Reading

I’ve been thinking a good bit about reading lately. Some of it comes from a stalled summer reading list. Some of it comes from the growing awareness that I don’t really read enough. I’ve been shamed lately when I hear about the prodigious amounts of reading my colleagues do and recognize more and more that I’m struggling to keep up with recent developments in my field.

I’ve also become aware that my reading has largely become practical. I read manuscripts that I’m peer reviewing. I read books that I’ve been asked to review in publications. When I do read, I tend to read rather surgically, ferreting out specific types of information, arguments, and even just mining for citations (which I then read for more citations. It’s really just citations all the way down.)

Finally, I’ve started to embrace serious reading on digital devices on a more regular basis. This summer I made my first effort to read an academic book on my Kindle and I’ve slowly converted most of my reading list to pdfs. 

My thinking about reading has led me three places.

1. Find Some Focus. One of the challenges I’ve faced lately is my research has become too disparate stretching from the Northern Plains to Cyprus and Greece. I need to find a way to refine my focus to prioritize at least some of my reading. For example, I’ve been carrying around a copy of Thansis Vionis 2013 book on the Medieval Cyclades. Clearly, this is a priority for my work in the Argolid and even on Cyprus, but for whatever reason, the book in its unread state has come to represent my failures as a serious scholar. 

I need to establish a list of works and prioritize my reading not because I want to my focused, professional reading to take over my reading universe, but to help to put some limits on my surgical reading and free up time to read more broadly.  

2. Read to Read. I tell my graduate students that most of the habits that I’ve formed over my academic career developed either during my preparation for my comprehensive exams or during the most intense stages of dissertation writing. In fact, I suspect that comprehensive exams are less valuable for what you read and remember, and more valuable for the habits that you form. 

When I was reading for comps some 20 years ago (!!) I read a couple books a week for around 18 months. I took some notes on them, read some reviews, and generally tried to think broadly about works that fell far outside my area of research specialization. In other words, I developed the habit of reading to read, not toward some specific and practical research goal (putting aside the goal of passing my comprehensive exams). I need to get back to doing that, and so I’m going to try to embrace the act of reading as an end to itself. Maybe I’ll even try one of those “book-a-week” deals. 

3. Read Differently. Despite my broad interest in digital media and digital history and archaeology, I usually read my books on paper. As I tell my friends, it’s like driving my Ford F150. I just love the feeling of driving a truck. I love the smell of wet dog, dirt, spilled coffee. I rolling through town at 5-10 mph below the speed limit with my yellow dog (and soon, my puppy). I know that in many ways trucks are obsolete dinosaurs, but I just love driving mine. I recognize that paper books are similar to big trucks: impractical, emotional, and moving invariably toward a kind of practical obsolescence. Who wants to carry three months worth of books overseas? Who has the patience to wait for a new book to arrive when an instant download is a click or two away? Who has the space to store papers books and the time to organize them? I know some people do have the passion for paper, but like my truck, it’s largely irrational and typically a luxury for folks who don’t read for a living.

This isn’t to say that trucks don’t have certain value. Last night a storm brought down several large branches in my yard, and it’ll be nice to just chuck them in the back of my truck and drive to the green waste disposal bins. 

This summer I tried to read an academic book on my Kindle. The reading part was fine, but I found myself myself struggling to navigate backward and forward in the book. The probably wasn’t the intuitive controls on the Kindle or even the bookmarking function which worked well. The issue was that I tend to be a (to paraphrase my undergraduates) a very “visual reader.” I tend to remember the structure of pages: the paragraph breaks, subheadings, and even the location of passages on either odd or even pages. The Kindle removes those kind of visual cues from my memory and when I change the font size or jump around in the book, the pages repaginate making it hard for me to remember just where I read that passages that I didn’t highlight when I read it, but want to highlight later.

In pdf versions of books, the page structure remains largely intact even if visual cues like the binding are absent. As a result, I tend to remember the location of key passages and, invariably, content of the book better. 

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Reposted from NDQuarterly.org.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora. New York: Orbit Publishing 2015.

Robinson Auroroa Cropped

It’s summertime and many of us are traveling. I’m in Cyprus and Greece and NDQ’s other editor is in Germany. In fact, a “high-level editorial correspondence” (is this really a thing?) preceding this review involved travel delays, complications, and adventures. There is nothing like travel to transform my view of the world and my place in it.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora, is a summer travel novel. It’s set in the summertime of humanity when interstellar travel and the tools to colonize distant planets are possible. Robinson’s novel tracks the final stage of a multi-generational voyage of an interstellar starship destined for a system which contained a number of planets suitable for human habitation. The 2000-odd occupants of the massive starship first contend with an increasingly imbalanced ecology within their sealed environment as they approach the end of their journey. Then they have to negotiate the challenges of setting up a permanent habitation on a new planet. Finally, they have to negotiate the possibility of their destination not being suited to human life, and make the difficult choice either to return home or stay for good.

