Review of Philippe Charlier, 'When Science Sheds Light on History: Forensic Science and Anthropology'

That strands of Napoleon's hair might reveal he was murdered (rather than dying of stomach cancer, as thought at the time) remains probably the best-known case of "retrospective diagnosis" of the kind practiced by Philippe Charlier and engagingly explained to the lay public in his When Science Sheds Light on History: Forensic Science and Anthropology (University Press of Florida), written with David Alliot. In the early 1960s, researchers identified a significant concentration of arsenic in the deposed emperor's remains. A long debate over the possibility of foul play then ensued.

It's the nature of such speculations never to go away entirely, but the scholarship in recent years leans toward less sinister possibilities. The lack of symptoms of arsenic poisoning in the medical record of Napoleon's final days makes it likely that he -- or, posthumously, his hair -- absorbed the toxin from the environment over time rather than in fatal doses delivered by an assassin. One hypothesis is that he may have taken arsenic to boost his libido.

(Ten years ago, a book appeared called Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac? The Sociochemistry of an Element. A reviewer for the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences complained that the author, after for the most part avoiding the issue, "notes in his closing words that he leaves 'it to the reader to answer the question posed in the title of this book.'" But not through experiment, one hopes.)

The case of the toxic locks involved a much less sophisticated form of inquiry than that practiced by Charlier, who heads the section of medical and forensic anthropology at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. His book, published in France in 2015 and now out in translation, collects 41 short studies of forensic analysis conducted on human remains from the dawn of our species through the late 19th century. A few chapters read as if they might have originally been composed as notes for professional journals, but most carry enough historical context and sense of implication to count as brief essays.

Charlier prefers the word "patients" when characterizing "these individuals who have come to us from the past." With any set of human remains, one obvious line of questioning concerns when and how the patient died -- and sometimes (as any viewer of forensic procedurals on TV will know) how the body got to where it was found. And a number of Charlier's reports concern what turns out to be evidence of wrongdoing, discovered centuries or more after the fact. The most memorable, and perhaps the most appalling, concerns a pair of skeletons from the first or second century B.C. discovered on the island of Delos in the 1960s.

First of all, the bodies showed signs of a kind of torture and execution reserved for slaves, prostitutes and others at the bottom of the social hierarchy: "The process consisted of laying the victim horizontally on a plank and nailing down their wrists and feet. Thus exposed, the victim died slowly of dehydration, sunstroke, respiratory failure … or even being eaten alive by roaming animals." In examining the remains, Charlier determined that the original assessment of the patients' sex was wrong; the pelvic girdles showed them to be two women under 45 years of age, one of whom "had worn leg irons around the knees for a long time, causing an inflammatory reaction of the bone in contact with them."

Following death, the bodies were dumped into a cesspit. Even more than the mode of execution, this "marked [them] by the stamp of infamy -- all the more so since the latrines continued to function after their death."

A grim story, but also a mystery. In 426 B.C., graves on Delos were exhumed and the bodies transported elsewhere so that the island could be purified as a sanctuary to Apollo, "not to be soiled by either blood or death, otherwise disaster would befall [Athens]." The two women's deaths and disposal were, in all respects, an abomination.

The bones themselves do not tell every story. "It is possible, using a microscope, to identify food debris, even several centuries after the death of the patient," writes Charlier, since "we can find fragments of cereals, pollen, animal hairs, plants, parasites, [and] even small insects that, trapped in the saliva, found themselves caught in irregularities of the teeth and were then covered with tartar."

At the other end of the gastrointestinal tract, we have "a small, hard, crystalline object," about one inch long, "completely calcified, in the shape of a bean" and located "at the level of the bladder" in the skeleton of a 6-year-old girl who lived in Rome in the second century A.D. The resulting infection may not have killed her, but the worst-case treatment recommended by the ancient medical authority Galen could have: "He suggested taking the child by the feet and shaking it, with the head down, in hope that the calculus would fall …"

Charlier has a special interest in the rituals and traditions related to disease and death. In the case of French royalty, treatment of the king's body following death began with an autopsy conducted "in public under the scrutiny of the deceased's closest servants but to the exclusion of the royal family," leading to "the separation of the cadaver: one grave for the body, another for the heart and a third for the entrails (viscera)." Besides the lab work that can be now conducted on the remains -- including examination of the genetic material -- Charlier also studies the autopsy reports, which are remarkably detailed.

But I am feeling a little green at this point, and will spare you. Nor will we pause to consider -- at least in any detail -- the pessoï, "those little pieces of coarsely retouched pottery destined to wipe one's backside after defecation, which were used all around the Mediterranean under Roman domination." They also served as a way to vent: "Some had names engraved on them so that you wiped your backside with a pessoï bearing the name of your enemy."

It's just one of many details in the book through which Charlier's study of the dead illuminates the world of the living. At very least, the pessoï are a reminder of one way people vented malice before the invention of the comments section.

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Author discusses new book about teaching literacy in prison

A prison writing instructor and the son of a former inmate, Patrick Berry discusses his new book on the role of higher education behind bars.

Author discusses new book on intellectual history and open access

Author discusses his new book, which combines intellectual history with a case for open access.

Overview of forthcoming university press books on Donald J. Trump

A second tell-all book on the Trump White House will be out on Monday, in advance of the president's first State of the Union speech, scheduled for the following evening.

Just writing that sentence makes me tired. The man has held the public sphere hostage for two solid years now. Yet he remains ever on the verge of unleashing some new surprise on the world, as if to make sure we're still paying attention. And each incident, epithet, tantrum and lie is broadcast, often in real time, then replayed incessantly -- not just for a couple of news cycles, but also for months to come, to provide background for coverage of the next rant or tweetstorm. Among the few neutral ways to describe Trump's political career is to call it unprecedented. What that's meant in practice is that he creates his own context, which becomes normal through the blunt force of repetition.

A little analytical distance is perhaps in order. Between now and the end of the summer, scholarly presses are slated to publish a crowded shelf’s worth of books on Trump or on matters closely associated with his presidency. Review copies for most haven't come in yet, but the following descriptions of some of the forthcoming titles might be of interest to readers looking for more than recycled sound bites or informed guesses about whom Mueller will indict next.

Political scientists are professionally equipped to find order and continuity in developments that otherwise look chaotic or disruptive, or both. And the forthcoming poli-sci books on Trump are true to form. (Quotation below are taken from press catalogs; the publication dates given here may vary from those indicated by online book vendors.)

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck (Princeton University Press, September) maintains that economic conditions and demographic factors pointed to "an extremely close election" from early on -- exactly what was delivered on election night. Alan I. Abramowitz's The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation and the Rise of Donald Trump (Yale University Press, June) updates the argument, made in his earlier book The Disappearing Center (Yale, 2011), that American political polarization is a real and deepening phenomenon that reflects “an unprecedented alignment of many different divides: racial and ethnic, religious, ideological, and geographic.” His statistical analysis indicates “‘racial anxiety’ is by far a better predictor of support for Donald Trump than any other factor.”

Its scope is much wider than the Trump years, or U.S. politics, for that matter, but Patrick J. Deneen's analysis of Why Liberalism Failed (Yale, January) surely applies. The problem lies in liberalism's inherent contradictions: "It trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history."

The hollowing-out of formal democracy by increased disparities in wealth is also central to Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age, by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady and Sidney Verba (Princeton, June): "With those at the top of the ladder increasingly able to spend lavishly in politics, political action anchored in financial investment weighs ever more heavily in what public officials hear." A similar argument seems to inform Yascha Mounk's The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press, March). The author points to "three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy and the rise of social media."

Those forces do not remain within national borders, of course, nor does Trump's influence. Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century, a collection of papers assembled by Robert Jervis and three co-editors (Columbia University Press, June), looks at Trump in a global frame: "Does Trump’s election signal the downfall of the liberal order or unveil its resilience? What is the importance of individual leaders for the international system, and to what extent is Trump an outlier? Is there a Trump doctrine, or is America’s president fundamentally impulsive and scattershot?"

More than any earlier president, Donald Trump is a creature of the media -- both broadcast and social, though his activity blurs that distinction a little more all the time. The range of topics covered by Trump and Media (MIT Press, March) -- a collection of papers edited by two communications scholars, Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi -- includes “the disruption of the media landscape, the disconnect between many voters and the established news outlets, the emergence of fake news and ‘alternative facts,’ and Trump’s own use of social media.” It is too late for a paper on the president's relationship to the adult video industry, but maybe that's for volume two.

Three forthcoming titles from Pluto Press look at the relationship between Trump as media figure and as political force. Christian Fuchs's Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Trump and Twitter (February) updates Frankfurt School media theory to analyze Trump as an example of how reactionaries use digital platforms to promote "the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism and right-wing ideologies around the world." Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right, by Lawrence Grossberg (January), sees Trump's media presence as part of the far right's "political strategy of sowing chaos into the heart of mainstream politics." And Mike Wendling's Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House (April) takes up the role of social media in consolidating a movement characterized by "technological utopianism, reactionary philosophy and racial hatred," which then rallied behind Trump's message of nativism.

While the Pluto titles do sound broadly similar, two of the authors come to different assessments. Grossberg "lays out a possible nightmare future: a vision of a political system controlled by corporate interests, built on a deliberate dismantling of modern politics," while Wendling thinks the alt-right's "lack of a coherent base and its contradictory tendencies are already sapping its strength and will lead to its downfall."

The quintessential American thinker Homer Simpson once made the profound observation that it takes two people to lie: one to lie and one to listen. Let's wrap up with a few forthcoming titles that, in effect, apply Homer's insight to the politics in the era of fake news and alternative facts

Misinformation and Mass Audiences (University of Texas Press, January), a collection of papers edited by Brian G. Southwell, Emily A. Thorson and Laura Sheble, takes the potential for false, misleading or outright dishonest information to proliferate to be the downside of mass communications -- obliging scholars to "investigate what constitutes misinformation, how it spreads and how best to counter it." By contrast, Linsey McGoey argues in The Unknowers: How Elite Ignorance Rules the World (Zed, August) that "ignorance is more than just an absence of knowledge, but a useful tool in political and economic life" because "financial and political elites have become highly adept at harnessing ignorance for their own ends: strategically minimizing their responsibility and passing blame onto others." Dana L. Cloud's Reality Bites: Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Culture (Ohio State University Press, February) acknowledges "widespread skepticism regarding the utility, ethics and viability of an empirical standard for political truths."

Finally, there's Lee C. McIntyre's Post-Truth (MIT, February). The title names a condition in which "the assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence" has become normalized, and so much the worse for reality. Without any of the books at hand, I can't surmise exactly how they propose to change the situation, but a pedagogy oriented to developing critical skills is bound to be part of the remedy. The question left hanging unanswered is whether it's not already too late.

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Review of Stephen Fineman, 'Revenge: A Short Enquiry Into Retribution'

There are people in Hollywood whose livelihood depends on making it almost impossible to see a movie without knowing anything about it beforehand. And the more it costs to make, the more the audience is likely to know going in. Seasonal blockbusters are the extreme case. Often the trailers reveal not just the genre and premise of a film but most of the narrative arc, including major plot turns, along with a glimpse of the special effects, as appetizer.

Films with smaller budgets tend not to be as prechewed. Still, it is unusual to see a film knowing as little about it as I did going to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri -- after somehow avoiding advertisements and reviews, and having been exposed only to spousal word of mouth that Frances McDormand was in it, which seemed like recommendation enough. My intention here is not to review the film but to follow a tangent between it and a recent book. I will tread lightly, keeping character and plot information to a bare minimum. Consider this section break an off-ramp for anyone trying to avoid even the chance of spoilers.

The book is Revenge: A Short Enquiry Into Retribution (Reaktion Books) by Stephen Fineman, a professor emeritus in the School of Management at the University of Bath. More compendium than treatise, it offers a few pages on the literary and cinematic appeal of vengeance -- the revenge tale being one of the human imagination's most reliable, and cross-cultural, narrative templates. (For all the differences between them, Hamlet and I Spit on Your Grave both take the desire for homicidal retribution as a given.)

We'll return to Three Billboards as an instance, but we should first take a look at Fineman's account of revenge. The compulsion to avenge "threats to one's well-being, territory, pride, honor, esteem, identity, or role" is, he writes, "fixed in our biosocial make-up and triggered by strong emotions: sorrow, grief, humiliation, anger, or rage." It is a legacy of our primate origins, or perhaps more accurately a reminder of our primate essence. Like chimpanzees and macaques, our species combines social reciprocity with a capacity for long memory. We merely perfected the capacity to hold a grudge -- and to repay it with interest, using tools (weapons) more dangerous than anything available to primal chimp justice.

Hence the danger of open-ended, reciprocal violence, and the need to limit and channel the otherwise irresistible desire to get revenge. In establishing the law of talion ("an eye for an eye") the Babylonian king Hammurabi sought "to control his sprawling empire and the chaos of vigilante justice"; setting forth the code in stone inscriptions for public display gave notice that "justice was the state's prerogative, not the individual's." Once the authorities determined that damages between the two parties to a dispute were even, an escalation of the conflict risked retribution from on high.

We have, of course, close to 4,000 years of subsequent history standing as evidence that the state's claim to a monopoly on vengeance has never been comprehensive nor perfectly enforced. For one thing, no law of talion operates between states; wars, as well as coups and abortive uprisings, "often end in an orgy of revenge." Victims of workplace bullying handle it in ways that the HR department would discourage (e.g., laxative in a manager's morning tea). The internet provides an inexhaustible incitement to gutless malevolence, to which certain authority figures are not immune.

And Fineman's account of vendettas within the halls of power ends by discussing "a final forum for political revenge: the memoir." In the United States, at least, the standard was set by the dueling memoirs of Ronald Reagan's chief of staff Donald Regan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. But as exercises in score settling, they are bound to look genteel soon enough.

Scarcely anyone ever has a good word for vengeance, so it is surprising when the author allows that a little workplace retribution may be necessary, on occasion, to give employees "a modicum of moral recovery and an antidote to inevitable frustrations and injustices." The point could have used much more development. It probably expresses a British willingness to acknowledge class resentment -- something precluded by the American belief that if you're unhappy, it's your own damn fault.

Similarly, Fineman treats revenge in literature and on film as at least somewhat cathartic. Often enough this is at the level of pure wish fulfillment: in Death Wish, Charles Bronson not only shoots all of the miscreants who killed his family but also most of the thugs terrorizing the streets of New York City and is compelled by the police to stop, as I recall, only because he's making them look bad. In revenge narratives, the failure of the authorities to protect and defend the individual may be as oppressive as the evildoers themselves.

"Avengers," Fineman writes, "prototypically face a heinous crime that no official agency -- the law, the monarch -- is willing or able to punish. They yearn for justice and finally take matters into their own hands, but with cataclysmic results."

Here the author is discussing the heroes of Renaissance revenge dramas; hence reference to the monarch. But the sense that there's something rotten in Denmark, so to speak, is typically foregrounded in revenge films as well. (It's why the LAPD keeps taking Clint Eastwood's badge away, for example.) Arguably the motif of ineffective and/or corrupted authority functions in the narrative as something other than a critique of authority. Justice is to vengeance as the superego is to the id -- and the impossibility of justice gives the audience permission for full vicarious participation in the avenger's violence.

In Three Billboards, the character played by McDormand has lost her daughter to an exceptionally brutal rape and murder. Her grief has turned to rage, given the lack of any progress by the police of Ebbing, Mo., in finding the killer. Furthermore, the department contains at least one cop accused of torturing someone in custody, and its relationship with the town's African-American community is one of mutual hostility.

