Alexander (2004), revisited

For the entirety of my academic career, Oliver Stone’s epic biopic Alexander has been an object of ridicule. I praised a handful of casting choices when it came out (Angelina Jolie as Olympias, even if I don’t love what they did with the character; Anthony Hopkins as old-man Ptolemy), but otherwise loudly complained about the way the film warped history and have particular issues with the work of one of the main historical consultants.

In short, I was in line with the 16% score Alexander received on Rotten Tomatoes.

Outside a handful of conversations I hadn’t given thought to Alexander in a decade when I decided to show it this semester in a class called “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” Then two things happened: first, I discovered that 67% of reviews on Amazon gave it either 4 or 5 stars; second, I discovered that the movie is not as bad as I remember it.

First, despite hitting a few of my pet peeves in filmmaking (e.g. how will we know we’re in Greece if there aren’t schooling scenes with broken columns???), it is beautifully costumed in ways that show the increasing distance of the expedition away from Greece. I’m not wild about the script and Colin Farrell looks too old for teenaged Alexander, but the look is gorgeous and immersive, nicely capturing the fact that the Macedonians were leaving a relatively poorer part of the Ancient World for territories that were older and wealthier.

Second, Alexander tries to offer a psychological portrait of a king. I think this is where the critiques that it is a talk-y epic come from. I can appreciate the ambition even as it hews too far toward “Alexander the Idealist” for my taste, and the theatrical cut is overly concerned with an Oedipal interpretation that is deemphasized in the later cuts. However, this big swing also comes with drawbacks. For instance, one of the hallmarks of the ancient sources like Curtius Rufus and Plutarch is that they struggle to reconcile the great, humanistic idealist with the brutal and ruthless monarch.*

In fact, since all of our surviving narrative histories of Alexander campaign date from several hundred years later, they offer as much a commentary on monarchy and power as they do evidence for Alexander’s reign.

Stone’s Alexander struggles in much the same way, trying both offer a humanizing portrait of the great man and a soup-to-nuts biopic that covers the warts and all. The result is an uneven movie that swings from Alexander espousing idealistic platitudes about how Asians are people, too, to a wedding-night rape scene, to Alexander the tender homosexual lover, to him killing his loyal followers in a drunken rage, to showing his perpetual struggle for the approval of his parents. Trying to put it all in a single film that focuses this closely on Alexander lays bare just how contradictory our original sources can be.

*There are a number of books on this subject, my favorites being Elizabeth Baynham’s Alexander the Great and Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander.

Third, I was much more forgiving of how the movie warps the chronology, combining and compressing the battles. These scenes dragged in the film as it stands, so I could see how doubling or tripling their run-time would have just bloated the movie further without supplementing the attempted psychological portrait.

The obvious solution is that an entire Alexander story cannot fit in a movie. But Alexander predates HBO’s Rome (2005–2007), let alone Game of Thrones or a show like the Crown. The space afforded by a prestige drama, whether a single season on Alexander culminating in his death a la Ned Stark and multiple seasons on the period of the successors or an eight season run with three on Alexander is a much more appropriate format for this story, both because it better fits long-form storytelling and because a series would allow the creators and writers to develop characters other than Alexander, both Greek and Persian––an under-appreciated requirement for any successful adaptation of this story.

Fourth, one of the really interesting things that Alexander does is to frame it as being told by old-man Ptolemy, now a king in Egypt, in the process of writing his history of Alexander’s campaign. As with other points, I picked nits with the scenes, including that there is a fully-completed Pharos lighthouse and a statue of Philip with a Pericles helmet, but since Ptolemy did write a history of this period he is a natural surrogate as a narrator in the same way that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins tell the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and Samwell Tarly writes Game of Thrones. The problem is that this framing device has layers of consequences for the story that the movie utterly disregards, leaving both superficial narration and a generic amalgam of the Alexander story.

To be clear, Alexander remains a hot mess of a movie. It doesn’t have much time for women, doesn’t do enough to get at the fundamental violence of Alexander’s reign, or spend enough time either humanizing the non-Greeks or exploring the sense of alienation that Alexander’s men, any of which could have made for a more compelling film than its psychological portrait. But it is also a hot mess with ambition in ways that give it more to think about than most movies that fail this spectacularly.

A Recent Reading Recap

The thing about my current semester is that it barely left time to think, let alone do anything, but I did manage to crawl my way through a few books. Now that my semester is winding down and I finally have a moment to breathe, I have a chance to jot down notes.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed – My least favorite of the books I read this fall, The Possessed is a memoir about graduate school and Russian literature in which long sections read as though she was workshopping ideas for the book that eventually became her novel The Idiot. Batuman is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the discussions of Russian literature, but those often went beyond the authors I was familiar with and I was generally underwhelmed by her presentation of graduate school.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War – One of my aspirational goals for teaching is to read one new book about each class I teach in a given semester, beyond whatever other prep I have done. This was my choice for my Modern Americna history class. In Winter War, Rauchway examines the months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration to show the radical start of Roosevelt’s New Deal and how Hoover sought to undermine his successor. This was a really excellent book that deftly leads the reader through the political maneuverings at the height of the Great Depression.

Josh Gondelman, Nice Try – The final non-fiction book I read this fall was Gondelman’s Nice Try. I attended Brandeis at the same time as Gondelman and we have a number of mutual friends, but I know him primarily as a writer for TV and on Twitter as the world’s nicest comedian. This collection is a delightful, light-hearted stroll through the serious topic of trying to be both a nice and good person in the world.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu – The fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is one of the best. Like Tombs of Atuan, this novel picks up the story of Tenar, now living on Gont as a middle-aged woman named Goha, her children grown. The inciting event comes when two people come into her life. First, an emotionally and physically damaged child she names Therru and then Sparrowhawk, no longer a mage, but a broken old man. The result is a heart-wrenching fantasy story of sorrow and loss that, like the rest of the series, undermines the typical heroic tropes including, this time, the notion that a single heroic victory would in fact set the world at rights.

Myke Cole, The Armored Saint – I started following Cole on Twitter because of his interest in ancient Greek history, but I also appreciate a good fantasy novel and he recommended people start with this one. The Armored Saint is a coming of age story about Heloise Factor, the daughter of the town’s scribe. What impressed me about this book is how Cole creates the sense of history, with adults having fought in past wars and an Order that prevents demons from entering the world by making sure that no wizard survives, while nevertheless focalizing this story that takes place in one small valley through the point of view of this young woman who, rightfully, is angry at members of the Order who abuse their power.

Jose Saramago, Blindness – The only capital-L literature book I read this semester was by Portuguese Nobel-winner José Saramago. Blindness is a harrowing story of a city that descends to anarchy when its citizens begin going blind. The government responds to the initial cases by quarantining the afflicted in an asylum, in the hopes that it will stop its spread. But the asylum fills up, and one of the wings organizes a ring to control the spread of supplies, extorting money and sex from the other wings. Then the supplies stop coming in and the inmates escape into a world abandoned when every one went blind. Overall Blindness struck me as a much more sophisticated and satisfying take on the themes of Lord of the Flies. My one lingering question was about the character of the doctor’s wife, who accompanies her husband into the asylum and is the only character in the entire book who never goes blind. I couldn’t decide what to make of her character, eventually deciding that she is saved by her selfless sacrifices at every turn, but also finding that this level of metaphor didn’t quite fit with the rest of characters in the novel. I quite liked Blindness in sum, but the fact that I came away wishing that I read it at a time when I could give it more attention means I might need to re-read this one.

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I am now reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the conclusion of her Liveship Traders Series. By the time I’m done, I hope to have enough time to write full review posts again.

#AcWri2019

Last year I wrote a handful of posts reflecting on my relationship with academic writing, using Scholarshape’s reflective #AcWri project. My writing was inconsistent this time last year, cycling through several rough weeks of writing followed by one good one, but I still maintained something that resembled a regular writing practice.

This semester, much to my great frustration, I had to give up my regular practice before the end of September.

Writing during the semester is always a challenge, and not being in a stable position only compounds the difficulty. In addition to the usual preparation and grading, both magnified by the financial pressure to take on a heavy teaching load, there is the anxiety of the job market, both for permanent jobs and for classes for the next semester.

Going into this semester I had resolved not to submit any abstracts this year. I quite like giving papers despite chronic struggles with anxiety, but preparing them takes time and time has been in short supply, so I had hoped to grant myself forgiveness in advance. FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, though, and I’ve sent myself into a neurotic spiral on at least two occasions, once while seeing updates from a conference and again from a reminder that a deadline for proposals is coming up next week for a conference I am almost certainly going to attend in the spring. But my situation this year is in flux: I lack institutional support for conference travel and there is a very real possibility that this will be my last year in academia, so for the time being I am resigned to collecting ideas and reminding myself that it is okay to rest.

For similar reasons, my writing has largely been stuck on the same topics for some time. My primary focus is still my book manuscript on Classical Ionia, which I described last year, but I have become increasingly interested in memory in ancient Greece and begun to dip my toe into a future project on bread and bread baking. The problem of course is that research and writing take mental energy that I have not had while also teaching five classes and applying for jobs.

On the other hand, I am almost done with job applications, I can taste the end of the semester, and I am practically aching to get back to my writing projects. Regardless of whether I continue to teach at a college level after this year, I have ambitions of continuing to write and want to at least finish the projects I have begun. I am not there yet and there will invariably be new difficulties––among them, interview season, figuring what happens next, holiday travel, and recurrences of depression and anxiety––I am close enough that I am looking forward to reestablishing a writing routine.

What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

Programming Update, September 2019

The summer heat hasn’t broken Missouri just yet, but the semester is fully underway––and rapidly closing in on the halfway point. I have managed to stay one step ahead of all of my responsibilities to this point, but the week that just ended drove home to me just how little downtime I have allotted myself, particularly after accounting for maintaining personal relationships.

What this means for this blog is that posts are going to be intermittent for at least the next few months. Whatever “spare” time I have for writing needs to be spun toward my academic work, at least to the extent that I have the brainpower for it.

This is not a total blackout. I have a few thoughts about the handful of books I have managed to read this month, perhaps for a quick-hit post, as well as a “what is making me happy” post I want to have up this weekend, and there is always a chance that inspiration will strike. Rather, I am relieving myself of the anxiety that comes with the feeling that I need to write, ironically in the hope that it will help the words flow.

Beloved

Except for an occasional request for color [Baby Suggs] said practically nothing––until the afternoon of the the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

Toni Morrison is an author who has been on my radar for a long time, but despite using the Nobel Prize for Literature to build a reading list and wanting to diversify my intake I have always found reasons to read something else instead. I have struggled with a lot of books set in the American south, for one, and her books just didn’t seem to be my speed––whatever that means, these are excuses. Morrison’s recent passing inspired me to rectify this oversight.

Beloved is a novel of two places, each with two phases, linked by Sethe––wife, mother, slave, freedwoman, murderer.

124 is the first place, once a refuge for former slaves outside Cincinnati and now where Sethe and her daughter Denver live with the ghosts.

The second place is Sweet Home, a bucolic plantation where Sethe had been a slave before fleeing with her family.

Two arrivals shake 124 from its dismal, spiteful routine. First comes Paul D, a man who had been a slave with Sethe at Sweet Home years past. Second comes the ethereal Beloved, a young woman who seems to have appeared out of the Ohio River. With each arrival Sethe gets further lost in the world of memory. Paul D reminds her of Halle, the father of her children and chosen husband, and of Sweet Home. Beloved, who Sethe associates with her dead baby with “beloved” carved on its headstone,” reminds her of the trauma of 124.

The main thread of Beloved begins in 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War and longer since Sethe gained her freedom, but this is very much a novel about the lasting impact of slavery. The older women of 124 (Sethe and Baby Suggs, her husband’s mother) physically wear the carry the marks on their bodies, yes, but how Morrison writes the psychological scars is what sets this novel apart.

The most obvious example of these scars––and one that only deepens as the novel progresses––is Sethe’s decision to kill her infant her former owners track her down. This is obviously *the* central scene to the book, but smaller moments were equally revelatory. Some are expected having read about slavery in the United States. Racism from abolitionists, broken and lost families, casual sexual violence (albeit not from an expected angle). Others were less expected, such as Baby Suggs’ preoccupation with color once she is free and realizes she is allowed to have opinions about such things or the disconnect between the names the white slave owners use and the names that the enslaved people want to have.

What stood out most to me, though was how Sethe and Paul D remember Sweet Home.

Sweet Home is repeatedly referred to in glowing terms. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. The Garners, the original owners of the plantation, are generally remembered positively. They treat their slaves well, never beating or raping them, valuing their skills and opinions, and even arming the men to let them hunt. They don’t force Sethe into a sexual relationship, but allow her to have one with the man of her choosing and allow Halle (that man) to hire out his services so that he can purchase his mother’s freedom.

The Garners’ benevolence stands out because, after Mr. Garner’s death, a relation known as Schoolteacher takes over management. His opinion is that the Garners have been too lenient, and begins beating the slaves, restricting their movements, and employing any number of implements, including semi-sexual violations. Saying Sweet Home turned sour understates the toxicity of the change and underscores the depths of horror that slavery enabled.

But Morrison also uses this island of blessed tranquility to demonstrate the grotesqueness of slavery. Even with impossibly benevolent owners, slavery dehumanized the enslaved. Within the confines of Sweet Home the owned had a dim shadow of freedom, but they are isolated and still living their lives for the benefit of their owners. Whatever goodness the Garners have is forfeit by their participation in this system.

Beloved is not necessarily a book written with me, a white man, in mind. I frequently like a voyeur even while I was swept away by the power of Morrison’s prose or was caught by a turn of phrase that made me reread a sentence, paragraph or page. Yet, this discomfort is exactly the reason that people like me ought to read this book. Morrison simultaneously breaths life into the expected jagged wounds of American history and upends any usual assumptions.

If the purpose of literature is to liberate us from our own experience and build empathy, Morrison succeeds in spades. Beloved is spectacular and deserving of every accolade it won.

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I have been snowed under for the past two weeks with the start of the fall semester and have for the most part chosen to read rather than write here. In this stretch, and speaking of discomfort, I have finished reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which is a powerful look at her weight and am now making my way through Eric Rauchway’s Winter War, which is a really well-written look at the political gamesmanship between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt between the 1932 election and Roosevelt’s inauguration.

First Day Fragments

Last August I posted some assorted thoughts going into the new academic year. One post does not a tradition make, but I liked the reflective practice.

Going into my third year of teaching post-PhD, I have been reflecting on the mismatch between the stated learning objectives and the way many, though certainly not all, history courses are taught. Lower-level surveys particularly suffer because they often have higher enrollments as students are required to take them by outside forces that agree in a general about the importance of history, but have little idea what that actually entails.

The result is that the students are tossed into a lecture hall where they receive an information dump from a knowledgable person and (maybe) some time talking about primary sources. In a perfect world with a good lecturer, students who do the reading, and invested TAs, this system offers a way to scale up the mandate for students to learn some history.

But the world we live in is not perfect and these courses can resemble an information dump that students recall just long enough to take the exam.

There are a number of guides for how to improve the “dreaded survey course” that often boil down to “do less” so that the students can do more. This is good advice that I start the semester following and invariably end up clinging tighter and tighter to the sound of my own voice as the semester spirals beyond my ability to adequately manage a full discussion every day.

Nevertheless, I have be changing the format of my lectures to better model historical practice. For instance, I have begun thinking about my classes in terms of narratives and arguments, both in the big picture and in individual classes. The overall syllabus has a trajectory and each individual class has its own thesis. In the slideshow I will often include the thesis at the outset and then use subsequent slides to lay out the evidence for that thesis, taking the time to explore the consequences of this evidence as a class.

Thinking about the class in these terms also embeds a structure that both focuses the content to prevent sprawl and allows it to build on itself as the semester goes along. The further my classes are from my field of research, though, the harder it is to articulate these narratives ahead of time.

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Since around midsummer I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, and even commented on it with regard to my writing. Since then, I have written a few #AcWri threads on Twitter about approaching writing as a discipline and a practice and equating it to physical workouts.

For years now I have been making sure to prioritize my physical wellbeing, using the basketball, running, lifting weights and other exercises to work out stress and stay healthy. My workouts change periodically (recently I’ve been working on flexibility with regular yoga routines), but I make a point of staying active even when the semesters get busy. This year I added mandatory downtime, resolving to take at least one day entirely away from work each weekend.

With this semester poised to be even busier than usual, I need protect time for writing for reasons that go beyond professional output. The hard part will be doing it in a way that preserves balance; simply adding one more obligation to my already full dance card is a recipe for burnout.

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I teach five courses this semester, two of which are entirely new and a third that is substantially overhauled from a summer course to a full semester. As a result, I teach everything from the first half* of the world history survey to colonial America, to a survey of American history after the Civil War, to two seminars on Classical Reception.

(The colloquialisms for these surveys are ludicrous. To call all of human history from the earliest civilizations through Columbus’ voyages “half” is patently absurd, even if it is half of the class time dedicated to the world history survey.)

This many classes, and particularly this many *new* classes, takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but they also provide me opportunities to indulge my interest in times and places I don’t usually work on. I may not be the best qualified person to teach every course going into it, but beyond knowing how to craft assignments, find readings, and help students develop their analytical skills, I hope that my own curiosity proves infectious.

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The weather in Missouri turned hot and humid just in time for classes to start. The heat index currently sits at 106 at the end of the first Monday of the semester, making it hard to believe that summer has ended. But time flies and I have a lot to do, so here we go.

The Invisible Gorilla

The first viral video I remember in college is the eponymous video from this study, the invisible Gorilla. It came from a psych study of the same name where the researchers showed their subjects a video of people passing basketballs back and forth, some wearing white shirts and some black. They asked the viewers to count the number of times the people wearing white shirts passed their basketball. Then they asked them if they noticed a person in a gorilla suit. About half of the participants missed the gorilla, who walks through the middle of the game, turns to the camera, and beats its chest.

The experiment tested selective attention, showing how when the mind is focused on a particular task, particularly when that task involves tracking unfamiliar patterns, people are much more likely to miss what they are not explicitly tracking. When I watch the video I see the gorilla, but sometimes miss at least one of the passes.

In Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other experiments, supplemented with real world examples, to give an engaging explanation for how the mind works, covering issues from attention to confidence to the potential for growth.

If I had to put a thesis to Invisible Gorillas it is that the human mind is extraordinarily well adapted for pattern recognition and focusing on individual tasks, but is easily overwhelmed.

Invisible Gorillas offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of (relatively) recent developments in the science of memory and intuition. Some sections of the book dated themselves. While talking about the illusion of patterns and predictive behavior, for instance, they praise John Roberts’ explanation in the Shelby County supreme court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act, which has aged poorly in ways that were entirely predictable for reasons cultural, historical, and political. If these case studies can be misguided, I can only imagine that the science has developed since the original publication in 2010.

In general, though, I have little negative to say, and found that it offers a few practical lessons. Given the title of the book, the top-line takeaway is the dangers of divided attention. Chabris and Simons spend a significant amount of space talking about driving and other activities that people can do while distracted under ideal circumstances, but explain that distraction primarily interferes with the ability to adapt to the unexpected.

Secondarily, they explain, people overestimate their ability to multitask. I have noticed this when it comes to my writing. I often multitask when writing blog posts, with something on a second screen that I can passively absorb but don’t care if I miss anything. By contrast, when I’m working on projects I hope to publish, I have to eliminate distractions by closing down social media, turning off podcasts or anything visual, and often turn up music on my headphones.

(Chabris and Simons debunk the urban myth that listening to classical music makes one smarter in the illusion of potential; the music I listen to while writing varies, and I find the beat matters more than the genre because I usually tune the songs out.)

But as much I already knew and/or had discovered the issues with illusions of attention, the two studies I found particularly valuable were the illusion of confidence and false beliefs about memory.

On the former, people trust those who express confidence more than those willing to express doubt. In 2019, this is more important than ever. It would be easy to tie this illusion to any number of political and media issues, but I saw a relevance here for academia, too. I have long believed that one of the greatest disservices the US educational system does to students, particularly through standardized tests, is to make them believe that they need to have all of the answers. In turn, this means I try to model for my students how to not-know the answers; that is, to teach them to place confidence in being able to find explanations rather than in feigning them through confident bluster even though, as Chabris and Simons explain, society generally values the latter.

The latter caught my attention because I have been working with memory as a historical construct. I introduced this post with a memory of watching the invisible gorilla video in college, which I thought was a viral video, perhaps on Youtube. The facts line up: I was in college around the time the video made news and Youtube and Facebook both existed. In truth, though, I don’t actually know that this was when or how I saw the video, only that I have been aware of the video for a long time. This inconsistency is exactly the point of Chabris and Simons’ section on memory: memory is malleable and flawed, connected to our emotions and experiences, and highly impressionable. My reading of historical memory is that the same holds true, except with more intentionality behind the shaping of memory.

There is also more to Invisible Gorillas that is worth consideration, including discussion of why we believe so strongly in the potential to improve ourselves quickly and the way in which people tend to misunderstand probabilities. In short, this is a worthwhile read on a number of levels, from simple curiosity to practical applications in a range of settings.

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I just started Toni Morrison’s Beloved because her passing reminded me that I had never read any of her books even though I’ve been trying to read more African and African-American authors. I am only a few chapters in, but am so far finding it viscerally affecting and awkwardly voyeuristic in a way that is making me particularly conscious of my whiteness. The last part is heightened by having seen clips of Morrison commenting on tone deaf critiques of her literature as not addressing white audiences.

The Farthest Shore

“The traitor, the self; the self that cries I want to live; let the world burn so long as I can live! The little traitor soul in us, in the dark, like the worm in the apple. He talks to all of us. But only some understand him. The wizards and the sorcerers. The singers; the makers. And the heroes, the ones who seek to be themselves. To be one’s self is a rare thing, and a great one. To be one’s self forever: is that not better still.

“What is a good man, Arren? Is a good man one who would not do evil, who would not open a door to the darkness, who has no darkness in him? Look again, lad.”

Decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Prince Arren of Enlad has arrived on Roke, the island of the Wizards, with dire news: magic is disappearing from the world. Signs of this impending doom haven’t reach Roke yet, but the Archmage Sparrowhawk (Ged) who watches the balance of the world decides to trust Arren and venture out into the world to see what is happening.

They go first to the Southern Reaches where magic has indeed vanished, and with it most restraints of social connection. The disappearance of magic from the world of Earthsea so disrupts the fabric of society that it begins to unravel as people turn to drugs to cope. People alternate between despair and succumbing to a destructive, addictive promise of oblivion where they are being told that they can find eternal life. The mage and his guardian then head west, encountering the people of the open ocean who live on rafts where the magic of the song is also vanishing, before heading past the islands of dragons and to Selidor where they have to cross over into the land of the dead to find the source of this darkness.

The best thing about Le Guin’s Earthsea novels is her oblique and nuanced approach to themes. Where most fantasy literature relies on supernatural or eternal evil, these novels have grand stakes through intimate stories. A Wizard of Earthsea tackled taking rash actions and overcoming an internal darkness. The Tombs of Atuan took on issues of gender, power, and uncritical belief. The Farthest Shore is no different. Here she tackles the banality of human evil and, ultimately, the ordinariness of heroism when individuals have the courage to take action even at a cost to themselves––regardless of whether the person is young Arren or Ged, the most powerful mage alive.

The themes in The Farthest Shore turn it into a thoughtful meditation on good and evil, but it was my least favorite of the first three Earthsea novels. As usual, Le Guin’s new afterword is an engaging read, here focusing on dragons, the human face of evil, and why the novels seem to skip forward in time at irregular intervals. Contrasted with the first two books, though, I found the plot and most of the character development got lost for the meditation on good and evil. I had this same problem to an extent with A Wizard of Earthsea, but the fact that it was also a story about Ged’s coming of age, character came to the fore.

Here, we get a glimpse of Ged at the height of his powers, something we know because he have heard the tales about his deeds even when we haven’t seen them, but much of the story hinges on Arren, who Ged mostly takes under his wing. So far this isn’t a problem, and Arren even has his moments, but then he is revealed to be the descendant of Morred, one of the good kings of old and therefore a candidate to take up the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and justly rule the land. Where The Tombs of Atuan revealed “reincarnation” to be the work of a dangerous cult and A Wizard of Earthsea showed the nobody Ged to be a hero because of how he used his prodigious gifts, The Farthest Shore offered us an entitled heir if only he has the courage to claim it. For me this undercut much of Le Guin’s otherwise incisive story.

The fourth book in the series, Tehanu, won the Locus and Nebula awards for best fantasy novel in 1991, so I am looking forward to reading it despite my issues with The Farthest Shore.

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Next up, I just finished Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us, pop-science book about the psychology of intuition. I haven’t decided what to start next. I have a copy of Tehanu, but may need to read Beloved first, in light of Toni Morrison’s passing.

The First Crusade: The Call from the East

I first encountered Peter Frankopan’s work a few years ago when I read his global history The Silk Roads, which aimed to understand the world along an axis unfamiliar to most people: the pathways of exchange that linked Europe and East Asia known collectively as the Silk Road. While reading that book I came across a reference to this one, Frankopan’s first, and made a note to read it at some point. Preparing to teach a survey of world history before 1500, it seemed like an appropriate time to pick it up.

The First Crusade hinges on a simple conceit: historians of the crusades get swept away by the stirring oratory of Urban II at Claremont and the remarkable victories of the western knights that established crusader kingdoms and so miss the forest for the trees.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (r.1081–1118) sits at the center of Frankopan’s retelling. When Pope Urban II issued his call for crusade and began preaching across most of Europe, he fired up his audiences with stories about the collapse of the Byzantine frontier and the horrors that the Turks visited upon their Christian brethren. Byzantium, the great Christian empire and one-time protector of Jerusalem, he said, was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a Seljuk army under the command of Alp Arslan had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV in 1071. The empire had suffered additional setbacks in the two succeeding decades, including invasions by Norman knights who would go on to be Crusaders, and by the early 1090s a sudden turn for the worse in Anatolia that included the loss of Nicaea, a strategically-located and heavily-fortified city, prompted Alexios to make his appeal to Urban.

But neither was the Byzantine Empire decaying anachronism. Frankopan contextualizes Alexios’ actions in the institutional and diplomatic traditions of the Byzantine Empire. In this light, the beleaguered empire of the 1070s had recovered under Alexios’ careful hand in the 1080s, thwarting repeated invasions of the Balkans from both Norman knights and nomads from the north, while also choosing careful marriage alliances at Constantinople and stabilizing the situation in Anatolia through careful diplomacy that brought the Turkish leader Malik Shah into the imperial orbit. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 unravelled Alexios’ hard work and ultimately led to a attempted coup in the capitol.

These conditions, Frankopan argues, prompted Alexios to again turn to Byzantine diplomacy for a solution: the call from the east. In Urban II, he found an ally quarreling with the German Emperor Henry IV, who had installed his own Pope, Clement III, in Rome. Alexios’ appeal presented Urban an opportunity to claim legitimacy as the true pope. Urban’s call to arms promised knights wealth and the forgiveness of sin, thereby completing the necessary conditions for the crusade. In short order, thousands of soldiers gathered for war.

Compared to explanation of these machinations, Frankopan’s account of the campaign itself is almost perfunctory. He mentions the preparations in passing, offers explanations for the near-defeats turned spectacular victories won by the Crusaders, and duly mentions the thousands of crusaders who died along the way, but only briefly mentions People’s Crusade and does not explore the social or cultural sides of the campaign.

Instead, Frankopan keeps the focus on the Crusader leadership because that allows him to keep focus on their relationship with Alexios, who had hoped to regain Byzantine possessions in the East. All of the Crusader leaders swore oaths of fealty to the Emperor throwing their support behind his cause, but as the campaign surged forward they began to feel betrayed––because Alexios continued to negotiate with the Turks and, particularly, because they believed he was deliberately late with supplies––which ultimately led to the creation of independent Crusader States in the Levant. That is, with the exception of Baldwin, who spent two years ruling Edessa as Alexios’ delegate.

The First Crusade is a slim monograph, coming in at just over 200 pages before notes, meaning that it is not a new synthesis or a magnum opus. It is a relatively narrow thesis that achieves its aim, showing that the Byzantine context is the key to understanding the crusade. This diplomatic focus means that it is at times dry and the fact that the prose is rife with passive voice made certain chapters read like running into a stiff wind, but these are both superficial concerns. I already understood the legacies of the crusades (both the traditionally-numbered ones, as well as the Northern and Spanish crusades) in a global context in terms of trade, diplomacy, culture and religion, and I went into The First Crusade looking for a way to understand the start of the Crusades in the same light. Frankopan offers just that.

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I have since finished The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and begun Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla, a pop-science bestseller about how intuition and memory can deceive us.