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Off the Shelf

Recent books with Harvard connections

September-October 2020

Photograph of Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner’s operas were only a part of his cultural influence.

Photograph in the public domain


Richard Wagner’s operas were only a part of his cultural influence.

Photograph in the public domain

A Synthesizing Mind, by Howard Gardner, research professor on education (MIT, $29.95). In this memoir, the creator of multiple-intelligences theory—and one of the longest-running members of the Harvard community—turns his wide-ranging curiosity on his own intellectual development. He finds a “synthesizing mind,” interested in “the human mind, human nature, and human culture.” One understands the path from mentors such as Erik Erikson and Jerome Bruner to Richard Hofstadter, Edmund Wilson, and other intellectual omnivores. One also understands why Gardner’s work, “situated between journalism on the one hand and experimental laboratory science on the other,” has become so accessible and resonant.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, by Alex Ross ’90 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40). The New Yorker’s esteemed critic (profiled in “An Argument for Music,” July-August 2008, page 13) begins his enormous analysis of the foundational composer’s impact on the other arts, the wider culture, and politics in the most vivid way possible: an account of Wagner’s death in Venice in 1883. “You need not love Wagner or his music to register the staggering dimensions of the phenomenon,” Ross writes. “Even those who spend their lives studying the composer sometimes become exasperated or disgusted with him.” Ross, in contrast, has the perfect subject for his ambitious project.

Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny, by Debora L. Spar, MBA Class of 1952 professor of business administration (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28). The former and current Business School professor, who served as president of Barnard and of Lincoln Center, examines technology and human intimacy. Separated from previous ways of being—as agriculturalists and then workers in industry—humans, she maintains, will structure romance, marriage, and procreation in new, unfamiliar ways (think dating apps, in vitro fertilization, etc.). The argument, which can seem strange and unsettling, merits examination in the light of day—and it’s hard not to engage with a chapter on “Cuddling with Robots.” Spar’s research was previewed in “Technology, Paternity, Patriarchy” (March-April 2019, page 14).

The Blessing and the Curse, by Adam Kirsch ’97 (W.W. Norton, $30). The prolific critic (a contributing editor of this magazine) addresses “Jewish people and their books in the twentieth century,” a broad overview of the field through essays on European, American, and Israeli writers, from Kafka and Babel, Kazin and Bellow, to Oz and Grossman, and examines the making of modern Judaism. Although literary, Kirsch’s newest book is, as ever, broadly accessible and pertinent—aiming, in this case, “to use literature to illuminate the extreme contrasts of modern Jewish experience while introducing the reader to some of the richness of twentieth-century Jewish writing.”

Step Back: How to Bring the Art of Reflection into Your Busy Life, by Joseph L. Badaracco, Shad professor of business ethics (Harvard Business Review Press, $28). The stereotype of the Business School is, not always unfairly, that it is about the making of money. But faculty members offer plenty of insight into the human work of management and leadership. The author, who teaches the latter through great works of literature (see “Questions of Character,” July-August 2006, page 12), here speaks generally, and usefully, on the art and skill of gaining room to reflect—and the associated gains in understanding feelings, different perspectives, and values. Drawing on interviews and literature, Badaracco encourages readers to “aim for good enough” and “pause and measure up.” With reflection, he concludes, “we can understand and even bend the trajectories of our lives.”


Seamus Heaney, who looked and sounded “like nobody else”
Photograph by Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy

On Seamus Heaney, by R. F. Foster (Princeton, $19.95). An Irish historian and critic offers personal interpretations of the late Nobel laureate’s life and poetry, extending from Heaney’s groundedness in rural Ireland to his worldwide readership. Approachable though he was, Heaney, who long served as Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory, “looked like nobody else, and he sounded like nobody else,” Foster writes. “A Heaney poem carried its maker’s name on the blade, and often it cut straight to the bone.” (Using another sharp instrument as a metaphor, this magazine’s November-December 2006 profile was titled “Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen.”)

Law & Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State, by Cass R. Sunstein, Walmsley University Professor, and Adrian Vermeule, Tyler professor of constitutional law (Harvard, $25.95). A serious, constitutional and administrative law discussion-cum-defense of the “administrative state,” near the end of a (first) presidential term that has waged war on the “deep state” and conducted a wholesale campaign of deregulation. Two prominent faculty members set themselves the significant task of addressing the most difficult questions from the first page: “Is the modern administrative state illegitimate? Unconstitutional? Unaccountable? Dangerous? Intolerable? American public law has long been riven by persistent, serious conflict, even a kind of low-grade cold war, over these questions.” Succinct and timely. (For more about Sunstein, see “The Legal Olympian,” January-February 2015, page 43.)

Voice, Choice, and Action: The Potential of Young Citizens to Heal Democracy, by Felton Earls, professor of social medicine emeritus, and Mary Carlson, associate professor of psychiatry, retired (Harvard, $27.95). Drawing on fieldwork from around the world, and combining insights from psychiatry and neuroscience, the authors explain a program that empowered children to mobilize their communities, communicate, and combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A hopeful report on how to “help to bring more children into democratic deliberations, and to keep our democracies vibrant.”

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Illustration of bearded farmer, from anthology of Yiddish children’s literature

Yitzchak Lichtenstein/From the book

Excerpt from Mirim Udel’s book “Honey on the Page”

Black-and-white photograph of Karl Puchner in 1937 with his wife, young son, and a tiny, barely visible swastika button on his jacket

In a June 1937 photo, Karl Puchner posed with his wife and son Günter—and a tiny swastika button, which his younger son discovered years later by using a magnifying glass.

Photograph courtesy of Martin Puchner

Review of Martin Puchner’s “The Language of Thieves”

You Might Also Like:

Illustration of bearded farmer, from anthology of Yiddish children’s literature

Yitzchak Lichtenstein/From the book

Excerpt from Mirim Udel’s book “Honey on the Page”

Black-and-white photograph of Karl Puchner in 1937 with his wife, young son, and a tiny, barely visible swastika button on his jacket

In a June 1937 photo, Karl Puchner posed with his wife and son Günter—and a tiny swastika button, which his younger son discovered years later by using a magnifying glass.

Photograph courtesy of Martin Puchner

Review of Martin Puchner’s “The Language of Thieves”