Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 2013 in Books

Borrowed from The Little Professor and adapted, because I clearly don't read nearly enough detective/spy fiction despite really enjoying the genre. Hers is also better than mine because I really failed to read enough for pleasure this year. Something to aspire to in 2014. At the same time, I left out my heavy-duty academic reading because I'm too far in the thick of finishing my book manuscript for it to be fun in quite the same way. (I love my research, but...) I may update this a little bit throughout the day as there were a few other categories I was considering including. Anyway, happy reading in 2014, all!

Favorite academic novel:

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin by Harry Karlinsky

Most disappointing petering out of a series of academic novels about German philologists:

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith

Series that started out sublime but collapsed under the weight of its own metaphors:
The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis

Historical novel set in medieval Spain that could potentially be so bad that it's been sitting on my nightstand since I bought it but haven't quite been able to bring myself to crack the cover:

The Guide of the Perplexed by Dara Horn

Historical novels set in/reflecting on medieval Spain that I'm excited to swap into this round of my "Al-Andalus in Modern Fiction" course:
The Conquest of Andalusia by Jurji Zaydan; Days of Awe by Achy Obejas.

Historical novel set in medieval Spain that is sufficiently problematic that I've swapped it out of this round of my "Al-Andalus in Modern Fiction" course:
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Favorite novels by Arab authors:

ḤWJN by Ibrahim Abbas, Arabic, banned in Saudi Arabia; Guf sheni yaḥid (Second-Person Singular), Sayed Kashua, Hebrew.

Favorite graphic novel:

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
(Also favorite book lugged back from the United Kingdom in my suitcase. Also-also favorite book about a giant beard that was evil.)

Graphic novel that most horrifyingly appropriates medieval characters to serve modern religio-political purposes that would have been antithetical to them:

Rabbeinu Shmuel Hanagid by Aryeh Mahr and Esteve Polls

Graphic novel with a surprisingly wonderful, nuanced presentation of religious history:

The Rabbi’s Cat, vols. 1-2, by Johann Sfar

Graphic novels I found on the give-away/book-swap table in the basement of my apartment building:

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel; Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan; The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey (There was one other, but it just ended up kicking around my apartment so I put it back and it was clearly so memorable that I've forgotten what it was...)

Best use of the ‘I found a manuscript!’ framing device:
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
(Also best reworking of Shakespeare. Also-also book I started reading almost fully two years ago when it first came out, misplaced my copy, and only just finished it now.)

Worst use of the ‘I found a manuscript!’ framing device:

A Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Cohello

Because somehow removing all references to detective fiction seemed wrong, given the original contents of the original list/Literary pop culture mass delusion in which I willingly participated:
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling

Books I read this year about museums I visited this year/Real-life obsessional private-eye tale/Best art crime book/Needed to include more detectives on this list:
The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Bossier

Books about famous books I've seen in museum exhibitions:

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'ān by Denise Spellberg

Books about books (general category):

In Praise of Copying by Marcus Boon; Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby; Fragments and Assemblages by Arthur Bahr; Textual Situations by Andrew Taylor.

History of Jews in random and unexpected places:

When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan Sarna; The Mauritian Shekel by Genevieve Pitot (nobody who knows me in real life is allowed to give me a hard time about having read this).

History of Muslims in random and unexpected places:
Prince Among Slaves by Terry Alford

Books currently in my bathroom that normal people don't keep in their bathrooms:
Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal; Meditaciones del Quijote by José Ortega y Gasset

Academic book a student couldn't read because the title was so ridiculous:
Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric.  Or so the student informed me.  

Worst prose in any novel assigned for class:
The English translation of López de Gómara's General History of the West Indies. So impenetrable that I took mercy on my freshmen and told them to skip it.

Best novel reread for a course:

Don Quijote

I have not managed to stop this trend:
Argh! When I first read LP's list, I thought of something spot-on for this category, but it has since left my brain. I'm sure I'll think of it. Round about February. Clearly I have also not managed to stop the trend of me completely losing my mind.
Book I read in the theory-freakout fugue aftermath of the chair of my department telling me: “You're doing very theoretically sophisticated work, but you blanch any time anyone says the word ‘theory’ to you”:
The Monolingualism of the Other by Jacques Derrida

Works of theory that are more my speed that I read once stopped freaking out about theory: How to Do Things with Fictions by Joshusa Landy; On Literary Worlds by Eric Hayot; Against World Literature by Emily Apter; Dark Tongues by Daniel Heller-Roazan

Books I'm reading as I try to come up with a better answer for when people ask me what my academic discipline is:
The Logics of History by William Sewell, Jr.; Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts by Sam Wineburg. (See also: previous category.)

Groupings of books I'd like to write review essays of as blog posts, but haven't gotten my act together:
Grouping 1: Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War by Alexander Nemerov; Milton and the Manuscript of De Doctrina by Gordon Campbell, et al.; A Most Dangerous Book by Christopher Krebs; and the much-maligned The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt.
Grouping 2: The Forgetting River by Doreen Carvajal; Al-Andalus Rediscovered by Marvine Howe; Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History by Aaron Hughes; and Inheriting Abraham by Jon Levenson.

Best massive discounts from Amazon:
Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship; A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations

Most antiquarian acquisition:

Facsimile edition of the Sarajevo Haggadah

Out-of-print books acquired through ABE:
War Reporter by Dan O'Brien; The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit by Sylvia Plath

Book I was most relieved to remember that I own after I forgot I owned it, looked it up in the NYU library catalogue, and realized it was going to be seriously difficult to get my hands on a library copy by the time I needed to have read it:
Rethinking Medieval Translation, eds. Emma Campbell and Robert Mills

Largest single acquisition:
I inherited a large chunk of a former professor's library. Currently in boxes in my front hall. In addition to reading more for pleasure, my big book goal for 2014 is going to be to catalogue those and figure out where to shelve them.

Final book-listing task for 2013:
The bibliography for an article that's due tomorrow and will be submitted tomorrow, come Hell or high explosives.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

An Ashkenazi Paleography Puzzle

I'm trying to write a book chapter for an edited volume on the readership and ownership history of a particular Hebrew manuscript that, through a fictional colophon, implicates ones of my translators in the creation of that text in an attempt to accrete his textual, cultural, and intellectual prestige to the text, a life of Alexander the Great. I am writing about the text and the colophon in my book, but this book chapter will be an opportunity to talk about the material history of the text and how and why an Alexander romance falsely attributed to a medieval Andalusi exile was of interest to early modern European readers, who obviously had the text copied, sold it, and circulated it.

There are five owners' marks, and I've been able to read and identify three of them: the two most recent and the one that is probably the oldest of the five. The two newest ones are stamps that are well attested and weren't that hard to sort out; the oldest is a mess — a colleague in a different field looked at it and asked me: "What makes you even think that's language?" — which, not to toot my own horn or anything, was a real triumph to both decipher it and identify it as the mark of a French book dealer with particular known interests in Andalusi work.

But I'm really stuck on the other two.

< self-flagellation > I hate that I'm stuck. I hate that I haven't been able to work this out on my own or with help from people I know. I hate that I"m asking for help in such a public way and feel like it will, in some substantial way diminish the final product, if I ever even get as far as finishing it. I know that asking for help isn't asking other people to do my own work — being able to read the marks is just a first step, obviously, and there would be loads left for me to do and of course I'd give credit where credit would be due — but I can't quite shake the feeling. < / self-flagellation >

I think that the second one might begin: "zeh ha-sefer shayach le-yosef" (this book belongs to Joseph) but I'm not even sure about that. But if anyone out there is more familiar with early modern Ashkenazi hands than I am and can make some sense of these, I'd be beyond grateful, would acknowledge you in an effusive footnote, and would be more than happy to send you a batch of cookies, too, if that's your thing.

So here goes. Click to enlarge:

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Fact-Checking and the Job Market

The post-ac series of MLA job posting naming-and-shamings as a way to call out a broken system of academic hiring continued this week, and was picked up by Inside Higher Ed. As I noted in my links roundup last week, there's starting to be some pushback against blind, self-righteous rage as the primary response to the state of the market. This most recent effort garnered a response from Claire Potter in her Chronicle of Higher Ed. column, in which she takes on both the tone and the fast-and-loose-with-facts methodology.

As Potter concedes she has done, I have written some angry blog posts about frustrating aspects of the profession. But I also agree with her that the tone and flailing scope of this discussion is problematic and singularly unproductive. (Though apparently that puts me in the oppressive category of the "tone police.") In fact, almost everything that I would have wanted to say has been said by others: Potter herself, Historiann, and a few commenters in the Tenured Radical thread, of which Schuman has questionably declared herself victor. So this will be a quick post, one that elaborates just a bit of Potter's point about fact-checking.

This was one salvo in the back-and-forth:

In a later blog post, Schuman says that this isn't meant as an ad-hominem attack on Potter, just a reflection of the truth of the current state of affairs. I know that the market sucks and that while some good people do get good jobs, loads of good people don't get good jobs or don't get jobs at all. But the fact of the matter is that new and very green PhDs are still among the set of good people getting good jobs. I was hired into my current TT position three years ago while ABD and with no publications. The next person in my graduate program to go on the market after me (tiny program — one or two students per cohort) fared similarly. A friend in another field and with a PhD from a different university was hired into a TT job at a prestigious liberal arts school just as he was finishing his dissertation. It happens and not in isolated cases. In other words, I know I was exceptionally lucky, but I also know that my luck wasn't exceptional. And so yes, while the job market is unquestionably tighter than it was twenty years ago, to say nothing of fifty years ago, to say that Claire Potter wouldn't have been hired into her job were she applying today with her 1991 CV is nothing but an unfounded ad hominem attack that's as ungrounded in reality as a search committee that gives candidates five days' notice for an MLA interview.

I can imagine some of the criticism I might get for saying this, specifically that I'm inured to the suffering of the masses on the job market because of my own success and that having someone like me on board doesn't matter because I'm now officially part of the privileged class. But I do get it: I can see the numbers and as much as I have done well and know people who have done well, I also have friends who are struggling, taking their second or third adjunct gig or postdoctoral fellowship in the hopes that they'll get a "real" job soon. I can see that both experiences are reality, I believe that hiring should be more fair, humane and accessible than it is, and in another couple of years (inshallah) I may well be in a position to do something about it at the institutional level. But I definitely don't want to jump on board with a shrill movement that disregards some realities in exclusive favor of the ones that suit its purposes.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Book-Finishing Marathon, Day Two

The cat continues to be singularly unhelpful. That's the manuscript atop which he is chilling out.

Update, 3pm: We have arrived at an uneasy compromise:

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book-Finishing Marathon, Day One

Sat down to the computer after the record third round of winter respiratory crud to begin my six-week, uninterrupted marathon of book manuscript finishing. Drinking my coffee and reading the various morning news sources, I was greeted by the following tidbit in my Twitter timeline:

It took every muscle in both my hands not to reply: "Unless you're an assistant professor hoping to earn tenure."

The cat is keeping me company, sitting on my desk, relentlessly gnawing on my shoulder. Onwards and upwards.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Week in Links (No Password Needed Edition)

Early modern crypto-Jews and art auctions. What could be bad?

Big Sell at Sotheby's for Painting of a Boy at the Center of Notorious Historical Case


"There's a basic question: is she more committed to improving the lives of adjuncts and unemployed PhDs, or to celebrating the demise of the old academic model and mocking those still trying to navigate within it?"

With the caveat that nobody deserves the kind of online harassment and abuse that Slate's new higher ed/post-ac columnist has received of late, the blog post that I've just quoted from precisely identifies the problem I see with her work:

If I can't love her, no one will


This is an old post, but was tweeted this week by one of the digital humanities folks I follow and is on a topic close to my heart at present:

Peer Review or Smear Review?

And another academia hobby horse of mine:

Whose Dissertation is it, Anyway?

Apparently medieval Arabic poetry is nearly lost and obscure if the countertenor currently performing their works set to music had never heard of them before coming across their work in  a used bookstore:

Four Arab Love Songs

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Conversation with the Community

There is a small but pretty spectacular exhibition of Qur'ān leaves currently on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition is interesting beyond the objects that it includes in that it begins to tackle the question of how to display religious objects as works of art and how to balance traditional and academic interpretation a little bit more head-on than many exhibitions I have seen recently.

In this case, the curators decided to handle this issue by writing their own label for each leaf but then also turning to members of Boston's Muslim communities and asking them to write an additional label for each one in which they reflect on the page, the calligraphy, the text, as Muslims.

(Click any of the images to enlarge to a readable size, insofar as anything behind glass photographed with an iPhone in a gallery with works-on-paper-friendly lighting levels can be readable.)

The curatorial note at the entrance to the gallery explains:  "In the spring of 2010 a group from the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury came to see Qur'ān pages in the MFA's collection. They were thrilled to see the pages, but not for the same reasons that I — as an art historian — am drawn to study them. This divergence in our experience led me to consider the different kinds of meaning a Qur'ān page can hold, and inspired this exhibition."

It's still a little bit essentializing in that it assumes an absolute boundary between faith and scholarship — not to say that there necessarily shouldn't be that boundary, just that I'm also not sure it can be taken for granted —but it is starting to grapple with a question that presents itself and that, in trying to answer it, may lead to greater depth in presenting various materials that are sacred to various different religious communities.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Week in Links (Old Ironsides Edition)

Things may be different in mathematics and the sciences, but having been on the receiving end of a paper rejection because the reviewer just wasn't very excited about my article, all I can think is that this person is on a power trip and doing a colleague and their field a disservice.

"The paper does represent a huge amount of work, but other researchers would have probably done something more appealing with the data than the authors."

Your Paper is Really Boring


I really want this job. It is clearly covert ops masquerading as a librarianship:

Position Available: Private Library in Abu Dhabi


I have started watching Elementary because of this:

I started at the beginning, although I suspect that might have been overkill as far as getting the Ibn Gabirol reference in its context. It's not very tightly written, but (with one notable exception so far) it's a great New York show, much of which is shot in my neighborhood. It's also inducing tremendous guilt as I think about how little Conan Doyle I've read.


Some reportage on a new tumblr on people of color in medieval art. An impressive project, although I do question the level of sophistication and depth of someone working on such a project who still refers to Spanish Muslims by the racially charged and imprecise term "moors." That's a layperson's mistake.

Cambridge Book Shops

This week's damage is extra-special because it happened at Schoenhof's:

The guy who was working there said he was especially happy to see Los sefardíes going to a good home as it had been on their shelves for going on ten years. It's a bit outdated, but it is nonetheless a foundational work in the field.

And as much as I have placed a moratorium on buying books that look good for teaching, I made an exception for these two because it's useful for me to have some more resources for students in Spanish for certain courses:

My major victory for the day, though, came after the strap on my tote bag broke right when I got into the subway. The train let out right in front of the Harvard Coop and I really wasn't going to be able to march around much with quite so much stuff in the snow to look for another place to buy an emergency replacement bag, but I managed to walk into the Coop and acquire a bag that did not have the word Harvard on it.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"Ice Here Falls Here": A Visual Critique of the Beinecke

A postcard of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, helpfully annotated in 1963 by the then-university librarian to point out design flaws in the then-brand new building.

Shelfmark RU 106. Currently on display in the Beinecke as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Week in Links (Antibacterial Edition)

I've been laid up with pink-eye and some kind of Victorian-era respiratory infection, so this week it's going to be a short roundup.

The discussion of peer review continues over at Flavia's:

The Sorrows of Peer Review


"At this point, a crisis of conscience ensued. Should I hoof it off the library to see if I could track it down, or should I get on with finishing and fudge it a bit, with a reference to some website. You'll be pleased to know I decided on the library."

With emphasis on that excerpt, I'm going to share this column by Mary Beard with my freshmen tomorrow when I return their annotated bibliographies, some of which were excellent and some of which cited sources like and

Enoch Powell and the Chatty Barber


This is the top-books-of-2013 list that most and most-consistently appeals to me:

Best Books 2013: Slate Staff Picks

An interesting subject, but really not very good photographs:

Behind Closed Doors with the Women of Saudi Arabia

Whoa. That is all:

The Chalice that Helped Make Possible the Iran Nuclear Deal

And the Twitter conversation of the week, selected because they manage to touch simultaneously upon humorous manuscript marginalia *and* the vagaries of the peer review process: