Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014 in Books

What follows is a brief overview of my year in books. Please do feel free to leave recommendations (or non-receommendations, or anything in between) that are a snapshot of your reading this year, categorized however you'd like, in the comments section.


Book that walks the fine line between post-post-structuralism and nihilism in the perfect way to reassure you when you start to be plagued by the nagging suspicion like the humanities might possibly be a waste of time as a profession: The Past as Text by Gabrielle Spiegel

Yale flashbacks: rereading Cien años de soledad

Dissertation flashbacks: rereading "the task of the translator"

Book that most suffered for lack of a sufficient documentary apparatus: El diccionario privado de Jorge Luis Borges, Blas Matamoro

 Book written by an author with the most Crusading surname: El diccionario privado de Jorge Luis Borges, Blas Matamoro

Best book about Entanglement Theory: Entanglement by Ian Hodder

Worst book about Entanglement Theory: Meeting the Universe Halfway by Karen Barad

Work of theory that really didn't go where I was expecting it to: The Cult of the Factish Gods, Ian Hodder

Best book reread for a course: Don Quixote. (If this is feeling like deja vu from last year it's because there's simply not going to be a lot of competition in this category any year that I use DQ in a course.)

Books I'm reading in Spanish translation for teaching purposes: Los judíos y las palabras, Amos and Fania Oz; Harun y el mar de las historias, Salman Rushdie.

Current academic reading (all of which is curiously late for me): Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine by Lital Levy; and The Censor, The Editor and the Text by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.

But enough of the obligatory, work-related reading (of which this is only a fraction, anyway) and on to the fun stuff:

Special World Cup reading subsection. Because I actually, inexplicably, really enjoy reading about football.

Book that reminded me why I want to write literary non-fiction for an audience of normal people: Among the Thugs, Bill Buford

Book of essays about football not written by Etgar Keret that most reminded me of Etgar Keret's writing: El futbol a sol y a sombra, Eduardo Galeano

Additional football book bought but not read: Fever Pitch, appropriately written by Nick Hornby, self-appointed king of the books bought but left unread


I returned to the James Bond novels with: Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

Character in an everybody-dies murder mystery whom I was hoping would get killed off but didn't: Mrs. Roscoe, The Jewel That Was Ours, Colin Dexter

Character in an audiobook who was read as the most successful impression of the actor who played the same character in the TV show based on the book: Dr. Bartlett, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Colin Dexter (read by Kevin Whately, who plays Lewis in the TV show)

Audiobook in Progress: Last Bus to Woodstock, Colin Dexter

Spy thriller I was going to read before I saw the movie, didn't get to the book in time and so didn't see the movie: A Most Wanted Man by John LeCarre

Murder mystery that didn't have interesting-enough potential villains for me to actually care about who had actually done it: The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith

Book to which I affixed an "I didn't buy it on Amazon" sticker: The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith

Other books I didn't buy at Amazon: Lexicon by Max Barry; The Pope's Book Binder by David Mason

Book that I'm trying to buy as a gift for someone but can't find a print copy for less than $350 $185: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Michael Camille

Academic roman-a-clef that started out funnier than I was expecting, based on the generally terrible judgment of the reviewer from whom I learned about it, but finished up just about as tedious as that reviewer is: Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher.

It totally doesn't count and I can't even try to pass them off as graphic novels because they're comic books plain and simple but I also read: Ms. Marvel #1-#10.


I finally got into listening to audiobooks beyond my favorite audiobook ever (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, fabulous as much because it is read so well by Stephen Fry as it is for the original text written by Douglas Adams) and that's a good remedy to being too tired to look at the printed page once I get into bed after looking at the printed pages all day for my academic work. It's a little fiddly to find the place where you were when you fell asleep and start there again — fiddlier than just picking the book up off your face in the middle of the night and folding down the corner of the page — but I'm liking it.

Final analysis: List confirms what I felt all year, which was that I wasn't doing enough reading for pleasure. I wasn't keeping careful track of my reading in the first half of the year, but there's not much that I missed, I don't think. A goal for next year.

And so to conclude, a few of the books I'm planning/hoping to read or listen to in the year to come, including some of the ones I had intended to read this year: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel; the collected Sherlock Holmes novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; A Strange Death by Hillel Halkin; probably quite a lot of poetry by Yehudah Amichai; Carlota Feinberg by Antonio Muñoz Molina; Fields of Exile by Nora Gold; Dead Certainties by Simon Schama and that book that it's sending up, The Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Peeps on the Edge

It's not really seasonally appropriate — more of an Easter thing than a Christmastime one — but I was talking with one of my civilian (i.e., non-medievalist) friends about her plans to put some oddly anthropomorphized marshmallows in the microwave, armed with tiny toothpicks to see which can overtake the other when the heat causes them to inflate and expand: Peeps jousting. And I started doodling while we were talking, a picture of two classic bird-shaped marshmallow Peeps approaching a movie-franchise Minion Peep, all brandishing their toothpick lances. I drew it on whatever happened to be on my desk while we were talking, and what happened to be on my desk was an essay on medieval war poetry.

The total coincidence got me to thinking about what a book like Image on the Edge — lauded for its breakthrough in relating the goofy, whimsical, weird marginalia in medieval manuscripts to the texts with which they appear to have nothing in common — would do with this scrap of paper.  This marginal drawing and its juxtaposition against a discussion of literary representations of war, and even of the weapons of war, has nothing to do with my being a medievalist or reading about medieval war poetry and instead has everything to do with the fact that I am a medievalist who happens coincidentally to live in a culture that has a pervasive fetish for neo-medieval kitsch. An art historian of the future who found this page might pick it up and, a la Michael Camille, come up with a playful, innovative reading of what she would be seeing on the page, namely some silly looking characters brandishing weapons next to a serious text about weapons of war. And yes, it would be a sound interpretation of what was left on the page, but it would also have absolutely no connection to the historical, cultural, or personal context in which the artifact was made.

It's not a totally idle or solipsistic exercise — reproducing pages, documents, texts or drawing parallels with modern modes of production is not evidence but can offer some insight into medieval modes of production or at least, in this case, serve as a caution against the dangers of over-interpreting. (I have colleagues who work on paleography who practice calligraphy in their spare time and are grateful for the insights it provides them in their professional lives, for example.)

Or it's pointless and just some doodles on a page. Which is kind of the (circular) point.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Still Here!

My academic life is all a bit unbloggable right now. I'm suddenly playing my intellectual cards a little closer to my chest than I have in the past (which I don't like but which is necessary for the moment — but lots of good, if cryptic-for-now stuff coming down the pike/out soon). I wasn't teaching this semester. And everything else I'm doing university-wise can't really be discussed without breaking confidences or the bounds of propriety. So this is all to say that I'm still here despite the lull in posting and will hopefully have something that is somewhere in the realm of interesting to write about in the general vicinity of soon.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Onomastics for Copy Editors

"It's not right, but people will rip you to shreds if you're not careful about transliteration."

Verbatim that's something my doktorvater has told me, and in slightly different forms it's something I've heard from other senior mentorly-type people as well. Because truth be told, I'm often not careful about my transliteration even though I recoil in the same way as many other Arabists do when I see someone else's transliteration mistakes, wondering whether it was a typo or whether the person never looked all that carefully at the original text.

I don't think it's just the major and puzzling transliteration issues that made me loathe the new article (unfortunately behind a paywall) on Hebrew and Arabic poetry just appeared in one of the British journals of Islamic Studies. There's quite a lot wrong with the content. In addition to ignoring the vast majority of the scholarship on its very subject matter that's been done in the last twenty years (and in fact predicating the value of its "intervention" on the fact of the work not having been done) it shows some real insensitivity to the types of source materials and does not engage directly with the texts, instead using the fact of their existence to make the point. It leaves out well-known history and texts that would help to contextualize the subject, but at the same time doesn't manage to say anything new.  It's really frustrating to see the material that one loves badly handled and, less so, the state of one's field so very badly misrepresented; it is especially frustrating when such work appears  < peer review hobbyhorse rant > in a publication that is supposed to adhere to high academic standards and have procedures in place to ensure that the high standards are met < /peer review hobbyhorse rant >.

A colleague of mine once posited that peer review works at least in as much as however much you might disagree with methods, theories, corpus definitions, etc., only very rarely does something truly awful or wrong end up in print. This? Truly awful and wrong. A genuine failure of the review process.
However, flaws in copy editing and particularly in transliterating and in rendering names certainly prejudiced my reading even further. It's not a good article, but the range of errors made it worse.


The really strange error comes when the authors of these two books are cited as Cheindlin and Baran.

Note, too, the misspelling of compunctious. It's not the only misspelling. Forget about transliteration for a moment. Nobody — not the authors and not the editors — ran spell-check. What happened here?  

It's not as though the authors misheard and mistranscribed two names; presumably they were actually looking at the books they were citing. Nor is it that they had to transliterate names that belong in non-Latin letters. (Have you ever tried to look up anything written by Nehemiah Allony? I don't know that I've ever seen his name transliterated the same way twice.) The only explanation that I can come up with for the rendering of the two surnames like that involves positing that the authors were reading the secondary literature in some kind of unauthorized, pirated Arabic translation, where the book authors would have been identified as BRN and ŠNDLN, forcing the article authors to vocalize the names as they saw fit and to choose a French transliteration system for the consonants rather than an English one. There's plenty of piracy of secondary sources, but this seems like an extra and puzzling step. Who is out there pirating and translating secondary literature on Arabizing Hebrew poetry? And, really, what kind of demand is there?

I suppose the question of why this kind of mistake throughout the text of the article is beyond the existential scope of the present discussion, why even if the copy editors weren't checking references, the peer reviewers didn't make note of something as significant as the Arabizing misspelling of the two leading figures in the field.

Maybe it's a sly commentary on cultural and linguistic Arabization that is appropriate in a discussion of an Arabized literary form?

In a way, it's reminiscent of the Paul is Dead Meatballs fiasco (though admittedly with much, much less comedic or gross-out potential) in that it requires an excessive amount of rendering a text back and forth through translation and transliteration.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


The protest march against the Staten Island grand jury's failure to return an indictment against the police officer who killed Eric Garner began in Washington Square Park. Since I do occasionally post pictures of the goings-on on campus, and this is a going-on that is both very important and has resonances with other aspects of American religious history (of particular interest to me is the evocation of Heschel marching with King), I thought I'd share some of the images I made.

Click to embiggen. And note, especially, the protester writing her social security number on her body just in case.