Stress Is Killing These Teeny Lemurs, and The Story Is In Their Hair

Ban Panko in Smithsonian:

LemurWith their small furry bodies and large inquisitive eyes, gray mouse lemurs can seem like a cross between a pug and an alien. In fact, these Madagascar primates share much in common with us. For one, they feel mounting stress as their forest habitat is destroyed—and new research shows how living under constant pressure can hurt their survival. Mouse lemurs are a subgroup of lemurs that boast the title of smallest primates on Earth. The gray mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus), which measures in at just under a foot from nose to tail and weighs around two ounces, is the largest species within that group. It's currently considered to be a species of "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List," but the organization does note that the population of gray mouse lemurs is declining due largely to habitat loss.

Overall, Madagascar's dozens of lemur species have long faced threats from deforestation and hunting by humans. "It's well known that this species is under very high pressure from anthropogenic activities and habitat loss," Josué Rakotoniaina, an ecologist at Germany's Georg-August University of Göttingen, says of his choice to scrutinize these petite primates in particular. "But there was no study of how those human activities can affect these animals ecologically." Mouse lemurs are proving surprisingly useful to scientists studying human diseases, thanks to their conveniently small size (about double the size of a mouse, with a tail up to twice the length of their body) and genetic similarity to us (they’re primates, like us and unlike mice). In recent years, scientists have found that they make the perfect model for looking at obesity, eye disease and even neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

More here.

A tale of two literary Americas: What a brilliant anthology on inequality accidentally reveals about inequality

Erin Keane in Salon:

Tale-of-two-americas-620x412Much has been written in the wake of the 2016 elections about our polarized political climate and the growing inequality that has contributed to the electoral stakes feeling higher — and collective fuses running shorter — than they have in decades. Along with the election postmortems comes a dynamic new literary anthology, “Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation” (Sept. 5, Penguin).

Edited by John Freeman, who created a similar collection focused on New York in 2015, “Tales of Two Americas” includes short fiction, essays, narrative journalism and poetry from a powerhouse stable of acclaimed authors including Roxane Gay, Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, Kevin Young, Anthony Doerr, Sandra Cisneros, Rebecca Solnit, Edwidge Danticat, Clair Vaye Watkins and recent U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, among others. Its pages cover a lot of ground in space and time, from Mexican immigrant agricultural workers in mid-century California to the plasma centers of today, from the complex love life of a Haitian immigrant home health aide in Miami to the secret yearnings of a waitress in a decaying northern Michigan town.

There’s neither glossy escapism nor gritty dystopian metaphor here. “Tales of Two Americas” is instead committed to a realistic portrayal of the differences between those with easy access to America’s opportunities and those without. In a time when for many Americans — as “Swamplandia!” author and Pulitzer finalist Karen Russell writes in her essay on the homeless population of Portland, Oregon — “the difference between living indoors and living on the street is an injury, an accident, a family emergency, a bad season, a month’s salary,” this clear-eyed collection of truths about inequality feels more urgent than ever.

More here.

The Complacent Intellectual Class

David V. Johnson in The Baffler:

ScreenHunter_2815 Sep. 06 22.00I would like to coin a phrase, the complacent intellectual class, to describe the overwhelming number of pundits, thought leaders, and policy wonks who accept, welcome, or even enforce slovenly scholarship. These people might, in the abstract, like research that maintains the highest standards, they might even consider themselves academics or bona fide researchers, when in fact they have lost the capacity of maintaining even the most basic standards of rigor.

I am motivated to do so after reading Tyler Cowen’s new book The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. I propose the term with some trepidation. Cowen—a George Mason University economist, libertarian theorist, and “legendary blogger” (to quote the book’s inset)—is often a smart commentator who puts his finger on a lot of interesting social phenomena, introduces novel ideas, and proves worth reading from time to time.

But books are different from blog posts and op-eds. And this book fails so glaringly that it makes me despair for this country’s literary culture and intellectual life in general. So let me use Cowen’s latest venture to illustrate what we should all demand from the work of our intellectual class, lest our nation continue to vegetate in the pretend-thinking of #AspenIdeas pseudo-academia.

More here.

