Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein, Range

My academic research focuses on ancient Greece, but I genuinely enjoy teaching beyond my specialty because my interests are broad an eclectic. I sometimes joke to my partner (who I met in graduate school) that the three areas I considered pursuing for graduate work in history were Ancient Greece, 18th-century naval warfare, and 20th century US diplomatic history. Recently I’ve wandered down rabbit holes into food history and have particularly been enjoying East and South Asian history. The idea of studying just one thing for the rest of my life sounds unbearably tedious and teaching a wide range of classes (or at least varying how I teach World History) is a convenient excuse to read more widely.

I don’t know that my eclectic reading habits or historical interests has particularly improved my scholarship, but it has certainly improved my teaching and writing, and caused the basic tenets of David Epstein’s Range to resonate with me.

Epstein opens with the comparison of Tiger and Roger, two accomplished athletes, one of whom was laser focused from infancy on his sport, the other who played everything except his sport for most of his childhood. Both excelled, but Epstein asks which success was more probable. Despite the intuitive expectation that the person who specialized his entire life (let’s call him Tiger) followed the “better” path, Epstein argues, Roger is a better model to follow. Where Tigers are very good at solving problems within a narrow field with predictable parameters, Rogers can catch up quickly and are are frequently more creative when adjusting to new environments or when facing fields without clearly defined rules.

In short, Epstein makes the case that in a world where an increasing number of well-defined tasks are automated and economic and social pressures push people toward specialization, we should actually be encouraging generalization.

I picked up range after listening to an interview with Epstein where he mostly talked about the value of cross-training, but while there are lessons there, I was a surprised how little discussion of sports there was in the book. Rather, Range is a broad manifesto that talks about everything from scientists and musicians to charity CEOs and game designers. As with many books of its ilk, Range uses concrete examples to offer concrete advice on leadership—promoting diversity, emphasizing communication over hierarchy, empowering employees—as well as useful life advice that taking the time to find your fit rather than locking in early produces better results all around.

In my opinion, though, both the strongest and weakest aspects of the book came down to what it said about education. Granted, as someone in the education field, everything starts to look that way. In addition to several explicit sections on teaching itself, Epstein swipes obliquely supposed outcomes of the education system throughout the book, taking aim at the suggestion that graduates need to specialize early and highlighting the perils of teaching to the test. I agreed in principle with everything Epstein highlights: test performance does not equal learning, efficiency is not a universal good, there is value in struggling to learn something. There are absolutely valuable lessons in terms of how we teach, but I nevertheless came away extremely frustrated with the presentation of education.

For instance, Epstein uses a personal anecdote from his MA thesis at Columbia where he says “I had committed statistical malpractice” because “I had a big database and hit a computer button to run a common statistical malpractice, never having been taught to think deeply (or at all) about how that statistical analysis even worked.” He follows up by quoting a statistician who says that the rush to produce research prohibits metacognition. In short, the specialization and speed interferes with the quality of the work, despite metacognition gaining increased traction in education circles. Similarly, he offers another anecdote about a primary school teacher asking students leading questions when they struggled to come up with the answers. Both of these anecdotes, and another about a professor critical of colleagues who only care about the interesting facts learned from years of increasingly narrow study (albeit while talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche, which shows a certain…range), offer insight into the education system, but, to my mind, not quite what Epstein is going for.

The focus of Epstein’s critique is on the practitioners, rather than on the bad practices encouraged by the culture of credentialism and testing. When the a system requires teachers to prepare students for a standardized test or to publish in academic journals and funnel students into career tracks from early on in college, then the system creates the exact problem that Epstein rightly identifies. Moreover, Epstein makes the case that generalization is good for everyone, but it has the greatest utility for young people because it helps foster creativity, critical thinking, and allows them to find fields that fit their skills.

For as much as aspects of the presentation bothered me, Range is a compelling read. Epstein isn’t against specialization, but makes an important critique of dominant cultural trends that prioritize efficiency and specialization over taking the time to think and reflect across different fields.

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I had hoped to finish Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend, but that was before protests against police violence and institutional racism erupted across the United States and then predictably escalated, often as the result of police action. I spent most of the weekend following local news from across the country.

The Food Explorer

In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.

These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.

There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.

First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.

Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.

Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”

As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.

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A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.

I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”

The Missing Course

David Gooblar’s The Missing Course offers a simple, but radical thesis: that improving college teaching requires shifting the mindset about what the product is the professor offers. It is easy to think that your product is your expertise in your content area, honed through years of study. Institutional structures in PhD programs and promotion standards reinforce this belief from one end, while, on the other, there is a temptation to think that the transaction the students are paying for is to have knowledge transmitted to them by a world renowned expert (you).

