How should we humans respond to our ongoing human-made climate catastrophe? To answer that question, we turned to prize-winning climate reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, who visited Brandeis this Fall as part of the New Student Book Forum.
The topic was Under a White Sky, her recent book that documents the responses to the climate crisis ranging from a form of climate engineering that shoots reflective particles into the air to cool the atmosphere, to negative emission technologies that capture and inject carbon dioxide underground.
John and Elizabeth talk with Brandeis linguistic anthropologist Janet McIntosh about the language of US alt-right movements. Janet’s current book project on language in the military has prompted thoughts about the “implausible deniability” of “Let’s Go Brandon”–a phrase that “mocks the idea we have to mince words.”
The three of them unpack the “regimentation” of the phrase, the way it rubs off on associated signs, and discusses what drill sergeants on Parris Island really do say. They speculates on the creepy, Dark Mirror-esque similarity between the deciphering of “Q-drops” and academic critique. Turning back to her work on basic training, Janet unpacks the power of “semiotic callousing.”
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? Back in 2021, Elizabeth and John invited illustrious and illuminating book historian Leah Price to decode childhood reading past and present. The conversation explores 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!
Paul Roquet is an MIT associate professor in media studies and Japan studies; his earlier work includes Ambient Media. His recent mind-bending book The Immersive Enclosure prompted John and Elizabeth to invite him to discuss the history of “head-mounted media” and the perceptual implications of virtual reality.
Paul, Elizabeth and John discuss the appeal of leaving actuality aside and how the desire to shut off immediate surroundings shapes VR’s rollout in Japan. The discussion covers perceptual scale-change as part of VR’s appeal–is this true of earlier forms of artwork as well? We explore moral panic around VR in Japan and the U.S., recap the history of early VR headset adapters on trains (including Brookline’s D-line!) and learn about the geneaologies various Japanese words for “virtual” and their antonyms. Paul wonders if the ephemerality of the views glimpsed in a rock garden served as guiding paradigm for how VR is experienced.
In this 2019 conversation, rebroadcast now to follow up RTB 82, Elizabeth and John try their best to unpack Zadie Smith’s take on sincerity, authenticity and human sacredness; the “golden ticket” dirty secret behind our hypocritical academic meritocracy; surveillance capitalism as the “biggest capital grab of human experience in history;” and her genealogy of the novel. If we had to sum the day up with a few adjectives (and we do): funny, provocative, resplendent, chill, generous, cantankerous.
In this 2019 episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”
As dwellers of and in language, we know the power of words, but what we do not know—or perhaps we know but aren’t able to predict the particular form and effects of—is the process by which language forms a spectacular house of meaning, such as the poetic edifice that Mohabir has built. Mohabir’s poems house his queer identity, diasporic existence, and multivalent violence—they are a construction of precise imageries and innovative hybridifications of interfacing languages.
Since the original airing of this episode in June 2021, Roger Reeves’ second book Best Barbarian was published by W.W. Norton, and the paperback edition of David Ferry’s translation of The Aeneid was published by the University of Chicago Press.
Their tongues are ashes when they’d speak to us.
David Ferry, “Resemblance”
The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from heroes (Gilgamesh, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas) and poets (Orpheus, Virgil, Dante). Some come down for information or in hopes of rescuing or just seeing their loved ones, or perhaps for a sense of comfort in their grief. They often find those they have loved, but they rarely can bring them back. Comfort they never find, at least not in any easy way.
Madeline Miller has made a name for herself by retelling Greek myths; she calls it literary adaptation or mythological realism. Her 2012 debut novel The Song of Achilles (Orange prize winner), retells an episode from the Iliad. Circe, published in 2018, is a retelling and expansion of the Odyssey from the perspective of Circe.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a witch who lives on the island of Aiaia and turns visitors into beasts. She traps Odysseus’s men this way, but with his cleverness and help from the gods, Odysseus himself evades her tricks, frees his men, and wins her over. She is an important ally, telling him how to visit the underworld and return home. As the introduction to the RtB conversation with Miller puts it, though, she only has a “bit part.” Reflecting on her approach to retelling Circe’s story, Miller tells RtB, “I do feel like it’s a corrective in the sense that it’s a balancing […] We’ve had three thousand years of the male heroic tradition. Can we just pull on that a little bit, and bring the female voices up?”
Retellings are intensified stories. When you read a retelling, you read at least two stories at once, like the doubled vision of blurry eyes. Because of this, I was fascinated to see that Circe in Miller’s retelling has a similarly doubled vision of herself. She constantly sees herself as men see her, constantly hears her story as a man would tell it.
“I could imagine the stories he was telling of me, humorless, prickly, and smelling of pigs,” Circe says after sending Hermes away from her island. She is well aware of the stereotypes she inhabits, steps around, plays into and is forced into. They have become the lenses through which she views herself, and therefore limit the ways she can imagine herself being. She is haunted by the way others will tell her story.
In this rebroadcast, John and Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (an occasional host and perennial friend of Recall this Book) speak with Madeline Miller, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Circe.
They discuss Circe’s place in Greek mythology and in a retelling of the Odyssey “from below” or “from the side,” the concept of “mythological realism,” and the influence of The Once and Future King on Madeline’s writing. They touch too on the sweet family aspects that show up in Homer, and on Odysseus’s changing reputation throughout time. Madeline has two totally unexpected recommendations in our Recallable Books section.
When Stephenie Meyer’s first Twilight Saga entry made it to the big screen in Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008), it dutifully included a rendition of the vampiric Cullen family’s supernaturally enhanced baseball game. The film sequence – affectionately nicknamed Vampire Baseball by fans – diverges slightly but significantly from its novel counterpart, depicting the game with a certain conscious absurdity that never devolves into self-parody. Everything from the soundtrack’s bombastic guitar riffs to the rapid, disorienting cuts offer a high-octane viewing experience unmistakably out of step with this strange permutation of what Immortal Teenage Heartthrob Edward Cullen drolly identifies as “the American pastime.” Indeed, something more complicated lurks beneath the surface of Hardwicke’s ballgame. Unlike earlier scenes that allow the Cullens to credibly perform normalcy and mortality in front of protagonist Bella Swan, the Vampire Baseball sequence highlights the conspicuous traits which remind her that her newfound friends are neither normal nor mortal at all.
John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson in this rebroadcast of a 2019 Recall this Book conversation. Her Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia both relates the history of Polynesia, and explores how histories of Polynesia are constructed.
The discussion considers various moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the moment ijn 1976 when the Hokule’a‘s traveled from Hawaii to Tahiti in a triumphant reconstruction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding. Thompson has fascinating thoughts on how the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.
As an indigenous person, listening to “Land-Grab Universities” (Recall this Book 76) made me reflect on my own education–acquired from a land-grant institution. It was both sobering and stimulating to consider how I profited from a university whose historic and present-day rhetoric on land-grabbing, land acknowledgement, and land-use is a continued support for the settler colonialism project in the U.S.
The episode unfolds from Robert Lee and Tristan Athone’s project, “Land-Grab Universities,” a High Country News investigation into how the United States funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous Land. He explains that under the Morrill Act of 1862, colleges were built across the U.S. to teach branches of learning related to agricultural and mechanic arts to foster agricultural production. States received parcels of land to build their colleges on but also received land beyond the campus grounds to lease and sell for fundraising efforts. But before these states could be given parcels of land to sell, the federal government violently seized lands from Indigenous people – nearly 11 million acres of land from 250 tribes, bands and communities.
John and new host Jerome Tharaud (author of Apocalyptic Geographies) learn exactly how the growth of America’s public universities relied on shameful seizures of Native American land. Working with Tristan Athone (editor of Grist and a member of the Kiowa Tribe) historian Robert Lee wrote a stunning series of pieces that reveal how many public land-grant universities were fundamentally financed and sustained by a long-lasting settle-colonial “land grab.” Their meticulous work paints an unusually detailed picture of how most highly praised institutions of higher education in America (Cornell, MIT, UC Berkeley and virtually all of the great Midwestern public universities) were initially launched and sometimes later sustained by a flood of cash deriving directly or indirectly from that stolen and seized land.
This July 2021 conversation (the asterisk in 75* indicates a rebroadcast) features Brandeis poet Elizabeth Bradfield, and the poet Sean Hill, author of Blood Ties and Brown Liquor (2008) and Dangerous Goods (2014).
Sean read his “Musica Universalis in Fairbanks,” (it appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review) and then, like someone seated in an archive turning over the pages of aged and delicate documents, unfolded his ideas about birds, borders, houses and “who was here before me.”
In “Church Bells Will Signal,” the Greek poet and revolutionary Yiannis Ritsos mourns and celebrates the oppressed and martyred during the fight for a liberated Greece: “those ones are in irons, and those others are in the earth. // The earth is theirs and ours.” Although not a “political” poet in the conventional sense, Ritsos helped reclaim the totality of Greek history in service of social struggle, imbuing even his most innocuous lyrics with the specter of solidarity––a subversive practice that got his work banned several times by Greek authorities.
George Kalogeris is also not a “political” poet, but, like Ritsos, his attention to poetic speech emerges from a place of deep struggle and historical memory. His 2018 collection, Guide to Greece, borrows its title from the 2nd-century AD travelogue by Pausanias and charts the intersections of ancient and modern Greece. The decision to poeticize Greece, of course, has a long and uneven legacy in western thought. In the works of non-Greek writers like Michel Foucault, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Penn Warren, their investigations into the ancient world serve mostly to enrich or supplement their own philosophical-poetic development. For many of these writers, “Greece” loses all historical specificity, becoming a metonym for the “west” in its infancy. Greek myths, political forms, and cultural practices are instrumentalized indiscriminately; they gain meaning largely as the foundation of Euro-American culture. Reading, Foucault’s late engagements with ancient Greek poetry, one might not realize that Greece’s history continued past the fourth century B.C.
Crossover Month at Recall this Book ends with a glance sideways at the doings of our pals Saronik and Kim of the delightfully lapidary podcast High Theory. Refresh your sense of them with Recall this Book 52: they joined John to showcase their distinctive approach, taking as their topic “the pastoral.” Or, just click Play without further ado to hear their thoughts on teletherapy, a concept that proves far more familiar, and omnipresent than we at RtB had realized. Take those omnipresent signs for the Suicide Hotline, for starters….
This essay first appeared on the website Novel Dialogue, our partner podcast for this month’s episodes, and is reprinted by permission, with our thanks. If you like what you read, head over to Noveldialogue.org to read and hear more.
“The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon.”
In last week’s RtB, Jennifer Egan speaks of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747) and wonders at the 18th century author’s ability to sustain a creative exploration over “many thousands of pages.” At this prompting, I have been thinking a lot about novels that refuse to let you go. I’ll never forget how Cynthia Wall first introduced Clarissa to our graduate seminar: “you don’t read through Clarissa, you sink into Clarissa. The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon or being trapped in a web.” Her description was apt. I remember reading for hours at a time, making excruciatingly slow progress through densely packed, oversized pages with teensy font. But I was ensnared by the text’s progress, just as trapped and frustrated as Clarissa herself, and I couldn’t stop reading. I met Lovelaces and Clarissas in the people around me; my emails and texts took on an epistolary verbosity; I dreamt of being unheard, imprisoned, tricked, assaulted; I felt an unfamiliar impulse to write a will and research casket designs.
This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread.