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June 18th, 2015

Henry George Runs for Mayor of New York City

Henry George, New York City Mayor

127 years before Bill de Blasio’s run for mayor of New York City as a progressive candidate, Henry George was the choice of the United Labor Party to fight for the working class and defeat the corruption in New York City (see cartoon above). George ended up losing but his winning of more than 30% of the vote beat out Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican candidate and shocked the city and its power brokers. George’s campaign focused on the effort to revitalize citizenship and re-empower the working class. In the following passage, from Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality
Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age
, Edward T. O’Donnell describes George’s agenda which called for radical political, economic, and social change.

June 17th, 2015

Was Henry George the 19th-Century Thomas Piketty?

Henry George   Thomas Piketty

The success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First invited comparisons to Henry George and his own surprise, runaway bestseller Progress and Poverty, which was published in 1879 and sold more than 3 million copies. Aside from their shared status of becoming unlikely bestselling authors, Piketty and George’s work focuses, in part, on the relationship between capitalism and inequality. Moreover, both are advocates of the market but worry that a concentration of wealth corrupts it and is a threat to democracy. George’s life and writings are, of course, the subject of Edward T. O’Donnell’s new intellectual biography, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age.

In an essay on the two Charles Lane, writing in The Washington Post, comments:

To Piketty, like George an admirer of market efficiency and opponent of protectionism, the resulting accumulation of wealth in relatively few hands threatens economic fairness, economic dynamism — and democracy. “Extreme inequality makes it impossible to have proper working of democratic institutions,” Piketty told a recent meeting at Washington’s Urban Institute.

And so, updating Henry George’s single tax, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax, making similar claims about its benefits for both equality and growth.

For Piketty and George, the bottom line, both moral and economic, is to socialize “rent” — rent, that is, not in the colloquial sense but in the economic sense of income disconnected from productivity.

It’s an attractive vision: an egalitarian, productive society, purged of parasitical rent-seeking through the expedient of well-aimed taxes.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 16th, 2015

Why Henry George Matters in This Second Gilded Age — Edward T. O’Donnell

Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

The following post is by Edward T. O’Donnell, author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age:

What value does the story of Henry George, a self-taught economist from the late nineteenth century, hold for Americans living in the early 21st century? Quite a lot, if we stop to consider the ways in which contemporary American society has come to resemble America in the late-nineteenth century, a period popularly known as the Gilded Age. As in our times, that era was marked by a dramatic increase in income inequality. It also witnessed a sharp and disturbing rise in the numbers of Americans living in poverty, even as Wall Street boomed and overall productivity soared. The Gilded Age was also marked by a surge in the size and power—and political influence—of large corporations and banks. And the politics of late-nineteenth century American society were characterized by extreme partisanship and paralysis. Indeed, the parallels between then and now are so striking that many contemporary progressive reformers, activists, and commentators have taken to referring to the era in which we now live as the Second Gilded Age.

If we are indeed living in a Second Gilded Age, then we can gain important insights into potential solutions to our economic, social, and political problems by taking a close look at the first Gilded Age. In particular, it is instructive to examine the people who emerged in this period to demand reforms—many of which were enacted in the subsequent Progressive Era. Henry George was one of these figures and he gained an enormous following among a wide cross section of American society.

George was a little-known journalist living in California in the 1870s when, moved by the aforementioned troubling trends of the Gilded Age, he began to study economics and history with an eye toward writing a book. The result of this effort was a book published in 1879 titled Progress and Poverty. The book is still in print and available in many languages. As its title suggests, George focused on a vexing question: why amidst so much material and technological progress was poverty increasing? This was, George warned, “the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed.”

The book became a best seller and launched George as one of the era’s best-known and most influential reformers. The solution George proposed—a “single-tax” on land values—appealed to some of his followers. But far more were drawn to and inspired by the broad claims he made regarding American’s republican heritage and values. And here we see where George speaks to the concerns of our age.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 16th, 2015

New Book Tuesday: Understanding Brain and Dementia and More New Titles

Understanding Brain Aging and Dementia

Our weekly listing of new titles:

Understanding Brain Aging and Dementia: A Life Course Approach
Lawrence J. Whalley

Goldratt and the Theory of Constraints: The Quantum Leap in Management
Uwe Techt

Interest Representation and Europeanization of Trade Unions from EU Member States of the Eastern Enlargement
Edited by Christin Landgraf and Heiko Pleines

Wandering Workers: Mores, Behavior, Way of Life, and Political Status of Domestic Russian Labor Migrants
Juri Plusnin, Yana Zausaeva, Natalia Zhidkevich, and Artemy Pozanenko

June 15th, 2015

James Joyce and His Publisher, Sylvia Beach — Keri Walsh

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach

In a recent article in The Irish Times, Keri Walsh, editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, examines the difficult relationship between Beach and James Joyce. Beach, of course, was the publisher of Ulysses but became estranged from Joyce after he sold the rights to the novel to Random House. Beach’s difficulties were exacerbated as the Depression and World War II took its toll on her and her famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company.

However, in 1962, as Walsh explains, Walsh’s connection with Joyce was reaffirmed when she was the guest of honor for the opening of the Martello Tower, where Joyce lived. In describing the impact of the visit and Beach’s influence on modernism, Walsh writes:

The visit of the sprightly 85-year-old Beach allowed her to give her blessing to this new Joycean generation before returning to Paris for the final months of her life. She had devoted herself to a writer, a book and an ideal of artistic community. For a time, she was viewed merely as a handmaiden and secretary, but recent studies have shown her in a fuller light, as a key taste-maker and producer of modernism; as a lesbian; as a feminist; and as the hub of many different modernist circles.

Her own story as a publisher, encourager, connector and framer included many chapters. Along with Joyce, she supported and promoted a wide roster of writers including HD, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Walter Benjamin, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, and many others. But Joyce was at the core of her commitment to literature, and her commitment to him was the chief enigma of her personality.

What drew them together and what broke them apart? Partly war, partly new friendships, partly Joyce’s health and pecuniary difficulties, partly time, but whatever had severed them in those days, Beach’s trip to Dublin in 1962 served partially to restore the bond, returning her one last time to the energy and promise of their 1922 partnership, and also to that oceanic setting-out of 1904 and the first pages of the book she loved best, Ulysses.

June 15th, 2015

Book of the Week: Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

This week our featured book is Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age by Edward T. O’Donnell.

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 Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality 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, June 19th at 1:00 pm.

For more on the book you can read the introduction:

June 12th, 2015

The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In the final post of the week’s feature, we have excerpted the twelfth chapter of Excellent Beauty: “The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God.”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

June 11th, 2015

The Beauty of Seeing More Than We Can Understand

Excellent Beauty

“Religions are completely natural illusions. All their alleged depth and mystery are chimerical. We can finally set them aside as sources of mysteries not worth taking seriously. We are now free to embrace the real mysteries, the ones worth taking seriously, the ones science reveals, the ones that have excellent beauty.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the eleventh chapter of Excellent Beauty, in which Dietrich explains why “[t]he most exciting phrase to hear in science … is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny….”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

June 10th, 2015

On the Mystery of Consciousness

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s excerpt, Dietrich introduces and discusses the hard problem of consciousness.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

June 10th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2

Excellent Beauty

“Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich discusses the continuing existence of “excellent beauties” (currently unsolved and possibly unsolvable mysteries).

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2
By Eric Dietrich

In yesterday’s post, we saw what happens when science confronts religion, now we will what happens when science confronts the cosmos.

The grandest example of an excellent beauty is consciousness. I don’t mean anything unusual or strange by the word “consciousness”. Consciousness—or being conscious—is the most ordinary thing in your life . . . so ordinary, you rarely note it or think of it. Consciousness is the way the world seems to you, the way you experience it, feel it. Taste an apple, see a sunset, smell a rose or an angry skunk, stub your toe on the foot of the bed frame at 4:00 am, hear your dog breathe or a baby gurgle and coo. Introspect and consider your belief that there are an infinite number of numbers. These are all conscious experiences. We have experiences because we are conscious. Or, rather, our having them constitutes our being conscious. Being conscious is what makes it fun or horrible or merely boring to be a human (or anything else that is conscious). Using a phrase that the philosopher Thomas Nagel made famous (apparently only among philosophers), we can say that a being is conscious when there is something it is like to be that being. (See Nagel’s oft-cited paper, “What is it like to be a bat?”).

