Noah Feldman

 

On his book The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

Cover Interview of May 27, 2020

Lastly

As I was preparing the book for publication, in the spring of 2019, two sets of events occurred that seemed very much like afterimages of the Arab spring. First in Algeria and then in Sudan, large crowds gathered to protest unfree elections that promised to keep in place two old, long-standing dictators, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir. Both leaders resisted for a time, but the protests persisted. Soon enough Bouteflika resigned, and Bashir was removed by the Sudanese military. The people, it seemed, had gotten what they wanted—at least in the moment.

What do these belated mini-Arab springs mean, taking place as they are in the depths of the Arab winter? One lesson is that the original Arab spring protests still possess resonance and the power of example—notwithstanding the tragic consequences that followed in most of the places where they occurred. A second lesson is that genuine, optimistic political action to change government remains possible in the Arabic-speaking world, even in the face of the experience of tragic failure.

The third lesson is more sober: the 2019 protests carry ennobling political meaning even if they ultimately fail to produce significant improvements in the lives of the peoples of Algeria and Sudan—as seems possible and even probable.

What I am really asking is, What comes after tragedy? Aristotle’s catharsis is thought to be a purging or a purgation—an inner experience that transcends the emotions of terror and pity and turns them into something cleansing. Tragedy functions as a shaper of the viewer’s internal cognitive and emotional state.

But the Arabic reception of Aristotle’s conception of tragedy is, famously, different. Ibn Rushd, the great medieval commentator on Aristotle, interpreted tragedy and comedy through the filter of the very different Arabic literary genres of blame and praise poetry, in which the poet faults or idealizes an enemy or a patron. This reading—or perhaps misprision—is explored by Jorge Luis Borges in his poignant and beautiful orientalist story, “La busca de Averroes” (“Averroes’s Search”).

As Ibn Rushd has it, tragic catharsis “makes souls become tender and prompts them to accept the virtues.” This version of catharsis starts inwardly, with the preparation of the soul taking place through the experience of observing tragedy. But it moves outward, to the embrace of character virtues that can then be expressed through actual human action.

In this way, the catharsis of the Arabic Aristotle invokes a different, competing strand of Aristotelian thought—a strand that sees not reflection but the doing of politics as the highest form of human flourishing. The point of tragedy, in this vision, is to offer inspiration for the exercise of virtue, including political virtue. Tragedy can thus be made to have a practical, forward-looking purpose. It can lead us to do better.

There is no handbook for successful self-determination. No single political or constitutional solution will fit every polity.

Yet tragedy seen through the lens of the Arabic Aristotelian tradition may nonetheless guide us toward political virtue, by its capacity to help us do better in the future. Bleak as circumstances are now for Arab politics, there will be changes. New possibilities will eventually emerge. The current winter may last a generation or more. But after the winter—and from its depths—always comes another spring.




 


 

Edward Ashford Lee

 

On his book The Coevolution: The Entwined Futures of Humans and Machines

Cover Interview of May 20, 2020

Lastly

Today, the fear and hype around AI taking over the world and social media taking down democracy has fueled a clamor for more regulation. But if I am right about coevolution, we may be going about the project of regulating technology all wrong. Why have privacy laws, with all their good intentions, done little to protect our privacy and only overwhelmed us with small-print legalese?

Under the principle of digital creationism, bad outcomes are the result of unethical actions by individuals, for example by blindly following the profit motive with no concern for societal effects. Under the principle of coevolution, bad outcomes are the result of the procreative prowess of the technology itself. Technologies that succeed are those that more effectively propagate. The individuals we credit with (or blame for) creating those technologies certainly play a role, but so do the users of the technologies and their whole cultural context.

Under digital creationism, the purpose of regulation is to constrain the individuals who develop and market technology. In contrast, under coevolution, constraints can be about the use of technology, not just its design. The purpose of regulation becomes to nudge the process of both technology and cultural evolution through incentives and penalties. Nudging is probably the best we can hope for. Evolutionary processes do not yield easily to control.

Perhaps privacy laws have been ineffective because they are based on digital creationism as a principle. These laws assume that changing the behavior of corporations and engineers will be sufficient to achieve privacy goals (whatever those are). A coevolutionary perspective understands that users of technology will choose to give up privacy even if they are explicitly told that their information will be abused. We are repeatedly told exactly that in the fine print of all those privacy policies we don’t read. And, nevertheless, our kids get sucked into a media milieu where their identity gets defined by a distinctly non-private online persona.

I believe that, as a society, we can do better than we are currently doing. The risk of an Orwellian state (or perhaps worse, a corporate Big Brother) is very real. It has happened already in China. We will not do better, however, until we abandon digital creationism as a principle. Outlawing specific technology developments will not be effective. For example, we may try to outlaw autonomous decision-making in weapons systems and banking. But as we see from election distortions, machines are very effective at influencing human decision-making, so putting a human in the loop does not necessarily solve the problem. How can a human who is, effectively, controlled by a machine, somehow mitigate the evilness of autonomous weapons?

A few people are promoting the term “digital humanism” for a more human-centric approach to technology. This point of view makes it imperative for all disciplines to step up and take seriously humanity’s dance with technology. Our ineffective efforts so far underscore our weak understanding of the problem. We need humanists with a deeper understanding of technology, technologists with a deeper understanding of the humanities, and policy makers drawn from both camps. We are quite far from that goal today.




 


 

Samuel Zipp

 

On his book The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World

Cover Interview of May 13, 2020

Lastly

The Idealist is a strange and ambivalent tale, in a way. The book is a history of an idea that’s self-evident: it’s never been more obvious how technology, greenhouse gasses, markets, and the threat of pandemics connect us all. But it’s also a history of failure. The vision of global governance Willkie and many other midcentury internationalists favored was partially realized, but in a diluted fashion, and has been in retreat ever since. The postwar years, the historian David Reynolds argued two decades ago, could be summed up as a story of “one world, divisible.”

Willkie offered a geopolitical vision of a world in need of new maps and a new kind of global imagination. It was an idealistic vision, of a planet united in cooperation through a new world body designed to succeed where the League of Nations had failed. But it was strategic as well, envisioning the United States cooperating with the Soviet Union, championing decolonization, and managing a reinvigorated network of global trade. In his version of the future, America remained indispensable, not as the proprietor of a new empire, but as the guarantor of the freedom and equality imagined as the country’s birthright.

This was a treacherous path. Willkie was trying to tiptoe between two nationalisms—a lingering parochial hawkishness on the right and an emerging expansionary liberal nationalism that he both disputed and sometimes epitomized. In the end, Willkie revealed Americans’ contorted and conflicted feelings about the world at large.

For 75 years after World War II, Americans did embrace a global role, but it was too often one forged from a new kind of imperial vision. From the Cold War to the War on Terror, American global influence has been both benevolent and despotic—depending where you look—but always comfortable in its assurance that American dominance was indispensable to any kind of just world order. Now, however, that faith is in retreat.

Willkie took his trip at a hinge moment in the history of the twentieth century. The globe swung between a world shaped by European empire and a world shaped by American-led global capitalism. Now, with American power on the wane, we are living through another hinge moment. The 21st century will be shaped by a host of new factors: Chinese state capitalism, Russian authoritarianism, simultaneously rising prosperity and inequality, and a new global upsurge of nationalism in the face of climate-fueled migration and global pandemics. The United States can no longer pretend to “lead” the rest of the world. Willkie’s journey asks us to think about how we will live in the world rather than dominate it.




 


 

Henry Jenkins

 

On his book Comics and Stuff

Cover Interview of May 06, 2020

Lastly

In terms of “comics,” I want to expand the conversation around graphic novels, broadening the range of works that comics scholars discuss, but also changing the ways we write about them. The early emphasis on comics as “sequential arts” has understandably focused a lot of attention on framing, juxtaposition, and decoupage—on how we break down a sequence of images across the page in order to shape the reader’s perceptions. This is perhaps what distinguishes comics from other kinds of graphic storytelling.

I also want to focus attention on mise-en-scène, on the expressive anatomy and material details that are juxtaposed within the same panel, and the invitation comics offer us to scan and flip as we explore their images in search of meaning. Shifting the focus to mise-en-scène offers parallels with a range of other minor arts—such as scrapbooking or cabinets of curiosity or collage—which depend on juxtapositions between elements of material culture.

In terms of “stuff,” I want to encourage reflection on how we narrate our relationships with the things we choose to surround ourselves with. Comics are only one contemporary mode of expression which helps us make sense of our stuff. We might point to the broad array of television programs—such as Tidying Up with Maria Kondo, Hoarders, or Antiques Roadshow—or YouTube’s unboxing videos which address our societal fascination with everyday things.

And I draw analogy to a number of artists and literary figures—Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, Henry Darger’s scavenger art, Jonathan Franzen’s list-making in The Corrections, and Kare Walker’s reclaiming of racist iconography. All of this suggests that the social and cultural questions surrounding collecting, accumulation, inheritance, possession, and culling have implications far beyond the specific comics I discuss here.




 


 

Thomas Borstelmann

 

On his book Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners

Cover Interview of April 29, 2020

Lastly

One of the problems with academics, in general, and with scholarly historians, in particular, is their tendency to view racism and xenophobia as constants in American life, seemingly growing either stronger or more insidious. These are certainly persistent forces with horrific, ongoing impact, and they are radically underestimated by many contemporary Americans, particularly on the right end of the political spectrum, where a culture of white grievance festers.

But racism and xenophobia are not the entire nor even the most powerful shapers of the American narrative. The mainstream of American society, over time, has proved to be more inclusive than we sometimes recognize: more economically incorporating, more culturally assimilative, more politically flexible, and more diplomatically adaptive. The Cold War forced a dramatic widening of this historic process of inclusion. While China, by contrast, has few immigrants and does not seek to make new Chinese, the United States remains, despite contemporary Trumpism, the nation that pulls in newcomers who then go on to help reshape American life.

Regardless of the future, this has been the predominant story so far of the American relationship with foreigners. It offers a deep well to draw from as we go forward.




 


 

Lydia G. Fash

 

On her book The Sketch, the Tale, and the Beginnings of American Literature

Cover Interview of April 22, 2020

Lastly

This book makes an argument for the inherent interestingness and importance of short fiction. That’s a hard sell, I know. People think about short stories, the descendants of the sketch and the tale, mostly as a niche literary product found in The New Yorker. But sketches and tales were everywhere in the first half of the nineteenth century. And they weren’t lowbrow or highbrow. They just were. Everyone who had the ability to purchase written products was reading them, and many who couldn’t or didn’t buy literature would have come into contact with them through communal reading practices.

Their ubiquity and portability—they were often copied from one source and reprinted in another—allowed sketches and tales to do significant cultural work. Coming off the War of 1812, US residents sought a sense of self, a way of understanding and defining their new country and its inhabitants. Sketches and tales offered that to readers. They made the fictional feel historic and authentic. And they marked those fictional worlds and their heroes and heroines as American.

A book with a national frame isn’t super trendy at a moment when the transnational and planetary are hot. Yet, the national clearly still holds great explanatory power for us. In our moment of increasing racial and ethnic intolerance, that authors inscribed whiteness into “American” is important to underscore. The US literary tradition is not naturally white: authors, readers, and, yes, critics, have marked it as such over many long years of effort. It is incumbent upon us to continually complicate our literary history, not just with the stellar alternate histories of writers of color that exist, but also through reexamining the work of more canonical white writers. For, as this book argues, whiteness is neither invisible or inevitable.




 


 

Jennifer Delton

 

On her book The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism

Cover Interview of April 15, 2020

Lastly

I was finishing up this book as Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and then the presidency, promising to restore American manufacturing—by reinstating tariffs and closing immigration. Over its 125-year existence, NAM had consistently favored lower tariffs, more liberal immigration policies, and the free and open exchange of goods and services. It had adjusted to the changes wrought by its own support for globalization. So Trump’s promises to reinstate a protectionist, nativist regime were hardly comforting, even though his focus on manufacturing was welcome. To the extent that President Trump is often seen as part of the backlash to globalization, this book could not be timelier, since the main narrative thread is about the globalization of U.S.-style capitalism.




 


 

Marilyn Strathern

 

On her book Relations: An Anthropological Account

Cover Interview of April 08, 2020

Lastly

If the book hopes for anything, it is for a cultivation of alertness. It is no big news that, as they are articulated, concepts carry cultural baggage. When the concept at issue is relation, we need to scale up that alertness, to see its cosmological import. For it is not—even if we wished—alterable or discardable at will. This is especially true of knowledge relations, of the manner in which people go about description, explanation, exposition. Throughout, the book makes it its business to allude, however briefly, to non-English-speaking contexts that tweak the distinctiveness of English usage here. The positive tenor (‘friendliness’) of relations, to return to the example, which privileges similarity as ground for connection, becomes an impediment to expressing the value some cosmologies put on relating through difference. The impediment feeds bitter anthropological controversy over the possibility or impossibility of identifying radical alterity.

A take-home message is that for all the important work that the relation does, we need to be wary of its limits and excesses. While the message springs from criticizing English usage, such usage both does and does not share elements with its European counterparts, and the book provides some navigation for the point. More significantly, apropos English, we are talking of an international language with the power to mold concepts in its wake.

The relation’s important work is evident. There is huge pressure in today’s world to rediscover how interconnected everything is, to treat interdependence as equally a natural and a moral necessity, to appreciate the value of interpersonal relations suddenly thrown into relief by a pandemic for which—for those who can—self-isolation is mandated. English speakers in particular have to go on telling themselves about the significance of relations and the interrelationship of phenomena.

And this is because they are at the same time construing the world otherwise. This is the relation’s excess. Too often the world appears first as an assemblage of discrete items, and only secondarily as a multitude of items intermeshed, linked up, connected (whether or not the items in question can imagine themselves this way). There has been a century of criticism, with anthropology but one among many voices, to try to dislodge the prioritizing of discreteness. But what if impediment is embedded in our very means of expression? Think of the preposition ‘between,’ for example, the construction that renders relations as somehow lying between entities. It allows the entities to be construed as pre-existing, as though they were otherwise independent individuals, while relations take on a substantial character of their own, as in emphasizing shared similarities. To re-think the individual also means re-thinking (the exposition of) relations.

A final note. Nationalist or racist rhetorics, reinvented anew for global times, frequently rest on appeals to self-resemblance or similarity that exclude (make ‘other’) what or who is taken as intrinsically dissimilar. This is not restricted to English speakers; but one way users of English do it is through how they imagine relations.




 


 

Michael D. Gordin

 

On his book Einstein in Bohemia

Cover Interview of April 01, 2020

Lastly

My basic assumption is that you have heard of Albert Einstein. Most people have. More than that, you can probably even picture him. (A weird thing about this man is that whether the figure in the photo is young or old, people can unerringly identify Einstein.) Perhaps you can approximate a quotation that has been attributed to him. A lot of those are apocryphal or mistakenly assigned to Einstein, but no matter. You come to Einstein in Bohemia with a version of Einstein already there in your mind.

That’s likely less true of Prague. Perhaps you have been there. (If not, you should go when you can. It’s a really interesting place.) But even if you have not, it is a city worth learning about. For roughly a millennium, Prague has been a central node of European culture. Artists of all sorts have flourished there, ranging from baroque painters to opera composers (Mozart wrote Don Giovanni there) to arguably the most canonical author of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka. Although it has been the site of intense and violent conflict—the Hussite wars of religion in the fifteenth century, the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth, the Nazi occupation in the late 1930s, the Soviet-led invasion in the late 1960s—it has never been fully destroyed. There are medieval monasteries right next to modernist masterpieces.

What do you get by putting both together? I hope that you end up with a changed picture of both Prague and Einstein.

Prague is often presented as a city of the arts, a city of religion, a city of culture. It certainly was all that, but it has also been for centuries an important city of science. This should not be surprising, since science is part of culture and is nourished by it, but yet the point always seems to take people aback. My goal is that you will think of Prague as a place where knowledge was made, as well as a city that concentrated much of the best and sadly some of the worst of Europe across its long history. Einstein’s collision with Prague illuminates many of those aspects.

Principally, I would like the reader to see a different Einstein, and through him another way of thinking about identification and belonging. For a brief period, Einstein lived in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia. Although he did not realize it at the time, the connections he made there, the thoughts he entertained, followed him throughout his life. Viewing Einstein through the prism of Prague brings certain features of his life into focus—especially his political views and his personality—while situating his science in a community of others.

I want people who read the book to think about what it means to be in a place, and perhaps to reflect on the places they have been, and the mutual impact of those moments.




 


 

Benjamin R. Cohen

 

On his book Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Cover Interview of March 25, 2020

Lastly

What I learned about this period in history was that there was a major shift in agricultural activity, ethics, and food identity in a busy half century: what had been an age-old mode of understanding food based on the process transformed by the early 20th century to one understood by attention to the product. Instead of the thick culture of agricultural activity, agrarian livelihoods, and the experiences of cultivating, processing, sharing, selling, and preparing food to eat—all about process and activity—government regulation, corporate marketing, and scientific analysis focused on the product at the end of the agricultural lifecycle.

This is especially apparent as codified in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and, then, the FDA that soon derived from it. That producer-to-consumer change became my main point of interest as I thought about current issues of food and agricultural ethics. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), food additives, and continuing angst over contamination define the comparable worries of our twenty-first century.

For me, a study of the era of adulteration shows that debating the merits of food identity and safety at the end of the food life cycle—the consumer option at the store—gives up the majority of the work we call agricultural, ethical, and political. The book’s implications, and I say this outright in the epilogue, are that to argue over GMOs and chemical additives today requires more attention to the environmental circumstances producing them and the cultural values at play, not just the product resulting from those processes.




 


 

Jason Pine

 

On his book The Alchemy of Meth: A Decomposition

Cover Interview of March 18, 2020

Lastly

What can a book do? This is the question The Alchemy of Meth poses in the very beginning. Book-writing was the task I was left with after some very distressing fieldwork in Missouri. People on the brink of coming undone pinned their hopes on my work. Maybe a book can influence policy, but what policy would the book target when the problems that underlie the scenes depicted are systemic? Maybe a book can serve as a self-help text, but that’s not my expertise and, at any rate, there’s a lot more that I want to convey.

The question is more pressing in the academy, where uncountable books are published and sold to small elite audiences year after year. The way that many academics write and the poor marketing resources of academic presses limit what a book can do.

The Alchemy of Meth is undoubtedly an academic text. It is grounded in some of the ideas that animate scholarly and artistic work of late. At the same time, it uses these ideas to test the limits of the containers that circulate them—that is, theoretical arguments, books, and intellectuals with composure. It is a decomposition that deforms everything. But all of this is likely more apparent to those readers who are looking for the book’s argument or know some of the literature that helped me write it.

The book is largely literary nonfiction. It is a storybook where readers are invited to identify with the protagonists. They are invited to go far into scenes worked up into strange material constellations, scenes they might not otherwise ever know, yet sense as somehow familiar. Storytelling can deeply affect readers and I hope that readers are moved enough to care about the people whose stories are in the book. And if they care about the people, then they probably will also pay attention to the bigger story of the toxic inheritances of late industrialism in places like northeastern Missouri, where making a decent living can feel forever out of reach. Or the even bigger story of late liberalism throughout the United States, where you can never expect enough from yourself, and where fatigue, malaise, and doubt are regarded as life aberrations that obstruct nonstop individual ‘growth.’ This is a story that we all live, in some measure, and if more of us pay attention to it, more of us might feel like we can actually refuse to live it.

Another limitation on what a book can do is the general decline in readers. I was very happy when Blackstone Publishing bought the rights to turn The Alchemy of Meth into an audiobook and chose me as the narrator. An audiobook might entice some readers back as listeners. It’s like I’ve been given one more chance to share these stories. And if I manage to share them with my most favored readers (or listeners), maybe they’ll feel that they matter a little more.




 


 

Mona L. Siegel

 

On her book Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War

Cover Interview of March 10, 2020

Lastly

Reading Peace on Our Terms, readers may find themselves justifiably shocked at the contemporary relevance of women’s priorities a century ago. Here in the United States in the early twenty-first century, women’s marches, the #MeToo Movement, and the Equal Rights Amendment are all front-page news, while #BlackLivesMatter and other social justice movements highlight the voices of women of color. Globally, female prime ministers head governments from New Zealand to Finland and from Slovakia to Ethiopia. Since 2010, at the United Nations, UN Women has directed efforts to promote global gender equality and to demand a role for women in peace processes.

If female politicians and peacemakers have never been so visible, myriad problems stemming from gender inequality have proven stubbornly intractable. Violence against women, marriage of under-age girls, sexual discrimination in the workplace, and unequal representation of women in all levels of government continue to sow instability and poverty at home and around the world.

The women featured in Peace on Our Terms fought for women’s full inclusion in peacemaking, nation building, and international policymaking for a reason. They saw it as a necessary precondition to combatting the discrimination and insecurity that had long defined their lives. That battle continues unabated today.

I hope that readers will be inspired by the courageous women’s rights activists in this book. These women—all of them—defied convention and put their reputations, if not their lives, on the line. They did so because they believed that women not only had a right, as individuals, to shape their societies, but they also had a duty, as women, to speak from their unique life experiences. From Malala Yousafzai to Greta Thunberg, we see women around the world continuing that tradition today, often unaware of the shoulders they stand on.

I also expect—perhaps even hope—that some of my readers will step away from this book a bit angry. “How,” they may ask themselves, “can we still be fighting so many of the same battles as these women a century ago?” To ask such a question is to probe the tremendous hurdles women faced in the early twentieth century, as they fought to establish a place for women in international diplomacy and policymaking, and it is a first step toward continuing to fight for a more just and equitable world today.




 


 

Walter Scheidel

 

On his book Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Cover Interview of March 04, 2020

Lastly

My book serves as a reminder that continuities must not be overrated; sometimes breakages were more important. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on the continuities of the Roman tradition, from Romance languages to the calendar. Yet it was a glaring absence that mattered most, something that did not happen in Europe even though it routinely occurred elsewhere: the return of large-scale empire. This shows that crises can be a blessing in disguise. While it must have been hard to live through the unraveling of the Roman Empire, its long-term consequences yielded benefits that had been truly unimaginable. The lesson is simple: the status quo isn’t always worth preserving no matter how glittering its façade.

History is infinitely rich, and nobody can hope to master all its details. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a handle on its daunting complexity by tracking the roots of big changes. I already mentioned the common inability of seeing the forest for the trees. In this case, the many competing explanations of the “Great Divergence” are the trees; the fall of Rome and the failure of anything like it to re-appear are the forest—the environment that shaped development in Europe for fifty generations. China, India, and the Middle East inhabited different forests, and outcomes differed accordingly. It is only by operating at a high level of analytical abstraction that we are able to cut through the noise of historical events and fashion an account that makes sense of broader trends.

Last but not least, I want readers to appreciate that in order to understand something that happened only once—such as the transition to modernity—it is not enough to unearth the roots of that development. We also need to understand why it did not happen somewhere else instead. This need is particularly urgent when we seek to explain the origins of modernity in European societies—an issue that has long been tainted by Eurocentric and sometimes racist notions of “Western” exceptionalism.

Yet the best answer to the question of why some European societies acquired the means of pulling ahead of the rest of the world and of changing it in the process turns out to be quite straightforward. By maturing under institutional and environmental conditions that were sufficiently different from those that prevailed elsewhere, these societies ended up being better at nurturing economic development, building up the stock of useful knowledge, and dominating others.

For good or ill, all these expanding capabilities were closely and inextricably intertwined. This may come as a disappointment to steadfast admirers of the glories of “Western Civilization” and to vocal critics of its enduring legacy of exploitation, global inequality, and environmental degradation. But that has been the course of history. It is up to us to grapple with the consequences.




 


 

Sarah Cole

 

On her book Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of February 26, 2020

Lastly

Writing this book has been the most exciting intellectual undertaking of my career so far, and also the most difficult. It was challenging for a few reasons— the need to construct my own methodology for reading and assessing Wells, as one example, and the sheer scale of his oeuvre as another— but the most pressing issue is that Wells can be as nasty as he is marvelous, as distressing as he is invigorating. Such is life, such is he: not only a flawed person, but a reminder of how motivating and progressive ideals can live in partnership with much that is ugly or misguided. Yet it was (and is) not my primary goal to judge Wells for his faults or critique him for failing to meet my own ethical standards. Rather I find myself profoundly energized by the imaginative universe that was Wells’s work, and I seek to follow those aspects of his thought that speak to my own ideals— of peace, say, or the need to protect the earth, or the ongoing b­elief that we can do better­. I have never sought heroes or saints in those I study, and Wells is by any measure an unlikely entrant into sainthood. But it is my firm conviction that what Wells offers us in his enormous and stimulating body of work outweighs his shortcomings, opening up avenues for thought that, in some uncanny (indeed perhaps Wellsian) way, have been here all along, if one only knew to look for them. Reading his work has changed my view of just about everything I read; this is a great gift and I hope my own readers will be able to partake of this transformative energy.

If nothing else, I hope my book will send people to Wells, where they will think and judge for themselves about the meaning and value of his works. This is really an infinite trove, with works of every sort (see a brief list on the next page): from the explosive, brief science fiction of his early career, which remains famous and influential today; to his brilliant short stories; to his biting, often very funny social comedy; to the realist or social issue novels of the early century that combatively entered the debates of the moment; to the meditative essay novels of the 20s; to the big books in popular history and science that represented the height of Wells’s ambition to unite the world with concepts of a shared past and future; to his many genres of war and peace writing; to his own personal storytelling, which in a way encompasses all of these myriad works and culminates in his actual autobiography, another bestseller; and of course to film, those written by Wells himself, and the endless adaptations of his works that continue to emerge each year and to influence so many other productions.

Ultimately, it is the pleasure of discovery that stands out in reading Wells, how startling, jarring, interesting and reorienting these works can be.




 


 

Micheline R. Ishay

 

On her book The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East

Cover Interview of February 19, 2020

Lastly

This book opens with a poem, “Farewell to Abu Dhabi,” which I wrote on the plane as I completed my Gulf sojourn and returned to Denver. Reflecting on the people I was leaving behind, I thought of them as uncertain travelers like myself, struggling to find their way through tempestuous times. “I will bring you along to my new refuge,” I wrote, “an ambassador for dreams yet to bloom.” While I use poetry and creative images to take readers to the realm of the possible, I advance and document practical proposals designed to draw the attention of an interested audience, analysts, and policy-makers.

No one can offer a blueprint for the future, but I sketch alternatives that are today obscured by sectarian conflict, religious extremism, and authoritarian repression. I invite others to enter into this conversation by adding, altering, or proposing different paths. I am gratified that some of these ideas are making inroads in palaces, parliamentary offices, businesses, and other audiences. Amidst war fatigue, such proposals, based on fundamental principles of rights, may present themselves as more realistic and viable alternatives. Roosevelt reminded us in an even darker time that “the world will either move forward toward unity and widely shared prosperity or it will move apart.” I agree, and would add that the stakes are too high and the world cannot afford to lose.