Duke University Alumni Magazine

We asked ourselves, the editorial staff:

What books are we looking forward to attacking early in the millennium?

Editor Robert J. Bliwise is first drifting into Fortune Is a River: Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli's Magnificent Dream to Change the Course of Florentine History. What those two thinkers charted, according to author Roger D. Masters, was an audacious plan to protect Florence. Bliwise is also attracted to Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. It's a story of the father of modern science and of the father's daughter, who, writes author Dava Sobel, mirrored Galileo's brilliance. Shifting in time, he's eager to look in on The Elgin Affair: The Abduction of Antiquity's Greatest Treasures and the Passions It Aroused, by Theodore Vrettos. Any book that embraces "greed, deceit, cunning, thievery, obsession, and astonishing cultural arrogance" provides a perfect device for looking backward and looking ahead.

In addition to completing the voluminous A Man in Full by Duke parent Tom Wolfe and A Widow for One Year by John Irving, associate editor Sam Hull anticipates reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham. The Pulitzer Prize-winner layers scenes of Virginia Woolf's life in the 1920s with contemporary lives of Laura, a housewife in California in the 1940s, and Clarissa, a book editor in Greenwich Village in the 1990s, whose poet husband is dying. For something completely different, Hull will investigate Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire.

The stack awaiting features editor Kim Koster includes several books on the arts. The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention gathers essays from several authors, who examine the sensibilities and philosophies of the husband-and-wife design team and reveal much about the creative play that went into their many projects, from architecture to filmmaking to office bulletin boards. Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. is a stunning collection of photographs taken by state agencies in the two countries. From Farm Service Administration photos of migrant workers to Soviet press photos of factory workers, the book examines the ways that photography can be both true art and false reality. Finally, oral historian Studs Terkel's latest collection, The Spectator, compiles decades' worth of transcripts of his radio interviews with artists of every medium.

"Artistic creation is a personal search. Try not to force yourself to think about timelessness, but [about] the relevant things in your time period. Know what comes before you, but do not be fixated by it. Always ask youself why you are doing it."
-- Maya Lin, architect and artist best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"There are all sorts of patterns in nature that are randomly generated. But then we get consciousness, and consciousness treats patterns in certain ways. We tell stories about them. We refuse to believe that the pattern could just be random."
-- Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard professor, discussing evolution

"We now spend our lives fending off aging and death with all sorts of strange things. It is a full-time activity and industry. We live as if we are preparing ourselves to be eternal."
-- Manuel Castells, sociologist and author of the trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, on the impacts of technology on society. Castells, Gould, and Lin came to campus as part of a series, funded by the Wiegand Foundation, addressing "pivotal themes in world civilizations." These three fashioned their remarks around the theme of time.

What explains the popularity of such game shows as Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge?

The perhaps over-analyzed response to the popularity question lies at the core of the American Dream: our definition of success. For the Dream in our time has made synonyms out of "success" and "money." Taking this a step further, we ourselves most often define who we are as individuals in terms of money. In the introduction to his volume Rise of Industrial America, Page Smith captures this idea: "Americans, in the absence of any traditional ways of authenticating themselves and finding their places in the system --castle, clan, or 'order'--had to depend primarily upon money; making money became the validation of personal worth very early in our history."

There are individual exceptions, of course, but this is very much a description of the American Dream in our time. For indeed, money is all too often not a status symbol, but status itself. Sadly, to paraphrase Meghan Daum in a recent New Yorker article, at best we use this money to make a life for ourselves; at worst, we try to purchase a life for ourselves.

The popularity of the game shows occurs also because they connect with two other strains deeply ingrained in American history and thought. Though seemingly contradictory, throughout our history these strains have worked together as a team. The first is our puritan belief in the virtue of work. Note the use of "The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge." The operative word is "challenge," for it changes a vice into a virtue. Challenge means work, earning something by force of intellect, the ability to memorize, or--and here is the second and seemingly contradictory element--luck.

As a nation, we believe that we have risen to where we are because of this combination of hard work and luck--"deserved" luck since our nation is special and presents an "exception" to the usual historical processes. We then individualize the national and, in the process, we come to view luck on the personal level as an "entitlement." Thus, what happens to contestants on the game shows is viewed as the result of a combination of hard work and luck. We believe that this could (and should) happen to each of us. For after all, we are special! So we keep on hoping and keep on watching the game shows.
-- Gerald L. Wilson '61, A.M. '68, history professor and senior associate dean of Trinity College, who teaches "American Dreams and Realities" and "Leadership in American History"

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