New Releases

  • March Round-Up

    Highlights from the month of March.

    Awards:

    Conferences:

    • Mark Thompson, acquisitions editor, represented the press at the annual meeting of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies.
    • Natalie Fingerhut (acquisitions editor) and Suzanne Rancourt (executive editor) attended the annual conference of the Renaissance Society of America in New Orleans, LA.

    Media Highlights:

    New Releases:

  • On 'Undoing Babel', a Guest Post by Tristan Major

    Tristan Major is the author of Undoing Babel: The Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon Literature and an assistant professor in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Qatar University.

    The origins of my book began with bewilderment over a single sentence. While reading a sketch of biblical history written by the Old English author Ælfric of Eynsham, I was struck by his brief statement that idolatry had come into the world immediately after the fall of the Tower of Babel. In this account, the lack of any further explanation or elaboration gives the impression that such a claim was relatively commonplace and that it would not be attested or cause any confusion. But for me, an account of the origins of idolatry located so specifically after a definitive moment in biblical history raised questions. Why would Ælfric think that idolatry occurred only and immediately after the Tower of Babel? Was this unique to Ælfric or was it a more widely held belief that he is simply repeating? What does idolatry have to do, if anything, with the multiplicity of languages that the Tower of Babel is better known for?

    After spending more than a decade chasing these questions, I now have a better understanding of the issue. While conducting the research for my book, Undoing Babel, I soon became aware of a need to trace the multifaceted strands of interpretations of the Babel narrative across time. They first appear with early Jewish adaptations of the narrative, which then form the basis for the interpretations of the Latin-speaking Christians of Late Antiquity, who also read and commented on the story in new ways—more suitable to their own contexts and concerns. In turn, these interpretations formed the basis for how the authors of Anglo-Saxon England, and finally, Ælfric himself, read and understood the narrative.

    My initial query on the the origins of idolatry was answered, but it also gave way to the many other unique intellectual developments that slowly developed over time until becoming part of an accepted range of interpretations and implications of the story. By examining these developments closely, I began to see how literary communities are themselves not stable but rather full of potential that allows new interpretations of a text to emerge, form, and then eventually fade out of acceptance. But by applying the findings of this research more generally outside of literary communities of the past, it also became apparent to me how new interpretative traditions continue to develop and form. As I spoke to people curious about my research, I would hear how variously the Tower of Babel narrative continues to produce diverse understandings and new significance. Interestingly, while many people were well aware of the fundamental elements of the story, especially its connection to multilingualism, others exhibited fairly original interpretations, often dealing with religious or political resistance. On one occasion, I was told an elaborate (and totally idiosyncratic) account of the narrative which involved a renewed rebellion from Satan and his followers that attempted to use the tower to attack an indifferent God and free the people of the earth. On another occasion, I discovered that the Tower of Babel could signify a celebration of diversity that ultimately aims overcomes the monolithic tyranny of our contemporary, globalized, consumerist culture. In both instances, the original condemnation of the builders is turned into something positive, and the destructive results of the tower’s construction, as implied in the original text of the Bible, are eschewed and turned back into something altogether constructive.

    These “folk” interpretations will likely not gather any kind of traction among the general literary communities that will determine their viability. But they do indicate how creative interpretation can be and how far it can stray from the original understanding of the text. Despite a temptation to disregard communities of the past as less sophisticated that our own, the freedom for interpretation of a literary text to develop persists across all times and readers.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my research began with confusion over a single sentence, which eventually led me to trace the development of interpretation over a millennium of literary sources. Now that I understand why Ælfric wrote what he did, I am certainly looking forward to the next time I find myself confused over some small, seemingly insignificant point.

  • February Round-Up

    Highlights from the month of February.

    Awards:

    Media Highlights:

    New Releases:

  • Some Candid Thoughts by R. Peter Broughton, author of 'Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett'

    Guest post by R. Peter Broughton, author of Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett

    As a retired high-school math teacher, I fall into no particular camp. I’m not a scientist, an astronomer, or a historian. But perhaps, with no particular axe to grind and at my advanced age, I am oddly suited to bring some new viewpoints to bear on writing a historical biography of an astronomer.

    As far as astronomy goes, some of my professors, including the renowned Helen Hogg, actually knew Plaskett. The equipment he used as well as the techniques and methods that were familiar to him were still current. But it was only after a course in the history of mathematics that I took as part of a master’s degree a few years later that I began to see the unity of the humanities and the sciences. I began to feel that, by reading extensively, I could learn what interested me. Encouraged by Professor Kenneth O. May, I thought that eventually I might make my own contributions to knowledge.

    Fortunately for me there was a means to do so. I had joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as an undergraduate and over subsequent years held virtually every office in the Society, giving me a broader understanding of the great variety of attitudes, backgrounds, and challenges faced by this subset of Canadians. Though I found that the RASC Journal and monthly lectures by experts provided a means of keeping in touch with some of the recent developments in astronomy, I realized that it would be through the history of the subject that I would try to make my mark. Boldly I thought there were few significant developments in Canadian astronomy before the twentieth century, so it would not be a preposterous goal to attain familiarity with the entire history of astronomy in Canada. Of course science really knows no boundaries, so I was inevitably drawn to explore some topics on a broader scale.

    Writing for the RASC Journal had its rewards. I was able to address topics that interested me and in the process found at least a few encouraging readers and sympathetic friends. This experience gave me the confidence to write for other journals as diverse as Annals of Science and Journal of Geophysical Research, and eventually to write two books, Looking Up: A History of the RASC and Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett.

    My hope is that this biography of John Stanley Plaskett will appeal to a very wide audience. The astronomical community is already familiar with Plaskett as one of a fairly small group of astronomers to make major contributions to the science in the first half of the twentieth century. For such readers, this book will flesh out Plaskett’s personality and provide pertinent illustrations of how he managed to become so highly-regarded at home and abroad. Amateur astronomers, who often like to read (on cloudy nights) about the accomplishments of a former generation, will appreciate Plaskett’s rise from humble roots to international acclaim. He achieved fame for himself and his country by learning on the job, and without ever taking a formal course in astronomy. But I really hope this book will reach beyond those aficionados of astronomy to a broader audience.

    I do think the Canadian public thirsts for stories of national heroes. For decades, professional historians have largely derided such figures as elitist, preferring to focus on down-trodden minorities or those whose experience or impact has been localized. So says one of the few notable exceptions, Jack Granatstein in Who Killed Canadian History? Moreover, he writes, these historians in academe often write in a turgid style admired only by their colleagues. Fortunately, there have been counter examples. One shining example is Michael Bliss’s biography of Sir Frederick Banting, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1984 with a second edition in 1992.

    Though Plaskett cannot be credited with saving countless lives as did his contemporary, Banting, he did, along with Banting and a handful of others, put Canada on the international radar as a country making serious advances in scientific knowledge. Before the First World War, Canada was a backwater in the arts as well. It took pioneers like Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Group of Seven to bring awareness to the world that important advances were occurring in the vast land north of the 49th parallel.

    Finally, and in my opinion, most importantly, I hope that this book will break down some barriers. I would be delighted if humanists realized that they can learn the ways of science from the biography of an astronomer. Scientists may appreciate the value of history when they see how personal, political, and economic forces shape their working lives. Perhaps professional historians may see the value in writing for a broad audience, and writers of creative non-fiction may understand that there is no need to embroider the facts.

    I should not kid myself. Five years after Bliss’s second edition of Banting: a Biography came out, an Angus Reid poll found that only 11 percent of Canadians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four knew that Banting had won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of insulin. If that’s the best that an outstanding writer and historian could achieve, I will be amazed and delighted if 11 percent of Canadians of any age come to recognize the name of John Stanley Plaskett as Canada’s founding astronomer.

    R. Peter Broughton was president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada from 1992 to 1994. His service and extensive writing on the history of astronomy led the International Astronomical Union to name a minor planet in his honour.

  • In Conversation with Roberta Johnson and Silvia Bermudez

    Silvia Bermudez and Roberta Johnson are the editors of A New History of Iberian Feminisms

    Interviewer: Tell us more about what inspired both of you to start this project?

    Silvia and Roberta: Neither of us was encouraged to study literature by our families, as they were more practically minded. Fortunately, we persisted and eventually, after studying and publishing mostly on canonical male writers, we in our separate areas of specialization (Silvia in poetry; Roberta in the novel) came to write on female authors. We have known each other for many years and through our mutual participation in the University of California Iberian Studies Working Group hit upon the idea of co-editing a volume on feminism in the Iberian Peninsula that included Portugal and considered the major linguistic territories of Spain--Castile, the Basque Provinces, Catalonia, and Galicia.

    I: When did you start work on it?

    S&R: Thinking about the project began in 2012 when the first UC Iberian Working Group meeting took place at UC, Davis, and continued at the second meeting at UCSB in 2013. By the third meeting at UC, Davis, Silvia had agreed to co-edit, and we set about finding scholars to write on different periods and territories. We ended up with a fabulous team of dedicated and knowledgeable scholars from the US, England, Spain, Portugal, and New Zealand. These scholars were enthusiastic about the project and were instrumental in moving it forward. It was a real sisterhood of scholars that brought the book to fruition.

    I: What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

    S&R: We are fascinated by the stories of women who in other periods when independence for women was not taken for granted managed to live full creative lives despite the many obstacles they faced, especially in conservative, Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal. The differences in women's experiences in Spain and Portugal was also a revelation. We have been able to travel through time and space and "converse" with extraordinary writers from other periods and places.

    I: What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

    S&R: We think feminist scholars of other national entities--the US, Britain, France, Italy, or Germany--would find Spanish feminism significantly different from that of the countries they study, and we hope they will want to include Spain in their courses and research now that in this book they have the tools to do so. We are passionate about our subject and are anxious to share our work with students, fellow scholars, and the general public.

    I: What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

    S&R: We were struck by the importance of class issues inherent in the many ideological disagreements among Iberian feminist positions, and we were especially surprised to learn how well organized Basque feminists are and how cohesive and well developed their feminist research is.

    I: What did you learn from writing your book?

    S&R: We learned many details about feminism in other periods and all areas of the Iberian Peninsula that we did not know before, especially women writing feminist essays in the eighteenth century. Contrary to erroneous assumptions, women throughout the Spanish territories and Portugal were committed from early on to equal rights and advancing women's participation in the public sphere.

    I: What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

    S&R: Silvia reads mystery/detective novels and biographies and is currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci and The Silent Wife. Roberta reads current fiction and non-fiction in Spanish and English. Right now she is reading Fire and Fury and Sapiens.

    I: If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

    S&R: Silvia would be a tour guide, and Roberta would run a horse stables or ranch.

    Silvia Bermúdez is a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    Roberta Johnson is professor emerita of Spanish at the University of Kansas and adjunct professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas.

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