Reading About Sex

The book I’m reading is Under Household Government: Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts by M. Michelle Jarrett Morris. M. Morris describes her book in this way, “this is a story about families and family life in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The families in [this book] were bound together by . . . [family] members who stood accused of sexual misbehavior. And so, this is also a story about sex.” Sex, in this context then, refers to sexual crimes as recorded in case files stretching from 1660 to 1700 from Massachusetts Bay. Sex subsumes fornication (sex with an unmarried woman), premarital fornication (sex between two unmarried people who subsequently marry), impotency, bigamy, rape, and infanticide.

If you at this point feel baited with scintillating sex and then switched for a book about Puritans and dusty legal proceedings (published by Harvard University Press no less!), then let me assure you that there are plenty of details, if not quite scintillating, then fascinating to be found in this book. For instance,

  • Did you know that “because [Puritan] medical theory held that conception required both men and women to reach orgasm, early modern people generally believed that conception required consent”? This means that if a woman is pregnant, then she cannot believably claim that she was raped. Methinks some of this sentiment remain in contemporary American society today, as famously exemplified in the “legitimate rape” comment made by a political candidate in the last election. Me also think it’s strange that no Puritan matron with a brood of children ever contradicted this medical belief.
  • Did you know that Puritan “law gave great weight to the testimony of a woman in labor”? “Because lawmakers assumed that a woman in labor, and therefore in great pain and in danger of dying, would not lie, whomever that woman named during labor would become the reputed father of the child about to be born” says M. Morris. This seems sensible enough in the days before Epidural, safe deliveries, or paternity tests. As my Law and Order watching informs me, this practice of relying on the testimony of somebody in great duress, as a Puritan woman in the height of her labor would be, is still with us today. For example, there is an exception to the hearsay rule which says that a statement as testified to by a person to whom it is told is not considered hearsay and excluded as evidence if the statement were “uttered spontaneously and under duress”.
  • What would you guess is the age at which a Puritan is able to consent to sex? Let me (or rather M. Michelle Jarrett Morris) tell you a little story: “On June 20 of 1682, Sarah accused Garey, a thirty-one year-old married man, of being the father of her bastard child. She was eleven years old. Since the age of consent was ten in Massachusetts Bay, Stephen Garey, presumably, missed being charged with statutory rape by only a few months”. Sarah’s life seems picture-perfect for the term “nasty, short, and brutish” as she eventually died two months before turning sixteen, after bearing two more children presumably by Garey as well, and being imprisoned and whipped for fornication.

Do check out Morris’s book. A fascinating read!

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Readers & Bloggers

Almost all blogs that I chance upon who happen to touch on the topic mention how much the bloggers enjoy writing because of the interactions their blogs allow them to have with their readers. This got me to thinking. How does having readers affect your blogging?

How does knowing that the words you published are seen by others affect the creativity or dedication that you put into penning those words? How does not having as many readers as you would like influence your writing? Are you discouraged when nobody comes by your blog? Are your spirits lifted by those who do come? Do you not care? Do you effect not caring? Do you take steps to discourage people from coming, e.g. marking your blogs as private or writing particularly unwelcoming “About” pages? What do you do?

Pray do tell.

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Not More than the Sum of its Parts

Collections of essays fall into two sorts: those that are intentionally written to be a collection and those with their constituent parts written, and even initially published, as individual pieces but then eventually pulled together to make a book. Examples of the former include Joseph Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool, Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, and Christopher Hitchens’s Arguablywhile the latter counts in their ranks Ronald Coase’s Essays on Economics and Economists, Gore Vidal’s Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings 1960-1998, and Randy Cohen’s Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.

There exists a third type of books that read like a collection of essays. These are projects conceived around a single, coherent theme, but as the books develop, their chapters uncouple enough from each other so that they can be read singly and in no strict order to each other. Unlike their conceived-as-essays counterparts, however, these chapters are not self-contained and interesting enough to be read by just themselves. That is, they probably should be read with the introductions to the books, and likely no outlet would publish the chapters as separate units.

The book that I think is a good specimen of this third category is Stuart Banner’s .American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own. The chapters from this book are

1. Introduction 2. Lost Property 3. The Rise of Intellectual Property 4. A Bundle of Rights
5. Owning the News 6. People, not Things 7. Owning Sound 8. Owning Fame
9. From the Tenement to the Condominium 10. The Law of the Land 
11. Owning Wavelengths 12. The New Property 13. Owning Life 14. Property Resurgent 15. The End of Property?

The similarly named chapters, “Owning the News”, “Owning Sound”, “Owning Fame” . . . etc., are the most obvious chapters can be read disjointed from each other. You needn’t read “Owning Sound” only after reading “Owning the News” or just before “Owning Fame”, and you needn’t read any of those chapters to appreciate any other chapter. And this is just as true with the other chapters whose names don’t mirror each others’ as clearly.

Some authors are cognizant of the fact that their books fall into this category and actively encourage their readers to read, hop, and skip around their works instead of treating it as a linear, cohesive tome. American Property isn’t one of these, but P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age is.

How do you like this type of book?

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Hot Teas in Hot Times

Hot teas in hot times

It’s been unbearably hot here. Despite what traditional Chinese medicine may say about hot tea cooling a person down in hot times, I’d much rather have a milkshake, a cold milk tea, or air conditioning right now. Hmm, yummy air conditioning.
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Image taken from meredith_nutting’s photostream.

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Cato Institute Press

On the first page of his book, You Can’t Say That!: The Growing Threat To Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws, David Bernstein wrote this

One problem I confronted in starting this book was that I understood that outside of the academic press market, the market for serious nonfiction is limited, and that authors who take politically incorrect positions, as I knew I would, face a particularly difficult time finding publishers among leading trade presses. David Boaz and the Cato Institute came to the rescue.

Isn’t that interesting? For me, what Bernstein said raises all sorts of question. Why did the author forgo publishing his book with an academic press? Do leading trade presses have a preference for politically correct tracts? Is “politically correct” a stand-in for “liberal-leaning”? If so, do big publishing houses have a liberal bias? Assuming the answer is yes, is the bias due to internal factors, e.g. the editorial staff vote Democrat, or external, market-based factors, e.g. not very many readers buy politically incorrect serious nonfiction books?

In any case, I’m glad the Cato Institute Press published Bernstein’s book. I’m even more thrilled the Press sells its e-books DRM-free, so I was able to buy You Can’t Say That! for my Kindle reading. I’m not sure if the eponymous Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis ever thought about copyright, but the Cato Institute sure seems to have and come out on the side of copyright minimalist. Hooray!

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Cherry Picking a Book Review

A cherry picked book review is honest in that the words that it reproduces indeed appeared in the original full review. The reproduction though is utterly misleading; it means to impress on the viewer and potential buyer that a prominent publication, The Times of Some Big City, reviewed this book favorably. In truth, the Times reviewer had given an overall unfavorable review but the few good things that he sprinkled in his review are now picked out, divorced from their neighboring words, and now alone featured prominently on the book’s selling page.

Having said nothing new so far, here’s where I earn this blog post’s keep by providing you with examples. The sections in red represents the cherry picked quotes, while the black gives a more complete picture of the full review. (Links after the quotes are to their respective sources.)

Sally Denton’s The Plots Against the President:

“A valuable reminder of how the four years following 1932 steered America in an uncharted direction … Readable and informative.”— Wall Street Journal

“Sally Denton offers a flawed but valuable reminder of how the four years following 1932 steered America in an uncharted direction . . . As an introduction to FDR’s first term, “The Plots Against the President” is readable and informative. But the author barely acknowledges that many attacks on Roosevelt—as on President Obama—sprang from disagreements about the size and role of government, not from paranoia, hate or incipient fascism.” Wall Street Journal

Carl Bogus’s Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism:

“[Bogus’] discussion of the various intellectual players is well informed, and he makes a useful contribution to understanding the contending variations of modern American conservatism.”— New York Times Book Review

“His discussion of the various intellectual players is well informed, and he makes a useful contribution to understanding the contending variations of modern American conservatism. But his argument gets lost in a thicket of irrelevant digressions, from a recapitulation of “Atlas Shrugged” to a potted history of Vietnam, and loses sight of Buckley himself.” New York Times Book Review

Dale Peterson’s The Moral Lives of Animals:

“Mr. Peterson does develop a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that under pins human moral instincts … It is hard to argue with his proposition that the powerful emotional saliency moral issues have for us, and their connection to serious matters of social organization and conflict—sex, territory, possessions, reciprocity, kinship—point to a hard-wired evolutionary adaptation of group-dwelling animals.”— Wall Street Journal

“Despite having begged the question of human exceptionalism at the start—by dismissing the sense that we are different as mere “Darwinian narcissism”—Mr. Peterson does develop a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that under pins human moral instincts . . . The problem with leaving it there, however, is that the moral world of humans, to even the most casually reflective observer, reaches far beyond such primal urges . . . And Mr. Peterson simply ignores several decades worth of recent studies in cognitive science by researchers . . . ” Wall Street Journal

William Silber’s Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence

“What [Silber] does bring is a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of monetary policy and international finance, along with that rare ability among academics to explain it while weaving an interesting tale.”— Washington Post

“Although Volcker exercised no control over the final product, Silber makes no pretense that he has brought the same critical eye to his subject as would a historian or a tough-minded journalist. What he does bring is a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of monetary policy and international finance, along with that rare ability among academics to explain it while weaving an interesting tale.” Washington Post

I suppose a possible defense the people who cherry picked these reviews could mount is that they intend these select quotes to show that their books were important enough to have received attention from these big-name papers in the first place. A possible defense, sure. But then why cherry picked?

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My First Prezi

I finally made a stab at creating a Prezi presentation. This is a pretty tame Prezi with little animation and a basic template, but I think it will do for a first try.

Any suggestions? Do let me know if you have any comments on either the (tongue-in-cheek) content or formatting.

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