Introducing Yale’s ‘Why X Matters’ Series

Yale University Press presents the Why X Matters series, in which passionate authors present concise arguments for the continuing relevance of important people or ideas.

The Why X Matters series aims to champion the cause of important disciplines and influential thinkers that are perhaps under-represented in modern discourse.

Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger (published this month) makes a clear case for this indispensable field of study and appreciation. According to Goldberger himself, the purpose of the book is to ‘come to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them, with how architecture affects us emotionally as well as intellectually’.  ‘Architecture begins to matter’, writes continues, ‘when it brings delight and sadness and perplexity and awe along with a roof over our heads’. Based on decades of looking at buildings and thinking about how we experience them, Goldberger helps to raise our awareness of fundamental things like proportion, scale, space, texture, materials, shapes, light, and memory.

A couple of weeks ago this blog focused on Yale’s series of translated works of literature. Why Translation Matters by the acclaimed translator Edith Grossman argues for the cultural importance of translation, and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role. As Grossman writes in her introduction, ‘My intention is to stimulate a new consideration of an area of literature that is too often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented’.

‘Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable’.

Throughout her book, Grossman’s belief in the crucial significance of the translator’s work, as well as her ability to explain the intellectual sphere that she inhabits as interpreter of the original text, inspires and provokes the reader to engage with translation in an entirely new way.

In Why Poetry Matters, Jay Parini provides a similarly deeply-felt meditation on poetry and its power to transform lives. A gifted poet and acclaimed teacher, Parini begins by looking at defences of poetry written over the centuries. He ponders Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, and moves forward through Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and others. Parini avoids jargon and makes his case in concise, direct terms: the mind of the poet supplies a light to the minds of others, kindling their imaginations, helping them to live their lives. The author’s love of poetry suffuses this book, a book for all readers interested in a fresh introduction to an art that lies at the centre of Western civilization.

In her concise book Why Arendt Matters, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl introduces twenty-first century readers to the ideas of political analyst Hannah Arendt (1906-75), who wrote on timely, complex issues such as totalitarianism, terrorism, globalization, war, and ‘radical evil’. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who was Arendt’s doctoral student in the early 1970s and who wrote the definitive biography of her mentor in 1982, now revisits Arendt’s major works and seminal ideas.Young-Bruehl considers what Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union can teach us about our own times, and how her revolutionary understanding of political action is connected to forgiveness and making promises for the future (Why Arendt Matters received a rating of ‘Outstanding’ from 2007 University Press Books Committee).

The Why X Matters series doesn’t just examine artistic disciplines and influential indeviduals but also historical events. In Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters the acclaimed novelist Louis Begley draws upon his legal expertise to create a riveting account of the famously complex case in which Alfred Dreyfus, a brilliant French artillery officer and a Jew of Alsatian descent, was court-martialed for selling secrets to the German military attache in Paris based on trumped-up evidence. Five years later, the case was overturned, and eventually Dreyfus was completely exonerated. What became known as ‘the Dreyfus Affair‘ tore France apart, pitting Dreyfusards – committed to restoring freedom and honour to an innocent man convicted of a crime committed by another – against nationalists, anti-Semites, and militarists who preferred having an innocent man rot to exposing the crimes committed by ministers of war and the army’s top brass.  In his book, Begley dissects the events surrounding the Dreyfus affair and its influence on what followed, reminding us of the interest each one of us has in the faithful execution of laws as the safeguard of our liberties and honour.

The Why X Matters Series is available from Yale University Press

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