Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Eliran Bar-El's "How Slavoj Became Žižek"

Eliran Bar-El is a lecturer in sociology at the University of York.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, How Slavoj Became Žižek: The Digital Making of a Public Intellectual, and reported the following:
Page 99 demonstrates one of the ways by which Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian Hegelian-Lacanian thinker, became an international celebrity and global public intellectual. Particularly, it describes one of Zizek’s earlier books, The Ticklish Subject from 1999, and shows how in-and-through introducing the book, its topic and goal, Zizek also casts a wide net of intellectual-political positions through which he positions himself.

As one would expect from a single page, this is a fragment of the entire story that my book unfolds, yet, nonetheless it is an indicative one: Zizek’s unique style of performance, his constant act of positioning, as well as frequent interventions in fields such as publishing and academia, these are just a few of the factors that eventually led to his global breakthrough a decade later.

In this regard, page 99 could be seen as a teaser. While it contains some key features related to Zizek’s emergence and reception, the whole story cannot be understood solely based on this page. Given the processual nature of public interventions, they are never a one-off. For Zizek to become a brand, and for his brand to stick, a more sustained positioning process had to be maintained by a network of people including close allies and fierce critics. In this precise sense, what happened before and after page 99 is crucial for understanding how Slavoj became Zizek. For example, Zizek’s early publication in France, roughly a decade prior to the episode on page 99, did not receive much positive attention. Therefore, Zizek started to expand his social network of personal and professional relations and to publish more in England. However, this was still not the big breakthrough that put Zizek on the global intellectual map. This happened shortly after page 99, in another episode that took place in the US. There Zizek brought his ideas to a wide range of publics by intervening with various mediums, including feature films and internet clips. Yet, such an academically unusual and diverse performance, in addition to other reasons as political positions and rate of interventions, resulted in a growing critique of his work and doubt of his intellectual seriousness or authenticity. This is explained as part of the “media-academia trade-off” through which Zizek keeps positioning and re-positioning himself to this day.
Learn more about How Slavoj Became Žižek at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Benjamin L. Carp's "The Great New York Fire of 1776"

Benjamin L. Carp is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America and Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. He lives in New York City.

Carp applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 appears just before I describe how the Great Fire of New York began in the early morning hours of September 21, 1776. The fire destroyed a fifth of the city. Page 99 comes toward the end of Chapter Six, “The Loss of New York City,” and it includes one of the book’s thirty illustrations.

Because page 99 is only half filled with words, it probably doesn’t give the best idea of the book’s quality, but a browser might be intrigued and gratified to discover an eighteenth-century engraving that breaks up the text. Authors have to work hard to secure reproductions and permissions for images and organize them for the publisher. On the other hand, this visual evidence supports the book’s overall argument. In Augsburg, Franz Xaver Habermann engraved this scene of British troops marching through New York City, based on his reading of British newspaper accounts. Although the buildings have little resemblance to New York’s actual architecture, the image conveys the dramatic changes that were happening in the city on September 15: an occupying army tromping through the streets.

The chapter describes the British capture of lower Manhattan as part of the Battle of Kip’s Bay on that day, followed by six tense days as the occupiers began to settle in.
Other signs worried the British, too. Captain [Frederick] Mackenzie noticed that “many of the Rebels who were unable to make their escape yesterday, are now in the town, and as they have changed their dress it is extremely difficult to discover them.” . . . Americans knew that people’s clothes could easily disguise their true identity. Striving status seekers, con artists, gender nonconformists, rioters, deserters, and runaway slaves all took advantage of their ability to don disguises. In a civil war, this problem grew more fraught—it was hard to know whether a person was loyal or rebellious.
(Disguises were an important part of my book on the Boston Tea Party, too.)

A recurring character in my book also appears on page 99 among these clandestine Rebels: a tavernkeeper named Captain Abraham Van Dyck:
Van Dyck may still have been wearing his grenadier uniform—a blue coat with red facings over a white waistcoat, breeches, and stockings. The British arrested him on September 16, angry at finding a Continental Army officer “secreted in a private House.”
Van Dyck would spend almost twenty months as a prisoner, because the British accused him of having helped to set New York City on fire. Witnesses would later testify that he had been arrested not on the sixteenth, but during the fire. He himself told his friends that a Black man had “betrayed” him to the British.

