The End of Burnout

Many authors tell people who already feel worn out and ineffectual that they can change their situation if they just try hard enough. What’s more, by making it individuals’ responsibility to deal with their own burnout, the advice leaves untouched the inhumane ethical and economic system that causes burnout in the first place. Our thinking is stuck because we don’t recognize how deeply burnout is embedded in our cultural values. Or else we’re afraid to admit it. Insofar as the system that works people to the point of burnout is profitable, the people who profit from it have little incentive to alter it. In an individualistic culture where work is a moral duty, it’s up to you to ensure you’re in good working order. And many workers who boast of their hustle embrace that duty, no matter the damage it does. In a perverse way, many of us love burnout culture. Deep down, we want to burn out.

I resemble this statement, and I don’t like it.

By the definitions established in Jonathan Malesic’s recent book The End of Burnout, I have never burned out—at least not completely. I have never reached a point of absolute despair that rendered me incapable of going on, which, along utter exhaustion and reduced performance, marks burnout. The other two, however…

I wouldn’t say that I worked hard in high school, at least on the whole. There were projects that I worked at and if something interested me I would work hard, but not so much overall. Midway through my undergraduate career something snapped. Seemingly overnight I became a dedicated, if not efficient student. I divided everything in my world into “productive” activities and unproductive ones and aspired to spend my waking time being as productive as possible. School work obviously counted as productive, but so too did exercise and investing time in my relationships. Spending time not doing things was deemed unproductive.

At first this was innocuous enough. I was young and productive time included fun things, right? My numerous and varied interests led to me to do all sorts of things and I was determined to do them all. By the time the second semester of senior year rolled around this was almost a mania: I was working, running a club, taking a full course load, working on two research projects, and auditing extra classes that just looked interesting to me, as well as exercising and generally spending time on the aforementioned relationships.

At a time when the stereotypical college student develops a case of senioritis, going through the motions while looking forward what was next, I somehow managed to define sleep as “not productive.”

Seriously.

I cringe thinking about it now, but I went through most of a semester averaging about three hours of sleep a night. I don’t think I ever pulled an all-nighter, but most nights I only got one or two hours, going to bed around midnight, getting up at 1:30 so I could grab coffee and food before the late night place closed, work until the gym opened, exercise, shower, go to class, and then either go do homework or go to my shift at work. I would get eight hours or so on Fridays after work and whatever recreational activities I had planned. Several people that I know of had conversations about when I was going to collapse, though not within earshot. It was bad. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t do this.

According to the journal I kept at the time, under an April entry titled: “I guess I did need to sleep,” I slept for 13 hours straight.

I have never done something this self-destructive since, but there have been numerous times that I have edged in that direction.

  • The year after college I ended up working up to 90 hours a week, often for weeks at a time without a day off until I just couldn’t physically keep it up, at one point sleeping for more than 12 hours and forcing myself to take days off, even if the nature of the job made that difficult.
  • I worked almost 30 hours a week on top of my school responsibilities (a “full” course load and grading for a class) while completing my MA.
  • I nearly lost snapped while completing the work for one of the toughest seminars I took in grad school the week that I was also taking my comprehensive exams.
  • Another semester, while cobbling together jobs as an adjunct, I took on so much work (six classes, one of which was nearly twice as much work as I thought when I accepted it) that I had to stop writing entirely just to stay on top of the teaching.
  • The semester after that I developed (probably anxiety-induced) GERD and broke out in hives.
  • I frequently have to remind myself that taking one day off a week is okay, leave alone two. At least I usually sleep 7–8 hours a night these days.

Lest it sound like I’m bragging, these are not badges of honor. They are symptoms of the perverse relationship with work that Malesic describes, wedded with ambition and an anxiety oscillates between imposter syndrome and a deep-seated fear that I’ll once again become someone who does nothing if I let up even a little. The worst part: my behavior place within systems that celebrate discipline, but it was almost entirely self-inflicted.

However, I have never burned out like Jonathan Malesic.

Malesic had achieved his dream of becoming a tenured professor of religion and living the life filled with inspirational conversations with young people that he imagined his own college professors had lived. But that life wasn’t as great as he imagined. His students were apathetic, the papers uninspired and, at times, plagiarized. There were meetings and committees, and his wife lived in a different state. In short, the job didn’t live up to his expectations, which, in turn, caused his life to fall apart. His job performance lagged. He snapped at students. He drank too much and found himself incapable of getting out of bed. And so, eventually, he quit.

The End of Burnout is an exploration of the forces that caused his disillusion with his job and possible solutions to escape it. Put simply, Malesic’s thesis is that two features of the modern workplace cause “burnout.”

  1. People derive personal meaning and worth from their jobs.
  2. There is a gulf between the expectations and reality of those jobs.

That is, there is a broad expectation in the United States that your job determines your worth to society. This is obviously not true, but it is signaled in any number of ways, from making health insurances a benefit of employment, to looking down on “low status” jobs like food service, to the constant expectation that you ought to be seeking promotion or treating yourself like an entrepreneur. But if your worth is wrapped up in your job, then you might enter with a certain set of expectations that are out of sync with the conditions—doctors who want to heal people and end up typing at a computer all day, or a professor who got into teaching because of Dead Poet’s Society and ends up teaching bored, hungover students in general education classes. On top of it all, the responsibility for “solving” the issue is then passed on to the worker: you’re just not hustling hard enough. Have you tried self-care?

The End of Burnout is a thought-provoking book. Malesic examines the deep historical roots of phenomena that might today be called burnout, discusses the pathology of an ambiguous phenomenon that is likely overused, often pointing to acute exhaustion rather than true burnout, and explores how social pressures (e.g. the moral discourse that equates work with worth) exacerbate the phenomenon before turning to alternate models of work and human dignity.

I picked up the end of Burnout for a few reasons.

Most obvious, perhaps, is my toxic relationship with work, as outlined above, to the point where I thought that I had burned out on multiple occasions. Based on the descriptions Malesic provides, I was usually acutely exhausted rather than truly burned out, with the result that, at least so far, I have always been able to bounce back with a few weeks or months of rest.

(The one exception might be the restaurant work straight out of college, but even that did not stop me from working in another franchise in the same chain for two more years while attending school.)

Cumulative exhaustion can lead to burnout, but I came away unconvinced that I have even really been walking down that path. I have been frustrated, of course, and can tell that I am creeping toward exhaustion when I start excessively doom-scrolling on Twitter, but I did not relate to the sheer disillusionment Malesic described. When I have considered other employment options over the past few years, it has always been because of a dearth of jobs.

The main difference, at least to this point, is that I have never viewed this job through rose-colored glasses. Writing about history is something I see as a vocation, but I have approached the teaching and associated work as a job, albeit one that aligns with those other aspects of my life and thus is more enjoyable than some of the others I have had.

At the same time, I have noticed a shift in my relationship to hustle culture now that I am in my mid-30s. I still work hard and have certain ambitions, but increasingly, they are around finding ways to spend my time reading, writing about things I find interesting and important—and having employment with enough security, money, and free-time to do that.

Likewise, the idea of treating oneself as an entrepreneur, which Malesic identifies as an element connecting worth to employment, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. When people tell me that I could (or should) open a bakery, I usually shrug and make some polite noises. I have managed a restaurant in my life and have very little interest in doing so again. I bake because I like the process and enjoy cooking for people I like, not because I want to turn it into a business with all of the marketing, bookkeeping, and regulations that would entail.

(I have also considered trying to turn my writing into a subscription business, but I find that incompatible with the writing I do here. If I made a change, it would involve some sort of additional writing with a regular and established schedule—say, a monthly academic book review for a general readership with a small subscription fee designed to cover the cost of the book and hosting. A thought for another day.)

However, I also picked up The End of Burnout because I am worried about the effect that this culture has on my students. Nearly every semester I have one or more students who report losing motivation to do their work. This past semester one student explained it as a matter of existential dread about what he was going to do with his degree, but it could just as easily be anxiety or concern over climate change or the contemporary political culture or school shootings.

I have long suspected what Malesic argues, that burnout is systemic. In a college context, this is why I get frustrated every time a conversation about mental health on campus takes place without addressing those systemic factors. Focusing on the best practices and workload for an individual class is (relatively) easy, but it is much harder to account for how the courses the professor is teaching or the students are taking interact with each other. I am absolutely complicit in this problem. One of my goals for next academic year is to reexamine my courses because the reality is that the most perfect slate of learning assessments is meaningless if the students end up burned out. I can’t fix these issues on my own, but Malesic’s book brought into greater focus why I need to be part of the solution for my own sake and my students’. I don’t ever want to let one of my students make the mistakes I did when I was their age, which probably explains why the most common piece of advice I give is “get some sleep,” and I can’t help them if I am also in crisis.

The back part of The End of Burnout turns to possible solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background as a professor of religion, this discussion frequently focused on groups with a Christian bent. He spends a chapter, for instance, talking about how various Benedictine communities apply the Rule of St. Benedict to tame the “demon” of work. Some groups strictly follow the Rule, limiting work to three hours so that they can dedicate the rest of their lives to what really matters, prayer. Other groups, like several in Minnesota, were less rigid, but nevertheless used similar principles to divorce work and worth, and allowing one’s service to the larger community change with time.

The other chapter in this section was more varied, and included useful discussion from disability activists, but it also featured a prominent profile of Citysquare, a religious-based Dallas non-profit that uniquely humane policies around work expectations and support for its staff. These examples sat awkwardly with my agnostic world view, as someone who believes that we should be able to create a better society without religion, and particularly without Christianity. However, Malesic’s underlying point is not that we ought to all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, he makes a case that each profile in its own way can help imagine a culture where the value of a person is not derived from their paycheck (or grade).

To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of the [destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom] and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.

Malesic’s vision here is decidedly utopian and hardly new, and his warnings about the consequences of the automating workplace are a modern echo of 19th century choruses. But the ideals he presents are worth aspiring to nonetheless. As long as we work within a depersonalizing, extractive system that treats people as interchangeable expenses against the company’s bottom line, then that system will not only continue to grind people down and spit them out, but also contribute to nasty practices elsewhere in society like treating food service workers with contempt. Severing the connection between personal worth and paid work won’t solve every problems, but it is a good place to start.

A List of my Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels (2022 Edition)

This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.

A few stats:

  • Oldest: 1937 (Starmaker)
  • Newest: 2021 (A Master of Djinn)

Tier 3
34. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
33. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
32. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wexler (2013)
31. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
30. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
29. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
28. Kalpa Imperial, Angélica Gorodischer (1983)
27. The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart (2020)
26. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
25. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
24. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
23. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)
22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

Tier 2
21. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)
20. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
19. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
18. A Master of Djinn, P. Djeli Clark (2021)
17. A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019)
16. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
15. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
14. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
13. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
12. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
11. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
10. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
9. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
8. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)

Tier 1
7. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)

Series

The following section is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. Several caveats apply to this list. First, I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list. Second: where an ongoing series ranks depends in part on my estimation of the most recent books. Most notably for this iteration, Ken Liu’s series skipped past several series based largely on how much I loved last year’s release, and Arkady Martine’s books made a stunning debut in this category in large part because of A Desolation Called Peace. There is at least one first-book-in-a-series on the list above that I loved as a standalone, but was less impressed with how the series developed. The Expanse books would likely fall in Tier 3 between Tao and Shades, but I have only read half the books at the time this post went up.

Tier 3
19. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
18. The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
17. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
16. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
15. Machineries of Empire, Yoon Ha Lee
14. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu
13. Shades of Magic, V.E. Schwab

Tier 2
12. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
11. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
10.The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
9. The Daevabad Trilogy, Shannon Chakraborty
8. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
7. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson
6. Teixcalaan Series, Arkady Martine

Tier 1
5. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

A List of My Favorite Novels (2022 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement. In at least one case, the book doesn’t hang together as a complete novel, the author thought it was a complete failure, and yet it contains some of my favorite scenes that author ever produced.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am annoyed by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists, hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.
  • Since the 2021 update, I have added just two books to the list and adjusted the ranking of one book. This is mostly because the two best books I read in 2021 came before I updated the list and while I have enjoyed a lot of the books I have read since, the great ones have mostly been non-fiction or in genres that I am generally not tracking here. There is more movement on my science fiction and fantasy list, both because I have read more books in those genres and because it has been two years since my last update.

And a few stats:

  • Original Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 19
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2021 (The Book of Form and Emptiness)

Tier 5
77. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
76. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
75. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
74. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
73. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
72. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
71. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
70. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
69. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
68. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
67. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
66. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
65. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
64. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
63. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
62. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
61. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4
60. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
59. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
58. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
57. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)
56. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)

Tier 3
49. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
48. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
47. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
46. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
45. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
44. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
43. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
42. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
41. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
40. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
39. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
38. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
37. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
36. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)
35. The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki (2021)

Tier 2
34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B
15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A
5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had fixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

ΔΔΔ

I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

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Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

Some thoughts on length, or I like big books and short books

I wrote a long dissertation. Too long, really, and certainly longer than most of my committee wanted to read. From cover to cover, 499 pages of shaggy and at times repetitive research, but in a format endorsed by my advisor who was convinced that something short and with a clearer narrative arc (i.e. something more readable) would be received as too insubstantial to be a dissertation.

During my oral defense, which took place on a Monday morning less than 24-hours after I returned from a conference in Canada, I articulated a vision for revising this document into a book. In particular, I wanted to fold almost all of the disparate case studies (19, accounting for about 2/3 of the length) into the core narrative. Some monographs are very well suited to illuminating a topic through narrow investigations on facets of a phenomenon. My case studies, I thought, were uneven and not suited toward offering a broad portrait of a phenomenon because I wasn’t writing about a phenomenon. Instead, I was using a regional study to talk about the relationship between imperial systems in the eastern Aegean, and I thought that these themes were best shown by tracing the evolution over time. The only case studies I wanted to leave would be two synoptic chapters (I was wrong, I only needed one) and three short appendices.

The changes I proposed that Monday morning are almost identical to what I put in my book proposal, in which I explained that I wanted to reduce the word count from a 150,000-word dissertation to a 100,000-word book (inclusive of notes). Prompted by a recent Twitter discourse on book length and the fact that I am in the home stretch of preparing my manuscript for submission, I wanted to take a moment to reflect both on how I did and offer a few thoughts on book length.

As to my own book, I ran over my word count by a little over 10% and watching the word count creep upward as I transform my citations to Chicago style has added a steady drip of anxiety to the process. I am actually close if you exclude the bibliography (some people don’t; my estimated count did), and I was on target before one of the readers for the press—correctly—pointed out that one of the chapters needed to be split into two. Each full chapter is between 9,000 and 11,000 words, so while adding this chapter substantially improved the book, it also accounts for most of the extra length.

The excess length bothered me, a lot.

Books cost money, big books cost more money, and first-time authors are unproven commodities. Book length is, of course, genre and field specific, which makes general truisms hard to come by. Romance novels fall into a rather narrow band between maybe 50,000 and 90,000, while the average fantasy book might be 100,000, but Patrick Rothfuss’ first book, The Name of the Wind, was 250,000 (the sequel was 400,000). I had read online that 100,000 words was already stretching it for a first-time academic non-fiction author, so running over by more than 10% sparked all sorts of thoughts. Would I have to cut an entire chapter? Would I have to spend hours ruthlessly trimming every trace of conversational tone from the manuscript in order to meet the word count?? Who needs a bibliography, anyway???

The solution, of course, was to email my editor, who gave me welcome guidance: send it all and let the readers decide. The readers liked the manuscript as-is…and suggested a few more minor additions.

I have an obvious bias here, but I am pleased with the outcome. The excess may be a little indulgent, but it also means that I don’t have to cut an entire chapter.

The academic discourse I have seen on Twitter—and elsewhere anecdotally—is for shorter books, at least in the non-fiction sphere. I am sympathetic to this movement. To echo what Bill Caraher has said on his blog, there is often something indulgent about long books. I increasingly find myself less attracted to long non-fiction, particularly when there is a biographical subject involved. Frequently, these books are repetitive and exult in the minutiae of a topic at the expense of making an argument. I understand why these are appealing, whether because one wants to live their “dad” life to the fullest with a blow-by-blow account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or because a tabloid-esque tell-all about someone’s life gives glimpses into the workings of power in Johnson’s White House or Horatio Nelson’s scandalous affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton. But that is also a matter of genre. For academic books, by contrast, the argument is the point, so much so that during coursework it is common for graduate students to talk about how to “break” a book and synthesize the scope of the argument without reading more than a few pages (this has never been one of my strengths). In truth, staying current in a field requires reading a lot of books and each person only has so much time. Short, elegant books with a clear argument are a blessing to the reader who may feel that time invested in a 170- or 200-page book is better spent than the time given to a 700-page one.

However, I am actually agnostic on book length.

Big books have their place, usually in the form of a grand synthesis covering a big topic. (Caraher suggests that the length serves to add gravitas.) I don’t often find myself sitting down to read these cover to cover, though my advisor once told me to read Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander with a bottle of wine. More frequently, these are books that I mine for information. I read them in drips and drabs, looking for a specific discussion or for a chapter that I can assign to my students. In the case of Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, I use it as a textbook that the students read alongside primary sources and other supplementary material. In other words, I like these books as resources.

That said, I am in broad agreement with Caraher on Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It found a lot of their points provocative in terms of how to understand the early history of humanity, but this was not a book written in a way that sections could be easily extracted. The Dawn of Everything grew out of conversations between the two scholars, and it read like that to me. It felt conversational, but with a tendency to wander around drawing broad connections that illuminated whatever theme they wanted to talk about at a given moment. I came away with a lot to think about in terms of how I teach the early history of humanity and some things to follow up on, but I also suspect I should revisit at least some of the chapters in advance of teaching my world history survey again and the book’s indulgent length does not fill me with a whole lot of desire to do so.

What I look for is for the length of a book to fit its topic. Problems arise in long books because the extra space is as likely to cause bloat as it is to actually be necessary, which, in turn, diminishes how useful I find those books. My book is not nearly as The Dawn of Everything and the scholars who reviewed it for the press thought that the length was appropriate to the topic. I just hope that the general audience agrees when it finally comes out.

Sourdough Culture

I picked up Eric Pallant’s new book Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers (Agate Publishing: 2021) a few months ago but only read it during a short break around the new year. In truth, I come into a book like this wearing several hats. I am an enthusiast, someone who enjoys both baking bread and reading food history. I am also a historian who has been slow-cooking a project on ancient bread. If this review comes off as overly-critical, it is because I couldn’t take the latter hat off and found numerous nits to pick with an otherwise-engaging read.

Sourdough Culture is an entertaining but, frankly, rather curious book. Pallant, a professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College. The book is organized around two broad through-lines that sat somewhat uncomfortably together.

The first narrative hook is a personal mystery wherein Pallant investigates the genealogy of his Cripple Creek starter that has been continuously cultivated since the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the late 19th century.

The second is a history of “sourdough” bread, ostensibly because the conceptual lineage of Cripple Creek starter can be traced back to the earliest domestication of wheat in Mesopotamia. While individual parts of that history were compelling, I often found the connection to the personal narrative strained.

Pallant is at his best when he explores the technology behind bread-baking. In that vein, I thought the strongest individual chapter was “A Reign of Yeast” in which he traced the emergence of modern yeast in the 1800s and explored the emergence of the industrial machines for producing bread, including a machine for injecting carbon dioxide directly into loaves as a mechanical hack to expedite production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transition was also the subject his Fulbright Fellowship. The transition to modern bread is also a process that has well-documented discussions of taste preferences for different types of bread, which is another of Pallant’s recurring interests as a sourdough baker.

Putting on my professional hat, my difficulties with Sourdough Culture emerged from the wild inconsistencies and historical faux-pas that make their way into Pallant’s account of the past. Some of these inaccuracies were just problematic throwaways like nebulous and nonsensical terminology like: “At the end of the Dark Ages, when Columbus was sailing…” (“Dark Ages” is not terminology we ought to be endorsing, but, even if it were, Columbus sailed a few hundred years after they “ended.”) Others treated periods with very broad generalities, like this from the first of just four paragraphs dedicated to bread in Ancient Greece:

In 332 BCE, Greece [ed. Alexander the Great, Greece is not a useful descriptor here] conquered ancient Egypt. One would think ancient Greeks, aware of Egyptian baking techniques and smart as they were, would have relied on a similar diet [ed. why? wouldn’t climate and ecology make a much bigger difference?]. However, most Greeks were poor—peasants, farmers, field hands, and their children, everyone except a small handful of elites [ed. this was also true in Egypt…]—and did not consume much wheat bread.

Pallant’s overall point in this section works well enough: the Greek diet was not the same as the Egyptian diet, in no small part because the soil in Greece is not well-suited for producing wheat. However, the way he gets there is muddled and misleading.

I could grump about what Pallant gets right and wrong in those four paragraphs all day, but that misses the point. It is symptomatic of the first of the two big issues that my professional side repeated bumped into while reading Sourdough Culture.

Pallant is not a historian by training which meant that he largely relied on what professional historians and archaeologists had done. His bibliography for this book was not comprehensive (and entirely omits anything on the robust grain trade in ancient Greece), but it also largely reflected the volume of output of research into bread in a given subfield. Egypt and Rome, both of which have relatively lengthy bibliographies on bread baking, received robust sections while, by comparison, the paucity of work on Greece led to cursory treatment.

(This feature of Sourdough Culture inspired my first post of the year.)

The second thing that I kept coming back to was what, exactly, Pallant meant by “sourdough.” The hunt for the Cripple Creek starter’s origins seems to imply that he is investigating the history of nurturing a unique starter that provides the yeast for baking as though that might be able to provide for him the origin of his heirloom starter.

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the starter in my Meadville kitchen was once used in San Fransisco and Mexico.

This could all be tongue-in-cheek to provide a narrative hook (Pallant acknowledges the implausibility, after all), but he includes a story about talking with French bakers who put little stock in the age of their starters. The issue is that yeast for baking is readily available. Different strains will have different taste profiles depending on how they were isolated and what they are fed, but the you don’t necessarily need to carry a starter with you in the modern sense if you can just produce a new one when you arrive. Pallant is aware of this, of course, but he mentions is almost as a concession, disappointed to find the Romance of his Cripple Creek starter dashed by the practicalities of human existence.

In short, the adherence to the Cripple Creek starter as a rhetorical device introduces issues to this narrative. There is a simplicity of the path from the Mediterranean to Western Europe to the Americas to his kitchen that implies a coherent tradition that didn’t really exist. To my mind, naturally-leavened bread is a technique that exists in equal measure in glorious complexity and glorious simplicity that exists anywhere that bread does and is not limited to the traditional loaf. For instance, there are traditions for natural leavening that don’t involve a modern-style starter at all, including in Italy where the archaeologist Farrell Monaco has created a technique for a starter that uses Chickling Vetch and barley rather than wheat. Simplifying these traditions into this narrative does a disservice to these other breads.

Pallant is a talented baker, and the recipes included in Sourdough Culture give me some ideas for my own kitchen. Similarly, there is a fascinating discussion to be had about taste and consumer preferences when it comes to bread. In Sourdough Culture, Pallant has produced a book that puts a toe into these waters and reflects on some crucially unresolved issues about sourdough that are being addressed by research programs like the Puratos Bread Lab and the NC State Sourdough Project. However, reading it as a historian only served to remind me how much space remains for historical research into bread traditions.

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At this point I’ve basically given up writing about most of the books I read. Book posts will still make up a non-negligible percentage of the posts here, but I just don’t have time and generally prefer to spend that time reading. Recent reads that may or may not make their way into a full post include David Graeber and David Wengrow’s polemical and hot-button book The Dawn of Everything, Oliver Burkeman’s self-help manifesto Four Thousand Weeks that seeks to recalibrate how we think about the work that we do, Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s breezy grand tour of Medieval Europe, The Bright Ages, and Mel Brook’s show-biz memoir All About Me. I am currently reading the third book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate.

Last Train to Istanbul

I am endlessly fascinated by the history of 20th century Turkey. The Young Turk Revolution in 1908 shook the foundations of the Ottoman Empire, which crumbled over the next fourteen years until the Sultan Mehmed VI went into exile in 1922 and the Turkish Republic came into existence the following year. The transition created a nation of contrasts. Formally a republic, Turkey was often dominated by the military establishment that saw itself as the caretaker of Atatürk’s legacy. The first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ushered in sweeping social and cultural reforms, including secularism.

This is the context behind Ayşe Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.

Fazıl Reşat Paşa, a Turkish gentleman of the old style, had two beautiful daughters. The older daughter, Sabiha, married Macit, a government worker in the foreign office. The younger, Selva, was the apple of his eye, but even that could not overcome his anger when she decided to marry Rafa, the scion of a prominent family of Turkish Jews. Faced with the disapproval of their families, Selva and Rafa moved to France, just several years before the outbreak of World War 2.

Last Train to Istanbul traces the development of these two families against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Holocaust. Sabiha’s relationship with Macit frays with long hours that he works, leading to trouble at home with their daughter and a brief dalliance with therapy; Selva’s relationship is strained as the reality fo the Vichy regime sets in and she increasingly uses her position as a Turk to protect Jews. But the two are also connected. While Macit uses his position to thread a needle between helping Turkish Jews in France and keeping Turkey out of the war, his protégé, Tarık, who is infatuated with the idea of Sabiha, becomes increasingly involved with direct action after being posted to Paris. These actions culminates in a fraught train ride filled with Turkish Jews from France, through Germany, and on to safety in Turkey—a nice inversion of the usual picture of trains carrying Jews to the camps at Dachau or Auschwitz.

However, I didn’t love Last Train to Istanbul as a novel. I found the plot rather unbalanced, with the parallel story taking place in Turkey often clashing with the eponymous train plot. I understand that Kulin was not principally writing a thriller, but I found the two arcs dissonant rather than building depth. Further, I struggled to see characters and story beats as fully-developed in their own right because they always struck me as palimpsests of real people and events.

Perhaps because they were.

Kulin explains in the acknowledgments that much of the plot emerged from actual experiences of Turkish diplomats during the war who saw the unfolding Holocaust with horror. Perhaps because of their commitment to secularism, those diplomats used their positions to shelter Turkish Jews in France by extending documentation and intervening with the Vichy and German authorities and, later, at considerable risk to themselves, to offer what aid they could to even non-Turkish Jews. Last Train to Istanbul might not have been my favorite novel, but it provided a tantalizing glimpse into a side of the Holocaust that was new to me. One that I would like to learn more about.

The Book of Form and Emptiness

I kind of assumed that books know everything, but maybe you’re a stupid book, or a lazy book, the kind that starts in the middle because you don’t know how a story begins and can’t be bothered to figure it out. Is that it? Is that the kind of book you are?

Books do not exist in a singular state, after all. The notion of “a book” is just a convenient fiction, which we books go along with because it serves the needs of the bean counters in publishing, not to mention the ego of writers. But the reality is far more complex. Of course there are individual books—you may even be holding one in your hand right now—but that’s not all we are. At the risk of sounding full of ourselves we are the One and the Many, and ever-changing plurality, a bodiless flow. Shifting and changing shape, we encounter your human eye as black marks on a page, or your ear as bursts of sound. From there, we travel through your minds, and thus we merge and multiply.

I loved Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being when I read it back in 2018 so when I learned that she had a new novel this year I bought it without so much as bothering to find out what it was about. I was not disappointed.

The short description of The Book of Form and Emptiness is that it is a conversation between a boy and his book. That boy, Benny Oh, is the child of Annabelle, a big, blond American woman who gave up her ambition to become a librarian after she became pregnant, and Kenji, a Japanese clarinet player in a jazz band. One night when Benny was 12 his father stumbled home, fell asleep in the street outside their small house, and there was killed by a chicken-truck that didn’t see his body laying there. Annabelle and Kenji were in love, but they had been fighting and he was stoned.

Suddenly, Annabelle finds herself a single mother of a teenaged son, trying to support them both with her job cataloging the news. She is well-meaning, but finds it hard to keep up with everyday tasks. The house starts to accumulate junk, the kitchen becomes a mess, and she ceases to keep up with her appearance.

One year later, Benny begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects.

So begins a story spanning most of Benny’s teen years that weaves together a challenging mother-son relationship, mental institutions, Buddhist philosophy, a Marie Kondo stand-in book called Tidy Magic (written by a Buddhist monk), a homeless poet-philosopher named Slavoj who he calls Bottleman after the bottles tied to his wheelchair, and Benny’s first love, a young woman, artist, and drug-addict, who goes by Aleph and has a non-binary, gender-fluid ferret named TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). It is a lot.

You think he’s this crazy old hobo, but he’s not. He’s a poet. And a philosopher. And a teacher. And it’s not him that’s crazy, Benny Oh. It’s the fucking world we live in. It’s capitalism that’s crazy. It’s neoliberalism, and materialism, and our fucked-up consumer culture that’s crazy. It’s the fucking meritocracy that tells you that feeling sad is wrong and it’s your fault if you’re broken, but hey, capitalism can fix you! Just take these miracle pills and go shopping and buy yourself some new shit! It’s the doctors and shrinks and corporate medicine and Big Pharma, making billions of dollars telling us we’re crazy and then peddling us their so-called cures. That’s fucking crazy…

However, The Book of Form and Emptiness actually has a simple structure. The book narrates events in discussion with an older Benny who corrects, critiques, and queries what it writes, and interspersed with excerpts from Tidy Magic. In turn, this simplicity allows Ozeki to weave a story that blurs the boundaries between the real and the fantastical, very much like she did in A Tale for the Time Being.

Most of that blurring centers on the person of Benny, who suffers very real consequences from both sides. On the one side, objects have desires. When scissors want to cut, the question is what they cut. On the other side, the “respectable” adults in his life are concerned by what is happening to him and want him medicated. The exception is Slavoj, who tries to help Benny hear the world without being controlled by it.

What I love about Ozeki’s novels, is how she also captures simple, powerful, human emotions. Here, the beating heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Annabelle and Benny. She frequently embarrasses Benny, whether by the condition of their home, by her weight, or by her inability to make sure that they have milk in the fridge. At the same time, Annabelle’s sole objective for most of the novel is to give Benny everything, with the result that she never has a chance to process the death of the love of her life. Even if she understood everything going on with Benny, which is a much more extreme version of going through puberty that she most certainly does not, Annabelle simply doesn’t have the capacity to help him. The result is a downward spiral for both that at times had me cringing because it recalled arguments I had with my mother at roughly the same age.

But it was too late. The door slammed. He clattered down the rotten wooden steps, out the flimsy gate, and went careening down the darkening alley. The thin thread of her apology trailed behind him, straining, straining, until finally he outran it, and it snapped.

Together these pieces form a compelling, funny, weird, and challenging story that also works as a meditation on objects and purpose. The Book of Form and Emptiness is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

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I recently finished Caliban’s War, the second of the Expanse books, and am now reading Ken Liu’s The Veiled Throne and David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, two hefty tomes that should keep me occupied for a few days.

On Revision

Most drafts contain wonderful things, and most drafts don’t show off those wonders effectively. Some drafts are dull. Some are poorly organized. Some aren’t sure who they’re written for. Some seem unclear about the distinction between dutiful summary and original insight. Some hope that writing pyrotechnics might dazzle or sheer bulk equate to authority.

An open secret: it’s OK to be scared by the responsibilities of writing and revising, at least sometimes. Many ideas fizzle, either because the writer can’t concentrate on them long enough to blow a spark into a flame, or because the idea itself doesn’t have the strength to become more than a hunch. So let’s work with the anxiety.

I started getting serious about writing in the course of writing my dissertation. This is not to say I paid no attention to the craft of writing before that point. I have been an avid reader most of my life, which has given me a decent ear for good prose, and I always aimed to produce good work, but I also generally distinguished between the history on the one side and the writing on the other. I spent hours in coffee shops polishing my MA thesis—I even got a compliment on the writing from one of my committee members for my trouble—but I was nevertheless committed to the idea that I was not a good writer. 

Sometime during the process of producing my dissertation, an unwieldy monstrosity that received no plaudits for style, I came to appreciate a closer connection between the historical research and the process of articulating the arguments. I started to read books on academic writing and started to integrate writing into how I teach history.

And yet, I never picked up a book by William Germano, one of the doyens in the field of academic writing whose From Dissertation to Book is a standard text for grad students looking to publish their first book. After reading his latest book, On Revision, I might have to return to that text even if I am nearly finished with the eponymous process.

On Revision is, in one sense, an entirely redundant book on writing. Any book in the genre worth its price will repeatedly point out to the reader that writing a bad first draft means that you now have a piece of text to improve. And yet, this can be a difficult lesson to learn. For this reason, Germano’s book represents an attempt at shifting the entire mindset: revision not as a necessary part of a larger process, but revision as the only part of writing that really matters. 

Germano establishes what he means by revision early on:

Correction is not revising. There’s no bigger misunderstanding about how writing gets to be better. Correcting is small, local, instant….It’s easy to confuse fixing errors with revising ideas and reconfiguring the shape of the text.

In the sense that I also aim to teach writing to my students, this was a welcome disambiguation. I often idly correct grammar and punctuation while grading papers because I do think these are important things for students to become aware of (and because I have this recurring fear that someone will review a book I write by just listing the myriad of typos), but I also point out that not all of my comments are created equal. Mechanical corrections are fine, but I am much more interested in how they revise their ideas and arguments. The question I keep coming back to is how to convey this necessary process to my students within the strictures of an academic calendar. On Revision can’t help me with the structural parts of my courses, but has given me food for thought in terms of how I articulate revision to my students.

On Revision opens with a short introduction and a chapter (“Good to Better”) that makes a case for revision generally and offers nine principles to get started. From there, Germano investigates four essential rules for revision that put those principles into action.

Germano’s first rule is simply to “know what you’ve got.” This might sound tediously banal, but in order to revise a piece of writing, you need to know what you are writing toward. This means carefully reading what you have written and taking stock of what it is you are trying to do with the piece.

In one of my classes this semester, I ran an activity where the students reviewed something I have been working on for a while now. I like the argument, but it has a fatal flaw as it is currently constructed: I don’t know what it is. This was a piece that started as a draft blog post before becoming a possible conference paper, and then an article that might work for a video game journal or a classical reception journal, before finally becoming a public-facing article. This circuitous route is in part because I don’t know what I have other than perhaps a point that missed its period of relevance. As I explained to my students, this means that I have a lot of revision ahead of me.

The second rule is looking for and highlighting your argument—or, as I tell my students, making it clear what you are trying to prove. I couldn’t help but laugh when Germano declared “A lot of academics…stop at simply indicating aboutness. “My book is about economic inequality.” That’s not an argument.”

I laughed because this is very similar to a mini-lesson on thesis statements that I gave to each of my classes this year after my first round of papers came back with a very five-paragraph type of non-thesis that restates the prompt with three sub-topics loosely related to the topic.

Stating the topic of an essay is easy. Articulating your argument compellingly and concisely is hard, if for no other reason than that it requires you to take ownership of what you are saying. Trust me, it took me forever to find a way to explain the argument of my dissertation (now book) project without rambling incoherently. Even now I only do so with any amount of success about 75% of the time and have only done it perfectly two or three times. I hope one of those is in the manuscript itself.

Germano’s third rule is about revising with an eye toward the architecture of a piece. That is, thinking about the order of the information and the internal coherence of the argument. Thinking in these terms, I have discovered that I have a particular affection ring structure within my work, often opening with some anecdote that illustrates the argument I am trying to make and that I can call back to in the conclusion.

Finally, Germano calls on his readers to attend to their audience. If you are asking readers to give you their time (and often money!), then they are going to expect your attention in return.

In each rule, Germano offers illustrative examples and, usually, helpful exercises to perform on your writing. My favorite, from the architecture of the piece, echoes a piece of advice I have been giving my students for years. He calls it “The Writing W” based on the constellation Casseiopeia or “The Wain.” The constellation has five stars that look loosely like a W. Following this path, the writer has something to do at each stop. First, write your opening move, then write the conclusion. Then you fill in the gaps between the two with everything you might need to support the argument and lead to the conclusion. Then you write the conclusion again, adjusting based on the evidence. Finally, re-write the opening paragraph.

I don’t teach comp, so my exercise is less formulaic, but it follows a similar principle: the introduction should be the last thing you write. It can also be the first, and I am certainly the sort of writer who likes working through an idea from the beginning to end except on exceptionally long pieces, but I preach to my students that the process of writing a paper will often change your ideas about your topic, so you should be prepared to adjust what you wrote accordingly.

On Revision is a hard book to write about succinctly. It is filled with principles, techniques, and encouragement and while I am hard-pressed to come up with anything that I didn’t already know or do, its virtue is in how it articulates this essential process. After one read-through, my copy is filled with post-it notes drawing my attention back to individual passages or ideas. and that alone speaks to its value. But, beyond that, Germano’s authorial voice is that of a compassionate mentor who wants to see your work become the best it can be. I might hate reading my own writing, but he is here to say:

It’s OK not to reread one’s work when it’s done done, but revision is the crucially important process by which you get your work to that point.

ΔΔΔ

I am way behind on my intended posts right now, but I have continued reading apace. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness is as beautiful and traumatic as her A Tale for the Time Being, which is one of my all-time favorite novels, but maybe just a little bit behind in my personal estimation. I also recently finished Ayse Kulin’s The Last Train to Istanbul, which is based on real accounts of Turkish diplomats trying to save Jewish Turks (and non-Turks) from the Holocaust. I didn’t think it worked perfectly as a novel, but I want to know more about the history. I also read Brief Lives, the seventh installment in Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, and am now reading the second volume in The Expanse series, Caliban’s War.