Pop Culture Roundup: This WeekRoundup
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Stack of books at Harrods, London
Report: Historians write a lot of books. The books cost a lot of money!
Email from Robert Townsend, American Academy of Arts & Sciences:
Drawing on newly available data for academic libraries, we found that the humanities accounts for almost half of all academic titles published each year (in case there was any doubt that the field remains heavily dependent on books). History accounted for a large portion of the new books in the humanities, but has fallen behind literature in recent years. Nevertheless, the number of new history titles increased in the most recent year (2013), with 16,661 new books published in the discipline. And note that the number of new titles published in history alone is more than in each of the STEM fields.
A separate report also summarizes the average prices for academic books and finds history titles near the high end for the humanities field (though still well below the average for all new academic books) at almost $75 for print titles, and $133 for e-books).
SARAH VOWELL IS a social commentator and author of unconventional books on American history, including Assassination Vacation (a travelogue of political violence in America), The Wordy Shipmates (limning the travails of New England’s Puritans) and, most recently, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (an explanation of how a young French aristocrat came to play a significant role in the American Revolution). The Oklahoma native has also been a contributor to the public radio program This American Life.
Your background is in language and art history, and your first book was about the experience of listening to the radio for a year. Why write about American history?
I’m no math whiz but isn’t history half of art history? Try describing Guernica without getting into what happened in Guernica. Come to think of it, my books do have an inordinate amount of statuary. Professionally, I dabbled in various topics and formats my first decade as a writer by necessity to pay the bills. Luckily, I fell in love with historical research and writing right around the time I realized I was a terrible reporter because I don’t like to pry. I’m really not so good with the living. But a refrigerated archive full of brittle missionary letters? I’m home.
You’ve been praised and criticized for your approach. Are you trying to make history fun?
Not necessarily, or at least not always, considering history includes the Black Death and Wounded Knee.
Amazon.com, a corporation with a huge CIA contract, and whose owner also owns the Washington Post, has launched a television series called “The Man in the High Castle.” The story is set in the 1960s with the Nazis occupying three-quarters of the United States and the Japanese the rest. In this alternative universe, the ultimate redemption is found in Germany being the nation to have dropped nuclear bombs. The Axis victors, and their aging leaders, have created and maintained an old-fashioned empire – not like U.S. bases in proxy states, but a full-blown occupation, like the United States in Iraq. It doesn't really matter how implausible this sounds. It is the most plausible scenario that can embody the U.S. fantasy of someone else doing to it what it does to others. Thus U.S. crimes here in the real 2015 become "defensive," as it is doing unto others before they can do unto it.
When William Morgan was executed outside a Havana prison on March 11, 1961, his strange story seemed to vanish from the popular imagination as quickly as it had appeared; it was lost in the classified archives of the Cold War; and it was edited out of Cuban history by Fidel Castro’s retelling of the revolution as an epic tale of a handful of men fighting under his direct command at the exclusion of all others.
On Sept. 26, 1978, a man was found dead in a Midtown Manhattan hotel, having drowned himself in the bathtub. He had been facing criminal prosecution for crimes committed just the week before. This particular thief, however, did not steal diamonds or savings bonds. He stole historical documents, thousands upon thousands of rare pamphlets and books that he pursued doggedly for decades in libraries across the world.
His name was Zosa Szajkowski. Born in 1911, he was a prolific historian of French Jewry who had been condemned repeatedly after World War II for stealing archival materials from European libraries, which he then sold to American institutions. These, to his mind, were far more suitable homes for Jewish cultural patrimony after the Holocaust: If Europe had collaborated in the Nazi annihilation of Jewish life in Europe, the continent had therefore forfeited its moral claim on the traces of Jewish culture that had somehow survived.
The 20th century produced monuments to a false consensus—can the 21st century create a more representative commemorative sphere?
For the past two weeks, the opinion pages have been consumed with the demands of students at Princeton University that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from the university’s school of public and international affairs and one of its residential colleges. The Princeton protests follow several other high-profile revolts against historical icons whose legacies are entangled with the history of white supremacy. Students at Yale are working to have John C. Calhoun’s name stripped from a residential college there; students at the University of Missouri have called for a statue of Thomas Jefferson to be removed from campus. These campus protests follow a well-publicized movement to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This has been a season of iconoclasm….
These protests may be dealing a final blow to a style of commemoration that thrived for much of the 20th century. Something new will take its place. But what? Discussing individuals and (where warranted) removing names is good—but it is just a start. The crucial next step is to rethink and reinvent the ways the nation commemorates. To do that, it is important to first understand the ideological underpinnings of these enduring monuments, the touchstones of an age when America churned out everything from statues to buildings to new currency at a furious pace.
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