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<<August 2014>>
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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: literature, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Why Literature Can Save Us

Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is literature and what constitutes salvation? So I'll begin with a brief surface definition of the terms, since we probably all have our own and various ideas about what [...]

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2. Early Modern Porn Wars

One day in 1668, the English diarist Samuel Pepys went shopping for a book to give his young French-speaking wife. He saw a book he thought she might enjoy, L’École des femmes or The School of Women, “but when I came to look into it, it is the most bawdy, lewd book that ever I saw,” he wrote, “so that I was ashamed of reading in it.” Not so ashamed, however, that he didn’t return to buy it for himself three weeks later — but “in plain binding…because I resolve, as soon as I have read it, to burn it, that it may not stand in the list of books, nor among them, to disgrace them if it should be found.” The next night he stole off to his room to read it, judging it to be “a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for information sake (but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to decharger); and after I had done it, I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame.” Pepys’s coy detours into mock-Spanish or Franglais fail to conceal the orgasmic effect the lewd book had on him, and his is the earliest and most candid report we have of one reader’s bodily response to the reading of pornography. But what is “pornography”? What is its history? Was there even such a thing as “pornography” before the word was coined in the nineteenth century?

The announcement, in early 2013, of the establishment of a new academic journal to be called Porn Studies led to a minor flurry of media reports and set off, predictably, responses ranging from interest to outrage by way of derision. One group, self-titled Stop Porn Culture, circulated a petition denouncing the project, echoing the “porn wars” of the 1970s and 80s which pitted anti-censorship against anti-pornography activists. Those years saw an eruption of heated, if not always illuminating, debate over the meanings and effects of sexual representations; and if the anti-censorship side may seem to have “won” the war, in that sexual representations seem to be inescapable in the age of the internet and social media, the anti-pornography credo that such representations cause cultural, psychological, and physical harm is now so widespread as almost to be taken for granted in the mainstream press.

The brave new world of “sexting” and content-sharing apps may have fueled anxieties about the apparent sexualization of popular culture, and especially of young people, but these anxieties are anything but new; they may, in fact, be as old as culture itself. At the very least, they go back to a period when new print technologies and rising literacy rates first put sexual representations within reach of a wide popular audience in England and elsewhere in Western Europe: the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most readers did not leave diaries, but Pepys was probably typical in the mixture of shame and excitement he felt when erotic works like L’École des filles began to appear in London bookshops from the 1680s on. Yet as long as such works could only be found in the original French or Italian, British censors took little interest in them, for their readership was limited to a linguistic elite. It was only when translation made such texts available to less privileged readers — women, tradesmen, apprentices, servants — that the agents of the law came to view them as a threat to what the Attorney General, Sir Philip Yorke, in an important 1728 obscenity trial, called the “public order which is morality.” The pornographic or obscene work is one whose sexual representations violate cultural taboos and norms of decency. In doing so it may lend itself to social and political critique, as happened in France in the 1780s and 90s, when obscene texts were used to critique the corruptions of the ancien régime; but the pornographic can also be used as a vehicle of debasement and violence, notably against women — which is one historical reality behind the US porn wars of the 1970s.

Front page of L'École des femmes—engraving from the 1719 edition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Front page of L’École des femmes—engraving from the 1719 edition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Pornography’s critics in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries have had less interest in the written word than in visual media; but recurrent campaigns to ban books by such authors as Judy Blume which aim to engage candidly with younger readers on sexual concerns suggest that literature can still be a battleground, as it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Take, for example, the words of the British attorney general Dudley Ryder in the 1749 obscenity trial of Thomas Cannon’s Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d, a paean to male same-sex desire masquerading as an attack. Cannon, Ryder declared, aimed to “Debauch Poison and Infect the Minds of all the Youth of this Kingdom and to Raise Excite and Create in the Minds of all the said Youth most Shocking and Abominable Ideas and Sentiments”; and in so doing, Ryder contends, Cannon aimed to draw readers “into the Love and Practice of that unnatural detestable and odious crime of Sodomy.” Two and a half centuries ago, Ryder set the terms of our ongoing porn wars. Denouncing the recent profusion of sexual representations, he insists that such works create dangerous new desires and inspire their readers to commit sexual crimes of their own.

