All posts by C.P. Heiser

Life on Books: The Naked Bookseller Goes to New York

A few weeks ago, the Naked Bookseller went to New York City. Skidding across icy, treacherous conditions, everyone we ran into seemed to have a grisly tale of a sidewalk wipe-out. No doubt, it’s been a long, hard winter in the City. Still, despite the windsheer of chilling sub-zero gusts, everywhere we turned there seemed to be a thriving neighborhood bookstore.  After three days, we weren’t even close to getting to all the stores we wanted to, but here are portraits from a few we visited.

Kate (192 Books, 190 10th Avenue, Manhattan)
192’s book buyer, Kate stands in front of the art books display window. Opened in 2003, 192 Books’ selection is discerning, elegant and always interesting.

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Angel (Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street, Fort Greene – Brooklyn)
Poet and bookseller, Angel is pictured here holding her own book of poetry, in front of Greenlight’s featured independent presses table. IMG_6251
Darren (Strand, 828 Broadway, Manhattan)
An expert in antiquarian books, Darren helps oversee the Strand’s Rare Books department, which occupies the third floor of the legendary store. Next month, the Strand’s Central Park Kiosk, currently on winter hiatus, reopens.

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Ezra and Tiny (Community Bookstore, 143 Seventh Avenue, Park Slope – Brooklyn)
Co-owner Ezra and and bookstore cat Tiny boast one of city’s most charming bookstore patios.

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Beth (McNally Jackson, 52 Prince Street, Manhattan)
Stationed between the coffee shop and the main floor of the store, Beth operates and oversees the store’s book making machine, which produces print-on-demand books for self-published authors, personalized gift editions of classics, and out-of-print copies of books available in the public domain.
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This is your life on books (WORD Brooklyn, 126 Franklin Street, Greenpoint)
A standing-room only event on a frigid winter’s night at Word, which has a second location in Jersey City. [Pictured: Joel Whitney (Al-Jazeera) and author Deji Olukotun]
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We believe the role independent bookstores play in a literate, free thinking society is invaluable — and we want to help broaden their visibility to our international audience. The Naked Bookseller program was created to help achieve this as part of our nonprofit mission. More from the Naked Bookseller here.

Late-Breaking Iran and China News: A 1979 Flashback

Strange+Rebels
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The weekend before Thanksgiving was a big one for international headlines. The biggest breaking story, coming out of Geneva, was of a multinational team of negotiators hammering out a nuclear-arms deal with Iran.  When John Kerry announced this agreement, American commentators reached quickly for historical analogies, focusing mostly on two years in the last century. Those happy about the agreement likened it to a 1972 diplomatic breakthrough: Nixon’s famous meetings with Mao. Those displeased by it cited a 1938 disaster: Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler. Thinking about the news out of Geneva, as well as these polarized reactions to it, I was reminded of a different year: 1979.

Admittedly, that year’s been on my mind a lot throughout 2013, partly because it was a key one for Deng Xiaoping, and new President Xi Jinping has been striving to identify himself in people’s minds with that most powerful of post-Mao Communist Party leaders. I thought of 1979 back in June, for example, when Xi came to the U.S. to meet with Barack Obama in what has become known as the “Shirtsleeves Summit,” since the main photo op that came from the meeting showed the two leaders walking and talking sans coats and ties. As I noted in a commentary for the History News Network at the time, Deng’s 1979 visit to the U.S., the first by a Chinese Communist Party leader, had also included a memorable bit of sartorial symbolism: his donning of a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo. More generally, in 1979, as he was consolidating his position as China’s paramount leader, three things Deng did was call for a pragmatic approach to development, push for social and economic reforms, and crack down on domestic critics (in that case, those involved in the Democracy Wall Movement).  Xi has done these same three things.

There is, though, a quite specific reason that 1979 came to my mind when the news about the Iran deal broke and analogies to both Nixon meeting Mao and Chamberlain giving in to Hitler began to fly: that year began with a January 1 joint declaration by Beijing and Washington proclaiming a full “normalization” of relations between China and the United States.  Some Americans hailed this 1979 agreement as an important step toward fostering world peace, but others denounced it as a case of a liberal President doing a dangerous disservice to a valued ally.  Complaints from some quarters then that Jimmy Carter had sold out Taiwan parallel closely some that are being heard now from those convinced Obama has done wrong by Israel.

The analogy is not perfect, which is only to be expected—nothing that happens in one century is going to be exactly like something done in the previous one. The Iran deal involves several countries, for example, whereas the 1979 agreement was between just two nations. And Obama’s policy on Iran has broken from that of his Republican predecessor, while Carter’s engagement with China carried forward things that Nixon and Ford had done.

Still, the more I think about the 1979 parallel, the more I’m convinced it is a good one, and a better China-related one than 1972.  One reason it seems more useful to look back to the late 1970s than the early 1970s is that when Nixon went to China, he met with a Chinese leader who had been in power for a long time, so the main question about Mao was how much he had changed.  Seven years later, by contrast, when the normalization of relations was announced and then Deng came to America, a lot of foreign talk about China focused, as much on Iran does now, on how novel a course a new leader vowing to move in reformist directions would take his country.

1979 analogies seem stronger still if we look at a second international news story that broke right before Thanksgiving: China’s declaration of plans to start monitoring the airspace above and around the islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese. These specks of land, located near undersea oil reserves, are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo but have been effectively under Japanese control in recent years.  Due to America’s long-term security alliance with Japan, as well as the White House’s commitment to maintaining the status quo where island disputes like this one are concerned, Kerry ended up having a very busy weekend indeed. He needed to follow up his upbeat statement on Iran with a downbeat one on Beijing’s proclamation of a new Air Defense Identification Zone that included the islands, criticizing it as a provocative and inappropriate move.  Kerry made these two statements so close together that separate articles on each appeared in the front sections of the same editions of some newspapers.

This simultaneous 2013 reporting of developments suggesting that relations between Washington and Tehran are moving in a positive direction, while tensions between Washington and Beijing rising represents an eerie inversion of the 1979 situation. This is because that year, which began with Beijing and Washington normalizing ties and Deng making a successful state visit to the United States, also witnessed the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power and denouncing America, and the start of the hostage crisis.

Again, the analogy is not perfect, especially since, thankfully, it is likely that we are seeing just a minor souring of relations between Beijing and Washington right now, not the start of any kind of full-blown crisis.  Still, it is relatively rare that stories concerning China and Iran jockey for the attention of the American public at the same moment, and one of the few times this has happened before was back in 1979.  A valuable visual reminder of the temporal overlap of China and Iran stories almost three-and-a-half decades ago is provided by the February 12, 1979, cover of TIME.  The main headline read “Iran: Now the Power Play,” and the image accompanying it and taking up most of the cover featured a stern looking Khomeini, shown in color, breaking through a giant black-and-white portrait of his own face, symbolizing that he was now a formidable man on the spot, as opposed to a figure in exile who provided a rallying point for opponents of the Shah.  Up in the right-hand corner of the cover, though, was a very different smaller headline and smaller image: it referred to Deng’s “triumphant tour” and showed two faces, that of the Chinese leader and that of Carter.

A final 1979 and 2013 note is in order, which has to do with the book whose cover is shown at the top of this post.  Early this year, my friend Christina Larson, who used to be an editor at Foreign Policy and is now China correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, told me that, given my interest in placing China in comparative perspective and connecting the past to the present, I should be sure to get hold of a forthcoming book by Foreign Policy contributing editor Christian Caryl.  Valuing Christina’s judgment, when Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twenty-First Century came out, I made a point of getting a copy.  Reading it, I was duly impressed.  And even though I’m unwilling to give up on the notion that 1989, with the Tiananmen protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as many other major events, was an even more consequential year than 1979, at moments like this it is well worth remembering just how dramatic that often overlooked earlier decade-closing twelve-month period was.

Thanks for the Memories, Dhaka: Selected Notes From the Hay Festival, Bangladesh

IMG_5377by C.P. Heiser

A few weeks ago I found myself in Bangladesh for the Hay Festival.  I was visiting the capital Dhaka at the invitation of our friends at Bengal Lights, a literary journal and book publisher affiliated with the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. In the typical Western imagination, a literary festival is not what crops up first at the mention of Bangladesh. Instead you get, if anything, a Third World potboiler of cyclone disaster, garment industry horror, and political unrest, backed by a George Harrison soundtrack (if you’re old enough to remember).

But get this: Bangladesh, the People‘s Republic of Bangladesh, is a nation of Muslims with a secular constitution. It provides more U.N. peacekeeping forces than any other nation in the world. And since the Liberation War with Pakistan in 1971 (the same year Ravi Shankar got his buddy George to write a song about it) Bangladesh has made great strides in primary education, gender equity, population reduction and health services.

The capital Dhaka is also home to one of the many Hay Festivals that have proliferated around the world.  Now in its third year, I arrived at the Hay with a contingent of Americans, including Mario Bellatin, the Mexican novelist, David Shook, poet and translator, and Eliot Weinberger, the essayist and renowned Octavio Paz translator. Dhaka, a megacity, teems. With a population of 15 million, it is perhaps the densest city in the world. It surprised us at every turn.

Tariq Ali, British Pakistani writer and journalist

Tariq Ali, British Pakistani writer and journalist

Tariq Ali, the British Pakistani journalist and novelist headlining this year’s Hay Festival in Dhaka, had not been been back to Bangladesh since before the ’71 Liberation war. At that time, he predicted that anything short of independence for what was then East Pakistan would not be enough. His return was, to say the least, well received. He appeared several times on panels and speaking engagements and each time the Q&As had to be cut short due to time constraints. His rather grim assessments of global capitalism’s destructive path – Ali’s unrelenting focus – were incapable of dampening the enthusiasm of the Hay attendees. But this iconic figure was not the only one to enjoy such a reception. Other panels were equally enthusiastic, whether the topic was translation or Latin American fiction or “world literature” – Tariq Ali or no Tariq Ali – Dhaka’s literary and intellectual scene is engaged, opinionated and focused on a global discourse. It was inspiring to witness such involvement given what so often feels like a parochial and self conscious community back home. Even the headliner Ali, who lives in London and clearly brought a very contemporary brand of First World pessimism, could not dampen the mood. In fact, his pessimism seemed, refreshingly, out of place.

Rickshaw art from the "CIty of Rickshaws"

Rickshaw art from the “CIty of Rickshaws”

In the street, the bicycle rickshaw prevails in Bangladesh though it’s virtually disappeared in other South Asian cities. Confiscated rickshaws get impounded by the police and sit, waiting to be recouped in lots outside the city. You can buy a new bicycle rickshaw for about $300, but a majority of the drivers rent their rickshaw for a few dollars a day. In trying to wrap your mind around Dhaka – an impossible task to be sure – it might be best to simply ride with the rickshaws.

The sheer awesome human effort of the drivers, collectively, might just power not just their own movement but the city’s daily electrical output as well.  Even in nightmare traffic, even in the chaos of streets without apparent rules, some of the happiest faces I’ve seen in any urban setting are passengers on the bicycle rickshaw – mothers and children, friends, lovers – when they are suddenly breaking free onto an open stretch and sailing in the open air with a contentment you never see inside a New York City cab. Dhaka never lets you forget what a city is for.

Dhaka skyline.

Dhaka skyline.

Like other “emerging market” cities, Dhaka (and its economy) grew from a provincial capital to an unplanned megalopolis in less than forty years.

Dhaka’s architecture defies easy category, then – finished, unfinished, ruined – it’s not always immediately clear. But the primacy of rebar is without question – sprouting like weeds from concrete pillars and pilings on rooftops of apartments and office buildings wherever you look. At first, you think every building is perpetually under construction, or in the process of demolition.

A masterful dystopian effect, it has everything to do with lax construction practices though not what I first guessed was a kind of rainy day move: why finish a building when you might want to add on a story or two later? It should have been obvious there was no intention of adding to the weather-beaten urban-stained buildings, the kind which you mostly see in Dhaka. Instead, the city’s tax code – which collects only on completed buildings – compels the rebar rooftop style. It’s hard not to wonder at such monumental tax evasion. It’s also hard not to see that this endemic kind of corruption will be solved as the Bangladeshi middle class continues to grow and prosper.

And this is the thing about the Hay Festival Dhaka, and Bangladesh generally: though the political and social realities are still very difficult, there is ambition, and energy, and debate. Returning from Dhaka, back to our own problems in this country, I was reminded that the future is still a possibility.

Thank you, Dhaka.

With poet Ahsan Akbar (far left) and Bengal Lights editor Khademul Islam.

With poet Ahsan Akbar (far left) and Bengal Lights editor Khademul Islam.

 

 

The Death of the Humanities?

sunupordownBy Monica F. Cohen

I spent much of the summer exchanging links with friends to articles documenting the death of the humanities in American institutions of higher education. The confluence of forces seemed apocalyptically confounding: public universities requiring higher tuition for humanities courses; careerism infiltrating curricula; parents worried about tuition that demand rationalization in terms of investment and returns; MOOC’s and short-term instructors substituting for the sustained attention of a traditional teaching faculty; the possible decline in the number of English majors and worries about employability; lap-tops in classrooms whereby today’s admirably multi-tasking student can seem to fully participate in class discussion while simultaneously shopping for shoes on Zappos and making social plans on Facebook; and, finally, wannabe exercises in digital humanities whereby scholarly inquiry into the things that matter achieves value only through a patina of social-science authority. Now that The New York Times has made it official with an article entitled “As Interest in the Humanities Fade, Universities Worry,” it feels on some days like just a matter of time before the academic world giving prominent place to humanities study would be a distant memory.

What greeted me on the first day of fall classes this year, however, was something entirely different. When I walked into my Nineteenth-century Novel class, I found nothing like what my greatest apprehensions led me to anticipate. Whereas I expected thirty students, more than seventy poured in. Whereas I expected laptops, only four brought them and only two later asked to use them (and since that day no one seems to bring them out). Whereas I expected twelve or so students to actively participate while the rest avoided eye contact, nearly everyone raised a hand at some point. Whereas I expected the rustle of notebooks closing and books returning to bags five minutes before the official end of class, everyone stayed riveted until I gave the signal that we were finished, seven minutes later than we were scheduled to end. (That might not seem like a long time, but my previous experience suggests that college students live a frenzied, back-to-back life of dashing with a bagel and cup of coffee from one place to the next. Rarely do students seem to have the time to linger after class.) They just want to talk about the books: about Balzac’s impossibly long sentences, about Kant and moral choice, about failure and maturity, about the possibilities of agency in an urban mob, about Breaking Bad and Dickens.

I’m not a star professor. I’m not even a tenure-track professor. There’s no buzz about my course and there’s not much likelihood that I can really help a student climb a professional ladder other than making sure their work is really compelling. And I teach at a competitive school where students think about such things. But my students seem to come to class as if discussing these books is the most important event of their day. They want to talk so much that they gather around the front of the classroom when our designated time is over and email me lengthy comments after the next class has dislodged us. For the first time, I had to set up an electronic discussion board because I can never call on the number of hands that are up. And sometimes I feel my role is just to orchestrate: they respond to each other with an alacrity and respect I cannot really remember being the norm when I was in college.

Maybe the numbers of English majors are really going down –or maybe just recovering from an irregular rise as Nate Silver demonstrated. But maybe that’s the wrong question to ask about the state of the humanities.  Instead of statistics, maybe we need anecdotes. I remain awed by the energy in my classroom. And most of my colleagues have said the same. (An example: 80 students signed up for a lecture course on The Canterbury Tales!) Students come to the study of books, even today, with a sense that the endeavor is crucially important. They are interested in a liberal education in the broadest sense of the term.

Some of my best students are English majors, but many of them are not. One is in the engineering program. One is majoring in environmental studies. One is pre-med. Their love for reading and writing and talking about books is undiminished by their very pragmatic career plans, or their very real worries about tuition. Or the very serious concerns of parents and administrators who see one thing, the irrelevance and decline of the humanities, while students and professors experience something else. These students are looking for something genuine, real and engaging—and they are finding it.

The long-term prospects for humanities research may lie in applying Big Data to the study of books (I’m dubious) or (perhaps more promisingly) in reaching out to other growing fields—there’s lots of fascinating crossover work with medical humanities going on, and many interesting engagements with Environmental studies.   The long-term prospects for humanities study at the college level, however, may lie in remembering that career preparation is only one of the many missions American colleges have organized themselves around. Literature classes continue to speak, and to speak powerfully, to students of all fields. Whether it’s despite or because of warnings from parents, hyperbole in the press, or a presumed sense of the impracticality of talking and thinking about ideas and books, I am reminded every day in my own experience  and by that of my colleagues that the appetite of students for reading, writing, and discussing novels, stories, philosophy and poems remains unabated, and it’s that which might well guarantee the well being of the humanities at large.  There seems to be a new vitality in today’s humanities classroom. I don’t entirely know how to explain it, but perhaps the new world it heralds might still be an exciting and rewarding place .

Monica F. Cohen teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Barnard College.