7 Questions

Six Questions with Rachel Hope Cleves, author of “Unspeakable”

December 8, 2020
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What do we do with the life of a person who was celebrated in their own time, but whose actions, violating what are now seen as firm moral and legal boundaries, appall us today? The life of once-renowned twentieth-century author Norman Douglas raises this question in a particularly stark form. In her new book, Unspeakable: A Life beyond Sexual Morality, Rachel Hope Cleves takes a clear-eyed look at Douglas’s life, what it can tell us how societal standards change with time, and what we can learn from a better understanding of those shifts. We asked her a few questions about the book. Norman Douglas is far less famous now than he was in his lifetime. How did you first learn about him? Believe it or not, this very serious book began with a little light vacation reading. In 2013-2014 I spent a sabbatical year in Paris with my family and we bought discount airline tickets to Naples for the kids’ spring break. A friend recommended that we visit Capri while we were there. I didn’t know anything about the island, so in my typical nerdy fashion I looked for books to read and discovered that there was a 1917 bestseller . . .

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7 Questions with David Sepkoski, author of “Catastrophic Thinking”

November 23, 2020
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7 Questions with David Sepkoski, author of “Catastrophic Thinking”

We live in an age in which we are repeatedly reminded—by scientists, by the media, by popular culture—of the looming threat of mass extinction. Such apocalyptic talk feels familiar to us, but the current fascination with extinction is a relatively recent phenomenon. As David Sepkoski reveals, the way we value biodiversity depends crucially on our sense that it is precarious—that it is something actively threatened, and that its loss could have profound consequences. In his new book, Sepkoski uncovers how and why we learned to value diversity as a precious resource at the same time as we learned to think catastrophically about extinction. We asked him a few questions about it. In the book, you explain how an “extinction imaginary” helps inform the way we see and value the world around us. Can you give us a quick introduction to that term? A central claim of this book is that scientific ideas and cultural values can’t be cleanly separated: science doesn’t “cause” us to believe certain things about society or politics, nor do political or social values “explain” particular scientific theories. Rather, the science and culture of a particular place and time are tightly interwoven and reinforce each other by . . .

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Meet Mary Al-Sayed, Our New Editor for Anthropology & History

October 30, 2020
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We’re excited to welcome Mary Al-Sayed, who recently joined the Press as editor in the Books Division, acquiring new titles in anthropology and history. Mary comes to us from Palgrave Macmillan, where she was senior editor for anthropology, sociology, and migration studies. Ordinarily, we would look forward to introducing Mary in person at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), where you’d have the opportunity to chat with her directly about her interests. Alas, here we are. AAA will be virtual, as will our booth. But we didn’t want you all to miss the chance to get to know Mary, so we’ve put together this little Q & A. Enjoy the interview, and then click through to our Virtual AAA booth to browse the latest, best books in the field, which are available for 40% off with free shipping. We’ll look forward to seeing you in person at next year’s AAA! What are you looking for in a book, and what kind of project gets you excited? I approach most proposals with a really rude question in mind, one that my mother forbade me from asking around second grade: “So what?” (Yes, I was an obnoxious child.) Most proposals an . . .

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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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