7 Questions

5 Questions with Alexander Wragge-Morley, author of “Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650–1720”

September 10, 2020
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In his new book, Aesthetic Science, Alexander Wragge-Morley explores scientific representation in the early modern period and shows us how vital the role of subjective experience is to the communication of knowledge about nature. It’s a fascinating, groundbreaking reconsideration of the role of aesthetic experience in the history of the empirical sciences, and we sent him a few questions about it. In Aesthetic Science, you explore the relationship between sensory experience and the production of knowledge. What drew you to the topic? What do you like about it? I’d say that there’s a lot to like when you think about the relationship between sensory experience and the production of knowledge. To start, the issue is obviously fundamental—and I like fundamental issues. I don’t think you can give a good account of knowledge production unless you think hard about how the senses—with all the feelings they provoke—give us access to the external world. What’s more, that fundamental question allows you to think about the history of science in new ways. By focusing on how the scientists of seventeenth-century England related to sensory experience, I was able to pull a wide range of disciplines together—disciplines that are usually studied separately. In Aesthetic . . .

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Six Questions with Thomas Milan Konda, author of “Conspiracies of Conspiracies”

September 3, 2020
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The viral spread and increasing normalization of incendiary conspiracy theories have been one of the most dismaying and dangerous trends in recent American political life. The QAnon conspiracy is most prominent of today’s Internet-borne fringe theories: its influence has even reached the seats of national governmental power, with at least ten current Republican Congressional candidates expressing support for it. We spoke at length with Thomas Milan Konda, author of Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusional Thinking Has Overrun America—called “the most detailed genealogy of American conspiracy theories yet written” by the American Historical Review—to gain some perspective on our current conspiracy crisis. The QAnon conspiracy is increasingly in the news these days—a formerly fringe phenomena that has now wormed its way into the mainstream. How does its rise fit in with what we know about how conspiracy theories work? How conspiracy theories “work” is really two questions: what is their appeal and how are they spread? Their appeal is always the same, and in this regard QAnon works the same way its predecessors did. Its three-part argument is the one that has always shored up conspiracy theories: (1) An insidious, powerful elite (2) secretly manipulates our various institutions from behind the . . .

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5 Questions with Matthew H. Rafalow, author of “Digital Divisions”

August 18, 2020
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It seems that the effects of COVID-19 persist in each and every arena of our lives. With its emergence, the unjust systemic stratifications of resources, distribution, and access became more apparent than ever. One such area is education. With back to school season upon us again, we must think critically about the divides driving education and schools. In his new book, Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, Matthew H. Rafalow explores how different student body demographics receive starkly contrasting responses to their interests and implementations of technology. What lead to you this subject? Were there any particular elements that you were drawn to learning more about? I have always been fascinated by how schools work. Since my parents worked in education, dinner table conversations centered on stories about students. But they were also big supporters of my interests in computers, even though a lot of my peers saw it as rather geeky. As an adult, I watched as the world adopted all sorts of new digital technologies. I wondered if kids’ experiences with technology today were similar or different from my own. I also was curious about what school would be like if everyone liked using . . .

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Five Questions with Eve L. Ewing

June 15, 2020
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Five Questions with Eve L. Ewing

As a book marketer at a university press, one of the things you’re always looking for is a work of strong scholarship that also can connect with ordinary readers and issues that matter in their lives. In the past few years, one of the best examples we’ve had of that is sociologist Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. Published in 2018 to broad acclaim—Ta-Nehisi Coates called it “an important addition to any conversation about the future of public schools,” Publishers Weekly called it “essential,” NPR named it one of the best books of the year, and Diane Ravitch called it “the best book about education this year”—the book struck a chord with scholars and activists alike. Earlier this spring, it was published in paperback, and Chicago also released another project that Ewing had a hand in: a new edition of Ida B. Wells’s classic memoir, Crusade for Justice, with a foreword by Ewing. Those of you who know Ewing from her Twitter feed know, however, that no matter how many projects you name, she’s always up to something more—and that could be anything from publishing poetry to writing comic books. We . . .

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Five Questions with Chad Zimmerman, Executive Editor for Economics

March 26, 2020
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Chad Zimmerman recently joined the Press as executive editor in the Books Division, acquiring new titles in economics, business, and public policy. Chad came to us from Oxford University Press, where he worked most recently as a senior editor building a robust list in public health, including books in health economics and policy. We’ve been excited to welcome him not only to the Press but to Chicago, and by way of introduction, we put together some questions about his interests. What are you looking for in a book, and what kind of project gets you excited? Voice. That is a terribly nonspecific answer, but hear me out: Most people who write books are experts in what they’re writing about. Whether their book is any good depends on how they express (and in many cases, limit) their knowledge for the good of the reader. That expression takes the form of their writing voice. And writing voice comprises not just narration, but also how the work is structured.    Reading is a “what’s in it for me?” activity. It is the author’s job to respect their reader and meet them on their level, whether that’s expert or non-expert. Very few authors have the . . .

