A Harvard Professor Goes ‘Star Wars’ Crazy


“Usually, to promote a new work, I’ll aspire to be published in the Columbia Law Review or the Stanford Law Review and to have at least five really enticing footnotes,” he said, seeming very amused by it all.

Professor Sunstein’s Harvard website C.V., which is 27 pages, lists him as an author or co-author of some 40 books. (This guy writes like he’s running out of time.) Among them are a few that veer into popular culture, like 2008’s “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” written with Richard H. Thaler.

But “The World According to Star Wars” is an outlier. When he discussed the idea with academic publishers, he said they appeared puzzled and unenthusiastic. “Academics don’t think it’s an extremely impressive project for their colleague to embark on,” Professor Sunstein, 61, said a few weeks before the party, over coffee at the Harvard Club in New York.

Even his wife, Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, initially was not sold on her husband’s increasingly public foray into “Star Wars” geekdom. At United Nations functions, for instance, he would draw foreign dignitaries into discussions of the gross domestic product of the Galactic Republic.

Last year, he told her of his plan to liken the blockbuster film franchise to constitutional law in a speech he was about to give at the graduation ceremony for the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her worries increased.

Photo

Professor Sunstein, right, speaking at his book party. Among the guests were, third from right, Ms. Lyons, one of the hosts; second from left, Samantha Power, Professor Sunstein’s wife; and Henry Kissinger, left.

Credit
Shawn Brackbill for The New York Times

“He informed me he was going to talk at commencement about ‘Star Wars’ and the law, and I thought he had lost his mind,” Ms. Power said.

As he worked on his commencement speech, she was writing one of her own — for Penn’s undergraduate ceremony. “This is what passes as date night at the Power-Sunstein household,” she said.

Professor Sunstein’s talk turned out to be a success, and his wife was on board when he decided to give book-length treatment to the ideas rattling around in his brain.

Professor Sunstein developed a new interest in “Star Wars” after introducing the series to his son, Declan, 7, and witnessing how it became a touchstone for them. He wrote in celebration of this bond with his son and in homage to his father, who died when Cass was 26.

The book party was in the very spot where the seed for the project was planted. One night last year, the Sunstein-Powers were watching an awards show at the Crangi-Lyons apartment when Ms. Crangi suggested to Professor Sunstein that he rewatch “Star Wars” with Declan. She even sent him home with a DVD.

Ms. Crangi has seen the various films some 150 times. “It sent me on a path of being obsessed with science fiction and an intergalactic economy,” she said at the party.

Nearby, Dr. Kissinger was holding forth on something or other as the biographer Mr. Isaacson told Ms. Brown, making a reference to her husband, the author and editor Harry Evans, “I remember seeing you on the back of Harry’s motorcycle.” Ms. Brown laughed gaily.

Rory Lyons, a former insurance broker at Lloyd’s of London (and the father of the party’s co-host Ms. Lyons), paused in the middle of the room to say: “I’m hoping to challenge Dr. Kissinger to a game of who’s been to more countries. Do you think he would have been to Iran? I’ve been to Iran. What possible business could have taken him to Scandinavia?”

Ms. Nevins, of HBO, was sitting on a couch, taking it all in. When a bearded man got off the elevator, she nodded her head toward him and said, “If a bear was a man, he would look like that.” Then she added: “Don’t quote me too much because I never know what I’m actually saying.”

But she kept talking, noting that she wasn’t exactly sure what would come of HBO’s option on the book. “It’s fun to think of popular culture as profound,” she said. “It gives popular culture a pass, and it’s invigorating.”

When the time came to introduce the guest of honor, Ms. Lyons asked people to quiet down. A hush fell over the room, except for an insistent low rumble that you could hear above the hum of the air-conditioner.

“Who is still talking?” she called out.

It was Dr. Kissinger.

He took the admonishment diplomatically, and Ms. Lyons said of Professor Sunstein, “He actually has managed to write a book in the time that I — I don’t know — maybe painted my nails.”

Professor Sunstein stood before the guests. In a talk that lasted not quite 10 minutes, he connected the dots between a “testy” email he accidentally sent to the entire Obama campaign staff in 2008, his friendly relationship with Dr. Kissinger, Harvard’s squash team and his nearly eight-year marriage to Ms. Power.

He also praised the ability of the “Star Wars” creator, George Lucas, to meld the mythologies of many religions and cultures into a sweeping tale that he characterized as “extremely silly — and very deep.”

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