Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Friday, June 20, 2003

Here's a confession I never thought I'd make: I should read Nature more often. Physicists actually do some interesting stuff!


Cool people that we are, Susan and I will be stopping by "the Hogwartian halls of gothic Hutchinston Commons" to pick up our copies of the new Harry Potter book this evening. (The quotation comes from the ad for the "Harry Potter party" being organized by 57th Street Books--an event that simultaneously amuses and scares me.) We won't be attending in costume (ha!), tempted as I am to get out my magical eyeball and dress up as Mad-Eye Moody.

Some predictions:

a) Severus Snape, we will learn, was the spy who told Dumbledore that Voldemort was hot on the trail of James and Lily Potter, the event that precipitated their decision to hide in Godric's Hollow. (Is it a coincidence that they decided to move to a village named after Godric Gryffindor? I wonder...) It may even be that Snape decided to defect from the Death Eaters when he learned of the plot against the Potters, though I'm not willing to make that prediction.

b) A major character will die. Yes, I know: this isn't a very daring prediction, considering that Rowling has said this publicly. (Not that I completely trust her--she said pretty much the same thing before Book Four, and the only major death in that volume was the eminently forgettable Cedric Diggory. This time, though, I suspect that she's being more honest.) My leading candidate for extinction is one of the Weasley twins. They're interchangeable, and their mother is always saying things like "Oh! I feel so awful! The last thing I did before you left was yell at you, and I'd feel horrible if you'd died!" Other possibilities include another Weasley (most likely Arthur or Molly), Hagrid, Neville Longbottom, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin. (Practically anyone could die, of course, but I expect people like Dumbledore to survive until at least Book Six.)

c) Rita Skeeter, the Daily Prophet's most disreputable journalist, knows that Sirius Black is an animagus who's been hanging around Hogwarts. Soon after the confrontation between Dumbledore and Cornelius Fudge in the penultimate chapter of Book Four, Sirius transforms into a man, reluctantly shakes hands with Snape, and leaves Hogwarts to warn "the old crowd" that trouble is brewing. Less than a page later, Hermione slams her hand against the window ledge and clutches something tight in her fist. A chapter later, we learn that she had captured Skeeter, who was hiding on the window ledge in the form of a bug.

A few caveats: Hermione forced Skeeter to promise that she wouldn't write any articles for a year, so we may not learn how much she knows until Book Six. What's more, Rowling may not have intended Skeeter to be present at such an important moment in the series. Book Four was often sloppily edited--in the first edition of the book, the images of Harry's parents left Voldemort's wand in the wrong order, for example--and perhaps this just happened to be the only place where Rowling could fit in the capture of everyone's favorite magical journalist. (Rowling can always claim that Skeeter had just arrived on the ledge when Hermione found her.) For now, though, I think the most reasonable interpretation is that Skeeter had been listening in on the conversation before she was caught, and will reveal what she knows at some point in the future.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

It's very nice to have a dissertation topic: I'll be researching the Soviet Communist party's investigations into the personal behavior of its members between 1940 and 1964. The precise subject of my thesis will be open to modification and fine-tuning--I may well focus on a shorter time period or a narrower class of behavior--but I have more than enough to work on right now. I'll be studying investigations of complaints sent to the party control commission, discussions of appeals by people expelled from the party, local control documents dealing with expulsions, party periodicals, and whatever other sources I can find.

If nothing else, this topic will fulfill my need for gossip for the next four years. So far this week I've read reports on a kindergarten director accused of sleeping with the school carpenter (and embezzling money to hold wild parties), tourists who misbehaved on a trip to Czechoslovakia, a famous film director who was rude to his crew, a local party secretary who ran an illegal restaurant out of his apartment, and a drunken factory director who abandoned his wife and cohabited with one of his workers. It's fun stuff--and it's closely connected to a lot of key issues in Soviet social and cultural history.

One of the oddities of Soviet history is that large chunks of the Russian archives are available to researchers at American university libraries. I've been looking at party control commission documents here at Chicago, and next week I'll be doing research at Harvard. Sometimes I wonder if this is the wave of the future--in 30 years, will the contents of national archives from all over the world be available at major research libraries in Europe and America? I suspect not: my feeling is that the presence of Soviet archival material in the U.S. is just a result of the unusual political and economic situation of the immediate post-Cold War era. But whatever its cause, the proliferation of documents from the old Soviet archives is wonderful for people like me.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Question of the week: why would someone go out and buy a boxed set of the first four Harry Potter books? (That item is now the sixteenth best-selling item at Amazon.com.) Unless the set comes with an expandable box, it'll soon look very silly to have a boxed set of just the first four books...

Monday, June 16, 2003

There are a lot of advice columns out there. I found this one kind of interesting, but not always well written.