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August 27th, 2014

What Constitutes Compelling Evidence, and for Whom? — B. Alan Wallace



B. Alan WallaceThe following post is by B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. For more, you can also read our recent interview with B. Alan Wallace:

“Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” is presented as the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere. But it begs the questions, what constitutes an exceptional claim versus an ordinary claim, and who determines this distinction? When it comes to the relation between the body and mind, one might assume that contemporary scientists and philosophers have the authority to determine the difference between exceptional and ordinary claims. But that assumption is problematic for two reasons: (1) scientific and philosophical views vary widely in today’s society, and (2) contemporary Euro-centric views are not the indisputable arbiters of truth for humanity as a whole.

While the reductionist views of atheist, or materialist, scientists and philosophers dominate scientific discourse and the popular media, they by no means represent a consensus view within the two communities, let alone all educated people. According to a poll published in the Scientific American in 1914, 40% of scientists stated that they believed in God. A poll with the same set of questions was again conducted in 1997, also reported in the Scientific American, and it indicated that 40% of scientists still believe in God. So no one view—either materialist or non-materialist—can be said to represent the scientific community as a whole. Likewise, according to a survey done by the philosopher David Chalmers, 11% of contemporary philosophers are non-materialist, so they represent a significant minority. But more important is his finding that there was nothing of importance the “philosophical community” at large agrees upon. So when it comes to the mind-body problem, there is no consensus about what constitutes an exception versus an ordinary claim.

The same is true of hypotheses regarding unresolved issues in quantum mechanics, particularly the so-called “measurement problem.” As I write in Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic, “In his recent book entitled Quantum, science writer Manjit Kumar cites a poll about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken among physicists at a conference in 1999. Of the ninety respondents, only four said they accepted the standard interpretation taught in every undergraduate physics course in the world, thirty favored the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ formulated by the Princeton theoretician Hugh Everett III (1930–82), while fifty replied, ‘none of the above or undecided.’ The real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty.”

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August 26th, 2014

Interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth



“Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.”—H. H. Shugart

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. ShugartThe following is an interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job:

Question: Science and religion are often seen as antagonistic and while you are not interested in “reconciling” the two, you have brought them together in Foundations of the Earth. How can science learn from the Book of Job, and religion more generally, in its approach to understanding some of the issues you consider in your book?

H. H.Shugart: Perhaps it’s best to answer from the specific case to the more general. The Whirlwind Questions in Job 38 to 41 begin with God’s challenge, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’” Many of following questions, asked by God to a man, are remarkably current—How did the cosmos form? Where did the oceans come from? What happens to the light that falls upon the Earth? What controls the boundary between ocean and land? What are the consequences of the changes we made to the land through domesticated animals (and eventually machines)? … Today, these whirlwind questions are compelled by scientific observations that we are changing our planet through our actions. It is rewarding to think that some of the questions that I see as immediately important as a scientist have such deep antiquity. They reach back two and one-half millennia to the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judea and likely even deeper in time.

Religion, particularly ethics, occupies a domain that extends from knowledge of how the planet functions to the essential human issue, “If our actions are altering Earth with potential risk to the survival of our species, how can we stop ourselves?” Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.

Q: How can a religious understanding of the “foundations of the earth,” and the environment be deepened by the scientific approach?

HHS: The Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki or “Rashi” (France 1040-1105) distinguished what a biblical text “says” from what it “means” in his Talmudic commentaries. Rashi was a remarkable scholar and his medieval biblical insights transcend history to be read, considered and studied today. His exemplary search for meaning and the consequently deeper appreciation of religious texts is central in many religious studies. I hope that Foundations of the Earth can provide a more profound appreciation of just how powerful the questions from the whirlwind really are from a scientific viewpoint. These questions are not merely clever riddles or tricky puzzles. They challenge us to appreciate Earth from multiple scales ranging from the greatness of the Oceans to the details of migrations of tiny birds. The whirlwind questions identify complete knowledge of Earth systems as the provenance of the Divine. One can pursue these questions but never completely understand them at their fullest depth. Such pursuit of always deepening questions also is the procedural manifesto of the scientific approach.

Q: How do both the “Whirlwind Speech” and recent environmental thinking move us away from seeing humans as masters of nature and more toward understanding humans as in nature?

HHS: The Whirlwind questions and recent thinking about the environment share the view that we lack and need better knowledge of the Earth and its systems. The wisdom to use this knowledge to understand our role in nature is a common thread in both.

From the environmental point-of-view, our modern stewardship of the Earth would seem a substantial disaster. Species are being lost at alarming rates. Local-scale environmental problems involving pollution, erosion and ecosystem misuse are legion. Global systems, such as the oceans and the atmosphere, due to our profligate use of the planet’s resources, are displaying measurable change with potentially dark consequences. If we are the masters who manage the Earth, we aren’t doing a bang-up job of it.

In the Whirlwind Speech, God’s questions are edgy with comments to Job of, “ … —surely you know!”; “Declare, if you know all this,”; “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, …” etc. It is pointed out that it rains in the desert were there are no people to benefit from the water. Through the text, animals laugh at people, ignore them, or conduct their lives independent of people’s actions. The Behemoth, a gigantic semiaquatic creature, is the “first of the great acts of God” and created before man. The Leviathan is a great fire-spitting sea-dragon that thoroughly intimidates humankind. In toto, the interrogation from the whirlwind substantially deflates the notion that the world was created for the mastery of humans.

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August 26th, 2014

New Book Tuesday! Vital Conversations, Women in the Mosque, and More!



Vital Conversations, Dennis RosenOur weekly list of new titles now available:

Vital Conversations: Improving Communication Between Doctors and Patients
Dennis Rosen

Women in the Mosque: A History of Legal Thought and Social Practice
Marion Holmes Katz

Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation (Now available in paper)
William Duggan

The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (Now available in paper)
Wael B. Hallaq

The Cinema of James Cameron: Bodies in Heroic Motion
James Clarke

Scenes from the Enlightenment: A Novel of Manners
Namcheon Kim

Pavane for a Dead Princess: A Novel
Min-gyu Park

Another Man’s City: A Novel
In-ho Choi

Dealing with Evils: Essays on Writing from Africa, Second, Revised and Expanded Edition
Annie Gagiano

August 25th, 2014

An Interview with B. Alan Wallace



“Buddhism … proposes experiments in consciousness through the rigorous practices of meditation that enable the first-person investigation of the mind and its role in nature to fully complement the third-person methods of modern science.”—B. Alan Wallace
B. Alan WallaceThe following is an interview with B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. Both books are now available in paperback:

Question: You write that the mind has been artificially excluded from the natural world and that you, following the radically empirical lead of William James, are seeking to return it to the world of nature, where it belongs. How did this exclusion of the mind and first-persona experience come about?

B. Alan Wallace: Since the origins of experimental psychology 135 years ago, many scientists and philosophers have sought to explain the relation between subjective experience and the correlated objective processes in the brain. This has been called the “hard problem of consciousness,” and despite all the advances made in the cognitive sciences, this issue remains a mystery. The underlying issue is the “closure principle,” which has dominated the natural sciences since the mid-19th century, and which asserts that there are no nonphysical influences in nature. This immediately implies that the mind—including our perceptions, intentions, thoughts, and emotions—must either be physical (contrary to all empirical evidence) or it must exert no consequences in human life or the universe at large, which is contrary to common sense. Many materialists argue that mental processes are identical to or are nothing more than functions of their neural correlates, while others dogmatically propose that consciousness and all kinds of subjective experiences don’t really exist at all! Although many materialistic theories of the mind-body relationship have been proposed, none of them lend themselves to scientific verification or repudiation, so they are merely hypotheses or speculations, not scientific theories. And they are certainly not scientifically established facts, despite the fact that the scientific and popular media commonly equate the mind and brain, without any compelling reasoning or empirical evidence.

Q: Does this reductionist approach to the mind and consciousness have ramifications for other branches of the natural science?

BAW: A core problem that has remained unresolved over the past 90 years is the so-called “measurement problem” in quantum mechanics, which has to do with the relationship between the weird qualities the quantum realm, in which physical entities exist only in relation to their being measured, and the world of classical physics, in which the objective world appears to exist independently of all measurements. Before a quantum measurement takes place, that which is about to be measured exists only as a probability wave function. But once the measurement occurs, the wave function appears to collapse, and a physical system exists in a definite state. But what constitutes a “measurement”? Does this require a conscious observer, or can it take place objectively? In short, the problem remains unsolved, and there is little evidence that any real progress is being made.

While many scientists and philosophers regard these two problems as being unrelated, in my last three academic books I argue that they are profoundly related and that a solution for one implies a solution for the other. I have addressed these entangled problems in Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity, and Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice. In these works I have argued that the root of both problems lies in a dogmatic allegiance to the metaphysical beliefs of mechanistic materialism, rooted in the antiquated physics of the 19th century, and in the failure on the part of the scientific community to devise and implement sophisticated methods for observing and exploring the mind and multiple dimensions of consciousness from a first-person perspective.

Q: How might Buddhist theories and methods of first-person, contemplative inquiry shed light on these unresolved problems?

BAW: The weakness of modern science in these two regards is a strength of the Buddhist tradition of philosophical and contemplative inquiry, and in each of the above three works, I explore the potential interface between scientific and contemplative methods of research into the nature and role of consciousness in the universe. A solution to the hard problem of consciousness and the measurement problem of quantum mechanics may be drawn from the revolutionary theory of quantum cosmology, especially as proposed by the eminent theoretical physicist John A. Wheeler. Rather than viewing quantum systems as being isolated from the world of classical physics, Wheeler views the entire cosmos as a quantum system in his theory of quantum cosmology. Semantic information—that is information that has meaningful content—rather than space-time and mass-energy is considered to be fundamental to the universe, hence his motto “its from bits.” If one follows the logic of this hypothesis, it immediately follows that meaningful information is impossible without a conscious subject for whom this information means something and without a “something” that is the referent of the information. So the three—the information, the one who is informed, and that about which one is informed—must be mutually interdependent.

This is a theme that lies at the core of the Middle Way, or Madhyamaka view, of Buddhism. The existence of an objective physical world, independent of measurement, is in principle unknowable, just as is the existence of a subjective, nonphysical mind, independent of a known object. Both subject and object are “empty” of any inherent existence of their own, as all phenomena arise as dependently related events. Both the quantum cosmology of modern physics and the Middle Way view of Buddhism imply the central role of “observer-participancy” in the universe, in which consciousness is every bit as fundamental as space-time and mass-energy.

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August 25th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job



Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

“In this engaging and illuminating primer on environmental science, world ecosystems scholar Shugart… demonstrates that science knows a lot about the questions God asked Job, questions pertaining to the birth of the universe, the taming of wild beasts, the course of the stars and heavenly bodies… and more.” — Library Journal

This week our featured book is Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job, by H. H. Shugart

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 29 at 1:00 pm.

H. H. Shugart, W. W. Corcoran Chair in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, calls attention to the rich resonance between the Earth’s natural history and the workings of religious feeling, the wisdom of biblical scripture, and the arguments of Bible ethicists. Shugart offers a universal framework for recognizing and confronting the global challenges humans now face: the relationship between human technology and large-scale environmental degradation, the effect of invasive species on the integrity of ecosystems, the role of humans in generating wide biotic extinctions, and the future of our oceans and tides.

