From A World of New Titles: Editor’s Picks | BEA 2013, Margaret Heilbrun’s picks from this year’s Book Expo America.
The facts of life
Oh, dear. BEA is over. I am sifting through the fall/winter books I learned about there, pondering what to highlight for further attention—and I’m trying to steer away from my usual ruts. I must not select books on evolution again. I must not yammer on about silent film stars. I must not gleefully report on a new biography of an Enlightenment philosopher. I must get a grip—speaking of which, I will not discuss the evolution of the hominid precision grip from the power grip of other apes.
I will not mention that new book coming in October from the University of Chicago, The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, by Henry Gee. And I’ll decline to expound on Russell H. Tuttle’s Apes and Human Evolution (Harvard Univ., Feb. 2014).
You can avoid those subjects, Margaret (talking to oneself is an evolutionary feature unique to humans), can’t you? Dance around those subjects, if you must, but select more widely. Come to think of it, the very subject of selection intrigues me—and I don’t mean just natural selection!
For some years, I worked as a librarian/archivist at a combined research library and history museum and curated some exhibits there. The library and museum behaved according to their species: the library to grant unmediated access to its collections, the museum to select particular items and interpret them for visitors through the labels and the juxtaposition of objects.
I’m intrigued by a couple of forthcoming titles related to the politics of museum display and interpretation. Who Owns America’s Past: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History (Johns Hopkins), by Robert C. Post, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, comes out in October. He writes of the shift at the Smithsonian, over the years of his work there, from producing collection-driven shows with modest labeling to “concept-driven” presentations, even including props, as if a history exhibit were a department store window display.
We’ve all been known to play Three-Card Monte with our facts now and then, switching the hold we have on them from power grip to precision grip at will, while professing an obligation to honor the truth. Many of us like “reality shows” on TV, even as we suspect the producers of those shows of having a grip on “reality” different from our own. When we walk through a museum exhibit, what kind of reality do we assume we’ll encounter?
In Assassination and Commemoration: JFK, Dallas, and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (Oklahoma Univ., Jul.), Stephen Fagin, associate curator and oral historian at Dallas’s Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, writes about how that museum has reckoned with its mission to memorialize and interpret a national tragedy while coping with a city’s years of shame over its place in the narrative.
Another forthcoming title reminds me that the contouring of “reality” is not a new phenomenon. Before the days of television, the Internet, and social media, Hollywood was determining its approach to Hitler’s rise in 1930s Germany. Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Belknap: Harvard Univ., Oct.) surprises in its revelations of the accommodations that the major studios made with Hitler (an avid film fan) and his henchmen. Should it surprise us that Urwand found scant archival records of this relationship in the studios’ archives but found the paper trail in Nazi archives overseas? Owing to Urwand’s research trail, his book doesn’t much overlap with Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939 (Columbia Univ.), which came out in April.
Funny how this whole question of interpretation leads me helplessly back to the subject of evolution, specifically the question of evolutionary science versus creationism. I’m glad to see that Donald R. Prothero’s Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (Indiana Univ., Sept.) and Edward Caudill’s Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution(Univ. of Illinois, Nov.) will address the repercussions to be felt by all of us when a few work to subvert scientific facts.
Well, Margaret, you’ve done it! You’ve stitched together your thoughts on some fall titles—which reminds me: Ohio University Press has a book coming out early next year that looks to be both fascinating and beautiful. It’s Aimee E. Newell’s A Stitch in Time: The Needlework of Aging Women in Antebellum America (Jan. 2014). While girls created samplers in order to learn their stitches, using simple facts (those again) for practice, by embroidering their names, birth dates, and so on, older women, Newell explains, expressed much more with their embroidery, crafting samplers as a means of coping with experiences and sharing something deeper of themselves.
I’m off now to find a needle and thread.—Margaret Heilbrun