Monday, June 17, 2024

John Strausbaugh's "The Wrong Stuff"

John Strausbaugh is a well known author of history books. His titles include Victory City, City of Sedition, and The Village. A former editor of New York Press, he has written about history and culture for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Evergreen Review, the Wilson Quarterly, and other publications.

Strausbaugh applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Wrong Stuff: How the Soviet Space Program Crashed and Burned, and reported the following:
The Wrong Stuff is a history of the surprisingly ramshackle Soviet space program, and how its success was more spin than science. Driven by propaganda-crazed political leaders, Soviet rocket scientists achieved great feats of make-do ingenuity against bedeviling odds – except when they failed. The government trumpeted the victories and hid the failures, which only became public knowledge after the Soviet Union fell.

A good part of the book is about the young cosmonauts who risked life and limb in jerry-rigged space vehicles, and sometimes died in them. Page 99 is about one of them, Gherman Titov, as a young recruit. Like most cosmonauts, he had grown up dirt-poor in a poor country. From that page:
By February 1960 an initial field of three thousand cosmonaut candidates was whittled down to a group of only twenty. Korolev called them his “little eagles.” [Yuri] Gagarin emerged early as one of the front-runners. His chief competitor was Gherman Titov, who came from a similar background but was of a very different temperament. Two years younger than Gagarin, Titov grew up poor in an isolated, often snowbound Siberian village in the region called the Altai Krai. His father, a schoolteacher, built the family’s one-room log cabin. Gherman slept on a shelf above his mother’s narrow bed. A sister would later say that maybe it was sleeping up near the ceiling that gave him his first dreams of flying. His father filled the little home with books, and Gherman grew up to be unusually literate for a fighter pilot. He wrote poetry and recited Pushkin at length. An uncle who was a World War I flyer inspired him to join the air force. He earned his wings on his twenty-second birthday. Where Gagarin was a middling pilot, Titov was an ace. Unlike Gagarin, who always looked like his uniform was a little too big for him, Titov looked sharp, natty, well-tailored. And while Gagarin could be friendly as a puppy, Titov could be argumentative to a point that nearly derailed his career more than once when he popped off at superior officers. He and Gagarin admired each other the way opposites do. When it grew clear that they were the stars of the group, they engaged in a fierce competition to be the first human in space.
Except for a small hint of what the rest of the book is like, I don't think a single page can possibly give a sense of the scope of the story. It begins at the end of World War II and follows the Soviet space program through decades of triumphs and defeats to the end of the USSR and its legacy in the equally cash-strapped and slapdash Russian space efforts today. Page 99 is just one step on a much longer journey.
Visit John Strausbaugh's website.

The Page 99 Test: Victory City.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Sandra E. Bonura's "The Sugar King of California"

Sandra E. Bonura is a historian, researcher, and writer. A retired professor of education and school counseling, she is the author of Empire Builder: John D. Spreckels and the Making of San Diego; Light in the Queen’s Garden: Ida May Pope, Pioneer for Hawai‘i’s Daughters; and An American Girl in the Hawaiian Islands: Letters of Carrie Prudence Winter, 1890–1893.

Bonura applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, The Sugar King of California: The Life of Claus Spreckels, and reported the following:
From page 99 [footnotes omitted]:
The transaction caused a huge uproar with cries of “land grabber.” In 1880 the going rate for land in Maui was about $1.50 an acre, making the crown lands worth around $1.5 million. Princess Ruth’s claim to a half interest in the lands would then be estimated, not at the paltry $10,000 Claus paid but at $750,000.29 The sale was hotly contested and legally questioned throughout the Hawaiian kingdom. First and foremost, members of the ruling monarchy believed that Princess Ruth’s legal claim to the crown lands was debatable because she “had no estate, right, title or interest of any description in the crown lands.” Liliʻuokalani was angry: “Mr. Spreckels paid the Princess Ruth $10,000 to release her claim to a small tract of these lands, although she had never ascended the throne.” It was true the princess herself never took the throne, and some royals, behind her back, questioned her self-claimed close genealogical relationship with the Kamehamehas.

Claus sought legal advice in both San Francisco and Hawaiʻi to ensure he had a plausible claim to the land, and came away with conflicting opinions, but most concluded that his position was “legally weak.” Nevertheless, some haoles in the Hawaiian legislature were more than happy to assert that he had good title to those crown lands: his real estate deal would set a precedent for the sale of prime crown lands, and if he could own some of the best agricultural lands in the kingdom, perhaps they could too! However, those legislators who claimed that Claus had a weak legal case “feared the power of his money to hire the best legal talent and, one way or another, get title to half the crown lands.” Realizing they couldn’t finance a long and drawn- out lawsuit by Claus, the Hawaiian legislature, out of sheer frustration, was persuaded to quiet any subsequent claims of his by passing the contentious Act to Authorize the Commissioners of Crown Lands to Convey Certain Portions of Such Lands to Claus Spreckels in Satisfaction of All Claims He May Have on Such Lands. Since Claus had previously been leasing the land under a thirty-year contract for $1,000 per annum, he settled the case for $30,000 in “lost lease money and the future value of less than .05% of the Crown Lands.” Once this compromise was signed on August 11, 1882, the kingdom finally conveyed the 24,000 agricultural acres to Claus.

Princess Ruth had been suffering from heart disease for some time and likely paid little attention to all the legal commotion surrounding the act. She died at fifty-seven, just nine months later. In her will she left everything, including 353,000 acres of Kamehameha lands, to her cousin Princess Bernice
Page 99 was revealing to me in that it made my biography subject look like a hated monopolist which is dispelled later in the book. So, if I were an average person and asked to look at page 99, I would think …oh here is another rich guy who pushed his way up the ladder with force. I’m not reading it.

The Page 99 Test doesn't work very well for my book. A prospective reader would get a better sense of the book from this take:
Sandra Bonura is the first biographer to give a heart and soul to Claus Spreckels, his era’s [Elon] Musk. Fiercely independent, resourceful, and combative, Spreckels arguably altered the history of California more than anyone in his time. In this deeply researched biography Bonura paints a complete tapestry of Spreckels’s complicated business and family life, wealth beyond imagination, and the incredible drive of a titan without peer.
That's from Victor J. Dicks, author of Forsaken Kings: Emma Spreckels, the Surfer of Asbury Park.
Learn more about the book and author at Sandra E. Bonura's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Andrew M. Gardner's "The Fragmentary City"

Andrew M. Gardner is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. He has focused his research on the places, peoples and societies that interact on the Arabian Peninsula, where he has conducted extensive fieldwork.

Gardner applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Fragmentary City: Migration, Modernity, and Difference in the Urban Landscape of Doha, Qatar, and reported the following:
The 99th page of my new book primarily consists of a description of The Pearl, the man-made island just off the coast of Doha, Qatar. I’ll quote here the first of two paragraphs describing The Pearl:
The final example is the development known as The Pearl, which is the Qatari example of the offshore residential developments for which the Gulf states are renowned. Developments like The Pearl have a symbolic resonance that is unprecedented, for they are visible from outer space. In local parlance, and as if often repeated in writing, these developments have been “reclaimed from the sea.” In this case, The Pearl is a man-made island that occupies the shallow coastal waters once vital to the pearl industry and of great environmental importance (Burt 2014). Construction of The Pearl commenced in 2003. Altogether, the island development contains some 18,831 dwellings intended to accommodate an estimated 45,000 residents. The 400 hectares (985 acres) of reclaimed land are built and arranged to provide more than thirty-two kilometers of new beachfront, and the retail and commercial offerings that suffuse the island development reach for a stylistically cosmopolitan and culturally diverse tenor. Costs for the project were initially estimated at $2.5 billion, but estimates have now ballooned to nearly $15 billion.
This section doesn’t really illuminate the central thesis of my book. But like any ethnography, it’s details, examples, and specifics that lead readers to the overarching theses that undergird the book. In that sense, detailed descriptions like those presented here are threads that one can follow to those central themes. Let’s follow the thread leading from page 99 for a moment!

First, migrants come from all over the Indian Ocean world to work in Qatar. Those migrants end up living in particular locations and spaces in the city. Consigning foreigners to particular enclaves and specific spaces is characteristic of the contemporary Gulf city. But as I demonstrate in this book, all sorts of things other than people are also consigned to enclaves and to specific spaces in the urban landscape.

It’s this juncture where the description of The Pearl found on page 99 fits: The Pearl is an exceptional space, for it is one of the only places in Qatar where foreigners can own property. Notably, while The Pearl is an exceptional space in that sense, it’s also quintessentially emblematic of the pattern by which Doha has grown in recent decades — a pattern that I refer to as an urban spatial discourse. This urban spatial discourse has deeply shaped the city one encounters there today. Indeed, in this book I contend that the city itself is best comprehended as a conglomeration of these enclaves and gargantuan urban spaces.

While these enclaves and distinctions in the urban landscape have been a lightning rod for much Western critique, in this book I point in another direction. I suggest that the fragmentary nature of the city’s urban landscape has been an integral feature in the preservation of cultural differences amidst such dramatic transnational movements and flows. Simultaneously, I also argue that this urban spatial discourse has been the key tool by which Qatar’s citizen-minority govern the “foreign matter” they host on the peninsula and in the city. In the final accounting, what’s notable about Doha is the superdiverse demography of the city, and the absence of integration as an ideal (or even a desire) by most of its residents. With so much diversity packed into the urban landscape, we should all pay attention to the urban ethos of Doha and cities like it.
Learn more about The Fragmentary City at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 14, 2024

D. Marcel DeCoste's "Professing Darkness"

D. Marcel DeCoste, professor of English at the University of Regina, is the author of The Vocation of Evelyn Waugh: Faith and Art in the Post-War Fiction.

DeCoste applied the Ford Madox Ford inspired "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Professing Darkness: Cormac McCarthy's Catholic Critique of American Enlightenment, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Professing Darkness would seem, on the face of it, to offer an instance of a text that fails Ford’s test. Engaged in a detailed reading of the final pages of just one of the dozen McCarthy works that my book considers, it seems far too focused a passage to fairly represent the monograph as a whole. It reads as follows:
result of his denying his own culpability and his embracing Enlightenment dreams of perfection. Yet even years after this grisly climax, Holme is granted another chance to repent of his crimes against charity and community, but while Frye contends that his travels culminate “in a realization, albeit a weak one, of his own error and a muted attempt to correct it” (“Histories” 8), Outer Dark instead concludes with Holme affirming both his refusal of relationship and the guiltlessness of that choice. His encounter with a blind man offers him a moment in which he may both heed the gospel of forgiveness and perform an atoning altruistic act. “Ragged and serene” (239), this sightless itinerant hails the passing Culla, attempts friendly conversation, and extends concern: “Is they anything you need?” (240). He denies the title of preacher, asking “What is they to preach? It’s all plain enough. Word and flesh” (240). He then shares a tale of a failed faith healer and expresses the desire to find that man and relieve him of whatever guilt he may yet feel: “If somebody don’t tell him he never will have no rest” (241). While the blind man offers welcome, models solicitude, and implies that the Incarnation expresses both a duty to succor others and uni­versal access to divine solace, Culla wants none of it. In keeping with his merce­nary outlook, he assumes this evangelist’s overtures are those of a salesman and seeks to move on. Doing so, he finds that the road terminates in an impassable swamp, “a landscape of the damned” (242). Returning, he spies the blind man still coming and passes by him without a word, reflecting “did he know how the road ended. Someone should tell a blind man before setting him out that way” (242). Even here, Holme might be the Samaritan to offer this warning, to recog­nize as his own the duty to extend the same concern that has been shown him. But having spent the novel betraying—in his lies and rejection of kinship—both word and flesh, Holme once again refuses the call to speak truly or forge a saving fraternity. Seeing in this refusal no sin he is empowered to commit or to forbear, he balks at that recognition of moral responsibility for and before others that is the essence of penitence, and persists in his benighted roving.

That this penitent’s hope remains open even to so perverse a figure as Culla Holme might well surprise, but the ultimate fate of Lester Ballard enacts even more forcefully Knox’s Catholic notion that no sinner is irredeemable, provided he takes the path of contrition and surrenders an enlightened insistence on his perfect sovereignty. In his lurking in the shadows and retreat to subterranean haunts, Ballard typically flees the scrutiny and judgment of his community.
The bulk of the page thus offers an interpretation of the fate of one Culla Holme, anti-hero of McCarthy’s second published novel, Outer Dark. More specifically, it argues that, even after this novel’s bloody climax (which sees him play passive witness to the murder and cannibalization of the son of his incestuous relationship with sister Rinthy), Holme is afforded a chance at reform in his meeting with the blind preacher. This, I note, he ignores. I then move on, at the foot of the page, to signal that the even more depraved Lester Ballard, necrophiliac and serial-murdering focus of McCarthy’s next novel, receives and successfully seizes upon a similar shot at redemption.

I say that the test might be judged to fail here, because the claims being dealt with on page 99 are so focused and granular. The larger argument of the book is that Cormac McCarthy’s oft-noted critique of American culture is fuelled by his likewise frequently remarked interest in matters spiritual. The novelty of my study lies, first, in its drawing a clear line between these two currents in the fiction and, second, in its demonstration that the religious concepts that so frame the author’s dissection of American Enlightenment consistently derive from his education and upbringing as a Roman Catholic. Professing Darkness thus makes a case for the centrality to his fiction of such key notions as the sacramental character of creation, humanity’s fallen state, the subsequent need for charitable communion with God and neighbor, and the necessity, and radical availability, of penitential conversion. Page 99 above would seem to address but one of these four ideas as it relates to only part of a single work and with little regard for the study’s concern with Enlightenment thought or American culture.

Nonetheless, this page might also fairly be judged to pass Ford’s test. Certainly, it deals with such dominant themes of the study as sin, charity, communion, and repentance. It offers the reader a representative taste, therefore, of the tone of the work as a whole. Moreover, it fairly introduces the book’s orienting lexicon (Catholic), its methodology (close reading married to a history of ideas) and its approach—thematic, moral, and theological. As such, the browsing reader could use it to make a pretty well-informed decision as to their willingness to undertake a study of the volume as a whole.
Learn more about Professing Darkness at the LSU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Justine Firnhaber-Baker's "House of Lilies"

Justine Firnhaber-Baker is Professor of History at the University of St Andrews. A former fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a graduate of Harvard University, she is the author of The Jacquerie of 1358: A French Peasants’ Revolt (2021) and Violence and the State in Languedoc, 1250-1400 (2014).

Firnhaber-Baker applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, House of Lilies: The Dynasty That Made Medieval France, and reported the following:
From page 99:
…unsuccessful expedition in 1141 to capture Toulouse, which Eleanor claimed by right of her grandmother. Louis’s anger at these failures and Thibaut’s assault, as they saw it, on Petronilla’s happiness and indeed her salvation, grew white hot when it became known that Thibaut was sheltering the pope’s preferred candidate for the see of Bourges. By August 1142, Louis had invaded Champagne, and when his army reached the town of Vitry, whose unarmed inhabitants fled from the violence of his ravaging soldiers, he ordered the massacre that still haunted him years later.

As the war in Champagne dragged on, Queen Eleanor, too, began to have doubts. She had not yet carried a pregnancy to term, a fact which suggested God’s displeasure. Although her influence on her husband’s reign during these unhappy early years is hard to prove – the sources are scant and coloured by knowledge of her later actions – she does seem to have gained some say in the kingdom’s governance soon after her marriage, and many blamed its ‘confused and chaotic’ character on her. Certainly, Bernard of Clairvaux faulted her for Louis’s aggressive policy toward Champagne and his unwillingness to settle with Count Thibaut or to concede to the pope’s wishes for the see of Bourges. When Bernard came upon Eleanor praying for a child during the reopening festivities for Abbot Suger’s renovated Saint- Denis in June 1144, he seized the opportunity and promised her that God would finally bless her womb, but only if she dropped her obdurate stance and worked zealously for peace. She agreed, and his prediction proved correct. Once Thibaut and Louis were reconciled and the pope’s candidate took up the see of Bourges – though at the cost of Louis breaking his sacred oath never to allow it and incurring yet another sin to weigh on his conscience – Eleanor did at long last bear a child, albeit a disappointingly female one.

The queen was far from alone in agreeing to do what Bernard asked of her. The honey-tongued abbot had a talent for convincing people to do things, and it was he who convinced the kingdom to undertake Louis’s crusade. The dubious nobles at Louis’s Christmas court had promised to seek Bernard’s advice, and he in turn sought guidance from the pope, who was more than happy to have Bernard…
A conflicted king, a powerful queen (Eleanor of Aquitaine, no less!), a saint, a crusade, a massacre of innocents, and a family drama that changes the fate of a nation: It’s all there on page 99. House of Lilies is a history of the Capetian dynasty that ruled France from 987 to 1328. It follows the intertwined stories of this royal family and the nation it ruled – and in many ways built – over these formative centuries in European political and cultural history. When the first Capetian king was crowned, national borders were still fluid, kings were weak relative to their position in later centuries, and iconic elements of medieval life, like chivalry, gothic architecture, and crusading, had yet to be invented. But by the time the last Capetian king died, all those things – and much more – had come into being, in no small part because of the Capetians themselves.

On page 99, we meet King Louis VII, first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, as he is trying to get the Second Crusade off the ground, partly to expiate his sin in burning 1,300 people alive in a church while warring against one of his barons. The crusade will be preached by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whom we also meet on page 99, where he promises Eleanor that if she influences Louis VII for good then she will get pregnant. Eleanor and Louis’s barren marriage – which only produced two daughters in fifteen years – was the reason that Louis eventually divorced her. This proved to be a terrible decision because Eleanor then immediately married King Henry II of England, one of the most dangerous foes France ever faced. Heiress to vast duchy of Aquitaine in southern France, Eleanor brought these lands to Henry, who ruled not only England but also a collection of French lands much larger than the Capetians’ own. (Adding insult to injury, Eleanor then gave Henry baby after baby after baby, five of them boys.) Louis VII’s son and grandson would conquer most of these lands – and even invade England itself in 1216 – but Gascony, the last remnant of Eleanor’s duchy, stayed in English hands until the end of the Hundred Years War (1338-1453), the beginning of which is where my book ends.
Learn more about House of Lilies at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Madiba K. Dennie's "The Originalism Trap"

Madiba K. Dennie is the deputy editor and senior contributor at the critical legal commentary website Balls and Strikes, the co-director of the Democracy Committee of the New Jersey Reparations Council, and was previously a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. Her legal and political commentary has been featured in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, and she has been interviewed on the BBC, MSNBC, and other media outlets. She has taught at Western Washington University and New York University School of Law. Dennie is a graduate of Columbia Law School and Princeton University.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to The Originalism Trap: How Extremists Stole the Constitution and How We the People Can Take It Back, her first book, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Originalism Trap falls very close to the end of Chapter 2, “Stealing Our Liberties,” and it includes some direct recommendations for Americans to reclaim the rights they’ve lost to originalism’s takeover of constitutional interpretation. For instance, the first sentence on the page is “Inclusive constitutionalism argues that we should be strengthening rather than shrinking our substantive due process analyses in order to make the Constitution’s principles real for all of us.” And the next paragraph begins with the lines, “Positive rights such as these have been disfavored by the Supreme Court, to be sure. But the Supreme Court is disfavored by the public, and neither the Founders nor the Supreme Court have the final word in the nation’s ongoing dialogue about constitutional interpretation.”

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Page 99 Test worked for The Originalism Trap. The book rejects originalism as a method of legal interpretation and proposes “inclusive constitutionalism” as an alternative. And on page 99, I straightforwardly describe what that would mean with respect to the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process protections. Throughout the book, I aim to empower readers to play an active role in reshaping constitutional meaning. And here on page 99, I remind readers that there is no inherent finality to the Supreme Court’s decisions; without the public’s assent, the Court’s decisions are just words on paper. And, while I think my best jokes are on other pages, page 99 does provide just a taste of the irreverence with which I regard the Supreme Court. Browsers who opened the book up to page 99 would get a decent grasp of the book’s thesis and, importantly, see that they don’t need to be a lawyer to understand it. From both the substance and the style, a casual reader would recognize that this book about the Constitution is indeed for “we the people.”
Visit Madiba K. Dennie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 10, 2024

J. Matthew Ward's "Garden of Ruins"

J. Matthew Ward is assistant professor of history at Quincy University.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Garden of Ruins: Occupied Louisiana in the Civil War, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Alarmed at the rate of refugees, especially formerly enslaved people, who crossed the lines as the war continued, Union forces did their best to catalog the number and identity of refugees, as well as provide limited aid. “You will be pleased to make returns to this office monthly the numbers of males and also of females coming into our lines in your parish as refugees,” Bowen wrote to Provost Marshal George Darling in early 1864. He was also ordered to note the number of Confederate deserters. All refugees from beyond Union lines who entered New Orleans had to appear before the provost marshal, “who will immediately examine them with a view of determining their character and their motive in giving them selves [sic] up.” After December 1863, Union officers were required to read Lincoln’s Amnesty Proclamation to all refugees in case any of them desired to take the oath. Even as they provided relief and worked to incorporate southern refugees back into national society, Union officers still appraised the loyalties of refugees to prevent Confederate spies from infiltrating the occupation zone.

To secure the occupation zone from Confederate infiltration and optimize their relief efforts for southern citizens, the Union army increasingly implemented banishment. This war tactic affected men and women across the occupied South who chose to maintain Confederate allegiance. Ardent Confederate supporters or simple public nuisances could be ejected from the occupation zone. As Banks informed a subordinate in May 1863, “All persons have had opportunity in New Orleans at least, to determine whether they can live under the government of the United States. The hour has now come when they must choose their destination.”
Military occupation was crucial to the success of Union forces during the US Civil War because occupation forces held strategic supply and communication centers, patrolled important sections of Confederate territory, and slowly undermined the system of slavery. But, as page 99 of my book demonstrates in part, occupation duty was complex. Occupation commanders in Civil War Louisiana had to manage a large population of Confederates, white southern Unionists, and black people (both free and enslaved)—all of whom had competing visions about what the war should accomplish and what relation they shared with the military government. Page 99 of my text reveals some of the policies that Union forces engaged in when fighting the war and dealing with the occupied population at the same time. Commanders carefully identified refugees, distributed aid as best they could, required loyalty oaths, and even banished some of the more troublesome Confederates that yet remained behind Union lines.

These were only a few of the tactics that both Union and Confederate governments employed as they struggled not only to militarily defeat their enemy, but also win the hearts and minds of the civilians in Louisiana. I describe my book as a social history of military occupation. It investigates the major policies of powerful leaders like Confederate Governor Henry Allen or Union General Benjamin Butler, and it also reveals numerous ground-level stories from common people and how they endured the troubled terrain of Civil War Louisiana. For most people during the war, the local matters around them was the Civil War, not major battles. Household order and survival were central themes for commanders and commoners alike in the war of occupation. With Louisiana as the setting, Garden of Ruins is my effort to uncover the complicated process of military occupation and indicate its historical importance to how the war developed.
Learn more about Garden of Ruins at the LSU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Tom McGrath's "Triumph of the Yuppies"

Tom McGrath was the editor-in-chief of Philadelphia magazine, as well as chief content officer of Metro Corp., the parent company of Philadelphia and Boston between 2010 and 2020. Under his leadership, the magazines won more than fifty awards for editorial excellence. In 2022, he was named Writer of the Year at the National City and Regional Magazine Awards. He’s written two previous books: MTV: The Making of a Revolution, and, with John Basedow, Fitness Made Simple.

McGrath applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Triumph of the Yuppies: America, the Eighties, and the Creation of an Unequal Nation, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Triumph of the Yuppies introduces us to the General Electric corporation as Jack Welch was taking over as CEO in 1981. As the page explains, for a century GE had been one of America’s most successful and admired companies, providing both innovation and hundreds of thousands of jobs in cities and towns across the country.

GE adhered to certain standards when it came to how it operated. Reg Jones, Welch’s predecessor as CEO, cited loyalty, along with moral integrity and innovation, as key elements of the “GE spirit.”

That spirit was alive and well in Schenectady, NY, GE’s original headquarters, which grew along with the company during much of the 20th Century. As page 99 tells us, “The residents of Schenectady and the surrounding area got not only the satisfaction of improving the world, but also solid, middle-class jobs. People worked at GE for their entire lives—and saw generations of family members do so as well.”

Page 99 is a great representation of what Triumph of the Yuppies is about, since it sketches out the culture of corporate America – and the broader culture of America – before the 1980s.

The book is a deep dive into how that culture changed during the ’80s, with Yuppies — aka, young urban professionals, an elite, well-educated subset of the Baby Boom generation — leading the charge.

Thanks to a new set of values and a change in the cultural winds, the focus in the early 1980s shifted to a narrowly defined version of “success.” For companies like GE, that meant rewarding stockholders with the biggest profits possible, even if it involved shipping jobs overseas, exploiting workers, or decimating communities. (GE would do all of those under Welch.) For individuals, the “success” ethic meant an intense focus on careers, money, materialism and status — whether it was owning the fanciest car imaginable, wearing a designer suit, or eating at only the best restaurants.

Triumph of the Yuppies is a cultural history that touches on a broad swath of what was happening in America during a pivotal decade, including changes in politics, on Wall Street, in corporate America, in cities, and in lifestyles. It includes fun details from the '80s (from Jane Fonda and the Sharper Image to Madonna and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) while detailing how a divide developed in the country along educational and economic fault lines — a divide we feel more than ever four decades later.

Ultimately, the book is the origin story of the unequal, unsettled America we live in today.
Visit Tom McGrath's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Luis Felipe Alvarez León's "The Map in the Machine"

Luis Felipe Alvarez León is Assistant Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College. He researches the political economy of geospatial data, media, and technologies.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Map in the Machine: Charting the Spatial Architecture of Digital Capitalism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Map in the Machine captures one important dimension of the book’s key arguments: geospatial technologies (such as Earth observation satellites) are embedded in broader geopolitical and economic frameworks, and we must understand the geographic information they produce in close relation to such frameworks. However, page 99 alone may give the reader the impression that the book is primarily focused on satellite technologies, since the discussion centers on the strategic partnership between China and Venezuela for the development and launch of the South American country’s satellites Simón Bolívar (2008-2020), VRSS I (2012 – present) and VRSS II (2017- present). This partnership was significant because it represented China’s first steps in into the space sector as a technology provider for international customers.

To understand why page 99 discusses this satellite partnership, it is necessary to place it in the broader context of the book’s structure and arguments. Chapter 4, which contains page 99, explores the rise of a new ‘satellite ecosystem’ shaped by private companies, the availability of miniature satellites, and the expansion of launch capabilities to a wide range of countries and institutions. This must be understood in relation to other chapters which focus on Internet mapping services like MapQuest and Google Maps (Chapter 2), the rise of geolocation technologies like IP geolocation and GPS (Chapter 3), and ridesharing and autonomous driving (Chapter 5). Together these cases illustrate a wide variety of domains that have been transformed by innovations in navigation, mapping, and other geographic information technologies.

The cases discussed above weave the central idea of the book, which is that through the interconnected processes of location, valuation, and marketization (the LVM framework at the core of the book), geolocation technologies have become instrumental in the construction and operations of a new kind of digital capitalism. This is a particularly important reminder in the context of our digitally mediated world, because the spatial, material, and grounded aspects of the platforms and applications we use every day are often hidden from view. Yet, this spatial architecture is not only essential to the construction of digital technologies, but it is central to how they create economic value, to how markets are built around them, indeed to how we can regulate, repurpose, or reimagine them.
Visit Luis Felipe Alvarez León's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 7, 2024

Elena Ziliotti's "Meritocratic Democracy"

Elena Ziliotti is a tenured Assistant Professor (UD1) of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). Before joining TU Delft, she was an International Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Wuhan University, China, and a recipient of the 2019 China International Postdoctoral Exchange Fellowship. She completed her doctorate degree in Political Philosophy in June 2018 at the King’s College London and the National University of Singapore Joint Ph.D. programme.

Ziliotti applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Meritocratic Democracy: A Cross-Cultural Political Theory, and reported the following:
Page 99 discusses the epistemic contributions of political leaders in contemporary democracies. The page assumes an ‘epistemic’ perspective on democracy. In other words, it understands democratic systems as a kind of political mechanism through which different ideas and views come together to define our collective societal problems and identify possible solutions to them. Based on this idea of democracy, the page explains that political leaders can be helpful in the democratic search for political solutions because they can bring new topics or ideas into the debate. From this perspective, ‘political leaders are often capable of playing a substantive imaginative function in democracy through their creative agency’. The page discusses Nelson Mandela as a clear example of a good political leader who could play this imaginary role in society. However, it argues that other political leaders can function similarly because of their social position. Unlike other citizens, political leaders have close collaborations with international agencies and other key political players. This can allow them to develop a unique perspective on the political situation and perhaps anticipate problems.

If browsers opened my book to page 99, they would get a good sense of the topic of the book, which is indeed about democracy and political leaders. So, kudos to the Page 99 Test! However, reading page 99 is insufficient to get a sense of the whole work. The book does not consider only political leaders' positive contributions to democratic politics. It is also very much about the effects of bad political leaders on democracy. It also discusses at length the question of how we can ensure that political leaders work for democracy, and not against it.

Another critical aspect of the book that does not emerge from page 99 concerns how I address these issues. Unique to this book is that it reflects on democracy through a cross-cultural approach. It puts together insights from two different sets of philosophical debates: ideas on democracy that are discussed in Western political philosophy and ideas on good political leaders that emerge in contemporary debates in Confucian philosophy (one of the most ancient intellectual traditions that originated in East Asia).

Finally, I should mention that the book is not just about ‘democracy’ and ‘political leaders’ but also about ‘political parties’, which page 99 does not mention at all. The book argues that political parties retain the valuable function of pre-selecting the future political leaders in contemporary democratic societies. Because of this, it proposes a system of 'partisan juries' at the party level to enhance the quality of political leaders.

So, all things considered, the "test" may be a poor browser shortcut. However, it is not a terrible shortcut, given that it has identified two of the book's three main topics!
Visit Elena Ziliotti's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Eugene Rogan's "The Damascus Events"

Eugene Rogan is professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Oxford and the director of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. The author of numerous books, including The Arabs and the internationally bestselling The Fall of the Ottomans, Rogan is the recipient of the Albert Hourani Prize.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Damascus Events: The 1860 Massacre and the Making of the Modern Middle East, and reported the following:
On page 99, readers find a biography of the Algerian Amir `Abd al-Qadir – a man I identify as ‘the world’s most famous Arab’ of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1832, `Abd al-Qadir emerged as the leader of Algerian resistance to the French occupation of their country. His guerrilla war attracted headlines in Europe and America. The New York Times compared the Algerian commander to Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) who stood up against Napoleonic France. `Abd al-Qadir fought for fifteen years before finally surrendering in 1847. After five years in French jails, `Abd al-Qadir was given his freedom in return for a vow never to return to his native Algeria. He went into exile in the Ottoman Empire, ultimately settling in Damascus in 1855, where he was to play a key role in the 1860 Damascus Events.

Readers alighting on page 99 would get a better sense of the style than the content of the book. In writing The Damascus Events, I enjoyed the chance of developing a rich cast of characters who remain with the book to the end. These were men whose lives intersected in the streets of Damascus as well as in their writings at the time. I give all the biographical detail the sources reveal for each of the main characters. I even managed to source three photographic portraits of key characters, `Abd al-Qadir among them. Yet by taking readers to Algeria, they are far from the main theatre of the book, which is Damascus – a city not mentioned on page 99.

`Abd al-Qadir would prove central to the Damascus Events. Changes in society and economy between the 1830s and 1850s raised deepening tensions between the Muslim majority who found their position threatened by an ascendant Christian minority. `Abd al-Qadir was one of the few to recognize the volatility threatened violence. He armed 1200 Algerian veterans who had joined him in exile in Damascus. When murderous riots erupted in July 1860, `Abd al-Qadir deployed his troops to rescue Christians from the mob. It was largely due to his efforts that 85 percent of the Christian community survived the violence. For his heroism, `Abd al-Qadir was decorated with medals from the courts of Europe. American President Abraham Lincoln sent the Algerian a brace of pistols. `Abd al-Qadir was to live out his days in Damascus where he died in 1883. He would be resting there still had the government of independent Algeria not exhumed his remains for burial in Algiers as a national hero.
Learn more about The Damascus Events at the Basic Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Amir Alexander's "Liberty's Grid"

Amir Alexander teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Nature, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. His books include Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World and Proof! How the World Became Geometrical.

Alexander applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Liberty's Grid: A Founding Father, a Mathematical Dreamland, and the Shaping of America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Liberty’s Grid takes the reader to the chaotic world of the young United States, where a hodgepodge of different measurement units made government and commerce exceedingly difficult. As a leading member of Congress in the 1780’s Jefferson sought to remedy the problem by introducing decimal units of measurement that were easy to use and, as he saw it, natural. As a basic unit of measurement he proposed the length of one sixtieth of a degree of latitude, which he called the “geographical mile.” But when alerted by his friends in the Paris Academy of Science to the difficulty of determining the exact length of a degree, he decided to put off his reform until they settled on their own plan for universal weights and measures. The delay, in the end, proved fatal to Jefferson’s project, leaving the United States to this day as one of the lone holdouts to the metric system.

Jefferson’s failed reform is but one example of his determination to impose mathematical order on the unruly realities of the world. In the very same years that he was promoting his novel measurement units, he also introduced his plan to carve up the western territories of the United States into a massive Cartesian grid of straight lines and right angles. In this, as Liberty’s Grid shows, he was more successful. Looking down from a modern airliner the American West appears as a checkerboard of perfect squares stretching from horizon to horizon. It is Jefferson’s mathematical dream become reality.
Learn more about Liberty's Grid at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Rosemarie Bodenheimer and Philip Davis's "In Dialogue with Dickens"

Rosemarie Bodenheimer has been trying to get her head around Dickens since her undergraduate days. She spent her working life as Professor of English at Boston College, specializing in Victorian and modern fiction. In The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction (1994) and Knowing Dickens (2007), she fashioned a form of biographical criticism that juxtaposes a writer's letters with published works, as mutually illuminating forms of writing. After retirement, she published in various areas, most recently Samuel Beckett in the OUP series My Reading (2022).

Philip Davis was, until his retirement, Director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) at the University of Liverpool, with strong interests in reading and inner being, with particular relation to emotion, memory, auto/biography, and fictional realism. His work on Victorian writing includes Memory and Writing, The Victorians volume in the Oxford English Literary History series, Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, and The Transferred Life of George Eliot. He is an editor of two OUP series: The Literary Agenda and My Reading.

They applied the "Page 99 Test" to their new book, In Dialogue with Dickens: The Mind of the Heart, and reported the following:
Page 99 occurs in our chapter about Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit. Devoted to her father, Amy Dorrit has to resist Mr. Dorrit's attempt to manipulate her into marrying the jailor’s son, to ease his own plight in the debtor’s prison.

RB (Rosemarie Bodenheimer) writes:
This most excruciating scene between Dorrit father and daughter happens with no witness but the reader. The father can read his daughter’s silent refusal perfectly well, and his half-acknowledged shame takes shape in a performance of abject self-pity that’s even more emotionally manipulative than his pressure to accept John Chivery. Amy has no choice but to soothe him down at just the moment when he has most violated her heart. The terrible intimacy of that scene has no predecessor in Dombey and Son or, so far as I recall, anywhere else in Dickens.
To this PD (Philip Davis) replies:
And it comes after she has said, at last: ‘O, father, how can you! O dear, dear father, how can you, can you, do it!’ But she said it to herself, not to his dear, dear face. It is with that father-like something that Dickens could have seen more brazenly in All’s Well That Ends Well: ‘Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?’ (4.1.45).
RB then goes on to speak of a different but related scene, when Little Dorrit visits Arthur Clennam, her would-be protector, in his lodgings. Suddenly, as he quietly and considerately looks at her, she has a strange thought:
‘She thought what a good father he would be. How, with some such look, he would counsel and cherish his daughter’ (Book 1, Chapter 14).

It’s another extraordinary moment of truth-telling that reveals her real understanding of Mr Dorrit’s failure. Arthur would counsel not with words, but with a look, she imagines: just the opposite of her situation at home, where, she perfectly well knows, she’s talked at but unseen.

Then, telling Arthur that she has lied to her family about going to a party that night:
She feared that he was blaming her in his mind, for so devising to contrive for them, think for them, and watch over them, without their knowledge or gratitude; perhaps even with their reproaches for supposed neglect. But what was really in his mind was the weak figure with its strong purpose, the thin worn shoes, the insufficient dress, and the pretence of recreation and enjoyment.
At this point it’s no longer quite clear whose mind we’re in. Amy’s exaggerated guilt at lying to her family takes form as imagined criticism from Arthur, as if he were her projected conscience. Though the point of view shifts mid-paragraph, Arthur too could be charged with devising to contrive for her, think for her, and watch over her. All of this sensitively intertwined consciousness makes it overwhelmingly important to Amy that Arthur not put her mind in turmoil by thinking badly of her father. If he were to do that, she would have to cut off her connection with him.
Page 99 begins mid-sentence with the word ‘silent’ and ends mid-sentence with ‘overwhelmingly’ (we’ve cheated just a little by adding the follow-on words). That’s a fair measure of the Dickens effect we discuss in this book when, through Dickens, the reader infers what is not actually said: then the internal emotional effect bursts out overwhelmingly. So page 99 very well indicates what we call the Dickens ‘wince’ – of sensitive, hidden pain often brought about by love itself.

Further, this page does what we often do: move quickly like Dickens himself from one scene to another, one point of view to a contrasting other one. We get more of what Little Dorrit does not want to think about her father when she projects upon Arthur Clennam the idea of the ideal father her own parent so badly fails to be.

Thirdly, the psychological structure becomes very complicated in this triangulated emotional relationship: Little Dorrit—Arthur Clennam—Father Dorrit. We love Dickens’s psychological sensitivity and subtlety of form – a sense of relationships so different from the stereotype-idea of Dickens as a popular serial writer of often crude and simple sentimentality.

On the other hand:

We quote plentifully because we want our reader to read Dickens with us, as part of the dialogue; but often we also show how intricately Dickens works by showing the quick changes he made in the manuscript. Page 99 doesn’t reveal that. In fact the manuscript shows Dickens made ‘She feared he was blaming her in his mind’ into a terrible new paragraph only in after-thought, and that ‘feared’ was the stark word he came to only after some heavily erased earlier formulations.

So, marks: 3 out of 4, 75%

Our book — subtitled ‘The Mind of the Heart’ — is concerned throughout with emotion and the thinking that goes on within it, often vulnerable and painful. It registers Dickens’s mobility in the complex to-and-fro between his human beings. And we try to capture some of that to-and-fro in our own dialogue, standing in place of traditional single-author monographs.
Learn more about In Dialogue with Dickens at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 3, 2024

Robert W. Cherny's "San Francisco Reds"

Robert W. Cherny is a professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University. His many books include Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend and Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.

Cherny applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, San Francisco Reds: Communists in the Bay Area, 1919-1958, and reported the following:
Page 99 is part of a discussion of the experiences of three women, Communist Party members, who were incarcerated in California's women's prison in the mid-1930s. One was convicted of perjury when it was claimed that she had not personally collected all voters' signatures on a petition to place the CP on the state ballot. The other two were convicted under the state's criminal syndicalism law for their activities in the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, the party's union for farm workers. Here's part of page 99:
The three CP women were assigned to the 'incorrigibles' section of the prison, with perpetrators of serious crimes or those who had physically attacked a prison matron. Though locked in individual cells at night, they were free to walk around their floor during the day and to mingle with other prisoners. Each floor had a kitchen and dining room, and each prisoner had assigned work. Todd washed pots, pans, and dishtowels. Conklin was a cook. Decker worked outside as a gardener; she also cultivated vegetables in a small personal garden and shared them with the other two CP women.

Party members and sympathizers deluged them with mail. Prison rules prohibited them from receiving CP publications, but their correspondents snuck in a few. Prison rules allowed an unlimited number of visitors but limited each visitor to once per month. Party leaders came, and so did Upton Sinclair, Anna Louise Strong, and Hollywood celebrities, as well as family members and friends. The three women gathered in one of their cells each afternoon, to share mail, discuss prison issues, and sometimes eat vegetables from Decker's garden. Unlike Frank Spector and other CP prisoners at San Quentin, they did not proselytize among the prisoners, although they did try to create a sense of community and succeeded in organizing a Thanksgiving dinner during which the women were permitted to converse.
If someone were to open San Francisco Reds to page 99, it would not indicatie what the book is about. By itself, page 99 may suggest that the book is about incarcerated women, which is not at all the case. In the entire book, only about one and a half pages (including all of page 99) deal with the experience of party members in prison.

San Francisco Reds is a history of the Communist Party in the San Francisco Bay area from its origin in 1919 to the late 1950s. I develop that history through the experiences of some fifty individuals, most of whom held local leadership positions. I look at why they joined, what they did as party members, how they understood the party and their roles as party members, and, for most of them, why they became so disillusioned with the CP that they left. By 1958, the majority had left the party. I also look at their lives after 1958, both those who left and those who remained. Along the way, I look at the things that CP members accomplished, especially during the CP's Popular Front phases in the 1930s and WWII: supporting unions, fighting for the Spanish republic, legal defense activities, supporting New Deal Democrats, opposing fascism. Those who left continued to do many of the same things that they had done during the Popular Front phases--they supported liberal Democrats, opposed racism and war, supported civil liberties and unions. I also look at four important civil liberties decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in cases involving San Francisco CP members.
Learn more about San Francisco Reds at the University of Illinois Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Jon Roozenbeek's "Propaganda and Ideology in the Russian-Ukrainian War"

Jon Roozenbeek is an award-winning researcher whose work straddles psychology, area studies, and computer science. He studies the psychology of misinformation and group identity in times of conflict. Roozenbeek holds a Ph.D. in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge and is the author of The Psychology of Misinformation (2024) with Sander van der Linden.

Roozenbeek applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Propaganda and Ideology in the Russian–Ukrainian War, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Propaganda and Ideology in the Russian-Ukrainian War, I compare the differences in narratives present in newspapers and news websites published inside the so-called ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk. In the two previous chapters, I analysed around 80,000 news articles to investigate how the leadership of these two statelets justified their unrecognised declarations of ‘independence’ from Ukraine in early 2014, just after the annexation of Crimea. I analysed newspapers and news sites separately, based on the idea that (local) newspapers are by necessity aimed at locals, whereas news sites can also be read by people living outside of the ‘Republics’. This allowed me to examine the differences in the media discourse that was projected at locals in Ukraine’s occupied territories versus the stories that were told to outsiders.

I observe that while newspapers at least attempted to make a reference to a shared connection between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine that was lost, and occasionally referred to Donbas as having a unique identity of its own that would justify its supposed desire to move away from Ukraine and towards Russia, this was not the case for news sites. I write on page 99:
[In newspaper content, there was a prominent frame] of Ukraine’s guilt in betraying Donbas, the idea that Ukraine’s actions were so egregious that they left the [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics] no choice but to declare independence. Online, this sense of guilt and the lost potential for peaceful coexistence was replaced by outrage at Ukraine’s alleged crimes, the difference being that there was no sense of a shared history of (relatively) peaceful coexistence whose loss was lamented.
The Page 99 Test works quite well for my book. One of my key conclusions is that the Donbas ‘Republics’, which served as a conduit for Russia’s extensive propaganda campaign, the goal of which was to legitimise Russia’s presence in Ukraine and served as a pretext for the 2022 invasion, was disproportionately focused on demonising Ukraine, and painting the country (and its Western ‘puppet-masters’) as evil, fascist, and illegitimate. At the same time, few if any attempts were made to foster an ingroup identity, or a ‘we’ that opposes the ‘they’. As I mention in the book’s introduction,
despite a vast reservoir of ideological and historical referents to draw from, neither the [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics] nor Russia cared much for ideology or history at all, and to their peril. All attempts to build a collective identity were short-lived, vocalised rarely and inconsistently on the pages of local newspapers and websites. Meanwhile, the outgroup, or the ‘they’ that opposes the ‘we’, was subject to a highly detailed and rich discursive construction.
In other words, I argue that Russian propaganda missed the mark, and was less sophisticated and more unpersuasively repetitive than is often believed.

By examining a series of opinion polls and analysing large volumes of social media content, I further show that Ukrainian identity crystallised between 2014 (when the war started) and 2022, contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations: instead of driving a wedge between Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian propaganda failed to present an attractive alternative to Ukrainian nationhood among the very people Putin professed to come save.
Learn more about Propaganda and Ideology in the Russian–Ukrainian War at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Elise Andaya's "Pregnant at Work"

Elise Andaya is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University at Albany and author of Conceiving Cuba: Reproduction, Women, and the State in the Post-Soviet Era.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Pregnant at Work: Low-Wage Workers, Power, and Temporal Injustice, and reported the following:
Page 99 plunges us into the historical and political-economic conditions that have produced the chronically underfunded and under-resourced state of New York City’s public safety-net hospitals (hospitals that are committed to providing care to all patients regardless of their ability to pay). I argue that this disinvestment into safety-net care reflects an entrenched devaluation of racialized life, as the institutions that serve low-income people (in New York City, predominantly people of color) are slowly stripped of resources, producing apparently “natural” conditions of scarcity that force constant triaging of care. This broader political-economic context is often invisible to those who seek or give care at the hospital, yet it fundamentally shapes clinical temporal structures; pregnant low-wage service sector workers endure long waits for prenatal appointments that they see as a lack of respect for their time while providers feel rushed, time- pressured, and underappreciated for their time.

Through this glimpse of the safety-net hospital in which I conducted interviews and observation for almost a year, page 99 provides one example of the book’s broader argument: that the organization of time is a key vector through which classed, racialized, and gendered experiences of social inequality are produced and reproduced through pregnant bodies, institutions, and across the generations. What the reader will not understand from this page, however, is how the time structures of precarious low-wage service work in New York City shape experiences of pregnancy and access to prenatal care for the women employed in these industries. Further—and importantly!—the reader will not get a taste of the rich clinical observational work that informs this research nor of women’s often poignant narratives of working while pregnant. The temporal injustice that these lay bare should spur us all to call for broader policy reform.
Visit Elise Andaya's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 31, 2024

Roger Crowley's "Spice"

Roger Crowley is a narrative historian of the early modern period. His celebrated books include City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire and Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire.

Crowley applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Spice: The 16th-Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World, and reported the following:
Page 99 contains a vivid eyewitness account of the torture and execution of Portuguese sailors in China, at the port of Canton in 1517, told from their letters smuggled out of the country. I have to say it makes for rather ghastly reading!

Page 99 says nothing directly about the European quest for spices in the world – the book’s central theme – but it is integral to the larger issue laid out in the sub-title – that the quest for spices shaped the modern world through countless interactions with peoples beyond Europe. It is also an example of the book’s emphasis on eyewitness history. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach China by sea. And here they received a profound culture shock. They completely misread the protocols tied up with China. As misunderstandings grew, the Chinese, who had closed their borders to foreigners, became increasingly suspicious of these incomers. For readers, the page 99 test of the account of the fates of these captured Portuguese is a reliable sample of the book’s narrative approach.

Spice is a history of six crucial decades in the sixteenth century – from 1511, when the Portuguese first reached the Spice Islands, the Moluccas, in the Malay Archipelago through to 1571 when the Spanish created a trading hub in Manila in the Philippines.

The Moluccas were destined to become the focus of intense rivalry for the spice trade – first between Portugal and Spain, later with other European maritime powers, that led to contests with the Ottoman empires and contact with China and Japan.

The competitive attempts on the Spice Islands, driven by sophisticated sailing ships, increased skills of navigation and information gathering, and fast-firing cannons, gave a definitive shape to the planet’s seas and continents. In the process Europeans proved that the world was spherical, spanned the Pacific Ocean, created Manila, the world’s first global city, and linked up the oceans – ‘the world encompassed’ in Drake’s phrase. While the great land empires of China and India remained aloof, the spice voyages created maritime empires across distances unmatched in human history and gave birth to global trade. It shifted Europe from the margins to the centre: its maritime empires would dominate the planet for half a millennium.
Visit Roger Crowley's website.

Writers Read: Roger Crowley (December 2015).

The Page 99 Test: Conquerors.

The Page 99 Test: The Accursed Tower.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Hannah Spahn's "Black Reason, White Feeling"

Hannah Spahn is Professor of American Studies at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and the author of Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Black Reason, White Feeling: The Jeffersonian Enlightenment in the African American Tradition, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book has in its first line the title of a new subsection called "Rational Liberty." This section is part of chapter 5, "The Lessons of Reason," which makes the case that the hermeneutics of the Declaration of Independence were decisively transformed by the strong concepts of reason, knowledge, and principle that were emphasized by African American intellectuals from the 1770s to the 1850s and beyond. As shown in this chapter, these concepts gradually overwrote the original emphasis on feeling, opinion, and assent that had characterized Jefferson's version of the Declaration, thus gradually endowing the document with the universalist meanings that have become familiar today. On page 99, I discuss the term rational liberty in the work of a successful Philadelphia businessman and Patriot veteran from the revolutionary war, James Forten, who used it in his Series of Letters by a Man of Color (1813) to illustrate the universalism of his interpretation of both the Declaration and the Pennsylvania Constitution. In his view, the ideals of universal liberty and equality expressed in these documents embraced "the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African."

In discussing the transformative power of African American concepts of reason and rational liberty, page 99 is indeed representative of the book's larger argument, which may be boiled down to the claim, essentially, that reason is better than its reputation in the humanities. For a long time, the default approach to reason in disciplines such as literary or cultural studies has consisted in the tendency to conflate it with concepts such as "instrumental rationality" and discuss the Enlightenment mainly as the cynical project of elite white men who appealed to reason not to liberate, but to rule and oppress the rest of the world. In its aim to develop a more nuanced approach, my book overlaps with, but also departs from, the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who has recently used the term rational liberty in the title of the second volume of his extensive history of faith and knowledge (Vernünftige Freiheit: Spuren des Diskurses über Glauben und Wissen / Rational Liberty: Traces of the Discourse of Faith and Knowledge, 2019). Habermas's discussion of rational liberty does not include either Jefferson, Forten, or the African American tradition. By contrast, I argue that the modern relationship between faith and knowledge needs to be explained in its specific historical constellation in the American context. And in the formative decades of the United States, it was not Kant or Hegel, but writers such as Wheatley, Jefferson, or Forten who defined this relationship. Jefferson sought to silence Wheatley's stance by describing it as the pre-Enlightened product of "religion" – a prejudice that has continued to inform clichés about the African American tradition. Ironically, Jefferson's Declaration still referenced "nature's God" directly, whereas thinkers such as Lemuel Haynes or James Forten went a step further: while their Enlightenment arguments were likewise embedded in a Christian worldview, they already referred to the political, man-made document of the Declaration of Independence as the normative foundation of their claims, thus continuing Wheatley's emphasis on the rational "principle" of universal liberty and transferring the ideal of universal human rights into the secular present of American modernity.
Learn more about Black Reason, White Feeling at the University of Virginia Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Claire Horisk's "Dangerous Jokes"

Claire Horisk is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri, specializing in philosophy of language. Her current research focuses on how language shapes society. Her published work also includes articles about the nature of truth, theories of meaning, contextualism, and animal communication.

Horisk applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Dangerous Jokes: How Racism and Sexism Weaponize Humor, and reported the following:
Page 99 is in the midst of a discussion of one of the more controversial claims in Dangerous Jokes. You know how people sometimes feel guilty if they listen to derogatory jokes, or slurs, or hate speech? Page 99 is part of Chapter 8, where I argue that guilt about listening to that kind of thing can be appropriate---because at least sometimes, when we listen to someone belittling others, we are doing something wrong. I also argue that the thought that sometimes accompanies that guilt, that you should have said something, is often well-founded. But it’s not true that the only thing you did wrong was not saying anything. Saying something is a way of atoning for listening; even if you said something to challenge the speaker, when you listened in the first place you did something wrong. Speaking up is just a way of making amends.

The book is accessible to a general reader. One reviewer---my mother!---said it is ‘approachable.’ Page 99 is heavier going than much of the book, and it won’t make sense in isolation---you would either need to have already read some stuff earlier in the book, or to have some background in philosophy of language, in order to understand it. So, if you read only page 99, you might put the book down. Start at the start, and you will find that the book is both interesting and readable. For example, people often think that it’s OK to tell a joke about your own social group, but not about someone else’s social group. But in Dangerous Jokes, you will discover that telling a joke about one’s own social group is more harmful than telling a joke about someone else’s social group.

For May 2024, Chapter 11 “The racist uncle, and other awkward situations,” is available as a free download on the Oxford University Press website. That chapter, rather than page 99, would give a reader a better sense of whether this is a book that would interest them.
Learn more about Dangerous Jokes at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Chloe Wigston Smith's "Novels, Needleworks, and Empire"

Chloe Wigston Smith is professor of eighteenth-century literature at the University of York, where she teaches in the Department of English and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies. She is the author of Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel.

Wigston Smith applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest book, Novels, Needleworks, and Empire: Material Entanglements in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World, and reported the following:
Page 99 is one of thirty-eight illustrations, most of which show needlework pieces made by women and girls in eighteenth-century Britain and America. On page 99, however, readers will encounter a hand-colored print, titled “An Emblem of America.” As a print, this illustration is a bit of an outlier when it comes to the material objects that I include across my five chapters, but its appearance on page 99 speaks to the kind of visual, material, and literary entanglements that I trace across the whole.

Page 99 falls about mid-way through chapter two, “Small Marks in Thread,” which studies the material expression of makers on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s the most heavily illustrated chapter and gets to the heart of my story about the images of the Atlantic world that found their way into the hands of women and girls in Britain and early America—in the objects they made, the books they held, the stories they read. In it, I look at the practice of marking textiles and linens in thread, and propose that this utilitarian form of needlework supported feminine ownership and possession. The chapter centers on the sampler, a type of needlework that taught girls and young women how to shape letters and numbers with their needles. Girls often added their names and ages to their sampler (as well as other brief biographical details) and I’m interested in how this practice encouraged marks of possession. I include detailed discussions of needleworks created by African American girls (including Mary Emiston and Mary D’Silver), as well as a few pieces made by North American Indigenous girls (such as Christeen Baker).

The illustration on page 99 was the visual source for an embroidered picture made by the white Ann Leap in 1801 (Leap had completed a sampler two years earlier). “An Emblem of America” was one of four prints that depicted the continents (John Fairburn also produced “An Emblem of Africa,” “An Emblem of Asia,” and “An Emblem of Europe”). “An Emblem of America” was transfer printed onto jugs made in Liverpool, designed for export to the American market. My comparison of Leap’s needlework with the print and creamware jugs makes me think that Leap used the jug instead of the print as her source, which she probably saw and perhaps used in her father’s tavern in Alexandra, Virginia. I show how Leap didn’t exactly replicate her source image, but rather made her own adaptations and changes. My comparison of these three objects (print, jug, and needlework) reflects my focus across the book to take seriously needlework’s dynamic connections to print and visual culture. Makers, I argue, didn’t repeat what they saw or read, but used their needles to engage in broader political and cultural conversations that moved beyond the borders of home and nation. Experimentation, in thread, was key to their revisions to texts and images, and so in this way, page 99 underlines the imaginative and creative entanglements between visual culture and material culture, which I discuss across my book.
Learn more about Novels, Needleworks, and Empire at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 27, 2024

Carl Öhman's "The Afterlife of Data"

Carl Öhman is assistant professor of political science at Uppsala University, Sweden.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Afterlife of Data: What Happens to Your Information When You Die and Why You Should Care, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Cemeteries may not in themselves be society’s most lucrative businesses, but they have unique capacity to forge bonds between people and the soil in which their departed loved ones lie buried. When this “soil” is a for-profit online platform rather than a geographical space, that bond may prove highly profitable. People will stay on Facebook, or at least continue to care for its existence, because it is where their loved ones, living or dead, are to be found.

It is unlikely that Facebook’s memorialization feature is part of some elaborate plan with the intention to appropriate central cultural functions in society. But the takeaway here is not that the tech giants have some hidden agenda in their appropriation of features from the digital afterlife start-up scene. It is that every business that stores its users’ personal data will eventually, whether it intends to or not, become stewards of their digital remains. This could be seen as a burden, in that the digital remains may need to be destroyed, which may turn out to be rather costly. But it could also be turned into a rare opportunity to become even more intertwined with the social fabric of society. Make no mistake, any rational for-profit firm will choose the latter. And this is why the monetization of the online dead is related to you, even if you are not planning on subscribing to a posthumous chatbot service and have no intention of using online memorials. Insofar as you use the internet, you are leaving some trail of information behind, especially if you are using social media. Indeed, even the most passive user produces a ton of information every time they log in. And when you die, these data will still be there, stewarded under the same logic that governs all businesses—the logic of profit.

Critiquing the Industry

Many people feel an intuitive unease about making a business out of our relationship to the dead. Indeed, controversies over mixing death and business go a long way back. Though this instinct may be justified, it is no justification in and of itself. If something is morally questionable, one must ensure that the explanation of why and how it is questionable makes sense before doing anything about it. …
The above excerpt is from chapter 3 “The Rise of the Digital Afterlife Industry” in The Afterlife of Data (though first and last sentences are from the adjacent pages). I’m honestly quite shocked by how well it captures many of the book’s central themes: the fact that the online presence of the departed is by and large mediated by a commercial logic; the ways in which this may be problematic; the fact that the phenomenon relates to all our personal data, even those data trails we leave unconsciously; the societal dimensions of this matter, and so on. Though the argument I present in the book is of course much more detailed, these themes do a pretty good job of summarizing the book’s key argument—that we should all care about our digital afterlives, because we are all members of a society that will be greatly affected by their fate.

The one thing that is not captured here, however, is the broader civilizational change that comes with this development. As I argue in the book’s opening chapter, the relationship between the living and the dead is at the core of human civilization. As such, any technological disruption of how we relate to the past and its inhabitants—the dead—will also disrupt our way of relating to ourselves. As philosopher Patrick Stokes writes about the book, “the digital dead sit at the intersection of fundamental historical, economic, and cultural forces.” This is why our stewardship of the online dead is such an important matter, because our online privacy is intimately intertwined with theirs.

Now, I realise that this may all sound terribly abstract, but the book is actually quite an accessible (and short) read—I promise. Go check it out!
Learn more about The Afterlife of Data at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue