An addition to my internet presence

Just a quick piece of internet book-keeping. I have had a Goodreads account since at least 2010, but literally never posted on it until last weekend when a friend added me out of the blue. That little bit of guilt-trip, combined with the fact that I’m probably going to be reading more electronic books prompted me to start using the site. I already keep track of my reading both with a spreadsheet and in an analog journal, but I am intrigued by the prospect of making reading a more social activity.

I will still be hosting review posts on this site, but anyone who wants to follow what I am reading beyond those should feel free to follow me there.

How long this experiment lasts will likely depend on how social Goodreads ends up being, though, so I might lapse out of updates in a few months.

One of my goals for this summer has been website maintenance. The rundown of where else to find me online can now be found on a static page here.

What is Making Me Happy: Olympic 3×3 Basketball

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Olympic 3×3 Basketball

I like watching the Olympics. I don’t have the TV on constantly during the competition, but I just appreciate watching feats of athletic excellence. This year, though, I had a hard time getting excited. Not only have I found that my willingness to engage in over-the-top displays of patriotism has waned from years past, but we are also still in the middle of a raging pandemic. The tape-delays don’t help, either.

Nevertheless, I have found myself flipping through the Olympic coverage the last few mornings. Today I watched all five heats of the women’s 1500M freestyle qualifier. I would have tuned out sooner, but Katie Ledecky was in the in the fifth heat and I wanted to see her swim in the event she holds the world record in. She didn’t set a record, but it was worth it.

The other event I tuned in for was the women’s 3×3 basketball. I’ve seen two matches so far and I’m in love with this event.

I’ve mentioned my love of basketball here before, so my infatuation with this new event should come as no surprise, but there are some changes to the sport that might offend purists.

Each 3×3 game lasts ten minutes or first-to-twenty-one, scoring by ones and twos. The entire game is played on a court slightly larger than a usual half court, but with a 12-second shot-clock that begins as soon as the defending team gets the rebound or takes the ball out of the hoop after a made basket. In either situation, the ball has to get cleared past the three-point line. Shooting fouls or every defensive foul after in the bonus results in one foul shot.

I came into the Olympics not sure what to expect from 3×3 basketball. I like the rules overall — these are certainly recognizable to anyone who has played pick-up — but was it going to feel like a gimmick?

Having seen one entire game and parts of two others played only by the USA team, it does feel a little bit like a gimmick, if I’m being honest. It is not a full 5×5 basketball game that evolves over nearly an hour of game time with active coaching and sophisticated defensive schemes. Instead, this is a fast-paced, physical, free-flowing game with almost no stoppage even as the fourth player on the team rotates onto the court. Officials do call fouls and other infractions, but the ethos is to let them play.

And here’s the thing: I don’t care. I love it.

This is still basketball, with basketball skills, many of the same basketball rules, and basketball plays that you would see in any game, but opened up to favor well-rounded players and with a shot clock that ensures that the game flows back and forth. You can’t play with an offensive liability who can’t handle the ball in this event and the spacing encourages movement.

At the same time, the thing that makes this so compellingly watchable is the length of the games. The two teams are racing both a clock and their opponent to a finish-line. To my mind, the combination makes this event the perfect length for a tournament — each game lasts a little less time than a 1500M freestyle race, for instance — and all-but guarantees that there will be dramatic moments in each game.

As much as I enjoy the US team, my only complaint is that theirs are the only games I have been able to watch.

The Anatomy of Fascism

The cover of Robert. O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism

In the introduction The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton notes that most scholarship on fascism remains narrowly focused on individual fascist movements. But where these studies offer excellent insight into Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, they don’t offer a better understanding of fascism as a particularly 20th century political phenomenon. This book, he says, is an attempt to bring those insights together in one comprehensive examination of fascism — the movements headed by Mussolini and Hitler, yes, since those were the two most successful examples, but also those in Hungary, Spain, and, yes, the United States.

So what is fascism? Paxton organizes the book roughly following the life-cycle of a fascist movement from how they begin and take root to exercising power and collapsing, but defers a succinct definition until the final chapter.

It is not the particular themes of Nazism or Italian Fascism that define the nature of the fascist phenomenon, but their function. Fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity, direct against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.

“Fascism” has its roots in Italian “fascio” (bundle or sheaf) and can be traced to the latin “fasces,” an axe bound by a bundle of rods carried by Roman lictors (guards who accompanied magistrates) that represented both the violence and restrained violence of the Roman republic. In fact, Paxton notes, the republicanism was so important to the symbolism that leftists movements who wanted to restrain the oppression of the aristocracy and the church, in which context “fascio” was used to refer to militant bands. However, in 1919, a new movement in Milan led (at least in part) by a journalist and former soldier named Benito Mussolini adopted the name “Fasci di Combattimento” and declared war on socialists on whom they blamed the problems of the country. Thus was born first named fascist movement in the modern sense.

Paxton frequently reminds his readers that each fascist movement conforms to its native conditions, but there are nevertheless repeated characteristics and preconditions. In each case, fascist organizations were right-wing movements born at times when the country was (or was a thought to be) in decline. These movements, like the two most famous in Germany and Italy, took advantage of the apparent crisis to stoke popular outrage with appeals to nationalism and former glory, thereby further destabilizing the country and presenting themselves as the only path to stability and prosperity.

Where they succeeded, it was because mainstream conservative elites bestowed political legitimacy on them in the name of thwarting their socialist and leftist opponents during times of economic crisis. Thus, Mussolini’s fabled march on Rome might have been a fatal mistake except that the King Victor Emmanuel III refused to empower the Prime Minister to stop him. (Victor Emmanuel would ultimately also depose Mussolini toward the end of World War 2.) The German example is somewhat more commonly known, where Hitler won just enough political support that he had leverage in his negotiations with the Weimar elite, ultimately getting appointed Chancellor with Franz von Papen, a prominent Weimar politician, as vice-Chancellor—only for the combination of President Paul von Hindenburg’s death and the crisis of the Reichstag Fire removing the restrictors from Hitler’s authority.

Although fascist states often get a reputation for being efficient systems — Mussolini made the trains run on time; Thomas the Tank Engine is a fascist utopia, etc — Paxton shows that this is a mirage. In fact, fascist states amounted to an amalgam of power struggles, between the leader whose personal charisma was essential for the party’s rise to power and the rest of the party, between the party and the civil service (which they largely defused by giving civil services autonomy to continue their work), and between the goals of their non-fascist allies.

Other than the varied origins of the fascist movements, the most interesting part of The Anatomy of Fascism to me was its end-point. Paxton identifies two possible outcomes for a fascist movement: radicalization or dissolution into generic authoritarianism. The extreme promises made during the rise to power preclude “comfortable enjoyment of power.” In one scenario, the fascist movement runs out of steam, but members of the party are able to keep hold of the levers of power as run of the mill authoritarians, the difference being that the fascist movement specifically appeals to the emotions of a broad segment of the population in order to fuel its rise to power. On the other extreme, the movement becomes ever more extreme in pursuit of its promises until the situation dramatically changes, as in the Holocaust and World War 2.

Reading The Anatomy of Fascism in the United States 2021, the obvious question is what it might say about modern political developments and, in particular, the presidency of Donald Trump. Paxton is absolutely clear that the United States has had fascist movements in the past, and not just America First and the other Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. However, he confidently states that, as of 2004, the United States had resisted making them mainstream:

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally…Of course the United states would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream. I half expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and “degenerate” artists…Fortunately I was wrong (so far).

I am still mulling over a lot of these questions in light of what Paxton wrote, but I have four broad thoughts at this point:

1. I was not wholly convinced by Paxton’s treatment of Fascist and pseudo-Fascist movements in the United States. He gestures to a long tradition of nativist agitation, including the 1850s Know-Nothing Party and iterations of the KKK as evidence for its presence, but concludes that these groups never truly went mainstream. Setting aside that the KKK went through several discrete iterations, Paxton doesn’t account for the fact that these ideas did go mainstream, even without direct fascist agitation. Perhaps the widespread support of these ideas in the form of Jim Crow legislation and immigration controls disarmed them as fascist talking points, but that’s worse.

2. The idea that the United States can succumb to a fascist dictatorship has been the premise of novels since at least 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here. More recently, Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, which David Simon turned into an HBO series, which I wrote about favorably here. Though my current thinking about The Plot Against America isn’t as positive now as it was in that write-up, I do think Lewis and Roth are correct about one thing in particular. My fear is that the American two-party system makes it, if anything, more vulnerable to Fascism than a decentralized European parliamentary system. In the latter, it required various alliances to bring fascists into the mainstream while the former offers one of the two parties not merely as an ally, but a vehicle.

3. When talking about fascism and American politics there is a problem with labels. Calling an opponent a fascist is a way to discredit them and shut down debate, and rarely has anything to do with historical debate. Paxton several times invokes Orwell’s dictum that American fascism is not going to look like Hitler because it is going to wear authentically American clothes. This gets at the root of the issue. Knowingly or not, Trump’s campaigns ran plays from the fascist playbook: the rallies, the obsession with national decline, the appeals to family values, the framing of the world entirely in terms of allies and enemies. Historical reductivism is not a useful exercise and a lot of those traits have deep roots in American society without the presence of self-identified fascists, though we certainly have those, too. The Republican Party also reoriented itself to accommodate Trump who became their charismatic leader, but too narrow a focus on Trump also misses the evolution of the Republican party that has sought to sow mistrust in government since the 1970s. Was Reagan a fascist, then? Most people would say no. Was Trump a fascist? That’s a question without a productive answer.

4. For as much as I believe there is coordination in talking points between Republican party leaders and at least some of the right-wing media in the United States, it is striking the extent to which driving force of nationalist rhetoric in this country comes from media personalities rather than from the party. Trump was a little bit different before his ban from social media, but even in that case there was a feedback loop between the two. While Paxton might point out that the party unity in the fascist movements was mostly a creation of propaganda, they were nevertheless able to control that message. In the United States context, much of the nationalist fervor has been stoked by…television executives funded by billionaires? …talking heads? …agitators whose primary business is selling supplements? This is not to say that Republican politicians don’t make these statements, but, other than Trump, they seem better able to capitalize on the effects of the rhetoric than to actually fan the flames themselves. Offloading the rhetoric onto a third party also makes it easier to manipulate the system behind closed doors through voter restrictions and stacking the judiciary.

In sum, The Anatomy of Fascism is a good book to think with. Paxton might not be able to offer answers to every question, but this book provides exactly what he promises: a wealth of historical context that transcends a narrow focus on Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

ΔΔΔ

I recently reread Kitchen Confidential in advance of seeing the new documentary about Anthony Bourdain. I love this book, even if it isn’t quite as magical as on my first read. I also finished Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I picked up because I have read how her books are beloved of critics. This book, told from the point of view of a bisexual college girl Frances who is close friends with her ex Bonni and strikes up an affair with Nick, the husband of the writer Melissa who profiles Frances and Bonni for their poetry performances, traces the intimate web of relationships between these four individuals. It is an intimate and revealing portrait written in a way that makes me understand why Rooney appeals to critics, but I thought that it was a little too assured that its close examination of banal details could lead to profound observations about human relationships.

What is in a loaf?

My recent infatuation with Top Chef started me down a path of consuming a lot of food media again. I am a capable cook in a lot of areas, but a recent experiment with infusing chili oil reminded me that taste is a strange alchemy. It might have certain shibboleths (don’t serve fish with cheese, at Tom Colicchio pointed out to a contestant), but the key to developing complex delicious flavors involves a sensitive palette and creativity that is just beyond me.

Bread, by contrast, makes sense to me. It is simultaneously the simplest of foods — and one that has infinite variation.

Most people might not have the full vocabulary for bread (and bread products), but they can probably explain what it is. While baking technologies and the available resources for home bakers have changed, but the basic process has remained stable for thousands of years. Bread — ἄρτος, in Attic Greek — consists of just four mandatory ingredients: flour, water (or other liquid), salt (which helps maintain structure), and heat. Leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, etc.) and time are even optional.

This simplicity is one of the reasons that I am struck by other contexts where Greek authors use ἄρτος. Herodotus, for instance, describes the cooking techniques of three tribes in Babylon that he says only at fish, explaining how they turn the fish into powder and knead them into cakes (1.200). According to this description, one of the preparation methods involved baking these fish cakes “in the manner of loaves” (ὁ δὲ ἄρτου τρόπον ὀπτήσας). Bread-baking serves as an obvious cultural touchstone, but the loaves are not themselves bread. Bread still requires grain.

So consider this, nested within a lengthy bit of bread-banter in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae:

There is a loaf called the etnites, also the lekithites, as Eucrates says.

ἐτνίτας ἄρτος ὁ προσαγορευόμενος. λεκιθίτας, ὥς φησιν Εὐκράτης.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 3.76

Two named breads with the same (or similar) preparation, made with pulses, the edible seeds of plants in the legume family harvested as dry grains such as chickpeas or lentils. That is to say “bean-bread.” Related words in a Greek lexicon make this point clear:

  • ἔτνος – thick soup made with pease or beans
  • λεκιθίτης – made of pulses
  • λεκίθιον – bean-meal

People sometimes say that cooking is an art, baking a science. The implication is that baking is a matter of persnickety formulas that must be followed absolutely correctly in order to get results. For cakes and pastries this is certainly the case, but bread-baking is much simpler, in large part because ambient conditions such as heat and humidity can play an enormous role.

I have only one secret for bread baking: understand how things you add will affect a dough. This particularly means knowing which ones affect the leavening (enriching agents, for instance) and which ones don’t. The former group changes the proof time, while the latter group is more cosmetic. But the list could be expanded to understand how higher water contents change a dough, how different ingredients and treatments affect gluten development, etc. There are formulas that can help understand each of these points, but I largely treat them more as guidelines than as rules.

You can find modern recipes for breads made with legumes, though I have never tried them. These modern pulse breads are additives because the pulses themselves don’t have the gluten of wheat, and technical manuals note that the pulses can compromise the gluten structure.

This leads to an obvious question about this etnites/lekithites loaf: does it, like the modern pulse breads, indicate a loaf that adds a pulse mixture to a wheat dough or is this an ancient version of a lentil loaf? In other words, what makes something a loaf of bread?

This bread might be named after the legumes, but I am inclined toward the former answer. Cheese bread might be named after the cheese, but the (wheat) bread is still a necessary component, whether the cheese is melted over the top or incorporated into the dough. Moreover, the line appears in a section of Athenaeus’ work dedicated entirely to other wheat-based breads.

For now at least I don’t see any reason to amend the core ingredients of a loaf of bread: water, flour, salt, and heat, even when bakers get creative with the other ingredients.

Teaching to the Style Guide

One of my most vivid memories from my middle school days involve my keyboarding class (or whatever it was called). Somewhere along the way, and probably in at least some small part in that class, I did learn how to touch-type, but I clashed with the teacher on a number of points. For one, we had to type from a script, but that sheet had to be kept so that we could not look at the monitor. Even now, at a time when I sometimes type with my eyes closed or while staring off into space, I prefer to be able to see the screen. For another, this teacher demanded that we had to include two spaces after periods.

This might have made sense with the specific program we used in the class, which may have not had proportional fonts, but she justified the demand by insisting that every business manual would require double spaces after periods. This is of course nonsense. Most manuals regard the convention as a relic of the typewriter-era, which is something my father, a printing and graphic design teacher, pointed out, before offering me the sage advice of doing what she asked for the class grade and then ignore it going forward.

Admittedly, this teacher was close to retirement and I could not have been an easy student since I’ve always had a hard time bending when the instructions ask me to do something that I know is wrong — this difficulty reared its head again in another context when I was a senior and the two principals called me into their office to question me about some award essay where I had asserted that Bill Clinton had been impeached (he was; I didn’t get the award). However, I thought about this keyboarding teacher again when I saw a teacher on Twitter give his policy about spaces after periods.

Tweet that reads: "If my students don't use two spaces after a period, then they lose a letter grade on their essays for MLA formatting. It's my policy."

Setting aside that his assertion doesn’t even hold up according to MLA standards, I can’t imagine having a policy that is this punitive over something so small. I can understand why some professors want to be demanding when it comes to grammar and syntax since those are elements that can (sometimes) have a direct impact on the clarity of a student’s argument. By contrast, this is a severe penalty for a formatting error.

Since I am starting to get prepare for this fall semester, though, his (bad) policy has me thinking again about my own policies when it comes to written work. I have always followed two guiding principles:

  1. I care about students developing as thinkers. Writing, as John Warner explains, is thinking. This means helping students develop as writers.
  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about grades because I think that they often warp incentives, but it is my obligation as an educator to give students the tools and opportunities to earn the grade that they want.

Toward these ends, the details of my assessments have evolved to reflect what I want students to take away from the class. Since writing is fundamentally iterative, for instance, I added optional revisions that allowed students to earn higher grades on their written work. The most recent versions of these assignments include a small portion of the grade dedicated to “Grammar, Syntax, and Style” in order to provide a measure of accountability, but an equal portion of the grade is wrapped up in a metacognitive reflection paper about the process of completing the assignment. The single biggest component of the grade comes from the argument, and every assignment guide for prompt-driven papers comes with this advice:

You are not expected to answer every part of the prompt since these are questions that you could write an entire book about. The best papers take ownership of the prompt in order to make an argument based on information that includes, but goes beyond, the material assigned for the class. Since there is no “right” answer, I will be looking to see how you approach the question and how you use the sources to defend your argument.

Although I have gradually added guidelines and suggestions on the assignment sheet, my assignments are, if anything, still too open ended. When it comes to citations, for instance, I have traditionally told students:

There is no assigned citation style guide, but you must cite all relevant information, following a citation style of your choice (I prefer Harvard or Chicago, personally, but you can follow MLA or APA). Please include a works cited page for all citations.

While I should be clearer about what information is relevant, this particular policy reflects my own ambivalence about citation styles (my personal house style is a slightly modified Harvard system) and a conviction that policing the format of a citation distracts students from content. And yet, my laissez faire attitude toward style might be equally problematic, both creating unintentional anxiety created by a lack of guidance and leading some students to not follow a style at all.

By contrast, I am reminded of a policy of one of my college professors: your citations must be in Chicago citation style and failure to do so will result in a penalty. I found this assignment frustrating at the time, but I see some wisdom in it now. The penalty sounds severe, but she laid out the expectations from the start, explaining that it wasn’t that Chicago was the best style but that Chicago was a style and part of the assignment was to turn in work that followed that style.

I am not sure that I want to go quite this far in my courses, if only because doing so would make grading papers even more like copy-editing than it already is and I’m not sure that that is in anyone’s interest. However, I am strongly considering choosing a “house” style guide (with a handout) that I can point students to as a default option. My thought here is that having a house style might provide some guardrails that remove the pressure of choosing “the right” style, thereby allowing students to focus again on the content.

At the same time, my inclination is to still allow students to follow other style guides if they so desire but ask that those who do reflect on the choice in the metacognitive portion of the assignment. The trick will be crafting a policy that provides flexibility and student agency while also putting in place limits that guide students to spend their energies on the parts of the assignment that matter most.

A Desolation Called Peace

What follows is the review of a sequel. I avoid spoilers for this novel, but can’t talk about it without mentioning plot points from A Memory Called Empire.

The cover of Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire won last year’s Hugo Award for best novel, kicking off a vast new space opera centered on the conflict between the Lsel Station and the Teixcalaanli Empire. I only read one of the other finalists for the award but found A Memory Called Empire the vastly superior of the two and a worthy Hugo winner. The sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, is significantly better than the debut.

A Desolation Called Peace picks up several months after the events of A Memory Called Empire. Nineteen Adze’s accession to the throne has stabilized Teixcalaan even as the war against the unknown aliens has begun with the dispatch of six legions under the leadership of newly promoted Yaotlek Nine Hibiscus — a woman dangerous enough that observers wondered if the new emperor hopes she will die. Eight Antidote, the young clone of the deceased emperor and imperial heir, has begun training with the military establishment. Meanwhile, Three Seagrass, a functionary with the imperial intelligence has dispatched herself to the front lines, albeit with an unscheduled pit stop on Lsel to pick up the ambassador Mahit Dzmare — who is herself in political hot water and suspected of selling out Lsel secrets to Teixcalaan.

Martine deftly weaves numerous threads of political scheming throughout A Desolation Called Peace: Mahit against several different Lsel councillors; Eight Antidote who Nineteen Adze has begun calling little spy, Nine Hibiscus and her second, Twenty Cicada who she called Swarm, against potentially seditious subordinates. These plots give the novel pacing something like that of a political thriller. The reader sees each of these schemes unfold in roughly real-time as each chapter skips from one point of view to another.

However, the political machinations are not the core of A Desolation Called Peace.

This is a novel about first contact and what defines civilization. The latter themes were present in A Memory Called Empire where the two civilizations had vastly different attitudes toward memory, with Lsel relying on imago technology to implant the expertise from one generation to another and Teixcalaan nominally prizing “natural” memory preserved through poetic allusions. The tension between Lsel and Teixcalaan remains extant in A Desolation Called Peace, but now Martine introduces aspects of Teixcalaanli hypocrisy and both cultures are facing an alien enemy that is distinctly not human and clearly does not have the same values. They have potent technology, but it is unclear to the humans whether the nauseating screeching that they intercepted even constitutes language.

It is this mystery that Three Seagrass and Mahit must unravel even as the political conflicts rage behind and around them. At the same time, the war continues. Small vessels appear out of the darkness of space to inflict casualties on the Teixcalaanli legions and Teixcalaanli scouts probe into the unknown seeking a target that they can strike. It is a race to determine which approach will win out even though no one is certain that either one will work.

The overriding tension between the two approaches builds on and supersedes the other political dramas and makes for a compelling story. Even better, though, are Martine’s answers. As the novel raced toward its end, I couldn’t help but see it as an answer to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. In that classic novel, Ender is a brilliant child raised and reared for the purpose of guiding humanity’s war against an alien race, the Formics, that had once attacked earth. After the crucible of the Battle School, the expectation is that Ender will have the capacity to do the unthinkable in order to win and thus save humanity. Faced with a similar existential threat against an unknown enemy in A Desolation Called Peace, the outcome is much different. Most of the humans remain narrowly focused on their own desires such that engaging warfare that could result in xenocide seems like a nearly inevitable outcome.

ΔΔΔ

My reading has been all over the map of late and I am not going to write about everything. Since my last book post I finished two non-fiction books Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave, which was an incisive look at sectional conflict in the Middle East and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet about William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. I also have finished three other novels, Eric Ambler’s early spy thriller Epitaph for a Spy, Toni Morrison’s brilliant The Bluest Eye about a young black woman who dreams of being white, and H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. This last one was alternate history featuring magic that received some buzz for being like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, but I found it more than a little disappointing in that it sacrificed Clarke’s gift for inserting magic into the shadowy corners of our world in favor of giving real characters and events a veneer of magic.

Summer Reset

I feel like the spring semester just ended, so when did it get to be mid-July?

(I submitted the grades nearly two months ago.)

Since then I have:

  1. submitted a book manuscript
  2. presented at two conferences
  3. worked revised/re-formatted an article
  4. moved
  5. read some (okay, ~20) books

I think I managed to get some rest in there, too, but it is hard to tell sometimes.

July is often a hard month for me and I am finding this one particularly difficult. I thrive on routines, but this time of year is basically the doldrums. I have almost no immediate external deadlines, and it is still too far from the start of the semester to trigger any sense of urgency about preparing for classes but also too far from the previous semester to coast on those rhythms. I usually like to take a week or two post semester to decompress before settling into a summer routine. This year I spent the first month of the summer staring down writing deadlines and then the second month moving, so I am just now settling in to think about how I want this summer to look.

The irony here is that I have actually had a productive summer already and the best thing I can do at this point is to make sure that I am rested for the start of the semester.

Rest is certainly on the docket for the next couple of months, but I also know from past experience that doing nothing usually feeds back into my anxiety and undermines that recovery. It is better for me to find a balance that includes some work, some exercise, some hobbies, and some downtime nearly every day.

To that end, a few goals for the remainder of the semester, by category:

Research and Writing

  1. Spend at least an hour every workday writing. What I am working toward:
    • Submit the revised article mentioned above. I put this one on the back-burner last year in order to work on my book manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader report, but it is on the cusp of being sent off again.
    • Convert the longer of the two conference papers into an article for an e-book the organizers want to publish of the proceedings.
    • Re-write the second conference paper to sharpen my argument.
    • Looking for a book to review this year
    • Slosh around in a playground I have been invited to participate in to see if I have anything to say.
    • Dust off some of the projects I put to the side when I thought I would be leaving this profession to see what still runs, setting in motion a more fully-developed research pipeline.
  2. Read at least a chapter every day from an academic book not strictly for research
    • My goal is to finish three (3) books by the start of the semester

Teaching Prep

  1. Obviously I need to prepare my syllabuses, but, also:
    • run each course through a backward course design process that I haven’t had the time to do properly in while adjuncting.
    • pre-design a number of the course activities I want to implement, particularly in my World History courses where I was inspired by a numismatics activity Lee Brice and Theo Kopestonsky presented about at this year’s Association of Ancient Historians meeting. The goal of these assignments would be to introduce students to a range of evidentiary material from the ancient world that give them the tools to think historically about the world around them (see backward course design).
  2. Usually I read a book on teaching each summer, but I suspect that will not happen this year, so:
    • Find 2-3 articles on teaching to read this summer
    • Update my pedagogy reading list
    • Identify a pedagogy book to read by the end of the year
  3. Work through the Athenaze textbook. Book 1 has 15 chapters, so if I do roughly a chapter each workday I should be able to finish before start of the semester. This project is not for immediate use, but I was taught using a different textbook and I want to be more familiar with the other options in case I am ever given the opportunity to teach Greek.

Exercise

  1. I am currently nursing a calf-strain, but I would like to get to where I can run 2 miles at a time by the end of August. My actual goal is a good deal further, but I have found that running is a humbling experience for me and I need to set ambitious, but reachable goals. Before this strain I could run between 1 and 1.5 miles at a time.
  2. Gradually expand my weight routine past what I am currently doing — i.e. past a lot of pushups, which is effective, but also pretty repetitive.

Hobbies

  1. Read six (6) more books before the start of the fall semester.
  2. Finish the main storyline in Ghosts of Tsushima and decide whether to pick up a new game or return to the mythic quests in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
  3. Maybe finally write about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and/or other hobbies
  4. Definitely write more here. However, my guiding principle for this space will remain whatever I feel like writing about that I don’t have an outlet for.
  5. Spend a little bit of time overhauling this site. I have a few overdue changes I want to make, including archiving an article that is no longer embargoed by the journal, updating my Commonplace Book, and making headway on the forever-incomplete teaching section.
  6. Make a point of sketching in my sketchbook once a week, perhaps looking online for

This is a long list of projects and goals given that the summer is already 2/3 over, but there is a lot of overlap between categories and only a few of these points actually have measurable targets. The rest are (a) things I have to complete anyway where working on them sooner will relieve stress later; (b) things I’m likely to be doing anyway; or (c) building or reinforcing habits that can continue after the start of the semester.

Now I think I’m ready for summer to begin.

My anti-library and a digital bookshelf

There is a video I love. For more than a minute the camera follows Umberto Eco walk through his personal library, the path lined with bookshelves that often stretch from the floor to the ceiling, all packed with books.

This library, which was recently acquired by the University of Bologna, contained roughly 44,000 volumes. Of course Eco hadn’t read every volume in this library — there is a finite amount of time in any given life — but the collection served as a research collection and a personal philosophy articulated in an oft-repeated passage of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, where Eco explained that unread books are more valuable to a collection than are read books. The latter are little more than an “ego boosting appendage” as though being well-read alone confers value to the person, while the former are a well of potential knowledge. Taleb calls this the “anti-library.” The more one knows, the larger that well-should be, according to Eco.

I also like to think that this library brought joy to Umberto Eco, if we are to apply the Marie Kondo test.

The reason I love this video is that I aspire to have this sort of library.

Years ago I had a conversation with Alex Green at his store, the now-closed Backpages Books in Waltham, Massachusetts where we talked about our respective book-buying habits. The upshot of that conversation is that I have a problem — and also that Alex gave me a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ when I checked out, I assume because I mentioned that it was my favorite book.

When I need a break, I will often relax by poring over lists of books hunting for hidden gems. Sometimes this has a direct impact on what I read, such as a recent stretch where I read books curated from the New York Times list of best books from 2020. Other times those books sit on my to-read shelves for months or years only to be pulled out when the time feels right, as with Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul, and Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum.

The current States of my to-read shelf.
The current state of my to-read shelf.

For similar reasons, I struggle to walk past a bookstore without sticking my head in, and have taken to deliberately browsing the store for longer than I intended while holding onto some volume I found to see if the impulse to purchase it fades.

Even with that restraint, I have acquired a lot of books. I recently moved with just a fraction of the volumes in Eco’s library and have been charged by my partner with sorting out library, much of which resides in the room I am using for my office. This process has me thinking a lot about Umberto Eco and his stroll through the library and I have questions.

  • Does he have an assistant (or graduate student) who tends to the collection?
  • What kind of building was this library in?
  • When did he acquire the space?
  • Did he ever have to move the collection and, if so, at what age? Did he have helpers?

The last question is of course the one I am most concerned with since the peripatetic life of of a graduate student and contingent faculty member is almost more of a limitation to creating a library than the monetary cost of the books. It is much easier to be Guy Pearce’s character at the end of Mare of Easttown packing all of your earthly possessions into a Jaguar XK8 to drive to your next gig if those possessions don’t include hundreds of books.

And yet, even as I struggle to find space for all of the books that we currently own, I can’t help but think about all of the other books I want to acquire.

Like I said, I have a problem.

The local library helps, of course, but only to a point. In addition to being limited by what they have in their collection, libraries don’t always match up with the rhythm of my reading where I like to have access to a book so that I can pick it up on a whim.

Library e-book programs like Overdrive are somewhat better in this respect. My current read is an e-book of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet, a thick book detailing the divergent philosophies of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug that I picked up after seeing it name-dropped favorably on a blog. The problem is that I’m reading it on my phone. I’ve read several other books this way recently, with mixed results. I like the ability to clip a passage by taking a screen shot, but generally dislike almost every other aspect of the reading experience.

What I am currently debating is whether my antipathy toward e-books is intrinsic to the form or whether my phone is just a bad e-reader. The latter is without question true. The screen is calibrated for looking at social media and the fact that it is smaller than a book means that it is an awkward fit in my hand. Conversely, my tablet is too large for an e-reader. In addition, the other apps on the phone have proven a siren’s song always pulling me away from whatever I’m reading. If I am going to keep doing e-books, then, I need to get an e-reader that I use for nothing but e-books — and, looking at the kindle options, I’m definitely going to need to pay the surcharge for an ad-free version.

I will always love the feel, and the smell, of a physical book, but carrying a slim device saves both space and weight. E-books also could — potentially — save me money after the initial investment on the device since the average price of an e-book is lower than the print equivalent (by design, Amazon and Barnes and Noble offer higher royalty rates on books priced between 3 and 10 dollars), even before considering sales.

But what is good for me as a reader gives me pause as a book person. While unpacking my library, I have been slowly pruning the collection, putting some volumes in boxes that I want to donate to my local public library. I don’t like this process, but, unlike Signore professore dottore Eco, I am not graced with an enormous space that I can fill, and I try to think about this as a gardener might: prune the tree not as a destructive process, but in order to clear the way for new growth. That is, if I from time to time clear what I have on the shelf in a way that allows someone else to enjoy some of the books, then I can buy new books, building my library as a physical, tangible thing that blends my favorites with those I have yet to read.

E-books don’t provide the same experience. Purchasing an e-book actually means licensing access to the product and browsing an e-book shelf might provide the same information, but I find that trapping all of that knowledge in a small device soulless. The anti-library lands differently when it is on a digital bookshelf.

And then there is the Amazon of it all.

So, where does that leave me? I don’t know. The increasingly-large selection of digital books through my public library has me leaning toward purchasing an e-reader because I can’t keep reading them on my phone. But an e-reader is also yet another device to keep around the house and a substantial investment for something that I might come to hate. At the end of the day, though, I also just want to keep buying books.

Life Intrudes

I watch very little unscripted reality TV outside of the Great British Baking Show. I am too young for the Real World phenomenon and have a vivid memory of walking in while my brother and mother watched an early season of Survivor but never really watched that show. I have seen the odd episode of a lot of shows, but I generally don’t find either the contestants or the “game” compelling.

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to watch the current season of Top Chef from the beginning, never having seen a single episode to this point. As I wrote several times, I fell in love with this show. In part, the focus on simple excellence and limited direct competition appeals to my sensibility, but I also found the judges and competitors charming — sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of the reality show editing of each episode.

Top Chef: Portland was filmed last year in a bubble and the editing gave the season an isolated quality that reminded me of the GBBO tent. The competition obviously put mental and emotional strains on the chefs, and talking about how much they missed their families were poignant vignettes at a time when travel restrictions kept many people from their families.

Striking this season was the lack of a villain. The contestants seemed to genuinely like one another, particularly by the time the show reached the back half of the season when the smaller number of chefs allowed more air time for each one.

The season finale, which aired this past Thursday, maintained this same atmosphere. The finalists chatted with one another, they each got an assistant from the last three eliminated to make their dream meal, and the all-star guest judges who had joined the bubble made them a meal on the night before judging.

Oh, and they all made incredible food.

The illusion was complete and a winner was crowned. He calls his family and shouts out the largely Latinx kitchen staff at many American restaurants.

And then real life returns.

Reports recently came out that Gabe Erales, this season’s champion, had been fired last December from the Austin restaurant Comedor where he was executive chef for repeatedly violating sexual harassment policies.

(He maintains that he had a consensual relationship with the woman and then reduced her hours because of performance issues, but the restaurant’s owner disputes this account.)

At the same time, Top Chef edited guest diner Eduardo Jordan out of the final altogether after recent allegations of unwanted touching made by fifteen women.

I genuinely enjoyed this season. I was blown away by Dawn’s Nashville Hot Fried Tofu, I want to learn to make some of Gabe’s Moles, and even when they cooked things I never could I appreciated the skills and techniques on display. I also liked that the contestants came off as likable people.

But what one sees on Top Chef — like any reality show — is a fantasy created in the editing room.

This is not to say that it was all feigned. Some aspects of personality are going to shine through, but everyone was also likely on their best behavior throughout filming, knowing that the cameras are rolling. At the same time, the artificially level playing field of a show like Top Chef is going to eliminate the power disparities that can lead to some of the most toxic behavior in restaurant industry — even taking Gabe’s story at face value, his sexual relationship was with someone whose hours he could cut. The result is that Top Chef did not face the same concerns on set that reared their heads back at the restaurant.

Production had wrapped by the time the allegations came out and they couldn’t very well edit the winner out of the show.

Top Chef is great television, but these stories break that illusion. Real life inevitably intrudes on the most idyllic scene. The food might be great, but there is a long way to go in these other areas that, ultimately, matter much more.