Page 99, in other words, offers some slivers of evidence that support the book’s argument: in the first week of the British occupation of New York City, skulking Rebels in the town—and perhaps even a Continental Army officer—attempted to burn it to the ground. I doubt that page 99 is very convincing on its own, but the book contains plenty of other evidence that the Great Fire cannot be dismissed as a mere accident.
Visit Benjamin L. Carp's website.

The Page 99 Test: Defiance of the Patriots.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 30, 2023

Lauren Bialystok and Lisa M. F. Andersen's "Touchy Subject"

Lauren Bialystok is associate professor at the Department of Social Justice Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. Lisa M. F. Andersen is associate professor of History and Liberal Arts at The Juilliard School.

They applied the "Page 99 Test" to their new book, Touchy Subject: The History and Philosophy of Sex Education, and reported the following:
Lauren: On page 99, I look at evidence of public opinion in support of comprehensive sex education (CSE). It turns out that an overwhelming majority of Americans from across the political spectrum want most topics in CSE – including information about contraception, oral and anal sex, and the risks of “sexting” -- taught in schools, even though Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education has dominated federal policy for four decades. From a straight democratic perspective, the justification for CSE is clear. But is that enough? What kinds of evidence matter, and how seriously should we take public opinion? A recent controversy in Ontario showed that, when a populist leader framed a particular CSE curriculum as a liberal project, a large number of people suddenly wanted to repeal the curriculum, even though they supported all its contents.

Lisa: In some ways, this page is very representative. It conveys why, for sex education policy makers, there are times when it’s hard to see a path forward; the Ontario incident is one of several controversies where misinformation regarding curriculum content fanned the flames of animosity. Even a leader who wants to listen to public opinion might have trouble figuring out what that is. The United States is often misguided when it comes to sex education – and the U.S. is the focus of our book – but there is plenty of unsound decision-making to go around.

Lauren: Right, we talk about how controversies over sex education are distorted to the point that we forget what we agree on and what we already know.

Lisa: And the conversation about sex education is more than just controversies. In my historical chapters, I show how sound deliberation by well-meaning people has resolved into a formidable amount of common ground. Ideas that were once vexing are now so widely accepted that we take them for granted: we should learn about sex before having it, sex education should support public health, and teachers should teach sex education differently from how they teach academic subjects.

Lauren: As much as the polarized camps described on page 99 disagree, they’re not disagreeing about any of that. That’s why tracing the historical journey should give us some hope for the future of sex education policy. We know that it’s possible to make progress because it’s something that we’ve done before.

Lisa: A browser opening to page 99 might give a reader the sense that we’re more pessimistic than we actually are, or that we’re suspicious of evidence because it can obviously be manipulated.

Lauren: This page actually appears in a section about the importance of using evidence and using it rigorously. Some types of sex education are demonstrably ineffective, and we’ve wasted countless years and billions of dollars wishing it were otherwise. Part of our purpose in the book is to refute the arguments for continuing with approaches that don’t work.

Lisa: And I think it’s clear that we oppose AOUME, even though we take issue with the oversimplified dichotomy of AOUME vs. CSE.

Lauren: Finally, I think that page 99 represents our book well because of its tone. We’ve written a serious academic work that is also … fun. Because, ultimately, sex is kind of funny.
Learn more about Touchy Subject at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 29, 2023

James E. Cronin's "Fragile Victory"

