Prime Examples

This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”

Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?

Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar

Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”

These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.

Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?

Another trio of examples raises a similar question:

“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance

Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.

So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.

Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.

Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?

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The Silent Supreme

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week revealed yet again the terrible state of political discourse in our country. One clear problem involves the call by Senate Republicans to block any and all Obama nominations. This certainly looks like a dereliction of duty, and has been called an “impeachable offense.” (Of course, the most vocal critics of this behavior, ignore the attempted filibuster by Senators Kerry, Clinton, and Obama upon the nomination of Justice Alito.) But what I think is more telling is the personal vitriol toward members of the Court.

All of the biggest political actors had the tact to express their condolences at the death of Justice Scalia, but plenty of casual tweeters expressed their joy. Even worse than the schadenfreude over the death of a Supreme Court Justice were the attacks on (the still very much alive) Justice Thomas. Thomas became a “trending topic” on Twitter because there were so many people wishing that he would be the next member of the Court to die. Two particular themes came to the surface though these Tweets: the perception that Thomas was a mere puppet who always followed Scalia, and the racially charged claims that Thomas was either a slave or a traitor to his people.

I will ignore the racial statements. Those who made them deserve our scorn, but the statements themselves are not worth addressing. They are beneath the dignity of the Court and they are beneath me. The idea that Thomas was a puppet for Scalia, however, is worth evaluating.

According to SCOTUSBlog, Scalia and Thomas agreed in 78% of cases. This is lower than the percentage of cases where Thomas agreed with Alito (81%) and lower than the percentage of cases where Scalia agreed with Chief Justice Roberts (84%). But perhaps more tellingly, that number is positively dwarfed by the percentage of cases where the liberal justices agree. That same source tells us that Justice Breyer agrees with each Justice Ginsburg, Justice Kagan, and Justice Sotomayor a full 94% of the time. The lowest agreement rate among the liberal justices is 91%. Any claim that one or more of the Supreme Court Justices are mere puppets who vote the way they are told is probably nonsense. But if there is any legitimacy to the idea, the statistics indicate that we should be looking at somebody other than Thomas.

There are plenty of areas where I disagree with Justice Thomas, but it is simply ignorant to claim that he is not an independent thinker. He is a prolific dissenting voice on the court, and perhaps that alone is worthy of admiration. It would have been so much easier for him to “just go along” with Scalia, but Thomas was and is his own man.

Yankee Buzzard IPA

Beer of the week: Yankee Buzzard IPA – This IPA from Wisconsin Brewing Company is also known as beer #002. Yankee Buzzard is hazy and has a pleasant, hoppy aroma. Hops certainly dominates, but unlike in many IPAs, here they are balanced nicely with the malty body. This is a very good IPA, especially for somebody who does not favor over-the-top bitterness.

Reading for the week: Kelo v. New London, Dissenting Opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas – The City of New London used eminent domain to kick several of its citizens out of their homes and turn the land over to the drug company Pfizer. The Supreme Court ruled that the city did not violate the Constitution by doing so. Justice Thomas, predictably, dissented. In part, I chose this reading because the public response to this case was so negative; most states now have laws that prevent this kind of eminent domain action. But mostly, this reading shows the way that Justice Thomas works. His appeals to original texts are especially interesting to me. (In case the Readings page of this blog left any doubt on that point.)

Question for the week: Do the Justices of the Supreme Court venture too far into the world of practical politics (as Justice Thomas believes), or does the Supreme Court have a right (or duty) to effectuate policy?


A Curious Substitution

It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”

First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.

But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:

1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)

This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)

Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?

2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.

What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?

I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.

It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?

3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.

This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.

Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…

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Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.

Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).

Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?


Cause and Effect

A former professor of mine (in a subject other than philosophy) once complained that people were asking the wrong question when they asked why instead of to what end things happened. I submitted that why is equivocal, and to what end is but one of the reasonable interpretations of why. He ignored me and went on with his tirade.

Obviously, I was not breaking new ground. In Book II of Aristotle’s Physics, four different answers to “why questions” are enumerated. In an attempt to make Aristotle a bit easier to relate to, I will apply these four causes to the beer of the week, Genesse Ice.

First, the material cause of something is the physical matter that it is composed of. The material cause Genesse Ice is water, cheap grain, (not much) hops, and yeast.

Second, the formal cause of something is the essence or archetype of the thing. This cause is certainly the most difficult to grasp, but I think that we can say that this beer’s formal cause is the form “beer” or perhaps the more specific form “ice beer.” (Ice beer is style of beer that has elevated alcohol levels because after it is brewed, some of the water is removed in the form of ice crystals.)

Third, the efficient cause of a thing is the source of its coming to be or its maker. The efficient cause of this beer is the Genesee Brewing Company.

Finally (duh!), the final cause is the end for the sake of which a thing is; the goal. The final cause of Genesee Ice is to get drunk.

Of course, the term “drunk” is equivocal…

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Beer of the week: Genesee Ice – As I mentioned before, Genesse makes some of my all-time favorite cheap beers. This does not fit into that category. Genesee Ice smells like drinking games, and not in a good way. It is the aroma of beer spilled on the flip-cup table. It is the essence of used beer pong cups. The smell is enough to put one right off. The taste, unfortunately, is worse yet. There is an unpleasant sweetness followed by a distinctly metallic aftertaste. This beer is surely meant to be consumed from a brown paper bag or from a plastic cup. And either way, it should elicit the existential question: why?

Reading of the week: Physics by Aristotle, Book II, Part 3 – “Knowledge” Aristotle tells us, “is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’.” The problem is that every thing and every action has more than one cause.

Question of the week: Which of your causes do you think defines you most?


They who hesitates is lost.

In the English language, we have gendered pronouns. Masculine: he, him, his. Feminine: she, her, hers. When discussing unidentified individuals, the traditional approach has been to use masculine pronouns. For example: “He who hesitates is lost.”

Recently, in terms of the development of the English language, there has been a push to change this practice in an attempt to be more inclusive of women. After all, females make up about half of the population and she who hesitates is equally lost. One approach to this problem is the use of the “singular they”. This is particularly common in the possessive. For example: “whoever said that I am spiteful better watch their back.” However, there is a lot of push-back against using the plural pronoun as a neuter singular. For one thing, it sounds queer to many people because it does not make grammatical sense to simply substitute a plural word in place of a singular one. Another strategy is to simply use the feminine pronouns rather than the masculine. This is generally effective, but can seem affected. It seems particularly affected when the context would clearly apply to a man far more often than to a woman. For example: “the perpetrator of a brutal multiple homicide can be held liable for emotional injuries she causes to the families of her victims,” or “one should make sure that she has applied Just For Men™ hair dye evenly throughout her mustache.” (Note that a woman certainly could commit brutal homicides or dye her mustache, but these acts are more likely those of a man.)

I am a bit of a traditionalist. I try to avoid the singular they entirely. I prefer the use of the masculine pronouns for unidentified individuals because it just sounds more natural to me. Of course, I will use the feminine where context clearly makes the individual more likely a woman. For example: “when choosing a brassiere, one should make sure that the elastic does not dig into her skin.” (Again, a man could purchase a bra for his own personal use, but the advice clearly applies more to women.)

The point of this post is not to engage in an argument about the changing role of women in society. I am not writing to claim that it is not important to encourage women to enter academic or professional fields that have traditionally been male dominated. Interest in mathematics, science, engineering, and all sorts of valuable studies should be fostered in all students who show an interest or talent in them, regardless of sex. My purpose in this post is simply to advise that choosing pronouns for the purpose of being inclusive should be secondary to choosing pronouns to make the author sound like he knows how the English language works.

I read a published court decision today that sacrificed clarity and general quality in an apparent attempt to be gender-inclusive. A federal judge, a person whose entire livelihood relies on his ability to clearly explain rules, reasoning, and conclusions, proposed this three-factor test to determine whether an attorney may disclose confidential information to prevent a future crime:

“First, how much information did the attorney possess suggesting that a crime was going to be committed before he disclosed? Relatedly, how much investigation did the attorney conduct to inform herself of the circumstances and resolve any doubts she may have had? Third, how convinced was the attorney that their client was going to commit a crime (for example, did he believe beyond a reasonable doubt?)?” (Emphasis added.)

In three sentences about a single hypothetical attorney whose conduct is being evaluated, the judge used two masculine pronouns, two feminine pronouns, and the singular they. These word choices did not change the meaning of the paragraph, but it did make the whole thing unnecessarily complex. The last sentence is particularly bad. It refers to “their client” and then asks what “he believe[d]”.  The judge is asking about what the attorney believed, but it appears that he is asking what the client believed. Clarity has been sacrificed for… what? What real value did the judge add to this paragraph by indiscriminately bouncing from pronoun to pronoun?

Perhaps there are some people who would not have been distracted or confused by the judge’s word choice. Maybe the fact that I don’t like the way he writes says more about me than it does about him. But his job is to write, and he could have conveyed his thoughts more clearly by picking a gender and sticking with it. This paragraph makes his work look sloppy. If his writing is sloppy, people might assume that his reasoning is sloppy as well. And for a judge, that consideration should easily outweigh any desire to make everybody feel included.

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Beer of the Week: Genesee Cream Ale – The first time I ever had this beer, I purchased it because it was the cheapest available option. If I recall correctly, before taxes it was less than 50¢ per can. Despite the name, “cream ales” do not contain any dairy products. (Unlike milk stouts, which are brewed with lactose for extra sweetness.) I actually find it to be very palatable. It does have a certain smoothness and nice body for a cheap, mass-produced beer, and at a price that is hard to beat.

Reading for the Week: At a Vacation Exercise in the College, Part Latin, Part English by John Milton – It is a significant understatement to say that Milton knew how to use language well. The excerpt of this address by he made while he was yet a student is a testament to the power of the English language in the right hands. After delivering an oration in Latin, Milton changes to English poetry and announces that it is the English language that is best equipped to attire the deepest and choicest thoughts.

Question for the Week: Do you think that the use of feminine pronouns when talking about unidentified individuals sounds affected? Is that a good enough reason not to do it?


Penmen: First Class

Last week, the reading was a poem by Charles Bukowski. Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bukowski is the most contemporary author to be featured here. For the most part, the readings on this blog are classics: Homer, Aristotle, Bacon, Poe.  The Bukowski reading certainly did not seem out of place, but it raised the question: what is a classic?

The 19th century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve informs us that the word “classic” as applied to literature is derived directly from the word for social class. A writer of classics, therefore, is an author from a status above the plebeian wordsmiths, the literary hoi polloi. Traditionally, this meant the great authors whose works survived from age to age: “an old author canonised by admiration.” The Greek and Roman works that were still available in the middle ages were practically classics simply by virtue of their age and origin. But it takes more than time to make a classic.

In Sainte-Beuve’s opinion, the term “instant classic” (if that phrase had existed in the mid 1800’s) would not be an oxymoron. It is not the age of writing that makes it classic, but the quality. A commonly cited synonym for “classic” is “timeless”, and the word timeless really does capture what makes a work stand out among the ever-increasing catalog of human thought. The work of Charles Bukowski certainly may be considered classic, since despite its newness, it captures something eternal about the human condition and something that is true for all readers, in all times.

So what is a classic? Writes Sainte’Beuve: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”

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Beer of the week: Yuengling Lager – I consider Yuengling Lager to be an American classic. Known simply as “lager” throughout much of Pennsylvania, this beer is the flagship product of America’s oldest brewery. Yuengling is also neck-and-neck with the Boston Brewing Company for largest American-owned brewer.  Yuengling Lager is darker and somewhat (though not much) more flavorful than most other mass-produced lagers. It smells and tastes of cheap grain, but for what it is, Yuengling is a decent value. It may actually be a classic because of how long it has been around; Yuengling is partially flavored by nostalgia.

Reading of the week: What is a Classic? by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve – At the end of this essay, Sainte-Beuve imagines a great “temple of taste” with alcoves for all of the world’s classic authors. In the beginning, however, he describes the history of the term and tries to establish his own meaning.

Question of the week: Sainte-Beuve suggests that he may not be able to answer the question adequately, but may guide his readers to answer it for themselves: what is a classic?


Prefaces

My daily commute has recently increased from 5 minutes to 50 minutes. As a result, I have added a new category of reading to my routine: train reading.

The law library has some “popular reading”, but I have no interest in the works of John Grisham and the selection consists of little else. I was pleased to find, however, that there is also a complete set of the Harvard Classics. I picked up Volume 39, Prefaces and Prologues. The table of contents included a list of authors who all either are or ought to be among those I have written about on this blog: Calvin, Copernicus, Bacon, Newton, Goethe, and more. But it was after reading the introductory note by William Allan Neilson that I was totally set on making this volume my commute reading.

According to Neilson, a preface is where “the author descends from his platform, and speaks with his reader as man to man.” Whatever the character of his narrative voice in the final work, the preface is his own; “a personality which has been veiled by a formal method throughout many chapters, is suddenly seen face to face in the Preface.” In short, the preface is the closest thing to getting to chat with the author about his work, and that conversational aspect appeals to me greatly.

The very first reading on this blog was a preface: Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Since then, I have used prefaces from Bede, Kant, Descartes, Machiavelli, Huygens, and Rabelais. If the preface really is the way to interact with authors “man to man” as Neilson put it, I could hardly think of a group of men I would rather get to know.

So I attempted to check out Volume 39 and was informed that the library does not allow books that are part of a set to circulate. I suppose that the idea is that if I were to steal the book or lose it, it would ruin the set. There are plenty of copies of the Harvard Classics out there, but replacing a given volume from a specific printing might prove difficult or even impossible. Still, I would be willing to wager that I am the only patron who has picked up that particular book since it was placed on the shelf. I may even be the only person to have opened it since a rubber stamp was used to mark it as library property. Under these circumstances, it seems pretty stupid to keep the books from being checked-out by the one person with any interest in them.

Since unthinking bureaucracy crushed my reading plans, I checked out a book of Kafka short stories instead. It seemed only appropriate.

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Beer of the Week: Hamm’s Premium – The can still says that Hamm’s is “from the land of sky blue waters,” but it is no longer brewed in Minnesota, but in Milwaukee by MillerCoors. (See also National Bohemian beer, from “the land of pleasant living” and also brewed under contract far from the original brewery.) Even after taxes, I paid less than 50¢ per can for this beer, so expectations were low. So low, in fact, that I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, it is not good; it is about as bland as mass produced beers get. It is, however, not bad. I could drink a lot of this stuff on a hot day and not complain.

Reading for the Week: Harvard Classics Vol. 39 by William Allan Neilson – When Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, suggested that a liberal education could be obtained by reading 15 minutes daily from five feet of shelf space, publishers asked him to prove it. And so, the Harvard Classics “Five Foot Shelf” was born. Eliot selected the works to be included and enlisted William Neilson to choose the editions and write the introductions.

Question for the Week: What work would you most like to discuss with its author?