A history major

Among the disinterested, the diligentsia, wanderers and partiers, and the assorted other types of students who fill out the course rosters for American history surveys, the almost-contemptuous hard-sciences student always stands out. This course is a requirement for graduation, so this student is usually past his or her (usually his) first year of school and holds the simple, soft lecture-and-discussion course in contempt. This course is of no value to this student, but, far from a passably interesting digress, it actively taking away from the higher, more profitable calling of science. This is a description of a type of student, not anyone in particular and thus may err toward caricature, and I am not that interested in here laying out another banal defense of the humanities when this stock type has a value system that dismisses the pursuit as frivolous. There is a place and a person for this defense, this is not it and I am not that person. Instead, I want to talk about the history major itself.

One of my favorite and least favorite things about history courses, particularly in pursuit of a history major in college, is that it is one of the few tracks that, ideally, dispenses with most or all prerequisites. Every other discipline requires a base level of knowledge that must be built upon at each stage of the progression and it is only after receiving these advanced skills that one is able to branch out into a variety of courses at about the same level. This evolution is necessary to do history and to progress as a historian, but the necessary skills for doing a major in history are reading and writing, which is to say they are almost universally already met by college students. How well a student performs after that point depends on his or her ability to take notes and willingness to actually study. The same is true for other disciplines, too, but there there are more tangible skills that the student has to master. Probably for similar reasons, majors in history typically require fewer courses to complete.

Nor is this characterization lost on students. A history major is one that is frequently tacked on to double major, a supplementary accolade to the real degree. In addition to this group, history majors, anecdotally, consist of the riff-raff who have an active interest in “majoring in b.s.” so that they don’t have to work too hard. I could describe them as the misfit Hufflepuffs of the academic world, but their egos are usually larger and they are choosing the direction rather than being accepted for who they are.

I study history–and did a history major–because I find it interesting. When I teach I try to encourage students to figure out what interests them in the time period and to develop opinions about what we are studying. In my heart of hearts I wish that students would abandon concern for grades, do their best, and allow curiosity to reign, though I am not so delusional to believe that it will actually happen. When it succeeds, when that [contemptuous] scientist engages with the readings, then I consider that a success. History has real lessons and real technical skills that it can impart to aspiring students, but I genuinely believe that one of its most important ones, as David Foster Wallace put it in his Kenyon commencement address, to inspire people to think and consider beyond themselves. The freedom the degree offers is not, ideally, a major in “b.s.,” but a major in curiosity.

Snow Day

There is a snow day here in Columbia, Missouri–though what we have received is really just a dusting compared to what has been going on in Boston. Despite the nostalgic glee of snow days past, classes being cancelled means almost nothing for me. I rearranged my day because I won’t have an afternoon broken up by trekking to campus and back for office hours and lecture attendance, but the remaining components of my day are intact.

In general, the snow gets a mixed response. People are happy that there aren’t classes, of course, but they also grumble about shoveling and the cold and many people–notably the people reading the weather–have been positively joyous when reading off temperatures this winter that rose as high as 60. Winter, whether cold or snowy, is a hated thing

I know that I am in the minority when I say that I actually like shoveling snow (the only reason I haven’t yet today is that I don’t own a shovel). It is good exercise and I find it relaxing. With due respect to friends in Boston, though, there is such a thing as too much. But I also find falling snow and the quiet that comes with it to be peaceful. The crispness of the air and the solitude of the trees when skiing or snow-shoeing is rejuvenating, and stripping off the layers to sit in front of the fire with hot chocolate makes an ideal contrast.

Here in Missouri it is not that we get too much winter, but too little. It is likely that there will be one or two storms, but it usually melts away too quickly to give the perpetual ground cover necessary for outdoor recreation. The appearance of the snow is a labor, not an opportunity. And, of course, my apartment does not come with a fireplace or pellet stove.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Helward Mann is six hundred and fifty miles old, which means it is time for him to be inducted into his guild–and to venture beyond the walls of the city for the first time. But first, he must swear an oath never to reveal what it is like outside, where the city is being constantly winched along tracks through a hostile landscape in pursuit of the Optimum. Exactly what all of this is, nobody is quite certain, but they tell Helward that they have absolute faith in the way things are and he will come to agree in time–and he is to be married. Helward’s life is about to change dramatically.

The story unfolds through Helward’s discovery of the world, sometimes in first, sometimes in third person. At first the world confuses him and he shares his bafflement with his wife, but his experiences change him. As he learns about the world, Helward becomes increasingly entrenched with respect to the necessity of the traditional guild system. It is the only way to preserve civilization…except that the reader is well aware that there are functioning human beings outside of the closed circuit of the city.

