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Holding Court: Laurence Hooper

Laurence Hooper, assistant professor of ItalianIn this week's edition of Holding Court, we remember and honor Laurence Hooper, Assistant Professor of Italian, who passed away on January 25, 2019.  Laurence was a scholar of Dante and Petrarch, and co-editor of the important Realisms and idealisms in Italian culture, 1300–2017 with Brendan Hennessey and Charles L. Leavitt IV.  This volume offers a critical look at the so-called "real" versus the "ideal" Italy, and exemplifies Laurence's wide-ranging interests in exploring the complexity of Italian culture.  Laurence's life was far too short, but he left behind a legacy of joyful commitment to intellectual work that resonates not only here on campus, but among scholars around the world.  A voracious reader and library user, Laurence partnered with me from his first days at Dartmouth to build up the library's holdings, and it's a credit to him that our collections are as strong as they are in the study of Dante.  I miss him, and am grateful that he took the time, during the last few months of his life, to share his reflections in this interview.

What is this volume about?

It’s about Italian culture’s grittier, darker side — realism — and how it defines the national identity. This often escapes casual observers because they associate Italy with high art and beauty — idealism.

Where did you get your ideas for this?

Ever since I started visiting Italy and studying Italian culture, and my co-editors both report similar experiences, I’ve been intrigued by the discrepancy between the “real” Italy, where everyday life goes on but there is human misery and strife, and the ideal “Italy,” which is this blissful land of fine arts, great cuisine, and architectural splendor. What’s really interesting is that both the Italians themselves, and foreign observers truly believe in that idealized Italy of art and beauty. But, within Italy, there’s another pole: a failed, broken, degraded version of the ideal, characterized by political corruption, institutional dysfunction, and violence that’s largely ignored outside of the country. That’s an extreme too, of course, but I think it begins to explain Italians’ long history of fascination with realism, which dates back to Dante and Boccaccio, as an antidote to the notion that their country is effectively a museum of beautiful artifacts. By focusing on Italian realism, which is so often neglected, we hope to steer a middle road between idealized good and idealized bad, in order to build up a new and more accurate picture of Italian culture. My co-editors and I decided to pull together a team of people who could really give a sense of this Italian realism across time and in a variety of settings.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

Research for me is mostly about reading. I read and read until ideas start to coalesce, then I read some more. And, as I’m going, I’m taking copious notes, both about the text I’m reading and, more importantly on what I think of it and how it fits with everything else I’m considering for this project. It’s these notes to self that form the basis for whatever I then come to write.  My iPad Pro 10.5” has become my indispensable reading companion. I’m especially enamored of the (1st generation) Apple Pencil. I take much better notes by hand and now that I can scribble on PDFs and input text from handwriting, I’m much happier than I was with a laptop.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

I hope it will have a lot of its activities and holdings online and so be accessible worldwide. At the same time, the library building should always be at the heart of a university campus. Ideally, the library will be the logical place onsite for intellectual work, both collaborative and individual. So, as well as rendezvous points and coffee, it should have multiple quiet, comfortable zones where a student or faculty member can settle down and work on a problem or question for a number of hours.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Read everything but only within strict limits guided by your research.

And finally, what do you read for fun?

I love history: Reformed Protestantism, the history of colonies and empires, and any kind of US history are my favorite topics right now. A couple of titles I’d recommend would be Steven Hahn, A Nation without Borders  and Richard Rothstein, the Color of Law.

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