‘Four Millennia of the Hotel Industry’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

May is a merry month, not least because it heralds the start of tourist season. That’s good news for a visitor-friendly country like the U.S., where tourism has generated nearly $1.6 trillion of annual economic output in recent years.

Orlando, Fla., and New York are the two most popular destinations, though New York claims to have the better-quality hotels. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a sales pitch that has been used for at least 4,000 years. Tourism and its adjunct, the hotel industry, are as old as civilization. When the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur (circa 2094-2047 B.C.) wanted to boast about his achievements, the list of accomplishments included having improved the roads in and out of Ur and “built there lodging houses…and installed in those places experienced men. Whichever direction one comes from…the traveler who reaches nightfall on the road can seek haven there as in a well-built city.” Continue reading…

‘As You Dislike It: The Anti-Shakespeare Club’ – The Wall Street Journal

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

In David Lodge’s 1975 novel “Changing Places,” a group of university professors play a party game called Humiliation, competing to see who has read the fewest great works of literature. A professor of English literature is in the lead, having declared his ignorance of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” when Harold Ringbaum, a man with “a pathological urge to succeed,” declares that he’s never read “Hamlet.” The more he insists, the more the others scoff—until Ringbaum angrily swears a solemn oath to the fact, by which time everyone is stone cold sober with embarrassment.

Ringbaum’s faux pas neatly sums up Shakespeare’s towering presence in modern culture—underlined by the tempest of celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, which falls on Saturday. His reputation exists on a plane separate from other writers. With apologies to a speech from “Richard II,” Shakespeare himself has become a precious stone set in a silver sea of words.

Yet over the centuries, a surprising roster of famous writers and celebrated personages has picked quarrels with the Man from Stratford. Though complaints about the Bard have run the gamut from the moral to the artistic, one type is almost unique to him. I call it WAMS, or the What-About-Me Syndrome.

Among the first to suffer its ravages was Shakespeare’s friend, fellow dramatist and eventual British poet laureate Continue reading…

‘Historian Amanda Foreman upends the story of civilization to give women their due’ – The New York Times

BY LINDA KINSTLER

The Ascent of Woman

The Ascent of Woman

Enheduanna. Hatshepsut. Empress Wu. Murasaki Shikibu. These ancient women were the first feminist trailblazers, yet they’ve been largely expunged from the historical record.

Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon the Great of Sumer, became the world’s first recorded author in the third millennium BCE. Hatshepsut ruled the Kingdom of Egypt for 20 years, adopting the full regalia of a male king — beard included — before her successor had all signs of her reign erased. Empress Wu, also known as Wu Zetian, united the Chinese empire and reigned as sole monarch for fifteen years before her successors also tried to obliterate her achievements. Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, the Tale of Genji, between 1001-1010 AD. Her real name and personal details remain largely unknown.

These influential women are just a few of the female iconoclasts featured in The Ascent of Woman, Dr. Amanda Foreman’s four-part BBC documentary that premiered to U.S. viewers on Netflix earlier this month. The series aims to “retell the story of civilization with women and men side by side for the first time,” as Foreman declares in the introduction. Reinscribing women into their rightful places in the human story, the documentary corrects the erasures of history’s male heirs. Continue reading…

“Embrace your Femininity and Watch ‘The Ascent of Woman'”

'The Ascent of Woman'

‘The Ascent of Woman’

“In this series, I want to retell the story of civilization with men and women side by side for the first time.”

That’s one of the opening lines of Amanda Foreman’s BBC series, The Ascent of Woman. The series, which is now on Netflix, focuses on inserting women back into history. The four-part docu-series covers women’s role in everything from ancient civilization to modern day, making this the perfect crash course on feminism. So if you’ve even wondered about feminism and female oppression pre-Judith Butler but are too lazy to actually do any research, you now have a streaming option. Continue reading…

‘The Second Life of Troubled Inventions’ – The Wall Street Journal

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

It’s been a difficult time for the high-profile medical startup Theranos. For months, controversies have shadowed the linchpin Edison blood-testing device that the Palo Alto, Calif., company​ has developed. The method uses a few drops of blood, obtained by a finger-stick, instead of the usual multiple vials.

The fate of the Edison device, named after the inventor, remains unclear. But the story of Thomas Edison himself offers some hope. Not all troubled products remain troubled.

In 1875, the 28-year-old Edison had already obtained almost 100 patents without having invented something truly new. He thought he had the answer in the electric pen. Edison wanted to take the tedium out of copy-making by designing a motorized stylus that would act like a kind of stencil, able to punch words through a stack of papers up to 100 pages thick. Continue reading…

‘Netflix’s Docuseries The Ascent of Woman Puts Women’s Rights in a Powerful New Context’ – Vogue

Amanda Foreman with her children, (from left) Helena, Xanthe, Halcyon, Hero, and Theo, at their home in New York, 2011. Photographed by Tina Barney, Vogue, June 2011

Amanda Foreman with her children, (from left) Helena, Xanthe, Halcyon, Hero, and Theo, at their home in New York, 2011.
Photographed by Tina Barney, Vogue, June 2011

By Eve MacSweeney

Vogue contributor and professional historian Amanda Foreman has spent much of her 25-year career taking deep dives into very specific subjects. She wrote the celebrated biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire—which later became a movie starring Keira Knightley—and A World On Fire, an exploration of Britain’s role in the American Civil War.

So it’s something of a surprise that her latest topic is infinitely broader: 10 thousand years of global history, to be precise. Her series, The Ascent of Woman, produced by the BBC and launching on Netflix today, conveniently collects for us an overview of women’s societal roles throughout history that will refine many an argument in the classroom, the courtroom, and at the dinner table. Continue reading…

Amanda Foreman on five novels about the status of women

Amanda ForemanThe Tale of Genji
By Murasaki Shikibu (c. 1000)

1 . “The Tale of Genji” is the world’s first novel in any language, which is all the more remarkable considering that until the Heian era (794-1185) there was no native written tradition in Japan. The male educated elite wrote in Chinese, a language forbidden to peasants and women. In frustration, Heian elite women invented their own form of writing by transliterating Chinese characters into Kana, a form of phonetic Japanese speech. Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973-1014), a lady in waiting at the imperial court, transformed that desperate act of the dispossessed into the purest expression of aesthetic genius. The result is that Heian culture is the only one in the world that was conceived and curated by women. The greatness of the novel lies in its astute psychological portraits and exquisite evocation of time and place. But at its core lies a meditation on the female condition—on whether there can be any meaning in a life of gilded isolation.

The Book of the City of Ladies
By Christine de Pizan (c. 1400)

2. French Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) was not only the first female political philosopher in history but also the first writer to do battle with the misogyny of medieval Europe. Her “Book of the City of Ladies” is an unflinching defense of womanhood. She wrote it, she claimed, so that no woman would ever have to feel the shame that she herself experienced after reading endless denunciations of the female sex. From Aristotle down to Boccaccio, the message was clear—women are morally wicked and intellectually inferior. The book is, all told, a remarkable work, not least for its audacity: The author delivers, slipped between inspirational histories of female paragons, the first enunciation of “no means no”: “It therefore angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped . . . that it could give women any pleasure to be treated in such a vile way.” Continue reading…

‘Before Chocolate Bunnies: An Easter Season History of Cocoa’ – The Wall Street Journal

In the week leading up to Easter, estimates say Americans will have bought more than 70 million pounds of chocolate. PHOTO: ISTOCK

In the week leading up to Easter, estimates say Americans will have bought more than 70 million pounds of chocolate. PHOTO: ISTOCK

A combination of drought, violence, disease and pollution has caused the price of cocoa beans to rise by an eye-watering 40% since 2012—without having the slightest effect on global demand.

In the week leading up to Easter, estimates say Americans—who are no slouches when it comes to candy consumption—will have bought more than 70 million pounds of chocolate. The cocoa bean—like the coffee bean, the wine grape and the tea leaf—has become one of life’s indispensable indulgences—unnecessary for health but necessary (many would argue) for happiness.

Yet our passion for chocolate almost didn’t happen. The Aztecs brought cocoa beans as gifts to Christopher Columbus in 1502 during his fourth and final voyage to the New World. He was given chocolate in drink form under the name xocolatl, which in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, means “bitter water.” Despite its popularity and ancient pedigree in South America (the earliest traces of cocoa use date from 1400 B.C.), Columbus couldn’t see the sharp and spicy drink catching on in Spain. Continue reading…

‘Postal Pitfalls, From Beacons to Emails’ – The Wall Street Journal

Charles Francis Adams was an American historical editor, politician and diplomat. He was the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, of whom he wrote a major biography. PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Charles Francis Adams was an American historical editor, politician and diplomat. He was the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, of whom he wrote a major biography. PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

It’s now 150 years since a trans-Atlantic cable finally crackled into continuous action after nine years of false starts and disappointments. The transmission speed of up to eight words a minute seemed to the Victorians almost godlike. Small wonder that the first telegram in the U.S., sent about two decades earlier, had read, “What hath God wrought.”

Our desire for instantaneous dialogue is as old as language itself. Contemporaries praised the masterful use of rapid communication by Persian King Xerxes I, who ruled from 486 to 465 B.C. and was famous for having slaughtered the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes’ messengers were the best in the ancient world, for “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor night holds back for the accomplishment of the course.” That sentiment, translated a bit differently, ended up chiseled in stone above the front columns of the New York City Post Office on Eighth Avenue. Continue reading…