However, speaking as someone who took classes from some exceptional lecturers and loves the feeling of one of his own lectures landing with an audience: even the most inspiring lecturer will not connect with every student. Gooblar’s proposal follows in the vein of recent scholarship on teaching and learning that encourages teachers to eschew lectures in favor of shades of active learning, but with a critical addition: that the product is not the content, but the student.

This proposal seems obvious, but it also requires foundational changes in class design and assessment and simply bypassed the handwringing about why students aren’t capable of picking up the subtle themes and brilliant observations about life and everything. As Gooblar opens with in chapter one, is that you can’t make someone learn, so the challenge is finding ways to encourage learning beyond the punitive threat of a poor grade. The lecture works well, if still imperfectly, for students who are already interested in learning, but it works best as a gateway drug––a taste that prompts students to go out and get more. That is, the lecture works well for students who approach it as part of an active learning process. But too many others approach the lecture as something to passively receive, learn by rote, and regurgitate as best they are able on the test.

Each of The Missing Courses’ eight chapters approach a different aspect of this teaching, from the basic course design to assignments, to classroom activities, with practical, actionable suggestions to try. There are too many points to summarize here, but I found myself happy to find practices I use in my own classes like low-stakes weekly quizzes and extensive opportunities to revise assignments among his suggestions and still found myself jotting down new ideas.

As a history professor who believes in the importance of teaching writing across the curriculum, I was particularly excited to have suggestions from a professor of writing and rhetoric about how to encourage best practices in citations. For instance, he provides the most lucid explanation I have seen of why students struggle to cite secondary scholarship and will often only do so when citing direct quotes:

“To write a summary, the student must read the whole text (perhaps multiple times), think deeply about the most important aspects, and synthesize observations into a concise rendering of the text’s substance”

In other words: using secondary scholarship is hard and intimidating (what if you get it wrong!), where citing a quote is easy. I couldn’t tell you where I learned how to cite scholarship. I don’t remember being taught how at any point, it was just something I picked up by osmosis, so I very much appreciated seeing Gooblar’s suggestions on activities that can help teach these skills.

All of Gooblar’s suggestions come back to the student as the course material. Toward that end, he emphasizes the importance of respecting students as individuals even, or perhaps especially, when they are failing the course, and of facilitating the classroom as a community where not only are students and their ideas respected, but students may also help each other grow.

At this point you might be thinking, what about the content? If the students are taking a course on World History, shouldn’t they, you know, learn about World History? Of course the answer is yes, but, speaking from experience, thinking in terms of coverage is a trap. I tell my students in these classes that every class period (and usually every slide) could be a semester-long class course of its own, meaning that we only ever scratch the surface. Which is going to be more beneficial to the student in the long run: making sure that we spend ten minutes in a lecture talking about the Tibetan Empire of the second half of the first millennium CE, which is admittedly fascinating, or redirecting that time to primary source analysis, discussion, debate, practice summarizing and engaging with sources, or any of a myriad of other active learning techniques. Some of these are harder when teaching introductory courses where it seems like the students don’t have enough background to engage at the level you want and lectures are sometimes a necessary component of the class, but incorporating active learning into the course offers significant rewards.

Toward the end of the book, Gooblar turns his attention to how to teach in the modern, tumultuous world. I jotted a brief response thread on Twitter, but wanted to spotlight it again here. College professors are often accused of trying to indoctrinate their students into radical Marxism or the like. While American college professors do tend to be more liberal than conservative, the largest number actually self-classify as moderate. Further, the recent primary results have demonstrated that the Democratic party remains a big-tent coalition, while the Republican party, which has accelerated attacks on funding for higher education in recent years, has veered further right. The political doesn’t end at the classroom door and to pretend otherwise is naive.

As a history teacher I run into these problems with regularity and, to be honest believe that I can and should better handle them. Ancient Greek democracy was made possible by both exclusion (narrow participation that did not include women) and exploitation (Athens had many times the number of enslaved people as it did citizens). The spread of religions was at different points a blood-soaked process, Christianity included, and European colonization amounted to exploitation and indoctrination at best and either incidental or intentional genocide and ethnic cleansing at worst. And for all that I find history endlessly fascinating.

Gooblar suggests a similar approach to the one I’ve adopted, which is to “take seriously the equality of our students and the inequality of the world,” while placing an emphasis on process. There are some premises that I will not tolerate in my classroom, including endorsement of slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, but I also believe that there is room for students to argue for the virtue of, for instance, Athenian democracy and capitalism so long as their arguments are based on good use of available sources and I build time into the class period to have students practice these skills.

One of the virtues of a college classroom should giving students space to debate issues in a responsible and respectful manner: disagreements are okay, bullying is not.