Consciousness has so thoroughly eluded scientific explanation that we have no idea what an explanatory theory of consciousness would even look like. This runs deep. Given an explanatory theory of conscious by, say, friendly, advanced, visiting space aliens, we couldn’t even begin to tell if it was correct or not. Consciousness somehow exists only inside our minds (not, note, inside our brains), while science can only tackle what is on the outside, what is public and measurable. But why should this be the case? Why should there be anything it is like to be a dog or an octopus or a lobster? Why should there be “insides” to our minds, beyond the reach of public, measuring science? A famous quote (apparently only among consciousness researchers) by Stuart Sutherland is apropos here: “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it,” (from the International Dictionary of Psychology).

The denialism here is thick. Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.

Here, briefly, and minus explanations, is a short list of other excellent beauties. We begin with the most well-known: Basically all of quantum mechanics. Next, the infinity of numbers comes in sizes—that’s right: some infinities are bigger than others, by rather a lot, it turns out. No one knows why, yet the proof for this fact is relatively easy to follow. Logic contains some of the strangest mysteries. First, classical logic is completely unable to represent its fundamental notion, the inference from one sentence to another, say from “X is a prime number bigger than 2”, to “X is an odd number.” Second, there exist logics that allow some statements to be both true and false at the same time. More shockingly, some philosophers argue that such “true contradictions” are required to correctly describe completely ordinary things like walking into a room or blinking your eyes. Thirdly, any logical system that contains numbers and operations like addition produces truths that are obviously true, but which cannot be proven; here truth extends beyond proof. There are more logic mysteries, but let’s move on.

Here is a mystery involving something more ordinary: Did you know that there is a very old, currently undecipherable text complete with detailed colored drawings sitting in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library? The author, purpose, and meaning of the text are unknown. Attempts to decode it or translate it defy all modern techniques used by linguists and cryptologists (going clear back to World War I). It’s called the Voynich Manuscript. Most scholars believe it was written sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but no one is sure (recent carbon-14 dating does put the date of the vellum in the fifteenth century). The language the manuscript is written in, if indeed it is a language, is completely baffling. Detailed statistical analysis of the symbols making up the manuscript, however, leads most scholars to believe that it is in fact written in some language, just not one used by any known culture or people. Here’s a final example. Recently it has been discovered that science itself, in its quest to find and explain all that can be found and explained, produces paradoxes that completely undo all the assumptions science has to make to be science. Science, it turns out, must assume what it wants to prove. (All the references to the above mysteries can be found in Excellent Beauty, except the last one; that one can be found in the paper “Science generates limit paradoxes.”)

What does the existence of enduring mysteries, of excellent beauties, mean? We have seen that in a sense, religion and science are co-conspirators—they conspire to create a world that is flatly natural. The supernatural bits of religions are not real, being only the products of our over-active imaginations fixed by group membership. But the excellent beauties are real, they are waiting there for any one to find and marvel at, and they are not the products of over-active imaginations. What are they the products of? That is itself the final excellent beauty: how is it that we inhabit a world that contains so many foundational paradoxes, so many enduring mysteries? How is it that some of our science and knowledge-seeking provides us with fulfilling and affirming explanations, while other parts of it shock us with strange enigmas that cause us to question the very core of what we think we know? It appears that what our science is telling us, with increasing urgency, is that the universe is not fully open to our comprehension. But it is fully open to our sense of beauty. And in the end, that’s better.

June 9th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1

Excellent Beauty

“Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich delves into our innate attraction to mystery, our nature as metaphysical realists, and the war between science and religion.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1
By Eric Dietrich

Everybody loves a good mystery . . . as long as it gets solved. But if a mystery persists in spite of our best efforts to solve it, our love wanes. In fact, very few among us can tolerate an enduring mystery. Why is that? Why are enduring mysteries so upsetting? The answer cuts to the heart of what it means to be a human being and explains the enormous impact dodging enduring mysteries has played in human history. Science and religion owe their existence to such dodging. Excellent Beauty is the story of these three, science, religion, and enduring mysteries. The title of the book comes from a quote by Francis Bacon, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” The book also closely examines several such mysteries, revealing their excellent beauty, why they are enduring, and what this upsetting fact means.

Of course, most of the mysteries we encounter in our daily lives are upsetting not because they are mysteries, but rather because of what they are about. If someone you love has fainting spells, but six months of medical tests have revealed nothing, then you are confronted with an upsetting mystery. It is upsetting because someone you love is suffering, and experts cannot tell you why and so cannot fix the problem.

The mysteries we love are not like this. They occur at some remove from us. Murder mystery novels are a billion dollar a year industry for precisely this reason. Sir Charles Baskerville has died, apparently of natural causes, yet the footprints of an unknown and enormous hound were found near where he perished. This fact has a pressing and dark relevance because the Baskerville family has been living under an old curse, apparently involving a hound from Hell. . . . All good fun. And in the end, Sherlock Holmes solves this mystery nicely. Of course, mysteries such as these are at such a remove from us that they aren’t real. Consider a real mystery that is nevertheless something we can love: Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? We now know the answer to this mystery, or at least there is wide agreement on what the answer is: Earth was hit by a massive asteroid or comet, the smoking gun of which is the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. (For a recent definitive treatment, see “The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary” in Science, 5 March 2010: 1214-1218.) Before this explanation was discovered, the mystery of the missing dinosaurs was compelling and intensely investigated. (It is still being investigated since there is only “wide agreement” among scientists on the asteroid theory.)

There is a great affirmation for humankind in solving any deep, real mystery. This affirmation extends beyond the utility of any solution. The discovery of the virus responsible for AIDS was a tremendous advance in human health care and in the treatment of the disease itself. But the discovery of HIV goes deeper than human health. Two human properties explain this going-beyond aspect of the affirmation. Humans are, quite naturally, realists, in the metaphysical sense: we all think that there is a mind-independent world out there. We don’t know, except roughly, how many dogs there are in the world now, but we all think there is some definite number of them. And we think this number is what it is independently of our minds, independently of what we want it to be or what we wish it was. We are also all children of the Enlightenment at least in the sense that we carry around with us an Enlightenment ideal: we think we live in a rational universe, and we think that problems can be solved, at least in principle, by rational discourse or by some application of rationality. Putting these two together, we all think that there are answers out there and rationality can in principle reveal them. Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.

Religion is a great participator in this affirmation. And in this important sense, religion and science are compatible. Religious mysteries run deep. How can Jesus’s death redeem sinners today? How can their faith in him activate that redemption? Why is there evil if God is all-good and all-powerful? Why are there so many religions? (This bears a short digression. Conservative estimates put the number of religions today well into the tens of thousands. This estimate includes sects or denominations of the twenty or so major religions, which can be defined as religions with at least half a million adherents. Often, these sects or sub-religions differ almost as much from each other as the major religions differ from each other. So, for example, some experts estimate that there are over 30,000 versions of Christianity (see, for example the World Christian Encyclopedia or this list). Arguably all these versions worship some version of Jesus Christ, but beyond that, they differ significantly. For example, some see Jesus Christ as a sort of warrior against sin; some see the Christ as a god of love, unconcerned about sin; still others regard Jesus as a male human being who managed to live the perfect life and should therefore be emulated.)

The answers to all religious mysteries are commonly believed to be out there and fixed (realism), the understanding of which awaits our final fate. If our fate is good enough, the answers will be revealed to us, and such revelation will, at that time, finally make perfect sense (the Enlightenment ideal).
From this perspective, there is no war between science and religion, not really, and the world we live in, while troubled and dangerous, is, at least in principle, law-like and understandable.

Excellent Beauty argues that the above view of us and the universe we inhabit is Panglossian. There is a fierce war between science and religion. Science is winning—by a lot (this war is examined in detail in Excellent Beauty). Realism is at best an ineluctable metaphysical position. And most importantly, holding the Enlightenment ideal depends crucially on self-deception. Soberly considered, our universe contains only islands of understandability, islands where rationality is the dominant force, islands where our explanations work. Beyond these islands there is a vast, bizarre world consisting almost exclusively of enduring mysteries at which we can marvel, but can never explain or explain away.

Let’s take these points in turn.

Stephen Jay Gould is the avatar of the view that science and religion are not at war. He proposed what he called nonoverlapping magisteria for the proper relationship between science and religion (see his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life). Gould said that science and religion are in fact so different that they can easily coexist, respecting each other’s dominion (i.e., magisterium; a magisterium is “a domain of authority in teaching” (p. 5)). Gould says:

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. (p. 4)

If anyone other than Gould had written that, I would have thought that person irremediably naïve. But Gould is not naïve. So, I can only assume this suggestion of his results from some level of desperation. He so wanted to halt the war between science and religion that he fabricated this idea of separate but equal domains. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that religion and science are not separate magisteria at all—they are profoundly overlapping magisteria. All religions make factual claims about the world: Jehovah created it in six days, Changing Woman created it and the Navajo who live on it, ghosts roam the world, magic can heal the sick, prayer is talking to Yahweh (or Jesus or Allah or Zeus, etc.), living beings reincarnate, and on and on. In fact, it is because all religions make factual claims that they are able to supply purpose, meaning, and values. Going the other direction, religion is not the sole provider of purposes, meanings, and values. There are plenty of atheists and agnostics whose lives hum with meaning. They get meaning from the traditional places: their families, their jobs, their hobbies—from doing science, making art and music, climbing mountains, learning to juggle, raising children, working on their marriage, and so forth. Oddly, and disturbingly, in flatly denying the obvious truth that religions make factual claims, and in denying that religion and science are at war, Gould is behaving exquisitely religiously: he is changing the “evidence” to fit his beliefs, rather than letting the evidence change his beliefs. The nonoverlapping magisteria idea is simply false. Science and religion are at war.

Science has arguably already won this war, and in the best way possible: by explaining why we are religious. Evolutionary theory explains both why we humans are religious and why there are tens of thousands of religions. Being religious, or having the propensity to be religious is an evolutionary adaptation. What advantage do religions bestow? They help knit groups together, among other things. The details of such an evolutionary explanation are complex and still being worked out by anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, and psychologists. In broad outline, most of these nascent theories are similar, and contribute to a large emerging explanation. In Excellent Beauty, I combine two of the most well-known and well-received theories, David Wilson’s group selection theory and Daniel Dennett’s hyperactive agent detection device (see, respectively, Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell). In brief, I argue that religions help bind groups together via shared magical thinking. We like being in a group that shares our beliefs about the weird, disturbing stuff we’ve experienced. And we like belonging to a group that offers and promotes compelling explanations of the stuff we experience. Both Wilson and Dennett’s theories are needed: Only Dennett’s theory can explain the universal existence of belief in the supernatural in the world’s religions, and only Wilson’s theory can explain why there are thousands of religions instead of billions of them.

Tomorrow we turn to the excellent beauties themselves.

June 9th, 2015

New Book Tuesday: Latino Identity, The Problem with God, and Indian Cinema

Debating Race, Ethnicity, and Latino Identity

Our weekly listing of new titles:

Debating Race, Ethnicity, and Latino Identity: Jorge J. E. Gracia and His Critics
Edited by Iván Jaksic

The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong
Peter J. Steinberger

Studying Indian Cinema
Omar Ahmed

June 8th, 2015

Beyond Atheism: The Religion Illusion

Excellent Beauty

“Atheism doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter. It is not that there are no gods or goddesses, but rather that there are no religions. What we call religion is people engaged in various rituals at various times of the year and at various stages of their lives, wearing various ritualistic clothing, and uttering various words and phrases. But this is all a kind of vast pretending, a pretending so complete that most of us cannot even see the pretense, a pretense fueled solely by our genetic makeup and our group membership.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. To kick the feature off, we are happy to present an excerpt from the eighth chapter of Excellent Beauty: “Beyond Atheism: The Religion Illusion.”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

June 8th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich

Excellent Beauty

“This is, quite simply, one of the most eloquent books on religion and science I have read in recent years. Dietrich writes clearly and accessibly, with a touch of humor and a great deal of personality. His book moves fluidly between historically supported arguments and pedagogically minded examples, all presented in a limpid style that will be attractive to the general reader.” — William Egginton

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. 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 Excellent Beauty. 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, June 12th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

June 5th, 2015

Matthew Smith on History and Understanding Food Allergy

We conclude our week-long feature on Matthew Smith’s Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy with, fittingly enough, the book’s conclusion. In it, Smith examines what history can tell us about food allergy as well as some of the missteps by other experts in understanding the rise of allergies:

June 4th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner — The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji, Michael Emmerich

For this week’s fiction corner we look at what is considered by many to be the world’s first novel. The following is an interview with Michael Emmerich, author of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature now available in paper.In the interview, Emmerich discusses, among other subjects, how The Tale of Genji became a classic of Japanese literature, how it changed reading habits, its place in world literature, and his first experience with the novel:

Question: We tend to think of The Tale of Genji as a kind of immortal classic but in fact its history is more complicated. How did it become a national classic or emblematic of Japanese culture and literature?

Michael Emmerich: Genji was written in the early eleventh century, so of course the story of how it achieved its present status as one of the preeminent classics of both national and world literature is very long—a millennium long, in fact—and very complex. I argue that while Genji came to be regarded as a “treasure” very early on at an elite level, ordinary readers had little or no interest in the tale until surprisingly recently. The work that first managed to interest a truly popular readership in Genji—if only indirectly—was a sort of early modern graphic novel called A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji that was published over the course of thirteen years, from 1829 to 1842. The way I see it, Bumpkin Genji was crucial because it inspired for the first time in a popular readership the desire to know more about Genji, and then offered itself up as an enjoyable means of satisfying that desire, without actually having to read Genji itself. In other words, Bumpkin Genji popularized the notion of the complete translation of Genji into vernacular Japanese. Then, almost exactly a century later, from 1939 to 1941, the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō published a translation into the Japanese of his day that became a best-seller. That was when Genji really came to be re-canonized not just as a celebrated but unread “treasure,” but as a “national classic” in the sense of “a classic of the Japanese people”—as a work for which, and to which, Japan and its citizens were somehow responsible.

Q: What has been the role of The Tale of Genji in the popularization of Japanese literature in English?

ME: Scholars have long recognized the importance of Arthur Waley’s translation of the tale, The Tale of Genji, which was issues in six volumes from 1925 to 1933. Waley’s version was widely read, and was praised by reviewers from the time its first volume appeared as one of the great works of world literature. In my book, though, I explore the role an earlier partial translation that has now been largely forgotten played in making Genji known—though less as a literary classic than as a portrait of eleventh-century Japan, and as a work by a woman writer. This translation, published in England in 1882, was done by a young Japanese named Suematsu Kenchō. At the time, the publication of a work translated from Japanese was such a rarity that it was actually considered newsworthy, and the notion that women writers had played such a crucial role in creating what is now known as classical Japanese literature made its appearance even more sensational. It’s hard to say how much of an effect the attention Genji garnered, first in 1882, then in 1925, then in 1976 with the publication of Seidensticker’s translation, and again in 2001 when Royall Tyler’s appeared, has had in popularizing Japanese literature more broadly, but I do think it has helped give people an image of Japanese literature as something worth paying attention to.

Q: How has the reception of The Tale of the Genji changed over time?

ME: To tell the truth, I’m somewhat skeptical of the notion of “reception.” In the case of Genji, hardly anyone reads it in the original classical Japanese these days, and even fewer people read it in the form in which it was originally circulated—in calligraphic manuscript rather than typeset book. Instead, most people come into contact with Genji through what I call “replacements.” Translations are perhaps the paradigmatic form of replacement, but there are all kinds of other replacements, too: digests, guides, movies, manga, artworks, designs on kimono. So many people have created so many different kinds of replacements of the tale over the millennium since it first appeared that it would take a book even to begin to explore the trajectory they have followed—as it happens, Columbia University Press has published just such a book: Envisioning the Tale of Genji, edited by Haruo Shirane—but I think one might at least say that, over the centuries, the forms Genji’s replacements take have moved further and further away from the forms in which it was first circulated.

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June 4th, 2015

Matthew Smith on the Peanut Allergy

In the following video from the BBC, Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy, looks at what has become perhaps the most commonly discussed allergy: the peanut allergy.

Smith considers some of the explanations that have been offered for rise of peanut allergies. As he argues, many of these boil down to changes in modern life and perhaps peanut allergies are the price we pay for cleaner homes, fewer infections, and safer food:

June 3rd, 2015

Announcing our Fall 2015 Catalog: Chomsky, Stiglitz, and More!

We are very excited to present our Fall 2015 catalog! Please check out our forthcoming titles and those from our distributed presses.

Highlights from our Fall 2015 list include What Kind of Creatures Are We?, by Noam Chomsky; Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism, by Harry Harootunian; Wall Streeters: The Creators and Corruptors of American Finance, by Edward Morris; Best Business Writing 2015, edited by Dean Starkman, Martha M. Hamilton, and Ryan Chittum; The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton; Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, by Stuart Schaar; and Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, by Gillian Barker

June 3rd, 2015

What History Can Tell Us About Food Allergy — Matthew Smith

Another Person's Poison, Matthew Smith

“If we want to know anything about the health issues that face us today and will face us in future, the very first thing we should do is turn to the history of such issues.”—Matthew Smith

The following post is by Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy:

What can the history of medicine tell us about food allergy and other medical conditions?

An awful lot. History is essentially about why things change over time. None of our ideas about health or medicine simply spring out of the ground. They evolve over time, adapting to various social, political, economic, technological, and cultural factors. If we want to know anything about the health issues that face us today and will face us in future, the very first thing we should do is turn to the history of such issues. This is particularly important if we are dissatisfied with current ways of thinking about and treating particular conditions (as I have argued in the past with respect to ADHD or hyperactivity) or if we are bamboozled by the causes and deeper meaning of other conditions, such as food allergy. Otherwise, we are uninformed and highly likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A few weeks ago, my 16-month-old daughter broke out in spots. As the parents of two remarkably healthy children, my wife and I were bemused. Our first thought was that she may have come down with chicken pox, a real pain, but not the worst thing in the world. We looked up some of the early symptoms of chicken pox online, which appeared to confirm our suspicions and steeled ourselves for a week of scratching and crying.

The following morning however, the spots had disappeared. We were flummoxed. Could chicken pox be a 24-hour thing? No such luck. Then, I remembered that I was the author of a book on food allergy. Could it have been something she ate? I tried to think about what she had been eating and then it struck me: strawberries.

Scottish people are often maligned for never eating fruits or vegetables. While this is true for some people, the traditional Scottish diet is actually chock-full of healthy foods. The cold and rainy climate allows us to grow plenty of neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), for instance, and there is also a thriving berry industry in places such as Perthshire, and strawberries are central to this. Every year, when the sun shows its face and the buds begin to emerge, the first punnets of strawberries emerge in supermarkets. And we dutifully buy them up, gobbling up strawberries as fast as we can.

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June 2nd, 2015

New Book Tuesday: Thai Stick and Robert Thurman

Thai Stick, Peter Maguire

Our weekly list of new titles now available:

Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade (Now available in paper)
Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter

In Vimalakirti’s House: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert A. F. Thurman on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday
Edited by Christian K. Wedemeyer, John D. Dunne, and Thomas F. Yarnall