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Excerpt: Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere

April 16, 2015
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Excerpt: Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere

An excerpt from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec *** Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like trails of slightly glinting snot side-tracked by the slightest roughness in the fabric, sometimes accumulating into drops that fell to the floor and exploded into star-shaped stains. I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned. But Otto came in by the other door at almost the same time as I did. He looked at me uncomprehendingly. I beat a retreat, ran down the stairs, and shut myself in the laboratory. I padlocked the door and jammed the wardrobe up against it. He came down a . . .

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Excerpt: That’s the Way It Is

April 13, 2015
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Excerpt: That’s the Way It Is

An excerpt from That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America  by Charles L. Ponce de Leon *** “Beginnings” Few technologies have stirred the utopian imagination like television. Virtually from the moment that research produced the first breakthroughs that made it more than a science fiction fantasy, its promoters began gushing about how it would change the world. Perhaps the most effusive was David Sarnoff. Like the hero of a dime novel, Sarnoff had come to America as a nearly penniless immigrant child, and had risen from lowly office boy to the presidency of RCA, a leading manufacturer of radio receivers and the parent company of the nation’s biggest radio network, NBC. More than anyone else, it was Sarnoff who had recognized the potential of “wireless” as a form of broadcasting—a way of transmitting from a single source to a geographically dispersed audience. Sarnoff had built NBC into a juggernaut, the network with the largest number of affiliates and the most popular programs. He had also become the industry’s loudest cheerleader, touting its contributions to “progress” and the “American Way of Life.” Having blessed the world with the miracle of radio, he promised Americans an even more . . .

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Can We Race Together? An Autopsy

April 8, 2015
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Can We Race Together? An Autopsy

“Can We Race Together? An Autopsy”* by Ellen Berrey *** Corporate diversity dialogues are ripe for backlash, the research shows, even without coffee counter gimmicks. Corporate executives and university presidents are, yet again, calling for public discussion on race and racial inequality. Revelations about the tech industry’s diversity problem have company officials convening panels on workplace barriers, and, at the University of Oklahoma spokespeople and students are organizing town-hall sessions in response to a fraternity’s racist chant. The most provocative of the efforts was Starbucks’ failed Race Together program. In March, the company announced that it would ask baristas to initiate dialogues with customers about America’s most vexing dilemma. Although public outcry shut down those conversations before they even got to “Hello,” Starbucks said it would nonetheless carry on Race Together with forums and special USA Today discussion guides. As someone who has done sociological research on diversity initiatives for the past 15 years, I was intrigued.  For a moment, let’s take this seriously What would conversations about race have looked like if they played out as Starbucks imagined, given the social science of race? Can companies, in Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s words, “create a more empathetic and inclusive society—one conversation . . .

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Excerpt: Paying with Their Bodies

April 7, 2015
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Excerpt: Paying with Their Bodies

An excerpt from Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran by John M. Kinder *** Thomas H. Graham On August 30, 1862, Thomas H. Graham, an eighteen-year-old Union private from rural Michigan, was gut-shot at the Second Battle of Bull Run near Manassas Junction, Virginia. One of 10,000 Union casualties in the three-day battle, Graham had little chance of survival. Penetrating gunshot wounds to the abdomen were among the deadliest injuries of the Civil War, killing 87 percent of patients—either from the initial trauma or the inevitable infection. Quickly evacuated, he was sent by ambulance to Washington, DC, where he was admitted to Judiciary Square Hospital the next day. Physicians took great interest in Graham’s case, and over the following nine months, the young man endured numerous operations to suture his wounds. Deemed fully disabled, he was eventually discharged from service on June 6, 1863. But Graham’s injuries never healed completely. His colon remained perforated, and he had open sinuses just above his left leg where a conoidal musket ball had entered and exited his body. As Dr. R. C. Hutton, Graham’s pension examiner, reported shortly after the Civil War’s end, “From each of these sinuses . . .

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Excerpt: A Significant Life

April 3, 2015
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Excerpt: A Significant Life

  “A Meaningful Life” An excerpt from A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May *** Let us start with a question. What does it mean to ask about the meaningfulness of life? It seems a simple question, but there are many ways to inflect it. We might ask,“What is the meaning of life?” Or we could ask it in the plural: “What are the meanings of life?” If we put the question either of these ways, we seem to be asking for a something orsomethings, a what that gives a human life its meaningfulness. The universe is thought or hoped to contain something—a meaning—that is the point of our being alive. If the universe contains a meaning, then the task for us becomes one of discovery. It is built into the universe, part of its structure. In the image that some philosophers like to use, it is part of the “furniture” of the universe. When we say that the meaning of life is independent of us—that is, independent of what any of us happens to believe about it—we do not need to believe that there would be a meaning to our lives even if none . . .

