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.
A Holocaust survivor who was rescued by Oskar Schindler as a teen has written a memoir about his experiences.
Leon Leyson died this January after sending his manuscript, titled “The Boy On the Wooden Box,” to the publisher Atheneum. Leyson was 13 when he was taken from a ghetto in Poland by Schindler and lived in the US after World War II, speaking across the US at different times about his experiences.
“The Boy On the Wooden Box, will be released Aug. 27, according to Atheneum. The publisher said the book will give an “unprecedented perspective” on Schindler.
The story of Schindler became famous through Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” which won an Oscar for Best Picture and is now often cited as one of the best films of all time. Actor Liam Neeson portrayed Schindler, a business owner who employed more than a thousand Jewish workers in his factories, located in the Czech Republic and Poland, to save the workers from the Holocaust.
The movie itself was based on a novel titled "Schindler's Ark," released as "Schindler's List" in America, which was written by Australian author Thomas Keneally and released in 1982. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1982. Keneally wrote the book after hearing the stories of Leopold "Poldek" Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who was a worker in one of Schindler's factories.
The Ancients adored their cats, memorializing them with the majestic sphinx. Through well researched non-fiction juvenile books like "Secrets of the Sphinx" by James Cross Giblin, I discovered the genesis of their ardent worship.
However, I must confess that I remain perplexed about educators’ contemporary love affair with one particular feline, a cat renowned for his red-and-white horizontally striped cap. Every year, come March 2 (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a., Dr. Seuss), reports about middle school principals (re)reading "The Cat in the Hat" to a generation of "Hunger Game" enthusiasts abound. Photographs capture strapping high school football players as they attempt to woo second graders from Gerald and Piggie to gaze (yet again) at that same cat in that same hat.
One reporter speculated that "The Cat in the Hat" remains popular because it stayed within the boundaries of political correctness. The notion of political correctness as a gauge for choosing children’s books is ... well, disturbing.
Fifteen years ago, The National Education Association instituted “Read Across America” (celebrated on or near Dr. Seuss's birthday) as a venue to celebrate reading. In the ensuing years, this thoughtful idea has digressed to merely celebrating one book. At the risk of being labeled an iconoclast, I confess the purpose of this essay is to call for a moratorium on reading "The Cat in the Hat" for one year. To that end, I envision 365 days in which teachers, parents, and children read other feline-friendly books that may have been overlooked in the long, dark shadow of that cat’s hat.
My poem foreshadows how the year might progress:
The sun will still rise
When “the cat” goes away
We’ll meet many fine felines
Reading books day by day.
Books with Fabian,
And his friend Hondo too
And we’ll say, “How we love
Learning what new cats can do!”
We’ll follow one so silky and smooth
Wandering Harlem, this cat’s on the move.
With dear old Chester we’ll chuckle and sigh,
We’ll even remember when cats could fly!
Then we’ll read that once cats had paws, but no purr
Some like feathers for lunch and wear ink-covered fur.
We’ll join a kitten as he discovers the moon,
And remember dear Barney, who died too soon.
Yes, we’ll sit there with Sally
Millions of cats at our feet
Realizing a year minus Seuss
Is undeniably sweet.
Author’s Note: Please use this poem as a pretest. If you cannot identify the books related to these felines, perhaps you too should abstain from reading "The Cat in the Hat" for one year.
-Anita Voelker is an associate professor of education at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.
@Pentametron is a very unusual Twitter account. Its Twitter page touts its unique purpose: "With algorithms subtle and discrete / I seek iambic writings to retweet."
In an interview with NPR Ranjit Bhatnagar, the creator of Pentametron, explains how it works: "I'd been interested in playing around with the idea of poetry; I was kind of inspired by the exquisite corpse games of the surrealists," he says.
But Bhatnagar is also a self-described "big nerd." So after studying Twitter's API ("the systems that let programmers talk to Twitter"), he realized that there was a way to subscribe to Twitter that would allow him to "receive just an endless waterfall of tweets from them."
Such a prospect might not excite the average person but Bhatnagar, as a poetry-loving techno-type, saw some interesting possibilities in that waterfall. "And what I ended up doing was combining my interest in surrealist poetry and Twitter's API and Pentametron came out of that."
Pentametron finds tweets that happen to be in iambic pentameter (the same meter used by poet William Shakespeare) and matches them to other tweets in the same meter that rhyme. An example:
good music never makes the radio
I really want a chicken salad tho !
Each sentence is from a different user. Sometimes they are disparate and surreal, other times they kind of work together, like this couplet:
The only journey is the one within.
That's when the flashbacks started to begin.
The program produces about 20 couplets a day and currently has more than 7,000 followers.
After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, students and faculty at Slippery Rock University wondered what they could do. Then Alice Del Vecchio, assistant professor of professional studies at the Pennsylvania school, had an idea.
"What better way to celebrate young readers who were killed than to give the gift of reading to others?" she asked.
So Del Vecchio and the school's Student Nonprofit Alliance organized the "We Can Read!" book drive that ended last month. The drive collected and distributed more than 10,000 books nationwide.
“The project honors the children and their teachers and staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in a very special way," said Del Vecchio. "The children’s book drive will keep the spirit of those young readers alive and pass on the joy of learning to read to children far and wide.”
Participants were asked to purchase their favorite children's book, read it to a child, and then donate it to "We Can Read!" The books would then be sent to regional libraries, elementary schools, day care centers, and other similar programs for children.
Del Vecchio got the idea when she watched an interview with a parent of a child killed in the school shootings. He was saying that his daughter Emilie had recently learned to read, and enjoyed sharing stories with her siblings. It occurred to Del Vecchio that sharing books with children nationwide would be a wonderful way to honor the young readers of Sandy Hook.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up the story in December at the beginning of the drive. "Even if you've never been a parent or a teacher, you learned how to read," Del Vecchio told the Post-Gazette. "You remember sitting on somebody's lap and feeling safe. And then the first time you could read the story all by yourself, remember how excited you were."
According to the Slippery Rock student newspaper The Rocket, the drive has collected and distributed more than 10,000 books nationwide. More than 21 individuals and organizations across the country also organized their own "We Can Read!" or similar book drives. Those books have also been distributed to schools across the country.
The "Read Kansas City" initiative joined on for the months of January and February and collected about 6,000 books. The Connecticut PTA also signed on, and urged other PTAs across the state to participate as well.
The Slippery Rock effort culminated with the sending of Valentine's Day cards to the Sandy Hook school and Emilie's parents.
The National Book Critics Circle awarded its top prizes for 2012 to already well-received works such as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain and “The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” by Robert Caro.
Fountain’s novel won the fiction award for the NBCC, while Caro’s work picked up the biography prize and Andrew Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.”
The NBCC's 2012 poetry award went to D.A. Powell’s work “Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys.” The criticism award went to author Marina Warner for her book “Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.” “Swimming Studies” by Leanne Shapton won the autobiography prize.
Monitor fiction critic Yvonne Zipp called “Billy Lynn” an “absurdist portrait of the war and modern society painted with brush strokes laid as precisely and as viciously as a whip.”
“Having been away for months, Lynn returns to his own homeland as a stranger, and the dissonance is both uncomfortable and revealing,” Zipp notes.
“The Passage of Power,” meanwhile, demonstrates that “Caro long ago mastered his subject – Johnson and power,” according to Monitor reviewer Erik Spanberg.
“With characteristic detail and precision, Caro frames the assassination from Johnson’s vantage point, providing a horrifying, pulse-pounding account of what it was like for a humbled man – even one as ambitious and power-hungry as LBJ – to shoulder the grief and burden of an entire nation,” Spanberg wrote.
William Deresiewicz, critic, blogger, and author of "A Jane Austen Education," was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, while the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award went to Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert.
The prizes were given out in the Tishman Auditorium at New York’s New School.
The nonfiction prize for last year went to Maya Jasanoff’s work “Liberty’s Exiles,” while the fiction award was given to Edith Pearlman’s short story collection “Binocular Vision.”
Writer EL James, hot off the massive success of her “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, recently dropped a few hints about her next project.
James didn’t reveal any plot details besides the fact that it would not be a continuation of her series following college student Anastasia Steele and her billionaire paramour Christian Grey. In fact, she said her new book will be much tamer.
“It won’t be nearly so raunchy – and I will probably write it under another name,” the author told the New York Post.
James is, in fact, a pseudonym for the writer whose real name is Erika Mitchell.
In the interview, the author also discussed the planned movie adaptation of the “50 Shades” books. While rumors have been flying about who’s in consideration to play Anastasia and Christian, James said nothing is definite yet.
“We don’t even have a filmmaker…. so we are still a long way away from casting,” the writer told the Post. “I have some ideas…. but it may not be who people expect.”
The fastest way to get your book on a bestseller list? Buy your way on.
That’s according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal outlining the dark practice of buying bestselling status. According to the article, at least one marketing firm, ResultSource, charges client-authors thousands of dollars to buy up books en masse ahead of a book’s publication date, creating a sales spike that lands the title on coveted bestseller lists.
Phony? You bet.
The paper outlines the story of Soren Kaplan, a first-time business author who used the service to ensure his book, “Leapfrogging,” would attain star status.
“Mr. Kaplan purchased about 2,500 books through ResultSource, paying about $22 a book, including shipping, for a total of about $55,000,” the Journal reports, adding that he also “paid ResultSource a fee in the range of $20,000 to $30,000.”
Thanks to ResultSource’s efforts, his book sold 3,000 copies in its first week, enough to hit No. 3 on the Journal's hardcover business best-seller list. (It later hit No. 1 on BarnesandNoble.com.) Sales plummeted after that, dropping off to about 1,000 in the six months following.
The “bought bestsellers” are easy to spot, following a pattern of strong debuts and plunging sales thereafter. As the Journal reported, one title debuted on the WSJ’s own bestseller list, only to see a 99 percent drop in sales the following week. Another soared to the top of the list only to have more copies returned than sold – just a week later. Clearly the work of a marketing firm vacuuming up books en masse to ensure bestseller status, even if real people weren’t actually buying all those books.
“To add further insult to injury, ResultSource openly lists on its website a number of high-profile titles that have bought these “launch campaigns,” as though this practice of buying a spot on a bestseller list is not devious,” writes Good E-Reader.
No surprise, the publishing industry isn’t pleased.
The practice, writes the WSJ, causes “discomfort among some in the publishing industry who worry that preorders are being corralled and bulk purchases are being made to appear like single sales to qualify for inclusion in best-seller lists, which normally wouldn't count such sales.”
At this point, we’re wondering what a wad of cash won’t buy in the book biz.
First it was book reviews, with some authors hiring private reviewers for a dime to churn out hundreds of positive reviews of their books on Amazon.com and other sites. That mushroomed into competitions between bulk-reviewers, for who could spit out the most reviews in a day or week. Things got uglier when some authors began paying reviewers-for-hire to write nasty, one-star reviews for competing titles.
And now this, that authors can buy their way onto bestseller lists, too. Welcome to the new frontier of publishing, folks. We’re disgusted by the practice, which misleads readers and gives undeserved distinctions to authors.
We’re not yet sure how honest authors and readers can counter the practice, but Good E-Reader has one idea: “Fortunately, the single most effective source of book discovery according to a large-scale survey by Goodreads is still word of mouth recommendation by ones own circle of friends. With reviews and bestseller lists being transformed into nothing more paid for marketing scams by people looking to make a quick buck, hopefully that word of mouth can travel far enough to make a difference.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.
Is there a new young adult mega-hit in the making?
Writer Gail Carriger’s novel “Etiquette and Espionage” – the first in a planned quartet about a girl who attends finishing school and finds the institution is not what it seems – was released on Feb. 5 and is already garnering strong reviews as well as good sales.
“Etiquette and Espionage” follows Sophronia, a 14-year-old who is sent to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. The schools offers the kind of lessons you might expect – how to dance properly, the finer points of manners, etc. – but actually excels in the unexpected. The heart of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s establishment is located inside dirigibles and teaches its pupils how to become spies as well as proper ladies.
Carriger has written for adults before. Her previous books made up a series titled the "Parasol Protectorate," which took place in a Victorian London which was peopled by werewolves and vampires. “Etiquette and Espionage” inhabits that same universe. The book was released by Little, Brown.
Etiquette and Espionage” made the New York Times young adult bestseller list on Feb. 24, taking the ninth spot, while Kirkus Reviews, Booklist and the School Library Journal have all given the title starred reviews.
“Carriger’s YA debut brings her mix of Victorian paranormal steampunk and winning heroines to a whole new audience,” Booklist wrote.
The retro-futuristic steampunk style continues strong in pop culture in general. It seems to fascinate readers of Cassandra Clare’s bestselling "Infernal Devices" trilogy, the third title in which is scheduled for a March release this year. It has also been featured in movie theaters with the recent success of the rebooted “Sherlock Holmes” movies, which starred Robert Downey Jr. as the sleuth and Jude Law as his sidekick Watson and found them dodging lots of steampunk-style machines.
As we’ve previously discussed, skillfully written and well-reviewed young adult titles are today winning wider and wider adult audiences. The “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series, of course, won praise from critics as well as appealing to young and adult readers alike. (Stephenie Meyer's “Twilight” series failed to wow the critics and yet attracted a vociferous, wide-ranging fan base nonetheless.) More recently, books like John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and the “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series by Laini Taylor have received positive reviews and experienced strong sales among both adolescents and adults.
Carriger's new novel may be the "next big thing" to hit the new crossover category. Emilio Flores, the book buyer for the Redondo Beach, Calif. book store Mysterious Galaxy, told Publishers Weekly that an event in which Carriger came to the store to promote the book was a big success, with many attendees arriving in Victorian costume. He estimated that more than 100 people showed up.
"The author really appeals to both age groups, and she doesn’t talk down to her teenage readers," Flores said of the audience, which he said consisted of about half teenagers and half adults. "For some YA authors, that is hard to pull off, but Gail really gets it right."
“Game of Thrones” fans got new insight into the series' third season with a minute-long trailer that showed many of the program’s main characters.
The trailer begins with a character saying in voiceover, “It’s been a long time, my old friend” as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) walks into a room. It then cuts to a man with red hair and a beard climbing a wall (is it the Wall, which separates the country of Westeros from the wild country beyond?). Then a figure that looks like Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), who is both the Hand of the King and the grandfather of the current monarch, enters the throne room on his way to see his grandson, King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).
“Death is coming for everyone and everything,” another character then says in voiceover, as shots appear of Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) firing an arrow, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) surveying the aftermath of a battle, and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) walking.
The trailer also shows Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in the middle of an army and Catelyn telling someone, “Show them how it feels to lose what they love.”
It also offers a glimpse of previously unseen character Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), known as the King-Beyond-The-Wall, who shouts, “I’m going to light the biggest fire the North has ever seen!”
Later, Joffrey tells his grandfather and uncle, Tyrion, “Everyone is mine to torment” while Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), sidekick to Daenerys, says, “There’s a beast in every man and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.”
Other shots include Jon Snow kissing someone (wildling Ygritte, perhaps?) and a dragon, presumably one of Daenerys’ fully grown, flying to a ship.
“The revenge you want will be yours in time,” a character says in voiceover at the end of the preview as the faces of Robb, Tyrion, Robb’s sister Arya, Jaime, and Jaime’s sister Cersei are shown.
The song “Bones” by the duo MS MR plays over the preview.
Check out the full trailer.