Inverted World is a hard science fiction novel set in the distant future after a collapse reduced most of the world to anarchy. The bulk of the story, then, is the discovery of the concept as to how people in the city experience the world. Layered within this concept is an allegory about the relationships, economic and otherwise, between “civilized” and “uncivilized” people, insularity, and having an over-developed sense of importance in the world–and about facing the inevitable.

Certain aspects of the book felt dated, which is only natural since it was published in 1974, but many of the same concerns are relevant. The summaries I had originally read of the book made it sound like a post-apocalyptic class-based allegory along the lines of Snowpiercer , which made sense because the two were first published within a few years of each other. But the “isolated community circling the world to survive” is where the similarities begin and end, at least from what I know about Snowpiercer, which is, admittedly, not much.There are elements of class struggle here, but the principle concept deals with relativity and perception, with the other concepts, including the math-y science fiction ones that give the story its mystery (and lead to the perception issues), forming the scenery. Thus, Priest taps into the relationship between first and third worlds rather than into strata of the same society. The writing was at time choppy, but Inverted World was an excellent read that moved along quickly and spun out the mystery such that the core isn’t revealed until the final pages and Helward’s inner turmoil is left aptly unresolved.

I haven’t decided what is next yet because I am swamped by grading at the moment, but I am leaning toward Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky. My only hesitation is that I read a really negative review that called it a poor knockoff of Crime and Punishment without even being an interesting novel about Afghanistan.

“It is never about the money”

There is a new History Channel documentary series that has been added to Netflix, called “The Men Who Built America.” The premise is that during the period of rapid industrialization that followed the Civil War, the one termed by Mark Twain the “Gilded Age,” there were a few men who led America to its position of of global prominence that it now enjoys. The first episode, which is the only one I’ve seen, follows the narrative of Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D Rockafeller’s rise to prominence and the business wars between railway and oil magnates, “locked in a battle of wills,” as they tried to destroy their competition–that is, each other. The show insisted at several points that in this battle, money was merely a way of keeping score, never the objective.

“The Men Who Built America” did frequently point out business practices that would be considered illegal under current laws, but it also made reference to all of the jobs provided by these magnates and, at one point, implied that the expansion of industry provided 100% employment for the country that was only broken when competition between businesses forced Rockefeller to shut down production in such a way that the loss of jobs spiraled into the depression of 1873. In this one instance everyday people were harmed by the business competition (according to their narrative), but the overall trajectory was one of progress and advancement, as directed by a few ruthless and brilliant entrepreneurs. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, they posit, the country needed a leader, but lacked politicians up to the task and so turned to the Captains of Industry.

Theirs is a powerful narrative, one that taps into the American Dream that everyone can make it rich if only he or she works hard enough and one that situated the United States as the beacon of civilization and locus of technological advancement. However, it is remarkable how much is left out of the narrative. The focus on the business competition means that the narrative stays in the east, so westward expansion and the dispossession of native land never show up. Even the charitable foundations created by the industrialists didn’t make it into this narrative. But neither does the show mention immigration or the conditions of the working poor. In fact, the only time that the show used images like those of Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives was in conjunction with the lamentable (but seemingly unavoidable) Depression of 1873, when those workers didn’t have jobs. When business for the industrialists was booming, those people were employed and, they imply, housed and clothed. Never mind that these men who made America were worth the equivalent of 75 billion dollars or more, as the show admits but doesn’t dwell on. For what it is worth, their figures also probably underestimate the actual wealth of these men–Wikipedia places Rockefeller’s net worth at something like 650 billion, in modern figures. It will be interesting to see how the show handles unionization…if this episode is any guide, they will gloss over the working conditions…and progressive political reform.

How the show manages to present these men as both worse people, hoarding all their money and not giving them credit for philanthropy, and their actions less repugnant, sterilized of any negative effect on their workers or the general public is astounding. As I noted on Twitter, for being the men who built America, the Captains of Industry do a lot of standing around looking imperious while other people work.

What struck me about the show most, though, is the format. There is a heavy does of reenactment, with more speaking roles for the industrialists than I expected. Usually in this sort of documentary the reenactment and narration is interspersed with comments from experts, and the History Channel did employ one of Vanderbilt’s biographers and one man identified as a historian. The rest of the speakers were CEOs, hedge fund managers and other modern captains of finance or industry, including Donald Trump and Mark Cuban. Partly as a result of this, the woman with the most air time was probably Rockefeller’s secretary, but he did say “thank you” when she brought him a note. Exploitation in all of its forms is presented in this narrative as a subtext, the unintentional and exceptional side effect of capitalism, rather than the backbone of the system. Because it is never about money.

January 2015 Reading Recap

January was a v. busy month for me, so I only read three books and didn’t post here as often as I would have liked. That is just how it goes, though.

The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk
Galip is a lawyer in Istanbul and is married to his cousin Ruya, who is the younger famous newspaper columnist Celal. One day when Galip returns home from the office, Ruya has disappeared, and so has Celal. There are dozens of people hunting for Celal and Galip joins the pursuit, but not for the columnist, but because he believes that Ruya may be there with him. What follows is a labyrinthine tale that, in chapters, alternates between Galip’s hunt and Celal’s columns that are somehow linked to the steps that Galip took to find Celal. Eventually, Galip decides that he must become Celal and think like him if he is going to ever find his wife.

The Black Book is the sixth book (fourth novel) of Pamuk’s I’ve read. It is a convoluted and dense read and Pamuk plays with format and style. The story feels like it is constructed of a number of frayed and loose ends right up until the end when Pamuk ties it neatly together, giving the reader resolution, if not the ending that might be hoped for. This is not the Pamuk novel I would recommend starting with, but I came away with a strange sense of fondness toward it, particularly in this regard: Pamuk creates three distinct characters that orbit the central plot of the story, but you only ever meet one, Galip. The other two exist, but exist off-stage. Further, I felt sadness because Galip loves Ruya very deeply, but the presentation makes it impossible to tell is Ruya reciprocates, and there is the haunting feeling that she does not. Whether that is true, we will never know. This is the sort of narration and craft I love Pamuk for, and I look forward to reading The Museum of Innocence next among his novels.

Paradise City, Archer Mayor
A thoroughly indulgent read on my part, Paradise City is a relatively recent (2012) installment in Mayor’s “Joe Gunthor” series of detective procedurals set in Vermont and New England. The books are fast-paced and engaging, and I feel a connection with them because Mayor evokes that part of the world, i.e. areas within several hours’ drive from the epicenter of Brattleboro, Vermont. The core characters, the dour, fair, human lead agent (former detective, now special agent with an agency called the VBI) Joe Gunthor and his two long-time colleagues Sammie Martens and Willy Kunkle, a couple with a child. Sammi is hard-nosed and capable, Willy is a one-armed, PTSD-survivor, former-alcoholic and wildly unorthodox cop. Along with other regular cast members, they are on the case.

The plot of Paradise City is that there is a human trafficking operation and stolen jewelry fencing operation going on somewhere in Western Massachusetts, which brings events in Boston and events in Brattleboro into a collision course. That is not really the reason to read the story, though. The series has a long-standing cast that has aged and progressed as time has moved on. The specific procedural element is just the trapping for a more human and humane story about these characters who the reader (if you’ve been reading them long enough) come to care for and enjoy spending time with. Paradise City was satisfactory along those lines, but not nearly my favorite. For new readers, I would recommend starting either at the start of the series or with Fruits of the Poisonous Tree or, my favorite, The Dark Root. Mayor introduces all the characters anew so that it is possible to follow along, but since I enjoy the characters more than the stories themselves, usually, it is better to see them in their younger years.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Pat Rothfuss
Set in the same world as Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, Slow Regard tells a brief (to the extent epic fantasy authors can be brief) story about one of the side characters in the main series, Auri. The author’s note at the beginning says that this might not be the story you want. It doesn’t advance the main plot, doesn’t have dialogue, and doesn’t have much besides the daily life of a woman of indeterminate age whose experiences with magic have given her great insight into the nature of the world, but also broken her a little bit inside. There is a haunting beauty in this story and I was reminded of Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane in that it is not a traditional story, but a powerful one nonetheless. In particular, I appreciated the presentation of Auri has immensely capable and insightful, but also in a constant battle with anxiety as a way of keeping the world at its rights. I like Rothfuss’ writing and while I eagerly await the third book in The Kingkiller Chronicles, I will also read whatever it is he wants to give me while he gets the book right, as it were. It is best to do things the right way and in the proper time, as Auri would put it.

If I get my way, which is unlikely, February will be a more successful month of reading. I am currently in the middle of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, a 1974 science fiction novel about a city on tracks that moves around the world in order to stay close to “the optimum,” and am enjoying it a lot. After that will probably be Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky.