Category: Books

What SUP From Your Favorite University Presses, September 19, 2014

sup-300x209Welcome to our weekly roundup of news from university presses! Once again, there is a lot to share this week from our fellow academic publishing houses and much to learn on What SUP at the social university presses. This week, we studied the classics online, compared Scottish and Quebec nationalism, and took a quiz on the Constitution. What did you read this week?

Columbia University Press interviewed John Pickrell about his book Flying Dinosaurs. He explained why birds are dinosaurs and how dinosaurs likely used their feathers.

Harvard University Press introduced the digital Loeb Classical Library with the help of its general editor, Jeffrey Henderson. Henderson commented on the challenges of moving the library online and described the exciting new ways of reading, studying, and teaching the library will enable.

Johns Hopkins University Press connected physics and art with a guest post  by Dr. J.R. Leibowitz, the author of Hidden Harmony. He showed how the fields overlap in their principles and motivations.

McGill-Queen’s University Press offered a timely comparison between Scottish and Quebec nationalism. Books including Hierarchies of Belonging and Liberal Nationalisms delve into the related political and cultural contexts.

Oxford University Press celebrated the anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery with a post about her life. Wilma Peebles-Wilkins described Tubman’s efforts towards civil rights and social justice as well as her legacy for black feminists.

The University of Pennsylvania Press investigated Jewish travel writing in a Q&A with Martin Jacobs. His book, Reorienting the East, engages with postcolonial studies and the meaning of Orientalism.

Stanford University Press tested our knowledge of the U.S. Constitution with a quiz derived from Your Rugged Constitution. The Press has reissued the classic 1950s resource on the architecture of the nation’s founding document.

The University of Chicago Press congratulated Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist, graphic memoirist, and 2014 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. The post offered a quick recap of the Bechdel test and video footage from a 2011 interview.

After Bannockburn—After the Referendum: Robert the Bruce and the difficulties of Settlement

Michael Penman—

Scotland’s medieval icons William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and their military encounters with England only occasionally reared their heads during the party leaders’ recent campaigning for and against Scottish independence. In January 2012, former Scottish Secretary and Stirling MP, Michael Forsyth, charged that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, probably preferred June 24, 2014, the seven hundredth anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, as the date for the referendum vote—so as best to exploit “centuries old grievances and romantic mythology.” September 11 was in fact at first proposed with the Unionists and the press rounding on the SNP’s choice of the anniversary of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 in an attempt to allegedly launch a “second war” for Independence (even though the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution referendum, which embraced many Unionist parties, had also been held on that date).

Thus September 18, 2014 was a compromise choice for the “Yes-No?” vote. But this was not enough to stop former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, from criticizing what he saw as Alex Salmond’s stoking of “anti-English sentiment” through proximity to the Bannockburn anniversary, allegedly detracting from commemoration of historic “British” military events like the anniversaries of the D-Day landings and the outbreak of World War One. Yet Unionist Ministers also played this game. The scheduling of rival events thus led to a very uncomfortable handshake between Mr. Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron at British Armed Services Day, held in Stirling on Saturday, June 28, 2014, clashing with the same weekend’s plans for the festival of Bannockburn Live! And just a couple of days later the Queen and PM hosted the launch of the British Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, Elizabeth, at Rosyth docks (in the constituency of former Labour PM and reinvigorated Union-campaigner, Gordon Brown). Then, almost at the death, on September 8, Mr. Salmond invoked the famous Bruce-era “Declaration of Arbroath” of 1320—a pithy statement of Scottish sovereignty sent to the Papacy in the name of Scotland’s nobility— and offered the Scottish people a “Declaration of Opportunity” with promises on the NHS, welfare, social justice, and the right “[to] choose a government to protect their interests.” In response, Unionist commentators only nibbled a bit at this bait, gently poo-pooing such “harking back to a very different world” as the fourteenth century, and then returned to contemporary policy rhetoric. This then was but a mere faint echo of the use which all parties had made of the Declaration of Arbroath as a touchstone of patriotism and political idealism during the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution campaigns (with Sean Connery’s broadcast for the SNP deploying history from “Sheven Shenturies Ago…”).


Bannockburn: Bruce Reviewing His Troops Before the Battle via Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, it is surely a positive that in 2014 all parties made a conscious effort of restraint not to mangle centuries-past historical events and figures in their efforts to persuade (with the SNP in particular having moved away after 1997 from such ploys as annual Bannockburn rallies calling for an Independence vote). But with the votes now cast and counted and 55% of the Scottish electorate in favor of retaining Scotland’s place in the Union in some form, the history of Robert Bruce’s reign might again be (cautiously) instructive. For after his triumph at Bannockburn, King Robert had to oversee a resettlement of lands and offices and to win back the territory and hearts-and-minds of several Scottish lordships, towns and regions still in English control or sympathy. The first parliament he called to do this after the battle, in November 1314 at Cambuskenneth Abbey outside Stirling (just a few miles from the battlefield), was by no means an easy affair. As much as the king and his ministers with their battle-mandate may have sought to control that assembly and its agenda, there is evidence of difficult debate on a number of issues: forfeiture of past opponents, lobbying for new lands and offices for supporters, a need to tidy and modernize Scotland’s laws, to rebuild her economy, and settle the royal succession.

This may have been a gathering which Robert sought to use for reconciliation and to avoid any mood of triumphalism and vindictiveness against both his Scottish and English opponents. Indeed, the assembly may have opened by marking All Souls day (November 2) with a procession and mass for the dead, remembering some of those who had fallen on both sides at Bannockburn. It is clear, too, that the key decision of this parliament—an act of November 6 to now forfeit those holders of Scottish lands who remained outside Robert’s peace—was a highly contentious issue for all concerned: the parliamentary record states that “it was finally agreed, adjudged and decreed by the counsel and assent” of the king and his subjects that these individuals should now be disinherited “although they had been often summoned and lawfully expected.”

Nevertheless, it is very telling that such was Robert’s continued need to win support and stabilize his regime that some key individuals still in English allegiance had their forfeiture further delayed, allowing them more time to submit to Bruce. Moreover, although the Bruce government clearly tried to tread carefully in this regard, upheaval and disfavor to past opponents was unavoidable. By 1318 this had provoked a crisis. With his last surviving brother killed in battle in Ireland and only an infant grandson as his heir, Robert was vulnerable and there was growing disquiet about his landed favor to key supporters. An emergency parliament called to Scone in December that year may have been an even more fractious, tense affair with uncomfortable questions and contingencies over patronage, the succession and law reform. Despite the royal regime’s attempts in this parliament to use statute to gag those spreading rumors about a rift between king and subjects there was clearly a substantial plot underway against Bruce, led by former Scottish opponents and in favor of Edward Balliol, a vassal-claimant of the Scottish throne then in Edward II’s court and pay. In 1320 this erupted as the so-called “Soules Conspiracy” with Bruce’s “Black Parliament” condemning those implicated in this sedition and his supporters moving to hunt them down throughout the realm.

So the great medieval turning point of Bannockburn heralded a rocky, often bitter period of settlement with quite partisan outcomes. The political and popular response in the wake of the majority “No” vote in 2014 will also surely be challenging and compelling.

Michael Penman is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Stirling and co-author of England and Scotland in the Fourteenth Century: New Perspectives. His most recent book is Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots.

Further Reading:

An Interview with Jody Gladding, translator of Rimbaud the Son

We are delighted to release an interview with Jody Gladding, translator (with Elizabeth Deshays) of Pierre Michon’s Rimbaud the Son, now available through the Margellos World Republic of Letters series.  In the interview, Gladding discusses Michon’s groundbreaking book and addresses questions of translation.


Yale University Press: Although Rimbaud the Son is something approaching a biography of Rimbaud, much of the book seems to assume that the reader already knows a fair amount about his life. For example, pages after Verlaine’s introduction, Michon begins a sentence with, “It is also said—to explain the herring and the six-shooter…” Who is the audience for this book? Do you think that sentence requires the reader to already know the story of Verlaine’s shooting Rimbaud, or is there a kind of surreal delight in reading a sentence that begins this way without preparation?

Jody Gladding: There may be a kind of surreal delight in coming upon that sentence unprepared, but I think there’s greater delight in recognizing the reference, even if only faintly  The best audience for this book would be those readers as intrigued with Rimbaud’s myth as Michon is, although the writing is so beautiful, I think anyone who appreciates virtuosic prose, Rimbaud enthusiast or not, would enjoy it.

YUP: In your introduction, you say that a “Michon sentence is an architectural feat,” made of stacks of phrases that are set to topple if a single semicolon is out of place. He also seems to create his own language of metaphor which the reader must learn to understand the work—an example that comes to mind is his use of June to represent some kind of poetic beauty or authenticity. What effect does his writing style have on you, and do you think it has an increasingly small place in the literary world?

JG: By calling Michon’s sentences “architectural feats,” I mean that he constructs them with incredible skill, and their intricacies become even more apparent–and awe-inspiring–when, as a translator, I try to tamper with them.  Michon’s writing is dense and poetic and I think it will always have a select, passionate audience, even more so among English readers than French ones.  Personally, I find his prose really gratifying to translate.  This is the third Michon book I’ve translated with my good friend Elizabeth Deshays and, since I’m also a poet, it was an especially enjoyable experience.

YUP: Rimbaud and Michon both grew up in rural communes speaking something close to a patois. They both loved Victor Hugo, and both had sisters who died as infants and fathers who left when they were young children. How do these parallel childhoods shape the way Michon writes about Rimbaud? Do you think Rimbaud the Son is unique among Michon’s work because of this relationship?

JG: Yes, there’s definitely an autobiographical strain running through Rimbaud….  The absent father, the smothering mother, the backwater upbringing and how they shape the artist:  these are Michon’s recurring themes.  The author’s own experiences, obsessions, and aspirations inform his fictions, and to my mind, bring them to life.  Rimbaud… is no exception.

YUP: You write in your introduction that Michon’s “imagination is visual,” that he sees Rimbaud’s life through photographs. For example, the penultimate chapter of Rimbaud the Son is devoted to describing a single photograph of Rimbaud in intense and emotional detail. Was the visual and dramatic nature of the text a particular challenge of the translation?

Jody Gladding

Jody Gladding

JG: In fact, Michon’s attention to photographs throughout was a great aid in translating.  The images of Rimbaud that Michon draws upon, especially the iconic photograph of him with the crooked tie, are all easily available.  So we could view the photos in conjunction with the French text and come up with a more precise translation.  I love the visual imagination at work in Rimbaud….

YUP: I noticed while comparing the translation of Rimbaud the Son to the French how carefully you have preserved the original writing, down to the sentence structure. In your opinion, which is more important: avoiding the risk of reminding the reader that they are reading a translation, or creating the illusion of an untranslated work?

JG: I think the best translations constantly remind readers that they are in the presense of the unfamiliar, expressed in languages not their own.  I think it’s very important that readers, especially US readers, are mindful that they’re reading translations.  Whatever discomfort or resistance such reading experiences prompt can be transformative, and can begin to open whole new worlds.

YUP: Only about 3% of books published in the United States are translations, and the number is even smaller for literary works. What do you think is the future of translation, and translation into English?

JG: With some newer publishers specializing in translation, like Archipelago Books, and university presses creating translation series, like Yale’s Margellos Series, the future of translation looks brighter.  That figure of 3% is abysmal when you compare it to European publishing:  in Germany, 8% of all books published are translations, in France, 14%.  For literary presses, the numbers are even higher:  40% of all novels published in France are translated from English.  By making the works of major writers like Michon available to US and UK readers, publishers like Yale UP are helping to correct that imbalance.  Their contribution to literary culture is invaluable.

Why Aren’t We Celebrating Constitution Day?

Lorri Glover—

Today is Constitution Day, not that you would know it. The anniversary has never sparked the public imagination. Forget rivaling the 4th of July. Constitution Day doesn’t garner the publicity or even the retail sales of Presidents’ Day.

This blasé attitude toward Constitution Day runs counter to Americans’ zealous defense of their Constitutional rights, frequent yearnings for the “original” meaning of the Constitution, and near-sanctification of the Founders. Maybe it’s the fact that the Constitution created the federal government, about which Americans have often felt skittish and occasionally downright hostile. Or maybe two weeks after Labor Day—itself fascinating given America’s fraught history with unions—we’re too busy with work and back-to-school. Whatever the current cause of the indifference to commemorating September 17, we’ve actually gotten the history right. Nothing was settled on September 17, 1787, except that a long and difficult road lay ahead.

In July 1776, when the Revolutionaries finished their mammoth task of justifying the overthrow of imperial rule, they celebrated. John Adams said he hoped that future generations of Americans would always commemorate Independence Day “with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”—the eighteenth-century word for fireworks—“from one End of this Continent to the other.”

But in September 1787, not even the staunchest advocate for the Constitution felt much like celebrating. The work was not done, not by a long shot. James Madison was the principal architect of the Constitution, and even he saw that on September 17 delegates to the Constitutional Convention only completed a proposal. It was, he said, “nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions.”

cene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons

For the Constitution to become law, citizens needed to approve the plan, which required representatives to meet in popularly-elected state ratification conventions, debate every nuance of the design, and decide whether or not to consent to this radical restructuring of the union of states. Only if nine of the thirteen states agreed would the Constitution become law. To find the real meaning of the Constitution, Madison understood, “we must look for it not in the general convention, which proposed, but in the state conventions, which accepted and ratified the constitution.”  That process took nearly a year. James Madison was a thirty-six-year-old bachelor, living with and supported by his wealthy father, so he had the wherewithal to work full-time lobbying for the Constitution. He spent six months campaigning for the federal plan in New York and then continued the fight to his home state of Virginia.

In Virginia, in some of the most dramatic and important political debates in all of American history, James Madison took on Patrick Henry. Henry was the greatest orator of the Revolution and the most powerful man in the largest and most important state in the union. Madison’s national ambitions and continental point of view ran counter to Henry’s state-centered priorities. Henry had sixteen children and was deeply worried about their financial futures as well as about the sovereignty of the state of Virginia. The Constitution, he believed, jeopardized both by giving the federal government boundless authority over long-standing Virginia rights. Not one to mince words, Henry announced: “As this Government stands, I despise and abhor it.”

The deeply-divided Virginians were hardly alone. From fall 1787 to summer 1788 and across the whole country, advocates and critics of the Constitution engaged in fierce debates involving allegations of mendacity, craven self-interestedness, willful ignorance, and outright treason. If they accepted the Constitution, critics insisted, Americans would deservedly find themselves “broiling in a Hell of Slavery.” Without the Constitution, supporters pronounced, they would “sink into contempt and anarchy” and cause “a total dissolution of our short existence as a nation.” The only thing Americans generally agreed on was the stakes: they were deciding “not the fate of an individual, but that of millions.” Their country was counting on them to do the right thing.

So, for ten months citizens interrogated the meaning and implications of every part of the federal design. Fitfully and finally, the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. The exact day is tricky, though. On June 25, Virginia narrowly voted to ratify, 89 in favor, 79 opposed. A mere six votes, then, would have redirected the course of American history. Patrick Henry accepted defeat while vowing to work toward “seeing that Government changed so as to be compatible with the safety, liberty and happiness of the people.” James Madison breathed a sigh of relief and his side briefly celebrated Virginia becoming the 9th and crucial state. What they didn’t know, because information traveled by horse, was that New Hampshire beat them to the punch, voting in favor of the Constitution just a few days before.

Either way, things remained unsettled even after June 1788. Completing the Constitution spilled into the first Congress. In 1789, at the insistence of voters demanding their rights be codified, Congress sent the states a series of proposed revisions, which we today call the Bill of Rights. Usually Americans forget that these after-the-fact changes, which most of the original framers of the Constitution had long dismissed as unnecessary and impractical, transformed the Constitution. Since then (though not too often) we’ve continued to alter the fundamental nature of their plan, to make it our own.

Americans often lament the lost world of the founders. But on this Constitution Day, take heart: we’ve not strayed all that far from our Founding Fathers after all. On closer look, our civic life, like theirs, often seems messy and divisive and sometimes downright vicious. Things never get decided as soon as we’d like, and we often fall into reflexively disparaging the motives and patriotism of those with whom we disagree. But we also publicly proclaim our opinions without fear of governmental reprisal, and we move toward consensus when we can and otherwise reconcile ourselves (often begrudgingly) to peaceful disagreement.

Historically, then, we are right in our non-celebration of a Constitution Day. Creating the Constitution was and remains a work in progress. But we are civically wrong—dangerously so—when we fail to understand the history of the Constitution and its language and meaning. So, forget the forgetting to celebrate today and use the time instead to read the Constitution and weigh in your own mind what it means. Your country is counting on you.

Lorri Glover is John Francis Bannon Endowed Chair, Department of History, Saint Louis University. She is author of four previous books on early American history, including The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown. Her most recent book is Founders as Fathers.

Further Reading:

Founders as Fathers by Lorri Glover

What SUP From Your Favorite University Presses, September 12, 2014

sup-300x209Welcome to our weekly roundup of news from university presses! Once again, there is a lot to share this week from our fellow academic publishing houses and much to learn on What SUP at the social university presses. This week, we remembered 9/11 and it’s lasting effects, tested our literary cat knowledge, and investigated our preconceptions about beauty pageants. What did you read this week?


Temple University Press and Indiana University Press reflected on the anniversary of 9/11, investigating the after-effects of the terrorist attacks on Muslim communities and exploring the invisibility of carnage in the images of “the most photographed disaster in history”.

Stanford University Press shared an excerpt from Official Stories, to help explain the national narratives used by political powers in the Middle East to maintain authoritarian rule.

Columbia University Press shared a series of posts on the unequivocally titled book Learn or Die, featuring a book giveaway, and chapter-by-chapter video overviews of the book, recorded by the author.

On a more light-hearted note, and because this is the internet, Oxford University Press quizzed us on cats in literary history.

The University of Texas Press educated us with a post on “9 Things We didn’t Know about Miss America,” that compares the pageant myths with its realities.

UNC Press continued the pageant theme, sharing an excerpt from Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women that reflects on the southern image of female beauty.

The University of Georgia Press announced the winners of the 2014 National Poetry Series competition.

Johns Hopkins University Press went fishing this week, sharing a blog post from the Gibbes Museum of Art on the art of aquatic scientific illustration in A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes.

Finally, our neighbors at Wesleyan University Press got us ready for fall with a helpful roundup of upcoming agricultural fairs in Connecticut.

The Death of the Monarch Butterfly

Robert Michael Pyle—

Many people will have greeted the news that the monarch butterfly has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act with bewilderment, if not incredulity. How can this icon among American butterflies, once proposed in Congress as our National Butterfly, this common companion of childhood for generations, possibly be threatened with extinction?

It is true that the immediately recognizable, citrus-orange glider we call the monarch has been almost ubiquitous in many parts of the continent for much of the past century, and likely long before. But its numbers on the famous overwintering grounds in Mexico last winter were fewer than 10 % of what they were in the 1990s, and its breeding habitat in the Midwest—the breadbasket of monarchs—has been reduced by millions of acres in recent years. The petitioning parties are the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and Professor Lincoln P. Brower, of Sweet Briar College. You can read many more details in their press release.

Monarch butterfly migration

Monarch butterfly migration, via Wikimedia Commons.

The entire species Danaus plexippus is not in equal jeopardy everywhere it occurs. But the main subspecies, D. plexippus plexippus, is certainly at risk as a whole. Introduced populations from Hawaii to Australia are subject to fluctuation and a variety of extinction factors as well as genetic isolation, and could not be counted on to restore the native North American population if it drops out. Nor could the non-migratory populations that occur in parts of the Neotropics and are vulnerable to drought, development, and many other threats. The core of the species, and the core concern, is also the grandest butterfly spectacle in the world: the migratory North American monarchs. These were declared a threatened phenomenon almost thirty years ago by Professor Brower and myself, in the IUCN Invertebrate Red Data Book and elsewhere. However, the subspecies as a whole must now be deemed threatened by extinction, for if the central population goes, the introduced and non-migratory outliers will surely follow eventually. So it’s true: the monarch is in serious trouble. How did this sad state come to pass?

The key lies with the monarchs’ necessary caterpillar food plants: milkweeds, and only milkweeds. For the last century, the monarchs got on fine with the farmers, utilizing harmless milkweed that thrived in the field edges and corners, hedgerows and windrows. But in this century, Monsanto has introduced herbicide-tolerant, genetically modified soy, corn, and other crops, which farmers have little choice but to use, and this binds them into massively increased use of glyphosate herbicide, also manufactured by Monsanto. This expensive and reckless cycle is already generating glyphosate-resistant weeds; but it has also led to the destruction of millions of milkweed plants across the Midwest. And the monarch numbers have plummeted in response. Many now consider “Monsanto” the antonym of “monarch.”

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

A monarch buttefly on swamp milkweed, via Wikimedia Commons

The listing process will probably be lengthy, involving much debate. So far, most of the monarch scientists and conservationists, including me, support it. If a listing of threatened or endangered species comes about, there may be many repercussions. But the petitioners have taken care to stipulate that ongoing monarch science and citizen science—such as schoolchildren raising wild local monarchs in their classroom, and the tagging of monarchs for migration studies—should not be unduly affected by restrictions Nor should the burden all fall on the farmers. As ethnobotanist and author Gary Nabhan, co-author of The Forgotten Pollinators and co-founder of the consortium Make Way for Monarchs, has written, “Farmers already are, and will continue to be, part of the solution to recover the monarch butterfly populations; much of the milkweed restoration work that has already begun is within our nation’s farmscapes. We hope that a broad spectrum of participants across the entire food supply chain—from fertilizer and herbicide producers to restaurant owners and consumers—will begin to invest in farmers’ efforts to restore habitat for monarchs and other pollinators on private lands.” The listing should help this collaborative process to happen.

A few days after the extraordinarily detailed 159-page monarch petition was lodged with the Department of the Interior, we marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. There, too, was a hugely abundant organism that no one thought could possibly become extinct. Yet for a variety of reasons, it did. While some may consider monarch listing to be an overreaction or premature, I think of it as a properly cautious use of what I call the Passenger Pigeon Principle: if we don’t do everything we can now to protect and perpetuate our once-abundant wildlife species, they may well become the passenger pigeons of tomorrow.

When the pigeons were finally gone, the skies were wiped clean of these beautiful and valuable birds that once darkened them for hundreds of miles. Shall we also watch our most beloved butterflies, which have always brightened our childhoods and lifted our hearts—Canadians, Mexicans, and Americans alike—be wiped away as well? I, for one, do not want to wait to find out. Listing might or might not make the difference, but it seems the least we can do for monarchs now. And far from being hasty, I only hope we are not too late.

Robert Michael Pyle is an award-winning author of eighteen books, including Wintergreen, for which he received the John Burroughs Medal, and Chasing Monarchs. He is founder of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and has worked in every state and many countries as a butterfly ecologist, writer, speaker, and teacher.

Further Reading:

Chasing Monarchs Cover

What SUP From Your Favorite University Presses, September 5, 2014

supWelcome to our weekly roundup of news from university presses! Once again, there is a lot to share this week from our fellow academic publishing houses and much to learn on What SUP at the social university presses. This week, education was a major focus for the academic presses as students flooded back to campus. What did you read this week?

The MIT Press started a back to school series this week discussing new curriculum models in an increasingly digital world, touching on coding education for K-12 students, MOOCs, and more.

UNC Press shared a guest post from the author of The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, examining current racial, religious, and economic issues as Elijah Muhammad might have seen them.

The University of Chicago Press offers a free ebook of Blair Kamin’s Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age.

The Wesleyan University Press continues their Throwback Thursday theme, sharing a poem from  Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple: The Poems of Francis Chung (2000)

Columbia University Press interviews James Liebman, author of The Wrong Carlos about studying capital punishment in Texas.

Oxford University Press explains ebola from the biological level to the social, infrastructural, and governmental challenges to containing the virus.

Stanford University Press shares their fall catalog in an engaging flow chart format. Will you make it past the first question?

What is 4’33″?

gann_pbcover.inddToday is the birthday of the composer John Cage, who is best known for 4’33″, a piece of music in which no intentional sounds are made by the artist or performer. Many, if not most, have encountered references to the piece, at least in comics and cartoons. Yet it may not be immediately clear how to approach or categorize 4’33″. Critics and fans have called it, among other things, a hoax, a joke, a bit of Dada, a piece of theater, a thought experiment, a kind of apotheosis of twentieth-century music, and an example of Zen practice. In No Such Thing as SilenceKyle Gann argues that some of these interpretations are more compelling than others and he offers insights into Cage’s life, influences, work, and legacy.

The details of the first performance of 4’33″ give useful context. Gann describes the scene in 1952 at the open-air Maverick Concert Hall just south of Woodstock, New York. David Tudor sat down at the piano, closed the keyboard over the piano keys, and looked at his stopwatch. Over the following minutes, he inaudibly uncovered and covered the keys twice and turned pages of blank sheet music. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds, he stood up to receive applause.

With that account in mind, Gann dismisses the idea that 4’33″ was a hoax. Cage made no attempt to deceive his audience or make them think they’d heard music they did not hear. Gann also refutes the suggestion that Cage was after financial gain. The piece was not commissioned and the occasion for its performance was a benefit concert, so the money went to neither Tudor nor Cage. The notion that 4’33″ was intended to amuse also seems unlikely since the composer feared people would call it a joke. He spoke about the piece in a deeply serious, even philosophical tone register throughout his life.

Gann does see a plausible connection between 4’33″ and Dadaism, the early twentieth-century art movement. Cage counted Erik Satie among his favorite composers and noted that “what was Dada in Duchamp’s today is now just art.” The theatrical aspects of 4’33″ deserve mention as well. The audience expected sound from the musician and the performer expected silence from the recital audience. Often, both expectations were frustrated, as the musician made no audible sound and audience members cleared their throats, muttered, or heckled. The musician and the audience broke character in refusing to act out their conventional roles.

David Tudor performs in 4'33" in 1952

David Tudor performs 4’33″ in 1952

The remaining interpretations—that 4’33″ was a thought experiment, a kind of apotheosis of twentieth-century music, or an example of Zen practice—strike Gann as more likely to capture the essence of the piece. 4’33″ worked as a thought experiment in that Cage used the scenario of a performance to frame the mundane sounds the audience heard for those four and a half minutes. That framing, Gann writes, worked to “drive home the point that the difference between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’ is merely one of perception, and that we can control how we organize our perceptions.” Gann, as a composer, also makes a case for understanding Cage’s work as a kind of apotheosis of twentieth-century music. He explains how classical music had become so highly structured and complex that it verged on the incomprehensible, and that 4’33″ symbolically cleared the ground and began a shift towards minimalism. The three sections Cage designated in the piece identify 4’33″ as a sonata, which reaffirms its place in the classical world.

A significant part of No Such Thing as Silence deals with the ways in which John Cage was inspired by Zen and Zen practice. Zen’s relationship to 4’33″ is complex, but it is possible to sketch a few key connections. Zen involves letting go of desire because desire underlies frustration and suffering. If you attend a concert with a desire to hear specific sounds, you will be frustrated, as some who listened to 4’33″ clearly were. Zen also teaches that all divisions are illusions of thought, and that in reality there is no difference between life and death, good and bad, or happiness and misery. All existence is one. It is in this spirit it that Gann describes a powerful way of approaching 4’33″:

If you are able to appreciate, at least on an intellectual level, that from a Zen standpoint there is no difference between playing a note and not playing a note, that a chord on the piano and a cough from an audience member behind you and the patter of rain on the Maverick Concert Hall roof are not different, but the same thing—then you may be able to think of 4′33″ as something more profound than a joke, a hoax, or a deliberately provocative and nihilistic act of Dada. If you can turn toward the whir of the wind in the oak trees or the pulse of the ceiling fan the same attention you were about to turn to the melodies of the pianist, you may have a few moments of realizing that the division you habitually maintain between art and life, between beautiful things and commonplace ones, is artificial, and that making it separates you off from life and deadens you to the magic around you.

If you want to continue celebrating Cage’s birthday, check out Silence, by Toby Kamps and Steve Seid. The book examines the ways twenty-nine artists invoke silence to shape space and consciousness. You can read an excerpt here, so long as you remember that the divisions between here and there, excerpts and full texts, and one book and another are illusory.

What does 4’33″ mean to you? Let us know in the comments!

What Does Rock ‘n’ Roll Mean To You?

Greil Marcus has weighed in on the ten songs that define rock n roll history. In this video, we hit the streets to find out what people thought of his list and what rock ‘n’ roll means to them. See Greil’s list, watch the video, then tell us what you think. What songs best tell the story of rock? What does rock ‘n’ roll mean to you?

Greil’s List:

1. “Shake Some Action” - Flaming Groovies

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus; Photo by Thierry Arditti, Paris.

2. “Transmission” - Joy Division

3. “In the Still of the Nite” - Five Satins/Slades

4. “All I Could Do Was Cry” - Etta James/Beyoncé

5. “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” - Buddy Holly/Beatles

6. “Money (That’s What I Want”) - Barrett Strong/Beatles

7. “Money Changes Everything” - Brains/Cyndi Lauper/Delta Moon

8. “This Magic Moment” – Drifters/Ben E. King with Lou Reed

9. “Guitar Drag” - Christian Marclay

10. “To Know Him Is to Love Him” - Teddy Bears/Amy Winehouse

Further Reading:

history rock n roll cover

Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts

Eugene O'NeillFour seems to be Eugene O’Neill’s lucky number. He was the recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, the most won by any single playwright. His most famous play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, was written in four acts. Robert Dowling’s new biography Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, forthcoming this October continues that theme, highlighting how the stories he told through his plays interweave with his life, divided out into four episodes. We sat down with Dowling to talk about writing the biography of such an immense figure in American theater.

Yale University Press: You have long been a fan of O’Neill’s work, but what prompted you to write a book about his life?

Robert M. Dowling: In the final session of the first O’Neill seminar I taught, I asked my students, “Which plays did you enjoy the most?” Without missing a beat, one raised his hand and said that O’Neill’s life was his greatest play. Many others nodded in agreement. That moment planted the seed for this book. It turns out that the dramatic structure of O’Neill’s life uncannily matches that of his best plays. And, even more fascinating for a biographer, nearly every fictional story O’Neill told interweaves with actual stories from his own life.

YUP: O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature—the only American playwright to do so. How is his literary achievement viewed today, some 60 years after his death?

RMD: O’Neill also won four Pulitzers, yet he probably received more bad reviews than any other major American author. However, having scrutinized virtually every review of his premieres and books, I can say that even his so-called clunkers were still credited with breakthroughs that offered something unique, something never before attempted on the American stage. O’Neill is enjoying a new “renaissance,” with dozens of revivals over the past decade. American and international audiences alike show an unquenchable desire for his plays, and there’s no end in sight for this playwright’s potential to speak to contemporary audiences as he once spoke to his own.

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