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September 20, 2004

Acclaimed New Yorker magazine staff writer and Cowell alumnus to speak at UCSC

By Scott Rappaport

For the past two decades, longtime New Yorker magazine staff writer and UCSC alumnus Lawrence Weschler has written about unexpected relationships between art, culture, war, and peace.

Drawing, Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler’s latest book, Vermeer In Bosnia, was published in July 2004.
Drawing: David Hockney

On Friday, September 24, the 1974 Cowell College graduate will return to the UCSC campus to speak on the topic: “Serenity and Terror in Vermeer, and After,” based on his most recent book, Vermeer in Bosnia. The event takes place at 8 p.m. in the Cowell College Conference Room. Admission is free and open to the public.

Vermeer in Bosnia is a collection of 22 stories written for the New Yorker and a variety of other publications. The title piece includes reports on the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in 1995 and its connection to 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer--who due to a youth spent living in a Europe as war-torn as Bosnia, had to invent the very peace and serenity prized in his paintings.

Vermeer in Bosnia also includes stories on three Polish survivors of World War II—film director Roman Polanski, newspaperman Jerzy Urban, and cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s father; pieces about Weschler’s grandfather, composer Ernst Toch; and several takes on artists and their inspirations, such as David Hockney’s photo collages, Robert Irwin’s youth, and Ed Weinberger’s furniture design/philosophy.

Weschler is the author of 10 previous books including Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, which was short-listed for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Currently the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, he is a widely honored political and cultural journalist and a regular contributor to such publications as McSweeny’s, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Threepenny Review, and National Public Radio.

Weschler initiated the UCSC visit to coincide with a September West Coast book tour. He has made a point over the years of keeping in touch with Cowell College and his former teachers such as associate professor of philosophy Robert Goff, literature professor emeritus Harry Berger, biology professor emeritus Todd Newberry, and American studies professor emeritus John Dizikes.

“The ambition and breadth of Weschler’s writing was already present when he was a student,” said Goff. “He won the Chancellor’s Essay Prize three or four times in succession. He was known among his teachers as someone who would make connections across fields; he would seek people out for new ideas, no matter what their specialty was.”

Goff noted that it was due to Weschler’s influence in 1985 that famed neurologist/writer Oliver Sacks accepted a position as a Regents’ Professor at Cowell College. Sacks’s first popular book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, had just been published, and he taught a seminar about it at UCSC. In the early 1990s, Weschler himself returned to the campus as a Regents’ Lecturer, offering an abbreviated course through Cowell College on how to read a newspaper.

“He’s always looking for new sources and is a great encourager of writers,” Goff observed. “He is now a contributing editor of Dave Eggers’s McSweeny’s, an exciting new literary periodical.”

“Weschler’s effect is catalytic,” Goff added. “When you talk to him or read his work, it makes you want to do things differently.”

The most common thread in nearly every description of Weschler is the profound impact his writing has had on people, both emotionally and intellectually. As San Francisco magazine writer Pamela Feinsilber recently put it:

“Weschler to me is like Ray Charles; he puts his own soulful stamp on anything that beckons him, and something moves me in almost everything he does.”


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