Then as now, attitudes towards sexuality and sexual representations were almost unbridgeably polarized. A surge in the popularity of pornographic texts was countered by increasingly severe campaigns to suppress them. Ironically, however, those very attempts to suppress could actually bring the offending work to a wider audience, by exciting their curiosity. No copies of Cannon’s “shocking and abominable” work survive in their original form; but the text has been preserved for us to read in the indictment that Ryder prepared for the trial against it. Eighty years earlier, after his encounter with L’École des femmes, Pepys guiltily burned the book, but at the same time immortalized the sensual, shameful experience of reading it. Of such contradictions is the long history of porn wars made.

The post Early Modern Porn Wars appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. Dear Professor Fitger

Saint Paul, August 2014 Dear Professor Fitger, I've been asked to say a few words about you for Powells.com. Having dreamed you up with a ball-point pen in a composition notebook (drafting on the right-hand page, and making edits and corrections on the left [see figure 1]), I should be well equipped to describe you, [...]

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4. 10 questions for Garnette Cadogan

Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 19 August 2014, Garnette Cadogan, freelance writer and co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance, leads a discussion on Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

Cadogen_author photo_credit to Bart Babinski

What was your inspiration for working on the Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance?

I kept encountering the influence of the Harlem Renaissance — on art, music, literature, dance, and politics, among other spheres – and longed for a fresh, interesting discussion of the Renaissance in its splendid variety. My close friend and colleague Shirley Thompson, who teaches at UT-Austin, often discussed with me the enormous accomplishments and rich legacies of that movement. So, when she invited me to help her bring together myriad voices to talk about central cultural, intellectual, and political figures and ideas of the Harlem Renaissance, I, of course, gleefully joined her to arrange The Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance.

Where do you do your best writing?

On the kitchen counter. The comfort of the kitchen is like nowhere else, nothing else. (Look where everyone gathers at your next house party). To boot, nothing gets my mind revving like cooking. I’ll often run from skillet to keyboard shouting “Yes!”

Did you have an “a-ha!” moment that made you want to be a writer?

No one moment — it was a multitude of taps, then a grab — but having one of my professors in college call me to ask that I read my final paper to him over the phone was a big motivator. I took it as encouragement to be a writer, though, in retrospect, I recognize that it was my strange accent and not my prose style that was the appeal.

Which author do you wish had been your 7th grade English teacher?

Someone who could handle the distractible, chatterbox me, the troublemaker who had absolutely no interest in books or learning. Someone with a love for books who led a fascinating life and could tell a good story. Why, yes, George Orwell — What a remarkable life! What remarkable work! — would hold my attention and interest.

What is your secret talent?

Remarkably creative procrastination, coupled with the ability to trick myself that I’m not procrastinating. (Sadly, no one else but me is fooled.)

What is your favorite book?

Wait, what day is it? It all depends on the day you ask me. Sometimes, even the time of day you ask. Right now, it’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson (the handsome, authoritative edition edited by R.W. Franklin). I stand by this decision for another forty-eight hours.

Who reads your first draft?

Two friends who possess the right balance of grace and brutal honesty, the journalists Eve Fairbanks and Ilan Greenberg. They know just how to knock down and lift up, especially Eve, who has almost supernatural discernment and knows exactly what to say — and, more important in the early stages, what not to say. But who really gets the first draft are my friends John Wilson, the affable sage who edits Books and Culture, and John Freeman, whose eagle eye used to edit Granta; I verbally unload on them my fugitive ideas trying to assemble into a story (poor fellas), and then wait for red, yellow, green, or detour. Without this quartet, everything I write reads like the journal entries of Cookie Monster.

Do you read your books after they’ve been published?

My books haven’t been published yet, but I imagine that I’ll treat them like the rest of my writing: mental detritus I avoid looking at. I’m cursed with a near-pathological ability to only see what’s wrong with my writing.

Do you prefer writing on a computer or longhand?

Painful as it is to transcribe my hieroglyphics from writing pads (or concert programs and restaurant napkins), I prefer writing longhand. My second-guessing, severe, demanding, judgmental inner-editor makes it so. On a laptop, it’s cut this, change that, insert who-knows-what, and at day’s end I’m behind where I began. And yet, I never learn. I still do most of my writing on a computer.

What book are you currently reading? (And is it in print or on an e-Reader?)

I own two e-readers but never use them; I get too much enjoyment from the tactile pleasures of bound paper. I’m now reading a riveting, touching account of the thirty-three miners trapped underground in Chile four years ago, Hector Tobar’s Deep Down Dark, which is much more than the story of their survival. It’s also a story about faith and family and perseverance. Emily St. John’s novel Station Eleven is another book that intriguingly explores survival and belief and belonging. And art and culture, too. It’s partially set in a post-apocalyptic era, but without the clichés and cloying, overplayed scenarios that come with that setting. And I’ve been regularly dipping into Michael Robbins’ new book of poems, The Second Sex — smart, smart-alecky, “sonicky,” vibrantly awake to sound and meaning — not because he’s a friend, but because he’s oh-so-good. I’ll be pressing all three books on everyone I know that can read.

What word or punctuation mark are you most guilty of overusing?

The em-dash — since it allows my sentences to breathe much easier once it’s around. It’s so forgiving, too — I get to clear my throat and then be garrulous, and readers will put up with me trying have it both ways. The em-dash is both chaperone and wingman; which other punctuation mark can make that boast? Plus, it’s a looker — bold and purposeful and lean.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

Something that takes me outdoors — and in the streets — as much as possible. Anything that doesn’t require sitting at a desk with my own boring thoughts for hours. And where I get to meet lots of new people. Bike messenger, perhaps.

Image credits: (1) Bryant Park, New York. Photo by cerfon. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via cerfon Flickr. (2) Garnette Cadogan. Photo by Bart Babinski. Courtesy of Garnette Cadogan.

The post 10 questions for Garnette Cadogan appeared first on OUPblog.

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5. Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness

When you think about Wikipedia, you might not immediately envision it as a locus for a political theory of openness—and that might well be due to a cut-and-paste utopian haze that masks the site’s very real politicking around issues of shared decision-making, administrative organization, and the push for and against transparencies. In Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, forthcoming this December, Nathaniel Tkacz cuts throw the glow and establishes how issues integral to the concept of “openness” play themselves out in the day-to-day reality of Wikipedia’s existence. Recently, critic Alan Liu, whose prescient scholarship on the relationship between our literary/historical and technological imaginations has shaped much of the humanities turn to new media, endorsed the book via Twitter:


With that in mind, the book’s jacket copy furthers a frame for Tkacz’s argument:

Few virtues are as celebrated in contemporary culture as openness. Rooted in software culture and carrying more than a whiff of Silicon Valley technical utopianism, openness—of decision-making, data, and organizational structure—is seen as the cure for many problems in politics and business.

 But what does openness mean, and what would a political theory of openness look like? With Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, Nathaniel Tkacz uses Wikipedia, the most prominent product of open organization, to analyze the theory and politics of openness in practice—and to break its spell. Through discussions of edit wars, article deletion policies, user access levels, and more, Tkacz enables us to see how the key concepts of openness—including collaboration, ad-hocracy, and the splitting of contested projects through “forking”—play out in reality.

The resulting book is the richest critical analysis of openness to date, one that roots media theory in messy reality and thereby helps us move beyond the vaporware promises of digital utopians and take the first steps toward truly understanding what openness does, and does not, have to offer.

Read more about Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, available December 2014, here.

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6. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki may be a simple story, but it carries an emotional heft that feels like a throwback to one of Murakami's classic early novels, like Norwegian Wood. His ephemeral and effortless prose flows like a perfectly choreographed dream and will leave you as satisfied as a long afternoon nap. Books mentioned in this [...]

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7. The Good Lord Bird

Through the tremendous voice of Little Onion, a slave boy mistaken for a girl, James McBride takes America's battle against slavery, including the infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, and weaves a story that is exhilarating, profound, and darkly funny. Books mentioned in this post Portland Noir (Akashic Noir) Kevin Sampsell Used Trade Paper $8.50 Pacific [...]

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8. Sweet Thunder

This charming story from Ivan Doig reintroduces the personable Morrie Morgan — now newly married and finding himself in charge of a rundown mansion and as a novice newspaper editor in 1920s Butte, Montana. Readers will find much to love in this look back at a fascinating time in American history. Books mentioned in this [...]

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9. The Fair Toxophilities and Daniel Deronda

By K. M. Newton

The painting The Fair Toxophilites: English Archers by W. P. Frith, dating from 1872, is one of a series representing contemporary life in England. Frith wrote that his”

“desire to discover materials for my work in modern life never leaves me … and, though I have occasionally been betrayed by my love into themes somewhat trifling and commonplace, the conviction that possessed me that I was speaking – or rather painting – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, rendered the production of real-life pictures an unmixed delight. In obedience to this impulse I began work on a small work suggested by some lady-archers, whose feats had amused me at the seaside … The subject was trifling, and totally devoid of character interest; but the girls are true to nature, and the dresses will be a record of the female habiliments of the time.”

After Gwendolen Harleth’s encounter with Daniel Deronda in Leubronn in Chapters 1 and 2, there’s a flashback to Gwendolen’s life in the year leading up to that meeting, with Chapters 9 to 11 focusing on the Archery Meeting, where she first meets Henleigh Grandcourt, and its consequences. In the England of the past archery was the basis of military and political power, most famously enabling the English to defeat the French at Agincourt. In the later nineteenth century it is now a leisure pursuit for upper-class women. This may be seen as symptomatic of the decline or even decadence of the upper class since it is now associated with an activity which Frith suggests is “trifling and commonplace.” A related symptom of that decline is the devotion of aristocratic and upper-class men, such as Grandcourt and Sir Hugo Mallinger, to a life centred on hunting and shooting.

The Fair Toxophilites

The Frith painting shows a young female archer wearing a fashionable and no doubt extremely expensive dress and matching hat. This fits well with the novel for Gwendolen takes great care in her choice of a dress that will enhance her striking figure and make her stand out at the Archery Meeting, since “every one present must gaze at her” (p.  89), especially Grandcourt. The reader may similarly be inclined to gaze at the figure in the painting. One might say that together with her bow and arrow Gwendolen dresses to kill, an appropriate expression for arrows can kill though in her case she wishes only to kill Grandcourt metaphorically: “My arrow will pierce him before he has time for thought” (p. 78). Readers of the novel will discover that light-hearted thoughts about killing Grandcourt will take a more serious turn later.

With the coming of Grandcourt into the Wancester neighbourhood through renting Diplow Hall, the thoughts of young women and especially their mothers turn to thoughts of marriage – there is obvious literary allusion to the plot of Pride and Prejudice in which Mr Bingley’s renting of Netherfield Park creates a similar effect. The Archery Meeting is the counterpart to the ball in Pride and Prejudice since it is an opportunity for women to display themselves to the male gaze in order to attract eligible husbands and no man is more eligible than Grandcourt. Whereas Mr Darcy eventually turns out to be the perfect gentleman, in Eliot’s darker vision Grandcourt has degenerated into a sadist, “a remnant of a human being” (p. 340), as Deronda calls him. Though Gwendolen is contemptuous of the Archery Meeting as marriage-market, she cannot help being drawn into it as she believes at this point that ultimately a woman of her class, background, and upbringing has no viable alternative to marriage.

While Grandcourt’s moving into Diplow Hall together with his likely attendance of the Archery Meeting become the central talking points of the neighbourhood among Gwendolen and her circle, the narrator casually mentions another matter that is being ignored – “the results of the American war” (p. 74). Victory for the North in the Civil War established the United States as a single nation, one which would ultimately become a great power. There is a similar passing reference later to the Prussian victory over the Austrians at “the world-changing battle of Sadowa” (p. 523), a major step towards the emergence of a unified German nation. While the English upper class are living trivial lives the world is changing around them and Britain’s time as the dominant world power may be ending.

Though the eponymous Deronda does not feature in this part of the novel, he is in implicit contrast to Gwendolen and the upper-class characters as he is preoccupied with these larger issues and uninvolved in trivial activities like archery or hunting and finally commits himself to the ideal of creating a political identity for the Jews. When he tells Gwendolen near the end of the novel of his plans, she is at first uncomprehending but is forced to confront the existence and significance of great events that she previously had ignored through being preoccupied with such “trifling” matters as making an impression at the Archery Meeting: “… she felt herself reduced to a mere speck. There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind … enter like an earthquake into their own lives — when the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the tread of an invading army or the dire clash of civil war” (p. 677). She will no longer be oblivious of something like “the American war.” By the end of the novel the reader looking at the painting on the front cover may realize that though this woman who resembles Gwendolen remains trapped in triviality and superficiality, the character created in the mind of the reader by the words of the novel has moved on from that image and undergone a fundamental alteration in consciousness.

 K. M. Newton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Dundee. He is the editor, with Graham Handley, of the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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Image credit: The Fair Toxophilites by W. P. Frith. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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10. Shimmer of Something

Possibly poems, possibly really (really) short stories, possibly mini essays, Brian Doyle's "box poems" — smallish bits of writing with perfectly aligned edges and not one word short or long — are so perfectly exact, they seem utterly intriguing even before you start to read. (How, exactly, did he do that?) Doyle is a man [...]

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11. Children Act

Ian McEwan's The Children Act tackles a very touchy subject these days: religious freedom and all the ethical, moral, legal, and criminal ramifications therein. Fiona, a High Court judge, must rule in a case involving a Jehovah's Witness family, in which the almost 18-year-old son is on the very brink of death unless given an immediate [...]

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12. Lila

With Lila, Marilynne Robinson revisits her beloved town of Gilead, just as she did with Home. This time around, her focus is on Lila Ames, who in both previous novels has been a sort of paragon of calm and dignity. In Lila we learn about her childhood and young adulthood, which could not be further from [...]

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13. The People in the Trees

The People in the Trees has done a thorough job of rattling me to the core, and several months after reading it, I still can't stop thinking about it. The book has so many things I love: an unreliable narrator, explosive endings, secrets, unlikable characters, a scientific bent, cultural clashes, an arrogant hero, and ordinary [...]

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14. Fourth of July Creek

An enjoyable summer read — deeply textured story, characters that bear out their frail existence, and great writing. Books mentioned in this post Fourth of July Creek Smith Henderson Used Hardcover $18.50

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15. Ruby

Bond weaves a web of madness and ghosts in this scary and very disturbing read. I feel like the book needs a warning label: explicit and devastating scenes! Yet the story and Bond's writing are so astonishingly volcanic. One of the best books I have read this year. Books mentioned in this post Ruby Cynthia [...]

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16. California

California by Edan Lepucki is an intelligent, intriguing, and thought-provoking novel about what the near future may be like. Human nature and relationships are highlighted as secrets are kept, yet inner thoughts are reflective and honest. A lazy summer read that I enjoyed throughout. Books mentioned in this post California Edan Lepucki Used Hardcover $17.95

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17. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Known for his beautiful, haunting, lyrical, and — at times — funny surrealistic stylings, Haruki Murakami is one of the most beloved Japanese authors in the Western world. Although infused with the pop culture of the West, his writing remains at its core firmly rooted in Japan. And as modern as his style is, his [...]

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18. To Kill a Mockingbird

While To Kill a Mockingbird is a favorite book of pretty much everyone who has read it, it's important to remember that it continues to be subversive and challenging to the status quo. The protagonist is a young girl named Scout and except for her father, all the main characters in the book are marginalized [...]

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19. This Is the Water

Page-turning suspense Yannick Murphy style — always inventive, with gorgeous prose, surprising perspectives, and captivating characters. This Is the Water is a most unusual mystery. Books mentioned in this post This Is the Water (P.S.) Yannick Murphy New Trade Paper $14.99

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20. Our free e-book for August: For the Love of It


Wayne C. Booth (1921–2005) was the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, one of the most renowned literary critics of his generation, and an amateur cellist who came to music later in life.  For the Love of It is a story not only of one intimate struggle between a man and his cello, but also of the larger conflict between a society obsessed with success and individuals who choose challenging hobbies that yield no payoff except the love of it. 

“Will be read with delight by every well-meaning amateur who has ever struggled.… Even general readers will come away with a valuable lesson for living: Never mind the outcome of a possibly vain pursuit; in the passion that is expended lies the glory.”—John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

“If, in truth, Booth is an amateur player now in his fifth decade of amateuring, he is certainly not an amateur thinker about music and culture. . . . Would that all of us who think and teach and care about music could be so practical and profound at the same time.”—Peter Kountz, New York Times Book Review

“Wayne Booth, the prominent American literary critic, has written the only sustained study of the interior experience of musical amateurism in recent years, For the Love of It. [It] succeeds as a meditation on the tension between the centrality of music in Booth’s life, both inner and social, and its marginality. . . . It causes the reader to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the pleasures involved in making music; the satisfaction in playing well, the pride one takes in learning a difficult piece or passage or technique, the buzz in one’s fingertips and the sense of completeness with the bow when the turn is done just right, the pleasure of playing with others, the comfort of a shared society, the joy of not just hearing, but making, the music, the wonder at the notes lingering in the air.”—Times Literary Supplement
Download your copy here.

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21. 10 questions for Ammon Shea

Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 5 August 2014, Ammon Shea, author of Reading the OED and Bad English, leads a discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear.

ammonsheaWhat was your inspiration for Bad English?

I am often guilty of spectacular incompetence when I try to use the English language, and I wanted to find some justification for my poor usage. I am happy to report that we have all been committing unseemly acts with English for many hundreds of years.

Where do you do your best writing?

In library basements, preferably when they are empty of people.

Did you have an “a-ha!” moment that made you want to be a writer?

I hadn’t so much of an ‘a-ha’ moment that made me want to be a writer as I had a series of ‘uh-oh’ moments while doing other things that did not involve writing.

Which author do you wish had been your 7th grade English teacher?

Gerald Durrell

What is your secret talent?

I can distinguish between Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker, and between Phil Woods and Gene Quill, in under four measures.

What is your favorite book?

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal.

Who reads your first draft?

My wife reads my first drafts, and, if she is feeling particularly generous, my second and third ones as well.

Do you read your books after they’ve been published?

Not unless I absolutely have to.

Do you prefer writing on a computer or longhand?

I have no marked preference. I will write on whatever is at hand, and this ranges from cellular telephones to antiquated typewriters.

What book are you currently reading? (And is it in print or on an e-Reader?)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with my son, and in print.

What word or punctuation mark are you most guilty of overusing?

I reject the premise of this question.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

Someone who wished he was a writer.

Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English, Reading the OED, The Phone Book, Depraved English (with Peter Novobatzky), and Insulting English (with Peter Novobatzky). He has worked as consulting editor of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, and as a reader for the North American reading program of the Oxford English Dictionary. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook. Read previous interviews with Word for Word Book Club guest speakers.

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22. Monsters in the library: Karl August Eckhardt and Felix Liebermann

By Andrew Rabin

On a shelf by my desk rests a pale, cloth-bound octavo volume entitled Leges Anglo-Saxonum, 601-925, published in 1958 by the German philologist Karl August Eckhardt. Inside, the volume’s dedication reads, “Dem andenken Felix Liebermanns” (“In memory of Felix Liebermann”). On its face, this seems perfectly innocuous: what could be more natural than one scholar paying tribute to another, especially someone generally considered among Germany’s greatest medievalists? Yet the dedication conceals a disturbing history, for Liebermann had been a member of one of Berlin’s foremost Jewish families, one nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, and Eckhardt was a dedicated Nazi, a Sturbannführer in the SS, and a close friend to Heinrich Himmler, the leading architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

Felix Liebermann, by By Max Liebermann (verstorben 1935).Suedwester93 at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Felix Liebermann by Max Liebermann. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Why did Eckhardt dedicate his book to Liebermann, and how should this shape our understanding of his work? To answer these questions, it’s necessary to learn a bit about the individuals themselves, starting with Felix Liebermann.

Liebermann was born in 1851 to a family of wealthy German-Jewish textile merchants. Against his father’s wishes, he pursued a degree in philology at the University of Göttingen and subsequently joined the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a project editing the major records of early Germanic culture. In 1883, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Munich invited him to produce a new edition of Anglo-Saxon law. The result, published in three volumes between 1903 and 1916, was the Gesetze der Angelsachsen, a monumental accomplishment numbered among the greatest achievements in the history of scholarly editing. Its reception was summed up by the historian Frederic William Maitland, who described Liebermann as “a Sherlock Holmes of today” and the Gesetze as “the best work that has hitherto been done on historical materials of a similar kind.”

Jewish themes surface only occasionally in Liebermann’s writings, yet their appearance suggests that he saw his religious and professional identities as complementary. For instance, in a lecture to the Jewish Historical Society of England, he suggested that Jews should take pride in the fact that “the gem so honored by [England's] greatest king, the founder of the English constitution, as Alfred was called in the twelfth century, was the Mosaic law.” More pointedly, he did not hesitate to harshly and publicly criticize those who concealed anti-Jewish sentiments behind a facade of disinterested scholarship, such as the historian J. M. Rigg, who suggested a factual basis for the medieval “blood libel” legend. Though Liebermann took pride in his Jewishness, it nonetheless had significant consequences for his career. In Germany, he never received a full university appointment, while in England he was mocked as “Stubbs’s Jew” (a reference to his friendship with Bishop William Stubbs) and denied a Cambridge professorship, ostensibly because of an otherwise-unattested stutter. Though Liebermann himself died in 1925, well before Hitler came to power, others in his family felt the full brunt of Nazi anti-Semitism. In 1938, the Liebermann family, including Felix’s widow Cäcilie, saw their home and possessions confiscated. Five years later, Cäcilie would die just weeks before she was to be deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Shortly afterwards, Martha Liebermann, widow of Felix’s brother, the modernist painter Max Liebermann, committed suicide to avoid the same fate.

The history of Liebermann and his family furnishes part of the backdrop against which to read the dedication in the Leges Anglo-Saxonum; the rest must be filled in from the life of Eckhardt himself. Eckhardt was born in 1901 into a family of lawyers and judges. He completed a doctorate in law at Marburg in 1922 and then went on to study Germanic history at Göttingen. His editions of medieval lawbooks earned him a reputation for both brilliance and productivity that led to faculty positions at Keil, Bonn, and Berlin. At the same time, however, he was also growing more engaged with right-wing politics. He joined the SA in 1931, the Nazi Party in 1932, and the SS in 1933. By 1934, he had become a member of Himmler’s personal staff. In this capacity, Eckhardt oversaw the expulsion of Jewish academics from German universities, developed policies penalizing students who spoke out against the regime, and ghost-wrote speeches on Himmler’s behalf, most notably his 1936 address calling for the extermination of homosexuals. Eckhardt also composed a number of pseudo-scholarly pamphlets on topics of interest to Himmler, including ancient Germanic mysticism and the question of whether Jesus was actually Jewish (Eckhardt concluded that he wasn’t). When war came, he was drafted into the army and posted to Paris, where he spent his time carrying out research in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Though briefly imprisoned in 1944-5, he was deemed too insignificant for prosecution. Eckhardt returned to scholarly life and, over the next twenty-five years, published a series of influential editions — most notably of the Lex Salica and the Schwabenspiegel — that confirmed the promise of his early career. He died in 1979.

Eckhardt has often been spoken of as two people, the scholar and the Nazi, but it can be difficult to separate the two. He frequently twisted his scholarship to support his political views, as when he argued (in an essay titled “Unnatural Sex Deserves Death”) that ancient Germanic law offered legal precedent for the execution of homosexuals. Likewise, even in his serious scholarship, he often sought to emphasize the purity of Germanic law and its freedom from the taint of Jewish influence (a notable contrast to the pride Liebermann took in the Mosaic influence on Alfred’s laws).

In this light, it is difficult to escape the impression that Eckhardt was using Liebermann’s memory to innoculate himself against his own history. Association with Liebermann allowed him to claim a scholarly pedigree while dismissing the implication that his political record reflected anything more than dedicated (if misguided) patriotism. Yet how should Eckhardt’s history — along with his attempts to erase that history — affect our perception of his scholarship? We cannot simply avoid Eckhardt: like it or not, his serious historical work is too important to dismiss out of hand. But Eckhardt’s history still raises uncomfortable questions: how might our research — and indeed, the shape of early medieval legal history as a discipline — have been influenced, albeit unconsciously, by Eckhardt’s noxious ideology? And is our use of his work, however necessary it may be, complicit in his attempt to erase his involvement in one of the twentieth century’s greatest atrocities?

If Borges was right and every library is a labyrinth, then inside every library lurks a monster. In my library, the monster is Karl August Eckhardt.

Andrew Rabin is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. He has published extensively on early medieval law and literature. His next book, The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York, will be published this fall by Manchester University Press. He is a forthcoming contributor to Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature.

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23. Things Fall Apart

Before Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, few novels existed in English that depicted African life from the African perspective. And while the book has paved the way for countless authors since, Chinua Achebe's illuminating work remains a classic of modern African literature. Drawing on the history and customs passed down to him, Achebe [...]

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24. Slaughterhouse-Five

What Kurt Vonnegut set out to do was write a book about war, and in particular the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. What he ended up doing was writing clean around it — traveling in and out of time warps, bouncing on and off the earth, sometimes setting down on the planet Tralfamadore, [...]

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25. Never Let Me Go

This is the kind of book that captures you so completely you find yourself reading it at work with the book covering your keyboard, hoping no one notices but also not really caring if you get fired. It's a subtle sci-fi story about youth, freedom, and a lot of other good stuff — too much [...]

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