On the Shelf

As Penn faculty publish books, an occasional column appears on these pages to inform the University community of new releases.

The Meaning of Photography

"The age of mechanical reproduction begins with photography. Its discovery not only stands as one of the most important and signature events of the Industrial Revolution, it represents the first analog medium, predating recorded sound by nearly 40 years and the motion picture by over half a century."

So begins the preface of "Roland Barthes on Photography: The Critical Tradition in Perspective" (University Press of Florida) by the Library's Curator of Manuscripts Nancy Shawcross. She compares and contrasts the ideas of the renowned French critic to those of other photography critics of his time and after, and shows how his ideas about photography fit with his other thinking.

Placing his ideas about photography in historical and cultural contexts, Shawcross brings together and analyzes for the first time--in any language--all of Barthes' writings about visual media.

Translations: Two Medieval Masterpieces

Two new volumes in the Middle Ages Series of the University of Pennsylvania Press (founding editor of the series is Edward Peters, Henry Charles Lea professor of history) are a verse translation by George Economou, "William Langland's 'Piers Plowman,' The C Version," and a verse translation by David Townsend, "'The Alexandreis' of Walter of Châtillon: A Twelfth-Century Epic."

Economou's is the first and only modern English translation of the C version of "Piers Plowman," an allegorical work that many regard as the greatest Christian poem in English. The translation tells this story of the quest for salvation, preserving the strong alliterative language of the original. The volume includes an appendix that details the additions, omissions and transpositions of the C version.

"The Alexandreis" is a Latin epic on the life of Alexander the Great "so well-known in the later Middle Ages that the Wife of Bath could expect her audience to recognize a glancing allusion to it," states Scott D. Westrem of the City University of New York. Townsend's is the first translation into English verse of this late 12th century masterpiece that was so popular that an extraordinary 200 manuscripts survive.

Chemist as Renaissance Man

A biography of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry is the latest volume published in The Chemical Sciences in Society Series (University of Pennsylvania Press) edited by Penn Professor Emeritus of History and Sociology of Science Arnold Thackray.

The book, a translation of Jean-Pierre Poirier's "Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist," revised and expanded by the author, portrays Lavoisier's political and economic accomplishments as well as his scientific ones, and concludes that everything he did--including his thinking about chemical reactions--was inspired by the accounting sheet, in which credits must equal debits. "The spirit of accountancy raised to genius, there is the hallmark of the Lavoisier whom Jean-Pierre Poirier portrays," Charles C. Gillispie writes in the foreword.

Originally published on February 11, 1997