New and noteworthy – 2 May 2019

Ottoman inspiration; natural head-turners; a southern city’s racial evolution; and insiders moved to call out misconduct

May 2, 2019
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Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750
Noel Malcolm
Oxford University Press

For the three centuries after the city of Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was an object of fear, hostility, envy and, above all, fascination to Western observers. Thinkers from Machiavelli to Voltaire used it as a point of reference in forging their own ideas about power, society and war. Radicals built on critiques of Islam to attack all religions, including Christianity. Others developed the notion of “oriental despotism” as a counterweight to European systems of government. This remarkable story is brought to life by Noel Malcolm, one of today’s boldest and most wide-ranging intellectual historians.


Animal Beauty: On the Evolution of Biological Aesthetics
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard; translated by Jonathan Howard
MIT Press

We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And that may be why, suggests Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, “serious scientist[s] will not apply the term ‘beautiful’ to shapes, colors, and sounds”. Yet, in reality, “the beauty of plants and animals…fulfils a similar function in nature as does art in human culture”. This essay sets out to explore how such “colors and patterns arise, and how they function in the social life of animals”. Examples range widely across beetles, butterflies, mammals and birds as well as Nüsslein-Volhard’s own detailed research on zebrafish.


Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White
William Sturkey
Harvard University Press

Hattiesburg, Mississippi was founded in 1880 and for eight decades lived under the “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation and, often, lynchings. Yet, despite constant brutality and exploitation, black people’s lives changed significantly over that period. The very extent of discrimination, argues William Sturkey, led them to develop what amounted to “a form of internal governance” (and eventually formed “the organic origins of the civil rights movement” in the 1960s). Meanwhile, dependence on Northern investment and federal government assistance forced even bigoted white leaders to “reconsider or alter components of the local racial order”. Hattiesburg offers a subtle and compelling analysis of racial change in the American South.


Whistleblowing: Toward a New Theory
Kate Kenny
Harvard University Press

Whistleblowers, this book reminds us, “have attempted to highlight problems in global finance that left entire nations bankrupt” and to “speak out about breaches of safety” that led to terrible disasters. Yet they are often “ignored and sometimes punished for their efforts”. To learn more about them (and how they might make a greater difference), Kate Kenny carried out an in-depth, qualitative study of whistleblowers in the financial sector in several countries, many of them actually employed to “find and highlight incidents of wrongdoing” within their own organisations. The result is a uniquely rich and vivid account of why some people feel moved to “speak out”.


Jacques Schiffrin: A Publisher in Exile, from Pléiade to Pantheon
Amos Reichman; translated by Sandra Smith
Columbia University Press

Jacques Schiffrin was one of the leading publishers of the 20th century. Born in Azerbaijan, he fled the Bolsheviks, established himself in Paris and created the celebrated Pléiade Editions. When the wartime Vichy government began persecuting Jews, he was forced to move again, which led eventually to his co-founding the equally distinguished Pantheon Books in New York. This powerful account explores his complex relationships with major figures such as Bernard Berenson, André Gide, Peggy Guggenheim and Jean-Paul Sartre. It also sheds important new light on the impact of European exiles in the US and the close-knit nature of transatlantic intellectual life.

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