A Little Secret Hemingway (and some Tom McGrath too).

Last week, the managing editor at North Dakota Quarterly mentioned that a few folks were inquiring about whether they could pull together all of the articles and special editions on Hemingway published by NDQ over the past 30 years. It so happens that Robert W. Lewis, the long-time editor of the Quarterly, was Hemingway expert and under his leadership, NDQ became an leading outlet for scholars of Hemingway. These folks wanted to publish an edited volume that made the most significant contributions to NDQ available to a wider audience and to add a new introduction and some editorial comments.

Fall  03 Hem2 Cropped

Fortunately, by releasing most of the NDQ to the world under an open license, folks are free to do with it what they please. At the same time, we’re happy enough to lend a hand and to make the more significant contributions to the journal accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

So go and check out North Dakota Quarterly’s contributions to our reading of Ernest Hemingway. I haven’t made the NDQ page live yet on their website, but I likely will this week. 

And while you’re at it, check out the publications of poet and essayist Tom McGrath as well. This year is the centennial of his birth and NDQ will celebrate him with a volume dedicated to his legacy. 


Is Graduate Education a Mess?

With the start of the semester looming just weeks away, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to change my classes and keep the content and approach fresh. I’ve blogged here a bit about my Western Civilization class. I am also teaching History 501, which is a required course for our history graduate students. It is part historical methods and part introduction to graduate school and is designed to ease the transition from undergraduate history major to graduate student. This fall, I’m going to assign Leonard Cassuto’s The Graduate School Mess: what caused it and how we can fix it (2015).    

The book is of the crisis in higher education type which, at best., targets real problems and offers real solutions and, at worst, is a kind of persistent jeremiad. Cassuto’s book manages to be a bit of both which is characteristic of the recent gaggle of books seeking to frame and solve some aspect of higher education. In Cassuto’s case, he wants to fix “the graduate school mess” and recognizes that the problems in American graduate education in the humanities may represent problems in higher education as a whole. 

The Good.

1. A Mess with Success. Cassuto is clear from the very opening pages of the book that whatever the problems with graduate education in the U.S., we continue to produce graduates with advanced degrees who have a place in the private and public sector. In fact, he starts his book with a Wall Street executive who favored hiring Ph.D.s because they could adapt so quickly to workplace challenges. Cassuto’s recognition that the current system is successful both in producing students for the academic job market (such as it is) and the larger world tempers his critique throughout. We can do better, of course, and it’s that shared expectation that will sell the book and promote his ideas, but from the very first pages Cassuto winks at us before he describes the character of the current “mess.”   

2. Historically Aware. Cassuto’s book is explicitly aware that the general of “higher education jeremiad” has a long and storied history that dates back to the early-20th century. In short, critics of higher education haves always seen graduate education as a messy process that is ripe for reform. Cassuto reminds us that he is not the first to call for reforms in graduate education and that many of the reforms that he wants – from time to completion to more flexible approaches to the dissertation – have been bandied about since the early 20th century. By recognizing the persistence of “the graduate school mess,” Cassuto makes clear that there is not an easy solution to various challenges facing graduate education and that we should not despair in our efforts to reform the process.

3. Our Problem. Cassuto makes clear that he is not directing this book at administrators, but at graduate students and faculty. In doing so, he resists the temptation to see the problems in graduate education as some kind of high level structural or institutional complication. The graduate school mess – such as it is – can be fixed by attending to the relationship between graduate students and faculty, shifting our expectations when we teach, advise, and hire, and – most importantly for Cassuto – recognizing that graduate students are students first and foremost. By see graduate students as students – rather than apprentices, incomplete peers, or low-paid labor – Cassuto calls upon us to think about graduate education in terms of human outcomes rather than in terms of perpetuating certain professional or disciplinary standards. Because Cassuto frames the “graduate school mess” as a problem that graduate faculty (and to a lesser extent graduate students) can solve, the book is remarkably empowering. 

4. The Public. On of Cassuto’s best points – and one that I’m going to try to implement in my History 501 class – is that we have to train our graduate students in the humanities to understand what the public humanities are and how they work. Moreover, we have to do more to familiarize students with the range of public careers available to them with graduate degrees in the humanities. I have ideas how to make this happen in my History 501 class. So more on this soon. 

The Bad.

1. Framing the Problem. Cassuto’s book is long on outrage, but short on specifics. In some ways, his characterization of graduate education as a “mess” reflects his own inability to pinpoint the problems specifically. He calls the increasingly protracted time to completion a problem, but recognizes that students have lives during their time in graduate school that should be respected. He regards the dissertation as both too narrowly focused and specialized, but also too long and involved. He sees the specialized environment of the seminar as outmoded but also recognizes the unique skill set and aptitude that graduate education develops. The list goes on as Cassuto tries to balance his critique of graduate education (i.e. the mess) with the broadly successful graduates who despite emerging from a mess situation go on to live fulfilling professional lives both within and outside of academia. For this book to be compelling, Cassuto needs to argue that the problem exists with evidence rather than simply assert that there is an issue. 

2. Professional Training. Cassuto recognizes that the Ph.D. developed in the U.S. as a professional degree designed to produce teachers for the growing number of colleges and university in the late 19th and early 20th century. As the need for professional scholars ebbed and flowed, so did the need for graduate training. As the academic job market in the early 21st century job has largely collapsed (or has entered a period of significant change) graduate education must adapt, but because most people in higher education regard our increasing reliance on contingent labor as bad (and, frankly, inhumane), it is very hard for us to adapt graduate education to accommodate a system that we think is profoundly corrupt. By declaring graduate education to be a mess and implying that it is outmoded, Cassuto must navigate the twin risks of seeming to support an inhumane system of contingent labor, on the one hand, and burying our heads in the sand as a form of resistance, on the other. In many ways, the “mess” confronting graduate education is this very tension between our need to produce professional scholars as a way to preserve the professional standing of academic work and our desire to do what’s best for our students.

3. Two Tiers. At the University of North Dakota we have a Doctor of the Arts program in History. I consider it a fine degree that embodies both the rigor of doctoral level training and the practical realities of academia. It’s a 3-year degree (post M.A.) which grounds our students in both content knowledge, research methods, and higher-education pedagogy. We place our students well in positions at 2-year colleges and among the contingent academic workforce. Cassuto dismisses such degrees as supporting a “two tier system” which allows us to maintain a narrower Ph.D. that reflects a vanishing professional reality but will still attract students who will resist enrolling in a D.A. because it might limit their career possibilities. Our experience is that the D.A. attracts students who have different – not diminished – expectations for their professional futures, but Cassuto prefers an expanded Ph.D. that includes tracks that emphasize teaching or even public humanities (for example) work as well as traditional research. I’m not sure that Cassuto’s system is any less “two tier” except that it might obscure that training of students who recognized that research is not their primary calling in a way that our D.A. does not. 

4. New Knowledge. Finally, I am concerned that Cassuto’s otherwise praiseworthy focus on students overlooks the fact that graduate education does more than just produce students, it also produces new knowledge. He dismissively describes the dissertation as a document that only the committee will read. Moreover, he seems willing to allow for less polished dissertations if it shortens time to degree. At the same time, he acknowledges that the academic publishing has changed and the opportunities to publish a dissertation as a traditional academic monograph have decreased significantly. The tension then between a less polished dissertation and the decline of the monograph runs the risk of making the Ph.D. a less valuable part of the larger intellectual ecosystem which – at the end of the day – exists to make new knowledge production possible.

There is no doubt that we could do a better job preparing our students for the challenges of post-graduate school job market, but we also have to recognize that the dissertation (and to a less extent the M.A. thesis) is not just a demonstration of competence on the part of the student, but also a contribution to the larger body of professional and disciplinary knowledge. Dissertations are useful, important, and with the advent of digital distribution channels, accessible documents that are as much a product of graduate school as the student or the degree.

The Ugly.

1. The Student. The thing that bothered me most about Cassuto’s book is that it both pushed faculty to respect the student more while at the same time, tempering our student’s hopes that they could have a productive and meaningful academic career. On the one hand, I admire Cassuto’s commit to tough and frank talk about the realities of the academic job market. On the other hand, we have to respect and support our student’s dreams. Most graduate students endure graduate school not because they’re delusional about the job market, but because they love graduate school, they love research, they love being in a community of scholars, and they love the time and opportunity to read and write. 

I frequently liken graduate school to minor league baseball. Most minor league baseball players hope to play in the major leagues some day. Most recognize that an opportunity to do this is equal parts hard work and luck. At the same time, minor league players have to love playing baseball. They have to love the actual work that they do and cherish their time doing it even if they know it’ll never result in a major league contract. 

In other words, by privileging the outcome of a graduate program – an important standard to be sure – Cassuto risks ignoring the experience of the graduate program for students. He hints at this when he notes that many graduate students stay in graduate school because they enjoy being in graduate school. The opportunity to immerse oneself in a discipline, an area of study, and a method is usually a key reason for students to go to graduate school, so this should not be a surprise. The dissertation is important to these students, not simply because they need it to graduate but because they see it as a chance to contribute to their discipline in a meaningful way. By minimizing the experience of graduate school and the dissertation itself, we are minimizing the a key aspect of graduate education in the name of a kind of crude, outcome driven formula that reduces education to employment and useful skills.    

2. The Academic Jeremiad. This book is a type. It’s an academic jeremiad that sees higher education in crisis. The author is smart and subtle enough to hint that he knows this type and is playing along to make his major points. For the less than careful reader, however, this book will appear as yet another indictment of higher education, out of touch faculty, and an indulgent system. While Cassuto may well see signs of real problems, he rarely connects the dots between problems within the system and problems outside the system. Part of this is because he sees faculty and students as empowered to solve some problems themselves, but recognizes that they are only parts of a complex system that has its own set of deep set problems from administrative bloat, to budget cuts, restrictive federal guidelines, and other issues that are typically well beyond the purview of faculty. In other words, fixing the graduate school mess will not fix higher education and it won’t fix particular problems, largely because those problems remain too complicated and expansive to define, much less solve.

The issue then is whether this kind of focused jeremiad moves us toward a solution. I’m skeptical. At best, this represents a solution in search of a problem. At worst, this is another contribution to the narrative of perpetual improvement that undermines successes in the constant effort to resolve chimerical problems. Or maybe even worse, it’s ammunition for people who are seeking to destroy higher education because they see the entire project as failed because it resists the march of neoliberal values that recognizes success only in the relentless accumulation of capital.  

Camera Kalaureia

Over the last decade, I’ve been messing around with the relationship between photography and archaeology. As Y. Hamilakis has noted photography and archaeology are “two collateral apparatuses of modernity.” Hamilakis and F. Ifantidis have found new ways to interrogate and reflect on the relationship between photography and archaeology in their new book, Camera Kalaureia (2016). Snippets of ethnographic texts overlay the photographs throughout the short book making clear that the photographs are part of the ethnographic project, and, indeed, the book is called a “Photo-Ethnography.” 

The book uses photography as a way to explore the relationships between the past and the present at the site of Kalaureia on Poros. By consciously recognizing photography as an act and the viewing of the photograph as part of that action, the authors embrace the potential of the photograph as a mediator between the viewer, the photographer, and the objects associated both with photography and the history of the site. In their hands, the modern history of the site – including its carefully planted olive trees, the scarred pine trees from resin collection, the traces of modern tiles and mud brick, and the inscribed graffiti of the landowners – fights for attention with the ancient history of the site and long-robbed out temple of Poseidon. More poignantly, the photographs trace the barriers that define the site – a locked gate, a guard shack, and the red-and-white tape and ropes that cordon off the archaeologists’ trenches –  and their intersection with the movement of visitors, workmen, and archaeologists across the site. 

The photographs are not what we might imagine as conventional “documentary photographs” framed by a kind of “objective” style that focuses the viewer on a point, a person, or an object. Instead the photographs in this book actively drag the viewers eye across panoramas, in and out of focus, and into photos that lack enough contrast to distinguish easily between foreground an background. In fact, some of the most compelling photographs display a relentlessness of focus that prevents the eye from settling comfortably on a point in the photograph. The absence of any place for the eye to rest compels us, first, to become aware of the photographer and the camera, and, then, to probe the photograph for some object, individual, or meaning. 

The text makes clear that the camera’s lens and the photographer are as essential to the landscape as the trees, the fragments of the recent past, the archaeologists, and the antiquities. The situatedness of the photographer, the ethnographic texts, and the photographs push the viewer and reader to recognize the persistent interposition of the present, the modern, and the ancient.

The book is worth a careful exploration and this is made more appealing because it’s a free download! Check out their photoblog as well

Cover Options for Mobilizing the Past

I’ve spent a good bit of time this July laying out the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, and Derek Counts will represent both state of the field survey on digital tools and techniques in archaeological fieldwork, and also offer critical perspectives on these tools and methods. 

Last week, I posted some images of the page layout and got some good feedback on it. This week, I want to post two cover mock ups and get some feedback. Both are designed by Dan Coslett and will invariably receive some tweaking by the time they appear in print. The concepts, however, are pretty fully formed and the play between the trowel and the tablet carries through to the chapters headings throughout the book.

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Here’s cover option 1:

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Here’s cover option 2 (the grey border is just to set it off from the white background of the blog):

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What do you think?

Track Changes

Anyone interested in the impact of technology on our work as scholars and writers should read Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (2016), and check out some supplemental material here. The book is not only entertaining to read, but it intersects with so many of the key issues facing our engagement with technology today, that it may well spawn hundreds of master’s theses and not a few dissertations. Kirschenbaum surveys the use of word processors in the literary community beginning in the late 1970s and concluding with their ubiquitous presence in the contemporary world. The book is full of room-sized IBMs, boxy Kaypros, glitchy Osbournes, and iconic computers from Wang and Apple which transformed the way that authors (and the rest of us) wrote. (The book evoked a good bit of nostalgia for me as I vividly remember writing in WordStar on a Kaypro II during middle school!). 

The book has so much to offer a careful reader that I can’t imaging writing anything approaching a full review. Unlike many books on media archaeology these days, Kirschenbaum’s book does not hit you in the face with a body of dense theory (although it is clear that the likes of Freidrich Kittler and other media theory darlings are just off stage) and instead tells engaging stories about authors’ engagement with word processors. Kirschenbaum’s stories explore the economy of writing and authors’ hopes for greater efficiency, the changing expectations of publishers, and need to facilitate collaborative writing at distance. He also unpacks the anxieties authors faced with adapting to new technologies from the fear of losing words and pages to the expense and complexity of purchasing (and using) a new machine in the early days of personal computing.

Here are few observation on a book that you should just go and read:

1. The Art of the Rewrite. As someone who generally writes on the screen and then revises on paper, I am a firm believer that writing is revision. One of the strands that runs through Kirschenbaum’s book is the way in which writing “in light on glass” transformed the work of revision from the painstaking task of retyping pages of text to revising words on the screen. I didn’t realize how early the “cut and paste” commands existed in word processing and how fundamental the ability to insert and move text around in a document was to the functioning of work processing programs. It had the potential to make revision process far more dynamic activity and to destabilize the integrity of the text throughout the writing process. I found myself deeply curious about how authors understood their manuscripts at various phases of the revision process.

Did the ease with which even the earliest word processors allowed texts to be reorganize lead writers to think about their texts differently? I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the ease with which fragmentation that was possible with digitally produced texted encouraged more modular writing processes and echoed the “cut-up” practices associated with, say, William Burroughs. I have considered whether the our increasing use of digital tools in archaeology has a similar tendency to fragment the site. 

2. Writing is Work. Kirschenbaum did a remarkable job emphasizing how valuable word processing was to writers who wrote massive quantities of books to make a living. Jerry Pournelle was among the earliest adopters of a word process and credited it with a massive increase in efficiency. Isaac Asimov was a somewhat later adopter of a personal computer and word processor, but he likewise enjoyed improvements in the tidiness of his manuscripts and his ability to put words on the page quickly. 

By emphasizing the needs of this kind of writer, Kirschenbaum shifts the emphasis from the author as artist to author as self-employed worker in words. The word processor goes from a machine that risks compromising delicate creative processes to a boon to the real work of authors for whom word count, deadlines, and efficiency matter. Of course, writers never work in a vacuum. Kirschenbaum considers the secretaries, assistants, typists, spouses, and even publishers who worked alongside authors to make manuscripts into books. There is, for example, a blatantly gendered aspect to the spread of the word processor as it was marketed to administrative assistants, typists, and secretaries who were predominantly hwomen. The word processor, in this context, moves beyond the writerly task of the author and mediates between the various actors involved in the writing as work. As a device, the word processor intersected with the social, economic, and even personal roles of everyone involved in the creative process. 

3. Writing Material. Throughout the book, there is this delicate thread of that emphasizes the materiality of the writing process. The feeling of the keyboard, for example, was a concern for writers who were sometimes transition from the rather unforgiving keys of a manual typewriter. The size and resolution of the screen also shaped how writers engaged their texts with the limited number of lines on the screen even encouraged one author to write in shorter paragraphs.

Some of the early word processors took up entire rooms and others took pride of place on desks, living rooms, and writing rooms. Artifacts from early word processing, including word processors themselves, have filled museums and archives and communicated their materiality as effectively as typewriters and stacks of manuscript pages have represented the output of authors using more analogue tools. Just as well-worn ribbons preserve traces of an author’s writing, so disks of all sizes and shape have come to stand in for the a writer’s work. Kirschenbaum and the authors themselves dwell intermittently on how the metal boxes and magnetic disks and tapes form an intimate part of the writing process.

Any number of these topics – and many more throughout the book – would reward further exploration, research, and narrating, but Kirschenbaum does a nice job of presenting a sufficiently sweeping overview of the history of word processing to open doors. For my interest in the digital tools used in archaeology, his work is decisive in making clear that word processors are not simply tools that writers use dispassionately to perform their tasks, but cogs in a larger literature machine (my term) that extends from the creative idea to the published work. The ambivalence of many authors in adopting new tools was a not a testimony to a kind of luddism, but rather a reasoned skepticism that ranged from concerns about disrupting honed creative processes to the learning curve dealing with new technologies. The adoption of digital tools in both writing and archaeology transformed the social landscape of these practice because these tools mediate between various individuals with various skill sets required to produce a final product. Kirschenbaum’s work offers a kind of history and ethnography of writing practice at the dawn of the digital age. It would be quite valuable for some eager soul to consider the dawn of digital practices in archaeology the same way. 

The Digital Press is Mobilizing the Past

Over the last six months, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has been collaborating with a remarkable group of authors, editors, and reviewers to produce an edited volume from an NEH funded conference called Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology held last February in Boston. It was a good conference with good conversations among the participants. After a round of peer review and ample time for revision, the book will be more than just good and will stand as a significant marker in the discussion of digital tool in the discipline. I’m super proud and excited to be part of the project as both a contributor, collaborator, and publisher. The plan is for the book, edited by Jody Michael Gordon (Wentworth Institute of Technology), Erin Walcek Averett (Creighton University), and Derek B. Counts (Wisconsin-Milwaukee), to appear this fall and so far we’re on schedule.

One of the most rewarding parts of the publication process is the design of the interior. For this book, I have been working with Dan Coslett, a graduate student in architecture at the University of Washington. He designed the original poster for the conference and I think it’s just great:

NEH WebsiteBanner rev2jpg

He’s going to design the book cover for us, and help me with interior design. Over the last couple days we went through no fewer than 9 iterations. We had a few challenges. First, after a little discussion, I insisted that we set the book in a serif font, but our “house font” for the press has been the rather stodgy (and 17th c.) Janson. This clearly was not an ideal font for a book that is looking toward our “digital future.” At the same time, I didn’t feel comfortable going with even the classiest sans serif font worrying that it would make what is a serious academic book seem ephemeral. Instead, I looked for a contemporary looking serif-ed font and settled on Tisa. Since I have a few projects on the horizon that might require a more technical, highly legible, and contemporary font, I think having Tisa share our house standard with Janson is a good thing. Finally, I continued a design cue that I used in the Bakken Goes Boom! (buy here or download here!) 

My rather hasty first draft of the first page of the introduction looked like this:

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We thought it was probably a bit too crowded so we started to find ways to give it more space, by reducing the size of the font for the chapter title.

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I have a tendency to go with very dense text blocks (probably similar to how I write and think!), and to counteract this we decided to expand the leading a bit in an early revision. Dan also suggested that his trowel-and-tablet graphic was maybe a bit too big for the page. Finally, we went decided to bold the chapter title instead of going with all caps especially since we’re going to use centered, all caps for the top headings in the chapters.  

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 Of course, we couldn’t leave well enough alone and continued to play with the design, particularly the font size of the chapter title and the location of the authors’ names.

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I tended to want a more prominent chapter title than Dan did:

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And we both couldn’t resist the lure of all caps!

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Smaller title font allowed us to keep authors’ names and the title next to the trowel-and-tablet icon.

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In the end we decided that was simply not that high a priority and likely to change as titles and numbers of authors varied across contributions.

Here’s our final decision (but even it will be lightly tweaked because I forgot to include the chapter number!):

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More on this project as it gains momentum over the next few weeks. My hope is to have basic layout of the book done by early next week, a table of contents, and have a draft of the cover to show off then too!

So stay tuned!


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.