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Free e-book for April: Hybrid

April 1, 2015
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Free e-book for April: Hybrid

Just in time for your ur-garden, our free-ebook for April is Noel Kingsbury’s Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding. *** Disheartened by the shrink-wrapped, Styrofoam-packed state of contemporary supermarket fruits and vegetables, many shoppers hark back to a more innocent time, to visions of succulent red tomatoes plucked straight from the vine, gleaming orange carrots pulled from loamy brown soil, swirling heads of green lettuce basking in the sun. With Hybrid, Noel Kingsbury reveals that even those imaginary perfect foods are themselves far from anything that could properly be called natural; rather, they represent the end of a millennia-long history of selective breeding and hybridization. Starting his story at the birth of agriculture, Kingsbury traces the history of human attempts to make plants more reliable, productive, and nutritious—a story that owes as much to accident and error as to innovation and experiment. Drawing on historical and scientific accounts, as well as a rich trove of anecdotes, Kingsbury shows how scientists, amateur breeders, and countless anonymous farmers and gardeners slowly caused the evolutionary pressures of nature to be supplanted by those of human needs—and thus led us from sparse wild grasses to succulent corn cobs, and from mealy, white . . .

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Excerpt: Southern Provisions

March 31, 2015
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Excerpt: Southern Provisions

An excerpt from Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine by David S. Shields *** Rebooting a Cuisine “I want to bring back Carolina Gold rice. I want there to be authentic Lowcountry cuisine again. Not the local branch of southern cooking incorporated.” That was Glenn Roberts in 2003 during the waning hours of a conference in Charleston exploring “ The Cuisines of the Lowcountry and the Caribbean.” When Jeffrey Pilcher, Nathalie Dupree, Marion Sullivan, Robert Lukey, and I brainstormed this meeting into shape over 2002, we paid scant attention to the word cuisine.1 I’m sure we all thought that it meant something like “a repertoire of refined dishes that inspired respect among the broad public interested in food.” We probably chose “cuisines” rather than “foodways” or “cookery” for the title because its associations with artistry would give it more splendor in the eyes of the two institutions—the College of Charleston and Johnson & Wales University—footing the administrative costs of the event. Our foremost concern was to bring three communities of people into conversation: culinary historians, chefs, and provisioners (i.e., farmers and fishermen) who produced the food cooked along the southern Atlantic coast and in the West Indies. Theorizing cuisine . . .

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Excerpt: The Territories of Science and Religion

March 25, 2015
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Excerpt: The Territories of Science and Religion

Introduction An excerpt from The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison *** The History of “Religion” In the section of his monumental Summa theologiae that is devoted to a discussion of the virtues of justice and prudence, the thirteenth-century Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas (122–74) investigates, in his characteristically methodical and insightful way, the nature of religion. Along with North African Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Aquinas is probably the most influential Christian writer outside of the biblical authors. From the outset it is clear that for Aquinas religion (religio) is a virtue—not, incidentally, one of the preeminent theological virtues, but nonetheless an important moral virtue related to justice. He explains that in its primary sense religiorefers to interior acts of devotion and prayer, and that this interior dimension is more important than any outward expressions of this virtue. Aquinas acknowledges that a range of outward behaviors are associated with religio—vows, tithes, offerings, and so on—but he regards these as secondary. As I think is immediately obvious, this notion of religion is rather different from the one with which we are now familiar. There is no sense in which religio refers to systems of propositional beliefs, and no sense of . . .

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Facebook’s A Year of Books drafts The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

March 23, 2015
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Facebook’s A Year of Books drafts The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In his sixth pick for the social network’s online book club (“A Year of Books”), Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently drafted Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a 52-year-old book still considered one of the most often cited academic resources of all time, and one of the crowning gems of twentieth-century scholarly publishing. Following in the footsteps of Pixar founder Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc., as Zuckerberg’s most recent pick, Structure will be the subject of a Facebook thread with open commenting, for the next two weeks, in line with the guidelines advanced by “A Year of Books.” If you’re thinking about reading along, the 50th Anniversary Edition includes a an equally compelling Introduction by Ian Hacking that situates the book’s legacy, both in terms of its contribution to a scientific vernacular (“paradigm shifting”) and its value as a scholarly publication of mass appeal (“paradigm shifting”). Or, in Zuckerberg’s own words: It’s a history of science book that explores the question of whether science and technology make consistent forward progress or whether progress comes in bursts related to other social forces. I tend to think that science is a consistent force for good in the world. I think we’d all be better off if we invested more . . .

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Excerpt: Who Freed the Slaves?

March 19, 2015
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Excerpt: Who Freed the Slaves?

An excerpt from Who Freed the Slaves?: The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment  by Leonard L. Richards *** Prologue WEDNESDAY, JUNE 15, 1864 James Ashley never forgot the moment. After hours of debate, Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, had finally gaveled the 159 House members to take their seats and get ready to vote. Most of the members were waving a fan of some sort, but none of the fans did much good. Heat and humidity had turned the nation’s capitol into a sauna. Equally bad was the stench that emanated from Washington’s back alleys, nearby swamps, and the twenty-one hospitals in and about the city, which now housed over twenty thousand wounded and dying soldiers. Worse yet was the news from the front lines. According to some reports, the Union army had lost seven thousand men in less than thirty minutes at Cold Harbor. The commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, had been deemed a “fumbling butcher.” Nearly everyone around Ashley was impatient, cranky, and miserable. But Ashley was especially downcast. It was his job to get Senate Joint Resolution Number 16, a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery in the United States, through the House of Representatives, . . .

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