The limiting factor in college teaching is not knowledge, but attention. Becoming a good teacher requires practice and cultivation, just like developing any other skill. Fortunately for anyone interested in improving their skill, we are currently living in a golden age of publications on teaching and learning. I haven’t finished everything on the list of resources I solicited a few years back, but The Missing Course is already my go-to recommendation for a place to start.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

“Walker had broken what in his circles were important taboos: Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem.”

Just under one year ago international news was covering a crisis in Thailand involving a boys soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave by rising waters. For eighteen days the boys remained in the cave before rescue divers managed to get them out. One diver died in the operation. At the height of the coverage, Elon Musk stepped in, proposing that a Space-X mini-sub could aid the efforts, with much praise and no small amount of mockery from the workers on the ground. Musk responded by calling one of the rescue divers a “pedo.”

One the one hand, this story of a remarkable rescue ended successfully and Musk’s sideshow did not figure in to the result, but, on the other, it offers a microcosm of the phenomenon examined in Anand Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All. By most accounts, Musk wanted to do a good thing by saving the boys, but he wanted to do it from within his own niche and in a way that brought potential benefit for him in the form of publicity, influence, and potential profit down the line. When challenged to address a fundamental structural issue like the water crisis in Flint, Musk, predictably, fell silent.

Giridharadas argues that Musk and his fellow citizens of MarketWorld, that is, the global business and financial elite, want to effect positive change, but have reshaped the mechanisms for doing so to their own benefit. The result in this time of growing inequality is a pay-to-play circuit of philanthropy where undemocratic decisions are made by the wealthiest strata of society promoting a win-win, venture-capital ethos of making a profit while giving people what they “need,” usually in the form of entrepreneurship. In return for their generosity, these philanthropists sincerely believe that they deserve an outsized voice in public policy debates.

But this win-win mentality perpetuates and in fact exacerbates the problems that the new philanthropic agendas address, whether it is the lack of government funding (avoiding taxes), poverty (not paying workers), or climate change (e.g. unregulated industry). Hence the taboos of MarketWorld, standards of behavior for Thought Leaders that short-circuit any possibility of systemic change.

Winners Take All, as Giridharadas notes in his sources, is a work of reportage that profiles members of this global elite, including prominent speakers on the circuit that includes Ted Talks, leaders of philanthropic organizations, disillusioned financial insiders, and one former US president whose post-White House career has pivoted to canoodling with business elites.

Giridharadas does not question the overarching dedication to social justice in its broadest, most generic sense on the part of anyone he profiles.

(Conspicuously, there are people not named in the book, like the DeVos’ when it comes to education, who throw their money around in much the same way who he would not ascribe such virtuous intentions. For this, and for a better understanding of how charitable giving facilitates generational wealth transfer under the US tax code, I wish I had read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money before this one. Giridharadas does note, however, that this MarketWorld generally plays into Republican goals of limiting government.)

The problem as identified here is the system that exists in a positive-reinforcement echo-chamber. This system facilitates growing income inequality while acting like it doesn’t exist. This system pushes motivational talks by “Thought Leaders” and industries that insist every person should be their own business while ignoring both barriers and consequences of failure. This system updates Andrew Carnegie’s Wealth for a new century while pretending that the problems of the Gilded Age are gone…at the same time that an all-consuming focus on profit replicates many of the same crises.

The result, Giridharadas argues, is global resentment of the financial elite by millions of people left distrustful of a government that doesn’t appear to do anything, but clearly left out of vision of a techno-utopia created by the citizens of MarketWorld. I found this final conclusion that this system is the driving factor behind the rising tide of authoritarian nationalism somewhat overstated. It offers a neat explanation for the somewhat overblown narrative of the white working class propelling Donald Trump to the presidency, but whitewashes racism, dark money (See: Jane Mayer’s book), and the various avenues of attack on democracy.

But neither is he wrong. The developments covered in Winners Take All clearly contribute to the breakdown of social systems designed to protect civil society, though I was ultimately unconvinced that the do-gooders covered here constitute the majority of the global MarketWorld elite. The stronger insight here is that despite the wealth of those who do want to fix the world, MarketWorld thinking prevents them from addressing the underlying problems. This realization is more worrisome than identifying malicious actors, because if the systems designed to help the poorest citizens and organize a response to climate change are under attack even from the people who ostensibly want to help, what chance do they have?

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Next up, I spent most of the weekend reading. I finished James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, being just blown away by the prose, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, part of a Vermont-based mystery series that is one of my comfort reads. I then started Jane Mayor’s Dark Money.

The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

How Europe came to dominate the world since 1500 is one a central question in world history. Typical answers point to the rapid pace of European technological innovation that far outpaced the far east and allowed small numbers of Europeans to conquer much larger kingdoms. The problem, as Andrade aptly demonstrates, is that these traditional narratives suggest a simple teleology that is not backed up by the historical chronology. Rather than innovative Europeans meeting and quickly toppling East Asian foes whose conservative and tradition-bound cultures rendered them unable to adapt, not only were Ming and Qing Chinese forces able to adapt, but they also defeated early European attempts to dominate them. By the middle of the 19th century, though, European forces, and even newly reformed Japanese armies, crushed the Chinese. Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age is a global history that spans a thousand years over two continents looking for a new explanation for this radical divergence.

In Andrade’s analysis, the divergence occurred because Qing China was a victim of its own success. His core model is that conflict drives military innovation; by the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty had secured such dominance over east Asia that it effectively stopped innovating, while, simultaneously, Europe was going through a period of constant warfare where the countries fought for their very existence. By the time of the Opium Wars (1830s and 1850s), the Qing had fallen so far behind that their attempts to catch up were too little, too late.

Gunpowder weapons first appeared in China in the tenth century, mostly in the form of fire weapons used against wooden structures. Guns took several centuries to develop before they skipped to Europe, probably spread by the Mongol conquests. Europeans made the guns bigger and more powerful, creating cannons used to attack fortifications, an innovation that Andrade chalks up to a difference in construction techniques that made Medieval European fortifications vulnerable to early cannons in a way that Chinese fortifications were not.

(Chinese fortifications were much thicker than contemporary European designs, with packed-earth cores and angled walls that distributed and absorbed the shock of cannonballs. The fortifications of renaissance Europe reached many of the same conclusions, but only after cannons rendered comparatively thin Medieval fortifications, made with straight stone walls and with loose fill, obsolete.)

Andrade’s biggest contribution is what he terms an age of parity from roughly 1525 until roughly 1700, during which time Chinese forces successfully resisted European colonialism by adopting and indeed innovating on European technology. He demonstrates how, for instance, Chinese engineers adopted technology for mounting cannons on their warships and improved casting techniques for cannons, making them lighter, cheaper, and more durable (in large part by allowing them to cool faster), by encasing the central iron bore in bronze. Further, where other military historians have seen a decided European advantage in drilling that allowed for their soldiers to keep up a constant hail of fire through volley techniques, Andrade argues that these had been standard Chinese practice for centuries first for crossbows and later for guns. In fact, Chinese armies used significant numbers of gunners in their armies centuries before Europeans did.

So what changed? Noted above, Andrade’s thesis is that the existential warfare in Europe drove military innovation at a time when complacency born of hegemony allowed Qing power to atrophy. This meant that when European forces arrived with steam powered ships and high-powered weapons, the Qing were unable adapt fast enough. Compounding their problems was that the European innovations were not merely technical, but scientific, meaning that advances in the understanding of trajectories and aerodynamics allowed ordinance to fly further and with greater accuracy than even equivalent Chinese weapons.

The Gunpowder Age is an ambitious and well-argued book. As someone who is not an expert on Chinese history, but has taught European global expansion, his explanations about military power are largely satisfactory, and I will likely use it in future classes, even if I sometimes thought that his solipsistic focus on gunpowder didn’t entirely substantiate the broader claims regarding the global dominance of Europe. Similarly, I was sometimes frustrated with the way that he collapsed the world into China on the one hand and “Europe” on the other, with only slight nods to Korea, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, but this frame fit his explanation for how European came to dominate China. There are only so many pages in a book, after all.

My biggest frustration with The Gunpowder Age had nothing to do with its content. Rather, despite that the argument is laid out in a clear and cogent manner, the actual writing, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph drove me up the wall. I’ll readily admit that I have numerous flaws as a prose stylist, but this book that received praise for its writing was almost unbearably repetitive at times, with almost every page containing a sentence I wanted to rewrite for elegance, and several word-choice ticks (prevalent, for instance) that struck a dissonant note. Writing is hard and it often takes a village to polish prose to the utmost shine, but this was something that frustrated me all the more because the content was so outstanding. Then again, this may be a sign that I’m ready to return in earnest to my research projects

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I am now reading Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a dark comedy in the mode of Catch-22 about the death of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq in 1988.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Among the many injustices committed against Native Americans in the 1800s was forced removal. By government mandate, tribes from across the eastern United States moved from their homelands to Oklahoma, which was then considered unproductive land. Among these tribes were the Osage, whose land after the relocation and a series of additional thefts was unproductive even by the standards of Indian territory. At least until their land became the center of Oklahoma’s first major oil rush.

Almost overnight the Osage became, per capita, the wealthiest people in the world. But in the eyes of the federal government, the Osage were incapable of managing their money without the approval of white guardians.

In the 1920s, crisis struck Osage county. Members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. One was shot, others appeared to have been poisoned. Several white citizens of Osage County tried to help the tribe members, even at the risk of their own lives, but white law enforcement officials, under the guidance of William Hale, a white man dubbed King of the Osage Hills, chalked the deaths up to coincidence and closed the case.

But the official story did not sit well with family members of the deceased and the deaths began to make national news.

At a time when law enforcement was intensely local and often deeply corrupt, this case, with its notoriety and Native American connections, came before J. Edgar Hoover and the nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover passed the case to Tom White, an old-style agent, former Texas Ranger, and the antithesis of Hoover’s dream of an agency filled with college-educated bureaucrats. Nevertheless, White was exactly what Hoover needed in Oklahoma.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann reconstructs White’s investigation, showing how he broke through a conspiracy among the local white community members to kill off the Osage and funnel their financial claims toward Mollie Burkhart and her children with Ernest Burkhart––William Hale’s nephew.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a pop-history that reads like detective novel, and with good reason. It is at its heart true crime, sitting at the intersection of unrestrained capitalism, the wild west, and the difficult relationship between the United States and Native American tribes. As befits his status as a New Yorker staff writer, Grann is most successful at bringing both the conspiracy and the investigation to life. The story imbues names and details to a long history of exploitation and violence, here with private citizens using local institutions to exploit the situation.

However chilling the story was, though, it does not substantially change my opinion about either the treatment of Native Americans or the unchecked capitalism of the early twentieth century. Grann only sketches the backdrop of genocide (and attempted genocide) against Native Americans during this period and otherwise allows the specific case to stand in for much more widespread wrongs.

(Contrast this decision with The Real All-Americans, which is equally easy to read, but its focus on the development of Carlisle Indian School football gives Sally Jenkins a platform to talk more about cultural erasure.)

Something similar happens in the final section of the book where Grann pulls back from sketching the future lives of the principal actors, pivoting to a journalistic narrative of his research and the lingering memory of the case in Osage County. It feels like an epilogue, but falls flat in terms of lasting significance. The meaty issues that prompted and enabled the conspiracy disappear back into the scenery, leaving only the sad, but ultimately insubstantial, memory of an explosive event.

Killers of the Flower Moon was the 2018 Columbia (Mo.) One-Read, and for good reason. Grann gives the reader a lot to chew on and the tone and topic both create a perfect entry-point for students, reading groups, or anyone else who wants to learn a little something about the brutal history of the treatment of Native Americans. Just don’t stop here.

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Next up, I finished Tana French’s The Trespasser, an utterly engaging installment of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and have since begun Robin Hobb’s Mad Ship.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Graduate school changes reading habits. I went through a lull in the middle of my program while preparing for my comprehensive exams and then emerged effectively incapable of reading non-fiction. I could still get lost in a story; reading for the sake of learning just put me to sleep. Emerging from this place has come slowly, but I cleared ten non-fiction books in 2018, and I am on pace this year to easily overtop my mark from last year. One of the reasons for this change is a shift in the genres of non-fiction I read in step with changing career goals. In particular, I find myself increasingly drawn to books, including memoirs, about writing.

Mary Norris, a longtime employee in The New Yorker‘s copy department, and her Between You and Me, fit squarely in these interests.

Between You and Me is a a cross between memoir and discussion of grammar and punctuation. Norris write on topics that range from her short career delivering milk to arriving at The New Yorker to the finer points of dashes to her preference for pencils with number one graphite, deploying a touch so light that it borders on frivolous. On the whole, I found Between You and Me uneven.

As the title implies, the governing principle in Between You and Me is the confession. Here, confessions include both the personal of a traditional memoir and the professional––that is notes on usage. I liked the personal because I am fascinated how people come to work at an institution like The New Yorker, even when those reflections feel like reminiscing about halcyon days. Norris presents her path as serendipitous, but, beneath her bubbly prose, she is also clear about her luck.

My response to the professional was more muted. There are parts I liked: memorable explanations (commas, like nuns, travel in pairs) and a discussion of The New Yorker’s house style in conjunction with the changing currents of American usage (for instance, pronouns and gender). Other parts dragged. The passages discussing where the hyphen in Moby-Dick entered or why Dickens and Melville use so many commas got a bit tedious for my tastes, but were largely okay. But when Norris veers toward discussion of grammar and punctuation for their own sake I found most of the explanations unsatisfactory, with humor seeming to mask this weakness, but the humor landing weakly because it lacked substance.

In part, my problem here was Norris’ philosophical position on the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate––whether there grammar ought to change with usage or adhere to the set rules. Norris’ position is somewhat at odds with itself: although never explicitly stated, she came across as a descriptivist (language changes, for good or for ill)…except when a style guide at, say, The New Yorker, trumps voice. I’ve published articles under style guides that I wouldn’t otherwise follow, so I am sympathetic, but Norris also sets about undercutting that same style guide by locating its genesis in the preferences (i.e. the usage) of legendary editors. These passages were on their own fine, but that presentation, in turn, undermined the importance of the subsequent advice about writing.

In sum, Between You and Me is an easy read written by someone who clearly loves words and a book that has its moments. There are even individual chapters that I could see assigning to students, but for a book I opened really wanting to like, I closed it feeling disappointed.

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I finished reading Black Leopard Red Wolf last weekend and am still trying to decide what I have to say about it. In short: the prose is beautifully and grotesquely hallucinatory, but I’m not totally sure I know what was always happening. Next up, I just started reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightengale Floor, a fantastical epic set in a world inspired by Medieval Japan. I am a little wary of cultural appropriation (Hearn is a British woman living in Australia), but I am quite enjoying the story nevertheless.

The Real All Americans

Carlisle simply wasn’t a school like other schools. It was first and last a social experiment.

The Carlisle Indian School, founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, is a complicated part of US history in the late 19th century. It predated the infamous Dawes Act of 1889, which broke up the collectively held tribal lands, but it was part of the general theory: that the end goal of US policy toward Native Americans was to assimilate them into White Society. Pratt worked tirelessly on behalf of his students within this broad purpose, defending natives against critics who believed them incapable of being civilized.

At the same time, the boarding school in Pennsylvania took children away from their families often for close to a decade, during which time they were subject to harsh discipline and encouraged to forget their traditional ways––much to the chagrin of their parents.

Americanization at Carlisle meant a number of things: a haircut, new clothes, learning to read, write, and speak English and learning a trade. But in the late 19th century it also meant learning the game of football.

In The Real All Americans Sally Jenkins tells the story of this football team, building to its victory on the football field over Army in 1912, symbolically avenging a century’s worth of injustices.

The Carlisle football team is a fascinating subject. In the early years of football there were no set schedules, so while Carlisle was a preparatory academy where students ages six to twenty-five received an education that topped out at high-school level, their opponents were usually the colleges of the North East, including the then-powers Penn, Yale and Harvard. The Indians (as they were called) were younger and lighter, both disadvantages in a sport that, even more than today, rewarded brute size and strength.

(President Teddy Roosevelt famously forced football stakeholders to meet, installing rule changes to a game that routinely killed players. The reforms eliminated the most violent aspects of football, but in a bid to make the game survive rather than out of a concern for player safety.)

Under their most famous coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, who arrived in 1899, the Indians hit a wave of success, pioneering an array of misdirection plays that gave the fleet-footed Indians open running lanes––plays football watchers today might be familiar with, like the forward pass and end-arounds.

Ultimately, though, it was when Warner’s coaching was matched with the athletic talents of a player like Jim Thorpe, gold medalist in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, that the Carlisle team reached its apex.

At times I thought that Jenkins got too cute with her narrative. The book begins before the foundation of the school, with Pratt’s military service fighting against Native American tribes, but ends her main narrative with its victory in 1912 over Army. After that season the team took a downward turn, driven in large part by Thorpe’s impending eligibility issues. (Thorpe, like many other players, had played semi-pro baseball during the summers, but unlike the others he had done so under his real name even though, as an Olympic gold medalist, was among the most famous athletes in the country.) The result is an unbalanced narrative designed to highlight the headlines after the game: that the Indians had finally beaten Army. The final chapter continues from that game through the end of the program, but Jenkins seems to imply that it was over after that game as Thorpe, a complicated figure, turns into almost a tragic hero.

Still, The Real All Americans is demanding of consideration. This story, as Jenkins points out, is part and parcel of the larger arc of US history in this period, both in terms of policy toward Native Americans and in terms of the rapid modernization of the country after the Civil War. The unbalanced narrative allows Jenkins to explore the prejudices of the day, making the point that while Pratt could be brutal to his charges and destructive to native customs, his racism was distinctly progressive compared to his contemporaries.

The most remarkable feature of early football that comes out in The Real All Americans is how its concerns hover over the game still. Without making the connection explicit, Jenkins weaves concerns over safety, amateurism, and the relationship between money and collegiate athletics. Carlisle’s unique position of receiving students from reservations and budget directly from the federal government sets it apart from other schools, but with football it serves as a microcosm for one concern of the modern university.

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I just started reading Marlon James’ new book, Black Leopard Red Wolf, an epic fantasy saga inspired by African mythology. I heard James give an interview about this novel and was intrigued, but it is also part of my plan to diversify my reading this year with more books by authors from Africa and of African descent, as well as more post-colonial books generally. So far the story is equal parts riveting and dizzying.

In the Garden of Beasts

As a historian, [Dodd] had come to see the world as a product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people, and he expected the men around him to behave in a civil and coherent manner. But Hitler’s government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another.

One of my favorite topics to explore with students in US history classes is how the United States engaged––or didn’t––with the rise of Nazi Germany. Simple ignorance is an insufficient explanation, as is the turbulence of the decade between the Depression and the Dustbowl. Rampant racism, as shown by a 1939 “Pro America Rally” at Madison Square Garden that hung swastikas from the rafters, contributed, but all of these factors spun together to create the US response.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, sits at the heart of this question, tracing experience of William Dodd, the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, from his appointment in 1933 through the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 when Hitler consolidated power by purging Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the SA, the Nazi paramilitary organization. Over the course of this year, Dodd and his family become disillusioned both by the American diplomatic establishment whose primary concern lies with recouping debts for American creditors and with the the Nazi party that professes to uphold the rule of law but actually embodies the fickle and capricious mania that propelled it to power.

In the Garden of Beasts follows the arcs of two members of Dodd household, the professor-turned-unlikely-ambassador William and his adult daughter, the flirtatious (and perhaps promiscuous) Martha.

William Dodd was a historian of the American South who received his doctorate in Germany and fancied himself a democrat of the Jeffersonian mold, complete with a Virginia farm. Despite his credentials and connections to the Wilson White House, Dodd remained an outsider to elite society, and so it was only the unlikely confluence of his request to become a diplomat (albeit at a sleepy post where he could work on his magnum opus) and Roosevelt’s failure to find an ambassador to the new German government that landed him the position. Dodd reluctantly agrees and set out for Berlin with his wife and children in tow, but immediately offended the diplomatic establishment with his insistence that they live modestly and without the fanfare expected of an American embassy.

Martha Dodd, as Larson describes her, delights in the attractions of men, but is married, and separated. In Berlin, she becomes swept up in the glamour of the diplomatic world, having romantic liaisons with, among others, Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, Ernst Hanfstaengl, one of Hitler’s aids, and a Soviet diplomatic attache (and undercover NKVD agent) Boris Vinogradov who dreams of converting her to the communist cause. Once, she is even considered as a potential match for Adolf Hitler.

Larson’s strength in drawing characters serves him well here. He might be overly interested in describing Martha’s promiscuity, but her affairs introduce a wider cast than focusing on the official ambassadorial story and Larson is also led to these descriptions by his sources, which include Martha’s memoirs of her liaisons in Berlin.

However, for all of brightly colored, if often menacing, characters in In the Garden of Beasts, the book didn’t have the same propulsion as Devil in the White City, his other book that I read. There are several explanations for this. One is that where the latter book is the story about the dark underbelly of triumphalism in the late-19th century American city, the former covers the awakening of a naïve family to the horrors going on around them. The result is a downward trajectory to In the Garden of Beasts that bottoms out with Hitler consolidating power––a compelling story, but not necessarily an exciting one.

The second factor limiting In the Garden of Beasts returns to the central question of the US diplomatic engagement with Nazi Germany. Larson tries to create stakes out of the various frictions in the diplomatic establishment: between US citizens being attacked in Germany and the demand to recoup debts owed from World War One; between the establishment’s wealthy aristocratic values and Dodd’s democratic simplicity; and between Dodd and the civil service in place in Berlin who chaffed at this inexperienced outsider’s mandates. This last was particularly notable since Messersmith, the man on station in Berlin, saw the dangers of the Nazi regime before Dodd even arrived. These disputes simultaneously felt like the weaker and the more existentially important thread, a contradiction left unresolved when the book slips into a denouement after July 1934 and Dodd becomes an outcast Cassandra warning about the dangers of Hitler’s regime.

I found In the Garden of Beasts darkly compelling, but, beyond the Dodds’ story, it didn’t reveal anything new about either Nazi Germany or 1930s America.

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I have been on a run of non-fiction reading, recently, finishing All the Pieces Matter, Jonathan Abrams’ oral history of The Wire, and am now reading Sally Jenkins’ The Real All Americans, a history of the Carlisle football team that beat West Point in 1912.

American Prometheus

“There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.” –Isidor Rabi

Like many people my age and younger, I had only a vague sense of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I knew he directed the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, created the Atomic Bomb, and almost immediately regretted his creation. In the aftermath of the war, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita in declaring that he had become death, destroyer of worlds.

I knew he was a physicist associated with UC Berkeley but there my awareness stopped. I stumbled into Oppenheimer again in December at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe where there was an exhibit on the nuclear program. Between reading a couple of pages and the arresting cover image (seen at the top of this post) with Oppie (as his students called him, an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Opje) staring straight ahead, cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, I picked up a copy of Bird and Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus at the gift shop.

I should say up front that Bird and Sherwin imbue American Prometheus with a deep subjectivity and latent moralism that frequently sits in the bones of the genre biography.

Oppenheimer is the subject, so other people come into the story as they intersect with him. For some personalities (e.g. Isidor Rabi, quoted above), this is fine. For others, including his wife Kitty, it ends up flattening and trivializing their experiences that were not easy, to say the least.

Then there is the moralizing. Oppenheimer, in this telling, is a tragic hero, a deeply flawed individual whose contributions went unappreciated. This feature of biography is further heightened in that the book reaches its climax when, in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, Oppie faces a review of his security clearance against a board conspiring to prove that he passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. This hearing nearly destroyed him, making it a natural climax, but as someone unfamiliar with the hearings much of the narrative felt designed to prove that Oppie was innocent to a reader who already knew how this story ended.

With those preliminaries out of the way, what to say about Oppenheimer? Born to a wealthy Jewish family in New York, this slim brilliant boy received an excellent humanistic education at the Ethical Culture School before matriculating to Harvard. A polymath with interests in history, literature, and languages, Oppenheimer wanted to study Theoretical Physics, a field that hardly existed in the US. He tried graduate school at Cambridge (a disaster; he tried to poison a tutor), and then Göttingen, before taking up a joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech to establish theoretical physics programs in the US.

But Oppenheimer’s heart was in New Mexico. Visiting there as a frail, sickly teenage he transformed as if by magic into someone who could ride horses hundreds of miles at a stretch without giving it a second thought. Ironically it was the love of this landscape that in part let Oppenheimer to the Los Alamos lab.

Yet, the more profound transformation came in Oppenheimer’s humanism in the Great Depression-era California. Always driven by humanitarian impulses and capable of magnetic charisma, young Oppenheimer could just as easily alienate people he thought beneath him and had little time for anything but his work. Gradually this attitude changed through his work with unions and as he came to recognize the profound threat posed by Nazi Germany. Problems emerged in that the Communist Party of America organized most of the causes Oppie supported and more than one of his friends and students were party members. By the late 1940s, Oppie was a public intellectual and a celebrity weighing in on nuclear politics, but this history made him vulnerable to a cabal of personal, professional, and political enemies who did everything in their considerable power to destroy him. They failed in their ultimate goal, but succeeded in ruining the careers of many people around him, including that of his brother, and in undermining Oppenheimer’s influence.

As an academic, American Prometheus is a fascinating read. On the one hand, it provides a glimpse into higher education of yesteryear, where Oppenheimer nearly didn’t receive his PhD after completing the two year (!!) program because he had failed to register for classes. On the other, though, Oppie presents a mirror on the good and bad of intellectuals. He could be cold, distant, and even cruel if he deemed you beneath his merit, but he was also a warm and supportive mentor who frequently deferred credit for work to his students and junior collaborators. Bird and Sherwin conclude that much of Oppenheimer’s brilliance lay in his ability to see the consequences of other people’s work and push it to the next level rather than doing original work of his own, a trait that made him particularly suited to managing a lab like Los Alamos and later running the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Moreover, his intellectual generosity and ability to synthesize the ideas of others had a magnetic effect drawing into his orbit some of the most remarkable scientists of the twentieth century.

American Prometheus is a long, dense book created from twenty five years of research. I’ll admit to some boredom at times when the material felt repetitive or there was yet another chapter dedicated weighing the evidence on whether Oppie joined the Communist party, chapters that make significantly more sense if you look at the book as funneling toward that climactic hearing. Similarly, my hackles went up at extensive analysis of the psychological states of Oppie and those around him, as well as on the quality of the psychological care he received. And yet, for all of that, Bird and Sherwin open a fascinating window onto a man whose experiences and concerns were equally commonplace and unique in the middle of the 20th century while airing out the story of a man, already suspected of anti-American sentiments, charged with delivering into the world the atomic bomb.

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I finished reading R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, a propulsive and largely delightful fantasy novel driven by the classic trope of wish-fulfillment, albeit this time from a female perspective. I had some issues with the book as a whole, but am very much interested in seeing what else Kuang produces. This morning I started S.A. Chakraborty’s <em>The City of Brass</em>, the first book in the Daevabad Trilogy, and am quite enjoying letting myself be taken away.