James E. Cronin is research professor of history at Boston College and a local affiliate of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Global Rules: America and Britain in a Disordered World. He splits his time between Watertown and Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Cronin applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Fragile Victory: The Making and Unmaking of Liberal Order, and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test works quite well in giving readers a sense of the book’s argument and its approach to making the argument. Page 99 is in a section of the book that discusses the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan in 1947, the Berlin blockade of 1948 and efforts to craft a German state, and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Its central paragraph reads thus:
In his Inaugural Address in 1949 Truman promised a “collective defense arrangement” linking the US, Canada, and Europe. The logic leading from the Marshall Plan to military alliance was powerful, and by early 1949 the effort had gained serious momentum. On April 9, 1949, the treaty setting up NATO was signed in Washington. The decisions that produced the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the new West German state were countered with parallel moves by the Soviet Union. The Soviets began making bilateral trade agreements with the states of Eastern Europe in 1947 and these were turned into a regional grouping, Comecon; and the German Democratic Republic was founded on October 7, 1949. The Warsaw Pact, which was hardly necessary given the looming and commanding presence of Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, did not come into being until 1955. Still, the symmetry seemed appropriate, even though cooperation and alliances in the West were largely voluntarily, if often the fruit of argument and at least subtle manipulation, while those in the East were simply coerced.
The first sentence of the next paragraph summarizes the main point being made:
Taken together, the Western initiatives were a dramatic reversal of previous policies and long- standing traditions.
The argument of Fragile Victory is that liberal order was a creation that required great effort and inspired policy-making to bring it into being and continued effort and vigilance to maintain it. It was not inevitable, and although for a time it seemed to become the norm, it was always in need of tending and adjusting. The plans that Roosevelt and others bequeathed to the world in 1945 assumed peace and international cooperation. The Cold War soon made those assumptions appear naïve. The response, by Truman and his allies in the US and Europe, was to reshape the vision by adding greater economic cooperation, as with the Marshall Plan, and a more serious security dimension, as with NATO.

The result was that the liberal order, once understood as universal, would be confined to the West and its allies, but it would be embedded in a broader and relatively stable Cold War order. Liberal order would only become a global project later, when the Cold War ended. The last three chapters of Fragile Victory assess that post-1989 project and the present serious challenges to liberal order. An additional “Note to Readers: The Invasion of Ukraine and Liberal Order” at the beginning of the book brings the assessment closer to the present.
Learn more about Fragile Victory at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Eleanor Janega's "The Once and Future Sex"

Eleanor Janega teaches medieval and early modern history at the London School of Economics. The creator of the popular blog Going Medieval and author of The Middle Ages: A Graphic History, she lives in London.

Janega applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society, and reported the following:
Page 99 contains a discussion of the sexual practices that were deemed acceptable by the medieval Church. As a general rule, sex had to take place between a married man and woman strictly for the purposes of procreation, but there were a lot of rules on top of that. In general, “what concerned theologians was an excess of pleasure which Aquinas categorized as ‘bestial’.” As a result, this page discusses restraints on sexual positions, as well as times when sex could take place, and restrictions to visual stimuli.

In this case the test absolutely works. Browsers who look at page 99 would understand how the book approaches breaking down various expectations in the medieval period. It draws on works from various theologians to explicate how theological consensus was created. While the book isn’t only concerned with religion, and looks at social patterns more broadly, a reader would get a good idea of how it does that. It’s also a fairly amusing page, which underlines the tone of the book more generally. Yes, it tackles complex concepts – but it does so while also having fun. This is, after all, really interesting and humorous subject matter.

While page 99 looks particularly at sexual expectations, that is just one of the main themes of the book more broadly. It first explains how we use sources like those that appear here to understand medieval society, as well as looking at how that impacts beauty standards, then sexual ideals, before looking at expectations about life and work for women. It finishes up with an explanation of why that matters, our society’s gender expectations now, and argues that the more we understand about how social
Follow Eleanor Janega on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 27, 2023

Colin Summerhayes's "The Icy Planet"

Colin Summerhayes is a chartered geologist and Emeritus Associate for the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University. He previously served as Executive Director of the International Council for Science's Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research at the Scott Polar Research Institute. His most recent publications include Paleoclimatology (2020) and Earth's Climate Evolution (2015).

