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1. Leaving Orthodox Judaism: A Q&A with Lynn Davidman

Lynn Davidman, author of Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews, not only interviewed former Orthodox Jews for her book; she was a former Modern Orthodox herself. Davidman answered some questions for us about her experience leaving Orthodox Judaism and how it informed her research.

Aside from being the topic of your book, you also became un-Orthodox, and in fact were disowned from your family. How did your own experience becoming un-Orthodox inform your writing?

My own experiences of leaving Orthodoxy informed this book every step along the way. I had been reading and learning about self-reflexivity before I began this project, and I tried to be self-reflexive in every stage of the research, beginning with conceiving this study (which came out of my gut, reflecting my desire to learn about people’s similar—although also different—experiences in leaving). I analyzed my stance in relation to this book and wrote about it within the book. I felt strongly that readers needed to know “where I was coming from” to help them better assess the quality of my analysis. I also described some of my experiences throughout the book, I think a bit in each chapter; because I think it is a much more honest approach and because I think readers are interested in learning about the author and her life.

How did your own experience leaving Orthodox Judaism compare to those you write about?

My own experiences leaving Orthodox Judaism were in many ways easier (despite being disowned). Modern Orthodox Jews engage with the secular world; their philosophy is following Torah and being a person in the world. So, as a Modern Orthodox, I grew up knowing about the secular world of movies, television, plays, etc. I went to a university, which helped me leave, and when I left I knew I could manage well in the secular world.

Mod Squad", by
“Mod Squad”, by Gerald Rich (2012). CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

In contrast, the Hasidic defectors did not know much about the secular world. They grew up speaking Yiddish, and newspapers, television, and other forms of secular media were banned from their homes. They grew up in a community in which they were encapsulated physically, socially, and ideologically. They were taught that non-Jews are threatening and that many of them were like animals. So they were terrified of leaving: they did not have the education needed to find jobs to support themselves in the secular world; they had no idea how to find an apartment, or how to finance it; the men spoke Yiddish and poor English. So they had a lot more cultural learning to do in order to leave than I had. Also they had to “disinscribe” the Haredi markers from their bodies—learn to dress differently (putting on pants was a big deal for the women) and comport themselves in a more open way.

Did any interviews surprise you? If so, what was it that surprised you?

One aspect of my interviews that surprised me is that none of the people I spoke to were fully cut off from their families as I had been. I expected I would find other defectors (than me) had been cut off from their families. Some remained quite distant or not in contact with their families for a few years, but usually became reconnected after the passage of time… or when a grandchild was born. Some, though, have very poor and painful relationships with their families, speaking of emotional distance and pain.

I was also surprised by the sheer amount of abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional—I heard in the stories. One woman knew from childhood that her mother simply did not like her and she still does not get along with her; she told me others (such as a doctor or a relative) could clearly tell her mother disliked her intensely. The stories of sexual abuse were so sad to talk about and many exclaimed about the irony of the abusers being part of a very religious community where they are supposed to be pious.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

For one, I want them to take away an understanding of the body as central to all social interaction and institutions. I would like them to see how embodiment is not one aspect of a person but the fundamental ground of everyone’s being. I have a fantasy they will come away understanding we need to reverse Descartes: I think therefore I am and instead have it as “I am therefore I think.”

I hope readers will understand both the uniqueness of Haredi life, and the similarities between defectors and others who change their identities through the medium of the body such as LGBTQ people.

I want to complicate the common sense assumption that all Orthodox Jews are alike.

A deeper understanding of how the perspective of the author shapes written work: both books and articles. I would like them to understand there is no “objectivity” in social science research and therefore the more the author reveals about her perspective, the better they are able to judge the quality of the work.

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2. Intersections of documentary and avant-garde filmmaking

One of the more interesting recent developments in film studies is the recognition that what has seemed to be separate histories — documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking — are, once again, converging. I say “once again” because the interplay between documentary and avant-garde film has long been more significant than seems generally understood.

An intersection of an avant-garde artistic practice and a documentary impulse helped to instigate the dawn of cinema itself. When Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey were discovering and exploring the possibilities of photographic motion study, they were the photographic avant-garde of that moment. And their subject was the documentation of the motion of animals, birds, and human beings, presumably so that we could know, more fully, the truth about this motion. And at the moment when W. K. L. Dickson perfected the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope and the Lumière Brothers perfected the Cinématographe and the projected motion picture, they in turn became the photographic avant-garde; and their primary fascination, too, was the documentation of motion, specifically human activity, first, in the world around them and soon, in the case of the Lumières, across the globe.

Flaherty’s Nanook (1922) was both a breakthrough documentary and an avant-garde experiment in collaborative filmmaking; and the City Symphonies that emerged in the 1920s (Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, 1926, e.g., and The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) were documentary interpretations of reality and avant-garde experiments.

During the 1940s, the most important development for independent cinema in the United States was the emergence of a full-fledged film society movement. The leading contributor was Cinema 16, founded by Amos and Marcia Vogel in New York City in 1947. At its height, Cinema 16 had 7,000 members, and filled a 1,500-seat auditorium twice a night for monthly screenings. Cinema 16’s programming was an inventive mixture of documentary and avant-garde film.

The development of light-weight cameras and tape recorders, more flexible microphones, and faster film stocks during the late 1950s created additional options that in one sense, drove documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking apart, but in another sense, created a different kind of intersection between them. Sync-sound shooting expanded the options available to filmmakers committed to documentary, instigating forms of cinematic entertainment that functioned as critiques of Hollywood filmmaking and early television. Drew Associates, D. A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, and the Maysles Brothers fashioned engaging melodrama out of real life in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), Don’t Look Back (1967), Hospital (1968), and Salesman (1968).

Cinema, by m4tik. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.
Cinema, by m4tik. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

During the same decade, avant-garde filmmakers were producing very different forms of documentary, often by abjuring sound altogether. Stan Brakhage was committed to the idea of cinema as a visual art, and created remarkable—silent—confrontations of visual taboo such as Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1972)—now recognized as canonical documentaries. These films could hardly have been more different from the cinema verite films, but we can now see that Brakhage shared the mission of the cinema verite documentarians: the cinematic confrontation of convention-bound commercial media.

In 1955, Francis Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s widow, established a symposium to honor her husband’s filmmaking oeuvre and to promote his commitment to filmmaking “without preconceptions.” In recent decades “the Flaherty,” as the symposium has come to be called, has attracted dozens of filmmakers, programmers, teachers, students, and other cine-aficionados for week-long immersions in programs of screenings and discussions. Modern Flaherty seminars have often been driven by an implicit debate about what the correct balance between documentary and avant-garde film should be at the seminar.

Since the 1940s, avant-garde filmmakers have found ways of exploring the personal, first by psycho-dramatizing their inner disturbances (Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks are landmark instances), and later by filming the particulars of their personal lives. Brakhage documented dimensions of his personal life in many films, as did Carolee Schneemann, in Fuses (1967), and Jonas Mekas, in Walden (1969) and Lost Lost Lost (1976). And during the 1980s, avant-garde filmmakers Su Friedrich (in The Ties that Bind, 1984; and Sink or Swim, 1990) and Alan Berliner (in Intimate Stranger, 1991; and Nobody’s Business, 1996), used experimental techniques learned from other avant-garde filmmakers to directly engage their family histories.

What has come to be called “personal documentary” (basically, the use of sync-sound to explore personal issues) was instigated in the early 1970s by Ed Pincus’s Diaries (filmed from 1971-1976; completed in 1981), Miriam Weinstein’s Living with Peter (1973), Amalie Rothschild’s Nana, Mom and Me (1974), Alfred Guzzetti’s Family Portrait Sittings (1975). By the 1980s, several of Pincus’s students at MIT were contributing to this approach, among them Ross McElwee, whose films, including Sherman’s March (1986), Time Indefinite (1994), and Photographic Memory (2011) are an on-going personal saga.

Globalization and the standardization of so many dimensions of modern life, along with threats to the environment, have created a desire on the part of many filmmakers to pay a deeper attention to the particulars of Place. Since the early 1970s, contemplations of Place have been produced by avant-garde filmmakers Larry Gottheim (Fog Line, 1970; Horizons, 1973), Nathaniel Dorsky (Hours for Jerome, 1982), James Benning (13 Lakes, 2004), Peter Hutton (Landscape (for Manon), 1987; At Sea, 2007), Sharon Lockhart (Double Tide, 2009) and many others. A fascination with Place, or more precisely, people-in-place, also characterizes the documentaries coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), including Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (2009), Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2013), and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (2014). Indeed, the films of Hutton, Benning, and Lockhart, in particular, have been shown regularly at the SEL.

The interviewees in Avant-Doc reveal a wide range of ways in which their own work and the work of colleagues function creatively within the liminal zone between documentary and avant-garde and the ways in which the intersections between these histories have played into their work.

Headline image credit: Camera. Public domain via Pixabay.

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3. Representations of purgatory and limbo in popular culture

In the Catholic tradition, purgatory is an afterlife destination reserved for souls who are ultimately bound for heaven. It is still a doctrine of the Catholic Church, despite confusion about its status. In 2007, the residing Pope Benedict XVI asked Church theologians to reconsider another Catholic afterlife destination: limbo. Limbo was traditionally thought to be on the “lip of hell” or the edge of heaven (hence the name limbo, which derives from the Latin limbus, for edge). Limbo was believed to be the final destination for the souls of unbaptized babies. The unsettling implications of belief in limbo, in part, was what motivated Pope Benedict and contemporary theologians to conclude that Catholics should hope for God’s mercy for deceased unbaptized babies—that no, they probably didn’t end up in limbo. The popular press interpreted this move as the abolition of limbo, which never was, ironically, a Catholic doctrine, although certainly lots of influential Catholics believed in it and wrote about it, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. With limbo off the table, public discussion focused on the status of purgatory.

Popular headlines reflected confusion: would purgatory be next? Unlike limbo, purgatory is a doctrine of the Church, yet its representations have undergone significant modifications. Historically, the diversity of conceptions of purgatory boggles the mind. An entrance to purgatory was once thought to reside in Ireland on a rocky island; it was also considered to be a punitive “neighborhood” to hell; in the 1860s a cleric in France wrote that purgatory was in the middle of the earth; and more commonly after the nineteenth century, it is conceived of as a purifying “state” or condition of a soul, and not as a place at all. The common thread running through each of these descriptions is that they all derive from Catholic culture, although each was advocated in different eras and within unique contexts.

Molloch and Henry in Purgatory. (c) Sleepy Hollow, Fox.
Molloch and Henry in Purgatory. (c) Sleepy Hollow, Fox.

Today, one is more likely to find representations of purgatory and limbo in virtual reality and popular culture than in the local Catholic Church. In particular, the creators of video games and online role playing environments incorporate stereotypical images that reinforce particularly punitive versions of these post-death destinations that are usually associated with the late medieval era. The somber, award-winning video game LIMBO features a narrative story line similar to the “edge of hell” version of limbo rather than its representation as the edge of heaven. Released in July 2010 by the Danish game developer Play Dead, the game follows a young boy in search of his sister. LIMBO’s environments are entirely black, white, and shades of gray, featuring fear factors like giant shadowy spiders, eerie, lonesome forests, and cold industrial landscapes. The game’s creators state that they intentionally kept the storyline minimal, with no inherent meaning so that gamers can speculate on their own as to what is the ultimate meaning.

Purgatory is the main theme of an anticipated 3D role-playing game called Graywalkers: Purgatory. The game environment is a post-apocalyptic world where the afterlife merges with human lives. Demons and angels war with each other over the fate of humanity. Thirty-six heroes called Graywalkers emerge to assist the angels. Creator Russell Tomas of Dreamlords Digital stated that Purgatory is a game of action and consequence, where player’s actions will directly impact the results of the game. Characters like Father Rueben wear traditional Catholic vestments with the additional innovation of weapons and religiously themed tattoos.

Purgatory also figures in the popular television show Sleepy Hollow, which premiered in 2013 on the Fox network. Protagonist Katrina Crane is relegated to purgatory, which is imagined as an eerie waiting area for souls who are destined for either heaven or hell. This is obviously an alternation from the doctrinal version of purgatory—imagined as a place where souls are destined for heaven—and it has spawned online conversations focused on whether or not the version of purgatory represented in the show is actually correct. It is not, of course, but in this respect it conforms to other, much older versions of purgatory that were ultimately considered to be erroneous, such as those that placed it in the middle of the earth, or on a rocky island in Ireland.

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4. The literature and history of Chaucer

To read Chaucer today is, in some measure, to read him historically. For instance, when the poet tells us in the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales that the Knight’s crusading experiences include service with the Teutonic Order in ‘Lettow’ (i.e. Lithuania), comprehension of the literal sense or denotation of the text requires some knowledge of fourteenth-century institutions, ideas and events. More generally, discussions of whether the Knight’s crusading activities are being held up for approval or disapproval in the ‘General Prologue’ (i.e., of the text’s connotations), are likely to cite the various, and sometimes conflicting, ways in which the morality of crusading, and in particular of campaigns mounted by the Teutonic Order against the Lithuanians, were regarded in Chaucer’s own day.

Certainly modern literary critics, influenced by Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, new historicism, post-colonialism and cultural materialism, have adopted historical and sociological approaches to literary works from the past and have insisted on the need to read medieval literature in its historical context. Whereas the works of canonical authors such as Chaucer were once admired because they were seen to speak to ‘us’ across the centuries about some timeless ‘human condition’, their works are now likely to be seen as interventions in the social, political and ideological conflicts of their day. Medieval literary texts have thus come to be understood as instances of, in Helen Barr’s words, ‘social language practice’, being to some extent determined by contemporary social structures, institutions, conventions and behaviour but also, in turn, participating in them and even influencing them.

This historical approach to literature has been particularly evident in the field of Chaucer studies. As a result of the influence of scholars such as David Aers, Stephen Knight, Paul Strohm, Lee Patterson, Peggy Knapp, and David Wallace, Chaucer’s work has come to be read ‘socio-historically’, as an engagement with the social and political problems and ideological conflicts of the late fourteenth century. For those who proceed in this way, the context needed for understanding the Canterbury Tales is not only other literary texts of this period, such as Langland’s Piers Plowman or Gower’s Confessio Amantis, but also documentary sources of the day, such as Richard II’s 1387 proclamation against slander or the 1382 letters in which aldermen of the city of London were accused of treason at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt.

Portrait_of_Chaucer_-_Portrait_and_Life_of_Chaucer_(16th_C),_f.1_-_BL_Add_MS_5141
Image credit: Portrait of Chaucer, 16th century by the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, the popularity of historicist approaches to Chaucer’s work has by no means led to agreement about the poet’s social or moral outlook. On the contrary, as Helen Cooper said, there is ‘probably less of a critical consensus’ about Chaucer’s meaning and purpose ‘than for any other English writer’. Three main approaches to Chaucer’s social meaning can be identified, even though any one of them may be adopted by scholars writing from a wide range of theoretical perspectives and deploying many different critical vocabularies. Firstly, are those critics who regard Chaucer’s views as being essentially in accord with conventional medieval defences of social inequality. Here Chaucer’s crusading Knight would be seen as an ideal representative of the estate of ‘those who fight’ and, along with the Parson and Ploughman, as providing a yardstick by which to measure the other pilgrims and the extent to which they perform their proper social functions, put the common good before their own immediate pleasure or profit, and live in harmony with their fellows. Secondly, there are those who adopt the opposite view, discerning a more radical Chaucer, one who highlights the inadequacies of traditional social morality and who offers a challenge to ‘official’ conceptions of the prevailing order. Here Chaucer’s description of the Knight would be seen as challenging traditional chivalric ideals or as questioning the validity of the crusades. Thirdly, there are those who consider Chaucer’s work to be in some way open-ended and so as allowing the members of its audience to make up their own minds about the moral questions – for instance, about the Knight’s willingness to kill in the name of religion – which it raises.

Yet, despite this well-established ‘historical turn’ in literary studies, medieval historians have generally been loath to turn their hands to interpretation of works of imaginative literature from the Middle Ages. Perhaps it is now time for historians to respond to the interdisciplinary approaches which literary critics have pioneered? If we need an historical approach to make sense of Chaucer’s meaning, perhaps historians themselves have something to contribute to the debates about the social meaning of the Canterbury Tales which have so engaged literary critics? In the past, medieval historians have often taken a rather naive approach to works of imaginative literature, asking to what extent Chaucer’s pilgrims constitute accurate ‘reflections’ of the social reality of the time or seeking ‘real-life models’ for the pilgrims amongst the people with whom Chaucer was (or may have been) acquainted. If they are to contribute anything of value to current debates about Chaucer’s social meaning, they will need a need a sensitivity to the specifically literary nature of his texts, including his medieval conceptions of satire and irony and the ways in which his work adapted traditional literary stereotypes and generic conventions. Literary critics have offered us the possibility of a dialogue between the disciplines; it is now up to historians to respond to this invitation, to familiarise themselves with the scholarship in the field and to offer their own assessment of Chaucer’s engagement with the ideology of his time.

Headline image credit: The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. Six questions with Amy DeRogatis

In her new book, Amy DeRogatis explores a relatively untouched topic: evangelicals and sexuality. While many may think that evangelicals are anti-sex, DeRogatis argues that this could not be further from the truth. We sat down with the author of Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism to learn more about her research into the topic.

How did you become interested in this topic?

My interest in this topic began when I was asked a question by a student in my Religion and Gender class at Michigan State University (MSU). In the course we had been reading a book that discussed some ritual practices around marital sexuality in Orthodox Judaism. One student raised her hand and asked, “Where do Christians go to read about the proper ways to have sex?” Knowing the student, I understood that she didn’t mean all Christians; she was referring specifically to evangelicals. I made a quick reply about evangelicals publishing lots of material about how not to have sex and returned to the topic of discussion. The question stuck with me and after class I ran a few Internet searches for Christian sex manuals, and I found some Catholic writings. I then refined the search to evangelical sex manuals, and although I was unable to find any secondary material, such as a scholarly article that surveyed and analyzed the literature, I did eventually find lots of primary sources. I was astonished to discover that Special Collections in the Main Library at MSU had a large collection of these publications. Within a week of hearing the student’s question, I was in the library reading evangelical sex manuals, and I was hooked.

How do you define “evangelical” in this book?

That is a great question. There has been much debate among scholars about how to define evangelicalism and whether there is even a cohesive category under which we can talk about and study evangelicals. I adopt a very broad definition. I define evangelicals as Protestants who affirm the necessity of individual spiritual rebirth. Evangelicals emphasize personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, the imminent return of Christ, and the desire to spread the gospel. Evangelicals express their theological beliefs through daily practices such as prayer, Bible study, refraining from sinful behavior and furthering what is often called “their walk with Christ.”

Sexuality is a huge topic. Is there anything you planned to write about that you didn’t include in the book?

Yes, of course. The first question I usually am asked about is why I focus on heterosexuality in my book. Originally I had planned to write a chapter on prescriptive literature about same-sex desires and practices. There are a few recent books that do an excellent job of examining this issue (here I’ll just mention two: Tanya Erzen’s, Straight to Jesus and Lynne Gerber’s The Straight and Narrow) and I felt that I did not have much to add to or improve their excellent analyses. When I wrote the book proposal I was imagining a chapter on LGBTQ evangelicals and their writings about sexuality. But, as the project developed, I focused in on conservative evangelicals, and to me, what is one of the fascinating points that evangelical sex writers are deeply concerned with monitoring and regulating heterosexual sex.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about evangelicals and sexuality?

The biggest misconception is that evangelicals are anti-sex. They are not. Contrary to popular stereotypes that characterize conservative Christians as prudes, since the 1960s evangelicals have been engaged in an enterprise to claim and affirm the joys of sex for married born-again Christians. Rather than turning away from the sexual liberation movement, they have simply made it their own by publishing sex manuals, running sex workshops, and holding counseling sessions to aid married evangelicals achieve sexual satisfaction. The sex publications are distinct from secular sex manuals in their exclusive focus on heterosexuality, the assumption of virginity prior to marriage, the role of the Bible as a reliable guide for sexual pleasure, and the emphasis on understanding and maintaining traditional gender roles as a requirement for “true” sexual satisfaction. The authors go to great lengths to suggest techniques for sexual pleasure and argue that marital sexual pleasure is biblical and good marital sex is a sign of faithfulness and a testimony to others. It is true—evangelical publications do not promote all forms of human sexuality. It is also true that within heterosexual marriage, sexual pleasure, according to these manuals, is part of God’s plan for humanity. So, no, evangelicals are not anti-sex.

How do you think this work will influence your scholarly field?

First and foremost, I hope that my book will put the study of evangelical sexuality on the scholarly agenda. Before I began publishing my research on evangelicals and sexuality there were very few scholarly essays about evangelicals and sexuality. The most compelling writings were focused on evangelical responses to same-sex desires and practices, not on heterosexuality. There were some popular magazine articles and a couple of books written by scholars outside of the field of religious studies that primarily focused on gender or sexuality and discussed evangelical sexual writings and practices as part of a larger project. While there are numerous excellent monographs on American evangelicals and gender, I am not aware of anyone who has written a scholarly study of American evangelical popular prescriptive literature about heterosexual practices. The one exception would be a few monographs that examine adolescent sexuality and the purity movement. I hope that my book will influence future scholars to take up the topic and investigate areas that I do not consider in this book. I know that there are a few dissertations in the works that focus on social media, more controversial sexual practices, a specific figure (Mark Driscoll currently is a favorite), as well as a few sociological and anthropological studies that consider the effects of the prescriptive literature I examine on the lives of everyday believers. Beyond my topic, I hope my book will inspire other scholars who study religion to take seriously popular literature about embodied practices and the role of the senses in the construction and maintenance of religious identity.

What was the last book you read for pleasure that you would recommend to others?

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher.

Image credit: “Chastity Ring” by Rlmabie. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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6. Queen Elizabeth's Little House - A Dean's cut-out story book.


Tucked away from view in the south side of the gardens of Windsor’s Royal Lodge stands a miniature thatched cottage called Y Bwthyn Bach, or The Little House. This delightful book published sometime in the nineteen fifties contains all the pieces necessary to build your own little house.


The house was presented to Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret in March 1932 on behalf of ‘the people of Wales’ on the occasion of Elizabeth’s sixth birthday.  The princesses spent many hours cleaning their tiny home and Elizabeth developed a reputation for being very neat and tidy. Over the years, the Queen’s children and grandchildren have also played in the house, and it has recently been completely refurbished.


The dining room with white panelled walls a Welsh dresser with an array of beautiful china and a grandfather clock ticking slowly in the corner. A picture of the Queen Mother hangs over the mantelpiece and there is even a bookcase filled with Beatrix Potter’s little books to ensure the girls never grow bored.


A corner of the garden



No home is complete without a pet (or two)



and a fairy at the bottom of the garden



Ring the front-door bell and step into the sweetest little house you ever saw!

The Royal Family pay a visit the little house c1932.
via



The back cover of the book showing the finished model.



Complete and in near perfect condition with just slight wear to edges of front cover Queen Elizabeth's Little House contains a build-it-yourself cardboard recreation of Y Bwthyn Bach, The Little House at Royal Lodge.  The book is undated, but I assume it was published at the time of the Queens Coronation in 1953. Arthur Groom tells the story of the building and presenting of the little house.












Thanks for calling in, I hope you enjoyed visiting the little house.

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7. Ivan Pavlov in 22 surprising facts

An iconic figure of 20th century science and culture, Ivan Pavlov is best known as a founding figure of behaviorism who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell and offered a scientific approach to psychology that ignored the “subjective” world of the psyche itself.

While researching Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, I discovered that these and other elements of the common images of Pavlov are incorrect. The following 22 facts and observations are a small window onto the life of a man whose work, life and values were much more complex and interesting than the iconic figure with whom we are so familiar.

  1. Pavlov didn’t use a bell, and for his real scientific purposes, couldn’t. English-speakers think he did because of a mistranslation of the Russian word for zvonok (buzzer) and because the behaviorists interpreted Pavlov in their own image for people in the U.S. and much of the West.
  2. He didn’t use the term and concept “conditioned reflex,” either – rather, “conditional,” and it makes a big difference. For him, the conditional reflex was not just a phenomenon, but a tool for exploring the animal and human psyche – “our consciousness and its torments.”
  3. Unlike the behaviorists, Pavlov believed that dogs (like people) had identifiable personalities, emotions, and thoughts that scientific psychology should address. “Essentially, only one thing in life is of real interest to us,” he declared: “our psychical experience.”
  4. As a youth, he identified worriedly with Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov – fearing that his devotion to rationality might strip him of human morality and feelings – but also believed that science (especially physiology) might teach humans to be more reasonable and humane.
    Daniel P. Todes - Pavlov 2
    Ivan Pavlov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  5. Although one would expect that this investigator of reflexive reactions would think otherwise, he believed in free will.
  6. Pavlov was from a religious family and trained for the priesthood, but left seminary for science studies at St. Petersburg University. He pondered the relationship of science, religion, morality, and the human quest for certainty throughout his life. Although an atheist, he appreciated religion’s cultural value, protested its repression under the Bolsheviks, and supported financially the local church near his lab at Koltushi. (His wife was deeply religious and their apartment was full of icons.)
  7. Pavlov’s beloved mentor in college was fired as a result of student demonstrations against him as a Jew, a political conservative, and (most importantly) a hard grader. This was a great blow to Pavlov and left him on his own as he attempted to make a career.
  8. He first got a “real job” at age 41 – as a professor of pharmacology.
  9. He didn’t win his Nobel Prize (1904) for research on conditional reflexes, but rather for his studies of digestive physiology.
  10. He more than doubled the budget for his labs by bottling the gastric juice he drew from lab dogs and selling it as a remedy for dyspepsia. (A big hit, not just in Russia, but in France and Germany as well.
  11. Like Darwin, Pavlov believed that dogs had full-fledged thoughts, emotions and personalities. His lab dogs were given names that captured their personalities and were routinely described in lab notebooks as heroic or cowardly, smart or obtuse, weak or strong, good or bad workers, etc. Pavlov constantly interpreted his own biography and personality in terms of his experiments on dogs (and interpreted dogs according to what he thought he knew about himself and other people).
  12. He was famous for his explosive temper –“spontaneous morbid paroxysms,” as he put it. Students and coworkers all had their favorite stories about these vintage explosions. Afterwards, he would make his apologies and get on with his work.
  13. Pavlov was an art collector – with a massive collection of Russian realist art in his apartment. His best friends before 1917 were artists.
  14. To maintain a “balanced” organism, Pavlov spent three months every year at a dacha (summer home) where he avoided science entirely. A devotee of physical exercise, he spent these months gardening, bicycling, and playing gorodki (a Russian sport in which the players throw heavy wooden bats at formations of other heavy bats, trying to knock them down in as few throws as possible; Pavlov was a champion player even in his old age).
  15. He seriously contemplated leaving Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, but finally decided to stay. His Western colleagues helped him financially during the hungry years of civil war (1918 – 1921), but did not offer to support him as a scientist in the West: they thought that, at age 68, he was washed up – but the research on conditional reflexes that would make him an international icon continued full blast for another two decades.
  16. He corresponded with Communist leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Vyacheslav Molotov and was one of very few public critics of the Bolsheviks’ political repression, persecution of religion, and terror in the 1930s. He also praised the state for its great support of science and highly respected some of his Communist coworkers, who succeeded in changing his opinion about some important scientific issues.
  17. Publically always very confident, privately he suffered constantly from what he called his “Beast of Doubt” – his fear that the psyche would never yield its secrets to his research.
  18. Pavlov’s closest scientific collaborator for the last 20+ years of his life, Maria Petrova, was also his lover.
  19. During a trip to the U. S. in 1923 he was mugged and robbed of all his money in Grand Central Station, and wanted to go home “where it is safe,” but was convinced to stay and had a great visit.
  20. When the Communist state sent a political militant to purge his lab of political undesirables, Pavlov literally kicked him down the stairs and out of the building.
  21. When he died, Pavlov was working on two surprising manuscripts that he never completed: one on the relationship of science, Christianity, Communism, and the human search for morality and certainty; the other making an important change in his doctrine of conditional reflexes.
  22. According to Pavlov, the most terrible, frightening thing in life was uncertainty, unforeseen accidents (sluchainosti), against which people could turn to religion or – his choice – science.

How many of the above facts did you already know about the life of Ivan Pavlov?

Featured image: Pavlov, center, operates on a dog to create an isolated stomach or implant a permanent fistula. After the dog recovered, experiments began on an intact and relatively normal animal, which was a central feature of Pavlov’s scientific style. Courtesy of Wellcome Institute Library, London. Used with permission.

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8. Understanding placebo effects: how rituals affect the brain and the body

In a typical prehistoric scene, say in 4000 BC, a wounded warrior is dragged to the shaman tent. The respected shaman takes a look at the wound and assures the warrior that he will be healed with the proper prayers and ritual dances. He then prepares a strong-smelling mixture of herbs and seeds, and as the whole tribe chants rhythmically around the campfire, he carefully applies it to the wound, all the while uttering incomprehensible sentences passed on to him by a venerable line of ancestral shamans.

Now let’s come to more recent times, say in 2010 AD. A wounded soldier is carried to the military hospital. The medical staff completes a physical examination. A CT scan to rule out internal lesions is carried out to the reassuring buzz of the most recent technology, and a respected clinician wearing a spotless white coat reassures the soldier that he will be healed with the proper drugs and physiotherapy.

Gillray_-_Treatment_with_tractors
A quack treating a patient with Perkins Patent Tractors by James Gillray, 1801. This remedy was used to illustrate the power of the placebo effect. James Gillray, 1801. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Across the divide of millennia, what do these two pictures have in common? The ritual of the medical and therapeutic act. Shamans of the past and clinicians of today share instinctual knowledge that the context surrounding a therapy is an important part of the therapy itself. Rituals have changed and adapted to the contemporary world, but they are still here. In spite of the huge time span across human history, contexts help both ancient and modern patients to develop trust and expectation that they will eventually regain their health.

Placebo effects work in this way too. Giving a placebo consists of essentially delivering a context without the substance. It is a wrapping devoid of content. Yet, the empty box itself acts subtly on the patient’s mind, just as an active drug would do, activating or silencing synapses, altering neurotransmitter content in specific brain areas, and modifying brain activity in ways that are today amenable to scientific inquiry. Placebos are not only the archetypal sugar pills but can be anything with the power to impact on the patient’s expectations. Placebos are made of words, symbols, rituals, meanings. What is important is not really the tool used, but the changes it triggers in neural activity, and how these changes ultimately affect psychological and bodily functions.

Within this framework, today we are witnessing an epochal transition in the medical paradigm, whereby general concepts, such as suggestibility and power of mind, can now be described in terms of a true biology of placebo effects and doctor-patient interaction. Thanks to modern scientific tools, important questions have been addressed and partially answered, such as psychological and emotional influences on symptoms, diseases, and responses to therapies.

The main concept that is emerging today is that placebos, words, therapeutic rituals and patients’ expectations modulate the same biochemical pathways that are affected by the drugs used in routine medical practice. As a matter of fact, this statement should be reversed. It would be more appropriate to say that drugs use the same biochemical pathways of rituals. In fact, rituals were born long before drugs.

Rituals heal but they can also kill. Nocebo effects are the evil twins of placebo effects, the negative consequence of negative rituals and contexts that induce distrust and hopelessness. These can be triggered by a variety of contexts in non-western societies, such as voodoo, and in western society, such as exaggerated health warnings in the media. A social contagion of negative expectations can spread across people very quickly, sometimes inducing worrisome mass phenomena.

Placebo effects are all of these things. The crucial point, and indeed the big revolution, is that today we can study these phenomena, once the domain of psychology, sociology and anthropology, with the tools of the modern biomedical paradigm. These biological tools involve cellular and molecular accuracy, with rituals and contexts interpreted in terms of specific brain regions and biochemical pathways, thus eliminating the old dichotomy between biology and psychology.

Heading image courtesy of Fabrizio Benedetti. Do not use without permission.

 

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9. Add Another Book To the Pile

As if my reading life weren’t busy enough right now, I’ve just added three more books to the pile. It’s gotten so bad I should really quit blogging altogether until after the holidays and dedicate myself full-time to doing nothing but reading. As lovely as this sounds, I am sure my boss would not agree and after a week I would likely start to get a bit restless and long for something to break up the reading.

Even knowing that over a month of doing nothing but read would sour, I still can’t help but imagine that it would be wonderful. But what would be wonderful is all that time in which I could decide to read or not, when and for how long. Because isn’t that really what we dream of? Not so much doing nothing but read all day but the luxury of being able to make that choice. Like today. I was reading Emma at lunch and I was enjoying myself so much, I was comfortable and happy and wanted to keep reading. I had to return to work though. So what I want when I imagine a month of nothing but reading is to be able to say, I will stay here and keep reading Emma and I’ll go back to work when I feel like it. Instead of fitting reading around everything else, I want to be able to fit everything else around reading. If only.

But back to those three books I just added to my pile. Two are library books that I jumped into the hold queue for a month or more ago and I didn’t expect either of them until at least mid-December. But here they are. Women In Clothes is an “exploration of the questions we ask ourselves while getting getting dressed every day.” Edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton and Mary Mann, it includes photos and interviews and stories and essays long and short and who knows what other sorts of surprises await in the pages?

I have a love/hate relationship with clothes. I like clothes that are just a little different in some way, quirky. At least that’s how I like to imagine my “style” if I had a style. But because I hate shopping for clothes a large portion of my closet is filled with items I did not buy for myself but others bought for me as presents. I am pretty decent at sewing my own clothing but it is so much work and fabric is so expensive that it is just easier and more cost effective to buy a dress off the clearance rack at Target or accept whatever my mother gifts me with at Christmas. But there is a discount fabric store that recently opened near me and I am in the process of setting up my sewing machine and locating all my long unused supplies in order to make myself some fun skirts and dresses. All that explanation to justify why I would be interested in a book on women’s clothing and fashion, as if I need a reason. But I feel like I do because part of why I hate shopping for clothes is this feeling that it is frivolous (and yes I have seen the movie of The Devil Wears Prada and would absolutely love some of those outfits in my closet but I cringe over spending $50 for a pair of jeans so designer clothes are not going to happen).

Well, did I ever go far afield there. Now that you know all about my fashion sense, or lack there of, the other book from the library is F by Daniel Kehlmann. I’ve seen a few blog posts about this one that left me intrigued especially since what the “F” stands for is never actually explicitly revealed. It seems the reader is left to make her own decision about that. It is the story of a man named Arthur who abandons his family in the middle of the night and eventually becomes a famous author. Part of the novel is also what his abandonment does to his sons.

The third book just added to my pile is a review copy of a book being published in January called Dirty Chick by Antonia Murphy. It Murphy’s story of how she and her husband, both urban dwellers, decide to move to New Zealand and become farmers in order to provide a slower, safer place for their five-year-old son who was diagnosed with a developmental delay. Neither Murphy nor her husband knew a thing about farming but they figured it couldn’t possibly be all that hard. They find out otherwise, of course. I hope it will be something fun and light to read so I can forget about the cold and snow for awhile.

Now fingers crossed that I get a respite of at least a few weeks before any additional books I have hold requests on come round to me!


Filed under: Books, New Acquisitions

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10. World Philosophy Day reading list

World Philosophy Day was created by UNESCO in 2005 in order to “win recognition for and give strong impetus to philosophy and, in particular, to the teaching of philosophy in the world”. To celebrate World Philosophy Day, we have compiled a list of what we consider to be the most essential philosophy titles. We are also providing free access to several key journal articles and online products in philosophy so that you can explore this discipline in more depth. Happy reading!


Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will by Alfred R. Mele
9780199371624
Does free will exist? The question has fueled heated debates spanning from philosophy to psychology and religion. The answer has major implications, and the stakes are high. To put it in the simple terms that have come to dominate these debates, if we are free to make our own decisions, we are accountable for what we do, and if we aren’t free, we’re off the hook.

Philosophy Bites Again by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton
This is really a conversation, and conversations are the best way to see philosophy in action. It offers engaging and thought-provoking conversations with leading philosophers on a selection of major philosophical issues that affect our lives. Their subjects include pleasure, pain, and humor; consciousness and the self; free will, responsibility, and punishment; the meaning of life and the afterlife.

Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn
Here at last is a coherent, unintimidating introduction to the challenging and fascinating landscape of Western philosophy. Written expressly for “anyone who believes there are big questions out there, but does not know how to approach them.”

What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel
In this cogent and accessible introduction to philosophy, the distinguished author of Mortal Questions and The View From Nowhere brings the central problems of philosophical inquiry to life, demonstrating why they have continued to fascinate and baffle thinkers across the centuries.

Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider
Two leading philosophers explore the most fundamental questions there are, about what is, what is not, what must be, and what might be. It has an informal style that brings metaphysical questions to life and shows how stimulating it can be to think about them.
9780199603572

Killing in War by Jeff McMahan
This is a highly controversial challenge to the consensus about responsibility in war. Jeff McMahan argues compellingly that if the leaders are in the wrong, then the soldiers are in the wrong.

Reason in a Dark Time by Dale Jamieson
In this book, philosopher Dale Jamieson explains what climate change is, why we have failed to stop it, and why it still matters what we do. Centered in philosophy, the volume also treats the scientific, historical, economic, and political dimensions of climate change.

Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights edited by Diana Tietjens Meyers
Collects thirteen new essays that analyze how human agency relates to poverty and human rights respectively as well as how agency mediates issues concerning poverty and social and economic human rights. No other collection of philosophical papers focuses on the diverse ways poverty impacts the agency of the poor.
9780199338870
Aha! The Moments of Insight That Shape Our World by William B. Irvine
This book incorporates psychology, neurology, and evolutionary psychology to take apart what we can learn from a variety of significant “aha” moments that have had lasting effects. Unlike other books on intellectual breakthroughs that focus on specific areas such as the arts, Irvine’s addresses aha moments in a variety of areas including science and religion.

On What Matters: Volume One by Derek Parfit
Considered one of the most important works in the field since the 19th century, it is written in the uniquely lucid and compelling style for which Parfit is famous. This is an ambitious treatment of the main theories of ethics.

The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation by David Wallace
Quantum physics is the most successful scientific theory we have. But no one knows how to make sense of it. We need to bite the bullet – it’s common sense that must give way. The universe is much stranger than we can think.

The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters by Thomas Hurka
An engaging, accessible survey of the different things that can make life worth living: pleasure, knowledge, achievement, virtue, love, and more. A book that considers what really matters in one’s life, and making decisions around those values.

9780192854216 What should I do?: Plato’s Crito’ in Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
Plato, born around 427 BC, is not the first important philosopher, with Vedas of India, the Buddha, and Confucius all pre-dating him. However, he is the first philosopher to have left us with a substantial body of complete works that are available to us today, which all take the form of dialogues. This chapter focuses on the dialogue called Crito in which Socrates asks ‘What should I do?’

A biography of John Locke in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
A philosopher regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke was born on 29th August 1632 in Somerset, England. In the late 1650s he became interested in medicine, which led easily to natural philosophy after being introduced to these new ideas of mechanical philosophy by Robert Boyle. Discover what happened next in Locke’s life with this biography

‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ from Mind, published in 1950.14602113
In this seminal paper, celebrated mathematician and pioneer Alan Turing attempts to answer the question, ‘Can machines think?’, and thus introduces his theory of ‘the imitation game’(now known as the Turing test) to the world. Turing skilfully debunks theological and ethical arguments against computational intelligence: he acknowledges the limitations of a machine’s intellect, while boldly exposing those of man, ultimately laying the groundwork for the study of artificial intelligence – and the philosophy behind it.

‘Phenomenology as a Resource for Patients’ from The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, published in 2012
Patient support tools have drawn on a variety of disciplines, including psychotherapy, social psychology, and social care. One discipline that has not so far been used to support patients is philosophy. This paper proposes that a particular philosophical approach, phenomenology, could prove useful for patients, giving them tools to reflect on and expand their understanding of their illness.

Do you have any philosophy books that you think should be added to this reading list? Let us know in the comments below.

Headline image credit: Rays at Burning Man by foxgrrl. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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11. Luciano Floridi responds to NYROB review of The Fourth Revolution

In the October 9th edition of the New York Review of Books, philosopher John Searle criticized Luciano Floridi’s The Fourth Revolution, noting that Floridi “sees himself as the successor to Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, each of whom announced a revolution that transformed our self-conception into something more modest.” In the response below, Floridi disputes this claim and many others made by Searle in his review of The Fourth Revolution.

John Searle’s review of The Fourth Revolution – How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (OUP, 2014) is astonishingly shallow and misguided. The silver lining is that, if its factual errors and conceptual confusions are removed, the opportunity for an informed and insightful reading can still be enjoyed.

The review erroneously ascribes to me a fourth revolution in our self-understanding, which I explicitly attribute to Alan Turing. We are not at the center of the universe (Copernicus), of the biological kingdom (Darwin), or of the realm of rationality (Freud). After Turing, we are no longer at the center of the world of information either. We share the infosphere with smart technologies. These are not some unrealistic AI, as the review would have me suggest, but ordinary artefacts that outperform us in ever more tasks, despite being no cleverer than a toaster. Their abilities are humbling and make us revaluate our unique intelligence. Their successes largely depend on the fact that the world has become an IT-friendly environment, where technologies can replace us without having any understanding or semantic skills. We increasingly live onlife (think of apps tracking your location). The pressing problem is not whether our digital systems can think or know, for they cannot, but what our environments are gradually enabling them to achieve. Like Kant, I do not know whether the world in itself is informational, a view that the review erroneously claims I support. What I do know is that our conceptualization of the world is. The distinction is trivial and yet crucial: from DNA as code to force fields as the foundation of matter, from the mind-brain dualism as a software-hardware distinction to computational neuroscience, from network-based societies to digital economies and cyber conflicts, today we understand and deal with the world informationally. To be is to be interactable: this is our new “ontology”.

The review denounces dualisms yet uncritically endorses a dichotomy between relative (or subjective) vs. absolute (or objective) phenomena. This is no longer adequate because today we know that many phenomena are relational. For example, whether some stuff qualifies as food depends on the nature both of the substance and of the organism that is going to absorb it. Yet relativism is mistaken, because not any stuff can count as food, sand never does. Likewise, semantic information (e.g. a train timetable) is a relational phenomenon: it depends on the right kind of message and receiver. Insisting on mapping information as either relative or absolute is as naïve as pretending that a border between two nations must be located in one of them.

The world is getting more complex. We have never been so much in need of good philosophy to understand it and take care for it. But we need to upgrade philosophy into a philosophy of information of our age for our age if we wish it to be relevant. This is what the book is really about.

Feature image credit: Macro computer citrcuit board, by Randy Pertiet. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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12. Entertainment Weekly's list of 50 Books Every Kid Should Read

Entertainment Weekly just released a list of 50 Books Every Kid Should Read. As I read the list, I kept thinking, "That's interesting," as in it was interesting to see what was included and what was not. For example, I was incredibly happy to see The Phantom Tollbooth, the All-of-a-Kind Family books, and The Book Thief on the list. Then there are some titles that I wouldn't have included, but that's just me. I'd be interested to hear what books on this list my fellow bloggers and loyal readers have read, and what books they would add to the list. Please leave your comments below so we can discuss.

Here is the list as presented by Entertainment Weekly. Note: The print article has the byline "by Chris Lee" while website says "by EW staff."

If the title is italicized, then I've read it.
If the title is bold and italicized, then I strongly recommend it.

Ages 3-5
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
- All of the Frances books are cute. My favorite Hoban story is Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.
Strega Nona by Tomi dePaola
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg - This story is special to me.
The Mitten by Jan Brett

Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen
The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkey

Ages 6-8
The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary
- I have read every single Ramona book, and all of the books that take places on Klickitat Street!
A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
- Very precious to me.
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne - I've only read a few
The Arrival by Shaun Tan - I think this is the wrong category for this book; it is a wordless graphic novel, and Tan himself differentiates it from children's picture books
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney</i> - I've only read a few

Ages 9-11
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor - Wonderful books!
The Borrowers by Mary Norton

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl - I prefer Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster - So awesome.
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths by Ingrid & Edgar D'Aulaire
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
Holes by Louis Sachar
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket - I've only read a few
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Ages 12+
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis - My favorite in the series
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle</b>
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson - Tears.
The Giver by Lois Lowry - So much better that the companion books that followed it.
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - TEARS.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- I prefer Looking for Alaska.

See the article/list in image form at Dave Roman's Tumblr or click through the gallery at the Entertainment Weekly website.

Want to check out my top book picks for kids? Here you go:
So You Want to Read YA?
Middle School Must-Haves
Funny Fiction for Kids
Favorite Picture Books
Favorite Beginning Readers
Coming-of-Age Novels aka Bildungsromans
Tough Issues for Teens
...and all of my booklists plus my best of lists, which I post once a month and once a year.

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13. The other side of El Sistema: Music education, discipline, and profit

The Venezuelan youth orchestra scheme El Sistema is perhaps the world’s most famous music education program today. It’s lauded as a revolutionary social program that has rescued hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s poorest children. Simon Rattle has called it “the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world.” Classical music education is back in vogue, now aligned with the rhetoric of social justice.

However, the training of social or ethnic Others (the poor, the destitute, the non-white) as classical music performers is hardly a new idea, and delving into its long history may improve understandings of El Sistema outside Venezuela, which are currently very limited. While this training might have provided a helping hand to the most disadvantaged in society, it also had less benevolent aspects.

The music conservatoire has its roots in the conservatorios, or orphanages, of Renaissance Venice. Young female orphans were trained in music at institutions such as the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi worked. These institutions served a clear charitable purpose, providing for destitute children and aiming to turn them into productive citizens. Yet it’s worth noting a couple of further points: discipline and profit.

The Ospedali Grandi’s purpose was primarily to regulate the city’s social environment, and along with the opportunities provided to impoverished girls went strict control over their day-to-day lives. As Vanessa M. Tonelli notes, the young musicians had to submit to an inflexible monastic routine: silence, lots of work, and little leisure time. When the English music historian Charles Burney visited in the eighteenth century, he noted “good discipline observed in every particular,” and he described the orchestra as “under the most exact discipline,” with its musicians “under that kind of subordination which is requisite in a servant to a superior.” Clearly, then, musical training was an extension of the Ospedali’s social control. It also had an economic angle: concerts by the orphan girls became a major attraction, and the Ospedali were thus able to turn their musical talents into profit, enriching the institutions and their administrators by eliciting larger donations.

Naples, too, had a conservatorio system, in which, as David Yearsley writes, music “was drummed into thousands of children in a system of forced labor…. There was huge international demand for the fashionable Neapolitan style, and the conservatories fed it.” Employing a training system that was “often cruel,” these “music mills” forged highly trained performers for export across Europe. Their art “belied the inexorable regime of study, discipline, and punishment that lay behind it”: Burney described sweatshop-like conditions, with students practising ten hours a day with only a few days off per year.

Caracas_Brass
Caracas Brass, El Sistema. By Agonzalez. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Yearsley posits a “dialectic of musical enlightenment: on one side of the split screen was the musical workhouse of the poor orphans, on the other, the courtly chamber filled by the most elegant music played by bewigged and fully-trained instrumentalists.” Enchanting music emerged from conditions of control and exploitation.

The alliance of coercion and beauty was not limited to Europe. The Spanish Conquest of the Americas saw missionaries fanning out across the continent and founding schools that taught music as a core subject. A key aim was to instill in the indigenous population what the Spaniards called policía–order, Christianity, and civilization. Music education thus served as a handmaiden of colonialism.

In nineteenth-century Britain, music education was promoted among the poor as part of a drive for moral and religious improvement. Howard Smither argues that a key motivation was the political protection of the upper and wealthy middle classes. Music was seen as a way of keeping the workers out of taverns, increasing their productivity and decreasing their opportunities to discuss revolutionary ideas. Similarly, David Gramit underlines how nineteenth-century educational reform in Germany reaffirmed the social and economic order; music education proponents “sought to create a disciplined but docile labor pool” and thus promote more efficient capitalism. Grant Olwage explores how the perceived efficacy of music education as social control in Britain made it an obvious tool for disciplining and “civilizing” the black population in its colony in South Africa.

What all these programs had in common was an attempt to order and control social Others. They reveal music education in its guise of disciplinary practice, and thus as profoundly ambiguous. As Michel Foucault argues, discipline is effective and productive, as the high level of performing skill attained by many of these musical trainees attests. But discipline also “imposes unequal, asymmetrical, non-reciprocal relations” (James Johnson), and produces docile, apolitical subjects. Music education thus brings benefits, but they often accrue as much to the educators as the educated (as economic and symbolic capital) and may be accompanied by significant (if hidden) costs.

Training, discipline, profit: these three threads run through the history of music education of social or ethnic Others. Let’s now turn to Venezuela.

El Sistema has been lionised by the international press as a revolution in artistic education and a beacon of social justice. Clearly, then, there has been a failure to connect it to similar music education initiatives stretching back half a millennium and to take account of the darker side of music education. For all the contemporary talk of a “revolutionary social project,” El Sistema offers little that is new—its core ideas were presaged in sixteenth-century Latin America and nineteenth-century Europe–and such programs have historically been reactionary, not revolutionary.

Historical precedents alert us to the possibility that alongside El Sistema’s undoubted productivity lie discipline and profit. And indeed, the Venezuelan program displays a familiar urge to control social Others and benefit from their musical activities. Founder José Antonio Abreu has said: “As an educator, I was thinking more about discipline than about music.” Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, meanwhile, have become mainstays of the global music industry, attracting the kind of international praise and wonder that Venetian orphan musicians did centuries earlier, and generating considerable revenue in the process. Like the Neapolitan conservatorios, it drills young performers intensively to fulfill the desires of audiences across Europe; once again, the musicians’ “naturalness” is celebrated, their unbending training regime overlooked.

To understand El Sistema, we need to remember music education’s two faces. The press and public have fixated on one–“rescuing” and training the poor–and have largely ignored the other: discipline and profit. Only when the second is fully grasped can a proper assessment be made.

Headline image credit: ‘Maestro. Orchestra. Conductor’. Public domain via Pixabay

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14. The ayes have it

The ayes may have it, but we, poor naysayers, remain in ignorance about the derivation of ay(e) “yes.” I hope to discuss the various forms of assent in December, and we’ll see that that the origin of some synonyms of ay(e) is also enigmatic. Perhaps the word does not even deserve the attention lavished on it by linguists, but, as usual in etymology and in much of scholarship, once a question is asked, there is no way to get rid of it. It draws more and more people into the controversy and gains momentum.

The earliest known example of ay(e), at that time spelled as I, goes back to 1576. Shakespeare was born in 1564, which means that he heard aye ~ I most of his life; he used it freely in his plays. How and why did ay(e) come into existence in the second half of the sixteenth century? Guesses vary, with some conclusions looking more realistic than the others.

I should propose that such a word, almost an interjection, originated “on the street” rather than in official parlance. Twenty-five years ago, Professor Rolf Bremmer wrote an article on aye and in passing compared aye and OK. The comparison seems apt. The origin of OK became clear after years of laborious research. Some people are still unconvinced by the results, but the statement one finds in the most recent dictionaries is probably all correct. The word gained fame (or notoriety) during an election campaign, spread from its home, and in the twentieth century, mainly after the Second World War, conquered half of the world. (As late as 1938, an Englishman, in a letter to The Spectator, vented his wrath on OK for “defiling” the English language and on those who dared say that it was “OK to walk in the Zoo on Sunday.” Ay(e) must have had a similar history: it probably rose from the lower depths, lost its slangy tinge, became conversational, and ended up among the most respectable, even if dead, words in the language, considering its use in voting (“all in favor say aye”—oyez, oyez, oyez). It is reasonable to suggest that by 1576 it had been around for a few decades.

The common opinion has it that ay(e) lacks cognates outside English, but, while examining early sixteenth-century Frisian legal documents, Bremmer found ay, aij, and aey “yes,” a word related to Engl. yea, in the answers of several witnesses. (Incidentally, English etymologist Hensleigh Wedgwood knew about the Frisian form, but today hardly anyone opens even the last of four editions of Wedgwood’s dictionary.) Bremmer considered the following possibilities: (1) Frisian borrowed the formula of assent from English, (2) English borrowed it from Frisian, (3) both borrowed it from a third language, and (4) although aye goes back to an ancient period, it surfaced in both languages around 1600. In his view, only the second option has a semblance of verisimilitude. I will not go over his arguments (the word is obviously not very old, while a “third language” is pure fiction) but say that his conclusion may need modification. Among other things, Bremmer, following the German scholar Hermann Flasdieck, mentioned the chance of a nautical origin. Flasdieck did not elaborate. Bremmer probably thought of borrowing from Frisian-speaking sailors. One can indeed imagine a formula like “Ay, ay, Sir” becoming part of international slang. (The origin of nautical words is often hard to trace: compare my old post on awning.)

All eyes on the ayes. (Parliament adopts EU budget for 2011. ©European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via European Parliament Flickr.
All eyes on the ayes.

Let us now look at how some other scholars tried to deal with ay(e). Their approaches are partly predictable. Since ay(e) was spelled as I, it was natural to try to derive the word from the pronoun. Allegedly, people suddenly began saying “I, I” when they meant “yes, yes.” Objections to this hypothesis have been many. Mine is hidden in the adverb suddenly prefaced to began in the previous sentence. We will see that no one asked what had made the word popular around 1650, and this, I think, is the reason why the origin of aye remains unknown to this day.

Then there is the adverb aye “ever,” and it occurred to some that ay(e) “yes” is the same word (after all, no goes back to the negation n- and Old Engl. a “ever”; the vowel was long, as, for example, in Modern Engl. spa or the family name Haas). Those who have been exposed to several varieties of English know that in many areas Kate, mate, and so forth sound as kite and mite. (So it is now in London, and I remember my futile attempts to explain to a secretary at Cambridge University that the first letter of my name—Anatoly—is an a. Unfortunately, she pronounced the town’s name as Kimebridge and could not make out what I wanted. I still have that ID for I. Liberman.) However short the path from A to I may be, I “yes” never meant “ever, always.” Yet even under the best of circumstances why should an obscure dialectal form of the affirmative take root in the capital and stay in the language? Even in the nineteenth century, Londoners did not say stition for station.

At least two etymologists attempted to trace ay(e) to longer words or whole phrases. Both scholars have good credentials, but their conjectures strike me as less than totally persuasive (to use a polite euphemism), and I have to repeat the same fateful question: What caused the appearance of the enigmatic word in the seventeenth century? It may be worthwhile to reiterate a simple but constantly ignored rule of linguistic reconstruction. Whether we investigate the nature of a sound change, a shift in grammar, or the origin of a word, we have to discover the circumstances in which the process took place. If, let us say, short vowels became long in the thirteenth century, why just then? Certainly not because short vowels tend to strive for upward mobility.

This lemur is called an aye-aye. An ideal yes-man and henchman.
This lemur is called an aye-aye. An ideal yes-man and henchman.

I may also add my traditional rueful comment. Before the recent publication of a bibliography of English etymology it was hard to find even the most important works on the history of any given word. In 1950 Gösta Langenfelt, in a Swedish journal (but he wrote the article in English!), proposed the derivation of ay(e) from the group ah je. In 1954 E. K. C. Varty had a similar idea and put it forward in Notes and Queries. He was unaware of his predecessor. In 1956, Klaus J. Kohler developed Langenfelt’s idea (the most sensible etymology, as he called it). He published his findings in English and then incorporated his idea into a longer work in German. He never discovered Varty’s one-page note. Even the most conscientious etymologists are doomed to roaming in the gloaming. Despite the consensus on the matter in hand among three distinguished authors, none of whom addressed the question of chronology, I keep thinking that ay(e) did not develop from a compound or a word group.

We will disregard the idea that ay is ya or ja, with the sounds in reverse order, or that it is a borrowing from Latin (so Samuel Johnson; his editor Todd questioned this hypothesis), but for the fun of it we may follow the path of Webster’s dictionary: first some vague references to Scandinavian and Celtic, then silence (no etymology in Webster-Mahn (!)), later “perhaps a modification of yea,” and the final splash: “Of uncertain etymology.” Being uncertain is an honest etymologist’s immutable fate.

Image credit: (1) Parliament adopts EU budget for 2011. ©European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via European Parliament Flickr. (2) The Aye-Aye (from Trans. of Zool. Soc.). Illustration from “On The Genesis of Species” by St. George Mivart, F.R.S. (1827-1900.) London: Macmillan and Co. 1871. Project Gutenberg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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15. Put the debate about slacktivism to rest

Oxford Dictionaries included slacktivism on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on this Internet activism phenomenon.

The term slacktivism is based on a question that should never have been asked: are digital activists doing anything worthwhile, or are they mere “slacktivists,” activists who are slacking off?

The word arose from a debate about what value there was to all those people who were willing to click a few buttons to express their outcry over the shooting of Trayvon Martin or participate in the ALS ice-bucket challenge—but do nothing else. While some have hailed this new era of digital activism as a great democratizing force, opening up the political process and giving voice to people in a new way, others have scoffed at its impact. “The revolution will not be tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote.

Asking whether digital activism is a meaningful lever for social change is the wrong question to ask for several reasons.

First, the forms and capabilities of digital activism itself are changing rapidly, so that answers to the question become obsolete almost as fast as the technologies on which they are based.

Second, the types and uses of digital activism are as diverse as traditional forms of activism, ranging tremendously in what they can accomplish. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Digital activism, like regular activism, can be both effective and ineffective, both thin and thick.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, focusing on digital activism puts the emphasis on the tools, not the people who use the tools. The success of any change effort has always depended on the capabilities of the people who use whatever tools are at their disposal.

The right question to ask, then, is not “How good are the tools?” but instead “How good are the people and organizations who use those tools?” Lots of organizations, campaigns, and movements all over the world try to get people engaged in activism every day. Some are better than others. Why?

Conventional wisdom might argue that an organization’s ability to engage activists depends on a charismatic leader, a catchy message, or, in this day and age, its ability to leverage big data and technology. Those things all matter. But after spending two years comparing high-engagement organizations to their low-engagement counterparts, I find that what really differentiates the high-engagement organizations is their ability to create transformative experiences for their activists.

While most organizations focus on trying to get more people to do more stuff by making participation as easy as possible, these high-engagement organizations are doing more. Whether they are doing it online or offline, these organizations are carefully engaging people in ways that cultivate the motivational, strategic, and practical capacities they need to engage in further activism—as a result, everything from the kinds of activities they plan, to the way they structure their organizations, to the way they communicate with volunteers, is different. Combined with a hard-nosed focus on numbers, these organizations are thus able to achieve both the breadth and depth of activism that many organizations seek.

So let’s put the debate about slacktivism to rest. Instead, let’s begin asking how we can use technology to create transformative spaces where people can develop their individual and collective agency. If technology can create the kinds of interpersonal, transformative spaces face-to-face organizations have built for years, then we’ll be able to get the depth we want, but on a grander scale than we’ve ever had before.

Headline image credit: Protest Illustration. Public domain via Pixabay.

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16. Slacktivism as optical illusion

Oxford Dictionaries included slacktivism on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on this Internet activism phenomenon.

Slacktivism is a portmanteau, bridging slacker and activism. It is usually not intended as a compliment.

The term is born out of frustration with the current state of public discourse: signing an e-petition, retweeting a message, or “liking” something on Facebook seems too easy. When people engage in these simple digital acts around social causes, we wonder: are they fooling themselves into believing they can make a difference? What can these clicks actually accomplish? Do they degrade “real” social activism, or make citizens less likely to take more substantial steps?

But if we examine these digital acts a little more closely, it turns out that slacktivism is a bit of an optical illusion. Simple digital acts of participation can be wispy or powerful. They can be a dead end for social engagement, or Act 1 in a grand narrative of social mobilization. It all depends on the context and the intended purpose of these digital actions, and on how committed, organized groups of citizens make use of them.

Three features are particularly important when deciding whether an act of online participation should be dismissed as “just slacktivism.”

First is what Andrew Chadwick (2013) calls “the hybrid media system.” One major goal of most citizen activism is to attract media attention. Mainstream media still help to set the agenda for the national conversation – whether CNN and USA Today are covering Ebola or the national debt helps to magnify attention to each of those issues. In the pre-digital era, activist groups would stage rallies and send press releases to attract the attention of the media. Today, journalists and their editors often turn to digital media in order to pick out potential stories worth covering. So online petitions, likes, and hashtags can be more than just slacktivism if they are strategically used to attract media attention.

Second is the target of the digital action. All activist tactics – digital or offline – should be viewed within their strategic context. Who is being targeted, and why would the target listen? Marshall Ganz (2010) writes that “Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” Digital petitions, by this logic, can be tremendously effective or a complete waste of time. A petition to “stop animal cruelty,” aimed at no one in particular, is guaranteed to make no difference. But a recent wave of online petitions aimed at Boy Scout Troops resulted in the Boy Scouts of America officially changing its position and allowing openly gay youths to participate in the organization. Likewise, when online “slackers” submit millions of online comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, those comments carry the force of demonstrated public opinion. When online citizens tweet or post their displeasure at corporations, reputation-conscious companies have been known to change their policies and practices.

Third, is the organizational context. Some simple acts of digital engagement can indeed leave people less likely to engage in larger-scale activism. In particular, researchers have found that initial acts of token support can relieve psychological pressure that would otherwise push an individual to engage more deeply. But these same acts can also operate as the first step in a “ladder of engagement.” You start by retweeting a news article, and then signing a petition. In the process, you are added to the member rolls of a “netroots” advocacy organization. And that organization then reaches out to you, inviting you to a street protest or a local meeting about the issue. As Hahrie Han (2014) demonstrates, organizations develop activists by building relationships with them over time. These initial acts of “slacktivism” can vanish into nothing, or provide a base for civic mobilization.

The complaints we hear today about “slacktivism” are identical to an earlier generation of complaints about “armchair activism.” Where today we hear that actions performed via the Internet are too simple to make a difference, in the 1970s we heard that actions performed via the mail or the telephone were too simple to make a difference. Then, as now, those complaints were an optical illusion: the power of these activist techniques depends on what angle you observe them from. The medium through which we engage in politics matters less than the networks, relationships, and strategies we employ along the way.

Headline image credit: Large crowd of small symbolic 3d figures, over white. © higyou via iStock.

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17. Slacktivism, clicktivism, and “real” social change

Oxford Dictionaries included slacktivism on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on this Internet activism phenomenon.

Like its corollary clicktivism, slacktivism is a term that unites entrenched technosceptics and romantic revolutionaries from a pre-Internet or, more precisely, a pre-social media age as they admonish younger generations for their lack of commitment to “real” social change or willingness to do “what it takes” to make the world around them a better place.

This perception is based on drawing a corollary between the mounting evidence that people are spending more and more time online and the perception that political and social movements are no longer what they were. I would agree with both observations.

I would not agree, however, with this widely held assumption that online forms of sociopolitical mobilization, information-exchange, or community-building are either inferior or less genuine to offline varieties. There are good, bad, and indifferent forms of online political engagement just as there are in the offline world, e.g. going on a demonstration or signing a paper petition are not in themselves signs of above-average mobilization. In this sense then slacktivism, defined as actions in “support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement,” existed long before the Internet came of age in the 1990s with the world wide web. And slacktivism, according to this part of the definition, will exist long after the social media platforms that dominate the internet of today have made way for the next generation of goods and services. Disapproval at the way any given generation makes use — or not — of the media and communications of their time will also continue long after the target of this pejorative term, so-called digital natives, have grown up and started to lament the way their children seem to have become disengaged from the social and political problems of their time in turn. Half-hearted or short-lived forms of political action, empty rhetoric, or fleeting movements for change are neither reducible to, nor are they synonymous with any particular technological artefact or system, even a transformative and complex one such as the Internet. This held true for the Internet’s socio-technological precursors such as television, the telephone, radio, and even the printing press.

Activist table office. © ToozDesign via iStock.
Activist table office. © ToozDesign via iStock.

My taking distance from this easy dismissal of the way people use the Internet to call to account power abuses at home and abroad, or to share information and get organized by going online, arises from a longstanding concern I have about the way that media pundits — and some parts of academe — look for easy ways to generate headlines or sell books by drawing such false dichotomies between our online and our offline lives. This preference for the simple either/or tends to overlook more pressing questions about the changing face and nature of sociopolitical engagement in a domain that is being squeezed from all sides by incumbent political and economic interests. It is tempting, and comforting to treat online mobilization as suspicious by default, but to do so, as astute observers (not) so long ago have already noted (Walter Benjamin and Donna Haraway for instance) does a disservice to critical analyses of how society and technological change collide and collude with one another, and in complex, over-determined ways. But I would go further here to argue that tarring all forms of online activism as slacktivism is a form of myopic thinking that would condemn the ways in which today’s generation’s communicate their concerns about the injustices of the world in which they live online. It also underestimates the politicizing effect that recent revelations about way in which the internet, the medium and means in which they find out about their world is being excessively if not illegally data-mined and surveilled by vested — governmental and commercial — interests.

Assuming that the Internet, admittedly a harbinger of major shifts in the way people access information, communicate with one another, and organize, is the main cause for the supposedly declining levels of civic engagement of the younger generation is to succumb to the triple perils of technological determinism, older-generational myopia, and sloppy thinking. It also overlooks, indeed ignores, the fact that organizing online is a time-consuming, energy-draining, and expensive undertaking. This holds true even if many of the tools and applications people can draw on are offered “free” or are, arguably, relatively easy to use. Sustaining a blog, a website, a social media account, getting people to sign an e-petition, or deploying email to good effect are activities that require know-how, want-to, and wherewithal. Moreover, mounting any sort of campaign or community project in order to address a social injustice at home let alone around the world, cannot be done these days without recourse to the internet.

What has changed, like it or not, is that in Internet-dependent contexts, any sort of serious political or social form of action now has to include an online dimension, and a sustained one at that. This means that additional energies need to be devoted to developing multi-sited and multi-skilled forms of strategic thinking, deployment of human resources, and ways to make those qualities that can inspire and mobilize people to get involved work for the online environment (e.g. how to use micro-blogging idioms well), on the ground (e.g. face-to-face meetings), and in non-digital formats (e.g. in written or physical forms). It is a sign of our age that sociopolitical action needs to know how to combine age-old, pre-digital age techniques to mobilize others with those that can speak in the 24/7, mobile, and user-generated idioms of online solidarity that can engage people close to home as well as those living far away. Huge sociocultural and political power differentials aside, given that people and communities access and use the Internet in many ways at any one time around the world, the effort and commitment required of pre-Internet forms of organizing pale in comparison to those called for in an Internet age.

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18. In the Middle

The trouble with finishing so many books in October is that November has so far been a month of starting new books and being, it seems, forever in the middle but not quite at the end. What’s a person to do? No reviews to write at the moment. Shall I talk a little about what I am in the middle of and how I am enjoying it? Sure! Let’s!

I’ll begin with Jane Austen’s Emma. I am reading the book on my Kobo, a free download from Project Gutenberg. Six years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for something like the fourth time. I’ve read all of Austen’s novels at least once but it had been such a long time that after the pleasure of P&P I decided I would reread one Austen a year until I made my way through all of them. Emma is the last. It has never been my favorite book, pretty much always ranked for me as number 5. I was kind of not looking forward to rereading it. Emma annoys me and so does Mr. Knightly. I expected I would be cringing. A lot.

But I haven’t. I’ve been enjoying the book. A good deal of that pleasure is because I just finished Being Wrong and Emma is such a perfect example of error, not only in Emma herself, but in many of the other characters too, that it has almost been funny. Also, I never remembered Mr. Woodhouse being such a hypochondriac along with a few others. They are not funny. They make me feel ever so sorry for Emma and the others who have to put up with them. I fear that I would not be so kind. I would crack so fast I’d be the scandal of the neighborhood for screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs and smashing Mr. Woodhouse’s evening bowl of gruel against the wall. I just got past the part where Mr. Elton had the nerve to propose to Emma. Horrors all around!

Emma is my daily commute and lunch break book. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is my before bed book. I’m about halfway and really liking it. The writing is solid, the characters believable, and the premise for the end of civilization all too real. In case you don’t know, there was a very contagious and deadly flu outbreak that killed about 90% of the world’s population. The book moves easily between pre-outbreak and twenty years later. Something that really caught me up last night as I was reading, one of the characters who was eight when the epidemic began walked into an old abandoned house looking for supplies and flipped the light switch, knowing nothing would happen but also hoping something would. Oh how we take electricity for granted! That moment in the book gave me chills.

My on the weekend and when I can fit them in books are many. I’m about a third of the way into A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. I am really loving this book! It is a book that demands full attention while reading it and because of the style cannot be read quickly. But I am glad. I want to pay attention. I don’t want to read fast. It is a book that is all kinds of disturbing.

Also disturbing but in a different way is Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny. Irreverent and unabashedly in-you-face feminist it has me alternately laughing, crying, and pissed off. I haven’t felt so charged up about feminism since my early twenties when I was young and idealistic and thought the wave was going wash patriarchy down the drain once and for all. Well that never happened and it suddenly amazes me how, even though I have never been afraid to call myself a feminist, I have, over the years, become almost resigned to the way things are. Penny is getting me all fired up and paying attention again which also means for the last week or so since I started this book I have been regularly getting pissed off about things I hear in the news and things I have heard male students say to female students in the library where I work. Getting angry about so many things is distressing but wow, does it ever feel good too.

In addition I am pecking away at Proust’s Guermantes Way and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Proust is amazing and I am hoping that soon I will find more time to dedicate to it. Grossman, not sure what to make of it yet. I don’t not like it but I’m not really liking it either. I’m sitting on the fence waiting for something to happen that will tip me over one way or the other.

And of course there are many books waiting in the wings from Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North to Women in Clothes and Margaret Atwood’s short stories and Murakami’s latest. I feel so rich!


Filed under: Books, In Progress

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19. We Like What We Like

When he was little, one of my husband’s favorite Christmas movies was “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” I laughed out loud the first time he told me the title, sure he was making it up. But no, it’s a real movie starring a young Pia Zadora as a martian child. The acting is terrible, the […]

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20. The future of systems neuroscience

How does the brain work? It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds these days, especially with the launch of massive new research efforts like the American BRAIN Initiative and the European Human Brain Project. It’s also a systems question because after all, the brain is a key part of the nervous system, like the skull is a key part of the skeletal system or the heart is a key part of the circulatory system. The basic approach to understanding how any system works has been clear since Greek and Roman times two thousand years ago: understand what the system does, make a parts list, describe how each part works, and then determine how the parts interact to carry out the various functions of the system.

Science is based on observing nature and testing resulting hypotheses to understand functional mechanisms. And major progress comes from the most general hypotheses—theoretical frameworks at the systems level: paradigms. Famous examples include Copernicus organizing the sun and planets with the earth rather than the sun at the center, Mendeleev arranging the basic chemical elements of all matter into a periodic table, and Watson and Crick’s model of the molecular basis of heredity—in terms of how the four nucleotide building blocks of DNA are arranged spatially in a double helix.

Systems neuroscience does not have a comparable theoretical framework, leaving it in a pre-Watson and Crick, or maybe even better, a pre-Darwin state of affairs. The solution is simple, obvious, and attainable—but essentially ignored in current “big science” approaches to neuroscience. Watson and Crick’s model of DNA led 50 years later to the sequencing of the human genome. At first, this project was widely criticized as frivolous, but it proved to be seminal in many ways, not the least of which is establishing the scope of the problem—the basic overall organization of the chromosomes—and allowing the relatively fast and cheap assaying of genome-wide expression patterns on a tiny chip. Getting the structural sequence was only the first step, but it was a necessary step, allowing all of functional, mechanistic understanding to follow logically, in a classic hypothesis-driven way.

Stained human neocortical pyramidal cell. Image credit: Bob Jacobs, Laboratory of Quantitative Neuromorphology Department of Psychology Colorado (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Stained human neocortical pyramidal cell. Photo by Bob Jacobs, Laboratory of Quantitative Neuromorphology Department of Psychology Colorado. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

The analogous solution for neuroscience is figuring out the basic wiring diagram of the nervous system, and this has to start with the connectome, essentially a table of connections between the parts. From this connectome a blueprint of the nervous system can be developed, like the architectural drawings for an office building, the plans for an airliner, or the schematics for a motherboard. The basic circuit diagram is like a skeleton, a basic framework for understanding the function of the nervous system. It is hard to imagine building and fixing a modern skyscraper, airplane, or computer without detailed and accurate schematics—and the same applies to understanding mechanisms underlying brain function and fixing problems scientifically.

Everybody knows that the brain is the most complex object on earth, so a viable strategy for solving the wiring diagram is essential. The approach here is also obvious—start with the simplest level of analysis, and progress to deeper and deeper levels. The simplest level is the wiring diagram between basic parts, and there are about 500 of them in mammals. This is analogous to displaying the airline routes between major cities around the world. The next level is the wiring diagram at the level of neuron types that make up each part—there are probably 2,500 to 5,000 neuron types in mammals. And the next level after that is the wiring diagram between all of the individual nerve cells that make up each of the neuron types—hundreds of millions to billions in mammals. The simplest, most general level can be solved now with current technology in rodents. Why not do it, and develop more efficient technology at the same time—just like the history of the genome project. Developing effective ways to interact between animal connectomes based on histology at cellular resolution and human connectomes based on MRI—and correlating both with genomic information—is the wave of the future. Great progress in diagnosing, treating, and understanding the etiology of nervous system diseases can be expected by correlating the results of genome-wide association studies with connectome-wide association studies.

Headline image credit: Diagram of brain synapses. Image by Allan Ajifo, aboutmodafinil.com. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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21. Chemical warfare in terrestrial flatworms

Biologically-produced toxins include some of the most interesting substances in nature. As advanced as the chemical sciences are, nothing beats nature in terms of the wide variety of structures with specific biochemical properties. Toxins are one of the most effective mechanisms of defense or predation, generally used by organisms lacking traits like sheer size, strength, fast speed, agility, the ability to fly, or the capacity of technological intelligence (yes, this last one is us). I find this one of the most fascinating aspects of biology. As I said in the very first paragraph of my PhD dissertation:

“Nature is the best chemist. During the course of evolution, through literally millions of years, a wide variety of organisms have developed substances used for defense against predators, or to become predators themselves. As part of the evolutionary process, chemical structures beneficial for the survival of the organism are conserved; many of these molecules include small organic toxins.”

If you think about it, it is amazing how many different organisms use chemical compounds as a survival strategy. Such compounds represent the difference between survival and death in these organisms. Once we realize the true extent of chemical diversity in nature, it is no wonder that this embarrassment of riches is used by life. For example, plants and microorganisms account for about half a million unique compounds. According to Richard Firn in Nature’s Chemicals, plants alone are estimated to produce about a million tons (!) of chemical compounds every year.

One of the best-known, and paradoxically least understood toxins is called tetrodotoxin (TTX). This is a rather mysterious molecule. It was originally discovered in a species of pufferfish, of fugu fame (a delicacy in Japan) in 1909, but the toxic properties of pufferfish have been known since at least the 1700s. Its mechanism of action entails the blocking of certain ion channels that control neuromuscular function. There is no antidote. TTX is present in quite a few other types of marine organisms, including the blue-ringed octopus, several crab species as well as a variety of worms (including polyclad flatworms), snails and starfish among many others. Remarkably, amphibians like certain frogs and newts also possess TTX. The most likely mechanism through which organisms acquire this toxin seems to be symbiotic bacteria, but this has not been demonstrated in every single case, especially in terrestrial species. To add more complexity to the matter, there are at least twelve “versions” of tetrodotoxin.

Up until very recently, despite the widespread distribution of TTX in nature, it was never observed in any known invertebrate species. Here’s where flatworms come in.

Land planarian. Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Masaharu Kawakatsu, used with permission.
Land planarian. This photo has been used with permission, courtesy of Dr. Masaharu Kawakatsu.

Some of the most interesting invertebrates include land planarians, many of which display a distinctive “hammerhead” morphology. All known species of land planarians are predators and many land planarians are considered invasive species and agricultural pests because one of their preferred prey are earthworms.

Like many planarians, the land variety displays rather sophisticated “hunting” behaviors. Upon encountering an earthworm, the flatworm performs a maneuver called “capping” where it covers the earthworm’s head region, minimizing its escape behavior, even in individuals significantly larger than the flatworm. In fact, upon capping, the earthworm frequently seems to be paralyzed, which hinted at the presence of a toxin.

These observations ignited the curiosity of Dr. Amber N. Stokes, of the Department of Biology at California State University and collaborators, who hypothesized that the toxin in question was TTX, based on the behavioral response of salamanders that were fed with certain land planarians. In a recent paper, they reported that the planarian toxin seems to be TTX in the two species of land planarians studied, Bipalium adventitium and Bipalium kewense. Their results suggest that these flatworms use tetrodotoxin for both predation and defense. In addition to the documented paralysis-like state that the planarians induced in earthworms, the authors observed that salamanders offered these planarians as food tended to reject them and that in the case of B. adventitium, TTX accumulates in their egg capsules. Research is underway to conclusively demonstrate that tetrodotoxin is the actual toxic agent in these flatworms.

This is just one example of the usefulness of planarians as experimental organisms beyond their traditional use in regeneration and developmental biology research. These fascinating worms are experiencing a “scientific renaissance”, particularly in the areas of pharmacology, toxicology, and the neurosciences. They are ideal, tractable subjects to investigate aspects of these disciplines in an integrated way, as they can be easily examined from the molecular to the behavioral level.

These are exciting times in planarian research!

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22. Because

Because it is Monday. Because it was 7F (-14C) as I walked out my door to the bus stop this morning. Because my dentist told me I have to have two old silver fillings replaced and also need a crown. Because I got one more library book from my hold queue today and I am pretty sure I won’t be able to finish the three I already have that I can’t renew. Because Thanksgiving is next week and not this week and I thought it was this week and was so excited about only having to work three days and then getting a four-day holiday weekend and pumpkin pie. Because why not?

Because Margaret Atwood cracks me up: How to survive a zombie apocalypse according to Margaret Atwood.

Because libraries are awesome when you are a kid and continue to be awesome when you are grown up too: 7 things only kids who practically grew up in a library can understand

Because librarians are awesome too: What book should you read next? Putting librarians and algorithms to the test.

Because Emma looking like a Victorian lady is hilarious: Jane Austen fashion history.

Because pizza soup, mushroom sandwiches, and tomato soup cake: The dishes 16 writers would bring to a literary potluck.

Because just because.


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23. Vaping in the old tobacco and new marijuana industries

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on the growth of electronic cigarettes and the vaping phenomenon.

Vape is a fascinating Word of the Year. Not only is the word new and important, but so is the actual activity. That’s different from merely coining a cute new label for a longstanding practice.

First, some clarification. Various drugs can be “smoked” or “vaporized”. Smoking involves combustion, as in “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” By contrast, when something is vaporized it is heated – using heat from an external source – to volatilize the molecules. Water vapor is the familiar example; steam is not produced by burning water.

The distinction matters for many drugs. Burning cocaine decomposes it into byproducts that are not psychoactive. Vaporized cocaine base is crack.

Burning tobacco releases smoke that is full of not only nicotine but also carcinogens. The nicotine is addictive but not carcinogenic. E-cigarettes provide the nicotine – and nicotine addiction – without those tars or hot gasses. (Nicotine evaporates at a much lower temperature than is created when tobacco burns.)

It’s not that e-cigarettes are healthy. Constant dosing with nicotine is bad for your heart. However, compared to the most deadly consumer product in history, e-cigarettes aren’t as bad. When I polled a number of medical colleagues, their best guesses – and they stressed at this point they are only guesses – were that all things considered, e-cigarettes will kill at something like one-tenth the rate per year of use as do conventional cigarettes. That could make e-cigarettes a life saver – unless they become a new gateway to nicotine addiction for adolescents who later convert to combusted tobacco products.

With marijuana, people traditionally mostly smoked the flowering tops (“buds”) of the cannabis plant in a joint (cigarette) or bong (water pipe). However, the recent liberalization of marijuana policy has made consumption of THC “extracts” more common. (You can also vape buds, but the trend is toward concentrates.)

Vaping is a boon to both the old tobacco and the new marijuana industries because it solves their fundamental problem: how to ensure long-term demand when these days almost no mature adult initiates use of a new dependence-inducing psychoactive. The vast majority of people who smoke tobacco or marijuana start before the age of 21; indeed, usually by age 16. Kids know cigarettes are deadly, and have lagged in the recent upsurge in marijuana use.

Electronic Cigarette by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.
Electronic Cigarette by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.

Cue the cavalry to the rescue in the form of all these fruit flavors, such as bubble gum, caramel candy, root beer, and mango, that appeal to kids. Originally tobacco companies were indifferent to e-cigarettes. Originally they were used mostly by established smokers, and it wasn’t clear whether they were more of an aid for those quitting (akin to nicotine gum) or a way to retain smokers by making hours spent in smoke-free restaurants and workplaces more tolerable.

The marijuana industry was not similarly conflicted because much of the THC in a cannabis plant is locked up in leaves and other parts that are not desirable in today’s market as “usable marijuana”. It has always been technically possible to extract that THC, but doing so efficiently requires a moderately large extraction machine – something whose presence used to be difficult to explain to the police or nosy neighbors. But once producing marijuana products became legal (albeit still only under state law), there were no qualms about owning an extraction machine and recovering all that additional THC.

Cheap THC extraction created a new problem: how to sell it to a marketplace that was focused on joints and bongs. A certain amount could be baked into brownies, mixed into beverages or ointments, or sold as dabs to hardcore users, but the killer app was vape pens. Vape pens are close to odorless, letting kids use at home without their parents knowing; they are easy to flavor; and they create an element of style. The same creativity that went into filling head shops with endless variations on the basic bong has been channeled into vape pens with features such as puff counters, batteries that plug into USB ports, and LED temperature indicators, as well as styling features ranging from classy gold plate to ninja turtle figurines and Snoop Dog endorsements.

The word vape itself is also key to this transformation. The scary word cigarette is part of the phrase e-cigarette, but vaping is new, chic, and as-of-yet decoupled from associations with cancer and heart disease.

All of this has made vaping trendy in a way it hadn’t been when e-cigarettes first hit the market, and now the big tobacco companies are jumping in with both feet, buying up small e-cigarette companies and putting their marketing muscle behind the trend. They smell opportunity; whereas it is illegal to flavor tobacco, there is no barrier to marketing kid-friendly fruit-flavored nicotine for e-cigarettes.

What remains to be seen is how the industry will evolve if and when marijuana is legalized nationwide. Will tobacco companies buy out the still small marijuana firms? Will they – or the marijuana companies – sell cartridges that come with nicotine and THC premixed? Or will this vaping fad disappear like a puff of vapor?

Hard to say. But right now, vape is the Word of Year.

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24. The rise of electronic cigarettes and their impact on public health

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on the growth of electronic cigarettes and the vaping phenomenon.

A new report from the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows that use of e-cigarettes among high schools students has tripled in two years. The finding raises the question is vaping—the use of tobacco-free electronic cigarettes—an important tool for helping smokers quit or a ploy by Big Tobacco to addict another generation of young people to nicotine? Public health experts are poring over the modest evidence on the health consequences of e-cigarettes to find guidance for policy.

What is clear is that vaping—inhaling and exhaling vaporized nicotine liquid produced by an electronic cigarette—is on the rise not only in the United States but elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, the percent of current smokers had ever tried electronic cigarettes rose from 8.2 in 2010 to 50.6 in 2014.

Big Tobacco has jumped into the e-cigarette business with gusto. By the end of 2013, British American Tobacco, Lorillard, Philip Morris International and Reynolds—key players in the multinational tobacco business—had each bought e-cigarettes companies. While e-cigarettes still constitute a fraction of the tobacco business, their market share has grown rapidly. Retail sales value of e-cigarettes worldwide for 2013 was $2.5 billion and Wells Fargo estimates sales will top $10 billion by 2017.

Supporters of e-cigarettes argue that by satisfying the craving for nicotine these devices can wean smokers from tobacco, reducing the harm from inhaling more than 5,000 chemicals—many of them carcinogenic. Some studies have found that e-cigarettes were modestly effective at helping tobacco smokers to quit. Proponents believe that some tobacco use is inevitable for the foreseeable future so making e-cigarettes available helps reduce the world’s main cause of premature death. They compare e-cigarettes to offering injecting drug users free clean needles, a policy demonstrated to reduce HIV transmission.

Critics reject these arguments. They point to evidence that vaping exposes users to dangerous toxics, including cancer-causing formaldehyde. Of greatest concern, opponents fear that vaping will addict new users to nicotine, serving as a gateway to tobacco use. Some preliminary evidence supports this view. They also worry that e-cigarettes will re-glamorize smoking, undermining the changing social norms that have led to sharp declines in tobacco use.

Electronic Cigarette by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.
Electronic Cigarette by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.

The inconclusive evidence raises some basic questions. How do we make policy decisions in the face of uncertainty? In setting e-cigarette policy, what are appropriate roles for the market and government? Finally, in a political system where corporate interests have shown a growing capacity to manipulate the rules to achieve their goals, how can the public interest be best protected?

Over the past century, two warring principles have guided policy on consumer rights. The first, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, says consumers have the obligation to find out what they can about the products they choose to consume. The more recent precautionary principle argues instead that producers should introduce only goods that are proved safe. For e-cigarettes, this would put the onus on manufacturers to demonstrate in advance of widespread marketing that the alleged benefits of vaping outweigh its potential costs. Few researchers believe that such evidence now exists.

The history of Big Tobacco suggest that no industry is less qualified to set public health policy than the corporations that are buying up e-cigarette companies. In her 2006 decision in the United States racketeering trial against the tobacco industry, Judge Gladys Kessler wrote that the tobacco industry “survives, and profits from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to … an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system. Defendants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more. Despite that knowledge, they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, the Government, and to the public health community.”

Already the industry’s e-cigarette practices raise concerns. For example, companies have marketed products in flavors like cherry, vanilla, and cookies and cream milkshake. Their advertising has used the same sexual and risk-taking imagery employed to market tobacco to young people. Significantly, manufacturers decided not to promote their products primarily as smoking cessation devices, an approach that would have emphasized public health benefits, but instead as a glamorous, sophisticated new product. This strategy increases the likelihood that the product will create new generations of nicotine addicts rather than help smokers to quit.

Leaving e-cigarette policy in the hands of industry invites Big Tobacco to continue its deceptive practices and use its political resources to undermine public policy. The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave the US Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco. In 2014, the FDA proposed new rules to regulate e-cigarettes. These rules would set the minimum age of 18 to use e-cigarettes, prohibit most sales in vending machines, mandate warning labels, and ban free samples. As these rules work their way through the system, advocates have suggested the need for additional rules including a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, limits on marketing, and strict oversight of the truthfulness of health claims.

Lax public health protection from lethal but legal products such as tobacco, foods high in sugar and fat, alcohol, firearms, and automobiles has produced a growing burden of premature deaths and preventable injuries and illnesses. Around the world, chronic diseases and injuries are now the main killers and impose the highest costs on health systems and tax payers. Allowing Big Tobacco to use e-cigarettes to write a new chapter in this sorry history would be a step in the wrong direction.

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25. What do we love about new words?

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on language and the words that defined this past year.

The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries keep watch on our collective neology and select a word—or words–of the year: a word that is both forward-looking and reflects the culture of the current year. From 2004 we’ve had chav, podcast, carbon-neutral, locavore, hypermiling, unfriend, refudiate, squeezed middle, the verb GIF, and selfie. And in the UK, which has somewhat different sensibilities, the list reads chav, sudoku, bovvered, carbon footprint, credit crunch, simples, big society, omnishambles and selfie. The Word of the Year for 2014 is vape, edging out the short-listed finalists slacktivism, normcore, contactless, bae, budtender, and IndyRef.

Next week, I’ll be making a quiz of these words to see which students know and use. In class, we’ve been discussing how new words are created.

We talk about fixation: pre- (unfriend), suf- (selfie), in- (congratu-effin-ations), and circum- (embiggen). We explore the homonymy of prefixes and suffixes, and meaning of the word inflammable, which prompts discussion of the difference between ingrate and ingratiate. One student asks–in jest–why infallible doesn’t mean “able to fall into.”

We talk about acronyms and initialisms and the evolution of LOL and FAQ from “el-oh-el” and “ef-ay-que” to “loll” and “fak.” I find that my students are great verbers of nouns: They Facebook. They GIF. They gym. They library. They also reduplicate, compounding words to specify or intensify. I ask them the difference between a writer writer and a writer’s writer. “One makes a living and one doesn’t,” someone offers.

Our discussion goes on to the whys of word creation. New words encapsulate current ideas but also to express our identities as language users—irony, rebellion, erudition—and to characterize others, like the 2004 Word of the Year, chav, the British epithet for loutish youth in designer clothes. We talk about the accidental and logical leaps made by language users and how some of them end up as folk creations, like refudiate, the 2010 Word of the Year. I recount my own childhood confusion over hearing on television that American soldiers were fighting “gorillas” in Southeast Asia and tell them of the rejected job applicant who felt his department was often “the escape goat.” I offer my prediction that in fifty years the spelling segue will be edged out by the spelling Segway.

I always learn something new from the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year list, and I’m often surprised by my own and my students’ reactions to new usages.

Clippings frequently rub me the wrong way for some reason. When I am in a conversation where someone used words like cran, vacay, and bro, the usages somehow feel much too familiar, like a telemarketer addressing me by my first name. Abbreviations can be annoying too, as if the speaker assumes I am as immersed in some topic as they are and know all the shorthand. IMHO.

I’m enamored of blends though, and I smile at the recollection of the first time I came across the word hangry in a tweet from a former student. To me blends are verbal magic tricks: words sawed in half and magically rejoined. I always think of publisher Bennett Cerf’s description of Groucho Marx as someone who looks at words “upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more.” Groucho would have loved the Urban Dictionary’s blend bananus, for the brown part at the end of a banana. When I finished my book on the language of public apology I toyed with using the word regretoric in the title, but wiser editorial heads prevailed. The best blends have a playful punning to them, in which the remnants of the old words encapsulate the new meaning perfectly (the worst blends are like Frankenstein’s monster, like schmeat, a finalist in 2013.). I’ll leave it to you to judge the blends in this year’s finalists: slacktivism (from slacker + activism), normcore (from normal + hardcore), budtender (from bud + bartender).

To me, mere affixation is not as much fun as blending. New words formed by affixation make me think of new versions of old products, some sleek, colorful, and playful (unfriend and selfie), and others a bit too clumsy (hypermiling, the Word of the Year in 2008, or contactless). As a consumer, I rush out to buy some new words and leave others on the shelf.

This year’s Word of the Year vape, meaning to inhale the vapors from e-cigarettes, is a word that I won’t use much, not being a vaper myself. But many people seem to be vaping and the word has a good chance of success. It’s brisker than saying “smoke an e-cigarette” and reinforces the difference between vaping and smoking. Adapted from marijuana terminology, vape is a classic clipping from vaporize, with the added analogy of vapors/vapers and vape, to smoke/smokers and smoke. The word has made its way from High Times to the New York Times and NPR and is already being used not just as a verb but as a noun and adjective. There are “Got Vape?” bumper stickers, vape lounges, and vape pens. Vape is likely here to stay.

Headline image credit: Word cloud via Wordle.

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