10th annual book salon celebrates Stanford authors

On topics ranging from poetry to politics, Stanford writers talked about their recent publications at "A Company of Authors," a "speed-dating" version of a book fair.

Veronica Marian Books on display at A Company of Authors

At the Company of Authors book fair celebrating recent publications by Stanford scholars, the Stanford Bookstore sold discounted copies of the featured titles.

It's not often that humanities scholars, psychiatrists and engineers come together to discuss their works with the public. But for the past decade that's exactly what has happened every April at "A Company of Authors," a book fair that celebrates recent publications by Stanford scholars.

Nearly two dozen Stanford-affiliated writers gathered recently for the half-day event. Themed discussions covered everything from the history of romance and evolving perceptions of marriage to how Enlightenment principles are evident in Wikipedia practices and what President Obama could learn from the Kennedy administration.

The day had its share of surprising presentation styles. Some authors gave summaries of their books while others read from them. But Norris Pope, former director of Stanford University Press, brought his book's main character to the event – the Arriflex 35 camera, which Pope says "brought filming outside of the studio" after the 1940s and is the subject of his Chronicle of a Camera.

The event was held at the Stanford Humanities Center, where the Stanford Bookstore sold discounted copies of each featured title.

Authors share

The authors who shared their works with about 100 audience members came from a diverse range of academic backgrounds. Some, like Herant Katchadourian, professor emeritus of human biology, have had long careers teaching at Stanford. For 30 years, Katchadourian taught a hugely popular human sexuality class, Human Biology 10.

During a discussion about perception, he read the opening passages from his autobiography, The Way it Turned Out: A Memoir, recounting how a trip to a hamam, or Turkish bath, as a young child opened his eyes to the human sexual body.

Others, like Zubair Ahmed, are relatively new to Stanford. Ahmed, a student in mechanical engineering and a former professional video gamer, read the first and last poems in his book of poetry, City of Rivers. Ahmed said the book emerged from an English 92, Reading and Writing Poetry, course at Stanford and was largely based on the experience of "stumbling across violence and death" during his childhood in Bangladesh.

From human evolution to procrastination

Co-sponsored by Stanford Continuing Studies, "A Company of Authors" was created by Peter Stansky, professor emeritus of history, as a labor of love meant to celebrate the rich variety of Stanford publications.

"I like and have too many books," said Stansky, who has organized the event every year since its founding.

Stansky describes the half-day book salon as the "speed-dating version of book events," with each author giving a brief presentation before taking questions from the audience. The fast pace allows time for as much conversation as possible and shows off "the extraordinary variety and productivity of the Stanford faculty," Stansky said.

The day's positive energy lent itself well to some more potentially sobering subjects during the final panel of the day, about various ways of looking at the world. During the discussion of his book The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations, classicist Ian Morris predicted that humankind is "on the verge of the next gigantic leap of human evolution" but this could potentially lead to two outcomes. "It is very plausible that we are going to blow ourselves up. Or, it will all be fine," Morris said, adding, "I believe it will all be fine."

This reassuring tone was picked up by the final speaker of the day, philosopher John Perry, who brought out the small book that people tell him changed their lives. The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, said Perry, is for the procrastinators of the world who feel bad about their tarrying ways.

Perry told the audience, most of whom self-identified as procrastinators, that procrastination is not a bad thing. In fact, he credited many of the successes in his long career to putting off what he was supposed to be doing, in favor of things he wanted to be doing. In the long run, it was these very projects that became his biggest accomplishments.

A testament to Stanford's intellectual community

This year's presenters join a long list of notable authors who have made appearances at "A Company of Authors" over the past decade. Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee participated in the inaugural event in 2004, when he was at Stanford as a Stein Visiting Writer. Spy novelist Joseph Kanon was a special guest in 2005, when the event coincided with the publication of his thriller Alibi.

Two former Stanford presidents, Donald Kennedy and Richard Lyman, have taken part in past events, and Stansky himself has joined the party over the years, discussing three of his works: Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil, The First Day of the Blitz and Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War.

As for the future of this book party, Stansky said he hopes the tradition of it being an annual event will continue. Charles Junkerman, associate provost and dean of Continuing Studies, agreed, saying that "as long as Peter is willing to host the event, Continuing Studies will be very happy to sponsor it." The great thing about being at Stanford, he added, is that "there will always be new books to celebrate."

Videos of the panel discussions The World as We Imagine It and The World and Beyond as it Might Be will be available here soon.

Veronica Marian is the communications coordinator at the Stanford Humanities Center.