Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

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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An Unflinching Excerpt from ‘The Torture Letters’ by Laurence Ralph

February 20, 2020
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This week on the blog, we're highlighting one of our most timely and important new releases—The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence . . .

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When Should You Say, “I Love You”?: An Excerpt from “The Arc of Love”

February 13, 2020
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This Valentine’s Day, we turn to Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, author of The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time, for a little romance advice. In the book, he provides an in-depth, philosophical account of the experiences that arise in early, intense love—sexual passion, novelty, change—as well as the benefits of cultivating long-term, profound love—stability, development, calmness. Ben-Ze’ev analyzes the core of emotions many experience in early love and the challenges they encounter, and he offers pointers for weathering these challenges. Read on for an excerpt. “The regret of my life is that I have not said ‘I love you’ often enough.” Yoko Ono A common dilemma about romantic timing is the question of when to utter the expression “I love you.” Hearing a partner say “I love you” for the first time is often one of the highlights of a romantic relationship. However, people tend to be uncertain as to when to declare their love and whether to be the first to do so or to wait until the other has given an indication of feeling the same way. Is there an optimal time to reveal your feelings? Does timing make no difference, or all the difference? When Should You . . .

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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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Read an Excerpt from “The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in Seventies America” by Daniel Belgrad

December 12, 2019
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Read an Excerpt from “The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in Seventies America” by Daniel Belgrad

National Horse Day (#NationalDayoftheHorse) is December 13th. And in honor of this equestrian holiday, we’d like to share an excerpt from The Culture of Feedback by Daniel Belgrad focusing on human-animal relationships, particularly those between horses and their humans. The book digs deep into a dazzling variety of left-of-center experiences and attitudes and looks anew at the wild side of the 1970s. In doing so, Belgrad tells the story of a generation of Americans who were struck by a newfound interest in—and respect for—plants, animals, indigenous populations, and the very sounds around them.  In conjunction with the growing impact of ecological thinking and its emphasis on empathy, the Seventies witnessed a new focus on the affective quality of human-animal interactions. Acknowledging the emotional lives of animals demanded moving beyond behaviorist approaches to animal behavior, which remained rooted in the dualism of mind and matter that characterized Enlightenment science. This led to a particular excitement about exploring new forms of human relationship with horses, as these were animals that were known to resist behavioral conditioning. Due to its reliance on empathy and physicality, the new ideal for interacting with animals was often described in ecological texts as a kind of dance. The . . .

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By Way of Beginning: Read an Excerpt from “Dark Lens” by Françoise Meltzer

November 25, 2019
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The year 2020 will mark seventy-five years since the Second World War came to an end. In her new book, Dark Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945, Françoise Meltzer draws on her childhood memories of post-war Germany to consider how we construct our memories of war. Analyzing a collection of photographs taken by her mother, Jeanne Dumilieu, Meltzer confronts the ruins, wreckage, and ghosts that the war left behind. My mother, who was French, had been in the Resistance in Paris during the war. I never learned this from her (I found out from her friends, and by accident, in my late twenties); nor did she speak much about the occupation of Paris. The only thing she talked about was how hungry she and the Parisian population were throughout the war. When I asked her why she had never told me that she was in the Resistance, she retorted with some contained anger, “Today, everybody was in the Resistance. I have nothing to say about it.” But it must be said that this was a particularly tight-lipped genera­tion: my father never spoke of having been in the London Blitzkrieg, nor my uncle of surviving Buchenwald, nor my aunt of having hid­den my . . .

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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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Lewis Raven Wallace: How to Speak Up and Speak Out

November 5, 2019
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It’s University Press Week! Today’s blog tour theme is ‘Speaking Up & Speaking Out’. Who better to reflect on the subject than activist and journalist Lewis Wallace, who was fired from his job in public radio for refusing to stay silent about the harmful and marginalizing myth of ‘objectivity’ perpetuated in the media world? Read on for his thoughts about today’s theme, and scroll for event info and a teaser trailer of Wallace’s new podcast, companion to his debut book, The View from Somewehere. “I was raised to believe that speaking out mattered, that we all had some responsibility to justice and fairness in the world. I remember lodging protests that only a child of privilege would: against the overly authoritarian school lunch supervisor; against a teacher who I believed insulted the sixth grade students’ intelligence. I circulated petitions and self-published newspapers about youth liberation and adult domination. But speaking out comes with consequences that are uneven and unfair, based on your position of power in the world. In my case, speaking out was easy until I came of age and came out as queer, and transgender in the late 1990s. Using my voice then became a necessity, rather than . . .

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