What we learned at the 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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What we learned at the 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival

Discussed: Two-letter Scrabble words. Nazis in the United States. Disputes about the measurement of time.

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Never write for free. As a five-year-old child in Russia, Gary Shteyngart was paid in cheese while writing the novel Lenin and His Magical Goose. His grandmother would give him a slice of cheese for each chapter he completed, and he's been compensated for his work ever since. It was onstage at Kahn Auditorium that the author of the memoir Little Failure and the novels Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan woefully told the crowd that Random House insists paying him with cold, hard cash. If only he could return to a simpler time. —Brianna Wellen

The real reason Persepolis was banned in the Chicago Public Schools last year is because it showed people in the Middle East as human beings, said Marjane Satrapi, the cartoonist who created it. "They're not an abstract notion," she explained. "A person is so scared that they would stop being a notion and become a human being like you—that's what was really bothering them. It was a complete fiasco, an expression of stupidity." Satrapi believes that "if people are stupid, you should tell them." She added, "I hate a lack of humor. People who work for human rights are all so . . . " She made a sour face. "You're not suffering! They're suffering! You cannot have pity. You have pity for a dog. Look at them like a human being who is equal to you." —Aimee Levitt

Women submit more essays to Modern Love than do men, said Daniel Jones, who has edited the popular New York Times column since its inception a decade ago. He's gotten around 50,000 essays through the years, 70 to 80 percent of the submissions from women. Jones picks out those that offer unique approaches to stories of romance and heartbreak—the local authors who shared portions of their Modern Love stories, Courtney Queeney and David Finch, wrote about domestic violence and Asperger syndrome, respectively. Jones closed by sharing responses from hopefuls whose writing wasn't published. One person refused to believe Jones had read their work, another sent him an MP3 of her cover of David Bowie's "Modern Love." Love and rejection—we all have different ways of responding to both. —Leor Galil

After World War II, the U.S. knowingly offered asylum to Nazis and Nazi collaborators while denying visas to Holocaust victims, Jews in particular. In a lecture based on his new book, The Nazis Next Door, New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau explained how this fiasco happened. The U.S. government convinced itself that the expertise of Nazi scientists outweighed the atrocities they committed in the concentration camps and that Nazi spies would be helpful in uncovering Soviet secrets during the cold war. It even went so far as to protect some of the higher-ranking Nazis from trial. Now, nearly 70 years after the war, Nazis continue to live here, unrecognized and unpunished. Lichtblau is very angry about this. After his lecture, the audience was too. —Aimee Levitt

There are four new two-letter words in the 2014 edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary:"te," "da," "gi," and "po." None of those appear in Stephin Merritt's book 101 Two-Letter Words, but he didn't sound terribly worried about the omission at "Words With Friends," a conversation with the Magnetic Fields front man led by Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! host Peter Sagal. For each word, Merritt wrote one four-line poem—all of them illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast—and he included a lot of mnemonics for jogging the memories of stumped players of Scrabble and Words With Friends, for whom he wrote the book. Allowing his I'm-awkward-deal-with-it persona to really shine, Merritt told a story about divulging at a party that the most embarrassing dream he ever had involved raping a 12-year-old boy against a wall while wearing a sari. At a bit of a loss, Sagal responded, appropriately enough, with a two-letter word: "So . . . " —Gwynedd Stuart

The newest human right is the right not to migrate, said the Latin American scholar Mary Louise Pratt. Typically when we think about journeys—the theme of this year's CHF—we tend to think about adventure and freedom. We don't think very much about the people who are being visited, or the people who are forcibly relocated. We need to start looking at travel in a different way, she said. As an example, she looked to the Zapatista movement in Mexico, which is starting to use travel as a form of protest and a way to bring groups of people together to build understanding. They first invited everyone to visit their headquarters in Chiapas and then, a few years later, sent activists to visit towns all over Mexico. "It was the first encounter between some indigenous people and Mexicans," she said. "They went from somewhere to everywhere." —Aimee Levitt

people fought bitterly over time, around the turn of the 20th century. Small-town mayors in the U.S. resented the establishment of time zones. The British and French quarreled over whether time latitudes would be calculated from Greenwich or Paris. A French artist filed a lawsuit against the French government because he was convinced the universal measurement of time, controlled by pneumatic clocks, had driven away his creativity. Another Frenchman, an anarchist, so resented organized time that he attempted to bomb the Greenwich observatory. And then Einstein came along and said all time was relative anyway. In his lecture, physicist Peter Galison described how he and William Kentridge, an artist, created an installation called The Refusal of Time that dramatized some of these events. —Aimee Levitt

A shadow is the cheapest set decoration, said Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. I can't think of a more apt summation of the director's style. In a conversation that spanned from his adolescence as a subpar youth hockey player up to his most recent accomplishments as a highly regarded experimental filmmaker, Maddin discussed his penchant for surrealism and melodrama ("The ideal movie is one that makes you laugh and cry at the same time—this is the job of poetry"), his introduction to moving images via poorly transmitted American cable television ("I might as well have been watching Warhol films"), and, most importantly, his obsession with "lost films," those that exist in extant fragments that form an imagined whole. Maddin's work teaches us that movies live in our memories; we're able to revisit them by simply picturing them, evoking not only the emotions and sensations we had upon our initial viewings, but also new ones informed by our states of mind. Of course, our memories are imperfect, which is why shadows are so important: Maddin's films are half-remembered reveries, and watching them is like peering directly into his brain. —Drew Hunt

Patti Smith is a renaissance woman. Listening to her discuss her formative years running around New York City with her BFF and confidant Robert Mapplethorpe—the subject of her excellent book Just Kids, which earned Smith this year's Chicago Tribune Literary Award—one can easily see that she isn't an artist in any specific sense, more a singular creator unburdened by form and discipline. During his conversation with the "Godmother of Punk," Tribune music critic Greg Kot highlighted her status as one of the great rock performers but also her equally valuable works of literature, poetry, and visual art. Smith is able to bend form to meet her will, and that's a powerful notion considering so few artists can claim mastery in multiple fields. Her adaptability and fluidity is something all artists should aspire to. Smith is about the message, not necessarily the medium. —Drew Hunt

folks in the humanities need to do a better job of talking up the value of what they teach, said Wesleyan University president Michael Roth, who sat down to converse with former Brown University president Ruth Simmons about "The Future of Higher Ed." Roth found ample occasion to refer to his own new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which surveys what Benjamin Franklin and an array of other thinkers throughout history have had to say on the subject. Turns out criticism of higher education is nothing new, and neither Roth nor Simmons are buying into the most dire current predictions for it. Simmons, who overcame poverty and discrimination to become the first black president of an Ivy League school, says the public should "get real" about costs and be willing to spend on "education rather than consumption." "Nobody's complaining," she said, "about the cost of automobiles." —Deanna Isaacs

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