flinch. He looks off to the side, unable perhaps to meet the camera’s gaze. There is something fractured deep at the heart of him.

In the other, it is a few decades on. There is gray in his beard and his face is worn. He exudes charm, warmth, and wisdom. It is a William James in whose lap you want to sit and listen to stories. He is keeping some secrets, but he will share them if you draw near.

It is the distance between these two photographs that is so fascinating. Not simply in age but in substance of the man. Biographers are interested (I am interested) in the Berlin breakdown because of the distance traveled between the two Jameses and the quality of the end result. It’s a favorite myth in our culture that hardship makes you a better person, that it is merely the grindstone on which your essence is refined and polished. But the truth is that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition, and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted. That is the territory where mean drunks and tyrannical bastards come from.

Not so with James. He may have always been a little hopeless with women (he sent a series of hilarious and heartbreaking letters to his Alice in the months before their wedding, in a vein that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever gotten a little sullen after a bottle of wine and decided to start texting), and the weight of depression did occasionally re-descend, but he walked out of that phase with dignity and great compassion. He used his experiences, both the good and the ill, for the base of his incredibly humane body of work.

So then what’s the magic formula? Can his transition be distilled down to a scientific protocol to be reproduced at home in your own basement laboratory? Could we use William James’s example to turn our respective chemical imbalances into alchemical processes?

* * *

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zig-zags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles. Wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and an effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

It is difficult today to imagine the Berlin that James encountered in the nineteenth century. So much of the city was reduced to rubble and ash in the intervening years. I can look at photos and get a sense of who the city might have been. But when I’m out, actually walking around on the streets, it is an entirely different place.

Most of the surface of the city was bulldozed after World War II, and the unsalvageable and the unclaimed was dumped in Grunewald on the outskirts of town. The pile of junk that used to be houses, used to be bakeries and hat shops, used to be attached to human bodies, was covered in dirt, and the wild was allowed to reclaim it. Now it is something of a park or nature preserve, with hiking trails through the woods—the trees still looking suspiciously young—up and down this artificial hill. One of the only hills in this swamp-turned-into-a-city.

The Germans may look like proper churchgoing Lutherans on the outside, but they are all at heart tree-worshiping animists from way back, starting with the pagan cults in the Schwarzwald, to the nature idolatry of the romantic and counter-Enlightenment movements in the nineteenth century. It still bleeds through in their songs and in their art. A few decades before James arrived, Bogumil Goltz wrote, “What the evil over-clever, insipid, bright cold world encumbers and complicates, the wood-green mysterious, enchanted, dark, culture-renouncing but true to the law of nature must free and make good again.”

So maybe that is where James’s Berlin still resides, out in Grunewald, buried in some sort of purification rite inspired by a mysterious calling from deep within the German DNA. The wood-green making all of those horrors good again. It’s a calm place, soothing. But also policed by territorial wild boar.


To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.

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5. Culture War? What Is It Good For?

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An excerpt from Jacqui Shine’s review of Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars at the LA Review of Books:

Though the allegiances of the culture wars tend to fall along predictable political lines, Hartman gives special attention to surprising moments of reversal and repetition. He notes, for example, that colorblind conservatism actually marks something of a reversion to an earlier colorblind liberalism, rather than the invention of a new ideological stance from whole cloth. After 1965, Hartman argues, a “reconstructed racial liberalism favored a proactive government that would guarantee black Americans not only ‘equality as a right and a theory’ but also, as the nation’s leading liberal Lyndon Johnson famously put it, ‘equality as a fact and a result.’” The fruit of this strategy was the rise of affirmative action, and “the line that divided opponents in the affirmative action debate … was the line between an older colorblind racial liberalism and a newer color-conscious racial liberalism that had incorporated elements of Black Power into its theoretical framework.” Thus, when conservatives took up the rhetoric of colorblindness to oppose racial quotas, they were repurposing an earlier liberal position. Hartman likewise stresses the peculiar politics of the national debate over pornography, in which “the logic of anti-porn feminism influenced the Christian Right,” and William Buckley Jr. found himself agreeing with Andrea Dworkin that pornography should be banned, though not about why.

Read the review in full here.

To read more about The War for the Soul of America, click here.

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6. Excerpt: Players and Pawns


“The World of Chess”

from Gary Alan Fine’s Players and Pawns: How Chess Builds Community and Culture


Chess is not the oldest game of humankind. That honor goes to an Egyptian board game dating back to 3500– 4000 BC. But chess’s longevity is remarkable. While claims of the true beginnings of chess are various and the origins are shrouded in mystery, consensus exists that the game as we recognize it began on the Indian subcontinent in approximately 700 AD, although Persia shaped the early game as well. As with so many origin stories, one can find political motives. For instance, some claim that chess originated in Uzbekistan or even in China.

Chess is considered a war game, or at least a game that models warfare or prepares soldiers, although some legendary origins (Myanmar or Sri Lanka) suggest in a more pacifist fashion that the game was developed to provide a less bloody equivalent to conflict. Given the passion of Napoleon for the game, such sublimation was not inevitably effective. When the game spread to the Islamic world, which rejected gambling and gaming, chess was permitted because it was considered preparation for war. In the Soviet Union, the game was treated not as a bourgeois diversion but a form of proletariat culture.

Over the years, the rules of chess evolved. By the Middle Ages, chess had gained admirers in Europe. Its popularity is evident in writings about chess as morality by Pope Innocent III and Rabbi ben Ezra, both around 1200 AD.9 The second book printed in English, The Game and Playe of the Chesse (translated from the French), addressed chess as morality. The medieval attention to chess is evident in that the names and movement of the chess pieces changed substantially during this period. The most salient change was to increase the power of the vizier, making it the most powerful piece on the board. This transformation, first labeling the piece the queen and then increasing her range, occurred between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Some suggest that this change reflects the authority of women in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Perhaps these explanations are shaped by scholarly wishful thinking, but it is clear that chess changed substantially during the late Middle Ages, and as a result, games prior to the introduction of the powerful queen are rarely studied. Although chess has continued to evolve, a game played after the introduction of the powerful queen is essentially the same game that we play today. The first international tournament was organized in 1851, and by 1886 the world had its first undisputed chess champion, Wilhelm Steinitz.

Depending on one’s definition, today there are many chess players or a great many. A large proportion of Americans, although surely nowhere close to a majority, can play chess at some level. According to Susan Polgar, a prominent grandmaster, there are forty-five million chess players in the United States. Other estimates are slightly lower, but most hover around forty million. In chess hot spots such as Russia, eastern Europe, Iceland, Cuba, and Argentina, the proportion is far higher. Polgar guesses that there are seven hundred million players worldwide. Some skepticism of that figure is warranted, but chess is indeed a global game.

We must distinguish between those who are knowledgeable about the basic rules and those who have a commitment to the game: those who play chess and those who participate in the chessworld. Here the numbers diminish. Though we do not have firm figures for the number of serious players, as of 2010 the United States Chess Federation (USCF) had a membership of approximately eighty thousand. Some of these members are not active, and many others play chess outside the auspices of the organization (particularly in scholastic chess, where some state and city organizations run their own tournaments). The USCF claims that there are approximately ninety thousand active tournament players. In the last fifteen years, there has been substantial growth in the number of young (scholastic) chess players. Chess is now treated as an activity that provides cultural capital. Playing the game is said to increase a child’s cognitive development. In an age in which many parents wish to cultivate their children, chess is treated as a valued training ground, even if it is not perceived as one of those life skills that will continue into adulthood. Estimates of the number of children playing chess run as high as thirty million. But whatever the number, it is striking that the largest number of members of the USCF are third and fourth graders. According to one source, 60 percent of the members of the USCF are age fourteen or younger. While the politics of the organization are set by adult members (one must be sixteen to vote in federation elections), many of the organizational resources are contributed by scholastic members. As a result, it is not surprising that battles have been fought over whether to use resources for high-visibility adult chess or the more popular scholastic chess. Some scholastic chess tournaments are profitable, and the growth of youth chess provides employment for adult teachers.

On many demographic dimensions chess holds up well. A visit to a large tournament finds an impressive number of African Americans, South Asians, East Asians, Hispanics, and eastern European immigrants. A large tournament has the feel of a United Nations of leisure. Such diversity is rare in leisure or voluntary activities. While chess is largely a middle-class pastime, some participants hold working-class jobs or are from working-class homes. And many children participate at adult tournaments. It is common to find a nine-year-old playing— and crushing— a sixty-nine-year-old, an oft -remarked reality that leads to adults being reluctant to play children, who are often better than their ratings suggest. One tournament I attended had participants from five to eighty-seven, a range that was not especially remarkable. The only exception to this demographic diversity is gender. Chess has long been— and still is—male dominated, and the participation of women declines with age and with rated ability. In elementary school as many as 40 percent of players are girls, but there is only one woman in the top one hundred US chess players. In most domains, at least 90 percent of chess players are male, an even greater percentage than in Little League baseball, Dungeons & Dragons, or high school debate. Because of the highly gendered structure of chess and to avoid awkward syntax, I use the male pronoun. Perhaps before too long, readers will find my pronoun usage odd and inappropriate.


When one examines any activity, an inevitable question emerges: what kind of thing is this? Put another way, what is the “cultural logic” of chess? What framework of meaning explains this community? What conventions are embraced? In what domain of activity do we place it? This is the human desire for labeling and categorization. Compared to other games, chess is incredibly deep. No two games are the same, and the seemingly unending choices have lured many players. Chess edges close to infinite possibility. The number of legal positions in chess has been estimated at 1040 (the number of stars in the universe is estimated at 1024), the number of possible games is 10120, and chess databases contain over 3.5 million games.

Is chess so multifaceted? Why and how do these figures resonate with chess players? In the diversity of metaphors, chess exemplifies generic features of human association, including focus and attention, affiliation, beauty, status, collective memory, consumption, and competition. These are topics to which I return.

Perhaps the most obvious metaphor, and hence the one that I address least, is that chess is a game, a form of voluntary activity, grounded on rules and on rivalrous competition. One might say that “game” is not a metaphor but a description. Its voluntarism links chess, like all games, to play, but games have a structured organization that “pure play” lacks. The model of human activity as game, a common metaphor, suggests a strategic approach to everyday life. Chess is a game of strategy and tactics. But it goes beyond the domain of the game, even if other activities (sex, business, or politics) can be treated as symbolic games because of their strategic dimensions.

While chess is a game—a minor aspect of life— it can be treated as much else. Metaphors abound. In a riot of metaphors, Pal Benko and Burt Hochberg argue that the game takes many forms, depending on style. Chess can be a fight, an art, a sport, a life, or a war. Folklorists Marci Reaven and Steve Zeitlin, touring public chess spaces in New York City, found competing visions of chess: an unsolved mathematic problem, a language, a search for truth, a dream, and even “a ball of yarn.” Some speak of chess as a race and the chessboard as a piano. The personification of pieces is common, particularly in scholastic chess. Pawns desire friends, pieces are runners, they look for a job or are unhappy and crying (field notes). The range of cultural images that define this pastime is extensive. Such diversity suggests that activities do not have a singular meaning but can be framed in multiple ways to connect with the needs of the speaker and desires of the audience.

Treating chess as a game of war 23 leads to military metaphors. In one account, the rook is a panzer unit, the knight a spy, the bishop a reconnaissance officer. As the population of chess players is overwhelmingly male, violent and sexual metaphors are common, as when the defeated are judged as weak, soft, or effeminate. Opponents are pinned, hit, stomped, crushed, sacked, or killed. More explicit is the claim of world champion Alexander Alekhine that during a match “a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk.” While not many chess players speak so graphically, grandmaster Nigel Short was not alone when he remarked, “I want to rape and mate [my opponent].” In his rant, Short provides support for a Freudian analysis of chess as a sublimated form of homosexual eros and parricide.

Freudians believe that the unconscious appeal of chess results from oedipal dynamics, leading to sexual and aggressive themes. Reuben Fine pondered why many strong chess players display psychiatric disorders, seeing danger in the metaphorical dynamics of the game. Fine argued that chess is often learned by boys at puberty or earlier and that the pieces represent a symbolic keying of ego development (the king is a phallic symbol representing castration anxiety; the queen represents the mother). Those drawn to chess are said to have difficulty balancing aggressive and sexual impulses because of a weakly developed superego. Players are susceptible to developing neurotic traits, echoing grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi’s observation that “no Chess Grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness.” Others point to unconscious aggressive and sexual themes. Any competitive chess player knows the stories of madness, including those of Paul Morphy (“the pride and sorrow of chess”) and Bobby Fischer. However, these examples do not tell the whole story. Focusing on atypical cases such as Morphy’s or Fischer’s paranoia is an inadequate basis for generalization. Much psychoanalysis of chess is based on speculative Freudian assumptions with little empirical support; perhaps this is related to the fact that many psychoanalysts, notably Reuben Fine, are serious chess players. The evidence is more literary confection than systematic proof.

Besides these tendentious images, others build on morality or images of the state. The great Dutch historian of play, Johan Huizinga, argued that “civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” His assertion applies to the vast array of political metaphors of chess. Chess reveals not only sexual and aggressive dynamics, but social order. Th is is one reason that authors select chess as a background (or foreground) for understanding human relations: Nabokov, Cervantes, Borges, Tolstoy, Ezra Pound, Edgar Allan Poe, and Woody Allen. As early as 1862, the well- known chess editor Willard Fiske, writing as B. K. Rook, connected pieces and society:

We [rooks] are generally considered as the most upright and straightforward of all the denizens of Chessland, from our habit of moving. . . . We have long been the fast friends of the Kings. . . . Of the Bishops there is little to relate. Each of the chess races possesses two individuals of this name, and yet so strong is the hatred of those belonging to the same stock that one of them can never be induced to go into a house that has been occupated by the other. . . . The most erratic members of our state are undoubtedly the Knights. . . . The Pawns are the most numerous members of our body politic.

Lewis Carroll’s imaginings in Through the Looking-Glass have something of the same flavor. The twelfth-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam proclaimed, “We are in truth but pieces on this chess board of life.” To Pope Innocent III (1161– 1216), a chess player himself, was attributed a morality on chess (now thought to be written by John of Wales) that asserts, “This whole world is nearly like a Chess-board, one point of which is white, the other black, because of the double state of life and death, grace and sin. The familia of the Chess-board are like mankind; they all come out of one bag, and are placed in different stations.” Harry, a well-regarded teacher of my acquaintance, expressed the same theme: “The thing I love about chess is that at the beginning of the game, ever yone is equal. Everyone is a citizen, and then through the game, we see what they can do. Chess represents our democratic values. It provides a metaphor of society” (field notes). Pieces stand for political positions—whether democratic or monarchical—in a way easily recognized by children and adults.

As a result, chess is used metaphorically, by the public as well as players. Away from the chessboard, we speak metaphorically of a stalemate, selecting a gambit, or keeping an opponent in check. The political metaphors were even more extensive in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Jenny Adams emphasizes how the game extended politics, reflecting a medieval social hierarchy, sometimes considered an instrument of reform. The English playwright Thomas Middleton in his drama A Game at Chess satirized abortive marriage negotiations between Charles, the son of James I, and Donna Maria, the sister of Philip IV of Spain.

Nowhere is the sociopolitical culture of chess more evident than in the names of the pieces. Chess is a global game in which the pieces have had different meanings over time and in various languages. The names of chess pieces in English and other western European languages were changed from their Middle Eastern designations, as medieval society treated the game as a mirror. The vizier became a queen, the horse a knight, and the elephant a bishop. The allegories of chess were revised. In contrast, even today Russian mirrors the Arabic; there is no queen, but a “ferz,” a counselor. While Russian chess has a “king,” the word used for king is korol, not czar. Perhaps the most problematic example of political labeling is the bishop, borrowed from the Catholic hierarchy. In Russia and throughout much of Asia, the bishop is an “elephant” (borrowed from Indian tradition); in Hebrew and in Dutch the bishop is a “runner,” and in France, the bishop is the fou or “fool.” An account of the naming of chess pieces reveals much about the societies in which they are used. At moments of transition, as in the Middle Ages, names are “in play.” At the time of the American Revolution there was an attempt to rename king, queen, and pawn as governor, general, and pioneer. After their revolution Soviets wanted to use the name commissar and to turn black into red, with its pieces representing the proletariat. Such changes, however, could not overturn the inertia of collective knowledge. These fights over metaphors indicate how tightly linked chess is to the social structure of its location and how its location affects its image.

While some activities fall neatly into human categories— sculpture is art, chemistry is science, tennis is sport—chess can plausibly be seen as all three, each with its own conventions, like any established and collectively recognized social world. Conventions—norms of proper activity— are to be found in all institutionalized domains. Chess action can be striking, systematic, or strategic. The former world champion Anatoly Karpov claimed in an oft-quoted remark that “chess is everything— art, science, and sport.” Perhaps chess is not everything, but each of these categories has been treated as the primary basis of the game.

While some activities fall neatly into human categories—sculpture is art, chemistry is science, tennis is sport—chess can plausibly be seen as all three, each with its own conventions, like any established and collectively recognized social world. Conventions—norms of proper activity—are to be found in all institutionalized domains. Chess action can be striking, systematic, or strategic. The former world champion Anatoly Karpov claimed in an oft-quoted remark that “chess is everything— art, science, and sport.” Perhaps chess is not everything, but each of these categories has been treated as the primary basis of the game.


The rhetoric of chess as constituting an art form is extensive. There are styles and schools of chess, and beautiful moves and combinations. World champion Emanuel Lasker asserted, “There is magic in the creative faculty such as great poets and philosophers conspicuously possess, and equally in the creative chessmaster.” The brilliant Ukrainian grandmaster David Bronstein wrote, “Chess is a fortunate art form. It does not live only in the minds of its witnesses. It is retained in the best games of masters, and does not disappear from memory when the masters leave the stage.” Discussions of symmetry and beauty are seen not only in the writings of masters but in descriptions by amateurs: “It’s kind of hard to see, but there’s beauty in it. The symmetry of the pieces and the idea of threatening, sometimes it all just comes together and it gets distracting at points, but sometimes I really just sit back and go ‘Wow, look at this game.’ It’s like a perfect balance, an absolutely perfect piece of art. . . for instance the idea of a checkmate that’s six moves away is just beautiful.” In simpler words, a high school player remarked, “I like chess because of the way it flows together and it’s like meticulous and artistic. And [my friend] said that’s why he liked music” (interview). I have heard players liken chess to improvisational jazz in the way that combinations of pieces emerge over the course of a game. The rhetoric of competition as art is hardly unique to chess. In examining lifestyle sports, such as surfing, skateboarding, or windsurfing, Belinda Wheaton points to activities linked to the participants’ sense of self. She notes a similar attention to artistic expression, stylistic nuance, and creative invention. For those in the upper echelon, chess also constitutes a lifestyle community, although one with less threat of injury than so-called extreme sports.

Much beauty is found in the elegance of a perfect and inescapable solution to a complex problem. As William James posited, solving problems is deeply gratifying and reveals aesthetic satisfaction. If beauty exists in a competitive environment, it cannot be an individual achievement but must be relational. The philosopher Stuart Rachels observes: “Great chess games are breathtaking works of art. . . . Perfect play, however, cannot guarantee a beautiful game. For one thing, it is not enough that you play perfectly; your opponent must also play well.” Another player writes, “It only takes one brilliant mind to conjure up a brilliancy, but it takes two minds . . . to produce the position in which the fireworks can be let off .” The challenge of a patzer does not produce beauty for the skilled player.

The specific metaphor used by chess players to describe a moment of artistry is brilliancy: a cut diamond on a square board. Brilliancy results from the awe experienced from a simple and perfect answer to a daunting and complex problem— a victory, but not only a victory. The concept is so central to the world of chess that many elite tournaments award a “brilliancy” prize for the game or position with the greatest aesthetic appeal. Brilliancies result from a novel combination of pieces that produces a position that colleagues find startling, even spiritual. Each piece supports and defends other pieces of that color while attacking the opponent’s pieces. As Reuben Fine remarked, “Combinations have always been the most intriguing aspect of Chess. The masters look for them, the public applauds them, the critics praise them. . . . They are the poetry of the game; they are to Chess what melody is to music.”

Often the brilliancy derives from the victor’s sacrificing or placing a piece in danger; only later do obser vers recognize that the stratagem led to victory. “The bigger the sacrifice, the more beautiful.” It is because of his willingness to sacrifice his queen that thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer’s defeat of former United States Open champion Donald Byrne at the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York is called “the game of the century.” The brilliancy was not recognized when the move was first made but only after the game was analyzed and revealed in time.

How is the beauty of chess experienced? How do players become engrossed in chess play? Part of the beauty of chess is its experienced quality. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speaks of “flow” to capture the capacity of people to focus on an activity so closely that they lose awareness of time, external surroundings, and self-consciousness. Such experiences become autotelic, as the boundaries between self and activity fade. This is when we are most creative, productive, and satisfied in our work, leisure, and personal lives. Csikszentmihalyi selected chess as a key example of a focused activity. Players report performing best when the flow experience is maximized and they “dig in” to the game. It is not only the logic of pieces on the board that contributes to treating chess as art, but experienced emotions. Liquid moves replace concrete choices.


Players commonly view chess as a science, and many of the greatest chess players (as well as those less gifted) have jobs in technical or scientific fields. Adolf Anderssen, Emanuel Lasker, and Max Euwe were mathematicians; Mikhail Botvinnik was an engineer, and José Raúl Capablanca also studied engineering. As one player explained, “They are all math guys.” Reuben Fine estimated that about half of the greatest players had mathematical or scientific backgrounds.

The metaphor of chess as science relies on the commonsense image of science as value-free, objective, and rigorous. In chess some assert that there is always one best move in a given position. For these players, worrying about “chess psychology” is wasted time if the proper move can be found through rational deliberation. As one informant explained, players review their games because “they are looking for the truth.” At any point there is only “one truth in the position” (field notes). For many players and some philosophers there is “truth in chess.” Computer programs such as Rybka or Fritz are popular in that they support this comforting illusion, no matter the action of an opponent. From this perspective one should play the board, not the opponent. Bobby Fischer was a leading exponent of this view, avowing, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.” His position has a powerful logic. The rhetoric of science proclaims that long-term strategies and short-term tactics can be developed through close study of the principles of chess. Aron Nimzowitsch’s Chess Praxis treats chess as a science by stressing fundamental principles, such as “centralization” and “over- protection.” Such a systematic presentation of chess theory emphasizes logic and objectivity, training the mind to apply general principles to vaguely defined situations. Chess is a game of perfect information, in which chance or information unequally distributed among the players should not play a role (as in poker or bridge), and this enshrines science. Each player has the opportunity to see the same things, even if background or training does not permit that seeing.

Chess theory has evolved over time in fits and starts. Of course, much theory cannot be easily detached from stylistic preferences or accepted conventions of play, tied to local chess cultures. Innovation is necessary for grandmasters to dethrone their predecessors; the tactical and strategic answers that worked in previous models are translated into an approach that is alleged to be objectively superior. As games are won and lost, newly “correct” and “objective” approaches to the game are discovered, and advice is reframed. This model suggests that chess theory is metaphorically likened to a science with experimental tests. However, as scholars of science studies indicate, a simple-truth model of scientific progress is not persuasive. Science advances through changes in practices that are defined as legitimate and embedded in social relations. The rational and objective basis of science cannot be separated from cultural context, politics, and scientific reputations and is often contested as chess styles rise and fall.

Max Euwe and John Nunn note that “succeeding generations of experts have contributed to the development of chess play, but it was the style of some outstanding individual which moulded the thinking and style of play of his time.” Perhaps this lays too much emphasis on the genius, rather than the community of competitors, but they rightly indicate the dynamics of change. This is what international master Anthony Saidy terms “the battle of chess ideas.”

Styles of play did not develop steadily and cumulatively but often advanced in revolutionary paradigm shifts that served as strategic replies to dominant paradigms. The objectivity of theoretical principles is often blurred by the confounding factor of creative genius and calculative ability found in the best players. Further, chess theory, like scientific knowledge generally, is in part “Whig history,” a theory of continual progress that interprets the past in light of the choices that characterize the activity in the present.

In the chessworld, as in science, knowledge is acquired socially. Advancement depends on challenges over the board. Players participate in local and extended networks of knowledge, but always based on the recognition of community. Chess is a set not just of ideas but of ideas that become recognized through social relations and shared practices.


Chess games are competitive, like the world of sports. While the more prestigious images of chess as art or science are common, the agonistic aspects of sport are also evident. As the Great Soviet Encyclopedia suggests, chess is “a sport masquerading as an art.” Chess can be symbolically “bloody,” as pieces live and die. This reality thrills players, motivates improvement, and shapes status hierarchies. Many players attribute their love for chess to the cutthroat competition. Former world champion Anatoly Karpov remarked, “Chess is a cruel type of sport. In it the weight of victory and defeat lies on the shoulders of one man. . . . When you play well and lose, it’s terrible.” Indeed, checkmate is derived from the Persian for “the king is dead.” As a master-level player describes the hypercompetitive approach of top players at a local club, “The masters at the top . . . [are] very competitive, and [have] big egos. . . . Their whole attitude. . . [is] that I am going to crush you. And I will be extremely rude. And I will do whatever is necessary to crush you.” Another player explained to me, “Chess is like hand-to-hand combat. It’s so visceral. How can I hurt you?” (field notes). Such metaphors are so common as to be unremarkable.

Why is chess so competitive? The answer is found largely in the institutional framework by which club play is organized. In Britain chess had been funded by the Sports Council, intercollegiate chess at Harvard was once overseen by the Department of Athletics, and in Chicago public schools, scholastic chess is administered by the Department of Sports Administration. Some high schools offer athletic letters for chess players. To capture the fan loyalty of sports, entrepreneurs organized the United States Chess League in 2005 and receive funding from poker websites. Sixteen teams of strong players, including grandmasters, play each other in competitive but unrated matches. Teams include the New York Knights and the Saint Louis Arch Bishops. Of course, chess is often a simple pastime for fathers and sons or friends on lazy afternoons, merely a more complex version of Candyland, a board game for preschoolers. While casual games are part of the subculture, they are markedly different from tournament play, where the logic of chess as sport is evident.

Local clubs and tournaments are organized under rules established by national organizations such as the USCF. Players in tournaments can gain or lose rating points that measure their skill in comparison to other players. Ratings range from zero (novices start with an assumed rating of 600 but can lose rating points) to over 2800 for a top grandmaster. As of 2004, the average rating for a member of the USCF (including the many scholastic and occasional players) was 1068. Ratings are perhaps the primary motivating factor of organized play and serve as a form of identification. A rating locates one in a competitive hierarchy and determines in which tournaments one can participate and in which division one can play. The outcomes of tournaments affect ratings, based on a complex and changing mathematical computation. Rating points are assumed to be generally accurate, reliable, and universal indicators of a player’s chess skill, even though, as I discuss in chapter 6, they can be misleading. But in practice, ratings translate into status, prestige, and respect.

The chess rating system is distinctive among leisure worlds in shaping player identities, organizing status rankings, and encouraging or dissuading participation. Comparing chess to other organized sports helps decipher the effects of different evaluative systems. For example, baseball players are judged by a set of statistics (batting average, home runs, runs batted in, fielding percentage, stolen bases) that describe their competence in different skill sets. These sorts of statistics diminish competition among teammates, since they emphasize specialization. Chess does not create separate measures for different facets of the game, but players are assigned a single rating. This is a powerful example of “commensuration,” or “the transformation of diff erent entities into a common metric,” affecting personal investment, social comparison, and status competition. Often, as in ice skating, the determination of these measures is altered to achieve what members of the community consider a “fair” distribution.

Chess is famously an activity of the mind, with only the slightest movement of light wood pieces. Yet lengthy games may involve bodily stress, and players are known for lacking physical fitness, even if prior to long matches some adopt exercise regimes. As I discuss in chapter 1, chess is a game of body as well as mind. To play chess requires an awareness of body, and even if competitors do not require muscle, endurance is essential.

Still, sport has multiple meanings, and chess can, at times, fit the metaphor of sport. The patterns of play suggest an aesthetic appeal that links chess to art worlds. If it is neither quite a material art nor a performance art, the beauty of a well-played game is recognized.

Likewise, we link chess to science. Over the centuries, chess has developed a body of systematic knowledge labeled “chess theory.” As in Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, there are periods of revolution, periods of active incorporation, and periods of normal play. Finally, chess involves brutal competition. Ultimately chess depends on embracing a culture and a status system based on uncertain outcomes in the form of victories and defeats. While we may speak of chess as a leisure world, ignoring those professionals who earn a living from the activity, it creates solidarity, a desire to demonstrate commitment to a local community.

To read more about Players and Pawns, click here.

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7. World Elephant Day


Tuesday, August 12th, is the inaugural “World Elephant Day,” initiated by a number of elephant conservation organizations, each working in collaboration toward “better protection for wild elephants, improving enforcement policies to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, better treatment for captive elephants and, when appropriate, reintroducing captive elephants into natural, protected sanctuaries.”

Caitlin O’Connell, the author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, recently posted at National Geographic about the loss of Greg, the iconic elephant whose rise and reign as a don among his peers was chronicled in her book. Finally reconciling that fact that she hadn’t seen Greg in four years with the increasing likelihood of his death inspired O’Connell to post a formal obit, of sorts, in which she reminisced on Greg’s presence, absence, and legacy. In part:

Four years after what most probably marked the passing of the don, I can’t ignore the impact that his absence has had on this male society, and just how similar their social dynamics have been to a human society after the loss of a great figure head. In 2012, the first season without the don, there seemed to be competing factions, Prince Charles leading one camp and Luke the other. The interesting thing in that dynamic was the fact that both these characters had been bullies and had previously shown no interest in taking the next generation under their elephantine wing. But in the absence of Greg, they both changed their tune and had amassed an impressive following. But by 2013, both of these building strongholds had collapsed with barely a trace of the loyal following they had built for themselves.

By 2014 it was hard to imagine that such a tightknit social group of male elephants existed. Long gone were the days of Greg’s conga line amassing on the horizon and coming in to spend hours together and the social club that was Mushara.

And now, here we are in the last quarter of the 2015 season, and there is barely a trace of the don’s social fabric that he has so carefully stitched together and vigorously maintained. It was hard for even me to remember the way things were.

A faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine, O’Connell has been chronicling the lives of African male elephants for the past twenty-three years, including Elephant Don and an earlier work, The Elephant’s Secret Sense, both of which are published by the University of Chicago Press. As one of our foremost experts on elephant behavior and communication, her posts for National Geographic‘s Voices blog are an excellent foray into the issues faced first-hand by these majestic creatures, as well as an anthropological chronicle of the day-to-day lives of a particular group of elephants living at Etosha National Park in Namibia. You can read more about Greg’s story in Elephant Don—in addition to her blog posts for NG and numerous popular books and articles about elephant communities, O’Connell runs a Tumblr, Elephant Skinny, filled with anecdotes and images that pick up where Elephant Don leaves off (most recently with the birth of Athena, daughter to Mona Lisa, pictured below).


To read more about World Elephant Day, click here.

To read more by Caitlin O’Connell, click here.

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8. Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers: A Postscript

Jennifer Ann Drobac’s Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers: Adolescent Development, Discrimination, and Consent Lawwhich focuses on the precarious positions, legal and otherwise, occupied by developing adolescents when sexually harassed by adults, including supervisors, teachers, and mentorswill publish in January 2016.  Following a recent change to California civil law spurred by Drobac’s scholarship, the following serves as postscript to the book.

In November 2014, after I completed this manuscript, I spoke with Karen Foshay, a news reporter who was covering a case involving a California middle school student.[1] Los Angeles School District lawyers used the girl’s consent to sex with her teacher to defend a civil action filed by her family. Then, after Arun Rath interviewed me on All Things Considered, I received calls from several California legislative aides regarding possible changes to California civil law.[2] In July 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed S.B. 14, effective January 1, 2016. This bill creates California Civil Code section 1708.5.5, which will prohibit the use of a minor’s consent in a civil action against an adult in a position of authority.[3] It is not clear how this law will affect California civil cases involving adults who do not occupy positions of authority. Additionally, one cannot tell how this new state law will affect federal cases, and particularly those filed under Titles IX and VII. However, this postscript demonstrates that one person can make a difference. You can make a difference.


[1] Karen Foshay, “LAUSD argued middle schooler can consent to sex with teacher,” 89.3 KPCC, Nov. 13, 2014, available at www.scpr.org/news/2014/11/13/48034/lausd-argued-middle-schooler-can-consent-to-sex-wi/ (interview begins at 2:28) (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015); see also Larry Mantle, “KPCC investigation reveals questionable tactics LAUSD used to defend rape lawsuit,” 89.3 KPCC, Nov. 13, 2014, available at www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2014/11/13/40321/kpcc-investigation-reveals-questionable-tactics-la/ (interview begins at 4:19) (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015).

[2] Arun Rath, “Criminal Law Says Minors Can’t Consent—But Some Civil Courts Disagree,” All Things Considered, Nov. 16, 2014, available at www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=364538087&m=364561418 (interview begins at 3:44) (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015).

[3] Patrick McGreevy, “Gov. Brown signs bill closing loophole in sexual assault law,” LA Times, July 16, 2015, available at www.latimes.com/local/political/la-me-pc-gov-brown-closes-loophole-in-sexual-assault-law-20150716-story.html (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015).

To read more about Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers, click here.

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9. Svetlana Boym (1966–2015)


Svetlana Boym, Curto Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures among some of her art work at ART@29, a new art space at Harvard Located at 29 Garden Street.  Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer

In sad news, scholar, media artist, and writer Svetlana Boym (1966–2015) died on August 5, 2015, following a year-long struggle with cancer. The Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University, Boym’s voracious and wide-ranging intellectual pursuit of our iconic, burdensome, and occasionally off-kilter inheritances from modernism led to engagements with the works of such artists “as Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Kabakov, Victor Shklovsky, Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Joseph Brodsky, among others.” Included in her own writings was Another Freedom: An Alternative History of an Idea, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2010, which explored freedom’s cross-cultural and utopian possibilities drawn from a personal and historical examination of the relationship between art and politics. Boym had previously been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy in Berlin Fellowship, a Bunting Fellowship, and Harvard University’s Everett Mendelsohn Award for excellence in mentoring.

From the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University:

Our memory of her remains of one who was brimming with vitality, brilliance, and wit. Her warm yet fiercely independent personality together with her influential scholarship attracted students and colleagues from around Harvard, and indeed around the world. We will miss her terribly.

To visit Boym’s personal website (and her “Off-Modern Manifesto”), click here.

To read more about Another Freedom, click here.

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10. August 5, 1949: Young Men and Fire


August 5, 2015, marks the 66th anniversary of the Mann Gulch wildfire, which eventually spread to cover 4,500 acres of Montana’s Gates of the Mountain Wilderness in Helena National Forest, and claimed the lives of 12 of the 15 elite US Forest Service Smokejumpers, who acted as first responders in the moments before the blaze jumped up a slope and “blew up” its surrounding grass. Haunted by the event, Montana native, author, and former University of Chicago professor Norman Maclean devoted much of his life’s work to researching and writing an account of the events that unfolded that first week of August 1949, which would met publication posthumously two years after Maclean’s death as Young Men and FireThe book, now considered a classic reconstruction of an American tragedy and a premier piece of elegiac memoir qua historical non-fiction, went on to win a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Below follows an excerpt.


Then Dodge saw it. Rumsey and Sallee didn’t, and probably none of the rest of the crew did either. Dodge was thirty-three and foreman and was supposed to see; he was in front where he could see. Besides, he hadn’t liked what he had seen when he looked down the canyon after he and Harrison had returned to the landing area to get something to eat, so his seeing powers were doubly on the alert. Rumsey and Sallee were young and they were crew and were carrying tools and rubbernecking at the fire across the gulch. Dodge takes only a few words to say what the “it” was he saw next: “We continued down the canyon for approximately five minutes before I could see that the fire had crossed Mann Gulch and was coming up the ridge toward us.”

Neither Rumsey nor Sallee could see the fire that was now on their side of the gulch, but both could see smoke coming toward them over a hogback directly in front. As for the main fire across the gulch, it still looked about the same to them, “confined to the upper third of the slope.”

At the Review, Dodge estimated they had a 150- to 200-yard head start on the fire coming at them on the north side of the gulch. He immediately reversed direction and started back up the canyon, angling toward the top of the ridge on a steep grade. When asked why he didn’t go straight for the top there and then, he answered that the ground was too rocky and steep and the fire was coming too fast to dare to go at right angles to it.

You may ask yourself how it was that of the crew only Rumsey and Sallee survived. If you had known ahead of time that only two would survive, you probably never would have picked these two—they were first-year jumpers, this was the first fire they had ever jumped on, Sallee was one year younger than the minimum age, and around the base they were known as roommates who had a pretty good time for themselves. They both became big operators in the world of the woods and prairies, and part of this story will be to find them and ask them why they think they alone survived, but even if ultimately your answer or theirs seems incomplete, this seems a good place to start asking the question. In their statements soon after the fire, both say that the moment Dodge reversed the route of the crew they became alarmed, for, even if they couldn’t see the fire, Dodge’s order was to run from one. They reacted in seconds or less. They had been traveling at the end of the line because they were carrying unsheathed saws. When the head of the line started its switchback, Rumsey and Sallee left their positions at the end of the line, put on extra speed, and headed straight uphill, connecting with the front of the line to drop into it right behind Dodge.

They were all traveling at top speed, all except Navon. He was stopping to take snapshots.

The world was getting faster, smaller, and louder, so much faster that for the first time there are random differences among the survivors about how far apart things were. Dodge says it wasn’t until one thousand to fifteen hundred feet after the crew had changed directions that he gave the order for the heavy tools to be dropped. Sallee says it was only two hundred yards, and Rumsey can remember. Whether they had traveled five hundred yards or two hundred yards, the new fire coming up the gulch toward them was coming faster than they had been going. Sallee says, “By the time we dropped our packs and tools the fire was probably not much over a hundred yards behind us, and it seemed to me that it was getting ahead of us both above and below.” If the fire was only a hundred yards behind now it had gained a lot of ground on them since they had reversed directions, and Rumsey says he could never remember going faster in his life than he had for the last five hundred yards.

Dodge testifies that this was the first time he had tried to communicate with his men since rejoining them at the head of the gulch, and he is reported as saying—for the second time—something about “getting out of this death trap.” When asked by the Board of Review if he had explained to the men the danger they were in, he looked at the Board in amazement, as if the Board had never been outside the city limits and wouldn’t know sawdust if they saw it in a pile. It was getting late for talk anyway. What could anybody hear? It roared from behind, below, and across, and the crew, inside it, was shut out from all but a small piece of the outside world.

They had come to the station of the cross where something you want to see and can’t shuts out the sight of everything that otherwise could be seen. Rumsey says again and again what the something was he couldn’t see. “The top of the ridge, the top of the ridge.

“I had noticed that a fire will wear out when it reaches the top of a ridge. I started putting on steam thinking if I could get to the top of the ridge I would be safe.

“I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe… I forgot to mention I could not definitely see the ridge from where we were. We kept running up since it had to be there somewhere. Might be a mile and a half or a hundred feet—I had no idea.”

The survivors say they weren’t panicked, and something like that is probably true. Smokejumpers are selected for being tough, but Dodge’s men were very young and, as he testified, none of them had been on a blowup before and they were getting exhausted and confused. The world roared at them—there was no safe place inside and there was almost no outside. By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.

Dodge’s order was to throw away just their packs and heavy tools, but to his surprise some of them had already thrown away all their equipment. On the other hand, some of them wouldn’t abandon their heavy tools, even after Dodge’s order. Diettert, one of the most intelligent of the crew, continued carrying both his tools until Rumsey caught up with him, took his shovel, and leaned it against a pine tree. Just a little farther on, Rumsey and Sallee passed the recreation guard, Jim Harrison, who, having been on the fire all afternoon, was now exhausted. He was sitting with his heavy pack on and was making no effort to take it off, and Rumsey and Sallee wondered numbly why he didn’t but no one stopped to suggest he get on his feet or gave him a hand to help him up. It was even too late to pray for him. Afterwards, his ranger wrote his mother and, struggling for something to say that would comfort her, told her that her son always attended mass when he could.

It was way over one hundred degrees. Except for some scattered timber, the slope was mostly hot rock slides and grass dried to hay.

It was becoming a world where thought that could be described as such was done largely by fixations. Thought consisted in repeating over and over something that had been said in a training course or at least by somebody older than you.

Critical distances shortened. It had been a quarter of a mile from where Dodge had rejoined his crew to where he had the crew reverse direction. From there they had gone only five hundred yards at the most before he realized the fire was gaining on them so rapidly that the men should discard whatever was heavy.

The next station of the cross was only seventy-five yards ahead. There they came to the edge of scattered timber with a grassy slope ahead. There they could see what is really not possible to see: the center of a blowup. It is really not possible to see the center of a blowup because the smoke only occasionally lifts, and when it does all that can be seen are pieces, pieces of death flying around looking for you—burning cones, branches circling on wings, a log in flight without a propeller. Below in the bottom of the gulch was a great roar without visible flames but blown with winds on fire. Now, for the first time, they could have seen to the head of the gulch if they had been looking that way. And now, for the first time, to their left the top of the ridge was visible, looking when the smoke parted to be not more than two hundred yards away.

Navon had already left the line and on his own was angling for the top. Having been at Bastogne, he thought he had come to know the deepest of secrets—how death can be avoided—and, as if he did, he had put away his camera. But if he really knew at that moment how death could be avoided, he would have had to know the answers to two questions: How could fires be burning in all directions and be burning right at you? And how could those invisible and present only by a roar all be roaring at you?

On the open slope ahead of the timber Dodge was lighting a fire in the bunch grass with a “gofer” match. He was to say later at the Review that he did not think he or his crew could make the two hundred yards to the top of the ridge. He was also to estimate that the men had about thirty seconds before the fire would roar over them.

Dodge’s fire did not disturb Rumsey’s fixation. Speaking of Dodge lighting his own fire, Rumsey said, “I remember thinking that that was a very good idea, but I don’t remember what I thought it was good for.… I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe.”

Sallee was with Rumsey. Diettert, who before being called to the fire had been working on a project with Rumsey, was the third in the bunch that reached Dodge. On a summer day in 1978, twenty-nine years later, Sallee and I stood on what we thought was the same spot. Sallee said, “I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match. I thought, With the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us?”

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine just what most of the crew must have thought when they first looked across the open hill-side and saw their boss seemingly playing with a matchbook in dry grass. Although the Mann Gulch fire occurred early in the history of the Smokejumpers, it is still their special tragedy, the one in which their crew suffered almost a total loss and the only one in which their loss came from the fire itself. It is also the only fire any member of the Forest Service had ever seen or heard of in which the foreman got out ahead of his crew only to light a fire in advance of the fire he and his crew were trying to escape. In case I hadn’t understood him the first time, Sallee repeated, “We thought he must have gone nuts.” A few minutes later his fire became more spectacular still, when Sallee, having reached the top of the ridge, looked back and saw the foreman enter his own fire and lie down in its hot ashes to let the main fire pass over him.


To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.

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11. Our free e-book for August: Traveling in Place


Our free e-book for August:

Bernd Stiegler’s Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel

Armchair travel may seem like an oxymoron. Doesn’t travel require us to leave the house? And yet, anyone who has lost herself for hours in the descriptive pages of a novel or the absorbing images of a film knows the very real feeling of having explored and experienced a different place or time without ever leaving her seat. No passport, no currency, no security screening required—the luxury of armchair travel is accessible to us all. In Traveling in Place, Bernd Stiegler celebrates this convenient, magical means of transport in all its many forms.
Organized into twenty-one “legs”—or short chapters—Traveling in Place begins with a consideration of Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 Voyage autour de ma chambre,an account of the forty-two-day “journey around his room” Maistre undertook as a way to entertain himself while under house arrest. Stiegler is fascinated by the notion of exploring the familiar as though it were completely new and strange. He engages writers as diverse as Roussel, Beckett, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Cortázar, Kierkegaard, and Borges, all of whom show how the everyday can be brilliantly transformed. Like the best guidebooks, Traveling in Place is more interested in the idea of travel as a state of mind than as a physical activity, and Stiegler reflects on the different ways that traveling at home have manifested themselves in the modern era, from literature and film to the virtual possibilities of the Internet, blogs, and contemporary art.
Reminiscent of the pictorial meditations of Sebald, but possessed of the intellectual playfulness of Calvino, Traveling in Place offers an entertaining and creative Baedeker to journeying at home.
Download your copy here.

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12. The Freedom Principle


This past weekend, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago launched the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, co-organized by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete. An easy explication for the impetus behind the show takes the viewer to the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, where African American artists and musicians grappled with new language and forms inspired by the black nationalist turn in the Civil Rights movement. I’m plucking that line from the jacket copy, but the show (and its associated book) goes beyond [its important] cultural inventory and instead repositions the wide-ranging experimental works and the community of artists who made them in one particular canon to which they have long-belonged: the history of avant-garde collectives engaged equally in art and social justice.

You can view sample pages from the book here.

From a very brief description via the Art Newspaper:

This year, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), an avant-garde jazz collective founded on the South Side of Chicago, celebrates its 50th birthday. Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is joining the festivities with the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. Hingeing on the themes of improvisation, experimentation and collectivity, it looks at the 1960s avant-garde African-American arts scene of the South Side, including the AACM and visual art collectives such as the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists ­(AfriCOBRA) and art that responds to and continues this legacy.

And from a more fleshed-out version at the MCA Chicago’s website:

The exhibition, which takes its title from a 1984 book by Chicago jazz critic John Litweiler, showcases the multifaceted world of the black avant-garde in Chicago during the 1960s alongside a selection of contemporary artists’ interpretations of this heritage. It includes works of music and art from, among others, AACM-founder, pianist, and painter Muhal Richard Abrams; Art Ensemble of Chicago bandleader Roscoe Mitchell; and AfriCOBRA cofounders Jeff Donaldson, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams. Archival materials—brochures, banners, photographs, posters, sheet music, record covers—provide a rich context for the exhibition. Recent works by artists such as Terry Adkins, Nick Cave, Renée Green, Rashid Johnson, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Cauleen Smith, and Stan Douglas present an ongoing intergenerational conversation about experimentation, improvisation, collective action, and the search for freedom. Working together across multiple platforms, Catherine Sullivan, George Lewis, Charles Gaines, and Sean Griffin are collaborating on an opera, to be presented on the MCA Stage, and on a related installation within the exhibition.

Long story, short: the sample pages are tantalizing, because the show is quite stunning in its breadth and depth. If the art, images, marginalia, and artifacts gathered here don’t immediately grab you, then, I just don’t know. You should go back and read George E. Lewis’s communal history, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental MusicAnd then think to yourself: I wonder how this looked. And felt. And how it worked. And what it all means now.

Read more about The Freedom Principle here.

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13. The tenacity of the Little Magazine in the digital age


From a recent piece in the New Yorker by Stephen Burt on the plight/flight of the little magazine in the digital age:

Ditto machines in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, offset printing and, in the past two decades, Web-based publishing have made it at least seem easier for each new generation. In 1980, the Pushcart Press—known for its annual Pushcart Prizes—published a seven-hundred-and-fifty-page brick of a book, “The Little Magazine in America,” of memoirs and interviews with editors of small journals. “The Little Magazine in Contemporary America,” a much more manageable collection of interviews and essays that was published in April, looks at the years since then, the years that included—so say the book’s editors, Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz— “the end of the ascendancy of print periodicals,” meaning that the best small litmags have moved online.

The Little Magazine in America does indeed chronicle the history and trajectory of the “little magazine” through the past half-century of American life, from its origins in universities, urban centers and rural fringes, and among self-identified peers. Featuring contributions from the editors of BOMB and n + 1  to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and the Women’s Review of Books, Morris and Diaz’s collection pays special attention to the fate of these idiosyncratic cultural touchstones in an age fueled by financial crises and the ascendency of digital technology and web-and-device-based reading.

As Burt’s piece concludes:

A new journal needs a reason to exist: a gap that earlier journals failed to fill, a new form of pleasure, a new kind of writing, an alliance with a new or under-chronicled social movement, a constellation of authors for whom the future demand for work exceeds present supply, a program that will actually change some small part of some literary readers’ tastes. None of this has changed with the rise of the Web. Nor has the other big truth about little magazines which emerges from Diaz and Morris’s book, or from a day spent with anybody who runs one: it’s exhausting, albeit exciting, to do it yourself.

To read more about The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, click here.

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14. Doña Barbara: Our free e-book for July


Our free e-book for July is Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos (“a Madame Bovary of the llano,” as Larry McMurtry hails it in his Foreword).


Rómulo Gallegos is best known for being Venezuela’s first democratically elected president. But in his native land he is equally famous as a writer responsible for one of Venezuela’s literary treasures, the novel Doña Barbara. Published in 1929 and all but forgotten by Anglophone readers, Doña Barbara is one of the first examples of magical realism, laying the groundwork for later authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Following the epic struggle between two cousins for an estate in Venezuela, Doña Barbara is an examination of the conflict between town and country, violence and intellect, male and female. Doña Barbara is a beautiful and mysterious woman—rumored to be a witch—with a ferocious power over men. When her cousin Santos Luzardo returns to the plains in order to reclaim his land and cattle, he reluctantly faces off against Doña Barbara, and their battle becomes simultaneously one of violence and seduction. All of the action is set against the stunning backdrop of the Venezuelan prairie, described in loving detail. Gallegos’s plains are filled with dangerous ranchers, intrepid cowboys, and damsels in distress, all broadly and vividly drawn. A masterful novel with an important role in the inception of magical realism, Doña Barbara is a suspenseful tale that blends fantasy, adventure, and romance.

Download your free copy, here.

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15. Heat Wave


Below follows a brief excerpt from “Heat Wave,” Chicago magazine’s excellent, comprehensive oral history of the week of record-breaking temperatures in July 1995 that killed more than 700 people, became one of the nation’s worst disasters, and left a legacy of unanswered questions about how civic, social, and medical respondents were ill-equipped and unable to contend with trauma on such a scale.


Mark Cichon, emergency room physician at Chicago Osteopathic Hospital

I remember talking to friends at other hospitals who said, “Man, we’re in the middle of a crisis mode.” It was across the city. Our waiting room and the emergency departments were packed. We were going from one emergency to another, all bunched together, almost like a pit crew. The most severe cases were the patients with asthma who were so far into an attack we couldn’t resuscitate them. I remember a woman in her early 30s. The paramedics had already put a tube into her lungs. We were trying to turn her around, but there was nothing that could be done.

Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and author of the 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (to the Chicago Tribune in July 2012)

[Fire officials] did not call in additional ambulances and paramedics, even though the wait times for people needing help were long.

Raymond Orozco, commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department (at an Illinois Senate hearing in late July 1995)

Nobody indicated that we needed more personnel or supplies. Our field supervisors told us, “We’re holding our own.” We needed something to trigger the mechanism. Nobody pulled the trigger.


Klinenberg, who offers a line of commentary in the piece, explored those days in depth in his classic work of sociology, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, a second edition of which just published this past May, including a new preface by Klinenberg that situates climate change at the center of untenable weather events in urban centers and pushes for changes in infrastructure, rather than post-disaster responses. You can read more about the book here.

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16. The crisis in non-fiction publishing


Bolder. More global. Risk-taking. The home of future stars.

Not a tagline for a well-placed index fund portfolio (thank G-d), but the crux of a piece by Sam Leith for the Guardian on the “crisis in non-fiction publishing”—ostensibly the result of copycat, smart-thinking, point-taking trade fodder that made Malcolm Gladwell not just a columnist, but a brand. As Leith asserts:

We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the “always topical” debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with “what it means to be human.”

Enter the university presses. Though Leith acknowledges they’re still capable of producing academic jargon dressed-up in always already pantalettes, they are also home to deeper, more complex, and vital trade non-fiction that produces new scholarship and nuanced contributions to the world of ideas, while still targeting their offerings to the general reader. If big-house publishers produce brands, scholarly presses produce the sharp, intelligent, and individualized contributions that later (after, perhaps, some mutation and watering down by the conglomerates) establish their fields. Especially nice to see Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Cambridge, and UCP called out for their “high-calibre, serious non-fiction of the quality and variety.”

More from the Guardian article:

In natural history and popular science, alone, for instance: Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s amazing book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins or Brooke Borel’s history of the bedbug, Infested, or Caitlin O’Connell’s book on pachyderm behaviour, Elephant Don, or Christian Sardet’s gorgeous book Plankton? All are published by the University of Chicago. Beth Shapiro’s book on the science of de-extinction, How to Clone a Mammoth? Published by Princeton. In biography, Yale – who gave us Sue Prideaux’s award-winning life of Strindberg a couple of years back – have been quietly churning out the superb Jewish Lives series. Theirs is the new biography of Stalin applauded by one reviewer as “the pinnacle of scholarly knowledge on the subject”, and theirs the much-admired new life of Francis Barber, the freed slave named as Dr Johnson’s heir. Here are chewy, interesting subjects treated by writers of real authority but marketed in a popular way. The university presses are turning towards the public because with the big presses not taking these risks, the stuff’s there for the taking.

You can read more about the University of Chicago Press’s biological sciences list here. And the rest of our titles, organized by subject category, here. Follow the #ReadUP hashtag on Twitter for old and new books straddling the line between accessible scholarship and exciting nonfiction.

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17. Carol Kasper receives the 2015 AAUP Constituency Award


Carol Kasper, our very own marketing director, was recently honored by the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) with their 2015 Constituency Award. The Constituency Award is unique, in that it involves an open-call nomination process from one’s peers, and focuses not only on individual achievement, but also on the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that marks the measure of integrity and success within the scholarly publishing community.

From the official press release:

The Constituency Award, established in 1991, honors an individual of a member press who has demonstrated active leadership and service, not only in service to the Association but to the scholarly publishing community as a whole. In addition to a term on the Association’s Board of Directors from 2009 to 2011, Kasper has been a member of numerous committees and panels throughout the years, including the Marketing Committee, the Bias-Free Language Task Force, and Midwest Presses Meeting Committees. . . . In addition to her formal service to the Association, and her leadership in the university press and international scholarly publishing worlds, Kasper has hosted numerous Whiting/AAUP Residents over the years. One of the nominating letters added: “Carol has dedicated all this time and energy to the AAUP in her typically quiet, unassuming fashion.”

From University of Chicago Press director Garrett Kiely’s remarks at the award ceremony:

What makes Carol special and what uniquely qualifies her for this award are the people that Carol has mentored, supported, and trained in her time here in Chicago,” says Garrett Kiely, Director of University of Chicago Press and presenter of the award. “To put it in scholarly journal terms, her ‘impact factor’ has been very high!”

And just to add:

Carol is a phenomenal teacher and mentor—the very best kind, in that the generosity she extends to her colleagues, the fierce integrity with which she makes things happen, the self-determination and cooperation she encourages, and the good humor she doles out all seem effortless, because they are so very much a part of her. Congrats, CK!

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18. The Dead Ladies Project at Public Books


From Nandini Ramachandran’s review of The Dead Ladies Project at Public Books:

The Dead Ladies Project is part of a long literary tradition of single ladies having adventures. As a genre, it has had to contend with the collective energies of late capitalism (which tries to convert all adventure into tourism), patriarchy (which tries to make all single women into threatening and/or pathetic monsters), and publishing (which tries to repackage and flatten all women who write into “women writers”). It does, on the whole, remarkably well, perhaps because it’s written by insightful people who have resisted, for an entire century, the call to cynicism. It’s easy, these days, to be jaded about human relationships, to believe that they have been fabricated and marketed and focus-grouped into torpor and that no one remains capable of an authentic emotion. Jessa Crispin, like so many writers before her, flatly refuses to believe that. She insists on the fleeting, transcendental passion, the abjection of unrequited longing, the thrill and terror of waking up in an alien city. She insists, further, that a woman can revel in all that tumult.

(I choose this excerpt as the best teaser for the book, yet a part earlier on, a sort of prelude in which Ramachandran relays the mise-en-scène of the spinster’s myth, that consuming-qua-shrill narrative surrounding a woman with “too much plot”—I feel you.)

Read more about The Dead Ladies Project here.

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19. Free e-book for June: Prospero’s Son


Our free e-book for June:

Prospero’s Son: Life, Books, Love and Theater by Seth Lerer


“This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciousnesses and almost two epochs.” That’s how Edmund Gosse opened Father and Son, the classic 1907 book about his relationship with his father. Seth Lerer’s Prospero’s Son is, as fits our latter days, altogether more complicated, layered, and multivalent, but at its heart is that same problem: the fraught relationship between fathers and sons.
At the same time, Lerer’s memoir is about the power of books and theater, the excitement of stories in a young man’s life, and the transformative magic of words and performance. A flamboyantly performative father, a teacher and lifelong actor, comes to terms with his life as a gay man. A bookish boy becomes a professor of literature and an acclaimed expert on the very children’s books that set him on his path in the first place. And when that boy grows up, he learns how hard it is to be a father and how much books can, and cannot, instruct him. Throughout these intertwined accounts of changing selves, Lerer returns again and again to stories—the ways they teach us about discovery, deliverance, forgetting, and remembering.
“A child is a man in small letter,” wrote Bishop John Earle in the seventeenth century. “His father hath writ him as his own little story.” WithProspero’s Son, Seth Lerer acknowledges the author of his story while simultaneously reminding us that we all confront the blank page of life on our own, as authors of our lives.
Download your free copy of Prospero’s Son, here.

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20. So going around the town(s)

What Stevie Wonder really meant to sing was “no book launch Saturday within the month of June,” and with that in mind, here are some recent images from those book-related fêtes staged a smidge sooner, during the long green march of spring.


Snapshots from the official book launch for The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes for Savoring the Heritage of Regional Southern Cookingfeaturing Chef (and author) Paul Fehribach, some of his clientele, and a band of University of Chicago Press culinary enthusiasts:






A photograph from the Dublin launch of Gillian O’Brien’s Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago (these young readers are actually O’Brien’s nieces and nephew):

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And, finally, this photograph from Andrew Hartman’s talk about A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars at the In These Times HQ:

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To read more about books from Chicago’s most recent list, click here.

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21. Douglas Mitchell on Donald Levine


When sociologist Donald Levine (1931–2015) passed away this April, the Chicago Tribune asked University of Chicago Press executive editor Douglas Mitchell to offer up some remarks on his decades long personal and professional relationship with the longtime University of Chicago professor and former dean of the College. With Mitchell’s permission, they follow, in full, after the jump.


Don Levine and I go back a ways. In fact, the Chicago Tribune plays a role in my memories because of a “First Person” feature the Trib did about me on June 22, 1986 (you probably remember these full-page bio-vignettes in the Sunday magazine, usually on or near the back page—inspired no doubt by Studs Terkel’s Working, the reporters would sniff out interesting occupations, usually stuff like pizza delivery guy, parking lot attendant, hotel housekeeper, and the like, but then they got the idea of doing a white-collar type). I told the story of how I had been leafing through old files and found a one-paragraph sketch of a book on precision vs. ambiguity in language, and how the worship of precision actually disrupts understanding and relationships. It turned out to be Donald Levine’s book idea. I was smitten. I called him (we had no contact prior to that even though he was on the faculty; this was back when I was new to the Press in the late ’70s). Conversations with him led me to see that ambiguity has very definite positive functions in poetic and diplomatic and heuristic contexts, and so, chapter by chapter, we worked together for a few years to bring to fruition his The Flight from Ambiguity (1985).

Conversations with him were exciting because he had such a restless mind, curious about everything (a lot of curiosity for intellectuals comes from a wish to convert what they find back into their own terms, their own frameworks, but it’s a constant process of modifying ideas, both for the thinker and the interlocutors). In fact, I sometimes wondered how he managed to settle down his constantly searching gaze enough to get, not just words on paper, but whole arguments and whole books that had coherence; he did have a respect for aphorism, and had an aphoristic turn to his thought. The interest in language came from two sources: his intensive fieldwork in Ethiopia (where discourse had a culturally embedded double track, one that prized ambiguity for its hidden, allegorical meaning: gold, and one for obvious, literal meaning: wax); the other source was the philosopher Richard McKeon, in whom both Don and I took a lifelong dedicated interest, in part because McKeon had found ways to map univocal and polyvocal structures for generating new ideas and arguments and for judging evidence and results. It was McKeon’s vast interdisciplinary work in systematic pluralism that appealed to Don’s interest in multiple possibilities and in liberal arts of discourse.

His work as dean of the College at the University of Chicago was influenced in turn by this vision of plural methods and arts (including martial arts, as you doubtlessly know), and out of that experience with curriculum planning and experimentation came one of his most widely read books, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Leaning in America (2006). At a time when higher education has gotten commodified and corporatized, Don’s book seeks relevance in new formulations and applications of traditional disciplines, and is far more powerful as an antidote to mere utility and a celebration of learning for its own sake than, say, Fareed Zakaria’s new book on education.

Don’s keen interest in philosophy (much of it by way of his auditing of McKeon’s classes and reading McKeon’s work) is at the foundation of his great commitment to the work of Georg Simmel.  Don edited a collection of SImmel’s key writings for the Press’s Heritage of Sociology series, and it remains as one of the bestselling volumes in that series (up there with Weber, Marx, and Durkheim). He had a lot to do with making North American sociology safe for Simmel; one of his last books was a translation and edition of Simmel’s essays in metaphysics (The View of Life, 2011), precursors in a very special way to Heidegger’s philosophy. And, not least, this reverence for heritage of ideas and cultural traditions made Don a first-class historian of sociology as a discipline. Another very influential book, thus, was Visions of the Sociological Tradition (1995).

Don’s own powers of the mind were marked by their protean vivacity, as you can tell; and so were his powers of the body (others can speak to his expertise in martial arts, and his workshops for students in aikido, an art of which he was a master).  The conjunction of the two, mind and body, came in his powers of the soul: he and I bonded strongly over our mutual love of music, and here again his curiosity led him to go beyond the classical music in which he was an adept (as a violist; he also composed) to jazz, which is my idiom. He would stop by on many occasions to the South Side bar where my jazz band plays on Sunday nights, listening intently, asking for the names of tunes and seeking instruction in motifs, rhythmic riffs, and other aspects of the music. When I had a birthday that happened to fall on a Sunday, year before last, Don somehow found out about it and showed up with balloons, flowers, a card, and his irrepressible self. Ebullience came to him as naturally as Charlie Parker tunes come to jazz musicians.

—Douglas Mitchell

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22. 2015 Robert Motherwell Book Award


Fresh off an embargo of the news, we’re delighted to announce that Megan R. Luke’s Kurt SchwittersSpace, Image, Exile is the recipient of the 2015 Robert Motherwell Prize from the Dedalus Foundation. The Motherwell Prize, accompanied by a $10,000 award, “honors an outstanding publication in the history and criticism of modernism in the arts.” Luke’s book contextualizes, for the first time, the multidisciplinary work produced by one of modernism’s foremost innovators during the last years of his life, both during the Nazi regime and while in exile in Western Europe.

From the official announcement:

The Dedalus Foundation is pleased to announce that Megan R. Luke is the winner of the fourteenth annual Robert Motherwell Book Award, for Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile, published by The University of Chicago Press. The award, which carries a prize of $10,000, honors an outstanding publication in the history and criticism of modernism in the arts for the year 2014.

German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) is best known for his pioneering work in fusing collage and abstraction, the two most transformative innovations of twentieth-century art. Considered the father of installation art, Schwitters was also a theorist and a writer whose influence extends from Robert Rauschenberg and Eva Hesse to Thomas Hirschhorn. But while his early experiments in collage and installation from the interwar period have garnered much critical acclaim, his later work has generally been ignored. In the first book to fill this gap, Megan R. Luke tells the fascinating, even moving story of the work produced by the aging, isolated artist under the Nazi regime and during his years in exile.

Combining new biographical material with archival research, Luke surveys Schwitters’s experiments in shaping space and the development of his Merzbau, describing his haphazard studios in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom and the smaller, quieter pieces he created there. She makes a case for the great relevance of Schwitters’s aesthetic concerns to contemporary artists, arguing that his later work provides a guide to new narratives about modernism in the visual arts. His late works, she shows, were born of artistic exchange and shaped by his rootless life after exile, and they offer a new way of thinking about the history of art. Packed with images, Kurt Schwitters completes the narrative of an artist who remains a considerable force today.

Megan R. Luke is assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on the advent of abstraction and collage, the history of photography and art reproduction, and the intersection of avant-garde art and mass culture, particularly early cinema.

To read more about Kurt Schwitters, click here.

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23. Feral wins the 2015 Orion Book Award


Congratulations to George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, Human Life, which was just announced as the winner of the 2015 Orion Book Award for nonfiction, which honors “books that deepen the reader’s connection to the natural world, [and] represent excellence in writing.” In Feral, Monbiot, a journalist, columnist for the Guardian, and environmentalist (see his recent TED talk here), argues for a twenty-first-century movement based upon the concept of rewilding, which seeks to free nature from human intervention and allow ecosystems to resume their natural processes.

From a recent profile of the book at the Orion Blog:

When’s the last time you walked into the woods, or a park, or your garden, and felt unsure of what—or who—you might see? If the answer is “it’s been a while,” you’re not alone. With his intrepid and imaginative new book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life, journalist George Monbiot has invented a term for this twenty-first-century condition that afflicts so many of us in the developed world: “ecological boredom.” He’s come up with a prescription, too, which involves large-scale reintroductions of keystone species to the landscapes that humans have emptied out and made their own. If this sounds reckless and implausible, it’s not: Monbiot has done his research, and builds a case for how well his surprising list of animal recruits would fit into his home landscape of Britain. From moose and lynx to hippopotamuses and black rhinoceroses, Feral invites readers to imagine a wilder, less stifled and more primal world—one in which we humans can come to recognize our animal natures once again.—Scott Gast

And from the Orion editors’ commendation for the award:

George Monbiot’s well-researched book of narrative storytelling, speculation, and bold imagination is a vote in favor of rewilding not just nature but the human spirit. Feral invites readers to envision a wilder, less stifled and more primal world—one in which we humans can come to recognize our animal selves once again.

To read more about Feral, click here.

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24. Revisiting Paul R. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb


Earlier this month, the New York Times revisited Paul R. Ehrlich—through both his cult favorite 1968 work The Population Bomb, and as a doomsday-advocating talk show guest, who spent much of the 1970s and years since advancing the notion that it was just a matter of time before the strained resources of our overcrowded planet could no support humanity. Though the years since might have seeded us with a kinder, gentler apocalypse, Ehrlich remains (mostly) resolute:

But Dr. Ehrlich, now 83, is not retreating from his bleak prophesies. He would not echo everything that he once wrote, he says. But his intention back then was to raise awareness of a menacing situation, he says, and he accomplished that. He remains convinced that doom lurks around the corner, not some distant prospect for the year 2525 and beyond. What he wrote in the 1960s was comparatively mild, he suggested, telling Retro Report: “My language would be even more apocalyptic today.”

And yet, in a second Times piece, an op-ed, “Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Argument Was Right,” by statistics professor Paul A. Murtaugh, Ehrlich’s ideas are framed less as nostalgia for a time of reasonable doomsday bets, and more as the inevitable catastrophic consequences of human reproduction and environmental degradation, in the age of what the children are calling the Anthropocene:

The more catastrophic consequences of human population growth predicted by Paul Ehrlich have not yet materialized, in part because he did not anticipate the enormous increase in agricultural productivity enabled by fossil fuels. But Ehrlich’s population bomb will inevitably detonate when fossil fuels become too scarce and expensive to sustain a growing population. . . . Ehrlich’s argument that expanding human populations cannot be sustained on an Earth with finite carrying capacity is irrefutable and, indeed, almost tautological. The only uncertainty concerns the timing and severity of the rebalancing that must inevitably occur.

If this seems reasonable, Ehrlich writes about the current state of our environment, along with the continual threats posed by our often careless inhabitancy, in two recent books: Hope on Earth (a conversation with Michael Charles Tobias about catastrophe and morality within the contemporary context) and the forthcoming Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie (a comparative study of how these concerns have been [mis]handled by two global democracies, Australia and the United States, coauthored with Corey J. A. Bradshaw). You can read more about both here.

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25. The Culture Wars Are Over?

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From an interview between Micah Uetricht and Andrew Hartman, author of The War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, at In These Times:

You write about people on the Left realizing that, in addition to restrictive ideas about gender and race, perhaps the whole American project is rotten to the core, and they need a different way to define themselves. And so there increasingly was no unifying project for the Left to feel a part of anymore—while the average American still probably wanted to be a part of that kind of project.

There were some people from the ‘60s onward who saw the whole American project as irredeemable: racist, sexist, imperialist. But for the most part that was a very small minority.

Multiculturalists, the people who Schlesinger was arguing against, just wanted the U.S. to reflect what it actually was: a very multicultural society. People wanted to stop the U.S. from thinking of itself as better than others, reject American exceptionalism. But most of these people weren’t giving up the project of the U.S., they just wanted the project to look different. Derrick Bell, the critical race theorist and law professor who I write about in the book, was arguing that America was irredeemable; can never be anything other than racist. But the majority of say, social movement activists and professors in English departments were not going so far as to say that we need to burn the American project to the ground.

But most critics of multiculturalists and others lumped them together with many others much farther to the Left. To conservatives in general, there was no difference to them between multiculturalists and Afro-Centrists. In their eyes, both were rejecting American ideals.


You argue, pretty provocatively, in your conclusion that the culture wars are largely over.

To me, the logic of the cultural wars seems largely exhausted. The Christian right in many ways is kind of a lost cause. You have an increasing number of conservative religious figures who are arguing the need to withdraw from public culture and create their own autonomous cultural zones, where they can prepare for when the U.S. is once again ready for its ideals.

Many conservative Christians, for example, still believe that homosexuality is not only an abomination in the eyes of God but also a threat to national values. But they are less likely to make that argument publicly and politically; instead their main tactic is “religious freedom.” To me, this is a recognition that they are losing the national battle, and they’re trying to create smaller zones in which they can discriminate in the name of religious freedom.

To read more about The War for the Soul of America, click here.


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