53 Crossover Month #2: Novel Dialogue (Orhan Pamuk, Bruce Robbins, JP)

Crossover Month continues with something completely different, and only a little bit incestuous. Novel Dialogue is a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. John and Aarthi serve as the third wheel (or if you prefer the social lubricant) for a scholar and a novelist who sit down each week to explore the making of novels, and what to make of them. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts  Spotify or Stitcher

In Novel Dialogue’s second episode, critic and scholar Bruce Robbins sits down with Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. They have taught classes on the political novel together at Columbia for years, and it shows. They ask how the novel can ever escape its roots in middle-class sensibility and perspective: Joseph Conrad comes up, and so does modern Brazilian film. Then they discuss the demonic appeal of Russian novels—and why retired military  officers produced so many great Turkish translations of Russian novels.

We hear tantalizing details about Pamuk’s forthcoming pandemic novel, Nights of Plague. He discusses his move away from “highbrow ironical postmodernist” fiction and reveals his affection for talking about politics–along with his distaste for what the consequences of speaking out may be. “I am not shy about talking…but there are consequences!”

Mentioned in the Episode:

City of God (Brazilian film, 2002)
Joseph Conrad (Under Western Eyes, Nostromo)
Ivan Turgenev
Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?
Karl Marx, “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Demons (1871-2), A Writer’s Diary,
James Joyce, Dubliners
Louis Aragon, (Zolaesque romances at the end of his career), Aurélien
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Read and Listen:

52 Crossover Month #1: “High Theory” and the Pastoral (Kim, Saronik, JP)

Kim Adams and Saronik Bosu share an office at the English department of NYU–and now they also share High Theory a podcast where you can “get high on the substance of theory.” Their lovable podcast always identifies a single manageable topic and asks three magic questions (what is your quest? is not one of them). Today that topic is “the pastoral”; in a role reversal, John asks the three questions of Saronik and Kim.

Topics covered include the joys of sharing an office, and the irony that podcasts mimic the very social face-to-face intimacy that they actually displace. John admits RtB’s informal motto, “After the conference, the bar” is blatantly cribbed from the cry of the Paris ’68ers: sous les pave, la plage (under the pavement, the beach).

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51 Recall This Buck 3: Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Ideology (Adaner, JP)

Is Thomas Piketty the world’s most famous economic historian ? A superstar enemy of plutocratic capitalism who wrote a pathbreaking bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century? Or simply a debonair and generous French intellectual happy to talk redistributive justice? Join John and Adaner Usmani (star of RTB’s episode 44: Racism as idea, Racism as Power Relation) to find out.

Why did we invite him? John thinks nobody is better than Piketty at mapping and explaining the nature and origin of the glaring and growing inequality that everywhere defines wealth distribution in the 21st century—both between societies and within them. His recent magnum opus, Capital and Ideology. ask what sorts of stories societies (and individuals within those societies) tell themselves so as to tolerate such inequality—and the poverty and misery it produces. Or even to see that inequality as part of the natural order of things.

Continue reading “51 Recall This Buck 3: Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Ideology (Adaner, JP)”

49 The Capitol Insurrection and Asymmetrical Policing: David Cunningham (EF, JP)

We first heard from the sociologist of American racism David Cunningham in Episode 36 Policing and White Power. Less than a week after the horrors of January 6th, he came back for an extended conversation about “asymmetrical policing” of the political right and left–and of White and Black Americans. His very first book (There’s Something Happening Here, 2004) studied the contrast between the FBI’s work in the 1960’s to wipe out left-wing and Black protests and its efforts to control and tame right-wing and white supremacist movements. That gives him a valuable perspective on the run-up to January 6th–and what may happen next.

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47 Glimpsing COVID: Gael McGill on Data Visualization (GT, JP)

What’s a picture worth? How about the picture that allows scientists to grasp what’s actually going on in a cell–or on the spiky outside of an invading virus? Gael McGill, Director of Molecular Visualization at the Center for Molecular and Cellular Dynamics at Harvard Medical School is founder and CEO of Digizyme and has spent his career exploring and developing different modes for visualizing evidence.

For this scientific conversation, John is joined once again by Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (think ep 4 Madeline Miller; think ep 2 Addiction!). And because Gael’s work proves that a picture can be worth far more than a thousand words, our RTB post is more picturesque than usual. Start by checking out Digizyme‘s image of the spike protein attaching the SARS-CoV2 virus to a hapless cell and fusing their membranes:

Or maybe you’d rather click through to watch a gorgeous video Gael and his team have created?

