Sunday, December 9, 2018

Suparna Roychoudhury's "Phantasmatic Shakespeare"

Suparna Roychoudhury is Associate Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science, and reported the following:
This page, like many others in the book, closely parses Shakespeare’s language, with a view to uncovering implicit connections with scientific knowledge. I unpack a speech by Romeo, who, confronted with the latest violent brawl between the two feuding families of Verona, feels there is something terribly wrong with the order of things:
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created,
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is—
This love feel I, that feel no love in this. (Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.170–77)
Carnage is a sign of “hate,” but hate can be the result of a too-strong “love” of something else. Nothing in creation, Romeo realizes, is what it seems. Everything carries its own opposite. Can we really tell lightness from heaviness, coldness from fire, “anything” from “nothing”? All the comparisons Romeo lists have to do with the elemental world; he is, in a way, pondering the nature of matter, like a cosmologist. Beyond the phenomena that present to our senses—coherent “well-seeming forms”—there may be an entirely different “misshapen chaos.”

This page comes from a chapter about matter theory—specifically, the Epicurean theory of atoms, revived with the rediscovery of Lucretius by Renaissance scholars. Atomism opened up a philosophical and theological can of worms, because it said that nothing can come from nothing—atoms can’t be created or destroyed, only rearranged—and therefore contradicted the metaphysics of Christian creation. Atomism also raises questions about cognition: if everything is made of matter, does that include our thoughts and dreams? What is the substance of an imagination, a mental phantasm? Romeo and Juliet points to the kinds of doubts that sixteenth-century thinkers were starting to have about the nature of the universe. Juliet and Romeo both seem strangely attuned to the material nether-reality, rushing eagerly to meet it, fantasizing of death and dissolution. The way that scientific notions disrupted conventional ideas about the mind thus deepens Shakespeare’s tragedy. What I do here with atomism I repeat with optics, zoology, anatomy, and other knowledge areas in the book’s other chapters.
Learn more about Phantasmatic Shakespeare at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 7, 2018

John Zubrzycki's "Empire of Enchantment"

John Zubrzycki is a Sydney-based author, journalist and researcher, specializing in South Asia, in particular India. He is the best-selling author of The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback (2006) and The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy (2013). His new book is Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic.

Zubrzycki applied the “Page 99 Test” to Empire of Enchantment and reported the following:
One of Harry Houdini's signature acts was being buried alive or being placed in an airtight casket that was submerged in a swimming pool. Such acts were all the rage in the 1920s and 30s and still find their way into the performances of magicians such as David Blaine. The origin of live burial can be traced back to the feats of yogis and 'fakirs' in India. Page 99 contains the final part of an account by the British resident in Ludhiana, Sir Claude Wade, who was present when a sadhu was revived after being buried alive for forty days. There are numerous descriptions of such practices in colonial records, often presented as proof of the deviousness of the 'native subjects' as in the case of a 'miracle monger' who pretended to be buried but in fact had access to a secret passage that allowed him to escape his entombment. My book tells the story of how Indian magic influenced not just the styles and performances of Western magicians but also popular culture. In his book Dracula, Bram Stoker compares the ability of the vampire to slip out of a locked tomb with the powers of India’s wonder-workers, who can be buried for months at a time and then "rise up and walk amongst them as before". This page is part of a chapter entitled "A Bed of Nails" which looks at how religious ascetics known for their austerities and sanctity, compete with the magicians whose powers are supposedly derived from the same sacred source. The overlap between magic that is both sacred and profane is a feature of India's magical traditions.
Visit John Zubrzycki's website.

Writers Read: John Zubrzycki.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Daniel T. Rodgers's "As a City on a Hill"

Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize; Atlantic Crossings; Contested Truths; and The Work Ethic in Industrial America. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Rodgers applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America's Most Famous Lay Sermon, and reported the following:
As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon is a story of the unexpected lives of the sermon that John Winthrop wrote out on the eve of the Puritan settlement of New England. Turn to page 99, and at first you seem far away from his famous phrase. You find yourself immersed a deeply contentious business meeting of the company that sponsored the Massachusetts project. The company was in debt. Some of its leading investors had already lost considerable sums of money; others were about to have the value of their shares radically reduced. Ministers were summoned to try to adjudicate the dispute; votes were retaken. A moral “labyrinth,” Winthrop wrote, “infolded” them all.

In fact, you are at a critical origin point of the “we shall be as a city on a hill” phrase that Winthrop was to write into his “Model of Christian Charity,” though centuries of rereading has scrubbed its anti-market sentiments from it. The ideas at its heart were injunctions to set aside love of self when the greater public good demanded it: pleas to transcend self-interest that Winthrop had first formulated at that heated business meeting. Anxiety that his fellow voyagers might not live up to these values saturated Winthrop’s “city on a hill” phrase: not predictions of a future nation’s greatness or illusion that their own modest and insular settlement would be a beacon to the world.

How that seventeenth-century document was lost, found, and radically remade between John Winthrop’s day and Ronald Reagan’s day and ours is the story of the book. Turn to p. 199 and Harvard’s leading historian is explaining why the New England Puritans were still deeply in disrepute in the 1930s. A half century later, however, they had become the nation’s “founders.” A once obscure and quickly forgotten sermon had been injected into the American past as if it had held, from the first, the nation’s deepest truth. As a City on a Hill is the story of how an invented history was fashioned and a phrase was appropriated for a Cold War and post-Cold War global order. It shows far and widely a Biblical phrase traveled from a dispute over market values to a speechwriters’ cliché. Along the way it tells a story of a radically shifting America as well.
Learn more about As a City on a Hill at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Age of Fracture.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 3, 2018

Lauren E. Oakes's "In Search of the Canary Tree"

Lauren E. Oakes is a conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and an adjunct professor in Earth System Science at Stanford University. She lives in Portola Valley, California and Bozeman, Montana.

Oakes applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World, and reported the following:
From page 99:
My little blue Subaru was there, dusty and covered in leaves, when I arrived, and it started slowly, still choking up months of a life laid fallow… The forests had demanded all my physical strength; now the data required mental stamina.
Page 99 marks my return to California after the first summer of making thousands of plant measurements in the remote forests on the outer coast of southeast Alaska. It’s the opening to a chapter called “Thrive,” the point in my years of research when I encounter a healthy yellow-cedar forest—still flourishing across generations despite the impacts of climate change elsewhere. I’ve been paddling between locations, hiking through thick brush and dense forest to study the dead and dying trees and their surrounding community members. By page 99, I’ve survived a season in the steady rain, heavy winds, and thick fog. It’s also the point when I realize that my question of what happens after the yellow-cedar trees die is not only a search for ecological resilience but one for human resilience as well.

“Long before humans really started messing with rates of change, Charles Darwin used the term ‘adaptation’ to describe how an organism evolves to become better suited to its habitat,” I later write. “But when it came to people adapting to climate change, I wasn’t thinking about adaptation as an evolutionary process over millennia anymore. I was wondering how people decide what we can do now, today, and tomorrow. What were the traits that could lead a person to thrive in a rapidly changing world?”

In my research, I formulated hypotheses and sought answers through systematic methods like my colleagues at Stanford were doing, but as a human being living in a world that faces all kinds of threats from climate change, I was also looking for a way out of my own sense of fear and helplessness. I didn’t talk much about that part—until I wrote this book. In Search of the Canary Tree uncovers my answers to the tough questions of “What can I do?” when it comes to climate change, and “How do you live with what you know?”
Visit Lauren E. Oakes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Robin Wallace's "Hearing Beethoven"

Robin Wallace is professor of musicology at Baylor University. He is the author of Beethoven’s Critics and Take Note: An Introduction to Music through Active Listening.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery Hearing Beethoven, and reported the following:
Oddly enough, page 99 contains the idea for the book in a nutshell. As I write about the adjustments that were made to my late wife Barbara’s cochlear implant to enable her to hear better, I explain that Beethoven made similar experiments with ear trumpets, using different ones in different environments.

Barbara became profoundly deaf in 2003, the result of radiation treatment 24 years earlier to treat a brain tumor. It was the greatest shock of either of our lives—greater by far than the cancer diagnosis had been for Barbara. She never believed she would die of cancer, but deafness was a fact, coarse and unavoidable. It was the kind of Very Bad Thing that our culture has trouble acknowledging. In Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler, a Duke University theologian who studies the American prosperity gospel, writes of the utter inability of the religion she both loves and hates to assimilate her own cancer diagnosis. I learned what she meant within weeks of the onset of Barbara’s deafness. “Maybe there’s a reason this happened,” somebody told me. “Maybe this will help you understand Beethoven better.”

I had been known as a Beethoven scholar since my first book, Beethoven’s Critics, was published in 1986. I didn’t want to be told that the catastrophe that had befallen my wife was God’s way of getting me to write another book. I found the idea offensive, as though a rosy panacea could simply cancel out the deafness, the cancer, and Barbara’s whole life. Her life and her suffering hadn’t happened in order to help me or anybody else understand Beethoven. But as Barbara began to use technology to recover as much hearing as possible, I saw surprising things take place in the wiring of her brain, and I began to suspect that Beethoven must have had similar experiences.

Barbara died in 2011. I grieved, deeply, and as part of the grieving I began to realize that I did indeed have a book to write. It couldn’t be rushed; it was fifteen years after the onset of Barbara’s deafness that Hearing Beethoven was published. In it, I speak of how Barbara and Beethoven both pursued a vocation, and both lived fuller and more challenging lives than they might have otherwise. It turns out that Beethoven taught me to love Barbara better. I can live with that.
Learn more about Hearing Beethoven at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue