May 6, 2009

New Yorker asks some academics

The New Yorker's book blog unveiled a new series last week, "Ask an Academic," in which professors explain their work. Lawrence Rothfield, English professor and faculty director of the Cultural Policy Center, kicked things off with a discussion of his latest book, on the 2003 looting of the Iraq Musuem, which has one of the richest collections of Mesopotamian artifacts.

The Shoreland R.M. has some good anecdotes, like when he became outraged as he read about the looting in April of that year. The rage "gave way to chagrin," he says, when he found that U of C professors had tried to warn the State Department and Pentagon of the serious threat thieves could present.

He also details a semi-failed robbery attempt by theives with inside information straight out of the movies:

"Rather than smash-and-grab, as the ordinary looters did, the pros broke through a concrete wall that museum workers had erected to shut off the underground storerooms. They used keys to get into a storeroom and made their way past shelves and shelves of artifacts to where some of the most precious items were stored in thirty lockers. It was only by a stroke of sheer luck that they dropped their keys in the dark, lit some foam rubber on fire and smoked themselves out. As a result, thousands of of the very best pieces were saved. The thieves did however get away with over five thousand cylinder seals."

I get the feel they're trying to go for—minimal questions to really spotlight the professors—but it feels odd for the usually hyper-literary mag to have such uninteresting questions, like "That's a long sentence! Why did you want to write about this topic?"