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46 Leah Price on Children’s Books: Turning Back the Clock on “Adulting” (EF, JP)

What do children love most about books? Leaving their mark on inviting white spaces? Or that enchanting feeling when a book marks them as its own, taking them off to where the wild things are? To understand childhood reading past and present, Elizabeth and John talk with the illustrious and illuminating book historian Leah Price. They explore the tactile and textual properties of great children’s books and debate adult fondness for juvenile literature. Leah asks if identifying with a literary character is a sign of virtuous imagination, or of craziness and laziness. She also schools John on what makes a good association copy, and reveals her son’s magic words when he wants her to tell a story: Read it!

For many years an English Professor at Harvard, Leah is founder and director of the Rutgers Initiative for the Book, and she tweets at @LeahAtWhatPrice. Her What We Talk About When We Talk About Books recently won Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the concern about distinguishing between juvenile and adult books seemed to shift from moral panic about speeding up sexual maturity to worry about turning back the clock on what we now call adulting through the mainstreaming of young adult literature.

Continue reading “46 Leah Price on Children’s Books: Turning Back the Clock on “Adulting” (EF, JP)”

44 Adaner Usmani: Racism as idea, Racism as power relation (EF, JP)

racism, mass incarceration, Southern plantation economy,
and W.E.B. Du Bois

Do we understand racism as the primary driving engine of American inequality? Or do we focus instead on the indirect ways that frequently hard-to-discern class inequality and inegalitarian power relations can produce racially differentiated outcomes? Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard and on the editorial board at Catalyst joins Elizabeth and John to wrestle with the subtle and complex genealogy of Southern plantation economy and its racist legacy.

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43 Sanjay Krishnan on V. S. Naipaul: To make the Deformation the Formation (JP)

“My subject was not my inward self, but…the worlds within me.”

Sanjay Krishnan, Boston University English professor and Conrad scholar, has written a marvelous new book about that grumpiest of Nobel laureates, V. S Naipaul’s Journeys. Krishnan sees the “Contrarian and unsentimental” Trinidad-born but globe-trotting novelist and essayist as early and brilliant at noticing the unevenness with which the blessings and curses of modernity were distributed in the era of decolonization. Centrally, Naipaul realized and reckoned with the always complex and messy question of the minority within postcolonial societies.

He talks with John about Naipaul’s early focus on postcolonial governments, and how unusual it was in the late 1950’s for colonial intellectuals to focus on “the discomfiting aspects of postcolonial life….and uneven consequences of the global transition into modernity.” Most generatively of all, Sanjay insists that the “troublesome aspect is what gives rise to what’s most positive in Naipaul.”

Photo of Sanjay Krishnan by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography
Continue reading “43 Sanjay Krishnan on V. S. Naipaul: To make the Deformation the Formation (JP)”

42 Recall This Buck 2: Peter Brown on wealth, charity and managerial bishops in early Christianity (JP)

Our Recall This Buck series began by speaking with Christine Desan of Harvard Law School about how key ideas—and the actual currency, physical coins and bills— underlying the modern monetary system get “invisibilized” with that system’s success, so that seeing money clearly is both harder and more vital. Today, illustrious Princeton historian Peter Brown narrates the emergence, in the 3rd and 4th century AD, of striking new ideas about charity and how to include the poor inside a religious community.

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41 RTB Books in Dark Times 13: Lorraine Daston, Historian of Science (JP)

In this final episode of Books in Dark Times, John chews the bibliographic fat with Lorraine Daston of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Her list of publications outstrips our capacity to mention here; John particularly admires her analysis of “epistemic virtues” such as truth to nature and objectivity in her 2007 Objectivity (coauthored with Peter Galison).

Although she “came of age in an era of extreme contextualism” Daston is anything but time-bound. She starts things off in John’s wheelhouse with Henry James, before moving on to Pliny the Younger–no, not the scientist, the administrator! Then she makes a startling flanking maneuver to finish with contemporary Polish poetry. John puffs to keep up…

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39 RTB Books in Dark Times 12: Carlo Rotella (JP)

Carlo Rotella of Boston College is author of six books, among them the amazing Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (University of California Press, 2002) and most recently The World Is Always Coming to an End:  Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood (University of Chicago Press, 2019). What is he reading in the darkness? He starts by praising sagas, makes a case for stories of disagreeableness and plugs a remarkable book about preaching, deception, and the urge to belong.

