Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Nancy Sherman's "Afterwar"

Nancy Sherman, University Professor at Georgetown University and Guggenheim Fellow (2013-2014), served as the Inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the United States Naval Academy. A philosopher with research training in psychoanalysis, she lectures worldwide on moral injury, the emotions, resilience, and military ethics.

Sherman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers, and reported the following:
Page 99 expands on Afterwar’s unifying theme of moral injury and delves into how empathy (or more specifically self-empathy) can aide the moral recovery of our soldiers. While physical trauma creates external scars, the moral injuries of war can leave veterans with internal scarring that can be just as devastating. Feelings of guilt and shame can compound to the point where soldiers hold themselves culpable for experiences outside of their control. One example is army Major Jeffrey Hall, who in 2003 saw members of an innocent family killed by crossfire in Baghdad, Iraq. Hall was charged with making amends with the surviving family members. After finding them, the family made it clear that what they wanted most was the return of the bodies of their loved ones. However, due to bureaucratic incompetence, he had to wait over a month for the bodies.

During the wait, he was ordered to deliver the solace money, a pittance of $750. The uncle rejected the money and threw it in the dirt. When Hall finally received the bodies, they had rotted. He had to deliver them unembalmed and cooked by the desert heat beyond recognition. The family’s last request was for Hall to obtain their death certificates for a proper funeral. When he obtained them, they were marked, in bold red letters, “ENEMY.”

The moral injury Hall felt ran deep to the point where suicidal feelings emerged, but, thanks to an attentive commander, he received the help he needed. Part of his help involved evaluating himself through self-empathy. The goal of self-empathy was to look back on his past memories not as the subject, but as an objective observer. Self-empathy allowed Hall to deal with his shame by viewing himself not as the transgressor, but as the victim and, consequently, granted himself a newfound sense of mercy and compassion.

Afterwar seeks to better understand the moral injuries that our soldiers face through a lens both philosophical and personal. It bridges the divide between civilians and veterans and, in doing so, fosters moral healing that soldiers desperately need.
Visit Nancy Sherman's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 29, 2015

Amanda M. Czerniawski's "Fashioning Fat"

Amanda M. Czerniawski is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Beauty is a social construction, but these women were not the ones in charge of its construction. Plus-size models must conform to an image created by fashion’s tastemakers—agents and designers. Their bodies need to fit within narrowly defined parameters, often within a fraction of an inch. Ultimately, they mold their bodies to fit an image, instead of being empowered in a way that allows them to mold the image to fit their bodies. These women were not challenging a contemporary definition of beauty. They were changing their bodies into shapes and sizes that were predetermined by others to be acceptable.
Fortuitously, this paragraph, which concludes the chapter on the various forms of bodily labors adopted by plus-size models, summarizes a critical argument in my book. Plus-size models want to change the way people think about beauty, diversifying its definition to include curvy bodies. They champion for size acceptance. Ultimately, they remain voiceless dolls, dependent on agencies to direct their careers and clients to mold their image. Instead of challenge a social system that perpetuated preoccupation with the body, plus-size models reify it. In order to succeed, they alter their bodies according to others’ specifications. So, if we want to seek out those with the power to challenge hegemonic beauty standards, we must look beyond plus-size models. Instead of the objects in the billboards, we must look to the designers of those billboards.

That being said, we must applaud the use of a variety of looks and bodies in fashion. Plus-size models, in particular, should be acknowledged for their courage to withstand fat stigma and bare their flesh for all to see. Plus-size models fight to get out from the margins and into the mainstream fashion market. Their challenge, however, is to maintain their authentic voice amidst a stream of voiceless bodies that flow in and out of fashion’s ranks.

To effectively alter contemporary bodily aesthetics, these models need to go beyond achieving increased visibility in the field and also take ownership of those images. Instead of conforming to fashion’s demands, they need to direct them. Their sheer visibility in the fashion marketplace is not enough because of the engendered nature of bodies and the threat of disembodiment. Unfortunately, models, no matter their size, are simply bodies. Fashion still judges them on the basis of their looks. Modeling reduces them to curves and numbers on a tape measure. They are not women but breasts, bums, and hips. After all the work they do, plus-size models are still objectified and sexualized bodies.
Learn more about Fashioning Fat at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Alexander H. Harcourt's "Humankind"

Alexander H. Harcourt is Professor Emeritus in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Davis. He is the coauthor of Gorilla Society and Human Biogeography and co-editor of Coalitions and Alliances in Humans and Other Animals.

Harcourt applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Humankind: How Biology and Geography Shape Human Diversity, and reported the following:
The whole human species, all seven billion plus of us, varies less genetically than does a single population of gorillas or chimpanzees. And yet just a glance at a stranger, and we can often tell what continent they come from. Go a little deeper, look at the right genes, and you can even tell if the person is originally from France, or Britain, or Germany, or Spain, or pretty much anywhere else in the world.

Not only do the people of different regions differ, but they differ for the same Darwinian reasons that species of animals and plants differ. As a sentence on page 99 of Humankind states, “Humans are mammals, and follow the same rules regarding shape and size of body in relation to temperature as do other animals.”

The rules concern more than just shape and size and temperature. Other rules, biological rules interacting with geographical rules, determine where we are, and physiologically what sort of person we are there. Yet other biogeographical rules determine the variety of cultures in different regions - yes cultures, products of the human mind - just as they determine the variety of species in different regions of the world.

No man is an island, as the saying goes, and indeed what we are where we are affects other species and is affected by them. And of course, throughout history and surely before, we have affected where we are and others of us are. In the great cities of the world, we now see some of the densest concentrations ever of human regional diversity.
Learn more about Humankind at the publisher's website.

Writers Read: Alexander H. Harcourt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hugh Aldersey-Williams's "In Search of Sir Thomas Browne"

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer and curator based in Norfolk, England. An art exhibition based on his best-selling Periodic Tales: The Cultural History of the Chemical Elements opens at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, in October 2015.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind, and reported the following:
It may seem odd, though really it is not odd at all for this book, but my page 99 is about unicorns. My hero and subject, Sir Thomas Browne, is preoccupied with the existence or not of these fabled creatures. As well he might be. Looking at the cover of my own British passport, I find they are still among us. The beast was incorporated into the royal coat of arms during the 17th century in which Browne lived.

Browne was a physician, philosopher, writer and myth buster. He rounded up dozens of urban myths and old wives’ tales of his age, and debunked them one by one in a vast tome which he called Vulgar Errors.

People believed that unicorns might truly exist because they had seen them in pictures. Pictures in the 17th century were things to be trusted, as photographs were during the 20th century, perhaps. They were trusted because of the places where people saw them, chiefly in church, in biblical illustrations in stained-glass windows for example, and in the heraldic emblems of powerful families, including of course the royal one.

Browne is a leading rationalist of his time. He debunks ‘vulgar errors’ by citing learned authorities and occasionally by doing his own scientific experiment, which he reports. He appeals to sense and reason – he wants his readers to use their eyes and brains when they consider whether, for example, a badger has its legs shorter on one side than the other, or whether a dead kingfisher would make a good weathervane. But he is also extraordinarily forgiving of his credulous readers. Throughout, he treats them with wit, kindness and tolerance. In this I believe he has lessons for today’s popularizers of science, who often seem to have lost this lightness of touch.

Anyway, back to the unicorn. You are expecting of course that Browne will say there is no such thing. Far from it. ‘We are so far from denying there is any Unicorn at all, that we affirm there are many kinds thereof,’ he writes. What can he mean? He uses his vast knowledge to explain to his untravelled readers that there is indeed more than one species with a unique horn – a unicorn. There is the rhinoceros. There is the narwhal, new to science thanks to Arctic explorers. There is even, perhaps, the oryx, glimpsed from side on and then unreliably reported as having a single horn rather than two. After itemizing so many unicorns, Browne then does cast doubt on the familiar creature from myth and fable. After all, he points out, such a horse-like animal with a long horn pointing straight out from its forehead would have the greatest difficulty in simply grazing.

Browne is perhaps not an entirely reliable opinion on the subject, though. In Vulgar Errors, he dismisses various other fabulous creatures – the griffin, the sphinx, the chimera – on the grounds that their body parts don’t really hang together properly. The griffin has the head and wings of an eagle but the body and tail of a lion, for example. But he defends certain other fanciful creatures, such as the basilisk and the satyr, simply because they offer such good story value.

I myself would begin to doubt Browne’s analysis, but for the fact that I myself have seen a living unicorn. For among the deer that from time to time wander up under cover of the barley growing in the neighboring fields to help themselves to the contents of my garden, I occasionally see a young stag that has lost one of its antlers.
Learn more about the book and author at Hugh Aldersey-Williams's website.

The Page 99 Test: Anatomies.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

William E. Mann's "God, Modality, and Morality"

William E. Mann was a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Vermont from 1974 to 2010.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, God, Modality, and Morality, and reported the following:
Here is a passage that begins at the bottom of page 98:
Traditional theology has a remarkable strategy for characterizing God’s sustaining function. The strategy involves two maneuvers. The first is to distinguish generation and corruption from creation and annihilation. Reserve the [p. 99] term “creation” for the bringing of things into existence out of nothing. Then the term for the action opposite to creation is not “destruction” or “corruption” but “annihilation,” the returning of a thing to nonbeing. It is easy enough to destroy a bicycle—by hydraulic press, oxyacetylene torch, or teenage children. These are familiar types of corruption. To annihilate a bicycle, in contrast, would entail the elimination, not just the transformation, of a certain amount of the universe’s mass/energy. Just as no natural agent can build the bicycle out of nothing, so no natural agent can annihilate it.

The second maneuver is to insist that despite the apparent inviolability of the universe’s mass/energy, it has no inherent potentiality to continue to exist from one moment to the next. This claim has sometimes been put forward as a consequence of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo: anything having its origin in nonbeing will, left to its own devices, collapse back immediately into nonbeing. Alternatively, the claim has sometimes been defended by arguing that although the laws of nature along with the initial conditions of things at an instant may entail (in a suitably deterministic universe) what will occur at a future instant, since every instant of time is logically independent from every other instant, the laws and initial conditions are insufficient to guarantee that the future instant will exist. It is compatible with this claim that created things have the power to bring about changes both in themselves and among other created things. What created things cannot do, however, is continue to exist without God’s ever-present conserving activity.
What unifies the essays in this book is that they address the question, "What differences would God's existence make to the world and its inhabitants?" I'd say that the passage is representative of the quality of the whole.
Learn more about God, Modality, and Morality at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Brandon R. Brown's "Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War"

Brandon R. Brown is a Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco. His writing for general audiences has appeared in New Scientist, SEED, the Huffington Post, and other outlets. His biophysics work on the electric sense of sharks, as covered by NPR and the BBC, has appeared in Nature, The Physical Review, and other research journals.

Brown applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War, and reported the following:
I’m surprised to find that this test works well for my little book, Planck. On page 99, we find the friendship of Max Planck and Albert Einstein in play, and we find the structural calling card of the book: a frothy blend of history, physics, personality, and politics. On page 99, the narrative is fixed in 1920. As Germany wobbles in the aftermath of WWI, Einstein finds for the first time that his emerging worldwide fame will have a real cost. Right-wing factions are merging with certain disgruntled scientists to start the Deutsche Physik movement, aligning themselves against what they now label “Jewish Physics,” an allegedly misleading, confusing, and overly-mathematical brand of science emerging from people like Einstein and his elder, Planck.

A conservative industrialist and proto-Nazi Paul Weyland organizes the first major anti-Einstein event, and as I write on page 99...
Against the advice of friends, Einstein decided to attend, thinking it might be worth a laugh. But he was shocked at the vitriol, as he heard himself alternately described as a plagiarist, a seeker of fame, and a purveyor of scientific Dadaism.

Planck made no public statements after the event, but he wrote to Einstein that Weyland had spewed “scarcely believable filth.”
This is a pivotal moment in the book, as Germany has set course for 1933 and the ugly rise of Hitler, while the great Max Planck, defender of Einstein, sets his policy moving forward: fighting the good fight privately, but keeping mostly quiet in public.
Visit Brandon Brown's website.

My Book, The Movie: Planck.

Writers Read: Brandon R. Brown.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stephen Macedo's "Just Married"

Stephen Macedo is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and the former director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His many books include Liberal Virtues and Diversity and Distrust. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Macedo applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Just Married: Same-Sex Couples, Monogamy, and the Future of Marriage, and reported the following:
From page 99:
So far we have focused on the symbolic dimension of marriage as a distinctive form of commitment. The symbolism of marriage has been most central to the very public political debates over same-sex marriage, which is understandable. Focusing only on the symbolic meaning provides only a partial picture of the institution. This chapter fills in the picture by furnishing an overview of three important subjects.

I first describe the specific benefits, responsibilities, obligations, and protections that are associated with marriage by law. These are complex but extremely important. This overview of the various legal implications of marriage will help make clear that marriage as it exists today is well suited to same-sex couples and their relationships. The way for same-sex couples has been cleared by the women’s movement and sex equality in marriage. Entering into marriage does not, however, involve simply the acquisition of special marital benefits, as critics of marriage often argue. Wedlock also brings with it a variety of “special” marital obligations and restrictions. This balance of rights and responsibilities is crucial to the fairness of the institution: marriage is not simply a “reward” or an honorific. The law is designed to recognize, facilitate, and assure (to some degree) the fulfillment of the distinctively marital commitment, and that involves the assumption of special responsibilities as well as benefits.

The second task of this chapter is to summarize the benefits that flow to spouses, children, and the wider society as a consequence of marriage. This is highly controversial terrain but an important part of what is at stake in today’s debates.

The third task is to uncover the huge class divide that has opened with respect to access to marriage….
Page 99 is the very beginning of chapter 5, which sets out the specific legal entitlements and obligations of married couples, arguing that these are already well designed for same-sex couples. This is owing to the spousal equality in marriage: a historic achievement of the women’s rights movement.

The book, it may be helpful to know, asks and answers three broad questions: Why same-sex marriage? Why marriage, as a special relationship recognized and supported by law? And, why monogamy? I argue in favor of all three – same-sex marriage, the institution of marriage, and monogamy – on the basis of justice, the Constitution, and the good of society, families, and individuals.

The argument is a direct response to the conservative warning, voiced by Justice Antonin Scalia and countless others on the political right, that same sex marriage places us on a “slippery slope” to polygamy, incest, bestiality, etc. The argument also responds to those many critics of marriage on the left who, in effect, embrace the slippery slope by calling for the abolition of marriage as a special status in law, the public recognition of polygamous unions, or even, according to some, acceptance of consensual adult incest (when there is no danger of producing children with genetic defects).

The book is a defense, in other words, of the moderate middle. It invites readers to take the historic occasion of publicly recognized marriage equality to re-appreciate the virtues of marriage and monogamy.
Learn more about Just Married at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Dirk Philipsen's "The Little Big Number"

Dirk Philipsen is a professor of economic history and a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do about It, and reported the following:
For the last seventy years, major economies around the world have defined their primary goal as growth of GDP. But GDP is merely a measure of quantity, not quality; of output, not development. It counts weapons as much as toys, pornography as much as education, the crippling accident as much as the healing surgery. It never asks after the purpose of economic activity, much less measures its effectiveness – cars, not destinations; computers, not quality of education.

The basic premise is that the more we turn life into commodities — trees into two-by-fours, fossils into fuels, atmosphere into carbon dumps, lakes into resorts, land into parking lots, human skills into labor, conversation into chats, childhood into advertising bonanzas, education into investments — the better.

As a measure, GDP was generated in response to crisis (Great Depression) and conflict (World War II). Its primary architect, Simon Kuznets, struggled with the question of what to measure in an economy, and how best to measure it. For him, the ultimate purpose of economic activity was to enhance the well-being of people, not just the volume of output.

Trying to prevent the misuse of his national accounts, Kuznets warned, as we can learn on page 99 of The Little Big Number, that “the welfare of a nation can … scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Yet today, GDP is the yardstick of success and progress in every major economy around the world. Collectively, we’re racing, with exponentially accelerating speed, toward the cliff of climate change, resource depletion, community disintegration, escalating inequality, and endless resulting conflict.

Growth should define purpose of an economy as much as, but no more than, getting enough to eat should define purpose of life. One would hope, with all the great economists and moral philosophers of the last two centuries, that the direction of economic activities would point toward development, not just output; quality, not just quantity; better, not just more. And, perhaps above all, toward a future that will provide opportunities to our children and grandchildren that will at least equal our own.

For that to happen we have to break the spell of GDP.
Learn more about The Little Big Number at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 19, 2015

K. David Jackson's "Machado de Assis: A Literary Life"

K. David Jackson is professor of Portuguese and director of undergraduate studies of Portuguese at Yale University. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Machado de Assis: A Literary Life, and reported the following:
On page 99 we are deep into the ways that Machado makes fun of methodical books: "...without going back to Cervantes or Rabelais, we have enough with Fielding and Smollett, many of whose chapters get read only through their summaries." Machado borrows particularly from Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Maistre's "Voyage autour de ma chambre" for fragmentation and perspective. His picaresque narrator, BrĂ¡s Cubas, who is already dead, begins a digressive story nevertheless full of his disdainful and comic observations on life, derived from the great aphorists. Machado converts a world literary library into his own particular fiction, making it all his own, such that the illusion of imitation is one of the keys to his modern writing. My book shows why Machado is a great world author and one of the inventors of literary modernity, thus why he deserves readership alongside James, Proust, even Nabokov and Saramago. He analyzes the city-universe of Rio de Janeiro with subtle wit, comic humor and innovative narrative strategies.
Learn more about Machado de Assis at the Yale University Press website.

Writers Read: K. David Jackson.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Rebecca M. Herzig's "Plucked"

Historian Rebecca M. Herzig is Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Bates College. Her books include Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America and, with Evelynn Hammonds, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, and reported the following:
Landing on the first page of the book’s fifth chapter, “Glandular Trouble,” Page 99 introduces us to a young woman “of the bearded lady type,” whose doctors tried to treat her unwanted facial hair by surgically removing her adrenal glands. The surgery triggered a swift decline in the young woman’s mental health. She began to suffer debilitating hallucinations and was able to recover only after extensive psychiatric treatment. Still, the physicians declared the surgery a success: the patient emerged “with only slight hairiness of her face.”

The passage announces the main topic of the chapter (the rise of hormone-based therapies for unwanted hair growth), while encapsulating several of the book’s larger themes, including the surprising invasiveness, even violence, of practices of hair removal; the astonishing range of medical and scientific professionals’ investment in “excessive” body hair; and the ongoing preoccupation with evaluating and tinkering with women’s bodies. In its brevity, the passage also necessarily leaves out some of the book’s key themes, such as the centrality of ideas about race to scientific and medical studies of body hair: the experts who preceded these glandular surgeons were obsessed with racial variations in hair growth. Plucked traces those interlocking themes, while remaining centered—like the opening paragraphs of the fifth chapter—on particular experiences of suffering and hope.

But back to the test: does this single page reveal the “quality of the whole”? Yes and no. Page 99’s account of the young woman’s terrifying hallucinations after her experimental surgery does provide a clear glimpse of the broad, unsettling consequences of seemingly insignificant acts of separating flesh from hair, self from other. Yet the very subject of hair removal also presents a more general challenge to the “Page 99 Test,” in that hair removal (I have learned) strikes many readers as a topic unworthy of sustained attention: “Wait, hair removal? Seriously?” Only once readers move beyond that first look, from page 99 to page 100 and 101 and so on, do the more fascinating and consequential features of the subject begin to emerge. So with respect to Plucked, I might reverse Mr. Ford’s sturdy adage: read the whole book, and the quality of page ninety-nine will be revealed.
Learn more about Plucked at the New York University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue