Sunday, February 13, 2005

Utopia and Despair

Yesterday I was writing in my favorite café, locally referred to as "The Mind". I stepped out for a moment, but when I returned a friend of mine, a professor from Mt. Holyoke, was sitting at the adjacent table. She said that the knew that it was me because of my books. At first I was confused because the seven books that were stacked next to me were by no means thematically linked. One was on the gardens of Versailles, a book I never read and was returning. Another was a work by a student of Friedrich Ratzel, of which I read selections and was returning (it was nowhere as good as I had hoped). I also had Sebald's Austerlitz, a book that I am reading slowly because I am reading it in German. Perhaps it was the mix of French and German books that gave me away.

No, it was a particular book, Shearer West's The Visual Arts in Germany, 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair, that clued her in. When I looked down at the book, I saw the last three words of the title and thought, "this perfectly describes the range of emotions of dissertating -- oscillating between grand ambitions and paralyzing self-doubt." Well, there aren't that many dissertator-bloggers out there, are there?

Speaking of despair, the New York Times has a review of recent works related to Heloise and Abelard, some academic, some fiction, some imaginative, some too imaginative. And Teller, of the duo Penn and Teller, speaks his mind -- in prose -- on a book that describes how the Indian rope trick was a journalistic hoax.

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