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Five Questions with D. Vance Smith, author of “The Arts of Dying”

March 23, 2020
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Five Questions with D. Vance Smith, author of “The Arts of Dying”

How do we talk about one of life’s most persistently hard to describe events: death? Poets, musicians, playwrights, philosophers, theologians, and artists have tried to describe death for centuries, but this question still puzzles us today. With his new book, The Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England, D. Vance Smith goes back to consider the ways that medieval people thought and wrote about death. We talked with Vance about the book, how people in the Middle Ages thought about dying, the problems of language when it comes to death, and how ideas about death and dying are presented now. He also touches on the particular relevance of these questions today as we face the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic. How do you come to this subject? Was there a particular piece of literature that sparked your interest? I wrote a book a while ago (The Book of the Incipit) about the many ways medieval people thought about beginnings and shaped them in literature, and I started thinking about endings and what Foucault called the “analytic of finitude” then. Dying is the ultimate ending, and I found the intellectual and emotional challenge of writing about it important, but . . .

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5 Questions for Ellen Prager, author of “Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew about Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes, and More”

March 3, 2020
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As news of earthquake swarms in Puerto Rico, bushfires in Australia, volcanic eruptions in New Zealand, and the calamitous impacts of climate change fills the headlines, it would seem easy to despair, to feel that the Earth is somehow out to get us. In Dangerous Earth, marine scientist and brilliant science communicator Ellen Prager cuts through the noise of fear and misunderstanding that surrounds disasters—both natural and unnatural. Drawing on the latest science, highlighting the questions and characters that push this research forward, and celebrating the hope that ongoing discoveries give for our future, Dangerous Earth is far from a gloomy end-of-days geoscience treatise. It is an exhilarating tour of some of the most awesome forces on our planet—many tragic, yet nonetheless awe-inspiring—and an illuminating journey through the undiscovered, unresolved, and in some cases unimagined mysteries that continue to inspire the world’s leading scientists: the “wish-we-knews” that ignite both our curiosity and global change. We sent Prager a few questions recently to learn more about her motivations for writing the book. How did you wind up in your field, and what do you love about it? As a child, I loved nature and was particularly fond of Jacque Cousteau specials . . .

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Six Questions with Abigail Gillman, author of “A History of German Jewish Bible Translation”

February 25, 2020
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Between 1780 and 1937, Jews in Germany produced numerous new translations of the Hebrew Bible into German. Intended for Jews who were trilingual, reading Yiddish, Hebrew, and German, these translations gave Jews access to their scripture without Christian intervention, and they also helped showcase the Hebrew Bible as a work of literature and the foundational text of modern Jewish identity. In A History of German Jewish Bible Translation, Abigail Gillman examines the history of these translations as a larger cultural project. Your book discusses the remarkable history of the Hebrew Bible’s translations into German. Why were these new translations so important to the Jewish community, and what innovations did each new wave of translation offer? German Jewish rabbis and intellectuals produced works of philosophy, fiction, and poetry, as well as exegetical texts, sermons, essays, and textbooks. They also saw that a translation of the Hebrew Bible into German could accomplish a number of important goals.  In most cases, they followed models from Christian society. But Jewish translators maintained that their projects were continuous with the tradition of transmitting and interpreting the Torah going all the back to Moses. They also affiliated translation to the discourse of exegesis, which is the . . .

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5 Questions for Sonali Chakravarti, author of “Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room and Public Life”

January 13, 2020
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Summoned for jury duty? In her new book, Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room and Public Life, Sonali Chakravarti seeks to change the way Americans think about their participation in the judicial process, arguing that juries as an institution provide an important site for democratic action by citizens. We sent Chakravarti a few questions recently to learn more about her motivations for writing the book. First, for those who haven’t yet encountered the book, could you describe the key problems you saw with the process of jury duty in the United States that led you to write about this? In the 2018 film Can you Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy plays author Lee Heller, a biographer who has fallen on hard times. To make ends meet, she begins forging letters of literary luminaries such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. She has a good run but is eventually arrested for fraud, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest. The film ends with a quip about how when she is called for jury duty she responds, “I’m a convicted felon and am therefore unable to serve. Who said crime doesn’t pay?” The fact that evading jury duty can be the basis . . .

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6 Questions with Samuel Fleischacker, author of “Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy”

November 13, 2019
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In his new book, Samuel Fleischacker delves into the work of Adam Smith to draw out an understanding of empathy that respects both personal difference and shared humanity. We sent him a few questions to learn more about Smith, empathy, and how it all relates to our world today. Your book uses the philosophy of Adam Smith to explore the nature and value of empathy. To start us off, can you give us a quick introduction to Smithian empathy? Smithian empathy is the kind of shared feeling that arises when I imagine myself into your situation. David Hume had understood empathy (what he and Smith called “sympathy”—the word “empathy” wasn’t invented until after their time) as my feeling whatever you feel. Smith understands it as my feeling what I think I would feel if I were you, in your situation. Hume’s empathy is a kind of contagious feeling—I “catch” your feelings, whether of sadness or of joy, whether I want to do that or not. Smith’s empathy requires more action on our part and depends on imagination. I try to show that Smith’s kind of empathy is deeper and more important to morality. What drew you to Adam Smith, and to the topic of empathy . . .

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