That is the new book by Christopher de Hamel, and it is one of the very best non-fiction books this year, in fact so far it might rank #1. It is twelve chapters, each one about an individual medieval manuscript, the best-known of those being the Book of Kells. The integration of text and the visuals is of the highest order of quality. Most of all, the book brings each manuscript to life, relating its creators and creation, the surrounding historical context, its subsequent preservation and fame, and how that history has embodied varying attitudes toward copying and preservation. No less illuminating is the anthropological treatment of how each manuscript is currently guarded and displayed, the author’s travel history in getting there, and a more general “philosophical without the philosophy” introspection on what these objects are really supposed to mean to us.
This book is not in every way light reading, and it does assume some (very broad) background in medieval history, but it brings a whole topic to light, and instructs, in a way that few other works do.
Here is just one short excerpt:
My initial inquiry as to whether I might see the manuscript of the Aratea in the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leiden was met with the reply that this would hardly be necessary, since there is a high-class published facsimile from 1989 and the complete book is in any case digitized and freely available on-line. It was a response entirely within the theme of copying. If you had applied to the palace librarians of Aachen in the early ninth century to see the late-antique Terence, they would almost certainly have assured you that you would be better off with their nice new copy by their scribe Hrodgarius.
Hamel worked for a long time in the book department at Sotheby’s and then in a library at Cambridge University. He is a bit of a fuddy-duddy (he thinks the bustle of NYC is extreme, for instance), but nonetheless has produced a lovely and complete work that virtually every author should envy. I am ordering his other books too, mostly on the history of books.
Here is a Guardian review, John Banville in the FT raves about it, and here is The Paris Review. I believe I ordered it on Amazon.uk, all five-star reviews by the way. Here is the U.S. Amazon listing, with access to used copies, I am not sure when the American edition comes out.
Here is the audio, video, and transcript. Steven of course was in top form. We started with irregular verbs, and then moved on to Chomsky, theories of language, the mind and Jon Haidt’s modules, reason, what unifies the thought and work of Steven Pinker, rap music, William Shatner (underrated, “although maybe not his singing”), Sontag on photography, the future of world peace, and the Ed Sullivan show.
Here is one bit:
COWEN: Let me now put on my economist’s hat and ask you about this. As you know, in George Orwell’s 1984, the Party bans all irregular verbs. It’s a kind of excess regulation. But from a social point of view, are there too many or too few irregular verbs in English?
PINKER: [laughs] I like the irregular verbs. I’d like to see more of them.
…One distinction that is vanishing that I think is sad is the three-way distinction in verbs like sink, sank, sunk; stink, stank, stunk; shrink, shrank, shrunk; where the shrank and the stank are giving way to their participle forms shrunkand stunk.
COWEN: No shrank and stank.
PINKER: No shrank and stank. Admittedly it would have been hard to have a movie called Honey, I Shrank the Kids instead of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In my style manual, The Sense of Style, I recommend hanging on to them. I think they’re nice.
And on Chomsky:
PINKER: It’s a moving target. Also, as you say, it was neither specified in a precise way nor field‑tested against a dataset of language variation, which I think is unfortunate in terms of ordinary scientific practice.
COWEN: Let me ask you a general question. Let’s say it were possible by spending $10,000 and devoting a few months of your life to it that any person on earth could blow up a significant part of a major city.
They could buy something, some kind of explosive. It would cost them $10,000. How long would it take before someone actually did this?
…PINKER: I don’t know. My optimism doesn’t consist of prophecy in that sense. That is, my optimism consists of looking at what has happened and noting that, first of all, the pessimistic view is factually incorrect. Namely, people believe that we’re living in unusually violent times and we’re not.
How to project that into the future is a separate set of questions. There are many unknowns that I’m not arrogant enough to know the answer to. It’s something that we could debate. We could explore them. I am not an optimist in the sense of saying, “Well, let’s just extrapolate the curves in the future without asking questions like that.”
Self-recommending, to be sure…
That’s the new and very direct and frank memoir by Marina Abramović. It is a narrative of how a very smart and insightful person can choose (almost) never to think like an economist, and how she might evolve from a naive Serbian virgin to one of the world’s most worldly, serene, and profound performers. Here is one part:
My parents’ marriage was like a war — I never saw them hug or kiss or express any affection toward each other. Maybe it was just an old habit from partisan days, but they both slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables! I remember once, during a rare period when they were speaking to each other, my father came home for lunch and my mother said, “Do you want soup?” And when he said yes, she came up behind him and dumped the hot soup on his head. He screamed, pushed the table away, broke every dish in the room, and walked out.
As for her famed lover, the unreliable Ulay, the cause of her broken heart:
A small crowd was there to watch our meeting [on China’s Great Wall]. I wept as he embraced me. It was the embrace of a comrade, not a lover: the warmth had drained out of him. I would soon learn that he had impregnated his translator: Ding Xiao Song. They would marry in Beijing in December.
This book passed the core test that I wanted it to be much longer than it was. Here is a good Carl Swanson profile of the artist and the book, maybe the best piece I have read this week.
Fewer people are watching:
Revenue is up, but audiences are down in New York City’s dance industry, a new study of the field finds.
A 20% decrease in the number of paid attendees at live performances emerged in the study, to be released Friday by the advocacy group Dance/NYC. The study looked at 172 dance organizations over a six-year period.
The audience decline appears to have been led by drops at the largest organizations, those with budgets of more than $5 million.
That is from Pia Catton at the WSJ.
Dancers are notoriously bad at planning for their second acts. They underestimate the age at which they’ll retire (the average age of retirement is 34), overestimate the amount of money they’ll earn, and misjudge the forces that will end their careers. More than one-third of the dancers in a 2004 survey were driven to retirement by an injury; only 5 percent left because they actually wanted a new career. When dancers enter the workforce in their thirties, many are woefully unprepared. Only 3 percent of current dancers say that teaching dance is their preferred post-retirement line of work, but it’s the most common fate: 53 percent end up teaching dance in some capacity.
Even during peak earning years: in the U.S., an average dancer’s annual total income is just $35,000—about half of which comes from non-dance activities.
The article is interesting throughout, for instance:
She wants a serious relationship; both of her sisters are married. She’s tried Tinder and recently joined Bumble. For obvious reasons, she doesn’t like the apps that make you fill in your whole biography. Does she miss her old life—the drama, the spotlight? “I don’t think real life has enough glamour,” she says. But she also says that she doesn’t think glamour is “enough to base your life on.”
Ansanelli is on the far right.
Our industrialized food system nourishes more people, at lower cost, than any comparable system in history. It also exerts a terrifyingly massive influence on our health and our environment. Photographer George Steinmetz spent nearly a year traveling the country to capture that system, in all its scope, grandeur and dizzying scale.
That is the introduction to an excellent NYTimes photo essay on farming. I liked this photo showing a machine for dumping cranberries from a truck: simple but awesome.
The ashes belonged to Capote’s close friend Joanne Carson
The ashes of the author Truman Capote, who wrote In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was sold at auction for $43,750 in Los Angeles to an anonymous buyer this weekend.
The ashes, which are housed in a sealed wooden Japanese box, originally belonged to the late Joanne Carson, ex-wife of former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. She was a close friend of Capote, who died at her Bel-Air mansion in 1984.
“We had people from Russia, Germany, China, South America and here in the U.S. who had interest in them,” President and Chief Executive of auction house Julian’s Auctions, Darren Julien, told CNN of the Sept. 24 auction. “I anticipated it could sell for over $10,000, but didn’t anticipate it going to $45,000.”
Here is more from Erik Hurst discussing his new research:
On average, lower-skilled men in their 20s increased “leisure time” by about four hours per week between the early 2000s and 2015. All of us face the same time endowment, so if leisure time is increasing, something else is decreasing. The decline in time spent working facilitated the increase in leisure time for lower-skilled men. The way I measure leisure time is pretty broad; it includes participating in hobbies and hanging out with friends, exercising and watching TV, sleeping, playing games, reading, and so on.
Of that four-hours-per-week increase in leisure, three of those hours were spent playing video games! The average young, lower-skilled, nonemployed man in 2014 spent about two hours per day on video games. That is the average. Twenty-five percent reported playing at least three hours per day. About 10 percent reported playing for six hours per day. The life of these nonworking, lower-skilled young men looks like what my son wishes his life was like now: not in school, not at work, and lots of video games.
How do we know technology is causing the decline in employment for these young men? As of now, I don’t know for sure. But there are suggestive signs in the data that these young, low-skilled men are making some choice to stay home. If we go to surveys that track subjective well-being—surveys that ask people to assess their overall level of happiness—lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s. This increase in happiness is despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points and the increased propensity to be living in their parents’ basement.
It’s hard to distinguish “push” unemployment that is made more pleasant by video games from “pull” unemployment created by video games. I’m not even sure that distinction matters very much, at least if we aren’t talking about banning video games to increase employment. If elderly people started playing a lot of video games (as soon they will) would we worry that this was making retirement too much fun?
I’d be interested in knowing how much video games have displaced television. I watch more television than my kids, who play more video games. It’s not obvious that this is to their detriment.
Perhaps the issue is that video games like slot machines are so enticing that young people discount the future too heavily or don’t recognize the future cost of not being in the workforce. Maybe. Perhaps what we really need is a 3D, virtual reality, total sensory simulation, awesome video game that is so expensive that it encourages people to work.
Bach heard the St. Matthew Passion four times at most.
That is George Chien, from the September/October issue of Fanfare.
I’m a fan of the work of Canadian artist, Kal Mansur (whom I have known since high school). Photos of his work look like paintings but they are more like sculptures. Underneath the surface are sculptural elements that refract and diffuse the light. In person these pieces have a glow and they look subtly different at different angles or in different light.
Kal has an exhibition at George Billis in New York, Sep 1-Oct 1, 2016, with opening reception Sept. 1, 6-8 pm if you are interested or see the link above. Tell him Alex said hello.
No, that is not enlightenment about life, that is enlightenment about Enlightenment, as in the eighteenth century phenomenon. P., a loyal MR reader, wrote to me with such a request, noting correctly that “I usually find that broad, ambitious survey books are not the answer.”
That survey would be Peter Gay, recently a bestseller in China by the way, and then Ernst Cassirer, Jonathan Israel, and Roy Porter, but let me outline an alternative program of study. The goal here is to be practical, engaging, and vivid, not comprehensive or scholarly per se:
Geoffrey Clive’s short book The Romantic Enlightenment.
James Boswell, Journals, selected excerpts, he was an early blogger by the way, and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I find that to be one of the wittiest of books. Plus Hume’s Essays.
Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, and Rousseau’s Second Discourse. Condorcet, Essay on the Progress of the Human Mind. Voltaire I consider overrated.
Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, yes I know it is arguably “anti-Enlightenment,” better yet. If you insist on another Irishman, Bishop Berkeley is an entertaining writer as well.
Founding documents of the United States, and Ben Franklin, Autobiography.
Kant, Perpetual Peace, “What is Enlightenment?”, and Lessing, Nathan the Wise.
Beccaria, Of Crimes and Punishments.
If you have the time to tackle longer books, start with Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Boswell’s Life of Johnson and then Casanova and Tristram Shandy (there is by the way a splendid book on the postmodern in the Enlightenment but I can no longer remember the cite). Leave Montesquieu to the Straussians, although the returns are high if you are so inclined.
For history, read up on eighteenth century scientific societies, Robert Darnton on the rise of publishing and the book trade, Habermas on the coffeehouse debate culture and the public sphere, and Brewer and McKendrick on the rise of consumer society in England. Try Wikipedia for Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, and other rulers of the time. There is also Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment, and books on 18th century Freemasonry. The French Revolution seems to require its own blog post, as does the Industrial Revolution, slavery too, in a pinch resort to the MR search function box on this blog. Foucault will give you a sense of the dark side of the Enlightenment, his history is unreliable but read him on Discipline and Punishment and on ideology try the rather dense The Order of Things.
That all said, I would start with music and the arts first.
Haydn, the London symphonies and late piano sonatas and string quartets Op.76.
Mozart, the major operas, including reading through the libretti while listening. If you can only do one thing on this list…
Gluck, assorted operas, noting he is not nearly the equal of Haydn or Mozart as a composer but he did capture the spirit of Enlightenment.
C.P.E. Bach, the Prussian Sonatas.
Study French painting from Chardin through David, picture books will do if you can’t visit the original works. Focus on Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Vigée-Le Brun, Boilly, Hubert Robert, and others, how their works tie into the history of the period and how the styles transformed over time. Visit Paris, Huntington Gardens, and Tiepolo’s work in the Residenz in Würzburg. Do a tour of Georgian architecture in England, in a pinch visit the derivative works at Harvard, Yale, and Alexandria, Virginia. Study Tiepolo more generally, Goya, and also Antonio Canova.
Why not? I’ll toss up Dangerous Liaisons (Vadim and Malkovich versions), Barry Lyndon, Casanova, Amadeus, A Royal Affair (can’t forget Denmark!), Marie Antoinette, Ridicule, and The Madness of King George.
What did I leave out that is of utmost importance?
Michael Heizer, the large-scale sculpture artist, has been building City, a sculpture in the Nevada desert since 1972. City is reputedly on the scale of the Washington, DC’s National Mall and something like Teotihuacan but no one knows for sure since “Visitors are explicitly not welcome, and due to its orientation away from the road and system of earthen berms no part of “City” can be viewed from the ground without trespassing on posted property.” A few photos have been smuggled out.
The New Yorker has an interesting article on Heizer. Naturally I appreciated his thoughtful consideration of the economics of building something for the ages:
“City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that Heizer has mined and mixed on site. The use of valueless materials is strategic, a hedge against what he sees as inevitable future social unrest. “My good friend Richard Serra is building out of military-grade steel,” he says. “That stuff will all get melted down. Why do I think that? Incans, Olmecs, Aztecs—their finest works of art were all pillaged, razed, broken apart, and their gold was melted down. When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up, they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”
Here is the summary:
The stereotypical obituary is a formulaic recitation of facts — dry, boring, and without craft. But Margalit Fox has shown the genre can produce some of the most memorable and moving stories in journalism. Exploiting its “pure narrative arc,” Fox has penned over 1,200 obituaries, covering well-known and obscure subjects with equal aplomb.
In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, Fox reveals not only the process for writing an obituary, but her thoughts on life, death, storytelling, puzzle-solving, her favorite cellist, and how it came to be that an economist sang opera 86 times at the Met.
Here are the transcript, video, and podcast versions of the dialogue. Here is one excerpt:
FOX: …Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.
That said, the vast majority of what my colleagues and I down in the trenches do, probably 90 percent of our working life, are daily obits that are found out about, reported, written, edited, copyedited, put in the paper all in the space of a single day, just like any other article in the paper.
COWEN: Are there obituaries of economists that stand out in your mind? Or maybe some you’ve written?
FOX: Well, interestingly, there is one. As I said, my original training was in classical music, so my editors almost jumped out of their skins with excitement when they discovered they could assign me the obituary of a Harvard economist named Richard T. Gill.
Now, why did they give that to me? Because as we say in the lede of the obit, “Richard T. Gill, in all statistical probability the only Harvard economist to sing 86 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, died,” etc., etc.
COWEN: Yes, I remember reading that one. That was before I knew that you were you.
FOX: I was me then. You just didn’t know it.
Do read the whole thing. I asked her about privacy concerns, how well a famous person is really known by his or her family and friends, whether there should be affirmative action in the obituaries section, who is chosen for this exclusive club and why, what one learns reading obituaries (“death sucks”), what is underrated in life (“silence”), why British obituaries are different, and about her very good books on linguistic code cracking from antiquity and Bedouin sign language. And more.