Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

An excerpt from The Birthday Book by Censorinus

February 9, 2007
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An excerpt from The Birthday Book by Censorinus

In the year AD 238, in the capital of the Roman Empire, the scholar Censorinus gave a present to his best friend, the noble Quintus Caerellius. The gift was this charming work, which he called The Birthday Book (De die natali liber). In its few dozen pages, Censorinus sets down everything related to the idea of birthdays. He begins simply, with the right way to sacrifice to one’s birthday spirit. By the time he has finished he has sketched a glorious vision of the universe ruled by harmony and order, where the microcosm of the child in the womb corresponds to the macrocosm of the planets.—From Holt N. Parker’s Preface to The Birthday Book by Censorinus Part 4, "Seed and Conception" 1. Your lifetime starts on your birthday, but there are also many things before that day which pertain to the origin of humankind. It seems relevant, therefore, to say something first about the things which are themselves first in the order of nature. So I shall briefly set out some of the opinions which the ancients held about the origins of mankind. 2. The first and general question treated by the men of old who were learned in wisdom . . .

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Dublin Theatre in the 1920s and ’30s

January 26, 2007
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Dublin Theatre in the 1920s and ’30s

David Grene (1913–2002) taught classics for many years at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of the Committee on Social Thought and coedited The Complete Greek Tragedies. Six months of every year, though, he worked his farm in Ireland. This is an excerpt about how his interest in theatre developed, from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir. Until the age of eleven, my only experience of the theater was at the yearly Christmas pantomime, to which our whole family always went. These are not pantomimes in the strict sense of dumb show, but a traditional form of comic entertainment put on at Christmastime. The greatest of them in my time was the one done year after year at the Gaiety under the leadership of Jimmy O’Dea and Maureen Potter. These were a wonderful pair of genuinely amusing comedians, and they ran the show to suit themselves. But prior to them, it was not like that. Most of the theaters in Dublin (the Gaiety, Royal, Queen’s, and Olympia) put on a separate pantomime every year. Each pantomime was sketchily based on a folk story—Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington, or others—and there was an intermittent effort to . . .

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Learning Greek and Latin in Dublin Schools

January 23, 2007
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Learning Greek and Latin in Dublin Schools

David Grene (1913–2002) taught classics for many years at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of the Committee on Social Thought and coedited The Complete Greek Tragedies. Six months of every year, though, he worked his farm in Ireland. This is an excerpt about his early education from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir. The school my parents chose for me was St. Stephen’s Green and was essentially one of these small private Protestant schools. It was not a boarding school, but otherwise the atmosphere was very like that described by George Orwell in Such, Such Were the Joys. The fees in the bigger private schools like High School or St. Andrew’s (where I went toward the end of my schooldays) were certainly rather less than in a place like St. Stephen’s Green, and both varieties cost far more than what my parents should have sensibly entertained as possible for them. I believe that the smaller schools were associated with a more explicit version of gentlemanliness. In the larger private schools quite a few of the pupils came from what was very nearly working class. Anyway, my parents decided that the small and exclusive Stephen’s Green was . . .

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Honors Classics at Trinity College

January 19, 2007
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Honors Classics at Trinity College

David Grene (1913–2002) taught classics for many years at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of the Committee on Social Thought and coedited The Complete Greek Tragedies. Six months of every year, though, he worked his farm in Ireland. This is an excerpt about his university education from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir. The men who taught Honors Classics in Trinity College had enough of the unusual and exotic to furnish a mysterious element to our education. They were nearly all of the recognizable British eccentric type, something grown much rarer since. There were five or six of them lecturing, or teaching if one preferred that title, and at least three of them—the seniors of the group—combined a well-deserved reputation for scholarship, backed up by a fair amount of scholarly publication, with a remoteness from ordinary life, and manifest loneliness, and very notably an inability to act or speak or dress like any normal members of their class and kind. There was J. G. Smyly, one of the leading papyrologists of his day. Literary and other texts in Greek were preserved on papyrus for many hundreds of years before people came to use the expensive calfskin . . .

