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Archive for the 'Featured Book' Category

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

An Overview of the Inaugural Russian Library Titles

Between Dog and Wolf

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on our exciting new Russian Library series. In this post, series editor Christine Dunbar introduces the first three titles in the series.

An Overview of the Inaugural Russian Library Titles
By Christine Dunbar

One of the defining features of the Russian Library is its generic diversity. This is particularly significant for an Anglophone audience, because we tend to think of the Russian literary tradition as one that derives its greatness from novels, primarily the 19th century masterpieces of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Others think first of Chekhov’s fin-de-siècle plays, which have become part of the Western canon in large part because of their connection to Stanislavsky and eventually to method acting. Russians, and for that matter, scholars of Russian, are more likely to consider poetry the best and most powerful iteration of Russian letters.

The first three books in the Russian Library will publish in December, and while the three have much in common—linguistic virtuosity being the most obvious example—they amply demonstrate the profusion of genres that make up Russian literature. Before going any farther, let me digress momentarily to admit that I am and will be referring to genre in a fairly unsophisticated manner. I believe that it is generally more productive to think of a work as exhibiting certain generic characteristics, rather than belonging to a genre. However, obeying the generic conventions of the blog post, I’m not going to get too hung up on it here.

Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) was a supporter of the 1917 revolution, and in both his best-known novel The Foundation Pit and the plays in the Russian Library volume Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays one can see his sympathy for the dream of communism, even as he absolutely eviscerates the policies and realities of the contemporary Soviet Union. Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays contains two plays written in the early 1930s as direct reactions to the travails of collectivization and the resulting famine. (Estimates vary, but most place the death toll of the famine at between 5.5 and 8 million.) (more…)

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

When the Incident Occurred

The Lost Garden

“When the incident occurred, Zhu Yinghong was startled out of a deep sleep by a commotion somewhere in the house. The moment she opened her eyes she had a feeling that neither of her parents was in bed. As usual, she reached out to touch the thin blanket covering the plank bed, and felt nothing but a cold chill. Years later, she would piece together what little she remembered of that night with what she’d heard here and there, and concluded that it had happened sometime in April or May.” — Li Ang

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: The Lost Garden: A Novel, translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt. We are happy to present the video of a recent panel on The Lost Garden, featuring Li Ang herself, along with her translators and Columbia University Press Director and editor Jennifer Crewe, followed by an excerpt from the second chapter of Part 1 of the novel.

Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

When the Incident Occurred

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

The Disappearance of M

Slow Boat to China and Other Stories

“When I (uh, it’s not me) . . . when he discussed that essay, he had an uncanny feeling that he had written it himself, while at the same time it was obviously mocking his writing. How could there be another author like this, who was able to penetrate into his thoughts and preemptively write his future, thereby forcibly removing him from this position of the ‘author’?” — Ng Kim Chew

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas. “The Disappearance of M,” excerpted below, is the first story in the collection:

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Problem with History

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

“Think of official history as a book. A book comes into view; it seems to suggest that it has no blank spaces, no margins. But it does, it contains blank spaces. In those spaces I cram my own notes, copious notes that are not yet articulated thoughts, and in the end weave a new book solely from the notes in the margins.” — Hideo Furukawa

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka.

Hideo Furukawa is in New York this week with Monkey Business for the PEN World Voices Festival (along with other fantastic writers, editors, and translators), and will be participating in a number of events: April 27 (Wed.), New York University, 6:30pm; April 28 (Thur.), Kinokuniya Bookstore, 6pm; April 29 (Fri.), BookCourt, 7pm; and April 30 (Sat.), Asia Society, 2pm (Ticket purchase required)! And now, on to the post:

Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, the town of Fukushima, Japan, was struck by a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. Over 20,000 people died.

The reconstruction has been swift. ‘The incident is about to be forgotten, or they pretend nothing has happened,’ Japanese writer Hideo Furukawa said about his hometown. For Furukawa, careful examination is the only route to healing. One must investigate one’s nation and its past and present. His new book, Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima, is a mix of fiction, history, and memoir, as one can see in this short excerpt.

The Problem with History
Hideo Furukawa

Our history, the history of the Japanese, is nothing more than a history of killing people.

I am not sure of the best way to phrase things, given that rather inflammatory start. I will explain things as simply as I can. We live within the echoes of the Warring States period. For example, bushō, the term for military leaders, circulates as a commodity in contemporary society, and, thus, it continues to echo in everyday Japan. By the “Warring States period” I include the Azuchi Momoyama period right up to the beginning of the Edo period (1573–1603). I am not sure if the Azuchi Momoyama period is still taught as a single historical period in schools (elementary, middle, and up through high school). But I am quite sure that everyone learns that there was a period when Oda Nobunaga and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi ruled supreme. For example, we consume these two men as commodities all the time. When I say we “consume” them as commodities, I mean how we see them as “heroic” and think of them positively. Why would that be? (more…)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Complexity and Individuality of Contemporary Chinese Experiences and Perspectives

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, translated by Julia Lovell, and newly released in paperback. We are happy to present part of an interview with Julia Lovell from the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as the short story “The Apprentice,” excerpted in full from the book:

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha. (more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Weekly Feature and Book Giveaway: World Literature Week

World Literature Week

This week, in conjunction with the PEN World Voices Festival, we will be highlighting our wide range of books of and about world literature here on the Columbia University Press blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Here’s a quick summary of books we’ll have posts for this week (we’ll add the posts, as well, as they arrive!):

Monday

  • An interview with M. A. Orthofer, highlighting his thorough and fascinating new guide to contemporary fiction around the world, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction
  • Tuesday

  • An interview with translator Julia Lovell and “The Apprentice,” an excerpted short story from The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, a collection of short stories about everyday life in China in the late 1980s by Zhu Wen (following up his previous collection, I Love Dollars)
  • An excerpt on writing a book composed from notes in the margins of history, from Hideo Furukawa’s novel/history/memoir of the 3/11 disaster at Fukushima, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka. Hideo Furukawa will be in New York for the PEN World Voices festival! For more details, click here.
  • Wednesday

  • “The Disappearance of M,” the first story in Ng Kim Chew’s collection of short fiction, Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas
  • Watch novelist Li Ang discuss The Lost Garden, her eloquent and beautiful exploration of contemporary Taiwan, with translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt, and Columbia University Press Director Jennifer Crewe, and then read “When the Incident Occurred,” an excerpt from Part 1
  • Thursday

  • A quick critical look at the dominance of English and its effect on world literature from Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, by Rebecca L. Walkowitz, and The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Editor Christine Dunbar introduces our new Russian Library series, with a particular focus on its first three books: Between Dog and Wolf, by Sasha Sokolov, translated by Alexander Boguslawski; Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen; and Strolls with Pushkin, by Andrei Sinyavsky, translated by Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski
  • Friday

  • Poetry from Chinese University Press’s series of International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong anthologies, particularly the most recent installment, Poetry and Conflict, Edited by Bei Dao, Shelby K. Y. Chan, Gilbert C. F. Fong, Lucas Klein, Christopher Mattison, and Chris Song
  • Hong Kong University Press’s extensive collection of drama from Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gao Xingjian, including, among others, The Other Shore, Snow in August, and, most recently, City of the Dead and Ballade Nocturne
  • Book Giveaway

    We are also offering a FREE selection of titles discussed in the feature: The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, by M. A. Orthofer; Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, by Hideo Furukawa; The Lost Garden, by Li Ang; and The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen. 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, April 29th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

    Thursday, April 7th, 2016

    Lessons from Google and Columbia’s CMO Academy

    The Digital Transformation Playbook

    “As the media available to customers proliferates, effective targeting is absolutely critical. Your message matters; but increasingly, who you reach is the difference between success and failure. In the digital era, targeting is fundamentally different than the traditional world of media buying. Marketers must shift from the old thinking of audiences (based on demographic fictions, e.g. ‘fashion-savvy, 25-40 year old, urban mothers’) towards addressing specific customers based on their actual behaviors.” — David L. Rogers

    This week, our featured book is The Digital Transformation Playbook: Rethink Your Business for the Digital Age, by David L. Rogers. In today’s post, crossposted from David Rogers’s blog, Rogers details seven important lessons learned from Google/Columbia Business School’s recent “CMO Academy.”

    Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

    Lessons from Google and Columbia’s CMO Academy
    David L. Rogers

    What are the challenges that today’s Chief Marketing Officers face as they manage a changing role and rising expectations in a world shaped by digital technologies? I got to discuss this question with a hundred CMOs of North American companies recently, while teaching a joint Google/Columbia Business School program, our first-ever “CMO Academy.” The invited executives from the US, Canada, and Mexico represented a diverse range of industries from fashion to financial services, and hospitality to healthcare.

    Below are seven lessons that emerged through two days of case studies, interactive presentations, and hands-on problem solving with this group. (more…)

    Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

    Build Platforms, Not Just Products

    The Digital Transformation Playbook

    “Airbnb is an example of a platform—a class of businesses that are rethinking which competitive assets need to be owned by a firm (e.g., rental properties and trained service staff) and which can be managed through new kinds of external relationships. These platform businesses are part of a broad transformation of the domain of competition and the relationships between firms.” — David L. Rogers

    This week, our featured book is The Digital Transformation Playbook: Rethink Your Business for the Digital Age, by David L. Rogers. In today’s post, excerpted from the third chapter of The Digital Transformation Playbook, Rogers delves into the story of Airbnb to provide an introduction to the rise of “platform businesses” in the digital age.

    Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

    Build Platforms, Not Just Products
    David L. Rogers

    In 2007, two recent graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, were struggling to pay the rent on their apartment in San Francisco. When they heard that the city’s hotels were fully booked during an upcoming design conference, they had an entrepreneurial idea: Why not rent out a bit of their space? They bought three airbeds (inflatable mattresses), put up a website, and, within six days, found three guest lodgers. Each one paid $80 a night. “As we were waving these people goodbye, Joe and I looked at each other and thought, there’s got to be a bigger idea here,” Chesky said. By the following year, they had teamed up with another friend, computer science graduate Nathan Blecharczyk, and started a business that they later named Airbnb.

    By 2015, Airbnb had served 25 million travelers, providing them with lodging in over 190 countries around the world. But it doesn’t look like a typical global corporation in the business of providing lodging and hospitality. Instead of building hotels and hiring employees to serve customers, the three founders built a platform that brings together two distinct types of people: hosts with homes to rent (whether a spare room or their whole home while they are away) and travelers who are looking for someplace to stay. The company has minimal assets. In fact, it doesn’t own a single rental property. Yet it can offer travelers their choice of more than 1 million listings, ranging from a sofa or tiny guest room up to an actual castle (more than 600 are available to rent). The company takes a cut of the rental fee on each transaction. (more…)

    Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

    The Five Domains of Digital Transformation

    The Digital Transformation Playbook

    “[D]igital technologies are redefining many of the underlying principles of strategy and changing the rules by which companies must operate in order to succeed. Many old constraints have been lifted, and new possibilities are now available. Companies that were established before the Internet need to realize that many of their fundamental assumptions must now be updated.” — David L. Rogers

    This week, our featured book is The Digital Transformation Playbook: Rethink Your Business for the Digital Age, by David L. Rogers. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the first chapter, “The Five Domains of Digital Transformation,” in which Rogers introduces the five key domains of strategy that digital forces are reshaping.

    Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

    Monday, April 4th, 2016

    Book Giveaway! The Digital Transformation Playbook, by David L. Rogers

    The Digital Transformation Playbook

    “In this indispensable (and highly readable) guide, Rogers shares what we can learn from today’s greatest digital innovators. Packed with illuminating case studies and practical tools, The Digital Transformation Playbook maps out clear strategies for thriving in the digital age. Don’t start a business without it.” — Neil Blumenthal, cofounder and co-CEO, Warby Parker

    This week, our featured book is The Digital Transformation Playbook: Rethink Your Business for the Digital Age, by David L. Rogers. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

    We are also offering a FREE copy of The Digital Transformation Playbook. 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, April 8th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

    Thursday, March 24th, 2016

    A Sort of Dessert

    Eat This Book

    “Some ethical vegetarians (not all and perhaps not the majority) can certainly be considered religious fundamentalists who attach the greatest importance to their convictions and believe that they must spread their gospel throughout the world.” — Dominique Lestel

    This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. For today’s post, we have excerpted Lestel’s afterword: “A Sort of Dessert.”

    Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Eat This Book!

    Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

    The Vegetarian’s Unacceptable Arrogance

    The following is an excerpt from Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto by Dominique Lestel and translated by Gary Steiner.

    The Vegetarian’s Unacceptable Arrogance

    Generally speaking, the vegetarian, like the humanist, adopts an attitude of unacceptable arrogance when she makes a moral judgment about how life ought to be and how other beings ought to behave, for in doing so she places herself above other beings

    This vegetarian is an omnivorous animal who considers the dietary regimen of her species to be immoral. Such a “demonization” of the natural is not without precedent. We have seen movements campaign against sexuality (even though it is a normal form of behavior) and in favor of the subservience of women to men (even though, from a biopsychological point of view, women are perfectly autonomous and stand in need of no symbiosis with a human being). One may think that it is preferable not to eat meat, and that is perfectly acceptable; but it is only with difficulty that one can turn this position into a major ethical choice. The regime of meat eating is part of what it means to be human today, whether one likes it or not: we have an enzyme for digesting elastin, a fiber of animal origin, and we need vitamin B, a molecule produced exclusively by animals.

    Donna Haraway makes the same point when she notes that in denying a specific feature of the living the vegetarian’s position is fundamentally a fatal ideology. As she argues, there is not nor has there ever been a living being that lives without exploiting at least one other living being. In this respect, the vegetarian purports to want to protect living beings at all costs but is in fact opposed to them.

    As the American poet Gary Snyder says facetiously, “Everything that breathes is hungry”! Eating—that is, eating other living beings—is part of animal life, and the desire to change life reflects unacceptable vanity. Buddhism, whose adherents include Gary Snyder, is aware of the impossibility of eradicating all suffering, and it has never issued the demand that suffering be eliminated; it satisfies itself with the endeavor to reduce suffering within the limits of what is possible and reasonable for us to do, and it is especially concerned with eliminating needless suffering.

    For the feminist Sharon Welch, we are not capable of changing in a unilateral way. The ethics of control, which seeks to reach its objective without taking others into account, needs to be replaced by an ethic of risk, which accepts the fact that our ability to change ourselves and the world is limited but also requires us to take full responsibility for our actions.

    Vegetarians systematically overlook the fact that eating meat has a fundamental significance and that it teaches us a lesson about humility in that it reminds us of the interdependence of all living beings.

    Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

    A Sort of Apéritif

    Eat This Book

    “The ethical vegetarian’s position is tenable only if it is radical, but its very radicality is completely unacceptable for the majority of vegetarians. For this position is antianimal. Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it revives the great frontier traced between human and animal by putting it into up-to-date terms, even though everything today shows any such frontier to be insubstantial. Nonetheless, the majority of vegetarians I know sincerely love animals. Such a contradiction poses a problem.” — Dominique Lestel

    This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. To start the feature, we are happy to present Lestel’s introduction, “A Sort of Apéritif,” in which he lays out his project and situates it in the appropriate intellectual space.

    Monday, March 21st, 2016

    Book Giveaway! Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto

    Why America Misunderstands the World

    “Witty and comical yet always serious in its defense of meat eating, Eat This Book is a pure joy to read.” — Brett Buchanan, Laurentian University

    This week, our featured book is Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto, by Dominique Lestel, translated by Gary Steiner. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

    We are also offering a FREE copy of Eat This Book. 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, March 11th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

    Thursday, March 17th, 2016

    We Are All Cannibals — Claude Levi-Strauss

    We Are All Cannibals, Claude Levi-Strauss

    “So varied are the modalities of cannibalism, so diverse its real or supposed functions, that we may come to doubt whether the notion of cannibalism as it is currently employed can be defined in a relatively precise manner. It dissolves or dissipates as soon as one attempts to grasp it. Cannibalism in itself has no objective reality. It is an ethno­centric category: it exists only in the eyes of the societies that pro­scribe it.”—Claude Lévi-Strauss

    The following is the title essay from We Are All Cannibals: And Other Essays, by Claude Levi-Strauss. The essay was first published as “Siamo tutti cannibali,” in La Repubblica.

    Until 1932 the mountains in the interior of New Guinea remained the last totally unknown region on the planet. Formidable natural defenses prevented access to them. Gold prospectors, followed shortly thereafter by missionaries, penetrated them first, but World War II interrupted these attempts. It was only in 1950 that we began to realize that this vast territory held almost a million people, speaking different languages that all belonged to the same family. These peoples were unaware of the existence of whites, whom they mistook for dei­ties or ghosts. Their customs, their beliefs, and their social organiza­tion would open up an unimagined field of study to ethnologists.

