All posts by Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large


Do They Play Soccer Against the Upper East Side Philosophers?

In the age of print on demand, every Tom, Dick and Stanislaw can set up a publishing house of his or her own. Some do, at times inventing the name of a publisher just to provide cover for the novel or self-help book one desperately wants to present to an eager world.

But few have sought to compete with university presses, gatekeepers of the high-cultural and scholarly. Let’s be serious, after all—there’s not much buck-bang in being serious. Publish monograph writers without subventions? Pu…

The Spirit Is Willing, and So Is the Flesh

At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Cephalus, a wealthy older metic—that’s what they called a resident alien in Athens—announces to Socrates that he’s happy about his loss of libido and heightened appreciation of philosophy. “When the appetites relax and cease to importune us,” explains Cephalus, “we escape from many mad masters.”

The Roman philosopher Seneca also praised the diminution of male desire and some of its mechanical  consequences: “How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appet…

Last Week in June

The Supreme Court wrapped up its term on Monday in familiar “Going-Out-of-Business” (till October) style, issuing enough decisions in a single shot to challenge even that most admirable of legal figures, the “reasonable man,” to figure them all out. Journalists who cover the Court also performed their usual duty, filing compact accounts of the rulings, trying their best to explain complicated opinions in a few graphs of newspaper prose.

Sometimes the latter task seems almost easy given the skill…

David Simon at Association of American U. Presses Meeting

AAUP’ers who packed the opening banquet last Thursday night to hear Baltimore’s high priest of urban drama—David Simon, creator of HBO’s much-acclaimed The Wire—encountered more of a meat-and-potatoes ex-newsroom guy than some expected.

Casual in open shirt and no tie, and talking off the cuff with no prepared written comments, Simon laid out his general theme that daily newspaper journalism has deteriorated terribly, and “premium cable” dramas like his own have picked up the storytelling slack….

Making Niebuhr Matter

Most people know him these days by the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” available at good poster stores everywhere:

God, give us grace
to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

- Reinhold Niebuhr, 1943

Seven famous lines, but just an wisp of the lifework of the industrious Protestant theologian who influenced mainstream American culture in a manner now comparable only to that o…

Dear Bernard-Henri, Dear Michel

Weeping about the demise of letter writing appears to have faded into history. E-mail, after all, largely triumphed, followed by texting and tweeting, especially by the young and indexically restless. Will we still have published  correspondences in the future like that of the Brownings? If so, will they teem with emoticons and shorthand clichés like “LOL”? Will the Brownings of the future brusquely address each other as “Elizabeth:” and “Robert:” on the notion that no one bothers with polite en…


We the Students and Faculty, in Order to…

Appointing a First Amendment scholar as president of a college or university makes intuitive sense. A university should practice free thought and open exchange of ideas and First Amendment scholars generally like and defend those things.

True, it doesn’t always go smoothly.

Exactly how much freedom of speech to grant on campus, and to whom, can stir heated debates. President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University, a leading First Amendment scholar, got the Full Monty of abuse and protest when he d…


I Regret That I Have But One Life to Give for My Author

Do books have lives?

If they do, strange things possibly follow. They may die and—if sufficiently esteemed—require obituaries. Ordinary ones may have to settle for paid death notices. Could a book, or its author, purchase life insurance? The conceptual challenges seem endlessly intriguing.

Princeton University Press, to its credit, has decided to explore one such fey notion: the idea that great books deserve biographies, and readers will buy them if they’re done by top-notch biographers.



A History of Biting Off Too Much?

In the age of specialization, it’s unusual and odd for a scholar to try a history of a whole subject—particularly if the subject, and the discipline that studies it, aren’t his. Thus A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet, just out from Cambridge University Press, caught the eye when it came in.

The author, Marshall T. Poe, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, seems previously to have published mostly in Russian history…


Table for Four (Elements) Please!

Two recent events on the radar screens of philosophers stirred long looks in the rearview mirror.

In what some in the profession jokingly called the New York Times Book Review’s “Special Issue” on philosophy (January 23), three pieces—a review by Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell of James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); a review by Susan Neiman of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find M…