Robinson excels in describing the tyrannical boredom of long-distance travel.  The time aboard the starship as it approaches the Tau Ceti system was profoundly mundane even as the vessel showed signs of its age, and Devi, the mother of the novels main protagonist, fretted and hustled her way from zone to zone trying to keep the ship’s 24 spinning, sealed habitats in balance. The balance between freedom for the ships inhabitants and the control needed to maintain safe and sustainable operation tended toward tyranny. But this is familiar to any travelers who has had to endure the indignities of TSA procedures and the regimented reality of modern air travel where we surrender control of our bodies to the cramped capitalism of corporate finance. Pilgrimage today, at least by air, offers a (sometimes literally) twisted version of Victor Turner’s egalitarian, if not downright utopian, communitas.

Their arrival at Aurora, an apparently habitable moon orbiting planet e in the Tau Ceti system, was likewise familiar to any traveler. The need to approach their new home deliberately tempered their excitement of pulling into orbit and depositing the first colonists on its windswept surface. The travelers, who were the sixth or seventh generation born on the ship, had to wait for the shuttles to transport them to the surface, for the camps to be built, and for scientists to determine that the surface is safe. Anyone who has arrived at a foreign airport knows the feeling of waiting to disembark, to pass through passport control, to collect luggage, and to make it through customs. Without trivializing the dramatic tension in Robinson’s descriptions, he captures an almost universal experience of arrival.

Robinson’s descriptions of the surface of Mars made his Mars Trilogy a landmark in contemporary science fiction, and his description of Aurora is very much in that tradition. Robinson presents an uncanny world surrounded with water, with month-long days, scouring wind, and towering waves. His view of the rocky, lifeless, incised planet lacks any conspicuous dependence on Terran (Earth) analogues leaving the reader to supply them and quickly discard them. Like a visit to any foreign land, analogies can only go so far toward making a new place familiar. The fate of the colonists on Aurora speak eloquently to the limits of travel and the challenges of fully inhabiting a different place.

Robinson’s novel does more than narrate a 26th-century travelers tale. In fact, the narrator of the multi-generational voyage is, at least in part, the starship itself. The quantum computer slowly develops consciousness over the course of the over 300 year journey and through contact with the ship’s inhabitants. Like a futuristic version of Latour’s famous Aramis, the ship gradually comes to understand its own relationship with its passengers. In a kind of playful irony, the ship contemplates the limits of human agency during the voyage and decides more often than not that humans should have less control over their fate. Ultimately, the ship’s passengers descendgently into a chemically induced hibernation and the ship assumes control of the voyage.

The final part of the book encounters Freya, the daughter of Devi, playing in the sea on a reconstructed beach. It’s a fitting place for Robinson to end his novel. Aurora offers a beachhead of sorts between the present and the future, between home and abroad, and between an expansive sense of human potential and the stark realities of our limited agency.

Robinson speaks to the tension between living in both a local and global way during our podcast interview with him here.

Bill Caraher is an rather undistinguished associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota. 

Fantastic Fonts

On the flight to Cyprus, I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Without giving too much away, it involves a fictional 16th century font called Gerritszoon. It’s a nice little book and moves along well enough to be a single-sitting read.

The fictional font at the middle of the story is particularly interesting because – again this is a bit of spoiler – the font ends up revealing something very personal about the author and publisher of an early book. It got me thinking about the story of Doves Type and recent documentary, Helvetica

This is not profound, but fonts provide a connection between the computer interface, the printed page, or the mobile device and the reader. In an era when our personal devices – whether sleek silver laptop or glass and aluminum phone – are increasingly adhering to rather efficient elegance of industrial design, a font is something that reminds us of the intimacy of personal design. It was nice to see that connection made in a work of fiction, set largely in bookstores and libraries. While I rarely patronize either these days, I do miss the attention of the bookstore clerk or the experienced librarian who helped guide me reading and scholarship. Like fonts, they formed the interface between orderly world of books, shelves, bindings, and margins and chaotic world of the individual.

Summer Reading List

Last year, I had a rough summer reading list. It was too long and diverse and lingered well into the fall. This year, I’m trying to go a bit leaner and doing a bit more fiction.

Of course, for the first time ever, I’ll also be carrying along a stack of graduate student papers that need to be graded. I’m thinking I can do that on the flight to Athens. 

Here are my 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2011 reading lists.

I’m taking one paper book with me this summer. I have this idea that someone will ask me to review it. I don’t know why, I’m not a geologist, but maybe someone will surprise me.

John P. Bleumle, North Dakota’s Geologic Legacy. NDSU Press 2016.

I’ve been really looking forward to Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. Harvard 2016. I suspect it’ll add something to my thinking about slow archaeology. And I’ll leave my paper copy of E. Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York 2013).  

Richard Rothaus has suggested that I read Anthony Lowenstein’s Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. London 2015, and John William’s Stoner. New York 1965. (For more of Richard’s and Kostis Kourelis’s recommendations, see here.)

I’ve also packed some science fiction for my before bed reading. I’ve started reading science fiction again a few years back and have kept at it.

I’d be massively remiss not to read some Kim Stanley Robinson, so I’m taking a Kindle version of his new book Aurora (2015).

I also have Neil Stevenson’s enormous Anathem (2008) on the ole Kindle. 

I was browsing Amazon and was drawn to the cover, and maybe the title, and bought Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel (2012). 

I’m sure there will be books that I absolutely MUST READ, like, you know, the red-lines of my Guide to the Bakken manuscript or Historical Archaeology 50.1which treats American Landscapes and features an article on underground mining landscapes.

And, of course, I’ll be reading Polis Notebooks, but more on that in a few days.

The Uncanny Bakken

Another of my little spring break projects was a book review for a literary journal on Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land and Richard Edwards’ Natives of a Dry Place. I’ve blogged on the former here and the latter here. I think this is my best effort to understand how recent work on the Bakken contributes to a larger conversation about oil and social change.

Enjoy:

Even as the oil boom in western North Dakota has entered a protracted lull, the publishing of oil related books has continued to boom. Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil and Richard Edwards’ Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Boom represent two fine, recent contributions to the literature on North Dakota before and during the Bakken boom. Both books come from authors who have spent most of their lives outside North Dakota, but have reconnected with their roots in the Northern Plains during the expansion of oil related activity in the region.

Peters’ father grew up near Williston, and her grandfather, whose homestead failed north of Williston, found ways later in life to invest shrewdly (and presciently) in property and mineral rights on the Nesson anticline. Her father, who became an engineer at 3M, earned some modest income over his life from these rights and used them to build a cabin on the scenic St. Croix River in Wisconsin. Ironically, the author’s time on this river as a child and adult inspired her own environmentalism, and it is this environmentalism that motivated her personal journey through the Bakken, through the complexities of oil production, and the process of fracking. The book starts with her trip to visit her dying father who retired to Florida and concludes with her spreading of his ashes near an oil well on her family’s land. In between, she visits a fracking sand mine in a sensitive ecology in Wisconsin, has a frank conversation with a fracking engineer, visits a working drill rig, and shares coffee with a local farmer who has no sympathy for the oil industry. Her journey is personal, and she does little to hide her deeply conflict attitudes between the practical reality of our chemical-infused world, and the environmental risks of oil, the ethical questions associated with fracking, and the difficult history of the semi-arid northern plains.

Richard Edwards left Stanley, North Dakota when he was 12. Today, Stanley sits on the eastern side of the Bakken oil patch and is home to pipeline terminals, units yards, and oil field workers. The Stanley of Edwards’ youth, was more sleepy and less prosperous, but populated with a cast of characters who would be comfortable in a Mark Twain novel. Edwards’ book begins with a description of the conflicts between those who benefited and those who have suffered during the boom in contemporary Stanley. He then explores the Stanley of his youth borrowing freely from his family’s memories, photographs, and documents to tell eight stories arranged around a series of themes: resoluteness, steadfastness, devotion to community, pluck, commitment, dauntless optimism, spirit of adventure, and modesty. At first, these stories read like home-spun wisdom, but this belies their complexity. Edwards stories show that societies “usually get what they celebrate.” His tale of commitment, for example, tells how his aunt’s husband left his wife of 20-years to reunite with his teenage love. He demonstrates resoluteness in a story about the recovery of Tom Scrivner’s body from a dry well that becomes a murder mystery. However resolute town folks were in finding Scrivener’s body did not extend to finding his murderer. The subtle contradictions in these stories reveal the tensions within even the most conspicuous small-town values. By the end of the book, boom-time Stanley is somehow less different from Stanley before the boom, and more a natural extension of a society’s values.

The landscape and experience of the Bakken Oil Boom is distinctly uncanny. It is at once familiar. After all, the characters if Peters and Edwards book are people who we know in any town or city. They are environmentalists, concerned fathers, dutiful siblings, and eccentric neighbors. In many ways, the tensions between Peters’ environmentalism and her family’s oil patch profits are the same that many of us feel when indulge in the convenience of bottled water, leave our car idling on a cold winter day, or read a paper book because “we like how a book feels.” Both books speak to a very modern experience of being in the world.

At the same time, all booms are, by definition, sudden, unexpected, and extraordinary. As Edwards notes, societies get what they celebrate, but few can celebrate or anticipate such a sudden boom. In fact, many of the tensions present in the Bakken, from housing shortages to infrastructure strain, demonstrate the limits to our ability to anticipate these kinds of events. Fracking takes place far beneath the earth, using secret (or at least complicated) processes and chemicals, and the novel and unknowable risks of fracking contribute to the public’s concern.

The authors’ perspective as both insiders and outsiders contributes to their uncanny view of North Dakota and the Bakken Oil Boom. North Dakota is a strange and wonderful place, and both Peters and Edwards make clear that we can learn from it.

On Books

Three book related items today.

1. Publishing. I was told by my publisher that I had shared too much of The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. That’s a bummer because feedback on the blog here helped to make that book better. Since I’m basically powerless to resist my well-meaning publisher, I could only resort to snark. I removed offending content and posted a message:

BOO! This content has been removed at the request of my publisher.

I also made potentially foolish bet with my publisher that The Bakken Goes Boom! Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota will sell more copies than The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. That mean everyone should rush to the internets and buy a copy of The Bakken Goes Boom! (or just download it for free). We are currently ranked in the top half-million books on Amazon!

2. Reviews. The first wave of reviews are rolling in for Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town which I wrote with David Pettegrew and R. Scott Moore. So far, they’ve been decent which is nice. None have argued that our volume has made all previous archaeological research obsolete, but none have suggested that we drop out of the field and open a taco truck.

The most interesting critique so far appeared in a review from Antiquity by Dan Stewart. Here’s the final paragraph:

“But for all its methodological sophistication and self-reflection, and its laudable approach to open data, in the interpretation of the survey material itself the volume presents nothing particularly new or innovative. The consequence of this is a sense of imbalance between the methodological discussion and the interpretation of the material. There are relatively standard discussions of survey zones and period analyses, but no integration of ancient sources, epigraphy or history (broadly writ) as it relates to any historical period covered by the survey. Theories of interpretation (as opposed to theories of archaeological practice) are given short shrift, and while the authors claim to be conversant with theories of connectivity, state formation and regionalism, they themselves make few substantive forays into these areas of interpretation. This may be an unfair criticism—they clearly prioritised making the data available, and further publications on geomorphology and geology, the results of geophysical examination and targeted excavation are planned— but the interpretation is nonetheless a disappointment given the intellectual potential of these specific authors working together. Should it be a cause for concern if the brightest lights in Mediterranean survey focus their attention on collection in the now, rather than the why in the past?”

3. Publicity. Lots of folks have been working hard to spread the word about The Bakken Goes Boom! I have benefited immeasurably from both word of mouth and some more coordinated production. First, thanks to Heidi Czerwiec who name dropped my work (and by extension the book) in her interview with Grazing Grain Press. Grazing Grain will publish the complete version of her poem Sweet/Crude which appeared in the Bakken Goes Boom!

The good folks over at the University of North Dakota’s Office of University Relations produced a short trailer for the book.

I’ll also appear on Prairie Public Radio’s Main Street this afternoon around 3 pm CST. Check it out here.

Natives of a Dry Place

Hectic days here at the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, but fear not! I got you covered. 

Rush over to the North Dakota Quarterly page and check out my Short Take on Richard Edwards’ Natives of a Dry Place.

Natives Dry Place Edited

Irony thrives on the Northern Plains and Richard Edwards offers a view “Dakota before the Oil Boom” with a wink and a wry grin. He gets that North Dakota has always been modern and the challenges of the oil boom are not entirely a matter of outside influencers. North Dakotans planted the seed of the Bakken boom a century ago on the arid prairie.   

The Bakken Goes Boom

It is really exciting to announce that the Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota went live this morning. As readers of this blog know, The Bakken Goes Boom is the first conventional edited volume that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has released. It was peer-reviewed and drew upon a wide range of scholars, artists, and thoughtful writers to offer a distinct and significant contribution on how we understand the Bakken.

Needless to say, this project would not have happened without the support of my co-editor, Kyle Conway, and all the contributors to the volume. 

The book is available for free download under a CC-By open access license. Go here to get it

Download it, share the link, read it, criticize it, review it, fear it, and revile it:

Bakken Goes Boom Front Cover

Bakken Goes Boom Preview

This morning I woke up with plan to roll out a sneak peak at the newest book from The Digital Press: The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. I got paper galley proofs yesterday evening, and started to go through them and found lots of little niggling issues (most of which… cough… all of which… are my fault), but these will be generally quick fixes. After one more round of gentle editing, we’ll probably approach the point of diminishing returns.

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All books have mistakes in them, and these mistakes are part of what makes publishing a craft and an art. They reveal the steady, but not flawless hand of the human publisher and, with any luck, the irregular contours of an author’s work.

But, the book does exist and it’s being straightened out even as we speak, and there is some chance that a little preview happens tomorrow and the digital version of the book is released (very quietly) on Friday with the paper version appearing later in the month.

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What is more fun is that I’m going to speak for a few minutes to a class in our undergraduate editing and publishing program this morning. My talk sounds a bit like a pep talk which is embarrassing, but I encourage the students to embrace a decentered model of publishing where every one can be an author and everyone can be their own publisher, but also to be generous with their creativity, skills, and energies. If we want to get out from under the genuinely rapacious behavior of publishers, we have to offer an alternative and support that alternative. The Digital Press offers our contribution to an independent, collaborative publishing model. It’s not the only model that should exist, but I think academic publishing is better and stronger that it does exist.

Words, words, words

I’ve spent three days making maps for my Tourist Guide to the Bakken (brace yourself for a two-for-Tuesday blog post), so I work up this morning with my head filled with words.

Over the past two months, I’ve avoided working on a book project to which I’m a pretty minor contributor, but thanks to a late evening email, I started thinking about it again. I’m fascinated with the idea of the American West as this kind of national hinterland filled with all sorts of fascinating stuff begging for me to juxtapose it in random ways.

I was thinking of the Atari Excavations and the concept of “fake archaeology” once again, and my mind drifted to sites like the Manitou Cliff Dwelling museum near Colorado Springs were a cliff dwelling from the Four Corners area was reassembled in the early-20th century. While I don’t mean to suggest that a similar method of presentation could not be used “back East” (and, indeed, sites like The Cloisters in New York repurposed the European ecclesiastical architecture to create a space for the Rockefeller art collection), a degree of dissimulation was possible at the Manitou site because of the remoteness of western cliff dwelling sites and the basic lack of familiarity with the archaeology of the region. No one likely believed that The Cloisters was an “authentic” site. It was possible to situate the excavation of Atari games from the Alamogordo landfill as “authentic” because it took place in the “hinterland.” In fact, media reports were reluctant to accept accounts from local residents, there was an absence of basic historical research (for example, we really don’t know whether the dumping of Atari games left a paper trail), and quick transformation of the event from a curiosity to an urban legend. 

The issue of authenticity and the American West intersects with some of the conversation about tourism and how it keys on the desire to experience the “frontier” or to experience “nature” or whatever. Again, this is not a distinctly or exclusively “Western” phenomenon. Places like Colonial Williamsburg (once again a Rockefeller connection), offered authentic experiences “back East” at least as mediated through various reconstructions. Williamsburg may offer a colonial Deadwood or Medora, but it pales in comparison with Yosemite or Yellowstone which were set aside to preserve nature in its “primordial” state. The Atari excavation, then, depended on a suspension of disbelief and perhaps benefited from a view that the American West preserves a palpable authenticity long ago deemed improbable among the cynical cities of the “the east.” 

Finally, I got to thinking about excavation in the American West. I’m not sure how this will fit into something that I write up for this little book, but excavation in the American West is pretty broad topic. First, I thought about the excavation of mountain sites like Yucca Mountain or the WIPP in New Mexico for depositing radioactive waste. Of course these sites draw upon a long tradition of mining in the west, which both pocked the region with pits and tunnels, none more famous, perhaps than the Berkeley Pit near Butte, Montana, but has also fueled a thriving cottage industry of mining archaeology. Finally, there are the massive craters of the Nevada Test Site where detonations of nuclear and conventional bombs excavated tons of earth. 

Sedan Plowshare Crater

Somehow I want to weave these themes together in a short chapter on excavating contemporary trash in the West with a focus on the Atari excavations.