    And not only to ethnologists. In 1956 an American biologist, Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, discovered an unknown disease in the region. In small populations distributed among some 160 villages over a territory of about 250 square miles, about thirty-five thousand individuals in all, one person in a hundred died every year of a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. It manifested itself as uncontrollable shaking (hence its name, “kuru,” which means “tremble” or “shiver” in the language of the principal group concerned) and a gradual loss of coordination of voluntary movements, followed by multiple infec­tions. Gajdusek, having at first believed that the malady was genetic in origin, demonstrated that it was caused by a slow-acting, particularly resistant virus, which no one was ever able to isolate.

    This was the first time that a degenerative disease caused by a slow-acting virus had been identified in humans, but animal diseases such as scrapie in sheep and mad cow disease, which recently ravaged Great Britain, are very similar. And in human beings, another degen­erative ailment of the nervous system, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has appeared sporadically throughout the world. In showing that, as with kuru, apes could be infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Gajdusek dem­onstrated that kuru was identical to that disease (a genetic predisposi­tion is not ruled out). For that discovery, he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 1976.

    In the case of kuru, the genetic hypothesis was not a good match for the statistics. The disease struck women and young children much more often than adult men, so much so that in the villages most affected, there was only one woman for two or three, or sometimes even four, men. Kuru, which seems to have appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, therefore also had sociological consequences: a reduction in the rate of polygamy, a larger proportion of single men and widowers caring for families, greater freedom for women in the choice of a husband.

    But if kuru was infectious in origin, the carrier(s) of the virus and the reason for its uneven distribution between the sexes and among different age groups still had to be found. Nothing turned up as a result of inquiries into diet and the unhealthy living conditions of the huts where the women and children resided (their husbands and fathers lived apart from them in a collective house; sexual relations took place in the forest or in gardens).

    When ethnologists entered the region in turn, they advanced a dif­ferent hypothesis. Before the groups that had fallen victim to kuru had come under the control of the Australian administration, they had indulged in cannibalism. The act of eating the corpse of certain close relatives was a means of demonstrating affection and respect for them. The flesh, viscera, and brains were cooked; the bones were ground up and served with vegetables. The women were in charge of cutting up the corpses and of the other culinary operations, and they were par­ticularly fond of these macabre meals. It may be supposed that they became infected while handling contaminated brains and that they infected their young children through bodily contact.

    It seems that these cannibalistic practices began in the region around the same time that kuru made its appearance. Furthermore, ever since the presence of whites put an end to cannibalism, the inci­dence of kuru has steadily declined, and the disease has now almost vanished. A causal link may therefore exist. Caution is required, how­ever, since the cannibalistic practices, described by indigenous infor­mants with a remarkable wealth of details, had already disappeared when the investigations began. No direct observation or experience in the field allows us to say that the problem is definitively solved.

    (more…)

    Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

    Book Giveaway! Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “We Are All Cannibals”

    This week we are featuring We Are All Cannibals: And Other Essays, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, translated by Jane Marie Todd, with a foreword by Maurice Olender.

    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 We Are All Cannibals to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 18th at 1:00 pm.

    For more on the book, here is the chapter “Santa Claus Burned as a Heretic”:

    Thursday, March 10th, 2016

    The American Prism

    Why America Misunderstands the World

    “A nation’s culture—which itself has been shaped by all of the physical, political, and historical circumstances that have made that nation what it is—powerfully influences its citizens’ perceptions. A culture determines much of what the people who are part of that culture take to be factual knowledge. American culture and everything that has gone into it constitute a prism that slants, distorts, and colors how Americans see what is around them. Sometimes the distortion is so great that they fail to see some things at all.” — Paul Pillar

    This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the first chapter, “The American Prism,” in which Pillar discusses how “the distorting and coloring prismatic effects of being an American … extend to how [Americans] perceive the world outside their national borders.”

    Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

    The American View of War

    Why America Misunderstands the World

    Why America Misunderstands the World examines how this process applies to the United States—the sole superpower, with a history and circumstances especially unusual among nations—and to how Americans tend to view and interpret foreign policy problems of today.” — Paul Pillar

    This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Pillar in which American experiences of World War II have shaped subsequent American foreign policy decisions.

    Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Why America Misunderstands the World!

    The American View of War
    By Paul R. Pillar

    A nation’s history can explain a lot about how citizens of that nation, including its leaders, view today’s problems. With nations just as with individuals, past experience colors the way current happenings are seen and interpreted. The coloring often involves distorting and obscuring. The influence of a nation’s particular history and circumstances causes misperception. The misperception in turn leads to errors and troubles that might otherwise have been avoided. Why America Misunderstands the World examines how this process applies to the United States—the sole superpower, with a history and circumstances especially unusual among nations—and to how Americans tend to view and interpret foreign policy problems of today.

    Many distinctive circumstances and experiences have shaped the distinctive American worldview, including ones involving the expansion of the United States across a richly endowed continent and its rise to unparalleled global power. But to illustrate the connection between past experience and current ways of thinking, consider America’s past experience with foreign wars. Wars are especially salient chapters in any nation’s experience and especially likely to have an impact on later ways of thinking. To narrow the illustration down even further, consider the American experience with World War II. That war, the bloodiest and most widespread armed conflict in human history, also was America’s biggest and costliest foreign war. Winning it was the greatest achievement of what came to be called America’s greatest generation. The war became the archetype in American minds for how a war ought to be conceived and fought, creating a mold for thinking about later conflicts. But later conflicts have not always fit that mold. (more…)

    Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

    The Role of Shared National Experience in Foreign Policy

    Why America Misunderstands the World

    “Americans’ shared national experience heavily influences the way Americans perceive the outside world, which in turn has a major influence on U.S. foreign policy.” — Paul Pillar

    This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. To kick off the week’s feature, we have an excerpt from Pillar’s preface, in which he discusses the genesis of and his goals for his book.

    Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Why America Misunderstands the World!

    I have spent most of a lifetime interpreting the actions and perspectives of foreign nations or managing others whose job it is to perform such interpretation. This experience has included a career with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and later work as an academic and independent scholar writing about foreign policy and international relations. The interpretations have not always been correct, but the effort to make them teaches some lessons that involve knowing oneself better by getting to know others. In this context, “self ” and “others” can apply to nations as well as to individuals. Two lessons in particular are relevant.

    One is that to understand a nation’s decisions and behavior requires understanding the perspectives that the people in that nation, including its decision makers, have acquired through their shared national experience. The nation’s triumphs and tragedies and the rest of its history color the images that its people and its leaders have of the rest of the world, and those images in turn guide how that nation behaves toward the rest of the world.

    The other lesson is that the portion of the U.S. bureaucracy in which I formerly worked is not the principal guide for major decisions in U.S. foreign policy. The images of the world abroad that have influenced U.S. policy the most have come from other sources.

    Putting those two lessons together leads to a third: that Americans’ shared national experience heavily influences the way Americans perceive the outside world, which in turn has a major influence on U.S. foreign policy. In an earlier book, I described how and why the intelligence bureaucracy is not the main place to look for images that have guided major U.S. foreign-policy decisions. The present book addresses one of the places we do need to look for those images. The premise is that the distinctive circumstances and history of the United States yield distinctive, important, and policy-relevant ways that Americans perceive the rest of the world.

    This book unavoidably has a downbeat message in that any discussion of how perceptions are shaped by the perceiver’s attributes is in large part a discussion of misperception and error. This fact does not imply, however, an overall negative outlook about the American experience or about many of the traits and attitudes that flow from it. In the course of many years of studying the troubles and flaws of other nations, I have repeatedly been reminded of why I am glad and proud to be an American.

    Knowing oneself is a virtue, for nations as well as for individuals. This book has been written to add modestly to collective American virtue by helping Americans become more aware of the twists that they habitually impart to their view of what lies beyond their borders and of why they impart those twists. It also is written in the hope that such awareness will help lead in some small way to a less twisted and more accurate understanding of the world and thus to better-informed U.S. foreign policy.

    Monday, March 7th, 2016

    Book Giveaway! Why America Misunderstands the World, by Paul Pillar

    Why America Misunderstands the World

    “A formidable and influential scholar offers a fresh and distinctive take on the idea that U.S. foreign policy is ultimately an expression of ‘us’ rather than ‘them.’” — Andrew Bacevich, Boston University

    This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

    We are also offering a FREE copy of Why America Misunderstands the World. 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, March 11th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!