Summerhayes applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Icy Planet: Saving Earth's Refrigerator, and reported the following:
Page 99 talks about making scientific measurements of the atmosphere in East Antarctica, which is the largest ice cube on the planet. What meteorologists need to know to make weather forecasts, aside from the temperature and humidity of the air at ground level, is the profile of these properties up through the atmosphere, which they measure by releasing weather balloons that collect the data and send it back to base via tiny radios. They can also watch how the balloons move sideways with the winds at different altitudes, which indicates wind speed and direction. These measurements also tell us why Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic. You may be surprised to learn that the overlying air is much thinner in the Antarctic, so traps less outgoing heat, thus making this environment cooler than the Arctic. Antarctica also contains a much larger area of ice, which reflects solar energy, which also makes the region colder. And East Antarctica is also higher than the Arctic, averaging a height of 3000 m, which makes it colder. The air at both poles is extremely dry because cold air holds less moisture. And they are also cold because the Sun’s rays are oblique in the polar regions, which means they get much less of the Sun’s energy than the tropics do.

The page 99 text doesn’t tell the reader all about the book, which follows a virtual tour through the world’s icy places – Antarctica, the Arctic, and the world’s high mountain ranges and plateaus, which make up what’s called the Third Pole. The book explains what is happening to the ice, snow and frozen ground (permafrost) in each of these places, demonstrating that we are losing a great deal of the planet’s ice and snow cover. Why does that matter? Well, ice and snow reflect the Sun’s energy back to outer space. That helps to keep our planetary climate moderately cool. As ice and snow melt, the newly exposed ground and sea absorb the Sun’s energy, which warms the surface, which then radiates heat back into the atmosphere. Unlike solar energy, which is not absorbed by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide or methane, this heat is in the form of infra-red radiation, which those gases absorb and re-radiate, warming the atmosphere. So our climate gets a double whammy: warming due to the emission of carbon dioxide and methane, plus additional warming caused by the loss of our reflective cover of ice and snow. In effect ice and snow act as Earth’s Refrigerator. If you go on vacation and leave your fridge and freezer door open by accident, its contents will rot and melt. So for much the same reason we don’t want to lose any more of Earth’s Refrigerator. And yet all of the data show that the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Third Pole are losing progressively more ice as time goes by. Indeed, the January 2023 issue of Science magazine suggests we will have lost 50% of all the Earth’s glaciers by the end of the century. Imagine that!

Almost everyone knows that melting ice and snow raise sea level. Careful calculations show that our sea level is rising at progressively increasing rates as our climate warms. These same calculations suggest that by the end of this century sea level will have risen by between 1 and 2 metres. But the rise will not stop there. By studying past climates we know that some 3 million years ago when there was a similar amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, sea levels rose by an average of about 15 metres. Are we heading for the same outcome over the next 200 years? Many climate scientists are convinced that we are. This is because the current forecast for the average global temperature by 2050 is 2.7 degrees Centigrade, well above the UN’s guardrails of between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees. These averages conceal something important – the temperatures in polar regions tend to be about three times higher than the global average. So, 2.7 degrees globally would translate to 8.1 degrees Centigrade in, say, the Arctic, which means a lot more ice and snow melt, which means yet more global warming, and yet more sea level rise.

The key question, then, as we face this threat, is what can be done about it? Some people blame the rise in global population, but matters are seldom so simple. In fact it is abundantly clear that the problem is not population, it is consumption. The richest 10% of the population causes 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions. The richest 1% causes 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is double the emissions of the poorest 50% of humanity. This is primarily a problem of excessive consumption by western countries, and demands a primarily western solution. Do our leaders realise this? Many people are calling for a techno-fix, but currently none of the technologies on offer can match the size of the challenge. Governments and industries must work together urgently to fix this, if our grandchildren are to live in a climate like the one we grew up in. Unfortunately, as Greta Thunberg points out in The Climate Book (2022) one of our key problems is that “we are not aware of the fact that we are not aware” when it comes to understanding the climate crisis and the urgent need to act. Even so, The Icy Planet ends on an optimistic note. Provided people are prepared to accept the need for change, then change we can.
Learn more about The Icy Planet at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Natalie Koch's "Arid Empire"

Natalie Koch is a Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at Syracuse University. She is a political geographer specializing in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula region.

Koch applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Arid Empire: The Entangled Fates of Arizona and Arabia, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The earliest technological advance in the cultivation of Arizona and Arabia’s arid landscapes were wells that could be pumped electronically, replacing the slow and expensive animal-powered methods of the past. In Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Arizona alike, clever canal systems could divert water to crops far from the original source. Extracting freshwater from wells and canals was still limiting, though. The real promise of limitless water is in the ocean. Optimistic engineers, farmers, and seafarers have long sought ways to make saltwater usable through desalination—that is, stripping out the salt. Water desalination is an ancient practice, based on various techniques of distillation. European explorers began trying to modernize it in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when they installed emergency desalting devices for their long ocean voyages. The practice was later expanded aboard steamships in the 1840s and 50’s and quickly transformed into land-based desalting facilities built around steam condensers.
The text works well for my book because it launches the reader into one of the most important themes in how “arid empire” works –people harnessing new technologies to source water in the desert.

The Page 99 Test is interesting because it opens up the bigger issue about how people have historically thought about finding ways to live and grow food in the desert. I am from Tucson, Arizona, so the limited water resources of a desert was something I grew up learning about. But I didn’t know the deeper history of how commercial agriculture systems were developed in Arizona, and I certainly didn’t know how connected they were to places in the Arabian Peninsula. The chapter that this page comes from talks about a University of Arizona project in Abu Dhabi (now, the UAE) in the 1960s and 70s. I had been traveling there for years before I discovered the history of project from over 50 years before. And almost no one in the UAE had ever heard of it, and even few people in Arizona know about it. The book repeatedly comes back to the question that kept pursuing me in all the research: why is this history so invisible today? Over the several years of researching this book, I became obsessed with chasing the hidden stories that I go into – ranging from the camels (and camel herders!) imported to help settlers take over the new desert territories added to the US after the Mexican-American War in 1848, to the date palms imported to set up a US date industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Biblical fantasies of the “Old World” deserts were central to the early settler visions of colonizing the “New World” deserts the US Southwest, but they quickly gave way to fantasies of using new technologies to master and “civilize” the desert environment, which becomes the real focus of arid empire in the US. The quote from this test doesn’t get into all that, but it starts to introduce that transition in the history I trace over 150 years.
Visit Natalie Koch's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Ewa Atanassow's "Tocqueville's Dilemmas, and Ours"

Ewa Atanassow is Professor of Politics at Bard College Berlin. Her books include (with Alan S. Kahan) Liberal Moments: Reading Liberal Texts and (with Richard Boyd) Tocqueville and the Frontiers of Democracy.

Atanassow applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest book, Tocqueville's Dilemmas, and Ours: Sovereignty, Nationalism, Globalization, and reported the following:
From page 99:
As Mill indicates, the English public’s insouciance about foreign policy went hand in hand with its trusting the government’s expertise and commitment to do the right thing. Public confidence left the ministry a free hand: a greater leeway for maneuver and, potentially, for abuse. It also left the public ignorant and helpless. Not only did the lack of meaningful debate over foreign policy rob the nation of learning opportunities and prevented it from grasping the complexities of its situation. Reducing foreign affairs to strategic or technical questions to be handled by experts behind closed doors runs the serious risk that the people and their representatives may find themselves committed “beyond redemption” to an international standing attained, as it were, in a fit of absentmindedness. It directly impacts their sovereignty.

For Tocqueville, by contrast, if the government is to be both liberal and democratic, involving the people in external affairs is no longer a matter of choice, but of double necessity. An alert and enlightened public opinion serves to uphold the legitimacy of the institutional order and provides an indispensable corrective to the government’s action. As Tocqueville conjectures (and Mill concurs), had the English public been involved, the Eastern crisis could have been averted. What is more, alongside providing policy correctives, informing public opinion about external affairs is a vital opportunity to shape national identity and thus sustain the moral preconditions for political freedom.
Serendipitously, page 99 falls into the central chapter and discusses a key issue in my book’s argument. The issue is whether foreign policy questions should be subject to broad-based democratic debate. Mill and Tocqueville, two foundational figures in the history of Western democracy, disagreed on this question.

