Cixin Liu burst on the the American science fiction radar with his remarkable Three-Body Problem, which imagined an intergalactic conflict between humanity and a a race of people called the Trisolarans, named such for their planet and its three suns. News of this contact kicked off a crisis era in humanity. The Dark Forest continued the conflict between these two systems, establishing the Wallfacer project which aimed to coordinate humanity’s resources to confront the threat, eventually establishing a Dark Forest Hypothesis of intergalactic civilization—that secrecy is the best defense because there is always a more powerful civilization that may well decide to eliminate any potential rival. This hypothesis led to Dark Forest Deterrence, best compared to mutually-assured destruction of the Cold War, and a Swordbearer with the sole authority to send out the intergalactic signal. Such is the circumstance at the start of Death’s End, the brilliant conclusion to this trilogy.
Much like its two predecessors, Death’s End is a self-contained story that spans both space and time. This time, the primary protagonist is Cheng Xin, an aeronautical engineer involved in the Staircase project, a program meant to get a person to Trisolaris. (Because of weight restrictions, they only launch the brain of a terminally-ill classmate of Cheng Xin’s, Yun Tianming). Cheng Xin then goes into hibernation and awakens at the very end of the Deterrence Era, the period during which Luo Ji ensured mutually-assured destruction on the basis of the Dark Forest Hypothesis—that is, that there is a force even more powerful than Trisolaris—in part so that she can be elevated as the new Swordholder.
However, Cheng Xin is not Luo Ji and she is not capable of deterrence, leading to a period of Earth’s subjugation by Trisolaris, except that the Trisolaran ships sent to destroy Gravity and Blue Space, two ships that also possess the capacity to broadcast the location of both systems, are unable to fulfill their missions. An advanced civilization ignites on the of the Trisolaran suns, which prompts humanity to create artificial habitats in the shadow of Jupiter (the so-called Bunker Era). But even this facsimile of life on earth will not last and the solar system is collapsed into the micro-universes where the speed of light is reduced where the seemingly-last humans live out an eternity waiting for the rebirth of the universe.
If all of this seems like a big haul, well, it is.
The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is a throwback to an old style of science fiction along the lines of an Asimov or Stapledon. It is a story that takes place on an enormous scale and explores the rise of fall of civilizations. I cannot speak to the “accuracy” of the mathematics or science but thought that the future history of humanity became progressively more compelling as the series developed.
Liu’s fascination with the science and big ideas also has a tendency to simplify humanity into a single society as defined against the alien races. As plausible as this vision of humanity is over the long haul, it also has a way of erasing the complexities of the contemporary society in which these books were written. Human on human violence, for instance, is largely limited to personal political power or how humans ought to interact with alien races. But Liu is the crown jewel of a Chinese-government program to promote science fiction that coincides with a rapidly-developing science sector. At the same time, the Chinese government has been interning Uyghur ethnic minorities in the Northwest, allegedly for reeducation, but by all accounts for the purposes of indoctrination—not to mention reports of torture, imprisonment, family separation, forced birth-control, and abuse.
In the New Yorker profile linked above, Cixin Liu downplayed the influence of the contemporary context on his fiction, but he also trots out familiar apologetics for the camps: a benevolent government saving them from poverty and giving them economic opportunity. Liu is in a difficult position given the nature of the news in China and his relationship to the Chinese establishment, admittedly, but he is also wrong to suggest that he is able to escape this baggage. The result is a dark cloud that looms over this deeply engaging series even as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show-runners behind Game of Thrones, are reportedly beginning production on a Netflix adaptation.
I am well into the crush of the fall semester at this point, which is cutting into both my reading and writing time. I have nevertheless finished I.J. Singer’s The Brother’s Ashkenazi, a yiddish family drama set in Poland, and Dreyer’s English, a romp through the English language as told by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House. I am now reading Drago Jančar’s The Galley Slave.
In all of the issues around Brexit, one of the most pressing was the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK country of Northern Ireland. With the UK and Ireland both in the European Union the border between the two countries was soft, but Brexit threatened to harden the border and thereby increase tensions. I am by no means an expert on these issues and am vastly oversimplifying them, but while the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence of the Troubles, it is hardly a forgotten issue. It was with this background that I brought into Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which the subtitle describes as A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.
Say Nothing, which draws its title from imperative motto of Provisional IRA operatives, builds its narrative around perhaps the most famous case of a “disappeared” person in Belfast. One night in December 1972, the 38 year old Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten, was abducted from her home in the low-income housing unit of Divis Flats allegedly for having passed information to the British soldiers. She was never seen alive again.
Over the years, the McConville case garnered international attention as one of the most prominent unsolved murders from this period, but hers was just one of some 17 disappeared persons whose abductions were blamed on units within the Provisional IRA, a Republican militia group.
Radden Keefe spends the first parts of Say Nothing pulling back from the disappearances in order to explore the operations of the “Provos,” introducing readers to operatives such as Dolours and Marian Price, two radical sisters in a group called the Unknowns, and leadership figures in the organization like Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adam. He asks important questions, such as how did the Provos become radicalized such that the violence accelerated with money and weapons from the US, most notably the Armalite—the same company that makes the AR-15—and how the conflict developed when prominent Provos ended up in prisons staging hunger strikes.
One of the core tensions in this portion of Say Nothing is the fundamental differences of interpretation in how the Provos and the British authorities saw the conflict. For the Provos, this was a war and they used this justification as an excuse for when they killed civilians. The British responded with the tactics and techniques learned in suppressing rebellions in their colonies. This meant draconian incarcerations and largely looking the other way at retributive violence committed by loyalist militias. The result was tragedy.
Where roughly the first half of Say Nothing is a harrowing, propulsive narrative of events, filled with the youthful fire of its protagonists, the second half is slower, messier, and perhaps more significant investigation into the memory of the conflict.
This happens in two ways. First, the protagonists age. Gerry Adams gains a measure of respectability as a mainstream politician, which his former comrades-in-arms saw as a betrayal of everything they fought for. The others emerged prematurely aged, broken by their time behind bars, and often struggling with alcohol and drug dependencies. They aren’t remorseful, though some expressed regrets about specific actions, but they appear much more subdued.
The second development in this part of the book is reportage on The Belfast Project, a secret project hosted by Boston College where ex-paramilitary members allowed themselves to be recorded on tape discussing their activities during the Troubles. In other words, after years of silence, they said something.
These tapes were to be kept in the US and embargoed until after the deaths of the participants in order to prevent prosecution for crimes committed and thereby get the participants to speak openly and thereby create an oral history archive. Despite this intent, the project turned out to be a mess. Once the existence of the tapes became known, the Atlantic Ocean (and the poorly-written confidentiality agreement) proved a flimsy shield against legal action.
Radden Keefe makes it clear from the outset that he is not a historian. In this sense, he has written a compelling book in which nobody comes off well. This is a story with only villains and victims. Gerry Adams appears sociopathic, for instance, and the Price sisters unrepentant. The through-line is the McConville murder and how the body came to light in part because of the Belfast Project, is a perfect entryway for an exploration into not only the Troubles, but also just how shallowly the Troubles were buried.
At the same time, his particular source-base and choice of subject sometimes leads this to being a one-sided story focused on the Provos and their quixotic war against the British. The British authorities necessarily appear as the antagonist, but since many of their records remain sealed, that side of the conflict is largely absent. The other missing character in all of this were the Loyalist paramilitaries who Radden Keefe mentions, but rarely explores.
I also might have liked further discussion of the historical development of the Troubles given that this was clearly not an isolated incident. Nevertheless, Say Nothing is worth reading, both because it is a propulsive story and because it is an object lesson in how memory and rhetoric form an explosive mixture that can lead to tragedy, particularly during times of economic crisis and when the authorities are not interested in the even application of the law.
With the semester in full swing, my reading time has diminished. Right now, I’m slowly making my way through I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, a generational family history set in the Polish town of Lodz and originally written in Yiddish.
The title is a little bit misleading since I actually started teaching on August 12, but my final class started this week, so, in a sense, my semester is now fully underway.
Despite cultural narratives about getting the summers off and short working hours, neither of which are actually true, teaching has a way of taking up every moment that you give to it. I often tell my students that wise teachers don’t give busy-work because that work redoubles back on the teacher when it comes time to grade. Teaching is a time-intensive job.
My experience as an adjunct instructor teaching classes at multiple institutions simultaneously over the past few years has me again reflecting on time. There are obvious constraints here: multiple commutes and teaching above what most universities count as “full” employment without full-time pay, benefits, or the advantage of teaching multiple sections of the same class.
But there are also other considerations. Monitoring three separate email accounts and course management systems takes more time than tracking just one professional email, even if the total volume of emails that need to be actively responded to is only marginally higher.
I have also started to believe that teaching on multiple different academic calendars is a hidden time cost because mismatched breaks erase most of the intended rest and recovery. COVID threw academic calendars even further into flux, and one of my calendars moved up the start date and eliminated all breaks in order to fit the entire semester in before Thanksgiving and minimize the exposure of students leaving campus.
I’m already exhausted.
Reflecting on how the start to the semester has me feeling sped up beyond my comfort level has me thinking back to a lecture Randy Pausch, better known for his “Last Lecture,” gave on time management in which he talked about creating a time budget. Easier said than done, but he was on to something.
Part of the reason I feel sped up right now is that I did not feel prepared for the semester. In part, I spent the last set of months as a knot of anxiety. After the start of the pandemic, I watched the jobs I had applied for evaporate before my eyes. I spent most of the summer facing unemployment, excited about the possibility of time to write and terrified of what came next, all the while going into hustle mode to see if there were any places I could pick up classes for the fall.
At first the answer was no, but then I got one course, then an offer for another, and then, less than a month before the start of the semester, I was offered three more courses. The final tally is that I’m teaching five courses, three of which are entirely new to me. For two of those three I only collected the books about two weeks before the start of the semester, leaving me in scramble mode to offer my students the best experience I can under the circumstances.
I still don’t know what the future is going to bring. I am still only on one-semester contracts and while I have been fortunate thus far the constant uncertainty and last-minute contracts, to say nothing of the amount of energy that has gone into applying to full-time jobs, limits the attention I can give to the semester currently in progress.
All I know is that I am going to be exceedingly busy at least through Thanksgiving.
There is something comfortable about being in a classroom in person, but find the emotional drain of teaching to a room full of masks exhausting. Beyond adding one more thing to police in the classroom and general muffling of voices, the masks make it hard to read facial expressions that offer real-time feedback to what is going on in class. Then add in the anxiety of face to face contact, classrooms that give more “six feet” than six feet of distance between attendees, the challenges of facilitating small group discussion at a distance, and the juggling act of teaching to a room full of people and a set of people dropping into the classroom on Zoom. We’re making it work, but it is both less effective and more exhausting than usual.
Online asynchronous classes, by contrast, keep everyone on the same level, but have always had challenges in building a community of learners. Discussion boards can be great, but are only as effective as the participants make them. Certainly, there are things the instructor can do to encourage engagement, but they put a lot on the learner. I remember this being the case too when I did one of the more popular MOOCs a few years ago, Programming for Everybody’s Python course. The professor was an effective communicator and had many office hours and meetups to go along with the various assignments. The course had an incredibly active discussion board and yet I only ever went to it when I needed help with a specific question.
Then there is ZoomU 2.0, the online, synchronous class. This keeps everyone the safest, but exposes the whole class to technological issues and internet inequality. I am teaching an intro survey course in this modality, but the prospect of delivering 80-minute lectures to my computer fills me with dread. My aim is to break up the class into smaller chunks with lectures interspersed with discussions, break out rooms and in-class writing assignments to break up the monotony.
I don’t love any of these modalities, to say the least. Right now my fear is that whatever is gained by the intimacy of online video classes and then some will be given back by making it easier for people to get lost in the wash. I think there is virtue in keeping the classes at least partly synchronous, but prefer shorter and/or more infrequent virtual meetings because the costs of staring at a webcam for hours on end are real.
The fountain of words bubbling beneath the surface back in May trickled away once I had to go into overdrive to prepare for the semester and I’m currently being reminded of why I had to abandon writing almost altogether last fall. Preparing for class will take up every last minute that you are willing to give to it, so they tell young academics to jealously guard their writing time.
I can find time to write most days. What I lose during the semester is the time to read. Writing is, in a sense, a meditative activity where I can shut down Twitter, email, and other distractions in order to play with words for a while. But those words don’t just magically appear. They develop through reading and research, both of which I find harder to carve time out for during the semester both because it requires a different type of focus and because if I’m reading scholarship, a little voice is whispering to me that I should be reading for class.
I’m still writing, just not as swiftly as I perhaps hoped. I finished a book review over the summer, as well as an article that I’m currently shopping and have begun work on roughly eight other projects of various size and imagined outputs. Focus is not necessarily my strength.
Despite concerns over COVID and everything else that is going on, I must say that playoff basketball in August has been quite the treat to have on while working on classes. I don’t always love watching NBA basketball stylistically, but some of the offense are simply spectacular and the games have been a lot of fun.
And yet, before I finished this post, the NBA postponed games after a wildcat strike by the Milwaukee Bucks after yet another police shooting and subsequent violence against protesters. I love basketball, but my favorite thing about the NBA is the number of prominent socially-conscious people who play and coach in the league. They aren’t perfect, to be sure, but I fully endorse prominent individuals leveraging their positions for good causes. I hope it works.
“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”
“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”
Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.
The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:
Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.
We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?
Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.
In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).
The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.
This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.
There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.
There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.
One of the most revolutionary ships in the history of seafaring launched on February 10, 1906.
Just over a century earlier, Horatio Nelson had seized control of the seas for the British Empire by defeating the combined fleets of Spain and France. He did this from the deck of the HMS Victory, a first-rate ship of the line carrying 104-cannons launched a full four decades before earlier. In effect, ships of the line were floating artillery batteries that lined up next to each other and pounded each other into submission. Displacing 3,500 tons and launching a full-broadside of over half a ton of metal, the Victory was not the largest battleship at Trafalgar (the Spanish flagship Santísima Trinidad was larger by nearly a third), but was representative of its age. Effective distances were quite close and Nelson and his fellow British commanders attempted to magnify their firepower through superior seamanship by sailing their ships into close contact before opening fire, even at great cost to themselves—the Victory was practically disabled at Trafalgar, and Nelson fatally wounded.
Naval technology developed through the nineteenth century, with the French navy introducing a steam-powered battleship, Le Napoléon (5100 tons), in 1850 and ironclad battleships starting with Gloire (5600 tons) in 1859. Sail slowly fell out of use, and smoothbore cannons gave way to more powerful rifled guns and explosive shells. By the 1890s most major navies used fully-steam powered battleships of roughly 15,000 tons, with mixed-caliber weaponry, including several batteries of four 10- or 12-inch guns as a main armament, designed to combat threats of various sizes and speeds.
Then, in 1906, the Royal Navy launched the HMS Dreadnought, which, in a stroke, made earlier battleships obsolete. Fifteen years later, the Dreadnought, now obsolete, was sold for scrap in part of the downsizing of navies after World War One.
The Dreadnought was revolutionary in several respects. First, it was enormously large, displacing up to 21,000 tons, with the extra weight coming in large part from its armor. Second, it was fast, with a new steam turbine system that pushed water through the engine to generate steam rather than older reciprocating engines. But most notable was that the Dreadnought only carried a single caliber of main battery, ten 12-inch guns of which up to eight could be fired at once. Each shell weighed 850 pounds, giving the Dreadnought a broadside of 6,800 pounds made up of high-explosive shells capable of hitting a target at a range of more than 15 kilometers. Streamlining the caliber of the armament and centralizing the firing systems also served to increase accuracy because the main batteries all fired at the same elevation and range. In short, this was a superior warship worth two or even three battleships of the type launched even a year before.
Within ten years, the Dreadnought itself had been superseded by battleships built in its image, setting up a clash between the German and British fleets of Dreadnought battleships at Jutland in which the HMS Dreadnought did not participate. However, although the launch of the Dreadnought was a crucial development in the history of naval warfare, it was merely one turning point in a larger story of the naval arms race that led up to World War One.
Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought sets out to tell this story, but winds up telling a different, albeit connected, one. While the development of the Dreadnought appears in a pivotal chapter at the center of the book, Massie is much more interested in the personalities involved the naval arms race between Germany and the UK. The result is a book of high politics and biography.
I was mostly familiar with Massie by way of his massive biography of Peter the Great that I read in high school, and individual scenes showed many of the same flairs. Most chapters followed one or more characters, using a mini-biography to chart a particular developments, and Massie works to bring those characters to life with little details like their smoking habits and gustatory tendencies (it is little wonder so many of them suffered from gout). The picture of Otto von Bismarck and King Edward VII smoking like chimneys and Bismarck staring a table full of people down over a plate of pâté are images not likely to leave me any time soon, but the need to paint a new portrait for nearly every chapter also serves to cover a lot of the same ground through each repeated character.
The issue to my mind was that that the high political approach too often put the focus on the arms race between Germany and England as it played out in the halls of Parliament and the German Reichstag and in the personal letters between two royal families. This is not to say it is wholly uninteresting. I was only loosely familiar with the origins of the Boer war, for instance, or just how much of a international incident it became because the German establishment saw it as a war of British aggression, which was a reasonable, if not wholly accurate, interpretation. Similarly, given the seriously extravagant costs of building and maintaining these fleets, explaining how seriously the British government took its mandate of maintaining an overwhelming advantage that served to explain the international arms race and I was fascinated to learn that the day of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, British battleships were in Kiel on their way to tour Baltic ports.
However, personality-driven approach worked particularly well when exploring the principal characters in the Royal Navy. The middle portion of Dreadnought leading up to the ship itself introduces the reader to the likes of Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher, whose oversight led to the construction of the Dreadnought and sweeping naval reforms, and his arch-rival Admiral Charles Beresford.
In sum, I found Dreadnought to be a highly frustrating book. In part, I went into it hoping that there were would be more, well, boats. Beyond their relative absence, however, there lies a more substantive critique: Dreadnought is frustratingly uneven. Massies’ richly detailed, biographically-centered narrative largely focuses on the building of a bipolar world between Germany and the UK, with other countries generally appearing in the story only insofar as they connect to one of his protagonists. That France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and other naval powers were building up their own fleets gets mentioned, but is of secondary concern to the “coming armageddon,” while the fact that British companies were constructing Dreadnoughts for the Ottoman Empire gets omitted.
Now, one of the hallmarks of a poor review is to critique an author for not writing the book he or she wanted them to write. I would have preferred a more traditional naval history, either of the Dreadnought as a style of ship that got only about fifteen years of ruling the seas or a social history of the British navy. Massie is telling a different story, however, one that is a more sophisticated spin on the idea of a family rivalry that spurred on a global war. But even as a more sophisticated spin, I found the narrow focus on these two powers is limiting and incomplete. For instance, the discontinuities between the personalities of the British navy on the one side and the German army leading to a discussion of the German navy primarily through the lens of politics on the other led to an imbalance even just between these two powers. To be sure, there was a lot of information packed into this lengthy tomb but I couldn’t help but feel that Massey’s style was better suited to the biography of one or more people than it was to the story of this particular arms race.
I remain better at writing then reading of late, but am still holding out hope that I will write about some of the recent mysteries I have read as well as Kevin Gannon’s pedagogy manifesto Radical Hope. I also recently finished Maja Novak’s bizarre satire about Slovenia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Feline Plague, and have nearly completed Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to the trilogy that began with The Three-Body Problem. Liu’s trilogy has gotten better as it went along, building out a future history of humanity in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Man.
Note: this is a navel-gazing post offering some reflections on my reading habits an how I keep track of what I read.
I have always been someone who gravitates to books rather than other forms of media. Many of my fondest memories involve sitting, lost in a book, and basking in the untroubled freedom that accompanied an existence where my concern at that moment was whether my seat on a rock or against a tree was comfortable enough.
Of course these days only ever exist in memory.
A funny thing often happens in graduate school for the humanities: reading for fun withers, if it doesn’t disappear altogether. You read so much for work that when you finally get a break, it is much less mentally taxing to play a video game or watch TV than it is to pick up a book. If you do read, it is entirely understandable to read familiar, comforting books. This phenomenon reached its climax for me in early 2013 during my last semester of coursework and the run-up to my comprehensive exams. These exams are designed to prove that you have a grasp of all of the scholarship in your chosen fields, usually by providing a long list of important texts (as determined by your examiners) and culminates in multiple days of written exams followed by an oral defense. I read three books that January, all before the start of the semester, and then not another book until May.
By contrast, I have had only three months total since then that I haven’t finished at least one book, each time caused by reading or attempting to read a particularly hefty book (Don Quixote, War and Peace, Infinite Jest) while also keeping up with writing my dissertation and teaching.
I started reading fiction again almost as soon as I finished my exams because it made me feel more normal, but it took me years to start reading non-fiction again on a regular basis other than what was required for work.
Now, I am a firm advocate of reading in general, but this goes double for anyone who wants to be a writer in any genre. As experts like John Warner are fond of saying, the two foundations of becoming a better writer are 1) read more and 2) write more. I might add reflective practice as a third pillar in that it helps you become a better self-editor, but the first two are both spot on. No idea, however brilliant, is worth much if it can’t be communicated, which is one of the frustrating things about reading some academic prose.
However, the point of this post is not why people should read, but about the reason I can point to specific months when I read nothing or can see how my reading habits developed.
Once upon a time I tracked all of the books I read in a simple list, but then graduate school happened and I stopped. I started this list again in January 2013, this time on Google docs, and that list has undergone several revisions until now where the list has two components, both kept in Google sheets.
Part one is a cover-sheet that shows all of the year-over-year data for (a) books read by month and a sum total; (b) monthly page-count totals; (c) averages for both categories; and (d) the information for specific categories I’m tracking (more on this in a minute). This year I also added a radar chart.
Part two consists of an annual sheet that keeps the list of books read and all of the information I’m tracking that then automatically fills in the data back to the coversheet.
I also created a separate list not yet incorporated into the cover sheet that tracks the academic books that I read in a given year.
If all of this seems overly-structured, well, it is. I find this oasis of order soothing amidst the chaos of existence, but the actual switch to sheets was largely so that I only had to enter data once and the rest of the systems could be automated (I do update the formula the calculates the monthly totals).
The change also allowed me to update and adapt the data I collect about my reading habits, which functions much like a calorie counter for anyone watching their diet. My initial categories were somewhat arbitrary: books by Nobel prize winners and number of original languages, but has expanded to better reflect my reading goals. I still keep tabs on the number of books by Nobel Laureates and the number of original languages, but I have added to these books by African and African American authors, books by women, the countries of origin for the author (English-language literature from India is going to have a different flavor than from the US), and non-fiction books.
Once I started tracking the information, for instance, I learned exactly how few books by women I was reading and so started setting annual goals, such that this year I’m at almost 50%. I still lag behind where I’d like to be in other categories, but the net result is that my reading habits are becoming gradually diversified as I make a conscious effort to seek books by people I had not traditionally read. I don’t like every book I read—that is not part of the deal—but I both enjoy hunting online for new books with interesting sounding plots and have been blown away some of the ones I found.
I might be obsessive about this sort of documentation, which I use to track my writing time and exercise information, but I cannot recommend this general practice highly enough. I appreciated seeing the anti-racist reading lists people put out over the past several months, but, to my mind, that is only a first step. Read the books that are on the trendy list if that is your thing, but building a reflective practice around reading can help fundamentally diversify a reading intake and create long-lasting change.
As of April 29, 2020, the WHO declared that “most people consume too much salt—on average….twice the recommended maximum levels of intake,” and laid out guidelines for reducing salt intake. Increasing consumption of processed foods has gone hand in hand with the growth of cities, leading people to consume more salt, saturated fats, and sugars and less fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh food has always been one of the limiting factors for urban areas, but the modern solution of introducing heavily processed and preserved foods has introduced new health complications.
This was not always the case. Ancient cities, for instance, often relied on imported grain that could be transported long distances without spoiling. In these cases, getting enough salt was a significant concern. Before the advent of reliable refrigeration, though, food preservation required salt, which, in turn led to labor-intensive operations to evaporate salt from the seas in order to fuel the production of fermented and aged foods, and for adding directly to fish like cod in order to preserve them for future consumption.
In Salt, Mark Kurlansky evaluates the production of salt in a global context, aiming in the process to offer a history of the world as defined by this one commodity. He is partially successful and offers a portrait of food production around the world with a wealth of details.
Individual episodes of this story were fascinating. For instance, I was struck by the lengths taken to ensure salt production, including elaborate brining pools to encourage evaporation of sea water and exceedingly deep mines in China to extract rock salt. Likewise, the discussion of individual foods like cod and hams, products that were largely made possible by the widespread availability of salt, were right up my gastronomic alley.
And yet, I was often frustrated by Salt. The problem is in Kurlansky’s attempt to weave the history of salt through the history of the world. Sections where he dug into the history of the industry worked exceedingly well, but other sections examined historical events like the French Revolution in such a way that it blew the importance of salt out of proportion. In the chapter on the American Civil War, for instance, he alternated between a fascinating discussion of Avery Island, the birthplace of Tabasco Sauce, and accounts of the US Navy destroying southern saltworks. The former was great, the latter I thought less enlightening in that it offered only a partial portrait of the war while also adding only marginally to the story of the mineral.
However, the biggest problem I had with Salt is that it is a book rich in detail and light in narrative through-line.In a highly technical book this lack of narrative would be less of an issue, but here I found the lack to make sections of the book rather slow going one chapter didn’t neatly lead to the next in any way except that they both explored aspects of the salt industry. Kurlansky’s overarching thesis is that salt was really important in world history, which is hard to deny, but also doesn’t offer a clear way forward to carry out that argument (as I might tell my students). I might go back to Salt to season some of my history classes, but as a commodity history its broad scope and argument were not to my taste.
In addition to the backlog of books I haven’t written about (yet), I recently finished Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, after which I am now in the market for a book that actually talks about the development of the British Navy from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through at least World War One since my go-to historian on the topic, N.A.M. Rodgers, evidently never published the third volume of his history of the British Navy. I am now reading Maja Novak’s The Feline Plague, a magical-realism novel about Slovenia’s transition from communism to capitalism in the early 1990s.
What I would write about if I were no longer pursuing an academic career has been on the forefront of my mind of late, and I have found myself gravitating back toward Alexander as a result. The following post is adapted from something I have recently started to work on in that vein.
Alexander the Great is deceptively easy to write about, which has led to oceans of ink spilled about the Macedonian king over the past several millennia. In fact, he makes almost any short-list of individuals about whom the most has been written over that span, up there with the likes of a certain Jewish man born in Bethlehem during the final years of the 1st Century BCE and an Arab merchant of some renown born some six centuries after him. Alexander’s afterlives are numerous and varied, appearing across Eurasia from Malaysia to Persia to Ethiopia to Medieval European manuscript, as well as on screen in India in 1941 and in Hollywood in 1956 and 2004, as well as in a Japanese Anime Series from 1999–2000.
Alexander also appears in numerous novels, including recently Dancing with the Lion by the ancient historian Jeanne Reames that explores Alexander’s childhood and relationship with Hephaestion. (Jeanne does more justice talking about their relationship than I can, though I have not yet read her novel.) I also personally own more than thirty-non fiction books with Alexander in their title, which represents just a fraction of the total. And yet, the sheer volume of work that has been done about Alexander obscures the fact that Alexander is actually very difficult to write about well.
One issue is an issue of genre. Biography, by its very definition attempts to write the life of an individual. In antiquity, this meant using a famous life to offer moral exempla, both good and bad. Perhaps the most famous description of purpose comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, part of a pair of lives that also included Julius Caesar, where he declares:
For I am writing not histories, but lives, and distinguished deeds do not always reveal either virtue or vice, while a slight deed, word, or idle pastime reveal one’s character more than a battle where tens of thousands die or the greatest siege of cities. So, just as the portrait artist takes the likeness from the face and the appearance of the look, which is where the character appears, but pays little mind to the remaining parts, so too must I be allowed to enter into the signs of the soul that I may portray the life of each, leaving their great deeds to others.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of modern biography, both of which evolved from the ancient genre much as that ancient genre evolved from earlier forms of praise poetry. The first type of biography is a character study that offers a deep dive into the every detail of an individual in order to discover what makes that person tick. These biographies tend to make academic historians skittish. Even when they are well-researched, and many are, these studies often plumb the depths of unanswerable questions and cannot escape moral overtones because their focus is on what Pierre Briant termed “psychologistic” questions. Equally insidious, though, is that the focus on one individual smacks of an antiquated type of history that centers historical development on the deeds of “great men.”
The second type of biography aims to subvert these issues somewhat by using the life of an individual person as a vehicle to explore a particular period or issue. Douglas Boin, for instance, just published a biography of Alaric the Goth that aims to understand the fall of Rome from the outsider’s perspective, while the New Historicism literary movement pushed by, among others, Stephen Greenblatt aims to understand the literary production of an individual through how they interacted with society. And yet, even Boin mentions in the linked video that he wants readers to come away with an understanding about how one person can change history and Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which came under fire for inaccuracies, aims to show how the singular discovery of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and its atomistic, scientific world view made the world “modern.”
Biographies about Alexander fall into both categories, but both tend to follow a predictable template. First, the reader is introduced to the Macedonian kingdom that Alexander’s father Philip built. Then we meet the precocious young Alexander in the Macedonian court where he demonstrates his potential and chafes against the yoke of his father, often egged on by his intense mother, Olympias. When Philip meets his ends in the theater at Aegae in 336, Alexander ascends the Macedonian throne by popular acclaim of his soldiers and proceeds to crush any and all opposition inside and outside of his kingdom. By 334, Alexander is ready to meet his destiny, crossing the Hellespont and launching an invasion of Persia where he slaughters his way across Asia before being “defeated” at the Hyphasis when his soldiers simply refuse to advance any further. By 323, Alexander returned to Babylon for his second date with destiny.
In other words, a precocious young man takes the throne at 18, conquers everything from the Mediterranean to India, and dies at 33 or 34.
Along the way this template prescribes a certain set of questions: How did Alexander’s drinking affect his reign? What caused Alexander’s growing orientalism? Did Alexander think of himself as a god and, if so, when did that begin? What were Alexander’s plans when he died? Who killed Alexander? Did Alexander believe in the ‘Unity of Mankind’? Was Alexander Great?
Despite more than a century’s worth of scholarship and dozens of books that have shed light on any number of aspects about Alexander’s reign, we are barely closer to answering the fundamental questions about Alexander. In part, these issues stem from the tenuous nature of the sources for Alexander’s reign, but there is an even more insidious issue at work. The questions that frame studies of Alexander are designed as though they can be answered using evidence when, in fact, they are unanswerable except by imparting a healthy dose of opinion. For example, if you look closely at how I framed the questions above, one takes for granted a fundamental change in Alexander’s character as he progressed into Asia and frames that change in terms of a modern concept.
All historians are constrained by their sources and many of the questions I posed above are found already in the ancient evidence. Calling the sources for Alexander “weak” is generous. Five narrative accounts of Alexander’s reign exist in part or whole. The earliest of these, Book 17 of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History dates to the first century BCE, while the latest, Justin’ epitome of Book 11 of Pompeius Trogus’ history is a synopsis of a first-century BCE work compiled in the third century CE. The three remaining accounts fall between these two dates: Quintus Curtius Rufus’ History (first century CE), Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (late-first or early-second century CE), and Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri (early-second century CE). In other words, every account of Alexander the Great that exists from antiquity was written between three hundred and six hundred years after he died. Then there are issues with each individual work. Diodorus Siculus and Justin/Trogus wrote “universal histories” that inserted Alexander into their histories of the world down to their current day, while Plutarch wrote biography, a genre that explicitly claimed a moral, rather than historical, purpose. Curtius’ history, which was the most well-known of these throughout the Middle Ages, has long gaps and is missing the first two books in their entirety.
Historians have long sought to answer the question of which source ought to be believed through a process of peeling back the layers in the existing histories to find their sources, which, while fragmentary, offer a more accurate picture of what happened.
This research revealed two overarching traditions for Alexander. The first tradition is the so-called Vulgate of Diodorus, Curtius, and Justin/Trogus that trace their origins to a 3rd-Century BCE work by Cleitarchus, while the second, “high,” tradition of Arrian declares that it follows the accounts of Aristobulus and Ptolemy, who actually accompanied Alexander and therefore before knew him. Based on his preferred sources and largely-intact text, it makes intuitive sense to trust Arrian’s history the most among the five existing accounts, and this is exactly what historians have often done. However, Arrian’s history is also not without problems, including that his sources wrote decades after Alexander had died and he seems blithely trusting that Ptolemy, who had become a king by the time he wrote his history, would have no cause to manipulate his account.
In fact, most sources that purported to be directly connected to Alexander, such as his will, were likely early Hellenistic forgeries created to further the ambitions of one successor or another. The only truly contemporary account of the campaign was that of Callisthenes, Alexander’s court historian and propagandist who wrote dispatches back to Greece extolling Alexander’s successes before Alexander ultimately had him had executed.
These source problems lead modern Alexander biographies to be colored by a rich anecdotal tradition that owes its earliest incarnation to Alexander’s own propaganda and has grown in the intervening millennia as generation after generation has latched onto the same tales. Alexander demonstrates his generosity by granting his mistress Pancaste to Apelles after the artist painted her nude and fell in love or by tolerantly laughing off the potential slight when the Persian queen mother Sisygambis mistakes Hephaestion (or Leonnatus) for Alexander. Meanwhile his temper is on display at a drunken party in Pella where Philip allegedly tries to run him through, and again at Maracanda when a drunk and enraged Alexander impales one of his longest-tenured retainers with a spear. Slicing through the Gordion Knot demonstrates pride, while the conflagration of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus on the same day as Alexander is born—the goddess had allegedly left her home unprotected to watch over the momentous birth—foretold greatness.
Already from the time of Callisthenes ALEXANDER consisted of a larger-than-life facade enveloping a shadow, regardless of whether you were pro-Alexander or against him. This is not to say that Alexander was a non-person—on the contrary, I suspect that his charisma was magnetic. Rather, Alexander the historical figure is even more impossible to recover than most biographical subjects because almost everything we know about his character are projected by later sources onto an ambiguous blank slate.
Back in January I wrote generally favorably about the first book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic. Since then, I had the chance to blow through the two remaining books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light, finding them to be equally compelling reads.
A Gathering of Shadows picks up several months after the events in A Darker Shade of Magic. On the one side, Kell Maresh chafes against the restrictions imposed after the events of the previous book that drive home that he is a tool of the throne rather than a member of the family. On the other, Delilah Bard enjoys her dream career, that of pirate on the high seas of the Red World. However, she is not the captain of her own ship, but a thief in the employ of an exiled Arnesian nobleman named Alucard Emery. Despite grumbling that he should have had her killed Alucard takes a liking to Lila and helps fan the flames of her nascent magical talent.
Kell and Lila are not destined to remain apart for long. The centerpiece of this novel is the Essen Tasch, a competition that brings together the best elemental magicians from the three empires—Arnes, Faro, and Vesk—to compete for the title of champion. The home country to the previous year’s competition also earns the right to host the next event, so Rhy Maresh is busy making arrangements. A gifted magician in his own right, Alucard has it in mind to enter the competition, much as Rhy arranges things so that Kell can enter the competition anonymously. Of course, Lila doesn’t want to be left out, either.
While the games proceed in Red London, though, a threat is brewing in White London. Holland, who Kell believes dead and locked away in Black London, has struck a deal with a powerful piece of sentient magic known as Osaron who promises that he can breathe life into White London in return for freedom.
Where the first novel in the series could stand alone, these two are of a piece. A Conjuring of Light picks up almost immediately from the end of the Essen Tasch, setting the our heroes on a race to defeat Osaron before he entirely consumes the world.
The primary difference between the two novels is the number of characters it follows. Holland, for instance, takes a more central role than in either of the previous two books, and the thriller-paced plot is interspersed with flashbacks into his life and upbringing that aim to strip away his icy, unfeeling exterior and offer him as a tragic idealist in love with his home in a way that leaves sad overtones to the novel as a whole. But A Conjuring of Light also introduces the point of view of characters such as Maxim and Emira Maresh, the King and Queen of Arnes, which both serves to offer depth and history to a story that had otherwise felt very present to me and serves to foreground the personal conflicts that had previously only been hinted at. Where hostility between Kell and Alucard over a relationship between Alucard and Rhy was introduced in the previous book, here we learn what happened, and Emira Maresh’s story explores Kell’s conflicted position in the royal family.
Overall, the development of this series worked. I found it compulsively readable and the individual characters fun, while the subsequent books answered some of my modest issues with the world-building. Schwab also generally does a nice job building the development of character in each subsequent book from hints laid out earlier in the series, unlike, say, the Sword of Truth series where subsequent books often felt like Goodkind kept inventing new powers for his characters. For instance, the revelation that Lila is also an Antari, that is someone with one black eye who can use all four elements and blood magic, should not have come as a surprise to anyone who noted that she was introduced to use as a character with a false eye. Developments to how being an Antari works came only from things that were external to them as Antari.
And yet, for all of its propulsive plots, something about the Shades of Magic series left me mildly unsatisfied. The explanation, I think, is that I found most of the people outside of our main characters superficial. This lack of depth gives the sensation that you’re ripping through the world alongside your heroes and avoids the criticism of, say, George RR Martin where he built minor characters into fixtures in ways that bloat the series. However, it also results in a variety of flat characters whose notes are either to be sympathetic such that we mourn with the heroes when they die or villainous such that we shake our fists when they turn on us. These characters fit the needs of the plots well enough, but being able to frequently predict which minor characters are all-but doomed to die undercuts the effect. What’s more, this flatness also prevented them from becoming the memorable minor characters that populate my favorite fantasy series and deepen those worlds in ways that make me want to keep coming back to them.
I have fallen far behind on writing about books for a whole host of reasons, but keep meaning to get back to doing this. I have a stack of recent reads next to me, including Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine and Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, two noirs that I recently read and hope to write about together, as well as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, a detailed commodity history without a clear through-line that I could identify, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a novel about art and counter-culture that I simultaneously understood the critical praise for and left me wondering whether I’m simply not a sophisticated enough reader to fully-appreciate. I am now about halfway through Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, which I had, perhaps naively, hoped would contain more, well, ships.
About a year and a half ago I was sitting in a meeting with a college administrator as part of a campus visit for a tenure track job. One of the people who had given me the campus tour immediately before the meeting had tipped me that he was a basketball player, so we chatted about that before turning to the more serious matters like teaching philosophies and the trajectory of the university. He wanted to talk about my research, of course, so I gave the elevator-pitch for my research project. Overall the meeting went well, though I did not get the job. At this point I would be hard pressed to recall much of it beyond broad impressions and the odd fact, but there is one exchange that I remember vividly.
At one point I responded to a question about who I saw as the audience for my research by saying that I am, in essence, writing for my younger self. I mostly remember this answer because it took my interlocutor aback and led to an exchange where we unpacked what I meant, namely that while I like having my writing contribute to scholarly debate and being read by professional historians and classicists, that is not who I see I see myself writing for when I am sitting down to write.
That is, my Platonic-ideal of audience is myself as an undergrad, a young student reading (some) academic articles simply because I liked history. Intelligent, interested, but by no means a specialist despite what a handful of my friends seemed to think. The articles I have published, as well as those that I am currently working on, are specific enough that they might lose any reader not already interested in ancient Greek history, but my goal, at minimum, is that any one who has had the equivalent of a survey course should be able to pick them up and follow along.
To my mind, the inapproachability of scholarship is more often an issue of writing than of ideas because of a perception that scholarship needs to be written in a certain way in order to be coded “academic” or “intelligent.” There is enough peacocking and posturing in higher education that this concern is not entirely unfounded, but it also realizes harmful stereotypes and gives the false impression that most academic research is inherently obscurantist. I am not here to trash nuanced, specific, and technical writing, which is simultaneously necessary at times and not what I am interested in writing.
I have found myself thinking back to this conversation a lot recently as I work on the book based on my dissertation even while sitting at a crossroads that may lead me away from academic life. At issue is how I want to write my book. I had a brief conversation in the fall 2018 with an eminent scholar about my revision plans, that I planned to revise with considerations given toward having a complete (narrative) arc, for the study, he was taken aback and asked why I would want to write something he considered “popular” history for my first book. His reaction was, I think, partly based on a misunderstanding about the nature of the changes I was proposing, but they also stemmed from genuine concern that if a first book were deemed insufficiently academic, it could hurt an academic career.
This scholar’s concern may be moot if my career in academia is indeed drawing to a close, but since I have other reasons for wanting to put this book into the world his words continue to echo. Without explicitly saying so, he implied that writing approachable history is a privilege afforded only to two groups: scholars with an unimpeachable reputation or people outside the academy. This attitude is hardly unique and I have made light of it by noting that every (male) historian of ancient Greece who reaches a certain eminence writes his biography of Alexander the Great.
And yet, when I think about the book(s) I want to write, I come back to same basic position that I expressed that afternoon in Southern California: that the audience I imagine I am writing for is myself as a student. I was not a normal undergraduate student—clearly, I defied all common sense and did a PhD in this stuff—but that figure serves as a stand-in for an intelligent audience who has not yet become completely immersed. I was an enthusiastic but not terribly sophisticated reader who loved a clearly written book that taught him something new. I have come a long way since then, but even now I can be intimidated by certain types of academic monographs if more because they present as more subtly and impressively academic than the books I want to write.
It is one thing to say in a book proposal—or blog post—that you intend your work to be accessible to any educated audience and quite another to put that into practice. I am not even sure that my writing succeeds as well as I would like, even as I find myself writing quite a lot. (While helping a friend craft a sensitive email recently, I calculated that I’ve written more than 750,000 words over the past decade.) This also isn’t the first time I’ve fretted in this space about authorial voice or the sorts of things I want to write, but in as much as I have projects I want to work on even as I prepare for a likely transition to another line of work these questions have taken on renewed significance.
Certain types of writing erects barriers audiences that ought to be invited in. What bothers me about using “popular” as a subtle dig at approachable history and hence at the work of anyone who wants to write approachable history is how it serves as a form of gatekeeping. That is, the implication that popular means a book stripped of its argument, research, and importance when that absolutely need not be the case. The critique isn’t even necessarily born out in practice except in marketing.