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In memory of Robert Altman

November 21, 2006
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In memory of Robert Altman

Robert Altman died yesterday at the age of 81. To mark his passing and his profound influence on contemporary film, we reprint Roger Ebert’s interview of Altman as published in Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert. Robert Altman Introduction I think I’ve interviewed Robert Altman more often than anybody else in the movie business. That has something to do with his method of making a movie, which is to assemble large groups of people and set them all in motion at once. There are always visitors on the set. Altman presides as an impresario or host. He likes to introduce people. I wonder if he dislikes being alone. Kathryn, his wife of forty years, is always somewhere nearby, a coconspirator. Once we both found ourselves at a film festival in Iowa City that was held only once. We both thought Pauline Kael was going to be there, which was why we’d agreed to come. Pauline later said she’d never been invited. Bob and I sat on a desk in a classroom and discussed the delicately moody Thieves Like Us, one of his most neglected films. Other times, I visited the sets of Health, A Wedding, and Gosford . . .

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Fred Turner on the Edge

October 13, 2006
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Fred Turner on the Edge

John Brockman’s Edge, a Web forum for some of today’s most brilliant intellectual outsiders, currently features a long article on Stewart Brand, ‘60s counterculture, and Fred Turner’s new book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Brand and the Whole Earth Network formed a group of artists and entrepreneurs who worked to bring together the disparate worlds of high technology and the flower power denizens of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Edge article includes a fascinating ramble by Brockman on his personal friendship with Brand as well as an extended excerpt from the second chapter of Turner’s book. John Brockman writes: In 1983, Stewart Brand sent Dick Farson and Darryl Iconogle of the Western Behavioral Science Institute to see me in New York about a piece of conferencing software called the Onion, which was being used on a bulletin board system called EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) and run by Murray Turoff. When I demurred, Stewart told me I could be a player or I could choose to sit out the biggest development of the decade. I chose to sit it out. Stewart was right and wrong. It is the biggest . . .

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9/11: Past and Future

September 8, 2006
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9/11: Past and Future

An excerpt from 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration by David Simpson. The event we call 9/11 has a past that we can rediscover, a present that we must monitor, and a future we can project. Many of us who were addressing even the most circumscribed of publics—our students or fellow academics—felt the urge, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, to make a statement, to testify, to register a response, to initiate some sort of commemoration. Many of those responses took the form of grief, sorrow, shock, and above all, self-recrimination at the appearance of carrying on as before. The rhetoric veered wildly between sympathy and self-importance—as if it were a moral duty that each of us should speak—but what was notable was the need to register awareness of some sort. Many people all across America, not only those who knew one of the dead or knew someone who knew someone, reported feelings of acute personal anxiety and radical insecurity, but there was never a point at which this response could be analyzed as prior to or outside of its mediation by television and by political manipulation. With the passage of time it may come to appear that 9/11 . . .

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Time Interrupted

September 6, 2006
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Time Interrupted

An excerpt from 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration by David Simpson. The whole play of history and power is disrupted by this event, but so, too, are the conditions of analysis. You have to take your time. —Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers Has the world changed since 9/11? If it has, then in what ways? If it has not changed, then who has an interest in claiming that it has? Whose world are we talking about? Acts of commemoration are particularly sensitive occasions for assessing the balance of change and continuity within the culture at large. They often declare their adherence to time-honored and even universally human rituals and needs, but nothing is more amenable to political and commercial manipulation than funerals, monuments, epitaphs, and obituaries. Outpourings of communal or national grief are proposed as spontaneous but are frequently stage-managed: Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train made carefully scheduled and choreographed stops on its protracted twelve-day passage from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, in the sad spring of 1865. . . .

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John G. Geer on On the Media

July 3, 2006
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John G. Geer on On the Media

Are negative campaign ads bad for voters and the democratic process? The conventional wisdom says yes, but John G. Geer’s in-depth analysis of negative political ads from 1960 to 2004 argues that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Geer appeared on the public radio program On the Media a few days ago to talk about his book In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Listen to the audio of the program segment. . . .

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Audio interview with Richard Lanham

June 27, 2006
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Audio interview with Richard Lanham

Chris Gondek has an audio interview with Richard A. Lanham on The Invisible Hand, his weekly podcast devoted to management and business topics. In The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard A. Lanham traces our epochal move from an economy of things and objects to an economy of attention. According to Lanham, the central commodity in our new age of information is not stuff but style, for style is what competes for our attention amidst the din and deluge of new media. We also have our own interview with Lanham and an excerpt from the book. . . .

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