Mill believed that foreign policy should be shielded from public scrutiny. As discussed on the preceding pages, international politics deals with foreign ways and modes of thinking that often exceed the experience and common sense of a democratic citizenry. It is also easily hijacked for populist and partisan ends.

The example Mill and Tocqueville debate was the Eastern crisis of 1840, when in response to Egypt’s invasion of Syria, the British government (unbeknownst to the British public and Egypt’ ally France) signed a secret treaty committing to a military intervention. Once the news of the treaty reached Paris, a nationalist mobilization fanned by the popular press prompted the government to declare an ill-considered war on England. And while a war was eventually averted, the incident brought both countries to the brink.

Recognizing Mill’s concerns, Tocqueville begs to differ and my page 99 clarifies his oft-misunderstood position. In Tocqueville’s view, an alert and informed British public may have prevented the signing of the treaty and therewith the Eastern crisis – a point Mill concedes. Moreover, in France as in England, a free and honest debate would have enhanced the ability of both government and people to appreciate a complex situation. Far from simply fanning nationalism, such a debate would be crucial to preventing nationalist excess.

By contrast, handing foreign policy to unaccountable experts robs the people and its representatives of learning opportunities that enhance their collective self-understanding and capacity to govern, in a word, their sovereignty. Last but not least, in a democratic age public opinion backing is a vital source of legitimacy. Lacking popular support dooms any policy or government to failure.

Canvassing the controversy between two influential liberal thinkers, page 99 illustrates one of my book’s main theses: that liberalism is a long tradition of thinking – and disagreeing! – about core questions of democratic governance. Far from being fundamentally elitist, liberalism, as I show, is not reducible to fixed dogmas such as individual autonomy or economic freedoms, as many today think. Nor is it opposed to sovereignty and nationalism but relies on a certain understanding of these concepts.
Learn more about Tocqueville's Dilemmas, and Ours at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Simon Huxtable's "News from Moscow"

Simon Huxtable is Lecturer in Modern European History at Birkbeck, University of London. His work focuses on the history of the Soviet Union, with a particular focus on mass media. He is the co-author, with Sabina Mihelj, of From Media Systems to Media Cultures: Understanding Socialist Television (2018) and has published a number of journal articles and book chapters on the history of the press and television in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Huxtable applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, News from Moscow: Soviet Journalism and the Limits of Postwar Reform, and reported the following:
Page 99 of News From Moscow places the reader in the middle of one of my favourite stories in the book. In 1960, in the town of Kirovgrad (today Kropyvnytskyi) in Central Ukraine, a group of schoolchildren found a letter in a cigarette case attesting an act of wartime heroism. News of the case reached the press, and a few days later, the Red Star [Krasnaia zvezda] newspaper was asking for information that would help identify this heroic partisan. A day later, the paper reported excitedly that A.S. Krishovskii, a museum worker in a nearby town, had been identified as the hero as positive evaluations from comrades flooded the paper. Before long, however, the story unravelled. Krishovskii was no hero - he had recently been imprisoned for sexual coercion and wounding a passer-by with a misplaced gunshot. Worse still, Krishovskii had never been a partisan: in fact, he had spent the occupation working as a forest warden for the occupying German forces. After an investigation, the KGB concluded that the accusations were true and that Krishovskii had probably planted the cigarette case himself. Meanwhile, the editor of Red Star found himself summoned to the Central Committee's Agitprop department for a dressing down.

Page 99 offers an excellent way into the book and its concerns. If we try to unpick the motivations of the different protagonists, we learn a lot about the Soviet media in the early 1960s. From the point of view of the unlucky editor, the hidden letter offered a sensational news story that might earn him and his newspaper kudos in the eyes of readers and political overseers. Soviet newspapers in the 1960s were not the unreadable rags of the Stalin era, but searching for fresh ways of reporting the news. Despite his mistake, the editor was not imprisoned or fired. Though his conversation at Agitprop was no doubt unpleasant, the result was probably nothing more severe than a reprimand; this climate allowed journalists and editors to take risks. Krishovskii's burial of the letter showed an awareness of the Soviet media's search for sensations, and its capacity to create heroes. In the years leading up to this case, newspapers had grown particularly interested in searching for documents about everyday heroes, often serializing their diaries and letters. And what of the 'comrades' who phoned the newspaper to share their positive evaluations? Given that Krishovskii was never a partisan, these stories, too, would seem to be untrue. So what was the motivation? Mistaken identity? A chance for material gain by bathing in the reflected light of a hero? Or just a desire to see one's name in print? Again, it seems that these individuals, too, were cognizant of the power of the press.

Page 99 is representative of some of the wider questions my book poses. What counted as good journalism after Stalin's death? And how did Soviet newspapers relate to their readers during Khrushchev's 'Thaw'? My book argues that the answer to these two questions are related. After the Secret Speech’s denunciation of Stalin, journalists recognised that their newspapers were boring and politically harmful. To remake them, they appealed to readers, in the sense of producing content that would make them eager to build communism, by acting as readers’ defender in the face of an often-faceless bureaucracy, and by drawing on content drafted by readers themselves. But, as the case of the poor Red Star editor shows, journalists often made mistakes, undermining the Soviet newspaper’s claim to infallibility. This case, and my book more broadly, shows that the Soviet propaganda machine was often prone to misfire.
Learn more about News from Moscow at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 23, 2023

Marion Turner's "The Wife of Bath"

Marion Turner is the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford, where she is a Professorial Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall. Her books include the prize-winning biography Chaucer: A European Life.

Turner applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, The Wife of Bath: A Biography, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes about half way through chapter 4, ‘The Female Storyteller’ and focuses on Heloise and Abelard. On this page, I describe the relationship between these two medieval lovers, telling the story of their disastrous affair. Abelard, a famous scholar and cleric, tutored Heloise, and they began a passionate relationship. Heloise gave birth to a child, but she was very much against marriage, seeing it as a hindrance to a full intellectual life. Under pressure from her relatives, Abelard insisted on their marriage, but wanted it to remain secret, and removed Heloise to a convent. Believing that Abelard had abandoned his wife, Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, sent his henchmen to take a brutal revenge, which they did by castrating Abelard. The lovers took vows, becoming a monk and a nun, but Heloise remained plagued by sexual desires. They exchanged a series of letters. From these letters, Heloise emerges as a complex and fascinating character.

This page gives a reasonably representative, though inevitably partial, sense of my book as a whole. It gets across the idea that medieval women were interesting, risk-taking, thinking people, who had more opportunities than many people imagine. Heloise was a notable intellectual; a brilliant thinker; sexually adventurous; and herself a writer.

However, you have to read the next few pages to learn more about what kinds of things Heloise wrote. Page 99 begins to tell the reader about the anti-women comments that she herself made. But a couple of pages later, I write about the fact that many critics have dwelt exclusively on her sexual relationship with Abelard, and her misogynist comments (the things I write about on page 99!), and it is in fact important also to consider her intellectual and philosophical writings, her interest in conscience and consciousness, her particular use of language and imagery. If you only read page 99, you would get a view of Heloise that dwells primarily on her sexual life and attitudes. Importantly, the chapter more generally sets her in the context of other writing medieval women, and also takes a longer view. It goes on to discuss the fact that later readers cast doubt on her authorship of her letters, although no one at her own time doubted this. I compare this with the mutilation of Margery Kempe’s text by early printers, and with translators’ and editors’ explicit denial of Christine de Pizan’s authorship of her texts – which they attributed to men. This comparative and long view demonstrates bigger arguments about attitudes to women across time which aren’t clear from page 99 alone.
Learn more about The Wife of Bath at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue