Monday, August 31, 2020

Hilary Levey Friedman's "Here She Is"

Hilary Levey Friedman is a sociologist and expert on beauty pageants, childhood and parenting, competitive afterschool activities, and popular culture who teaches courses in the Department of Education at Brown University. She holds degrees from Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Cambridge.

Levey Friedman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America is in Chapter 3, “Burning versus Padding Bras: The Establishment of Second Wave Feminism.” This part of the book begins with the 1968 protest outside of the Miss America Pageant, describes the following year when my mother competed at (and won!) Miss America, and connects the growing organization of the feminist movement (like the National Organization for Women) to changes in Miss America and other pageants in the 1970s.

Which brings us to Page 99, which details results of my original data analysis of pageant program books, beginning in the 1970s. To test pageant stereotypes (i.e. they are all blonde and blue-eyed women from the South) I collected and coded program books not just from Miss America but also Miss USA, America’s Junior Miss/Distinguished Young Woman, and the National Sweetheart Pageant. With Miss America I went even further, getting historical books from nine state pageants. These program books present information on contestants, judges, prizes, and more.

The first paragraph on Page 99 reads:
That Miss America’s state pageants would be focused on higher education during Second Wave feminism would not be an unreasonable assumption. But it would be wrong, at least when it comes to the information conveyed in the program books. Of the states in my sample, only three list college major in their program books, and not one of them for the entire time period. Mississippi listed it most frequently, for six of the years. Mississippi is often stereotyped as a state focused much more on how their Southern belles look than on how they think. But the Miss Mississippi program books suggest that education was a big focus of their program, and in these years, contestants’ measurements or their height and weight were never listed. While majors related to business and communications were the most common every year in Mississippi, among the winners the most common majors were science related.
In case you could not tell by now, Here She Is tells the story of feminism using the lens of beauty pageants. It begins in 1848 at Seneca Falls and goes up to the present day. Because Page 99 shows the originality of the data and argument in Here She Is, and showcases how I connect the history of pageantry to the present day, I do think it illustrates the book—even if it doesn’t have as much descriptive or personal details as other parts of it.
Learn more about the book and author at Hilary Levey Friedman's website.

The Page 99 Test: Playing to Win.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman's "Four Threats"

Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the Government Department at Cornell University. She is the author of several books, including The Government-Citizen Disconnect; Degrees of Inequality: How The Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream; and The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Programs Undermine American Democracy.

Robert C. Lieberman is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the award-winning books Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State and Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective, and has written about American politics for Foreign Affairs.

Lieberman applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Four Threats concisely describes the brief movement toward multiracial democracy in the American South during Reconstruction. After the Civil War, newly liberated African Americans embraced voting rights with the support of the Republican party, which eagerly recruited and organized supporters among these new voters. Rates of voter registration and participating soared in southern states and African Americans used their newfound power to change the face of American government. Over the course of Reconstruction more than two thousand African Americans served in elected office, from state legislatures to state houses and the United States Congress. But Reconstruction and Black political empowerment provoked a violent reaction from southern whites that ultimately led, by century’s end, to the disenfranchisement of nearly four million African American men and the backsliding of American democracy.

Page 99 tells only a part of this story, and in fact it mostly serves as a setup for one of the central narrative events of the book, the white supremacist coup d’état in Wilmington, North Carolina, in November 1898. North Carolina was one of the successes of the New South, with a growing Black middle class and numerous African American office holders. In the mid-1890s, the state was governed by a biracial “fusion” coalition of Republicans and Populists. But in the 1898 election, white supremacist Democrats fought back, employing electoral fraud, voter intimidation, and violence, to defeat the fusionist incumbents—except in Wilmington, the state’s largest city, where the Fusionists retained power in the municipal government.

On November 10, two days after the election, white supremacists struck violently against the democratically elected government in Wilmington. Led by the Red Shirts, a paramilitary organization affiliated with the Democratic party, and backed by the White Government Union, a Democratic political club, a heavily armed force stormed the city. They set fire to the offices of the Daily Record, an African-American newspaper, and then advanced through Black neighborhoods, killing dozens. They dragged numerous prominent Black citizens, including the sheriff and the chief of police, from their homes and forced them to leave town. In the afternoon, they compelled the mayor, alderman, and other public officials to resign at gunpoint. They installed a new government of their own handpicked white Democrats.

Within months, Democrats finished the job of disempowering African Americans statewide, amending the state constitution to impose poll taxes and literacy tests as voting qualifications. Some states in the South had already taken such actions earlier in the decade, and after North Carolina acted, others followed suit. Soon all states in the region had put in place provisions that allowed white Democrats to rule unchallenged by denying African Americans the right to vote. Once Blacks lost political power, the full establishment of Jim Crow segregation followed. The federal government was complicit in these developments, first by turning a blind eye and failing to intervene, and later by enforcing segregation in the military and bureaucracy.

This episode is a devastating example of the repeated crises and reversals that American democracy has faced throughout its history, and this is the book’s central theme. Four threats make democracy hard to sustain: political polarization, conflict over who belongs as a full member of society (along racial lines, for example), high and rising economic inequality, and excessive executive power. In the crises of the 1890s, three of the four existed (all except the last), and the result was dramatic democratic backsliding that persisted for decades.

Today, for the first time, the United States faces all four threats, presenting unprecedented danger to the American experiment.
Learn more about Four Threats at the St. Martin's Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 28, 2020

Dan Rabinowitz's "The Power of Deserts"

Dan Rabinowitz, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, is Chairman of the Association for Environmental Justice in Israel. He was Head of TAU's Porter School of Environmental Studies and Chairman of Greenpeace Mediterranean. He received the Pratt Prize for Environmental Journalism (2012) and the Green Globe Award for Environmental Leadership (2016).

Rabinowitz applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Power of Deserts: Climate Change, the Middle East, and the Promise of a Post-Oil Era, and reported the following:
When I wrote The Power of Deserts: Climate Change, the Middle East and the Promise of a Post-oil Era, I did not know about The Page 99 Test. Now that I do I can proclaim: even if my sole intention in writing the book had been to do well in this fun trial, I would not have changed The Power of Deserts one bit. Uncannily, of the 174 pages of the book, page 99 is the best single page to introduce a browser to my main argument.

The Power of Deserts begins by sketching how climate change could soon render parts of the Middle East uninhabitable. It then goes on to illustrate how the imminent demise of oil, attributable primarily to the declining costs of renewable energy, could spell ruin for major oil producers in the region. Hot, arid and utterly dependent economically on selling oil, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrein, United Arab Emirates and Oman, aka the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Six, are particularly vulnerable to the double bind of Global Warming and the Post-oil era. There is however a silver lining: the region's huge solar potential. After decades of procrastination, all of the GCC Six have now in fact consolidated plans to have solar energy eclipse fossil fuels in electricity production and in transportation.

Then, at the bottom of page 99:
The fate of the excess oil and gas that will emerge when the six kingdoms by the Gulf decide to switch their energy and transportation sectors to solar energy is indeed intriguing. It leads, however, to a bigger question with truly global consequences. Are the GCC six likely to trigger an eclipse of fossil fuel not only in their own backyard but also internationally? Could they deem the global energy transition financially beneficial and politically prudent enough to conclude that rather than resist the eclipse, their own best interests demand embracing it? The concluding chapter raises thoughts on how this might eventually happen.
Page 99 thus sets the stage for the book's counterintuitive argument. To secure their own prosperity, the GCC Six could soon decide to (a) accelerate the transition of their energy and transportation sectors to solar; (b) invest heavily in renewable technologies and capacity abroad; then (c) dramatically reduce their oil and gas production. Accounting for 30 percent of global oil supply, this cut could nudge the price of oil just high enough to crown renewables as the only economically viable source of energy, and put the age of oil to rest. Making good on their earlier investment in renewables, the GCC Six will have elegantly substituted their dinosaurian dominance in the old oil trade for poll position in the energy market of the future. While they are at it, they could become key players in the global quest to curb climate change and carve themselves a place of honor in human history.
Learn more about The Power of Deserts at the Stanford University Press website and visit Dan Rabinowitz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Thomas A. Schwartz's "Henry Kissinger and American Power"

Thomas A. Schwartz is Distinguished Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, where he specializes in the foreign relations of the United States. He has served on the U.S. State Department's Historical Advisory Committee and as president of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations.

Schwartz applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography, and reported the following:
Page 99 records a shift in the attention of Henry Kissinger from focusing on the Vietnam and Cambodia situation in June 1970, after the controversial invasion and the resulting domestic protests, to the Middle East, and the “War of Attrition” between Israel and Egypt. After noting how Nixon justified the results of the Cambodian “incursion,” I describe the congressional restrictions that will play a major role in how he and Kissinger will have to deal with trying to find a formula to end the war. The second paragraph briefly recaps what has happened in the Middle East before the Administration turns its attention to the situation in the middle of the summer of 1970. Nixon and Kissinger had met with the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, recognizing that Israel had become a nuclear power but encouraging her not to say so publicly. I also describe how Nixon created a bureaucratic power struggle between his Secretary of State, William Rogers, and Kissinger, his National Security Adviser. Nixon initially kept Kissinger out of dealing with the Middle East because he did not think Kissinger, a Jew, could be objective in handling the issue. However, he gave Kissinger authority to deal with Moscow on all major issues, which inevitably concerned the Middle East, since the Soviets were heavily involved there. Kissinger caused some controversy in June 1970 when he said the United States wanted to “expel” the Soviets from the region.

A browser opening my book to page 99 would get the correct impression of how I discuss Kissinger’s role in the major foreign policy questions of the time. The reference to Israel as a nuclear power and to the continuing problems of the Middle East may also remind a reader that even though the events I describe occurred fifty years ago, we are still dealing with their consequences. The page also contains material that captures the complicated relationship between Kissinger and Richard Nixon. They were an odd couple in every way possible, although these differences came to matter less than their own love of exercising power and keeping secrets.

What is missing in the early part of the book is something that I think makes my book an original contribution. I used two major sources that have not been used as extensively in earlier works on Kissinger. One is the Nixon tapes, which are now fully accessible and open to researchers. The taping system only began in February 1971, and lasted until July 1973. The tapes provide an image of Kissinger that is quite different from how he portrayed himself in his memoirs, and reveal how much domestic political advantage influenced the foreign policy of the Administration. This is an argument which I emphasize, as Kissinger portrayed himself as a geopolitical thinker who was largely oblivious to partisan domestic battles. The second new source I used were the holdings of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. The Archive holds recordings of the evening news since August 1968, and in this period, with only the three major networks, the vast majority of Americans got their news from television. Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America,” and TV reporting influenced how Americans perceived Kissinger. In June 1970, Kissinger was not yet the widely known figure he would become after he made the secret visit to China in July 1971. The second part of the book uses these media archives to make an argument about how Kissinger came to dominate the foreign policy process as well as become one of America’s first “celebrity diplomats.” Ultimately, my book argues that Kissinger came to both exercise and symbolize American power in the world during this era.
Learn more about Henry Kissinger and American Power at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 24, 2020

John Dickie's "The Craft"

John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College London. He is an internationally recognized specialist on many aspects of Italian history and his books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Born in Dundee in 1963, Dickie was brought up in Leicestershire and educated at Loughborough Grammar School. He won a place at Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating in 1986 with a First in Modern Languages. He subsequently gained an MA and a DPhil at Sussex University. Since 1993 he has taught at UCL.

Dickie applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book shows an eighteenth-century drawing of a woman. Or at least it looks like a woman. Yet she is sporting some distinctly masculine props: a staff, a sword and, above all, a Freemason’s apron. Those in the know will spot the busts of famous imposters on the wall behind her. As transpires from the text on page 99, the image is of the Chevalier d’Éon, a French lawyer, soldier, diplomat, spy, scandalist, Freemason and … (here comes the unanswerable question) transsexual? transvestite? Our modern labels are inevitably clumsy. The fact is that the Chevalière d’Éon, born male, adopted a female identity for much of her life, and was, in her later years, embraced as a Sister by the Freemasons of her home town in Burgundy.

The Freemasons emerged in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries as a male-only fraternity. One of the many themes of my book is the curious forms of masculine identity cultivated and expressed by Freemasons, and the gender trouble that the Masons have often brought upon themselves. (The Chevalière’s case caused great embarrassment for the Masonic establishment in London, where she spent much of her diplomatic career.) In my final pages, I reflect that another subtitle for the book could have been ‘Four Centuries of Male Eccentricity’. In that sense, page 99 offers a representative snapshot.

The Chevalière crops up at the end of the book too. In 2010, after 250 years, French Freemasonry’s supreme authority, the Grand Orient, finally agreed to admit women on an absolutely equal footing with men. I had lunch with the woman who brought about the change, Olivia Chaumont, who is a great admirer of d’Éon. This is hardly surprising, since Olivia shares a similar narrative arc. Olivia was born male, and became a Freemason while she was still hiding her real identity. When she finally transitioned in 2007, she presented the Masonic authorities with a problem—one that they eventually and rather grudgingly solved by dissolving the barriers to full Sisterhood in the world’s most famous and influential secret society.
Visit John Dickie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Steven D. Hales's "The Myth of Luck"

Steven D. Hales is Professor and Chair of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, USA. He works primarily in metaphysics and epistemology, and also in popular philosophy. He has been a Visiting Professor at the Universities of Cambridge, Turin, Edinburgh, and London. He is an award-winning writer and teacher, and has published numerous books and articles.

Hales applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Myth of Luck: Philosophy, Fate, and Fortune, and reported the following:
In The Myth of Luck I argue that there is no such thing as luck, that it is not a genuine property of the world and that claims of luck amount to no more than a subjective point of view on the events that affect us. Luck skepticism is a far-reaching view, not only because we so naturally assume that our lives are saturated with good luck and bad, but also because luck has deep philosophical roots. One of these areas is moral luck, which is what I discuss on page 99.

Moral luck is a puzzle. Immanuel Kant thought that no one deserves judgment for things that aren’t their fault. If something is outside of your control, you are neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy for it; you are properly judged only for things that are within your control. The problem is that there are unlucky events that apparently affect your blameworthiness. For example, imagine someone who, completely sober and attentive, drives through a large pile of leaves at the side of the road. She feels a couple of large bumps, but assumes they are sticks or packed-down yard waste.

There are two endings to this story. Ending one: it was just sticks, and it turned out to be an unremarkable fall drive in the country. Ending two: there were children hidden in the leaves, and the driver unwittingly killed them. In ending one, the driver did nothing wrong at all. But there’s a powerful intuition that the driver is more blameworthy, guiltier, in the case of ending two, even though it was just bad luck the bumps in the leaves were children and not sticks. If that’s right, then luck can affect how much you are to blame for things are are not your fault, and Kant must be wrong. On page 99 I consider the possibility that the driver merits equal moral assessment in both endings, and criticize that idea.

The page 99 test gives a window into one of the puzzles about luck that I consider in the book. While moral luck is something philosophers have worried about, the book as a whole is written for the intelligent and curious (but nonspecialist) reader, and examines luck from the ancient Greeks to cutting-edge work in experimental psychology, and is filled with illustrative anecdotes and examples from math, gambling, sports, and medicine.
Learn more about The Myth of Luck at the author's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Justin M. Jacobs's "The Compensations of Plunder"

Justin M. Jacobs is professor of history at American University. He is the author of Indiana Jones in History and Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State. He also serves as editor of The Silk Road journal and hosts Beyond Huaxia, a podcast on East Asian history.

Jacobs applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Compensations of Plunder consists mostly of an image and its caption. The image depicts 23 lines of handwritten comments in Chinese that were appended to the end of an ancient Buddhist manuscript. This “colophon,” as such appended comments are known, was written in 1910 by a Chinese official named Zhao Weixi, who served in the Qing Empire (1644–1912). The Buddhist manuscript itself—a copy of the Great Nirvana sutra—was much older and dated back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Along with some 40,000 other ancient manuscripts, it had been sealed away inside a hidden cave in the Mogao Grottoes near the desert oasis of Dunhuang for about 900 years. (This cave and its ancient manuscripts serve as the backdrop for the cover of my book.) In the year 1900, an illiterate Daoist priest named Wang Yuanlu discovered the hidden cave and began to look for a way to turn a profit on all these ancient manuscripts. When the first few batches of manuscripts he sent to nearby Chinese officials failed to elicit the desired cash “donations” to his temple, Wang decided to sell the remaining ones to foreign scholars, who eventually took tens of thousands of them abroad. The colophon depicted in the image on page 99 was added by Zhao to the end of one of the few manuscripts from the secret cave “library” not to have been taken out of China by foreign scholars.

Read out of context, the page 99 test probably would not give readers a very good overall sense of what my book is all about. Instead, it presents an important piece of evidence in support of a single—but critical—pillar of my overall argument. In short, I argue that the reason why Westerners were able to remove so many works of art and antiquities from China during the early twentieth century was not because of theft or plunder, as is often assumed today. It was because the people of China themselves had very different views of the value of art and antiquities at the time—and it was these views that conditioned people from all walks of life to allow Westerners to remove their country’s treasures in exchange for various forms of “compensations” that were perceived to be of greater value than that which was taken away.

The Chinese colophon appended to the Great Nirvana sutra on page 99 helps to illustrate one of these different views: that of the educated Chinese elites. In his colophon, Zhao Weixi provides us with two significant clues as to what sort of valuation he placed upon the ancient Great Nirvana sutra in his possession. First, he identifies the chief value of the manuscript in social and political terms. Zhao describes how he received his sutra as a gift from one of his colleagues in the Qing imperial bureaucracy. “How can I ever forget the favor bestowed upon me by the Garrison Commander?” he writes. Second, Zhao treats the manuscript itself as a living symbol of his relationship with the Garrison Commander, a man named Chai Hongshan. This is why he feels comfortable in adding his own words on top of an ancient scroll, something that the Western scholar would likely regard as an act of vandalism. As a result, the first several chapters of my book show how Chinese officials and scholars such as Zhao Weixi tended to treat Western archaeologists and collectors in the same way that they treated each other: as fraternal colleagues of empire, who could offer their Chinese counterparts a host of desirable resources—or “compensations”—in exchange for something perceived at the time as being of equal or lesser value. And it was this sort of an informal “barter” relationship that ultimately explains how China—and, I would argue, most other non-Western countries—lost their treasures.
Learn more about The Compensations of Plunder and Justin M. Jacobs's work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Timothy K. Kuhner's "Tyranny of Greed"

Timothy K. Kuhner is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Auckland. He is the author of Capitalism v. Democracy: Money in Politics and the Free Market Constitution (2014).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tyranny of Greed: Trump, Corruption, and the Revolution to Come, and reported the following:
Page ninety-nine wraps up a discussion of Trump’s uncanny ability to corrupt democracy. The preceding pages discuss his strategic use of voting rights violations, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism before finally arriving at his strategic relationship to reality itself.

One of the best terms to describe that relationship is “bullshit.” As Professor Harry Frankfurt explains:
[T]he bullshitter ... is neither on the side of the truth nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Frankfurt locates some of the purest bullshit known to humankind in advertising, public relations, and politics, all of which employ market research, public opinion polling, and psychological testing. Insights gained in those places enable bullshitters to transcend haphazard storytelling and home in on the narratives that will resonate with their audiences’ fears and desires.

With that introduction out of the way, here’s most of page ninety-nine:
Ultimately, Frankfurt connects bullshit’s proliferation to a breathtaking form of denial: the denial of “any reliable access to an objective reality,” of “disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false,” and even of the very “intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.” Such extreme skepticism reached a high level in the 1990s under the cynical culture of pay-to-play politics, attack ads, and shadowy outside players. But that dystopia has since been supercharged by many more layers of technology and the feverish influence of social media (android meets zombie). Amplified and inserted in just the right places, Trump’s unmitigated bullshit caused society’s skepticism to metastasize.

The way the Trump campaign accomplished this admits no skepticism, however. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was vice president of Cambridge Analytica, the firm that illegally harvested data from some 50 million Facebook users. Christopher Wylie, a courageous pink-haired whistle-blower, exposed the company for using that information to create “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.” Those were Wylie’s words for the software program that influenced voters’ worldviews and choices. Such systematic manipulation of voters’ perceptions of the political world amounts to the corruption—or the destruction—of reality.
This page happens to contain a high ratio of expletives to polite terminology. But this unrepresentative aspect is representative of the entire book in an important way: Tyranny of Greed pulls no punches. No matter how critical you are of Trump and his regime, this book will surprise you.

I began my research with standard questions in mind—including how Trump came to power, what the underlying nature of his regime is, and what it would take for the overwhelmed and outraged opposition to come together and defeat him. Those common questions led me to a number of uncommon conclusions, however. Page ninety-nine’s notion of Trump, the bullshitter, is actually one of the least surprising ones. After all, this is the book that introduces readers to Trump, the demon from Hell.

On the whole, Ford Madox Ford’s test applies well enough: open Tyranny of Greed to page ninety-nine and its overall quality will be revealed. Those technical references to bullshit and psychological mindfucking invite readers to try something new: a book that is based on academic research, but which nonetheless dares to go everywhere that’s necessary to get to the heart of Trump’s regime.
Learn more about Tyranny of Greed at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Ronald Niezen's "#HumanRights"

Ronald Niezen is Professor of Anthropology and Associate Member of the Faculty of Law at McGill University. He held the Katharine A. Pearson Chair in Civil Society and Public Policy in the faculties of Law and of Arts between 2013 and 2020, and is a former Chair of the Department of Anthropology.

Niezen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, #HumanRights: The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Based in a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, SITU Research’s staff profiles include architects, urban planners, tech experts, designers, policy experts, and a dog, Lola, listed as the director of office culture. SITU’s clients include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and an international scattering of law schools. Brad Samuels, founding partner of SITU, described to me the insight that he and three colleagues had upon their graduation from the Cooper Union that led to SITU’s founding in 2005: They could expand the scope of their work as architects by doing spatial analysis of past events in addition to the usual future-oriented prospective design of urban space.

This was the moment of inspiration that eventually led to SITU’s participation (together with Forensic Architecture) in the 2009 investigation and trial following the death of thirty-year-old Bassem Abu-Rahma, a Palestinian man killed by a tear gas canister during a peaceful protest in the West Bank village of Bil’In. This marked the first time that one of SITU’s research products was presented in court (in this case, an Israeli military tribunal). At the request of attorney Michael Sfard and the human rights organization B’Tselem, SITU created a reconstruction based on civilian video footage, showing conclusively that the tear gas canister that struck Abu-Rahma in the chest was fired at close quarters directly at the protester (rather than at the 60-degree minimum angle mandated by the Open Fire Regulations for indirect fire). For the purposes of the military tribunal, SITU and Forensic Architecture developed a “parametric tool” that “allowed key variables in the ballistic equation to be easily modified, updated and visualized,” offering conclusive evidence that the gas canister could not have been fired at an angle of 60 degrees or more. Despite this evidence, the case was summarily closed by Major General Danni Efroni after a delay of three years after the trial.
Page 99 of #HumanRights describes a key moment in the development of open source investigations--which make use of information openly available to anyone online--as a forensic tool. The case depicted on this page resonates today in the context of worldwide protests centered on racial injustice, police brutality, and political oppression. In 2009, Palestinian protester, Bassem Abu-Rahma, was killed by a gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier in the West Bank. The smartphone videos made by fellow protestors became crucial evidence in what became one of the first open source investigations used in court and subjected to cross examination.

SITU Research, an architectural firm based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Forensic Architecture, based in Goldsmith’s, University of London, developed an analytical tool that processed this video footage demonstrating (most importantly) the distance from which the canister was fired and its trajectory before it killed Abu-Rahma. This analysis revealed that the solider fired the canister too close to the protesters, violating the requirement of a sixty degree minimum angle.

The outcome of the case also resonates with injustices that we see today: Major General Danni Efroni of the Israel Defense Forces summarily closed the case after a three-year delay. This points to the circumstances that many will recognize--in which states are able to control judicial process and circumvent direct forms of accountability. This event also points to the digitally-thick environment of the contests between human rights advocates and the forces that oppose them. Going beyond page 99, we find that this contest takes the form of a digital arms race, not between states engaged in espionage and cyber-warfare (though that is happening too), but between, on the one hand, those using social media mobilizations and advanced analytics to collect and authenticate digital data, protect witnesses, and promote justice claims and those, on the other hand, who are developing digital tools of surveillance and disinformation in the interest of authoritarian rule. Page 99 illustrates the complex interplay of emancipatory possibility and political domination in the newest era of human rights.
Learn more about #HumanRights at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 17, 2020

Michael Kagan's "The Battle to Stay in America"

Michael Kagan is the Joyce Mack Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is the director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, which defends children and families fighting deportation in Las Vegas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration's Hidden Front Line, and reported the following:
Page 99, opening line: "Psychological warfare also distracts." The Battle to Stay in America is a story about the hidden ways the Trump Administration has attacked immigrants in the United States, and of how one community on the invisible front line -- the people of Las Vegas -- have fought back. The psychological warfare has two parts. First, the constant, escalating threats against immigrant families takes a direct toll on people, on their health and well being, even if they never encounter ICE. But it also distracts attention from real dangers. That's what Page 99 is about. People fear ICE raids, but they're relatively rare. The books tells the story of one man, called Fernando, who ended up facing deportation after being pulled over by local police for a broken brake light. That's how most people are sucked into the deportation system, through the hidden connections of local police with federal immigration. It's a complex system that most people don't understand, but that's the biggest threat to immigrants in Las Vegas and many other American cities. The fear of ICE raids leads people to look in a different direction -- and that lowers defenses to the real attack. That's psychological warfare.

Page 99 captures the main conflict of The Battle to Stay in America. Can people come to understand the true threat facing their neighbors? Can anything be done about it? That's the struggle. The book tells the story of the first few years of that fight under Trump. But it's not over by any means.

The goal of The Battle to Stay in America is to tell a personal story, a story about a single community, and though that to inform people about how the immigration system works nationwide. People need to understand how an arbitrary, broken system impacts people they see every day. That's the best place to start for discussions about immigration.
Visit Michael Kagan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Pepper Glass's "Misplacing Ogden, Utah"

Pepper Glass is associate professor of sociology at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He has published his research on racial inequality, social movements, and youth culture in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Mobilization, and the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

Glass applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Misplacing Ogden, Utah: Race, Class, Immigration, and the Construction of Urban Reputations, and reported the following:
Page 99 of “Misplacing Ogden, Utah” starts with the second half of a table that shows the race of residents in Weber county – where Ogden, Utah is found – from 1930 to 2000. (The first half of the table, on page 98, showed the years 1870 through 1920.) The races are White, Hispanic, African-American, Chinese, and Japanese. The table shows a large white population and much smaller non-white communities, except for a Hispanic population that balloons from about 5,000 people in 1970 to around 25,0000 in 2000. A paragraph explains how minority and immigrant communities were historically forced to live in segregated neighborhoods in Ogden’s central city, surrounding a downtown entertainment area that catered to the vices of railroad workers and travelers.

Page 99 of Misplacing Ogden, Utah hits many of the main arguments of the book. In the study, I wanted to explore how recent growth in Ogden’s Latino community, and especially its immigrants, shaped the city’s reputation. Yet, I discovered that their giant growth – Latinos made up close to one third of the city’s residents in 2010 – had little impact on Ogden’s reputation. Instead, this population folded into pre-existing social divisions, including how they lived in the historically segregated neighborhoods surrounding Ogden’s downtown.

The immigrant Latino community of Ogden was also central to my argument about urban reputations. Researchers and the general public alike tend to understand the reputations of places as reflections of the conditions found there. So places gain bad reputations because of the crime, graffiti, dilapidated buildings, and other “disorder” in a neighborhood. Yet, I discovered that these linkages between disorder and reputation do not always happen. Latino immigrants, who tended to live in places that others saw as the worst areas of Ogden, saw their communities positively. They also did not draw firm lines between “good” and “bad” neighborhoods, as other residents did.

Given this, I argued that divisions between areas reflect “moral frontiers” between the residents of higher and lower status places. Higher status people benefit from dividing themselves from lower status people, and one way that they do this is by defining their own neighborhoods as good and those of lower status people as bad. Lower status people benefit from uniting with higher status people, so they tend to challenge ideas that their communities are bad places, arguing that their neighborhoods are just as good as others.
Learn more about Misplacing Ogden, Utah.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 14, 2020

Beryl Pong's "British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime"

Beryl Pong is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Sheffield, where she researches and teaches 20th- and 21st-century literature.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: For the Duration, and reported the following:
Page 99 of British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime zooms in on a close reading of a short story by the writer-firefighter William Sansom (1912-1976). Sansom, whose prose has often been compared to Kafka, wrote stories with a surrealist and fantastical bent, though much of the content is based on his own experiences of working in the fire services during the London Blitz. The story in question on page 99, “Journey into Smoke”, follows a firefighter’s slow-motion walk through a blacked-out alleyway, only to come upon a fantastical sea of burnt toffee papers floating on water; a fire hose, described as the head of a hydra, snakes back towards him violently. All this is against the faint background explosions of an air raid. The themes and style here are typical of Sansom’s wartime writing: a dramatic set-piece; a focus on psychological fear; a cinematic slowing-down of time; a historical moment presented as deeply personal, distorted, and unreal.

Despite the very specific subject matter, this page gives the reader some idea of the core questions at stake in the book at large, which concern how the idea of wartime is understood by writers and artists in the years surrounding the Second World War. How do the chronological markers of a war—the dates of its beginning or end, for instance, or those of significant battles within—mesh or conflict with the way time is felt by individuals at the time? How are feelings of temporal dislocation or suspension narrativised in the literature and creative arts, and how are these in turn rewritten or revised in subsequent historiographical accounts? The book focuses on the Second World War; but because it discusses works that reflect on the First World War’s legacies, as well as the nuclear future to come, it is really a more conceptual meditation on our methods of framing what, when, and where wartime is.
Visit Beryl Pong's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 13, 2020

David Shneer's "Grief"

David Shneer is Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair in Jewish History, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Association for Jewish Studies, faculty advisor for Yiddishkayt, co-editor in chief of East European Jewish Affairs, the academic director of CU Boulder's Post Holocaust American Judaism archive, and the 2020-2021 American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) fellow.

Shneer applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph, and reported the following:
I opened to page 99 and low and behold, “the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

On page 99 of Grief it says:
Although the Ogonek editor had cropped the P. Ivanova photograph to give a reader a close-up of her, Dmitry Baltermants very intentionally did not take a close-up. Perhaps he wanted to respect her privacy. Or he understood that a photographer, as Henri Cartier-Bresson suggested to his Moscow-based colleagues in 1958, should always imagine the widest frame of the photograph and crop only later, when figuring out the final story. In other words, the click of the camera was only the beginning of the process of creating a great photograph.
This meditation gets at the crux of my book.

My book is about the photographer Dmitry Baltermants and the January 1942 photograph he took of P. Ivanova on the outskirts of Kerch in southern Russia that graces the front cover called Grief. Although Ogonek, the Soviet Life magazine, published the images of fighting fascism during World War II, these photographs about creating memory around the war came out in the early 1960s. I found four photographs of P. Ivanova, the third one being the best, but it was damaged due to staining in the sky, so Baltermants had to figure out how to tell the story in the most complex way possible. At that, he tried just using an original sky (“too documentary”); then he tried shifting the contrast, so that blacks became blacker, and the whites became whiter (“too modernist”). That’s when he came to perspective, when two-dimensions finally become three with the formation of the clouds. Nothing about that was in scene, but when one gets a look at the photograph disappearing into infinity as the clouds disappear in the sky, it is easy to see why he wanted this photograph.

At its core, Cartier-Bresson is the cornerstone of my book, when he says that photography is always about getting the largest shot and then only cropping later when you see what the story tells you. This is about Grief, the first widely circulating Holocaust liberation photograph in history that sits on white walls at the Museum of Modern Art and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, but it is also a story about Grief, a human experience so haunting that it becomes a moving piece for everyone.
Visit David Shneer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Michael Dumper's "Power, Piety, and People"

Michael Dumper is professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. His many books include Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History, and the Future of the Holy City (2014). His most recent edited volume is Contested Holy Cities: The Urban Dimension of Religious Conflicts (2019).

Dumper applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Power, Piety, and People: The Politics of Holy Cities in the Twenty-First Century, and reported the following:
Page 99 contrasts the actions of the Diocese of Cordoba, Spain with the actions of religious leaders in Banaras, India when they were confronted with events which questioned the pre-eminence of their religion in the city. The page then refers to my personal experience of ecclesiastical decision-making as the son of an Anglican bishop, before continuing to narrate a conversation with a senior clergyman in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate regarding their strategy of dealing with state authorities in Jerusalem over the centuries.

The Page 99 test works well for this book. It introduces the reader to what I regard as one of the distinctive features of the book as an academic work: its accessibility and ability to engage the reader. A few years ago I read WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and also Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory and was amazed at the liberties they took with the conventional academic form, weaving personal observations, anecdotes and imaginary scenes into their examination of landscape, history and literature. It emboldened me to shake off the rather turgid cautious style I usually employed to become a bit more adventurous in the way I wrote.

So in this book, although it is thoroughly referenced and carefully argued (I still feel, even at this stage of my career, that I have to watch my back), I include travelogue, memoir, ethnographic observation, humour and ruminations with the result that it is more engaging than my previous writing. The book, covering Jerusalem, Cordoba, Banaras, Lhasa in Tibet and George Town in Malaysia, compares the management of religious conflicts in those cities and has ample scope to bring drama, colour and pageantry to the text. For example, in describing Muslim-Hindu tensions in George Town, although I was not present to observe a particular riot, I am able to draw a vivid picture of the violent night-time confrontation, partly based on reports but partly also based upon my own experience of similar tensions in Jerusalem and my own personal knowledge of everyday religious life in George Town. Page 99 gives a flavour of this way of writing which runs through the book.
Learn more about Power, Piety, and People at the Columbia University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Jerusalem Unbound.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Daniel Marwecki's "Germany and Israel"

Daniel Marwecki is a (senior) teaching fellow in Politics & International Studies at SOAS University of London. He also teaches at the University of Leeds School of History, and is a co-editor of ldis:orient, a German-language magazine on Europe and the Middle East. He formerly taught at the University of Leipzig and worked for a German NGO in Jerusalem.

Marwecki applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, and reported the following:
The title of my book gives away the main argument. I argue that we need to understand the origin of German-Israeli relations as a deal between whitewashing and statebuilding and that this deal continues to shape the relationship until today. By whitewashing, I mean that postwar West Germany decided to support Israel in order to blur the fact that Nazis continued to serve in high places and that society, overall, did not confront the crimes it had so shortly before committed. By statebuilding, I mean that we need to rethink the German role in the Middle East. I show that Germany, especially before the crucial year of 1967, has been the most important supporter of the Jewish state, more important even than the U.S.

I am happy to report that page 99 of my book precisely illustrates this argument. The test works! As there is a chapter transition on that page, it is divided into two parts, illustrating both parts of the argument.

The first half of the page closes a discussion on how West Germany reimagined its Jewish Other along lines that continued to be antisemitic. I show how German officials perceived of their Israeli counterparts during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and how these officials lauded what they saw as the “Prussian” or even “Aryan” qualitites of the “new” Israeli Jews. The subchapter that then starts on page 99 discusses the question of whether German financial support for Israel was actually used to help Israel build its nuclear arsenal.

To give a taste of the book, here is page 99 almost in full. Please note that in the beginning, I refer to an especially outlandish quote on the previous page by a German observer of the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
Here, Jews seem to have finally become German. This perhaps rather astonishing type of openly racist German over-identification with Israeli Jews starkly illustrates how continuities of German antisemitism can express themselves in a pro-Israeli attitude. In this case, Israel is represented in terms of German self-descriptions of a distinctly pre-1945 era, whereby Israel becomes Aryan. The German identification with Israeli military capacity in terms such as these is a corollary to the fact that in their formative phase under consideration in this chapter, German politics towards Israel served not to confront the past but to whitewash its continuities, a rationale accepted by Israel in return for the means to build the state.

Business friends: Did the FRG finance Israel’s nuclear project?

In 2015, Hans Rühle, an expert on nuclear proliferation who had held high positions in the BMVg and NATO, published an article in the conservative newspaper Die Welt, known for its staunch support of Israel. The article claimed that the FRG had financed Israel’s nuclear project with the ‘Operation Business Friend’ loan in the 1960s, promised to Ben-Gurion at the Waldorf Astoria and paid out after the Eichmann trial. Rühle argues that while the French technical help for the construction of the nuclear power plant at Dimona is well-known, the question of who paid for the project had remained a riddle, as the costs far exceeded Israel’s budget at the time. Contrary to normal development loans, ‘Operation Business Friend’ was never explicitly tied to any specific projects; in fact, the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, the state-owned German development bank in charge of the loan, has not disclosed its files on the topic to this day.
Learn more about Germany and Israel at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 7, 2020

Mark Tushnet's "Taking Back the Constitution"

Mark Tushnet is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. His books include Why the Constitution Matters and In the Balance: Law and Politics on the Roberts Court.

Tushnet applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Taking Back the Constitution: Activist Judges and the Next Age of American Law, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Taking Back the Constitution is the first page of a brief chapter on the Supreme Court’s decisions on constitutional questions associated with the culture wars, including LGBTQI rights and abortion.

The chapter’s theme is a small version of the book’s overall argument, that the best way to understand the Court’s decisions on high-profile constitutional issues is to map the issues onto our political landscape. Justices nominated by Republican presidents will generally, though not always, decide the cases as the Republican caucus in the Senate would deal with them – and similarly for justices nominated by Democratic presidents.

Most of the book applies that argument to cases the Court has decided over the past decade, and projects the argument into a future that might resemble the present (divided government), or differ from it a lot (a consolidated “Trumpist” government or an invigorated Democratic regime). Along the way the book explains how the Court is both an umpire calling balls and strikes and a thoroughly political institution – how, that is, deciding cases according to “the law” allows the justices to translate their ordinary political preferences into constitutional law.

The book concludes with a discussion of several forms of constitutional transformation, ranging from changes in the way we choose justices to the possibility of calling a new constitutional convention to revise the Constitution top-to-bottom. I favor doing so, but you’ll have to read the book to understand why, and to see how a new constitutional convention might work.
Learn more about Taking Back the Constitution at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Erin Mayo-Adam's "Queer Alliances"

Erin Mayo-Adam is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department and the Human Rights Program at Hunter College, CUNY.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Queer Alliances: How Power Shapes Political Movement Formation, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Queer Alliances features a quote from the former leader of an LGBTQ organization describing how opponents assisted in the formation of political movement coalitions by convincing different groups that they were allies. In the quote, the former organization leader explains how labor organizations became more supportive of LGBTQ rights as they came to realize that the labor and LGBTQ movements shared the same opponents. According to the former leader, labor organizations used to not be on board with “what they called the 3Gs: Guns, Gods, and Gays.” That is, labor organizations generally held more conservative positions on these issues in the past. However, through a series of campaigns, labor organizations started to see the same opponents fight against pro-LGBTQ and pro-labor issues. Under the belief that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” labor organizations shifted positions and ultimately became some of the strongest LGBTQ allies.

The passage is an illustration of the one component of the book’s central argument, that coalitions can form when groups realize they have common opponents and a shared social movement past. However, Queer Alliances also argues that these coalitions are often volatile and fragile, that they are prone to breaking apart as groups that compose them come to see themselves as part of different political projects. This is especially true of organizations that are beholden to the cyclical nature of campaigns. Thus, in the concluding chapter, Queer Alliances argues that groups must also commit to an expansionist vision of movement in order to avoid the dissolution of alliances.
Visit Erin Mayo-Adam's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Eric Jay Dolin's "A Furious Sky"

Eric Jay Dolin is the best-selling author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire, When America First Met China, Brilliant Beacons, and Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates.

Dolin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes, and reported the following:
Applying The Page 99 Test to A Furious Sky poses an interesting dilemma: do you include only the text, or the text and the image? That is because half of the page is a black-and-white image. To honor Ford Madox Ford's dictum, I think you have to consider both the text and the image, since they are so intimately intertwined. So, here they are.
A body in the wreckage on the wharf after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900
Dead and mangled bodies were found under, over, within, and next to the wreckage. Bloated corpses, covered in silt and sand, with arms and legs contorted into unnatural positions, littered the macabre landscape—a silent testament to the hurricane’s power. Most contemporary accounts place the number killed at 6,000, but since the real number cannot be known, there is little doubt that it was higher still. The unusually hot weather had brought numerous visitors to Galveston to enjoy the surf and sand, but just how many of them died is unknown. An untold number of people were also swept out to sea or into the bay, and never seen again. Thus, the death toll might have been 8,000, 10,000, or even more.
This image and passage is part of the chapter on the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which is the deadliest natural disaster in American history. It is the storm against which all others are measured, and every year it becomes part of the national conversation swirling around the relentless march of hurricane season, as news outlets trot out the Galveston Hurricane’s gruesome particulars for comparison’s sake.

For A Furious Sky, The Page 99 Test captures the raw drama and human tragedy that is on display in the book, but it fails to grasp the great breadth and depth of the book. While A Furious Sky profiles many of the most significant and deadly hurricanes in American history, such as the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, it is not simply a parade of horribles, and a portrait of death and destruction. The book uses hurricanes to tell a much richer and fascinating story about American history and the 400-year evolution of our interactions with, and understanding of, hurricanes. This includes, among other things, intriguing accounts of advances in meteorology, communications, forecasting, computer modeling, satellite technology, emergency response, and weather reporting. A Furious Sky also shows how hurricanes have changed the course of history, and how climate change and global warming will likely make future hurricanes worse than they have been in the past.

Every year, America is pummeled by hurricanes. A Furious Sky will help you put that pummeling into historical context, and add to the majesty, as well as the horrors, of the greatest storms on earth.
Learn more about the book and author at Eric Jay Dolin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Lawrence Roberts's "Mayday 1971"

Lawrence Roberts has been an editor of investigative journalism for most of his career. He’s worked at ProPublica, the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and the Hartford Courant, and was executive editor of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

Roberts applied the “Page 99 Test” to his first book, Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest, and reported the following:
A casual browser checking page 99 of Mayday 1971 would encounter themes strikingly similar to the present day, when another embattled U.S. president coming up for re-election deployed federal agents and the military to counter the rage of a social movement. That president was Richard M. Nixon. On Page 99, we learn that his administration was stepping up activities, including illegal surveillance, against activists who were trying to pressure the government to end America’s war in Vietnam. Nixon and his men viewed the antiwar protests as a serious political threat:
A few months after Nixon took over as president, the army’s intelligence command directed agents to collect information on “Anti-War/Anti-Draft Activities, Militant Organizations, Extremists in the Armed Forces, Demonstrations, Rallies, Parades, Marches, Conventions, Conferences, Picketing Activities, Strikes and Labor Disturbances… It turned out that army and navy agents had posed as newsmen to interview and photograph New Left leaders… A newspaper reported that the FBI leased 450 lines from the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company to handle all its wiretaps in Washington.”
I admire and enjoy the Page 99 test; in this case it gives the browser an important but nevertheless partial view of the larger book. Mayday 1971 focuses on the most intense season of dissent ever seen in Washington, and how it set the stage for Watergate and Nixon’s epic fall. During the spring of that year, myriad groups frustrated with Nixon’s expansion of the war into Vietnam’s neighbor, Laos, descended on D.C. for weeks of nearly continuous demonstrations. One group was Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and page 99 lands in the middle of a chapter about one of its key organizers, an Air Force vet named John O’Connor. O’Connor is one of the eight characters whose personal stories I use to tell the larger tale. I won’t spoil the big surprise about him that we learn later in this chapter.

The climax of the book is the climax of that spring’s demonstrations, and the action that most worried the White House: Tens of thousands of people, calling themselves the Mayday Tribe, vowed to mount a blockade of streets, bridges and federal buildings, under the slogan, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” It remains the largest act of civil disobedience in American history. How Nixon and his men worked to foil it, and in so doing sowed the seeds of their own demise, is the lesson of Mayday 1971, and one that other leaders ignore at their peril.
Visit Lawrence Roberts's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Mark Evan Bonds's "Beethoven: Variations on a Life"

Mark Evan Bonds is the Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he has taught since 1992. A former editor-in-chief of Beethoven Forum, he has written widely on the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Bonds applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Beethoven: Variations on a Life, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford would be happy. Page 99 actually gives a very good sense of my approach to Beethoven, which tries to get us to think about him and listen to his music in ways that go back to his own lifetime. Page 99 points out that Beethoven’s reputation has rested from the very beginning almost entirely on his instrumental music, in spite of the fact that he wrote enormous quantities of vocal music, including an opera, two settings of the Mass, an oratorio, more than a hundred songs, and dozens of choruses. It must have galled him, as I point out on page 99, to read repeated references to himself not simply as the greatest living composer but as the greatest living composer of instrumental music.

In fairness to those critics, this was not so much a dismissal of his vocal works as a recognition of his unique genius for writing for instruments alone. Setting a text to music, as one anonymous critic of a set of six songs argued in 1811, actually “inhibited” Beethoven because it deprived him of the “broad, free field of play” he needed to display his creative gifts to the fullest. And indeed, it was this sense of free imagination—“fantasy,” to use the favored term of the day—that made his music so distinctive. His fantasy took listeners to places they had never been before. Some found the path too difficult to follow, but by the end of Beethoven’s life he had changed the way audiences listened by demanding more of them.

Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, also discussed on page 99, provides a case in point of this perceived imbalance between vocal and instrumental music. The work began life as Leonore in 1805, but the composer made substantial revisions to the music, writing no fewer than four different purely instrumental overtures along the way before re-launching the work as Fidelio in 1814. Overtures typically set the mood for the drama to follow, and through all its various versions that drama remained serious indeed. Leonore, who has disguised herself as a man (“Fidelio”), secures employment in a prison in order to free her husband, Florestan, who has been unjustly incarcerated because of his political beliefs. One of the four overtures, now known as the “Third Leonore Overture,” is a brilliant encapsulation of the plot through instruments alone; it was so powerful, in fact, that it effectively overwhelmed the stage action that followed, and Beethoven wisely wrote an entirely new and much shorter overture. He published the earlier one separately in tacit acknowledgment that it was, in effect, too dramatic in spite of—or more to the point, because of—the absence of words. Thus even Beethoven recognized a sizable grain of truth in what contemporary critics had to say about him.
Learn more about Beethoven: Variations on a Life at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue