Richard Scholar


On his book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

Cover Interview of July 14, 2021

In a nutshell

George W. Bush is said to have claimed that “the problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” Whether or not it is true, that anecdote illustrates a deeper truth, which is that many in the English-speaking world turn to French more than they would like to think they do.

English has borrowed more words from French than from any other modern foreign language. Many borrowings from French have been seamlessly absorbed into English, like the word entrepreneur. They’ve become part of the fixtures and fittings. Other French borrowings in English leave no room for confusion about their provenance. They assert their identity as French migrants—as émigrés. Think of phrases like je ne sais quoi and à la mode. Phrases such as these and words like naïveté, ennui, and caprice have been widely available in English since the later part of the seventeenth century. They have struck many speakers and writers of English as being uniquely expressive. What role, I wanted to ask, have émigrés played in the making of modern English as it has developed over centuries and as it is spoken and written all over the world today?

Émigrés is my answer to that question.

The book explores the emergence in Restoration English of particular émigré words and phrases. It traces the later trajectories of these words across the English-speaking world. It reveals how such émigrés inspire receptivity in some Anglophones, resistance in others, and ambivalence in most. It shows how they can occasion extraordinary creativity even as they remain visibly caught up in a power relation between neighboring cultures—English- and French-speaking—that is never perceived as equal. Moving from opera to ice cream, the book shows how migrant French words are never the same again for having ventured abroad, and how they take on new lives in the material and visual cultures of the English-speaking world. Ennui depicted as a beer glass half filled with nothing but water. An emblem inspired by the London impressionist Walter Sickert’s 1914 painting Ennui. Illustration by John Barnett in Richard Scholar, Émigrés: French Words That Turned English, p. 130. © Princeton University Press.

French migrant words fascinate me as a writer above all, perhaps, because they seem to complete English as a language by elegantly recalling its fundamental incompleteness. They reveal its relation to the languages that surround it. They mark out things it cannot immediately express while also creating for it new possibilities of expression. And it is above all in the myriad of practices we call literature that we see these possibilities of expression variously realized.



Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021

In a nutshell

What the book is all about is right there in the title! Well, sort of.

The book isn’t about the scientific method—since it starts by pointing out that there’s no such thing. Scientists already know this: if you try to reduce science to a single set of steps, the result will either be too narrow (leaving out scientific fields that do things a bit differently) or too broad (including approaches that nobody thinks are scientific). Science is too big (and too diverse) to boil down to a method shared across specialties but limited to science alone.

What the book is about is the idea of a single, shared scientific method. Specifically, it offers a history of the five-step method that is still taught in classrooms around the world—anchored by asking a question and then testing hypothetical answers to it.

The historian of education, John Rudolph, has shown how these steps were copied into science textbooks from the work of John Dewey—with a twist. While Dewey saw his steps as something science shared with everyday thinking, others seized on them as a way to set science apart from other ways of knowing. The rest, as they say, is history.

I set out to see where Dewey’s steps came from. What I found was a nesting series of debates, from Dewey’s study of children and stretching backward through experiments on animals to the work of Charles Darwin almost a century earlier.

The story I tell in The Scientific Method is about how the lines between the human and natural worlds, and specifically between human and animal minds, got blurred over the nineteenth century. All this blurring led to Dewey’s search for a natural history of thinking, shared by any organism with a mind.

The fact that this project ultimately produced, in the hands of others, an account of human-specific scientific reasoning—and not the naturalistic project Dewey had planned—is ironic, if not tragic.



Marni Reva Kessler


On her book Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021

In a nutshell

In Discomfort Food, I argue that representations of food are profoundly evocative, able to convey material and immaterial possibilities that are inconsistent with their seemingly mundane subject matter. Depictions of the alimentary resonate far beyond the physical bounds of the picture plane, tying us to both the sensory present and the fullness of the past, to our memories, our families, our traditions, our happinesses, and our losses. And these works are, of course, fixed, too, to the artists who created them, to sentient beings who lived and ate, who loved and experienced sadness.

At the center of my study are works by Édouard Manet, Antoine Vollon, Gustave Caillebotte, and Edgar Degas that, for most, conjure unbroken narratives of gustatory pleasures. But, as I show, each of these works also engage more nuanced and even unsettling associations. These pictures of fish, fruit, butter, and meat, things so apparently anodyne, are, in my analysis, haunted by anxiety, nostalgia, and melancholy for and about family, home, and the past. Rooted in histories, these images immerse us, too, in the present, in the smell and taste and feel of what we see portrayed. Our visceral responses, I thus suggest, matter deeply to our experience of representations of food, and this sensitivity to their affective qualities helps us to construe their utter capaciousness, their tensions and contradictory effects, their abilities to signify across a spectrum of unalloyed beauty and base disgust. These pictures of things so quotidian and that we associate with a range of culinary pleasures, each in their own unique ways demonstrate, too, their own inherent displeasures.

In considering—along with the scholarly—such subjective nuances and how they might be articulated in depictions of food, I shift away from the prevailing tendency to categorize them simply as still lifes and toward more analytic scrutiny of them as representations containing tangible critical capacities and expressive force that we more readily associate with real food. With this project, I thus seek to augment our study of images of edible things by demonstrating that certain linear models and classifications fail to do justice to the ways in which they are singularly suggestive, engendering distinctly visceral reactions of the sort that we may have in relation to a painting of, say, flowers, insects, books, or shells. Depictions of food are deeply complex and individual. They inevitably summon not just some of the more fugitive aspects of everyday life but also the intricate webs that constitute our memories and the myriad pleasures and discomforts that may accompany our thoughts of them. They are always richly evocative, capable of conveying delight and the promise of culinary satisfaction even as they sublimate their corollary. By introducing the transgressive power of food into analysis of representations of it, I thus expose the profoundly personal and messier aspects of images that take as their subject something so fundamental to human experience.



Charles Camic


On his book Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics

Cover Interview of June 23, 2021

In a nutshell

The book, Veblen, is about intellectual innovation, and how originality is shaped by the accumulation of schooling experiences. It examines a great American original, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a heterodox economist who became famous at the turn of the last century for his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here and in several companion works, many now neglected, Veblen exposed the defects of what we now call “mainstream economics” and proposed a bold alternative theory centered on problems of economic inequality which continue to haunt our own time.

My book examines the roots of Veblen’s ideas. This is a question scholars and others have written about since the time of Veblen’s death. With few exceptions, these accounts have offered a storyline that everyone is familiar with, whether or not they have ever heard of Thorstein Veblen.

I call this storyline the “outsider thesis.” It is the notion that creative individuals in nearly all walks of life enter the field where they will innovate from a place at the remote margins of the field or from entirely outside of it. This marginality gives them a creative edge over insiders, who are mired in the conventions of the field and cannot think outside the box. Yet that is precisely what innovators do; coming from the margins or the outside, they see things in a fresh light that enables them to discover new pathways beyond the imagination of insiders.

This outsider thesis is the centerpiece of previous explanations of Veblen’s originality. His interpreters portray him as the archetypal outsider, whose characteristics relegated him to the outer margins of the academic world where he spent his career. Among these alleged characteristics, scholars have especially emphasized Veblen’s impoverished upbringing on a farm of Norwegian immigrants, his late start speaking English, his sexual exploits, and his withdrawn personality.

Historical evidence strongly counters this narrative. Not only is every one of these descriptors simply wrong; my book refutes that whole notion of Veblen as an outsider. Archival documents, and other primary-source material I uncovered, demonstrate just the opposite. In the academic milieu where he was situated, Veblen was an insider par excellence.

Still further, my book shows that many of Veblen’s intellectual innovations actually derived from his position as an insider to the world of American higher education, which was undergoing major transformations at his time. These included the emergence of European-style research universities and the resulting rise of professional opportunities for young Americans who aspired to careers in one of the specialized academic disciplines then taking shape.

My book is the first to situate Veblen in this context and to demonstrate the connection between his later economic theorizing and his membership in the first homebred generation of American academics, who would build the modern university. In this building project, these young scholars were anticipated by their teachers, who had received advanced degrees in Europe and then carried back to the United States new ideas in philosophy, psychology, history, and economics (or “political economy,” as they called it).

This was the world inside which Veblen came of intellectual age in the 1880s and early 1890s. Beginning graduate study at John Hopkins University, Veblen earned a doctorate in philosophy at Yale University. Thereafter, he nearly earned a second doctorate in political economy at Cornell University, before his advisor departed to join the political economy department at the University of Chicago, where he also secured a faculty position for Veblen.

In my book, I follow Veblen’s educational path step by step. I demonstrate how his studies with a dozen different mentors accustomed him to a distinctive set of ideas about phenomena such as social evolution and social institutions. Because these ideas were continually reinforced by Veblen’s experiences as he moved across universities, disciplines, and mentors, they became second nature to him. As such, they provided tools he could adapt to the theoretical and practical problems he found when he turned to the agenda of contemporary economists.

Topping this agenda was the issue of wealth distribution, and the question of why some people receive larger shares of a nation’s wealth than others do. To this question, neoclassical economists of the time answered by asserting that people receive economic rewards in proportion to their productive contributions. To Veblen this theory was shot full of holes; and his writings upended it by creatively recrafting and repurposing the intellectual tools that his professors had previously plied in other contexts. According to Veblen’s theory, the individuals who receive the greatest economic rewards make no productive contributions, whereas productive men and women are continually bled dry by means of ever-changing parasitic institutions. In this far-reaching transposition of the lessons learned during his schooling lay Veblen’s originality.



Dennis C. Rasmussen


On his book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021

In a nutshell

Fears of a Setting Sun tells the story of how most of the American founders came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about the government and the nation that they had helped to create. The title alludes to a quip from Benjamin Franklin on the last day of the Constitutional Convention. As the last of the framers affixed their names to the Constitution, Franklin called attention to the high-backed mahogany chair that the president of the Convention, George Washington, had occupied at the head of the room all summer; it had a decorative half-sunburst carved into the crest. He remarked that painters often found it difficult to differentiate, in their compositions, a rising sun from a setting sun. “I have,” he said, “often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that [sun on the chair] behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

This anecdote is often taken to be emblematic of the optimism that the founders felt at the new government’s birth. But my book shows that almost none of them carried that sense of hope to their graves. Franklin survived to see the government formed by the Constitution in action for only a single year, but most of the founders who lived into the nineteenth century—or even to the dawn of the new century, like Washington—eventually grew disillusioned with what they had wrought.

The book focuses principally on four of the preeminent figures of the period: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. These four lost their faith in the American experiment at different times and for different reasons, and each has his own unique story. In a nutshell, Washington became disillusioned above all because of the rise of parties and partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was not sufficiently vigorous or energetic, Adams because he believed that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions that were laid bare by conflict over the spread of slavery.



Patricia Sullivan


On her book Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White

Cover Interview of June 09, 2021

In a nutshell

Justice Rising places Robert Kennedy squarely at the center of the movement for racial justice in the 1960s. In reconsidering Kennedy’s public life, the book offers a fresh account of how history, race, and politics converged during the sixties.

Bobby Kennedy emerged on the political stage just as mass protests erupted across the South. As Attorney General and his brother’s closest adviser, he grasped the moment. He assembled a brilliant team of lawyers and was prepared to put the weight of the federal government behind school segregation rulings and the enforcement of voting rights. Less than four months into the Kennedy administration, when an interracial group—the Freedom Riders—tested their right to travel together across the South, RFK confronted the white defiance and state-sanctioned violence dedicated to maintaining segregation. Speaking of government officials in Alabama, he told an aide, “those fellows are at war with this country.”

RFK was also keenly focused on the poverty, segregation, and criminal justice abuses that plagued urban Black communities. He helped establish community-based youth programs in sixteen cities across the country and visited each one of them, seeing conditions firsthand. Early in 1963, he referenced the betrayal of Emancipation’s promise, describing a racial crisis “100 years in the making.” The consequences of racial discrimination, he said, were massive and “carry on for generation after generation. To face this openly and squarely is the challenge of the decade.”

A prevailing view is that the Kennedy brothers did not do enough to support the Civil Rights Movement. My book challenges this orthodoxy. By focusing on the depth of the Black Freedom struggle that crested in the sixties and the racial divide that structured American life and politics, it illustrates how John and Robert Kennedy faced the national dimensions of a racial crisis that gripped the nation. During the administration’s brief tenure, they responded to the movement’s demands as well as to the opportunities it created for bold leadership. In the spring of 1963, at considerable political risk, JFK publicly aligned the administration with the struggle of African Americans for full equality.

John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963—a shattering experience for RFK—ended a remarkable partnership. Together they led in crafting historic civil rights legislation and forged the bipartisan coalition critical to its passage the following summer. By then, Kennedy recognized the limits of law in uprooting the racial inequality that permeated American society.

Elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in November 1964, Kennedy became a public figure in his own right, just as the country entered one of its most tumultuous periods. Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic escalation of America’s involvement in Vietnam undermined his War on Poverty and fueled a massive anti-war movement while cities across the country became racial battlegrounds—all factors that ultimately pitted RFK against LBJ.

Race was at the center of Kennedy’s widening vision, one that encompassed the desperate poverty in cities, in the Mississippi Delta, on Indian reservations, in the coal fields of Kentucky, and among migrant workers. He exposed these conditions and pushed for expanded anti-poverty programs. The raw, oppressive environment in urban areas consumed his attention and fueled his creative energy—as seen in the community-controlled development project he pioneered in Bedford Stuyvesant. It has been described as “Black Power in Action.”

The book concludes with Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1968, a barnstorming campaign through all parts of the country—a fleeting glimpse of the possibility and urgency of that moment, which ended tragically with his assassination and that of Martin Luther King Jr.



Joan Wallach Scott


On her book On the Judgment of History

Cover Interview of June 02, 2021

In a nutshell

We hear a lot these days about the judgment of history. In the face of political conflict, corruption, and sheer lies, we sometimes comfort ourselves by saying that “history” will right the moral and factual wrongs of the present. At some future time, the record will be set straight, evil condemned, and “legacies” established for posterity. This is a vision of history (a fantasy, I argue) that imagines a story of inevitable progress; that expects we can count on the future to be an improvement over the past. It is the vision expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., citing the abolitionist Theodore Parker: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My book is an extended reflection on this idea, rejecting its Enlightenment optimism and suggesting a different vision entirely. It’s not judgment we should look to in history, but a record of processes of contention and conflict, a story of successful and unsuccessful struggles against and for power that may serve present actors as caution or inspiration.

An additional focus is on the idea—dating from the Enlightenment as well—that the state is the highest instrument of historical progress, the institution best placed to deliver the justice that constitutes the judgment of history. I suggest that we should be skeptical of the state’s ability to do that since it is above all a political institution, an arena of necessary conflict, a place where balances of power are always in play. We should look neither to a reified idea of history nor of the state, but to human actors in their diverse and complicated movements to appreciate what counts as history.



Stephen Bates


On his book An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press

Cover Interview of May 26, 2021

In a nutshell

In 1943, Time Inc. editor-in-chief Henry R. Luce sponsored the greatest collaboration of public intellectuals in the twentieth century. He and University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins summoned the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the Pulitzer-winning poet Archibald MacLeish, and ten other preeminent American thinkers to form the Commission on Freedom of the Press. Luce wanted them to rethink freedom and responsibility of the news media. Assembling a committee to answer a philosophical question is an audacious notion, maybe a ludicrous one, but, miraculously, it worked.

After seventeen meetings, Commission members completed their final report, A Free and Responsible Press, which was published in 1947. It castigated the media for imperiling democracy with short-sighted, irresponsible behavior, including sensationalism, newsroom bias, and ads that masquerade as news. The press mostly rejected the criticism and denounced the critics. Even Henry Luce found the report disappointing. Yet in the years since, it has become a classic, the most important statement ever produced on the press and its role in a democracy. It has influenced the Supreme Court’s approach to free speech and shaped the education of generations of journalists.

Even so, it’s little known outside schools of journalism, and the full story behind it has never been told. My book shows how these thinkers debated vital questions, nearly failed in their mission, and in the end reached conclusions that are pertinent today—in some respects more pertinent now than in 1947. Broadly, the book captures a moment when public intellectuals held sway over matters of public interest. It also shows how a group of them, despite diverse philosophical views (plus big egos), listened to one another, established areas of agreement, explored areas of disagreement, and, often, changed their minds. In this way, Commission members modeled what they were trying to promote in American society: engaged, open-minded political discourse.



Eric Weisbard


On his book Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music

Cover Interview of May 19, 2021

In a nutshell

Songbooks is a book about books on American popular music. It’s a vast subject, and my book covers books from a 1770 collection of psalmody by a tanner in revolutionary New England to Jay-Z’s Decoded in 2010. I break the book into pieces, with essays on different authors, artists, and topics carrying the history forward in the order that the book that headlines an entry was published. You might find yourself reading about a blackface minstrel in the 1830s and about Zora Neale Hurston’s pioneering juke joint ethnography Mules and Men in the 1930s; there’s room to consider how Joel Whitburn’s books of chart hits shaped our sense of how to remember pop songs, but also how Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comic books became the first place to learn about Latinx punk in Southern California. I want people to read it however makes them happy: hopscotching to favorites or checking out a period in time to see how things they didn’t know were connected spoke to each other.

Two major ideas come out of this study. The first, which has to be said loudly now that popular music has been embraced by academia, is that most interesting writing in this field has been by non-academics or decidedly oddball ones. While heaps of books pledge allegiance to a music genre or an academic discipline, dutiful to document the lives and work of musicians, I’m driven by stuff that invents its own form, often writings by women, people of color, outsiders to set fields. The “hooks” in pop songs come from musical mistakes, odd phrasings, unlikely collaborations, the broken amp making funny feedback. So too the most intriguing music books, which come at the subject from a novel angle—including many novels! From Theodore Dreiser through Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, they are acute on connections between popular culture and urban desire. Egan knows the tradition and ends with what might be Sister Carrie’s story: “It was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.”

The second key concept is the now centuries-long reckoning with vernacular commercial music as culture. It’s not high art, it’s not folklore. At times it has felt revolutionary. Not so much lately. My groupings are a mini-history. “Setting the Stage” is the Stephen Foster era of sheet music and blackface minstrelsy: the original songbooks were cheap amusements or spiritual collections like Slave Songs of the United States. The Jazz Age came next: urban modernity from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Louis Armstrong, whose first books were transcribed trumpet solos. By mid-century, icons were a staple: Woody Guthrie’s folksy vernacular, Billie Holiday’s beyond-true Lady Sings the Blues, Américo Paredes’s incredible outlaw corridos study, “With His Pistol In His Hand.” The revolutionary part came in the 1960s, via Tom Wolfe and rock critics, but soul countercultures too via Amiri Baraka. When that moment faded, the epic saga of vernacular music was done. But I’m only half-way—the rest of the book tracks how later generations rethought what mattered and why.



Scott Peeples


On his book The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City

Cover Interview of May 12, 2021

In a nutshell

The Man of the Crowd is a biography of Edgar Allan Poe that focuses on the four American cities—Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York—where he made his career as a writer and editor. Poe lived in a time of rapid urbanization, and I contend that his life and work are best understood in terms of that development, and in terms of what was happening in these particular cities in the 1830s and 1840s.

The book chronicles Poe’s entire life, but I arrange his story into chapters corresponding with specific cities. In the first chapter, I highlight, among other things, the fact that Richmond was a center of the domestic slave trade; Poe grew up and later worked within blocks of auction houses, jails, and hotels that provided the infrastructure for that trade. I speculate that some of the physical cruelty and sadism that shows up in Poe’s later fiction might have been inspired by the dehumanizing practices associated with slave auctions.

In the chapter that centers on Baltimore, we see Poe experiencing real poverty as a man in his early 20s. There he began writing fiction for magazines—not a very reliable way to make a living, but it was what he would do for the rest of his life. He also found a family with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia, whom he would soon marry.

In the third chapter, on Philadelphia, I describe Poe hitting his stride as a fiction writer. Philadelphia was a city whose image depended on orderliness and Quaker probity, but urban squalor was barely hidden behind grand façades, and mob violence was a constant threat. I trace that contradiction through discussions of some of Poe’s lesser-known satires as well as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the proto-detective story “The Man of the Crowd”, which gives my book its title.

Poe moved to New York in 1844 to be at the center of American publishing, and much of his writing during his years in Manhattan comment on the world of magazines, literary reputations, and the terms of success and failure. Poe even wrote a series of gossipy personality profiles called “The Literati of New York City”, while fomenting scandal and rivalry with the Boston literary establishment.

The final chapter is titled “In Transit”—though still ostensibly living in New York (specifically, in what would become the Bronx), Poe spent about half of this period traveling, visiting Philadelphia and Richmond before his life ended tragically and mysteriously in Baltimore.

Throughout the book, I stress the influence not just of these cities but of the city as a phenomenon of the early nineteenth century, and I see Poe, for all his genius, as a man who, like many others, saw opportunity in rapidly growing urban centers but more often than not found frustration and disappointment.



Glenn E. Robinson


On his book Global Jihad: A History

Cover Interview of May 05, 2021

In a nutshell

In Global Jihad I make two unique arguments. First, I provide an interpretive history of this important movement by showing how there have been four distinct iterations, or “waves”, of global jihad since it began in the 1980s. Each wave had its own distinct crisis that initiated it, and its own peculiar ideological vision for the path ahead. In each case, the fundamental problem was seen as systemic to the international system, which is why they are examples of global jihad.

The first wave, in response to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, focused on liberating occupied Muslim territory around the world; it was led by a pious warrior class I term a “Jihadi International”.

The second wave, led by Usama Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida, sought to drive the Americans out of the Middle East as part of an “America First” campaign that would lead to the easier overthrow of local apostate regimes.

ISIS’s state-building campaign, the third wave, sought to eliminate apostasy by creating a puritanical and globalized caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

The fourth and current wave of global jihad is focused on the survival of global jihad through “jihad fardi”—personal terror attacks undertaken by individuals and small groups who are connected online by a shared ideology but whose attacks are autonomously orchestrated. This form of “stochastic terror” was initiated by white nationalists who, with the birth of the internet, realized they could influence and connect with the audience without ever having any logistical connection in the planning and execution of violent acts. Global jihadis have made full use of this “inspired terrorism”, the acts of which are stitched together in an ever-evolving wiki-narrative by an online jihadi community.

The second big argument I make is to situate global jihad in the universe of all violent political groups over the past century. I borrow and build on the theory of “movements of rage” to suggest that there is a unique form of political violence that is marked by calls to nihilistic violence and that adopt apocalyptic ideologies. Both religious and secular groups can constitute movements of rage, from global jihad to white nationalism. Movements of rage are usually small and weak, and rarely come to power. But when they do seize power, such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the results can be devastating.

Readers primarily interested in the history of global jihad from the 1980s to the present can focus on the Introduction and first four chapters. Those mostly interested in the current wave of global jihad can focus on Chapter Four, Personal Jihad, in which a networked system using the internet and social media has replaced old-fashioned organizations to make for a much more durable form of violence. And for those readers more attuned to scholarly arguments about terrorism and other forms of political violence, the concluding chapter on movements of rage will hold the most interest.



Richard Toye


On his book Winston Churchill: A Life in the News

Cover Interview of April 28, 2021

In a nutshell

The book is about Winston Churchill’s relationship with the media and the news. Churchill was active in politics from the age of Queen Victoria to that of Elizabeth II, a period which included two world wars, in both of which Churchill played a leading role. During his lifetime, the mass popular press came into its own, but then came under challenge from new media—newsreels, radio, and eventually TV.

The book tackles Churchill’s relationship with the news in three dimensions, first, his own journalism. Second, his efforts to influence or control what was said about him. Third, his evolving media image.

The book starts with the very earliest mentions media mentions of Churchill, the child of Lord Randolph Churchill, who was a renowned and mercurial Conservative politician. It continues until his death and funeral in 1965. During this period, the press was evolving and becoming ever more intrusive. During Churchill’s retirement he made plenty of trips abroad, and the paparazzi would follow him everywhere, trying for example to get shots of him painting, a favourite hobby of his.

The book also deals with the symbolism that surrounded Churchill and the way that he was portrayed. Now, if we think of an object we associate with him, we might think of a cigar. Earlier in his career, though, cartoonists typically drew him wearing a tiny hat. Churchill claimed this was due to an incident during an election campaign in which he picked up the wrong headgear when going outside. Certainly, he knew the value of having identifiable quirks and a colourful image that would ensure he got a lot of coverage.

I would say that the book is best read from start to finish but each chapter is self-contained and therefore hopefully useful in its own right to readers who are interested in particular phases of Churchill’s career.



David Sulzer


On his book Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021

In a nutshell

Music, Math, and Mind is written for musicians and music lovers, and will take them through a journey that uncovers the science of music and sound. Because artists and art lovers rarely have a good familiarity in math beyond multiplication, and even less in physics and biology, the book finds ways to make even difficult concepts in physics completely understandable with only grade school level math. Indeed, by the end of the first chapter, readers can derive their own musical scale. This is not meant to be a typical popular science book of short anecdotes to read in an afternoon at the beach, but a book that readers come back to for a long time, each time understanding more.

The book tackles some basic questions on math, physics, and the nervous system that are not discussed in music theory classes: Which sounds are in-and out-of-tune? Is it true that scales are really never in tune? What are overtones and harmonic sounds? Sound is formed from air waves that move in space and time. What shapes are these sounds, how big, fast, and heavy? How are sound waves different in air, under water or in the earth? Why do voices and instruments sound different from each other? Why do larger instruments play lower pitches? We have only two eardrums and two ears, how can we identify many simultaneous sounds in a band or in conversations (the “cocktail party problem”)? Are there mathematical definitions of noise and consonance? How does the brain understand what it is listening to? How are emotions carried by music? How do other animals hear and make sound differently than us?

If these issues are not taught to musicians and music lovers, it is not from lack of curiosity. Artists have of plenty of that, and this book is for them.



Kiran K. Patel


On his book Project Europe: A History

Cover Interview of April 14, 2021

In a nutshell

Project Europe book offers a radically different interpretation of the European Union’s history. It shifts the focus away from the motives and driving forces of European integration to the concrete effects and results for the lives of people in the member states and beyond. In doing so, it challenges and deconstructs the myths surrounding the establishment and evolution of the European Community (EC) as the predecessors of today’s EU. Project Europe also assesses the various forms of criticism the EU frequently finds itself confronted with. The book covers the period from the first institutional attempts to build Europe in the second half of the 1940s until the end of the Cold War. It also discusses the lessons we can learn from this past for debates about the EU today.

In order to understand today’s EU, we need to revisit its history. Project Europe explains why a rather narrow organization that initially comprised just six Western European states is today so frequently equated with Europe as a whole. There was no single blueprint behind this process, but a complex web of different and often contradictory trends. European integration has fundamentally changed over the course of its history, and its undeniable importance today would have appeared improbable just a few decades ago. Many of the aspects we project back onto the early years in fact only took shape much more recently. Particularly the period of turmoil during the 1970s and 1980s helped to promote the European Community into the central European project. Incrementally, a new institutional reality arose, that subsequently also transformed the political systems of its member states.

The EC was born with a focus on economic integration, and to this day, the EU cannot deny its economic DNA. This business-centered capitalist logic was one of the main reasons why the EC were able to become the dominant forum of international cooperation in Europe at the time. Seeing the world through an economic lens decisively shaped the EC and continues to do so today—for better and worse.

That said, the effects of European integration on people’s lives remained mostly indirect and rather limited until the 1990s and 2000s. This explains why the relationship between citizens and the EC was often brittle. The results of European integration only became fully evident decades later, and this gap between decisions and effects explains many of the challenges and crises the EU has to deal with in our own times.



Douglas B. Downey


On his book How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

Cover Interview of April 07, 2021

In a nutshell

This book is about understanding how schools influence achievement gaps. The traditional story is that schools are part of the problem and that large differences in school quality make achievement gaps worse. This view is so widely accepted that it is now asserted without evidence. But if we do look at the evidence, we find some surprising patterns.

First, socioeconomic gaps in math and reading skills are already large at kindergarten entry, and then do not appear to increase during the school years. This pattern is better known now that we have high-quality data that begin at kindergarten, follow children for many years, and use scales of math and reading skills that allow an understanding of how gaps change over time.

Second, schools serving mostly advantaged children (high-socioeconomic status and white) do not produce any more math and reading learning than schools serving mostly disadvantaged children (low-socioeconomic status and black). Of course, schools serving advantaged children tend to have higher test scores than schools serving disadvantaged children, but careful analyses indicates that these differences are due to the skills the students develop outside of school. Once in school, both advantaged and disadvantaged children learn at roughly the same rate. This pattern replicates across many datasets but, surprisingly, is hardly talked about in the policy world.

Combined, these two patterns suggest that, when it comes to achievement gaps, schools are more part of the solution than the problem. Rather than focus our attention on schools, these patterns prompt us to consider the way that highly unequal early childhood conditions generate and maintain achievement gaps.

There are many policymakers interested in reducing achievement gaps, but most of their solutions focus around school reform. Those attempts are not without merit, but they are unlikely to do much to reduce societal-level achievement gaps, because the gaps are mostly developed when children are not in school. If we really want to reduce these achievement gaps we will need to think bigger than school reform. We will need to consider reforms that reduce the widely unequal family and neighborhood conditions children experience when not in school.