Read the introduction to Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job:

August 22nd, 2014

Stiglitz and Greenwald’s Introduction to Creating a Learning Society



The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“The fact that markets on their own are not efficient when innovation is endogenous raised the question which is at the heart of our lecture and the book to which it gave rise: What should be the role of policy in promoting economic efficiency?” — Joseph E. Stiglitz and Bruce C. Greenwald

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today is the final day of the book giveaway, and we are featuring the introduction to Stiglitz and Greenwald’s Creating a Learning Society!

August 21st, 2014

Arrow and the Impossibility Theorem, by Amartya Sen



The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“The informational foundation of modern social choice theory relates to the basic democratic conviction that social judgments and public decisions must depend, in some transparent way, on individual preferences, broadly understood.” – Amartya Sen

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are focusing on The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, and in this post we are offering Amartya Sen’s essay from that book: “Arrow and the Impossibility Theorem.”

August 21st, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Value of Publishing Translation



John O'Brien, Dalkey Archive Press

“Both surprised and pleased with the willingness of other countries to help finance such publications, it wasn’t until much later I began to wonder why they did this–why was being published in English so important?” — John O’Brien

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s Thursday Fiction Corner post, we are happy to present a short essay written by John O’Brien, the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press, on his history of publishing works in translation and on the cultural value that he believes such works provide. The essay originally appeared in The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation, a collection of essays on translation published by the National Endowment for the Arts.

August 21st, 2014

The Origins of the Impossibility Theorem, by Kenneth J. Arrow



The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“I was concerned with the fact that firms in the modern world typically had many owners (shareholders). If one ignored the time dimension, this posed no problem; each owner was interested in maximizing profits, and therefore they would all make the same choice. In the more general temporal situation, each owner would want to maximize expected profits. But the owners might easily hold different expectations. Therefore, they would not agree what investment policy would be optimal.” – Kenneth J. Arrow

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are proud to present an article written by Kenneth J. Arrow and included in Sen and Maskin’s The Arrow Impossibility Theorem in which Arrow looks back on the steps by which he came to prove his impossibility theorem for social choices.

August 20th, 2014

Kenneth J. Arrow comments on José Scheinkman’s Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles



The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“I think José correctly emphasizes that a belief system and a rational information system are not the same, even apart from the logical difficulties I have raised…. Individuals can of course err in self-assessment, but this result does not come from random error.” – Kenneth J. Arrow

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are focusing on Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles in particular. In this post, we’ll take a look at Kenneth J. Arrow’s Commentary on Scheinkman’s arguments.

August 20th, 2014

Joseph Stiglitz introduces José A. Scheinkman’s Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles



The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“Much of the research of the past forty years has focused on assessing market behavior in the presence of rational expectations, where individuals use all available information to make inferences about the future, and in which all individuals share the same beliefs. And much of the literature has focused on situations where, even though there may not be a complete set of markets, there are not constraints, such as on short sales. In practice, of course, individuals do differ in their beliefs.” – Joseph Stiglitz

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are focusing on Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles in particular. In this post, we are happy to present Joseph E. Stiglitz’s introduction to José Scheinkman’s book.

August 19th, 2014

Joseph Stiglitz discusses the creation of The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series



The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“When we initiated the series, we had hoped that it would open up a lively discussion about a variety of areas within economics, political science, and philosophy. The Committee of Global Thought spans multiple disciplines, and Arrow is one of the few scholars of recent decades whose work has cut across fields, having profound implications on each.” — Joseph E. Stiglitz

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are posting an excerpt from Joseph Stiglitz’s preface to Creating a Learning Society, in which he discusses the impact of Kenneth Arrow’s work, and the Committee of Global Thought at Columbia University’s decision to discuss Arrow’s work in the yearly Arrow Lectures.

August 19th, 2014

New Book Tuesday: Flying Dinosaurs, The Kojiki, Race Unmasked, and More New Books!



Flying Dinosaurs, by John PickrellOur weekly list of new books now available:

Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds
John Pickrell

The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters
Ō no Yasumaro

Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century
Michael Yudell. Foreword by J. Craig Venter

The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism
Paul Copp

Child Welfare for the Twenty-first Century: A Handbook of Practices, Policies, and Programs, Second Edition
Gerald P. Mallon and Peg McCartt Hess

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August 18th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Three titles from The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series



The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

This week we are featuring The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz. Kenneth J. Arrow’s work has shaped the course of economics for the past sixty years so deeply that, in a sense, every modern economist is his student. His ideas, style of research, and breadth of vision have been a model for generations of the boldest, most creative, and most innovative economists. His work has yielded such seminal theorems as general equilibrium, social choice. and endogenous growth, proving that simple ideas have profound effects. The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series highlights economists, from Nobel laureates to groundbreaking younger scholars, whose work builds on Arrow’s scholarship as well as his innovative spirit. The books in the series are an expansion of the lectures that are held in Arrow’s honor at Columbia University.

To celebrate this exciting new series, we are offering FREE copies of the first three Arrow Lecture Series titles: Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the books and their authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, July 18th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

August 15th, 2014

Chris Andrews Gives 7 Reasons Why Roberto Bolaño Became So Popular in the U.S.



Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn the following excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews explores how and why Roberto Bolaño’s became so popular in the United States:

The reception of Roberto Bolaño’s work in English began in an unre­markable way. When Christopher Maclehose, publisher at the Harvill Press in England, bought UK rights for Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) in 2001, Bolaño was already a well-established author in the Spanish-speaking world. In 1998 his first long novel, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), had won the Premio Herralde de Novela and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. The second of these prizes, in particular, is a mark of consecration in the Hispanic literary field, and it had been won, before Bolaño, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Javier Marías. By the end of 2001, La literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas) and Estrella distante (Distant Star) had appeared in German and Italian, and the French translator Robert Amutio, who had been trying to interest a pub­lisher in Bolaño’s work since 1996, had finally succeeded: Christian Bourgois had bought the rights to the two books already out in Italy and Germany.

By Night in Chile (2003) was positively reviewed and sold modestly (775 copies in the first 12 months). Distant Star (2004) was also well received by critics, but sold more slowly still. So far, this story conforms to a familiar pattern: an author recognized as important in his or her source culture is translated into English and published by a small press after having been translated into several other languages. Often the story stops here. Since substantial sales are not accompanying critical success, the publisher under­standably decides to cut her losses and take risks on more promising new names as yet untainted by failure in the marketplace.

This, however, is not what happened in the case of Bolaño. The Harvill Press bought UK rights for a third book, a selection of stories from Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas, for which Bolaño chose the title Last Evenings on Earth shortly before his death in July 2003. Across the Atlantic, Barbara Epler at New Directions, who had acquired and published the translations of By Night in Chile and Distant Star with a prompt enthusiasm, negotiated with Harvill-Secker (the Harvill Press having been taken over by Random House and merged with the Secker and Warburg list in 2005) to bring out the book of stories in the United States before it appeared in the UK. It was published in May 2006. By this stage a certain excitement had begun to develop around Bolaño’s work in North America. Susan Sontag had provided an endorse­ment for By Night in Chile. Francine Prose read the story “Gómez Palacio” in The New Yorker and discovered in it, as she wrote in the The New York Times, “something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.” Bolaño’s reception was already beginning to break with the sadly familiar pattern.

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August 15th, 2014

University Press Roundup: Ferguson, Unshark Week, Fighting Inequality and More!



Welcome to our weekly roundup of the best articles from the blogs of academic publishers! As always, if you particularly enjoy something or think that we missed an important post, please let us know in the comments.

We Americans, or at least this American, tend not to think of Canada as a bellicose nation but as the University of Toronto Press Publishing Blog points out, the Canadian Army did join forces with the rest of the British Empire during World War I.

The decline of the Protestant establishment in Philadelphia is discussed on North Philly Notes (Temple University Press) in their interview with Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment.

David Grusky takes a closer look at the inequality research machine on the Stanford University Press blog.

Sure, shark week gets all the attention but there is also unshark week. Never heard of it? Well, head over to the Princeton University Press blog and let Steve and Tony Palumbi, authors of The Extreme Life of the Sea explain.

In her essay “Externalizing Internal Explosions” on the University of Pennsylvania Press blog, Cathy Lisa Schneider, author of Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York, examines recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

What are the role of families in fighting poverty? In this excellent video, Clare Huntington, author of Failure to Flourish published by Oxford University Press, discusses the importance of investing in families as a strategy for fighting poverty.

Colum Kenny explains how he came to write An Irish-American Odyssey: The Remarkable Rise of the O’Shaughnessy Brothers, just published by the University of Missouri Press.

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August 14th, 2014

Chris Andrews, Translator, Critic, and Fan of Roberto Bolaño



“It has been a privilege to be involved, as a translator, in the process by which Bolaño’s fiction travelled from Blanes in Catalonia to Hyderabad and the western suburbs of Sydney, to name just two places where I know it has been read with a passion.”—Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn addition to being the author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews is also the translator of several of Bolaño’s novels. His roles as translator, scholar, and critic give him a distinct understanding of Bolaño’s novels.

Andrews was recently asked by Publishers Weekly to discuss a book by Bolaño that has perhaps not received as much attention as it deserves, and he selected Distant Star, a novel he translated and was published in English by New Directions in 2004. The following is an excerpt from his essay:

Bolaño knew, at least from 1993, when he was diagnosed with a progressive autoimmune disease of the liver, that his chances of a long life were slim. I like to think that in 1995, as he wrote Distant Star, he also knew that he was finding his way into an enormous and singular territory, and that, as a writer, he would not have to start over. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, under the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and a lesser-known Argentine, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, he had described imaginary works in a work of fiction. In Distant Star, he took another step, which would prove to be decisive, bringing three more processes into play: expanding what he had already written, allowing his characters to return, and exploiting their tendency to overinterpret their surroundings.

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August 14th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: A. G. Porta, Roberto Bolaño’s Writing Partner



“Whereas the Porta-Bolaño world is one of violence and sweaty-balled erudition, entering The No World Concerto is like entering an M. C. Escher lithograph.”—Darren Koolman

The No World Concerto, A. G. PortaSince our featured this book is Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews, we thought we would take a closer look at the work of one of his early collaborators and life-long friend, the Spanish novelist A. G. Porta, author of The No World Concerto.

Bolaño and Porta co-wrote Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce (Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic), which was published in Spanish in 1984. It was the first published book for both authors.

In an article about Bolaño in Public Books, David Kurnick writes that the book:

Announces the birth of some of Bolaño’s durable obsessions, most notably his vision of the physical and moral proximity of artistic practice and state terror. [The novel is a] noir account of an unlikely crime spree undertaken by a Joyce-obsessed Spanish writer and his South American girlfriend over a long Barcelona summer….

In his introduction to the 2006 reissue, Porta quotes a 1981 letter from Bolaño proposing to “do with Joyce (or with J. J.’s Ulysses) what Joyce had done with Homer and the Odyssey. Of course there’s a big difference! But the result could be really interesting, a kind of Pollock drip-painting, the translation of Joycean symbols and obsessions into a short, violent, rapid novel.” In the event, the novel does not demand a refresher course in Irish modernism: allusions to Joyce abound, but they take a backseat to the action (the duo likes to cite Ulysses’s opening lines at the start of each stick-up).

A. G. Porta has also written several novels on his though as of yet, the only one translated into English has been The No World Concerto (for more on the book read Eric Lundgren’s excellent review in The Quarterly Conversation).

In describing the book Darren Koolman, one of the novel’s translators, writes:

The No World Concerto features some of the characters from [Porta's] previous three novels. But, besides retaining the same beguilingly simple prose style and metatextual construction, it is markedly more ambi­tious than any of his previous works. Ostensibly the story of an old screenwriter’s struggle to finish his script, and his relation­ship with a former student—a female piano prodigy referred to only as “the girl”—who is similarly struggling to write her own novel, it is a bewildering superposition of tales within tales that often blend seamlessly into one another…. As with his first novel, the book is haunted by the ghost of Joyce, and again like that novel, there is the folie à deux relationship of two ambitious characters intent on escaping their situation. But whereas the Porta-Bolaño world is one of violence and sweaty-balled erudition, entering the No World is like entering an M. C. Escher lithograph.

Below is an excerpt from the novel that includes a translator’s preface by Darren Koolman.

August 13th, 2014

Bolaño, Epiphanies and Imminence — A Post by Chris Andrews



Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsThe following post is by Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. You can also read our interview with Chris Andrews about the book:

At the end of “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories” (in Between Parentheses), Bolaño writes: “read Chekhov and Raymond Carver. One of the two of them is the best short-story writer this century has produced.” Chekhov died in 1904, so either Carver wins by elimination, or Bolaño is suggesting that with just a toe in the century Chekhov beats all his epigones. In any case, the coupling is significant, for both Carver and Chekhov wrote epiphanic short stories. Describing the cards taped to the wall beside his desk in “On Writing,” Carver says: “I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.”

In Bolaño’s work there are moments when everything becomes clear to a character … or seems to be on the point of becoming clear. Sometimes the character has what the German critic Gunther Leypoldt, discussing Carver, calls an “arrested epiphany”: one that fails to deliver any definite content. This is what happens in “Gómez Palacio” when the director of the local arts council takes the narrator to her special place, which turns out to be a truck parking area in the desert, from which they can see the headlights of cars on a distant stretch of road. The narrator is initially skeptical, and with good reason: his host seems to be slightly crazy and has a taste for practical jokes. But then something happens:

I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road — a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground — but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

Up to the explanation (“that must have been produced …”), the lyricism of this long sentence suggests something marvelous, and although the green light seems to breathe only for a fraction of a second, the aura created by the descriptive language does not vanish so quickly, partly because the explanation is conjectural, and partly because the final equation relativizes the importance of the physical facts: if dreams are miracles, why not hallucinations and illusions too? And yet this portent leads nowhere, and the narrator interrupts the lyric flight: “Then the director started the car, turned it around and droved back to the motel.”

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August 13th, 2014

Making Sense of Afghanistan’s Electoral Crisis — A Post by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson



“While Kerry again has brokered a deal between feuding candidates, there is no reason to believe that this deal will ultimately hold and it is the candidates who will ultimately determine whether there is a peaceful transition of power or not.”—Noah Coburn and Anna Larson on the recent elections in Afghanistan

Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan, Noah Coburn and Anna LarsonThe following post is by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson, coauthors of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape:

Following the last minute intervention of John Kerry, the elections in Afghanistan to replace Hamid Karzai as president, have entered a chaotic period of counting, re-counting and accusations of fraud and corruption. How do we make sense of the power plays that are going on on both sides? Often forgotten in the mainstream press, these elections are actually the fifth in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001, and turning to look back at some of the lessons from these elections can help us think about the current process. We’ve spent much of the past six years tracking candidates, officials and voters in Afghanistan and our book, Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape, provides some important lessons.

First, elections are shaped by the cultures and history that they are held in. Too often local forms of democracy are ignored and we recount the long history of democratization (and sometimes de-democratization) that Afghanistan has experienced since its first elections in the 1950s. Clearly there is no evidence to suggest that elections or democracy are somehow incompatible with Afghan culture. Despite this, a group of former commanders and the political elite, have manipulated elections over the past decade to consolidate their own power. This has created more skepticism about elections on the part of many Afghan voters. The high turnout in the 2014 elections suggests that most Afghans want to see a new direction in the government away from some of the nepotism of the Karzai regime. However, the current wheeling and dealing between Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai, and Kerry points to the fact that it is the political elite alone that control the resources in the country and this vote is unlikely to change that.

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