Odds and Ends

Here is notice of a couple of interesting books recently published.

Looking for an interesting read on a recent trip to New York City, I picked up a copy of Roger White, The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), feeding my ongoing interest in art, its production, and its marketing. White, an artist himself, describes the emergence of a “quasi-industrial manufacture of objects for a global market or ambitious ventures into other modes entirely: feature films, festival, political movements” (p. 4). White describes what goes on in art schools, the growing use of assistants by contemporary artists, a case study of the art scene in Milwaukee, and so forth. Academics might find his chapter on art assistants of interest as it describes, perhaps, a counterpart to the academy’s use of teaching assistants and graduate student researchers. From White’s perspective the issue is how these assistants figure into the notion of the creation of art and the idea of originality. But maybe there is something similar at play in the academy as well in the production of research. There continues to be a lot of concern about issues of compensation, responsibilities, and the ethics of the use of such assistants in the university, and White provides a window into the fact that such issues are not limited to higher education.

Another new history of paper has appeared. Mark Kurlansky, the author of the well-known studies of cod and salt, has published Paper: Paging Through History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016). I have not yet read this book, but I plan to since I read most everything this author writes. Anthony Grafton provides a generally positive review in “Between the Sheets,” New York Times Book Review, May 22, 2016, p. 12. Grafton praises the “versatile introduction to this long and complicated history,” while cautioning that there is more to this history than what Kurlansky provides.

What Led to the Modern University?

Faculty members are prone to complain about all sorts of issues with their institutions, sometimes without understanding that many of these issues are not new at all. James Axtell, the author of a first-rate history of Princeton’s past century and a refreshing examination of the pleasures of the academy (among many other studies) has given us the best history of the university in his Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

Axtell, in this well-written and thoroughly documented volume, considers the full-range of motivations for higher education, the changing nature of the curriculum, the patterns of methodology for instruction, the role of academic libraries, the generation of funds for the academy, and a host of other matters. Some of Axtell’s observations may surprise some, such as “From the twelfth century to our own, universities have always been bibliocentric, although the role of books has changed over time” (p. 29) and “Most leading universities recognize and cultivate the synergy between teaching and research” (p. 33). The latter statement is part of an interesting discussion of the twelve attributes of the elite universities (pp. 265-373).

This is a book all university faculty and administrators ought to read.

The Devil’s Work

Archivists, historians, and other researchers love diaries. Part of this affection can be seen in the vast scholarly and popular literature about this documentary form. For a recent study see Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney, The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich (New York: HarperCollins, 2016). Wittman is the well-known former FBI agent now consultant who has been involved in tracking down art and document thefts. Rosenberg, the architect of the racist philosophy behind the Third Reich, compiled a 500-page diary, discovered and used in the Nuremberg Trials that disappeared for over forty years. This book describes the diary’s recovery and draws on it to describe the Reich’s activities. The book contains numerous interesting references to recordkeeping and its destruction and loss as a result of Germany’s defeat.