A note from Lord Nelson

Our “Lord Nelson” — Prof. Nelson, director of Core, on sabbatical this year while the ship is being helmed by Acting Director Prof. Diana Wylie — is in Ireland, away from the academic high-mindedness (and occasional hijinks) of the Core office. Thinking that we wouldn’t want her to miss out, we wrote her a quick note last week, letting her know how things were going. In Nelsonian fashion, she wrote back quite soon after, addressing comments to some of the specific Core office inhabitants, and to the Core community generally. For your interest, we share her email below.

From: Nelson, Stephanie
Sent: Friday, September 30
To: Core Curriculum

faculty_nelson_saddleHello Core Curriculum!

How great to get your message. I’m delighted all is well there and you seem to have all wonderfully under control.

Tell Femke [Femke Hermse, Senior Peer Mentor for the Natural Sciences courses]that I’ve discovered something very extraordinary, which is that if you actually get to sleep as much as you want to at night you don’t find yourself falling asleep during the day. You actually don’t even feel tired! It’s amazing. Tell her that she should try it. And so who says Yanni will necessarily be getting a Polytropos award?[Yanni Metaxas, Core senior and office staff member]

Everything is wonderful here. The only tragedy was that one of my hens was run over, but the poor woman who did it was so very upset I couldn’t be mad. And she left a whole big bag full of strawberry plants for the garden the next day, which was very sweet. I just need to find a day that it’s not raining so I can plant them. I’m going this evening to Cavan, the big town, to the immigration officer who seems to drop by the Garda (Police) Office once a month or so, to see if he’ll let me stay until December. Fingers crossed!

And I diligently write away at the Joyce and Homer book every morning until at least 1:00. Even if the sun is shining and I have strawberry plants to plant.

Very much looking forward to meeting Gilligan [the Core office’s resident freshwater turtle]. Do give him my best and tell him he’s very welcome indeed. I was thinking we needed some intelligent life around the place…



Persons wishing to say hello to Prof. Nelson themselves, can reach her via email: nelson@bu.edu.

From The New York Times: Can You Read a Book the Wrong Way?

Some people are so religiously devoted to a method of reading that we may properly call them Methodists. Others feel the text should be all things to all men, which is good politics but bad for criticism. For if every interpretation is welcomed open-armed, then little room is left for pressing one reading against any another.Lolita may then be read as a spiritual allegory, a

Adam Kirsch Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson, for The New York Times

Adam Kirsch Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson, for The New York Times

policy solution, or anything else in between with equal justification. Two agnostics at The New York Times, Adam Kirsch and Anna Holmes, debate the matter. Ultimately, both invoke the impenetrable defense: Its subjective! Where do they differ? On Virgil, Kirsch writes:

One thing he surely did not think he was writing was a fortunetelling guide. But soon enough, readers began to use the poem to perform the sortes Virgilianae, or Virgilian lots, in which you would think of a question and then select a verse at random to

answer it. Using the Aeneid as a kind of oracle remained popular for a very long time: The emperor Hadrian did it in the second century A.D., and King Charles I was still doing it 1,500 years later.

Here, if anywhere, is surely an example of reading a book the wrong way.

Centuries ahead, Mrs. Holmes opines:

As for reading portions of a narrative out of order, some books are obviously meant to be consumed this way

Anna Holmes Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson, for The New York Times

Anna Holmes Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson, for The New York Times

(collections of essays and poetry; reference books and anthologies) or, at the very least, manage to dispense with the very idea of a beginning and an end. Skipping or skimming parts of a narrative should not only be expected but encouraged, particularly if an author is writing without clarity or purpose or showing off. Lifes too short to slog through some smarty-pants attempt to demonstrate a mastery of mechanical engineering or botany.

Advice that would make it difficult to learn either mechanical engineering or botany: Or am I just reading her unjustly? Says who? Blunt surface reading can lapse just as easily into prating interpretation, and it is not clear which is the worse. Ideally, close reading will show the work of literature as standing in tension with itself. It is the task of the critic then to tilt the lenticular, showing the immense implications that subtle differences in meaning can have. Is it “April is the cruelest month,” or “April is the cruelest month”? Or December?

Read the debate at The New York Times

From The Wall Street Journal: The Classic Books You Haven’t Read

Finnegans Wake and Fifty Shades of Grey are at two extremes of the incomprehensible: one is a classic that befuddles; the other a plastic that bewilders. Many feel guilty about not having read the books of the first kind. And most of these would be unwilling

Do you have a classic novel youve always meant to read but havent? Most readers have their own story about book guilt and how they handle it. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Do you have a classic novel youve always meant to read but havent? Most readers have their own story about book guilt and how they handle it. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

to expiate themselves in any shade or variation recommended by the second. So what should we do? Erin Geiger Smith of The Wall Street Journal has set herself up for solving this knotty problem. She has asked the well-read in all their shades–publishers, teachers, editors–whether they had any advice, confessions, or comeback stories to inspirit the awry. The results? Heres one:

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Eligible,the 2016 best-selling retelling of Pride and Prejudice, says readers disclose to her at nearly every book signing that they haven’t read the Jane Austen classic. Her reaction depends on the readers level of guilt. Sometimes the readers are sheepish, she says, essentially asking me if its legal to read Eligible without reading Pride and Prejudice. She gently encourages them to give it a shot. But Eligible readers who exhibit no remorse for bypassing Pride?

It makes me a schoolmarm, Ms. Sittenfeld says. Well, you should!

She handles her own book guilt with a similar mix of forgiveness and tough love. This is shocking and appalling, but I have not read Beloved, Ms. Sittenfeld says of Toni Morrisons prizewinning novel. She hasnt read Moby-Dick, either. But unless someone she considers brilliant invites her to read it together, she has no plans to.


Penguin Classics vice president and publisherElda Rotorbelieves small bites reading a chapter at a time and not being obsessed with finishing can be a satisfying way to approach the classics. Her imprint, celebrating its 70th birthday this year, also tries to attract new readers by tapping artists and graphic designers to reinterpret covers that may feel too stuffy for the modern reader.

But what about those who pled not guilty? Should the ambitious reader honor as classic any book that is shoved as being so, or may he justifiably resist? For what its worth, Infinite Jest was mentioned. But has this very long punch line endured long enough for us to be able to say guiltlessly that it has earned classic status, to be placed among the ranks of Austen and Dickens? Potentially, the answer is equally deserving of guilt.

Read her full post at The Wall Street Journal

From New Republic: Does Karl Marx still matter?

In the opening line of Michael Kazin’s article Prophet and Loss, the author asks, “Does Karl Marx still matter?” He directs the question to those readers interested in Gareth Stedman Jones’ new book Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, and addresses the question‌ in a book review-esque article.

Both Kazin and Jones acknowledge Marx’s failures to describe the workings of capitalism, but highlight his ability to understand the dynamic upon which capitalism worked. Kazin writes:

Where Marx did excel, according to Stedman Jones, was in his vivid and lavishly detailed descriptions of the miserable lives of ordinary English workers, which he had spent years researching in the British Museum. He thus became a pioneer in the systematic study of social and economic history. In other words, Marx achieved greatness only when he set aside his theoretical illusions and stuck to the facts, exposing a cruelly oppressive system. This may be the kind of conclusion one would expect a social and economic historian to make, although Marxs theory of how capitalism supposedly works has surely stirred more people over time than the richness of his empirical prose.

He concludes, “Marx the materialist does not matter as he once did. But the Marx who imagined capitalism liberating humanity from the bonds of tradition still might.”

Read the full article here at The New Republic.

From The New York Times: Shakespeare First Folio Discovered on Isle of Bute

Tidings do I bring and lucky joys and golden times and happy news of price. Benvolio, Malvolio, and many between have averted a second tragedy with the discovery of another First Folio, in time for the bards 400th year anniversary. It was found on

"The newly discovered Shakespeare First Folio is bound in three volumes. Credit Mount Stuart." Illustration for The New York Times

“The newly discovered Shakespeare First Folio is bound in three volumes. Credit Mount Stuart.” Illustration for The New York Times

the Island of Bute, and authenticated by Shakespeare expert and enthusiast Emma Smith at the University of Oxford. It’s significance is therefore best expressed in her own words:

“Finding it right now is almost crazy,” said Emma Smith…discovering a new First Folio, she added, “is like spotting a panda.”

Between quotations is Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times, who is paraphrased in the first line. Happy news of price?

The copy in Scotland was not, strictly speaking, totally unknown. It had been listed in the typed catalog of theButefamilylibrary as early as 1896, but its existence seems never to have been made public, even after a census of First Folios in 1902 by the scholar Sidney Lee led more than one millionaire to complain that his prize treasure had not been listed.

Mount Stuart, which is owned by a charitable trust, has recently been trying to assemble a full catalog of its substantial library and art collection, both to attract visitors and to make the holdings accessible to researchers. Alice Martin, the director of collections, said she had pulled the Folio, which is bound in three separate volumes, off the shelf at some point last year.

First Folios are among the worlds most sought-after and valuable books. Christiesrecently announcedthat it was selling what it calls a previously unrecorded First Folio from a discreet and off-the-radar private collection, valued at $1.1 million to $1.7 million.

We, andHamlet, can sympathize with Emma Smith when she says that Shakespeare has a way of driving us toward the brink of insanity. It is debatable though whether the pleasures of reading himare as great as thosehe must have felt while writing, and thereafter: Immortality, millionaire status, and a mansion for a home at Mount Stuart.

Read her full post at The New York Times

From The Spectator: Making Nietzsche New.

For several reasons, Philosophy departments in the United States have traditionally recommended a safe distance from Nietzsche.

Illustration for The Spectator

Illustration for The Spectator

One is the prose style, which shows a penchant less for analysis and more for Dionysus. Another is hygiene: the charge of anti-Semitism has stuck to him like a bad scent, despite the attempts by expositors, most notably Walter Kauffman, to scour his reputation. The latest attempt comes from Daniel Blues, in his detergent The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche, reviewed by Christopher Bray of The Spectator. Bray asks:

But does Blue offer as radically new a portrait of Nietzsche as he claims? On the whole, Im afraid, no. In essence, what this book does is translate into biographical terms the more analytical findings of Walter Kaufmann’s still groundbreaking studyNietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Prior to the publication of that book in 1950, it was a critical commonplace that Nietzsche was a crazed Teutonic supremacist whose poetic ranting was of no philosophical worth. Kaufmann went back to the original texts to show how, far from being a proto-dictator, Nietzsche (who once called himself the lastanti-politicalGerman) was in fact a proto-existentialist a rationalist moralist who believed that the only thing worth conquering was the self.

But does Blue claim to offer a radically new portrait of Nietzsche? On the whole, I’m afraid, Bray does not quote Blue as telling us so. Where else does Blue go wrong?

Nietzsche isnt just the greatest stylist in the history of philosophy. Hes one of the greatest stylists in the history of the written word. As with Shakespeare, reading Nietzsche is like reading a dictionary of quotations: practically every line seems both familiar and startling.

Which means that the big drawback of Blues impressively researched book is its prose.

That is a familiar and startling leap. Cutting out the middleman may be cheap, but bad for ones argument. Does it follow that because Nietzsche writes glittering prose that Blue is obliged to use it as a standard for his own? I do not think he means to say so, but it does then impugn the “which means,” which means that it is not being used honorably but as a lubricant on which we must let the writer slip without doing so ourselves. Familiar and startling, these tactics: remember Petrarch, Rousseau, Montaigne…Nietzsche?

Read his review at The Spectator

From the New York Times: No, the Internet Has Not Killed the Printed Book.

“No, the Internet Has Not Killed the Printed Book. Most People Still Prefer Them,” Daniel Victor of the New York Times assures us in the title of his latest. And also invites us to ponder whether the slip in grammar might not indicate that the Internet has killed or made moribund something else: literacy. Citing a Pew Research study, he writes:

"Books line the walls on at Common Grounds, in DeKalb, Ill., in August." Image for The New York Times by Katie Smith/Daily Chronicle, via Associated Press

“Books line the walls on at Common Grounds, in DeKalb, Ill., in August.” Image for The New York Times by Katie Smith/Daily Chronicle, via Associated Press

Sixty-five percent of adults in the United States said they had read a printed book in the past year, the same percentage that said so in 2012. When you add in ebooks and audiobooks, the number that said they had read a book in printed or electronic format in the past 12 months rose to 73 percent, compared with 74 percent in 2012.

And adds that:

People are indeed using tablets and smartphones to read books. Thirteen percent of adults in the United States said that they used their cellphones for reading in the past year, up from 5 percent in 2011.

It might also be worthwhile to consider (taking a look at the stacks to your right) whether the quality in books that are being popularly read has undergone some kind of decline. Are books that are increasingly coming to take from in tablets and smartphones less likely to be smart books? In the hurly-burly of the here and now, it is nice that there remain nooks (no the other kind) and corners, such as The Core, reminding us of the literature that keeps us from being enslaved by the present, and teaches good writing in the meanwhile.

Read the full post at The New York Times.

From The New Yorker: “Are we really so modern?”

"During the Enlightenment, every fixed point of knowledge began to wobble." Illustration for The New Yorker by Brian Cronin.

“During the Enlightenment, every fixed point of knowledge began to wobble.” Illustration for The New Yorker by Brian Cronin.

Down in New York, reviewing the new book The Dream of Enlightenment by Anthony Gottlieb, critic and poet Adam Kirsch has penned a longand wide-ranging essay that considers our modern moment. Are we really as alienated from history in the year 2016, and as disrupted by technology from our cultural forebears, as it is sometimes fashion to profess? Kirsch thinks not; “Modernity cannot be identified with any particular technological or social breakthrough. Rather, it is a subjective condition, a feeling or an intuition that we are in some profound sense different from the people who lived before us.” He writes:

If we are looking for the real origins of the modern world, then, we have to look for the moment when that world was literally disoriented–stripped of its sense of direction. Heliocentrism, the doctrine that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, was announced by Copernicus in 1543 and championed by Galileo in the early sixteen-hundreds. This revelation was immediately experienced as a profound dislocation, as John Donne testified in his 1611 poem An Anatomy of the World: The sun is lost, and the earth, and no mans wit / Can well direct him where to look for it. More than two hundred and fifty years later, Nietzsche was reeling from the same cosmic loss of direction: What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? . . . Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Modernity is a vertigo that began in the sixteenth century and shows no sign of letting up.

(Emphasis added.)

Over the course of his review, Kirsch manages to reference Donne, Copernicus, Leibniz, Nietzsche, Newton, Spinoza, Hume, and a dozen and more other major thinkers, spelling out the marquee authors of a syllabus that is more of less Core-like in nature. How cheering to think that these authors, so long ago alive and active, remain relevant even now, centuries from their time… but then, that’s the Core concept, isn’t it? These are the books of the ever-present tradition.

Read his full essay online at The New Yorker.

Postcards to the Core from London


And here’s another from our summer postcard crop. This one comes to CAS 119 from London, where Giselle Boustani spent some guide times during her long break. She writes:


To my Core family!

Here is the “Toilet of Venus” by Velázquez, which we, of course, studied about a year and a half ago. During my stay in London (& trip to Spain) I’ve had numerous “OMG! Core taught me about this!” moments. Thank you for enlightening my encounter with art & culture.

All the best to you,

Giselle Boustani-Fontenelle

Daw! Thank YOU, Giselle, for enriching our Core community — through classroom discussion, through your gregarious manner and good conversation, and all the rest.


Core loves postcards. Whether you’re at home or abroad now, we’d love to get one from you. Our address is easy: Core Curriculum, Boston University, Boston MA 02215.

From the BBC: The History of the Book

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From http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160822-the-mysterious-ancient-origins-of-the-book:

The book is changing. Electronic books, or ebooks, are more portable than their paper counterparts, capable of being carried in their hundreds on a single reader or tablet. Thousands more are just a click away. It can be argued that ebooks are more robust than paper ones: an ebook reader can be stolen or dropped in the bath, but the books on it are stored safely in the cloud, waiting to be downloaded onto a new device. It is not too much to say that books and reading are in the throes of a revolution . . .

Read the full article at the BBC website. A tip of the hat to Prof. Hamill for bringing this article to our attention.

The graphic at top comes from the History of the Book webpage, hosted by Harvard University. Click here to visit that resource page, and, if book history is something you would like to learn more about, consider signing up for Harvard’s History of the Book mailing list for Boston-area events.