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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

For $25 a month, Sproutkin subscribers receive a box of board books and a toy to keep, based on the age of the infant or toddler.

A "Netflix for children's books"?

By Contributor / 03.07.13

Does your child like a brand new bedtime story – every single night?

Parents whose children develop the being-read-to habit sometimes find that it's hard to keep up with a youthful appetite for new stories. Trips to the bookstore are expensive and visits to the library can be time-consuming. So what's the answer?

To parents Raelyn Bleharski, Alda Dennis, and Mark Jen it seemed obvious: launch Sproutkin, a Netflix-like monthly book service subscription for children aged 0-6.  

The Sproutkin website says, "Sproutkin is a monthly subscription service and what you receive depends on the child’s age. Infants and toddlers receive a monthly box of board books and a toy to keep. Each monthly shipment is based on the specific age of the infant/toddler and the milestones that should be accomplished during that month. Preschoolers receive unlimited boxes of picture books per month; a new shipment is sent upon the returning your current set."

According to Techcruch.com Sproutkin's founders received an undisclosed amount of seed money from investors under $1 million.

Sproutkin works with an educational advisory board made up of one current preschool teacher and two education veterans. Together, the three of them use their combined 89 years' worth of teaching and education experience to assemble "Sproutkits."

Again from the website, "Each Sproutkit includes up to 10 books and a curriculum card (with discussion questions and activity suggestions), all based around a particular theme. Each Sproutkit is thoughtfully developed by our educational advisors to help guide parents through an informal curriculum based on the books."

Themes and milestones include topics like eating solid food, learning about other cultures, or learning to play peek-a-boo. 

It costs $25 a month, and subscribers who decide they want to keep a book can do so at a cost of 10% less than the book's retail price.

Like Netflix, there's no time limit on how long books can be kept. Book selections include both contemporary works and timeless classics. 

"Paul McCartney: Carry That Weight" is the third Bluewater Productions comic to focus on the Beatles.

New Paul McCartney comic book imagines Beatles breakup

By Contributor / 03.07.13

On April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney announced – a week before the release of his first solo album – that he was leaving the Beatles. The band had rocketed to mega-stardom in the mid-60s, and speculation on their breakup has traditionally made Yoko Ono (John Lennon's wife) the scapegoat, although both Ono and McCartney have since said that the band was moving that direction anyway.

Inspired by McCartney's frank comments in the 1970 press release, "Paul McCartney: Carry That Weight," according to the publisher, "takes a snapshot of the afternoon Paul McCartney made the final decision to quit the most beloved band of all time, and imagines the thoughts and feelings behind it.”

McCartney was not involved in the creation of the story, although efforts were made to contact him about the project. The book, 24 pages long, deals lightly with the heavy subject. (The Beatles were not formally dissolved as a band until 1975 because of legal disputes). "These are comic books. They're meant to be fun but educational, as well," said Darren Davis, the book's publisher.

The book was published Tuesday and is one of several Bluewater biography comic books focused on politicians and celebrities. Past subjects have included Hilary Cinton, Angelina Jolie, J.K. Rowling, and George W. Bush. Singer Adele will be the subject of an upcoming edition.

"Paul McCartney: Carry That Weight" is the third Bluewater Productions comic to focus on the Beatles.

Editor Leslie S. Klinger said he paid the Arthur Conan Doyle estate a fee for the book he edited with author Laurie R. King, 'A Study in Sherlock,' but that he felt at the time that he did not need to do so.

Sherlock Holmes fan to estate: Sherlock belongs to all of us

By Staff Writer / 03.07.13

To whom does beloved literary detective Sherlock Holmes really belong?

According to Holmes fan Leslie S. Klinger, everyone.

Klinger filed a civil complaint stating that because the "Holmes" characters and many of the stories were first published before 1923, the fees many have paid to the Conan Doyle estate for use of the characters are unnecessary because Holmes and his exploits are in the public domain in the US. Klinger requests that the court state that the elements of the “Holmes” stories are indeed in the public domain. 

Klinger, who is also the editor of “Annotated Sherlock Holmes” as well as the mind behind other Holmes-related works, filed the complaint in Illinois on Feb. 14. According to his complaint, she was motivated to file it after the Conan Doyle estate told publisher Pegasus Books that it would stop a book titled “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” from being sold by companies like Barnes & Noble and Amazon unless Pegasus paid the estate a licensing fee. “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” was edited by Klinger and features stories about the detective by authors like Laurie R. King.

Klinger said he paid $5,000 to the estate when he released a similar compilation titled “A Study in Sherlock” in 2011. “I didn’t want to pay it then,” he told The New York Times, saying of the current request, “Enough is enough. This time it was really too big a threat.”

Ten of the “Holmes” stories were released in the US post-1923, but the rest came out before then.

Klinger’s action has caused controversy in the Holmes fan community. “The suit has wreaked havoc,” assistant professor at Whittier Law School Betsy Rosenblatt told The New York Times. 

Darlene Cypser, who wrote a trilogy about a juvenile Sherlock Holmes, said she’s in full support of Klinger’s actions.

“They’ve heard about the way the estate is going around bullying people,” Cypser said of fans in an interview with The New York Times. “This has been coming for some time. I’m glad Les decided to take it up.”

However, lawyer for the Conan Doyle estate Benjamin Allison said there’s little room for negotiation.

“The character Sherlock Holmes is protected by copyright,” he told The New York Times. “Holmes is a unified literary character that wasn’t completely developed until the author laid down his pen.”

The detective in the deerstalker hat is of course still a hot cultural property, with two successful TV shows (the BBC’s “Sherlock” and the CBS show “Elementary”) going strong and a successful reboot of the stories starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law having raked in high box office grosses in movie theaters.

A recent new Holmes story, this one sanctioned by the estate, by Anthony Horowitz titled “The House of Silk,” garnered positive reviews.

Information in "World Explorer," given to 9-year-old Vasco Gonsalves as a Christmas gift, ended up saving his life.

Three lives saved by a children's book

By Contributor / 03.07.13

A travel guide for kids, "Not-for-Parents: How to be a World Explorer: Your All-Terrain Manual," by Joel Levy, saved the lives of three boys in Queensland, Australia. On a family camping trip the three boys – ages six, nine, and eleven – fell into quicksand and soon found themselves waist-deep in mud, reported Publisher's Weekly.

But, fortunately, the nine-year-old, Vasco Gonsalves, remembered the step-by-step how-to for escaping quicksand that he had read in "World Explorer" last year, when the book was given to him as a Christmas gift.

"The book said to lean back and lift my legs and bring them up, roll over and swim back," said Gonsalves. He escaped and ran to get his parents who were able to help the other boys out.

Though the book has proven its worth in a real-life setting, all the information in "World Explorer" was vetted by an expert before publication, and the writers themselves are world travelers. According to Piers Pickard, the manager of the Lonely Planet (Not-for-Parent's publisher), the writers "are constantly traveling the far reaches of the planet."

In reference to his feelings on the book saving the boys' lives Pickard said, "It made my day, it made my week, it made my month. The purpose of books is to spread a bit of happiness, and our books especially are supposed to help people, often in tight situations. But to have saved the lives of three kids? That is amazing. It is so gratifying – it makes me grin every time I think about it.” 

Packard deserves to smile. Gonsalves said, "I got out because of the book." 

Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick's book 'Immigration Wars' was released March 5.

Jeb Bush's book on immigration stirs controversy

By Husna Haq / 03.06.13

It’s the book everyone in Washington is talking about. It appears to outline a change of heart for a major Republican figure. And it’s already got folks speculating about whether the author will run in the Republican presidential primary in 2016. 

It’s Jeb Bush’s “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution,” and it’s already stirring controversy.

That’s because Bush, who wrote the book with co-author Clint Bolick, advocates residency for undocumented immigrants, but not citizenship – a sharp departure from his earlier support for a path to citizenship.

Last summer, as other Republicans were duking it out for the party nomination, generally trying to best each other with stricter and stricter immigration proposals, Bush, a former Florida governor who speaks Spanish and is married to a Mexican-born wife, was doing just the opposite. In a departure from the party line, he was advocating for citizenship.

Here’s what he told PBS’s Charlie Rose in June 2012: “You have to deal with this issue. You can't ignore it, and so either a path to citizenship, which I would support – and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives – or a path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind.”

Contrast that with his stance in the book: “A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage.”

Rather than grant illegal immigrants citizenship, Bush outlines a plan in his book which proposes that the government mandate immigrants to pay a fine, pay back taxes, perform community service, and learn English, then become eligible to apply for permanent legal residency.

He doesn’t rule out citizenship completely, but he makes it very difficult. Under the plan laid out in “Immigration Wars,” he says undocumented immigrants may earn citizenship if they return to their home countries and apply through regular channels – after a three- or 10-year ban.

The change of heart took many political watchers on both sides of the aisle by surprise. Though Bush’s office insists the former governor hasn’t changed his position, the proposal does in fact represent a significant slide on immigration, putting him to the right of prominent figures in the debate like his protégé, Fla. Sen. Marco Rubio (R).

So what’s the big deal? That change of heart on immigration reform, clearly outlined in his book, thrusts Bush back into the mainstream of his party and right in line with Republican primary voters – “where he needs to be,” NPR’s Mara Liasson said, “if he’s going to run for president in several years.”

And that’s what’s got everyone talking. Unlike the run up to the 2012 Republican presidential primaries when Bush emphatically rejected a run, this time the former governor hasn’t ruled out the idea – leading to wild speculation, of course. NBC political host Chuck Todd told viewers Bush was “seriously considering” entering the race in 2016.

Bush later said that was inaccurate and insisted it’s too soon to talk 2016.

“What I have seriously considered is not to consider it seriously for a while,” Bush told Reuters. “It’s so far away.”

What are the prospects for a Bush run in 2016?

Bush has the executive experience of governing a large and diverse state, popularity within the Republican ranks, and of course, name recognition. But oh, what a name. As both the son and brother of former presidents, that Bush name will haunt and/or help Jeb for the rest of his political career. What’s more, 2016 is light-years away, in political time. Still, anyone curious for a taste of what may come four years hence should flip through “Immigration Wars.”

That is, of course, if Bush doesn’t change his mind again.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

The first issue of the anthology 'The Adventures of Superman' is scheduled for a May release.

'Superman' artist drops out of project following Orson Scott Card controversy

By Staff Writer / 03.06.13

Comic book artist Chris Sprouse announced that he was leaving a “Superman” project on which he was working with sci-fi author Orscon Scott Card because of the controversy surrounding the writer’s views against gay marriage.

Card was hired to write a story in the anthology series “Adventures of Superman,” with Sprouse illustrating, but the artist said he became uneasy with the project after news coverage of Card’s views.

 “The media surrounding this story reached the point where it took away from the actual work, and that's something I wasn't comfortable with,” Sprouse said in a statement. “My relationship with DC Comics remains as strong as ever and I look forward to my next project with them.”

DC Comics, the company behind the series, said in a statement that it “fully support[s], understand[s] and respect[s] Chris's decision to step back from his Adventures of Superman assignment. Chris is a hugely talented artist, and we're excited to work with him on his next DC Comics project."

The story by Card and Sprouse was supposed to appear in an anthology series of “Adventures of Superman,” which was scheduled for a release later this year, but a new story will take its place. However, DC Comics said in its statement that it will “will re-solicit the story at a later date when a new artist is hired,” so Card’s narrative will presumably see the light of day at another time.

Renewed discussion over Scott’s views against gay marriage started when the company announced that the “Ender’s Game” author would be behind a “Superman” story. The news was greeted by a petition on the website AllOut.org requesting that DC remove Card from the anthology. The petition currently has more than 16,500 signatures.

Before it was announced that the story had been postponed, some comic book shops, such as Floating World Comics in Portland, Ore., had said that they would donate any proceeds from Card’s story to LGBT organizations. Some others, such as Zeus Comics in Dallas, Texas, said they would not be selling the issue.

Card, who is a practicing Mormon, has written multiple times about his views on gay marriage and homosexuality. In a 1990 column for the magazine Sunstone, in which he discussed the issue of homosexuality in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Card wrote that “the Church has no room for those who, instead of repenting of homosexuality, wish it to become an acceptable behavior in the society of the Saints…. Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”

Later, in an article for The Rhinoceros Times, Card wrote that “calling a homosexual contract 'marriage' does not make it reproductively relevant and will not make it contribute in any meaningful way to the propagation of civilization.”

Jonah Lehrer's book 'How We Decide' will no longer be sold by its original publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sad ending: Jonah Lehrer's book 'How We Decide' is pulled by publisher

By Husna Haq / 03.05.13

There's another sad chapter in the Johah Lehrer fabrication fiasco.

Some seven months after the bright young writer quit his prestigious position as staff writer for The New Yorker following allegations that he fabricated quotes in his bestselling book “Imagine” comes news that publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is pulling another of his books, “How We Decide.”

The publisher announced Friday it will no longer sell copies of Lehrer’s second book after an internal review revealed significant problems with the text.

“After completing our fact-check process for Jonah Lehrer’s work, we have decided to take ‘How We Decide’ off sale,” Lori Glazer, Harcourt’s executive director of publicity, wrote in an e-mail, according to the New York Times. “We have no plans to reissue it. We do plan to continue to sell ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist.’”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt also said it will offer refunds to those who have purchased the book, which explains how people make decisions and how decision-making can be improved. 

Though the publisher never revealed why it decided to discontinue selling the book, Michael Moynihan has offered some insight. Moynihan is the writer who uncovered fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s book “Imagine” after earlier allegations that Lehrer had re-purposed quotes in several New Yorker blogs.

Moynihan wrote a piece in the Daily Beast explaining that he privately provided Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with “problematic passages gleaned from a cursory look at ‘How We Decide.’” He goes on to cite a quote from a pilot whom Lehrer said he interviewed for the book but who actually made an almost identical statement some 20 years earlier in a lecture to NASA.

“Even after the Dylan fiasco, after Imagine had been pulped, and after he publicly declared that the 'lies were over now,' Lehrer told me via email that he had indeed interviewed Haynes – providing an email thread of their initial communication – and that the pilot had said the exact same thing, in the exact same language, to him 20 years later,” Moynihan wrote in his Daily Beast piece.

We’re sad to see a promising young writer further disgraced and hope, as Moynihan wrote, that “here ends the whole squalid saga.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

Two of the titles facing off for the book of the year title are 'The Round House' by Louise Erdrich and 'The Fault in Our Stars' by John Green.

Tournament of Books: March Madness for readers

By Staff Writer / 03.05.13

It’s that much-anticipated time of year when competitors face off, eliminating contenders through a series of face-offs, as fans cheer on their favorites.

Oh, and we guess March Madness is going on, too.

The ninth annual Tournament of Books, founded by the magazine The Morning News, began yesterday and will choose the best book of the year through a March Madness-style bracket system. This year, the competition is presented by Nook by Barnes & Noble.

The idea for the event first arose, according to commentator Kevin Guilfoile, during an argument between editors and writers for The Morning News about how absurd book awards were. The assembled staff members discussed how they both loved and hated book awards because, while they seem arbitrary, they do at least spark discussion about what makes a good book. (“We love the conversation, the attempt to focus the world's attention on great literature,” Guilfoile wrote for an article in the Chicago Tribune).

So The Morning News staff decided to start their own competition, honoring the best of literature that year but also acknowledging how subjective such decisions can be. Here is the tournament as they devised it: Each judge read two books and then select one to move on to a new round. Guilfoile and writer John Warner would discuss each decision as “color commentators.”

“Each judgment, subjective and arbitrary, would expand and evolve into a (mostly) thoughtful conversation about contemporary literature,” Guilfoile wrote.

The competition also includes a portion called the Zombie Round, in which readers can voice their choices for their favorite titles and, by doing so, bring back to the competition two contenders that had been eliminated.

The final winner is crowned with the title of the Rooster (named after essay writer David Sedaris’s brother, Paul, who is the subject of several Sedaris stories and goes by the nickname of Rooster).

The judges this year include journalists such as New York Times Magazine writer and “This American Life” contributor Jack Hitt and Wall Street Journal and Barnes & Noble Review writer Stefan Beck as well as authors Tony Horwitz, who recently released “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” and “The Magician King” author Lev Grossman. There are eight opening round judges, four quarterfinals judges, two semifinals judges, and two zombie round judges. All judges contribute to the championship decision.

This year the opening round of the Book Tournament is scheduled for March 7 with the face-off of “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich versus “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. (Check out the full list of hopefuls here.)

One slot for a competitor was left empty and the decision as to which book would fill it was left to Nathan Bradley, an Army officer and author. Bradley read the three war-themed titles “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain, “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers, and “Fobbit” by David Abrams to choose which would compete. Bradley chose “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”

Previous winners of the competition include "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick deWitt, "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan, and "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel.

Former Democratic congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. speaks at a Democratic primary election party. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

Jesse Jackson Jr. plans memoir

By Husna Haq / 03.05.13

It didn’t take long for Jesse Jackson Jr. to follow the footsteps of other disgraced politicians – right to a publisher.

That’s right, the former Democratic representative from Illinois – who’s recently been plastered across headlines for misusing at least $750,000 in campaign funds over seven years – is writing a memoir. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, Jackson Jr. is writing a memoir to “clear up his legacy.”

“He has nothing else to do right now,” the source told the Tribune. “He's desperately trying to change the narrative of his life story.”

The former congressman and son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson pleaded guilty Feb. 20 to misusing more than $750,000 in campaign money over the course of a seven-year shopping spree in which he bought such items as a Rolex watch, furs, a cruise, celebrity memorabilia, and two stuffed elk heads. He will be sentenced June 28 and is facing up to 57 months in prison.

In the meantime, it seems, he’s turned to pen and paper to begin his redemption. It wouldn’t be the first time a disgraced politician took the familiar route.

There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, who came out with a doorstopper of a book, titled “Total Recall," after news emerged of his affair with his housekeeper, Mildred Baena, with whom he had an affair and fathered a child.

And from Jackson Jr.’s own state comes the example of disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who wrote “The Governor,” in which he blamed his downfall on prosecutors and political enemies, while awaiting trial. He was eventually convicted of trying to sell a US Senate seat in exchange for campaign cash.

That’s the illustrious band of characters Jackson Jr. joins in his latest writing venture (it’s not his first – ironically, his first book was a collaboration with his father on a personal finance book, “It’s About the Money.”)

The only problem – Jackson Jr. hasn’t yet found a publisher and industry watchers say it won’t be easy.

“Had he not been accused of a crime, and now... pled guilty to a crime, there might have been a market for a book from him. But now he’s tainted. It’s going to be tough,” publicist Glenn Selig told CBS Chicago. Selig helped former Gov. Rod Blagojevich get his book "The Governor" published before he was convicted of corruption charges.

“To get big money you'd need a publisher who is really, really interested in his story,” Gail Ross, a lawyer and literary agent in Washington, told the Chicago Tribune. “Most people I work with don't want to line the pockets of a crook.”

If recent history is any indication, however, we think it’s just a matter of time before Jackson Jr. lands a publisher – and lands in a bookstore near you.

Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.

Frederic J. Baumgartner is the author of 'Behind Locked Doors.'

Choosing the Pope: Looking back at the process through the ages

By Randy Dotinga / 03.04.13

This week, Catholic cardinals are gathering in the world's smallest country to set about the task of making the biggest news on earth. Their job: choose the leader of the world's largest Christian faith. Under the soaring work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, they will consider the future of a troubled church at a conclave expected to begin within days.

We don't know exactly what happens in these secretive meetings, if there's yelling or note-passing, moments of laughter, or hours of tedium. But it is clear that certain things are verboten, at least if they're blatant: politicking, horse-trading, and self-promotion.

Still, this is a political process. Why does the church choose popes this way? How influential are Italian cardinals? And is this even a good system in the first place?

For answers, I turned to Frederic J. Baumgartner, professor of history at Virginia Tech and author of 2003's "Behind Locked Doors: A History of Papal Elections."
 
Q: A conclave is actually a form of democracy, isn't it? How did popes begin to be chosen by a group of men?
 
A: In the early church, the Christian community as a whole chose the bishop. It wasn't a process of election as such, or at least what we'd call an election. It was a system of acclamation. Someone said, "I'd like to be bishop," and they were chosen by consensus.

Over time, it evolved into a system in which the clergy of the city had the right to choose the bishop. The problem was that once the Holy Roman Empire became powerful, it was able to manipulate the clergy. In the 900s and early 1000s, the choice was really that of the emperor: He chooses the pope and the clergy does the rubber stamping.

The decision was made in 1059 to take the clergy of Rome out of the system and have the chief bishops of Italy do the choosing, primarily as a way of reducing the Holy Roman emperor's influence. But his influence was never eliminated by any means until the disappearance of the Austrian emperor after World War I.
 
Q: How influential were the wishes of Catholic rulers from powerful countries like France and Spain?
 
A: They had the right of exclusion. There were times when cardinals came up from Paris or Madrid or Vienna with a list of cardinals that their rulers would not accept.

There were always those cardinals who said, 'We shouldn't pay any attention to those guys.' But a majority of cardinals agreed there would be too much of a schism if they supported someone who was opposed by a Catholic ruler.
 
Q: We know about the many craven popes of the distant past. How did this system produce such scoundrels?
 
A: Certainly part of the problem was the choices: They were choosing bad popes because they had bad cardinals.

Renaissance cardinals were basically Renaissance popes in miniature, little different than the popes they elected. They were wealthy, had children, and politicked like crazy in their city states, kingdoms, or countries.

They were basically making bad choices because there was nothing to choose from but bad choices. There were two popes in the 16th century who were pious men and outside the realm of Renaissance popes, but they both had short reigns.
 
Q: How does the voting work now?
 
A: You have to get a two-thirds majority. And you can't vote for yourself.

The way they used to check on that has disappeared, so that may not be enforceable anymore. You used to have to put a motto on your ballot, and they'd check it. The story is that when Benedict XV became pope [in 1914], he was elected by the minimum number. One cardinal demanded that the ballots be checked to make sure he didn't vote for himself, and that apparently deeply offended him.
 
Q: What if it takes a long time to reach a conclusion?
 
A: It's taken years, actually, and once it took three years to elect a pope. They finally locked the cardinals in a palace to force them to make a decision. And when they still didn't make a decision, the local people are supposed to taken the roof off the palace. Someone humorously said it was to let the holy spirit in.
 
Q: Could that happen this time? Could they take off the roof?
 
A: They'd probably do too much damage to the Sistine Chapel.
 
Q: Good point. How do the cardinals make choices if politicking is frowned upon?
 
A: They can't openly politick for each other or themselves. A cardinal can't go have a dinner meeting with three or four of his fellow cardinals and say, "Vote for me," and one of his friends can't do that. That kind of open politicking is specifically barred.

What you can do is talk about the cardinals and what their beliefs and opinions are. Someone like Cardinal George of Chicago who doesn't spend much time in Rome might be talking to someone who's based in the curia to find out about the strong candidates, what their views are, what their health is, whether they are strong or vigorous enough to do the job.

A lot of these guys may be seriously ill or have debilitating disease, which would make it difficult for them to be pope.
 
Q: How about the kind of you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours kind of politics that we're so familiar with here in the US?

A: You can't horse-trade, at least openly. You can't say, "If you make me secretary of state, I'll vote for you." But you can find out from a friend of cardinal what he thinks about you and who he thinks might make strong possible choices as secretary of state.

Q: Has a conclave ever occurred during as much of a crisis atmosphere as the church is facing today?
 
A: There have been certainly been times when the papacy and church were in the midst of a serious crisis at the time of a conclave.There have been times when France and Spain, both Catholic countries, have been at war with each other. And the elections of the 16th century occurred during the Reformation. One could argue that the conclave of 1534 took place during a much more serious state of crisis because of the threat of the Reformation and the issue of how to respond to it.
 
Q: How will things be different now considering that the previous pope is still living?
 
A: The fact that he's still alive has got to have some impact on their voting and their balloting, But I think Benedict will make every effort at not influencing the election. To the extent that he really will is a different question entirely. It's one thing to vote for someone who wasn't in the graces of the previous pope when he's dead. But when he's alive, it might be quite different.
 
Q: What are some of the issues raised by the existence of a former pope?
 
A: One of the objections to popes abdicating or resigning is that he'll still be around. When the new pope changes policy, there could easily be a schism within the church by those who insist on the old pope's point of view.
 
Q: How much influence do the Italian cardinals have over the process?
 
A: They have a home-field advantage and the biggest voting bloc. It was a bit surprising when two popes in a row were elected who weren't Italians.The real question is whether there are any Italian cardinals who are respected enough to be elected. I expect there are.
 
Q: What are the strengths of the system as it is?
 
A: The official position about why they do it this way is it give a sense of mystery to outsiders, which is never a bad thing. Being too transparent ends up being a problem. And this way covers up the politics that do take place. A cardinal would tell you it provides an atmosphere in which the holy spirit is free to operate. The truth of the matter is that, far too often, the holy spirit could have hardly been present considering what happened.
 
Q: Do you think the process is a good one in modern times?
 
A: For the most part, they've elected decent men as popes in the last several hundred years. The system has continued to work reasonably well. But speaking as a historian, I would dearly love to get the information about what happened in the conclave, at least a couple years after it was over. From that point of view, the system works too well.

[Curious about the last time a pope resigned? Read my Q&A interview with historian Jon M. Sweeney, author of 2012's "The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation." For more on the history of Christianity, check my interviews with religious scholars Elaine Pagels ("Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation"), Bart Ehrman ("Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth"), and Adam C. English ("The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra").]

 Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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