Within its first 15 or 20 minutes, then, we have most of the elements for a revenge narrative. I think it is fair to complain that the Black Lives Matter aspect of the story ultimately proves no more than a way of compounding the audience's sympathy for the grieving mother by presenting the authorities as illegitimate. Hostilities emerge or intensify. There are acts of violence and retribution, which are serious though not fatal. In due course, there appears at least one character -- possibly two -- who might well deserve any punishment McDormand would care to inflict.

And the audience, or most of it, would be with her if she did. At the same time, the film obliges the viewer to see how the urge toward revenge tends to rationalize itself, come what may. It is the rare revenge film that is really about justice, and about how elusive it can be.

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Authors argue four-year colleges are adaptable

Authors acknowledge challenges for four-year colleges and worry about their future as drivers of opportunity. But they believe colleges are adaptable and will continue to offer students value.

Essay on Library of Congress's Twitter archive

The Library of Congress has the reputation of holding a copy of every book ever published, or at least every book published in the United States -- a reputation that is invalid, however, and that persists in spite of the institution’s efforts to correct it. The collection is huge, a bibliomane's utopia, but it has never claimed to be exhaustive. Indiscriminate accumulation is a sign of hoarding, not of librarianship.

But an exception was made over the past seven years as the LC tried to create a repository of every public posting to Twitter. That experiment is now over. Henceforth, according to a white paper issued in late December, the library will “acquire tweets but will do so on a very selective basis,” in accord with its wider digital-collections policy. A lot goes unsaid in the document, which is perhaps best understood as a sign that the LC is finally getting its bearings again after a long period of erratic leadership.

As noted in this column a few weeks after the project was announced in April 2010, Twitter's initial gift to the library was a complete set of public posts from the social media platform's first four years -- some 21 billion tweets. (Private messages between users were not included.) Going forward, the collection would be supplemented by new batches of tweets that could be made available to library patrons at least six months after they had been tweeted. At that stage about 30 million users had Twitter accounts and produced an average of 50 million new tweets per day. Both figures have increased tenfold since then. And while there is no way to know how many human beings are actually behind the accounts, or how much of the content is computer generated, Twitter itself has grown so ubiquitous as to be a factor in the lives even of people who never use it. We will remember 2017 as the year when a Twitter message leading to war began to seem like a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the archive has been in limbo. Five years ago, an update on the Library of Congress’s blog announced that the work of establishing “a secure, sustainable process for receiving and preserving a daily, ongoing stream of tweets through the present day” was within a month of completion, along with “a structure for organizing the entire archive by date.” I returned to the subject in 2015 with column about a researcher from Germany who received a fellowship to work with the collection -- only to learn that it still wasn’t available for her to study. The recent white paper is at least candidly noncommittal about when, if ever, the archive will be open for use: “The Twitter collection will remain embargoed until access issues can be resolved … There is no projected timetable for providing public access at this time.”

When a mission fails, one possibility is to redefine it retroactively. "The library now has a secure collection of tweet text," says the white paper, "documenting the first 12 years (2006-17) of this dynamic communications channel -- its emergence, its applications and its evolution." And on those terms, the archive is complete, if also completely useless. When a collection is too huge for search and retrieval, being "secure" just means it's unavailable. Conversely, the decision to curate the Twitter stream "on a very selective basis" -- with an emphasis on "events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy," comes at a time when this will mean duplicating the efforts of other institutions with a vested interest in preserving the record. The president's tweets, for example, fall under the purview of the National Archives.

In retrospect, the decision to acquire the Twitter archive may go down in the record as an example of the problems that beset the final decade (at least) of James Billington’s tenure as librarian of Congress from 1987 to 2015. A report by the Government Accountability Office issued during Billington's final year found significant deficiencies in how the library managed its information technology resources. He appointed the library's first chief information officer only a short time before his own retirement. Acquiring the Twitter archive in 2010 must have seemed like a gesture that would wave off all those complaining that the LC was falling behind. Under good leadership, the LC might have assessed the problems created by the initial Twitter acquisition and gone on to develop the tools and policy needed to create a useful collection. Probably the best thing the institution could do now is to invite scholars to study the records of the whole episode, to see when it went hopelessly wrong and whether it offers any lessons by negative example.

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A professor learns a student is reading a book that he finds reprehensible (opinion)

I’m ashamed of feeling proud for not having read a particular book. Because reading is good. It doesn’t matter what.

Several years ago, Sara, a middle-aged student, told me during her office visit that she was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I didn’t react, and she said, “Of course, you haven’t read that, have you?”

“I don’t think I’ve even heard of it.”

“Professor! Everyone’s heard of it! Even The New York Times has written about it. Women’s naughty romance? … You’ve heard of it.”

“I guess I’ve heard of it.” I must’ve; I read The New York Times.

“Complete trash,” she went on. “And don’t worry, I’m not going to read the sequels.”

Probably she was trying to shock me, provoke me into exposing myself as the snob and prude I am.

But back to that point: students who have read something! It’s wonderful. Reading is an activity I never condemn or mock -- no matter if it’s comic books, romance, horror, sci-fi or any other genre. Besides, I love comics.

Then why do I inwardly cringe when Janet, my ever-eager perpetual student -- to whom I introduced Tolstoy and Jane Austen, Chekhov and Langston Hughes, Junot Díaz and Lara Vapnyar -- tells me that she’s always thankful for the end of the semester when she can get back to her beloved Agatha Christie?

Fine, I’m a snob and a prude and a cynic. But I still love any student who reads.

Except …

Recently, a former favorite student showed up at my office. Let's call him Al (a pseudonym). Clever Al, whose grandfather had been a renowned “people’s poet” in a former Soviet republic. Al had taken my remedial English class and both freshman English courses but had disappeared just before he was supposed to graduate.

“I had to come back, Professor Bob,” he said, now a smiling, plump, late-20s entrepreneur. “I had one last course to complete my degree, and I was glad to be able to visit with you again.”

He almost immediately referred to what we used to talk of (mainly me): my Russian studies, my children, my travels, my advice to him way back when that if he wanted a solid basis for literary studies, he should read the Bible cover to cover.

“That was amazing, Professor,” he said. “I did it. I read the whole thing. It doesn’t all tie together, but it’s cultural history, man. I was proud I did it; it was really educational. And I read it because you suggested it.”

I’ll bet I was beaming. That’s when Al leaned in and added, “And I’m reading Mein Kampf.”

Doctors aren’t supposed to be shocked when they’re examining you, and English professors aren’t supposed to be shocked when you tell them what you’re reading. I must have winced.

He was smiling when he said, “Have you read it?”

“No!” I said, because the thought of doing so insulted me. “I don’t read homicidal maniacs!”

I felt as flattened as I’d felt flattered. It’s the conspiratorial confidentiality that shocks us, isn’t it? (“You and I, non-Jews, non-blacks, non-others, we can be frank with each other.”) But I wasn’t thinking that. I felt it.

And I also felt defensive. He was insinuating, “You couldn’t possibly be afraid of reading Hitler’s memoirs, are you? Afraid you might be a convert?” That’s what it felt like he meant, and I was riled.

“You gotta admit, Bob” -- Al nodded, his sweet, confiding voice really pushing it now -- “he was smart about some things … and a very good writer.”

I shook my head and erupted, “Nope!”

Only later did I mutter to myself, “You only get one chance with me not to be a genocidal maniac, and if you cross that line and kill six million people, I don’t ever have to read what you wrote.”

“Remember,” Al tried to pacify me, “he wasn’t always ‘that way.’”

I erupted, “That’s true -- he was once a baby!”

So Al had read the Bible at my suggestion and also, I remembered, my bible, Anna Karenina, and now he was reading Mein Kampf. Our happy reunion had gone down the sewer.

I had to leave, and now wanted to leave, for my next class. I stood up, and he also got up and offered me his hand. I shook it, and he said he might drop by again this semester if that was OK.

I nodded, even though it wasn’t.

He paused to glance at my bookshelves, a brick wall to most of my students. “You’ve done some more books?” (He knew I often edited books for Dover Publications, as back in the day I had given him a few.)

“Yeah.” I grabbed one, Essays on Civil Disobedience, and offered it to him. “If you like,” I said.

“I would, thank you.” He turned it over to the back cover.

“Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi!” I said as savagely as I smilingly could, and added, “Nadezhda Tolokonnikova -- she was in Pussy Riot.”

“Got it.” He smiled.

But there was something uneasy in my mind as I walked across campus. I was troubled not just by what Al had admitted to or boasted of but also by what I had said: “I don’t read homicidal maniacs.” They’re not my cup of tea, don’t you know!

And then my memory awoke: about 10 years ago, while working for Dover on Great Speeches of the 20th Century, I had decided I didn’t want Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin rubbing shoulders with Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or even FDR. To weasel out of including maniacs in my selection, I jokingly suggested to an editor at Dover that somebody could compile a complementary anthology -- “Horrible Speeches by Madmen and Murderers” or something like that.

A year later, when I was in the midst of another assignment or two, that very editor called to say he was sending me the contract for “the bad guys’ speeches book” that I had proposed.

“The what?”

By reflex (I’m a freelancer) and from guilt (I sort of did suggest it), I plunged into the abyss that became Infamous Speeches: From Robespierre to Osama bin Laden. With bin Laden on the cover and John C. Calhoun, King Leopold II, Joseph McCarthy, Mao, Saddam Hussein and the original deplorables -- Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler -- and other bad company jostling inside, the book’s a paperbound container of verbal toxins.

I felt poisoned for the duration of that project to be in those devilish men’s presence. All the speeches had me wondering how they could have had audiences (whom today we’d politely call “supporters”) who shared their bloodlust. I regretted having had librarians help me track down the text of a monstrous speech at the United Nations by Idi Amin. When I finally xeroxed a copy of that foulness, I wondered if maybe surgeons feel this way when they cut out a cancer. But, of course, they don’t; I was collecting tumors for a chamber of horrors.

As I with chagrin remembered why I had been reading works by monsters, I reflected a moment: Why was Al reading Hitler’s memoirs? I shuddered -- and decided I didn’t care to speculate about his possible reasons.

Sometimes my curiosity about the motivations of others comes to a halt, as if I’ve reached the edge of an abyss. I’m going to leave that abyss between me and Al. Despite being a teacher and writer (I’m supposed to be open-minded, forgiving), I’m not feeling obliged to build a bridge to him.

I want my distance.

I don’t want to know why Al, a “nice guy,” an “educated guy,” a keen reader, a descendant of citizens repressed in the U.S.S.R., fond of me (and I still possibly fond of him), finds Hitler smart on some counts. I don’t want to know that there are books I believe shouldn’t be read, that there are books written by people so reprehensible that they get to drop dead onto my no-read list.

Yet I’m still ashamed that I have such a list.

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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Monday, January 8, 2018
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Whose Struggle?

Footnote relishes fact that no one will read it

Authors of statistics textbook proudly declared, in a footnote, that no one reads footnotes. Photos of the footnote keep going viral.

A scholar changes his view about the literary marketplace and what literature can do (opinion)

When I was asked to edit the Norton Anthology of World Literature a decade ago, I was daunted by the task. Even with a team of co-editors and consultants, how could I possibly take responsibility for everything from Icelandic sagas to Chilean poetry, from the earliest writings to the most recent global authors? My head swam, thinking of the entire world. But what I would learn, from working on the Norton, was that world literature is always local.

The job started not with literary works but with questionnaires. I will never forget that moment when we sat around a conference table, staring at a large stack of surveys. The pile commanded respect, the force of numbers: hundreds of teachers against a handful of editors. We realized that our preferences didn't matter, that this was not about us imposing our tastes.

We began the humbler work of turning the surveys into a canon of world literature as it was being taught on the ground. Goethe, who had coined the term “world literature” in 1827, was losing readers, while Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th-century Mexican nun who was quite unknown a few decades ago, was gaining them. We were watching the canon change before our eyes.

Our next lesson came when we learned where the anthology would be taught: world literature was a North American phenomenon. Even though the United States is famously provincial in that only about 2 percent of books sold are translations from abroad, it is the world leader in world literature courses. The most important reason is structural: the looseness of the American-style liberal arts education accommodates broad survey courses more easily than the more specialized systems dominant in the rest of the world.

More to the point, world literature is a phenomenon of the southern United States. The 11 southern states contained only 14 percent of the nation’s population, but they accounted for half of our adopters. True, there were world literature courses that didn’t use any anthology, while others might assign one of our rivals and therefore wouldn’t show up in our statistics. But despite these caveats (Norton has over 80 percent market share), it was clear that world literature was thriving in the South, unsettling any easy generalization about red states and blue.

The popularity of world literature in the South was so surprising to me -- and to pretty much everyone I have talked to -- that I decided to visit some of our adopters. When I asked them why their institutions were so invested in world literature, they explained that while many coastal elite universities had given up on Great Books courses during the canon wars, the more conservative southern colleges had held onto them. But gradually those institutions transformed what originally would have been Western literature courses into world literature courses. (This account dovetailed with another result from the surveys: a separate anthology of Western literature was losing adopters, and we have since decided to phase it out).

My most memorable trip led me to Alabama. In preparation, the local sales rep had sent me two items: the documentary film Muscle Shoals, set in the small northern Alabama town that boasted the hottest recording studio of the 1970s, and an issue of Garden & Gun, the glossy southern magazine with ads selling elegant rifles for the lady huntress.

One teacher I met in Alabama did have an impressive array of action figures -- several representing Gilgamesh, the famous hunter -- but for the most part, hunting played a minor role. What really mattered to teachers was introducing students to the world. Few of the local students had had the opportunity to travel; many didn’t possess a passport or had never even left the state. World literature was their opportunity to get to know something of other cultures.

Encountering the enthusiasm with which teachers and students tackled texts from far-flung places changed my view of what literature could do: it allowed students access to the foundational texts of foreign cultures, their cultural DNA. Far from being a mere substitute for travel, world literature offered a superior version of it.

While visiting southern colleges, I learned about a second effect of world literature courses: they were very good at fostering closer relations between local and international students. All segments of American higher education have become more international in the last two decades, with a large infusion of students from China, India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea (the four largest groups). In world literature courses, these students were experts, while local students grappling with foreign texts could find a deeper way of relating to their international colleagues. I even suspect that the internationalization of American higher education has contributed to changes in the canon, with the Analects of Confucius, the Mahabharata and the Arabian Nights (along with the Quran) now high on the list.

The interests of students in the South also dovetail with another feature of world literature: the importance of religious texts. Our current understanding of literature as fiction is recent. Anthologies of world literature, which cover 4,000 years, use a much wider definition -- namely, significant writing, including religious, philosophical and political texts. The Buddha and Socrates are as important as Virgil or Shakespeare.

Conversations with students and teachers in the South encouraged me to adopt a broader understanding of literature, one less focused on recent genres such as the novel and more attuned to foundational and religious texts. The change led me to write The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization, a recently published account of the shaping force of foundational texts.

My involvement with world literature courses also changed my view of the literary marketplace. Literature professionals in the United States tend to have degrees in English. Today, that is no longer enough. If we want to avoid nationalism and nativism, we should embrace world literature. Colleges in the South have been on the forefront of this shift to world literature because they know how important it is. We can learn from their dedication.

Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His books cover subjects from philosophy to the arts, and the Norton Anthology of World Literature and his HarvardX MOOC (massive open online course) have brought 4,000 years of literature to students across the globe. His most recent book, The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization (Random House), tells the story of literature from the invention of writing to the internet.

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