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38 Beth Blum on Self-Help from Carnegie to Today (JP)

Beth Blum, Assistant Professor of English at Harvard, is the author of The Self-Help Compulsion (Columbia University Press 2019). Learn how self-help went from its Victorian roots (worship greatness!) to the ingratiating unctuous style prescribed by the other-directed Dale Carnegie (everyone loves the sound of their own name) before arriving at the “neo-stoical” self-help gurus of today, who preach male and female versions of “stop apologizing!” You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll either help yourself or learn how to stop caring.

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37 RTB Books In Dark Times 11: Elizabeth Bradfield (JP)

Elizabeth Bradfied is editor of Broadsided Press, professor of creative writing at Brandeis, naturalist, photographer–and most of all an amazing poet (“Touchy” for example just appeared in The Atlantic). Her books include Interpretive Work, Approaching Ice, Once Removed, and Toward Antarctica. She lives on Cape Cod, travels north every summer to guide people into Arctic climes, birdwatches. She is in and of and for our whole natural world.

So, is it poetry sustaining her now? Or does she (she does!) have other sources of inspiration?

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36 Policing and White Power: (EF, JP) Global Policing Series

Black lives matter. Yet for decades or centuries in America that basic truth has been ignored, denied, violently suppressed. Many of the mechanisms that create an oppressed and subordinated American community of color can seem subtle and indirect, despite the insidious ways they pervade housing law (The Color of Law), education (Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together, Savage Inequalities) and the carceral state (The Condemnation of Blackness, The New Jim Crow, Locking Up Our Own).

Although there is plenty of subtle racism in policing as well, there can be a brutally frontal quality to white-power policing: just look at the racial disparity in the stubbornly astronomically number of fatal shootings by police.

In this episode, we join other public discussions (including Brandeis University’s America’s Racial Reckoning: Black Lives and Black Futures in Historical, Political and Legal Context and Democracy Now’s interview with Angela Davis on abolition) of police brutality, systemic and personal racism and Black Lives Matter. We are lucky to be joined by Daniel Kryder and David Cunningham, two scholars who have worked on these questions for decades.

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35 RTB Books In Dark Times 10: Martin Puchner

RTB listeners already know the inimitable Martin Puchner from that fabulous RTB episode about his “deep history” of literature and literacy, The Written World. You may even know he has a family memoir coming out soon, The Language of Thieves.

But it took Books in Dark Times to uncover his secret hankering for tales of the British aristocracy, and for off-kilter modernist texts.

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33 RTB Books in Dark Times 9: Ben Fountain (JP)

Ben Fountain is far more than just the author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won RTB hearts and minds (and the National Book Award) long before it became a weird Ang Lee movie.

What is consoling and engaging the author of the best novel about America’s dismal experience in Iraq? American novels, especially those about Americans abroad (Joan Didion. say) have always done something special for him. Marilynne Robinson’s and James Baldwin’s work make us confront the reality that’s happening around us all the time, “a freaking massacre.” He carried the the (fictional but genuine) facts of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk in his head for forty years.

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32 RTB Books in Dark Times 8: Paul Saint-Amour (JP 5/20)

Who better to talk about Dark Times than the author of an unforgettable scholarly book about the grimness of the interwar years, Tense Future? Paul Saint-Amour, Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania and author of various prizewinning books and brilliant articles, joins John to talk about realism, escapism and the glories of science fiction.

Paul wonders if immersive reading is even possible during this terrible imminence. Can we really gaze at the dental work of the pandemical lion as its jaws open upon us? He goes on to praise “recursive” plots as glimpsed in time-travel narratives, which produce not interactivity with a text, but interpassivity; the immersion into a form that has its ending always waiting for readers from their very beginning. Throughout he manages to be pessimistic but hopeful.

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Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel

Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.

There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.

Darwin, though,  saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

Continue reading “Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel”

31 RTB Books in Dark Times 7: Vanessa Smith (JP)

U. Sydney professor Vanessa Smith–author of Intimate Strangers, and also of this lovely short piece about Marion Milner–joins John to discuss her pandemic reading. She praises a Milner (quasi)travel book, but she also makes the case for M F K Fisher and a book about the glories of hypochondria.

Tasmanian selfie: John, Vanessa, mysterious mathematician (r to l)

Then the old friends share their newfound love for spiky Australian novelist Helen Garner, doyenne of share-house feminism.

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30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “Challenge Testing” a Covid Vaccine

On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”

It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of  Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.

Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”

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