When Boston was America’s ‘capital’ of anti-Semitism

Matt Lebovic in the Boston Herald:

ScreenHunter_2814 Sep. 06 21.53You won’t find it mentioned along the city’s “Freedom Trail” route, but Boston was once home to a thriving network of Nazi supporters. Not only did the Cradle of Liberty’s anti-Semitic activists receive funds and direction from Berlin, they also helped incite “small pogroms” against Jews well into the war.

During the same years as the Holocaust, “marauding anti-Semitic bands severely restricted the physical movement of many Jews in [Boston and New York], rendering it difficult for them to carry on normal religious, business, or social activities,” wrote Stephen H. Norwood, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma.

In Boston and elsewhere, anti-Jewish incitement was fueled by Father Charles Coughlin, the “founder of hate radio.” Although he was based in Michigan, Coughlin’s largest following was in Boston, where members of his Christian Front heeded the priest’s calls to organize boycotts and mass mailings against Jews.

“When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing,” said Coughlin during a tirade in the Bronx. The hate-monger also published “Social Justice,” a newspaper that reprinted “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in 1938, just as the persecution of German Jews reached a fever pitch.

Coughlin’s largely Irish American adherents earned Boston the moniker, “the poisonous city.”

More here.

The Strange Future Hurricane Harvey Portends

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Peter Brannen in The Atlantic:

Humans have begun an international project to move water around the world, far more ambitious than any network of aqueducts or hydroelectric dams ever constructed or conceived. The drivers of this global system are billowing vapors, which trap heat and propel the world’s water faster and farther around the globe. The first results of this project may already be seen in the outrageous rainfall totals of storms like Hurricane Harvey, or in landslides on remote mountain hillsides, and even in the changing saltiness of the oceans.

The Earth system is getting warmer. Water is evaporating faster. There’s more of it in the air. It’s moving through the system faster. As a result, the coming centuries will play out under a new atmospheric regime, one with more extreme rain, falling in patterns unfamiliar to those around which civilization has grown.

“Basically the idea is that as the climate warms there’s more energy in the atmosphere,” says Gabriel Bowen, a geochemist at the University of Utah. “That drives a more vigorous water cycle: Evaporation rates go up, precipitation rates go up—there’s just more water moving through that cycle faster and more intensely.”

For each degree Celsius of warming the atmosphere is able to hold 6 percent more water. For a planet that’s expected to warm by 4 degrees by the end of the century, that means a transition to a profoundly different climate.

“Rainfall extremes have increased in intensity I think at every latitude in the northern hemisphere,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist Paul O’Gorman.

More here.

Rise of the humanities


Peter Mandler in Aeon:

The humanities are in crisis. It’s become orthodoxy. In fact, so much attention has been paid to the ‘crisis of the humanities’ that few have stopped to ask if there actually is such a crisis. Over just the past few generations, enormous changes have transformed higher education. These changes have brought a greater proportion of 18-year-olds to university. In the case of most countries apart from the United States, this brings a huge increase, from a low base – and thus tremendous changes in the composition of that student body in terms of class, gender, ethnicity and other key markers. In each generation, commentators have predicted (and policymakers have demanded) that the humanities would suffer from a more utilitarian, career-oriented, tech-savvy influx. But it hasn’t happened.

In the English-speaking world, over the past half-century, the proportion of students studying humanities at university has hardly changed. True, as one might expect, in the US, the United Kingdom and Australia, there have been fluctuations and important changes in educational demographics, most importantly more women going to college. The crude picture is this: in 1971, humanities students outnumbered business students; now it’s the other way around. But in 1971 there were also about 50 per cent more business majors than science majors; now there are about 250 per cent more.

So relative to business, both the sciences and the humanities have fallen behind since 1971, and the sciences much further. Since the 1980s, however, the gap between the humanities and business has, in fact, shrunk, while the gap between the sciences and business continued to grow. And, very importantly, the rapid expansion of higher education in the world over the past couple of generations means that, in absolute numbers, more people are studying the humanities than ever before.

More here.


1200px-Serena_Williams_at_the_Australian_Open_2015Brandon Taylor at Literary Hub:

If Serena were a white man, people would say that she is her own greatest critic. But Serena is a black woman, and there isn’t anything this country hates more than a black woman.

Once, a coworker said to me that he didn’t like Serena because she seemed arrogant. He said that people always have a difficult time with arrogance, and then he mentioned Tiger Woods and LeBron James as notable examples. Why is it that people have such a difficult time with black people who love themselves? Or, I guess, more directly, I wonder why it is that this country can only justify compensating black people when there remains a sense that the white money paying them feels like a favor which of course is impossible if the black person in question takes what they are due with a sense of self-awareness.

Serena is expected to remain estranged from herself. She is expected to deny herself the knowledge of her miracles, her accomplishments in the face of a world that would rather her apologize for existing. She is expected to suffer graciously, with immense and eternal gratitude. She is called graceless, arrogant, manly, masculine, brutish, an ape, thuggish, ugly, and all manner of other things. Her womanhood is held against her even while it is simultaneously denied to her.

more here.

On climate change and human futilitarianism

B36_Kriss_OHagan_openerSam Kriss and Ellie Mae O'Hagan at The Baffler:

Many of the climate scientists and activists we’ve spoken with casually talk of their work with a sense of mounting despair and hopelessness, a feeling we call political depression. We’re used to considering and treating depression as an internal, medical condition, something that can be put right with a few chemicals to keep the brain swimming in serotonin; in conceptualizing our more morose turns of mind, modern medicine hasn’t come too far from the ancient idea that a melancholy disposition arises from too much black bile in the body. But when depressives talk about their experiences, they describe depression in terms of a lost relationship to the world. The author Tim Lott writes that depression “is commonly described as being like viewing the world through a sheet of plate glass; it would be more accurate to say a sheet of thick, semi-opaque ice.” A woman going by the pseudonym of Marie-Ange, one of Julia Kristeva’s analysands, describes a world hollowed out and replaced by “a nothingness . . . like invisible, cosmic, crushing antimatter.” In other words, the inward condition of depression is nothing less than a psychic event horizon; the act of staring at a vast gaping absence—of hope, of a future, of the possibility of human life. The depressive peeks into the future that climate change generates. Walter Benjamin, trying to lay out the contours of melancholic experience, saw it there. “Something new emerged,” he wrote: “an empty world.”

Freud diagnoses melancholia as the result of a lost object—a thing, a person, a world—and the fracture of that loss repeats itself within the psyche. It’s the loss that comes first. We do not think of political depression as a personal disorder, the state of being depressed because of political events; rather it’s the interiorization of our objective powerlessness in the world.

more here.

what’s it like to be an octopus?

Srin01_3917_01Arnia Srinivasan at the London Review of Books:

Octopuses do not have any stable colour or texture, changing at will to match their surroundings: a camouflaged octopus can be invisible from just a few feet away. Like humans, they have centralised nervous systems, but in their case there is no clear distinction between brain and body. An octopus’s neurons are dispersed throughout its body, and two-thirds of them are in its arms: each arm can act intelligently on its own, grasping, manipulating and hunting. (Octopuses have arms, not tentacles: tentacles have suckers only at their tips. Squid and cuttlefish have a combination of arms and tentacles.) In evolutionary terms, the intelligence of octopuses is an anomaly. The last common ancestor between octopuses on the one hand, and humans and other intelligent animals (monkeys, dolphins, dogs, crows) on the other, was probably a primitive, blind worm-like creature that existed six hundred million years ago. Other creatures that are so evolutionarily distant from humans – lobsters, snails, slugs, clams – rate pretty low on the cognitive scale. But octopuses – and to some extent their cephalopod cousins, cuttlefish and squid – frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. They are sophisticated problem solvers; they learn, and can use tools; and they show a capacity for mimicry, deception and, some think, humour. Just how refined their abilities are is a matter of scientific debate: their very strangeness makes octopuses hard to study. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

New World

Then after Eden,
was there one surprise?
O yes, the awe of Adam
at the first bead of sweat.

Thenceforth, all flesh
had to be sown with salt,
to feel the edge of seasons,
fear and harvest
joy that was difficult,
but was, at least, his own.

The snake? It would not trust
on its forked tree.
The snake admired Labour,
it would not leave him alone.

And both would watch the leaves
silver the alder,
oaks yellowing October,
everything turning money.

So when Adam was exiled
to our new Eden, in the ark’s gut,
the coined snake coiled there for good
fellowship also; that was willed.

Adam had an idea.
He and the snake would share
the loss of Eden for a profit.
So both made the New World. And it looked good.

by Derek Walcott:
from Collected Poems 1948-1984
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Salman Rushdie: ‘A lot of what Trump unleashed was there anyway’

Emma Brockes in The Guardian:

2560The image that came to Salman Rushdie, around which he would build his new novel, was an enclosed garden in downtown Manhattan. It is a space that exists in real life (although, as one of the characters in The Golden House observes, real life is a category from which it is increasingly hard to distinguish less reliable entities) and with which Rushdie is familiar; old friends inhabit one of the houses backing on to the garden. “The idea of there being a secret space inside this noisy public space,” he says. “I had this lightbulb moment that it was like a theatre – with a Greek tragedy, amphitheatre quality – where the characters could enact their stories. It also had a Rear Window quality, of being able to spy on everybody else’s lives. At that point, the Golden family decided they wanted to move in.”

We are in the offices of Andrew Wylie, Rushdie’s agent of 30 years – “my longest relationship!” he says gleefully – a mile north of Rushdie’s apartment in lower Manhattan. He is looking particularly Rushdie-esque today: part rumpled intellectual, part something less sober. At 70, Rushdie has had more public incarnations than most writers of literary fiction – brilliant novelist, man on the run, subject of tabloid scorn and government dismay, social butterfly, and, in that singularly British designation, man lambasted for being altogether too Up Himself – but it is often overlooked what good company he is. His humour this morning is not caustic, nor ironised, nor filtered through any of the more protected modes of engagement, but is a kind of jolliness – a giggly delight – that simply makes him a good laugh to hang out with.

More here.

Dawkins Carries Forward The Lamp Of Science In His Latest, And It Burns Just As Bright

Aravindan Neelakandan in Swarajya:

ScreenHunter_2813 Sep. 05 19.51The book is a collection of 42 essays, written on various occasions and issues, spanning over three decades, with one connecting thread running through them all – taking a scientific approach that’s central to the question in hand.

Consider for example the case of eugenics. It is reprehensible by human value system if a commercial venture or a state (like that of the Nazis) tries to breed people for a particular mental trait or physical ability. Such a eugenic policy would be politically and morally wrong, proclaims Dawkins, but cautions us not to get our moral compass decide the truth and thus declare it to be impossible. Because Dawkins says, “Nature, fortunately or unfortunately, is indifferent to anything so parochial as human values.” The caution Dawkins exercises is very important given the critical history of the brief but intense romance the British science establishment, particularly the biologists like JBS Haldane, had with Marxism (until they were rudely awakened by the Lysenko-pseudoscience affair). The ideological attack on science was carried forward well after the Lysenko affair too – there continued a vibrant lineage of British scientists wedded to the theory, or rather ‘The Theory’.

Dawkins criticises the eminent geneticist Richard Lewontin. A biologist of Marxist persuasion, Lewontin proudly declared himself ‘the dialectical biologist’. Lewontin, and a group of scientists led by him, accused Dawkins of Cartesian reductionism and worse.

Things did get worse when white supremacists tried to use the works of Dawkins and another evolutionary biologist E O Wilson. Both the scientists categorically distanced themselves from the perverted misuse of science by white supremacists. Yet, the campus left started a demonising campaign against both. It was sort of a Marxist revenge for Lysenko. When Wilson spoke about the biological basis for human nature, students picketed his lectures and dowsed him with water. The battle which ensued was bitter, and in a way, loaded against sociobiology of Dawkins and Wilson in public perception.

More here.

To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now

Neil Irwin in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2812 Sep. 05 19.44Gail Evans and Marta Ramos have one thing in common: They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States.

For Ms. Evans, that meant being a janitor in Building 326 at Eastman Kodak’s campus in Rochester in the early 1980s. For Ms. Ramos, that means cleaning at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., in the present day.

In the 35 years between their jobs as janitors, corporations across America have flocked to a new management theory: Focus on core competence and outsource the rest. The approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.

The $16.60 per hour Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to about the same in inflation-adjusted terms as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end.

More here.



Rana Dasgupta in Granta:

Until the 1960s – when the new world turned resentfully on the old – the river-wrinkled region to the south of Paris was dotted with handsome country towns made modern by the railways.

Many of the brave stations and postal depots from that era have since fallen into decrepitude, but they still hold the memory of the erstwhile alchemy. Twin rails conducted industrial vigour into the most rustic of locales: the espresso (for it was the Italians who expressed it, collapsing caffeine and locomotives into one steam-powered word) of economic expansion and minute-precision time. Suddenly, provincial farmers could send perishable produce to Paris, where, a mere two hours out of the ground, it would sell for metropolitan prices in the crammed stalls of Les Halles. But they were simultaneously engulfed by the greater force of the city moving out to them: for industrialists, too, could propel products far afield on the railways, so why not manufacture them outside the capital, where land and labour were cheap?

There was the town of Arpajon, for instance, whose fruit and vegetables were so urgently needed in Les Halles that a thirty-seven-kilometre railway was built to link them door-to-door. But the town’s population was also swelling with the influx of new enterprises: breweries and tanneries, and especially the shoe factory, set up in 1859. All this created a new bourgeoisie who built large homes in a self-sufficiently regional style: coated with rough-hewn stone, colourfully painted on the lintels, stretching unnaturally thin and tall. There were parks laid out, and pretty streets of shops, and a grandiose city hall. The railway station – source of everything – was appropriately imposing.

The same rule is shown by its exceptions: take the nearby village of Grigny, which the railway lines did not touch, and which maintained, therefore, an older sense of time. It became bucolic: horse-drawn
carts took Parisian day trippers from the nearest station to sit in Grigny’s tourist pavilions, where they could breathe invigorating country air and draw nourishment from the prospect of gently rolling hills. The pastoral eternity of this view was made poignant, all the same, by a modern frisson: sweeping past the distant peasants labouring in the grain fields was the stern line of the Vanne aqueduct – erected as part of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s re-engineering of the capital in the 1860s – which filled greedy Parisian reservoirs with pure water captured 200 kilometres away.

Today, Grigny is a grimy assemblage of 1970s housing blocks. New facades on the schools fly the flags of France and the European Union, and are painted with edifying quotations from great white men, but they are masks for falling-down classrooms.

More here.

The Hateful Monk


Gavin Jacobson in the NY Review of Books:

Ma Soe Yein is the largest Buddhist monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar. A dreary sprawl of dormitories and classrooms, it is located in the western half of the city, and accommodates some 2,500 monks. The atmosphere inside is one of quiet industry. Young men, clad in orange and maroon robes, sit on the floors and study the Dharma or memorize ritual texts. There is little noise except for the endless scraping of straw brooms on wooden floors, or the dissonant hum of people in collective prayer. Outside, the scene is livelier. Monks hurriedly douse themselves with cold water, and chat politics over a table of newspapers. They do so in the shadow of a large wall covered with gruesome images depicting the alleged bloodlust of Islam. Photographs, displayed without any explanation or evidence of their origins, show beaten faces, hacked bodies, and severed limbs—brutalities apparently committed by Muslims against Myanmar Buddhists.

The contrast between the monastery’s inner calm and this exterior display of violence is a fitting inversion of Ma Soe Yein’s most infamous resident, Ashin Wirathu, the subject of Barbet Schroeder’s new documentary, The Venerable W. On the outside, Wirathu is composed and polite, with large brown eyes and a sweet, impish grin. His voice is smooth and its cadence measured. Yet beneath this civil disguise seethes an interminable hatred toward the 4 percent of Myanmar’s population that is Muslim (the wall of carnage stands outside his residence). Wirathu is responsible for inciting some of the worst acts of ethnic violence in the country’s recent history, and was described by Time as “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

More here.

On ‘Shakespeare in Swahililand’

Ed Simon at The Millions:

Wilson-Lee’s is an odd hodgepodge of a book—part memoir, part travelogue, part historical account, part literary criticism. And yet despite its chimerical nature, it is an effective book, combining as it does an adept theoretical orientation, an admirable facility with the Explication de texte of Shakespeare’s language, and a humanism that is sometimes lacking in the most arid of literary theory. Too often, conservative “defenders” of Shakespeare against some imagined threat to the canon obscure the very real ways in which both Shakespeare in particular and English literature in general were used to erase the lives and culture of people in colonized lands, as a type of soft artillery. But Wilson-Lee isn’t wrong when he says that it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare “almost alone among writers, defies such cynicism.” He conjectures that though Shakespeare’s genius may simply be “some grand collective delusion, a truism rather than a truth,” he can’t help but find that “every time, the dawning freshness of a turn of phrase, a short exchange or an orchestrated speech makes dull the cleverness which wrote these impressions off as nostalgic.” In what is one of the book’s most poignantly beautiful scenes, Wilson-Lee describes listening to two surviving records of that Urdu production of Hamlet preserved at the British Library (the film itself being lost to posterity), explaining that the music of that production was pressed neither on vinyl nor wax cylinder, but rather “on discs made from shellac, crushed beetle-shell.” And so he could hear “the same sounds that would have rung out of the ramshackle theatres onto the Mombasa streets, the love songs of Hindustani Shakespeare, preserved in the carcasses of beetles which had once footled around the forests of Bengal.”

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Moon Poem

How did I lose track of the moon?
Living as I do in a place with no streetlights,
a place dark as the inside of my eyelids,
black as the bottom of a burnt pot.

You used to call me, and I'd run out to see the full moon,
a silver hubcap wobbling at the top of the hill, or waning,
a slice of melon ripe as any in the field.

Some nights I'd wake on my own,
my bed lit white and wonder
what my Swedish ancestors feared
when they said, “Don't let the moon
shine on you when you're sleeping.”

If I rise then, go into the kitchen for a glass of water,
the moon follows and I realize the danger—
I might wander off looking for something I lost,
something I loved, something that won't
come around again.

Call me melancholy,
I've been called worse.
The moon knows life leans
and fattens, one part joy,
two parts loss, and our job
is to make it come out even.

Maybe it was just a long month of cloud cover.
Maybe it was because your house burned down
and you moved. Or maybe I just forgot
how much I needed to see it—
pizza pan, squashed balloon,
thin edge of a dime

by Trish Crapo
from Walk Through Paradise Backward
Slate Roof Press, 2004

The beauty and mystery of Arabic calligraphy

Robert Irwin in The Spectator:

ShahnamaThe title of this book, By the Pen and What They Write, is a quotation from the Qur’an and comes from the opening of the ‘Surah al-Qalam’ (Chapter of the Pen), in which the authority of the cosmic scribes in heaven, whose writing determines the fate of humanity, is invoked in order to authenticate the revelation that follows. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad was illiterate (and so presumably were most of his audience). So it is odd to find writing featuring so prominently in this surah and throughout the Qur’an. Prior to the revelation of the Qur’an in the seventh century, the only texts that have survived in the Arabian Peninsula are brief, unargumentative rock inscriptions and many of these are in languages or scripts other than Arabic. So, as Angelika Neuwirth, one of the distinguished scholars to contribute to this volume, observes:

It is a striking fact then, that the Qur’an appears — seemingly — out of the void, as a fully fledged discursive text, extensive in range and replete with philosophical and theological queries.

The Bible consists of many diverse texts by diverse hands that have been assembled over the centuries. The Qur’an is not like that. Its message is held to be eternal, inimitable and untranslatable, and it was revealed to just one man in a matter of decades.AdTech Ad As a consequence, the Arabic language and script had and still has a special prestige among Muslims. That prestige had been increased towards the end of the seventh century when the Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik, decreed that Arabic should be the sole language of administration in the Muslim empire and that its currency should bear Arabic inscriptions. Ambitious Nabataeans, Persians, Copts and others hastened to learn the Arabic language and script. Arabic became the major language of international commerce.

Baghdad, a city with a population many times that of medieval London and Paris combined, had an unprecedentedly large literate population. Because of this, and because of the replacement of expensive parchment by paper, literature flourished under the Abbasid caliphs from the late eighth century onwards. Hugh Kennedy concludes his chapter entitled ‘Baghdad as a Centre of Learning and Book Production’, with these resound-ing words:

I should like to argue that Abbasid Baghdad was probably the first place on the planet where an author could make a living, not by being independently wealthy or having a wealthy patron, or even being part of an institution like a monastery that subsidised his activities, but by writing books to be sold in the market to a literate public.

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ What was true of L.P. Hartley’s presentation of Victorian England was even more the case for the medieval Arab book world.

More here.