New Book Day: The Library of Chester Fritz

It’s homecoming week at UND and we have a homecoming themed book for New Book Day! It’s the first book in what should be a pretty exciting 2022/2023 publishing season!


Brian R. Urlacher’s, The Library of Chester Fritz, is the first novel published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, but is very much in keeping with our focus on the history of the state, our campus, and the region’s remarkable characters.

More importantly (especially to anyone without a real connection to North Dakota or UND), the book is a good story. Urlacher’s novel weaves his story into the real journals of Chester Fritz to produce chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

If that sounds pretty cool to you, you can download the book for FREE from The Digital Press website or buy it for the low, low price of $7 from Amazon. Remember being a paperback copy offers more than just the fine sensation of holding a paper book in you hand, but also supports The Digital Press’s mission to publish more open access books in the future!

If you’re still on the fence as to whether to download a free book, I offer a slightly more dramatic version of the book’s plot below:

Fate has entangled a library, a businessman, and the future of humanity. A trail of documents left behind by an eccentric businessman, traveler, and philanthropist Chester Fritz is the only way to understand the urgent danger. This book brings together Chester Fritz’s journals and follows his travels through war torn China and his ascent to the heights of global capitalism.

As World War II plunges the world into chaos, Fritz and his traveling companions wrestle with what to do and what forces are too dangerous or too dark for humanity to wield. But something must be done, and the decision will fall to Chester Fritz.

Thank you, as always, for supporting The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and, if you like this title, do share your enthusiasm over twitter (@digitalpressund) or Facebook.

If you don’t like this title, that’s ok! It was FREE. And I’m pretty sure we’ll publish something that you DO like later in 2022-2023 season!

The formal press release is below and you can download the book’s full media kit here.


Time is Running Out!

The Chester Fritz Library holds the secret of its mysterious donor and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Anyone who has spent time on the University of North Dakota’s campus knows it to be an enchanted place. A new novel takes this feeling to the next level.

The Library of Chester Fritz, is the debut novel by Professor of Political Science, Brian R. Ulacher. This daring and imaginative work hints that the power of the UND campus might go far beyond its well-kept gardens and collegiate Gothic architecture. Urlacher’s novel traces the travels of former UND student and benefactor, Chester Fritz, through early 20th-century China and speculates that his experiences on this journey introduced him to a powerful, and dangerous, secret.

Chester Fritz’s journal a version of which was published by the University of North Dakota Press in the 1980s and describes his work and travels in China prior to World War II. Fritz was born in Buxton, North Dakota and attended UND before heading to the West Coast and then abroad to make his fortune. In 1950 and 1969, Fritz made sizeable donations to UND which funded the library and auditorium that bear his name. Urlacher built from this manuscript and developed his story in a way that integrates seamlessly with Fritz’s own words. The result is a chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

Urlacher points out that Fritz’s journals themselves offer more than enough fodder for the imagination. He said, “I’m fascinated and frankly perplexed by Fritz’s choice to travel across China in 1917. He was utterly unprepared when he set his course through the heart of a civil war in which warlords, bandits, and crusader armies vied for every inch of territory.”

In Urlacher’s novel, Fritz’s mysterious experiences abroad become entangled with his monumental library at the heart of the UND campus. Urlacher explains that he was inspired by the Chester Fritz Library: “I’ve spent a lot of time just wandering among the stacks. I’m not sure if other people experience this, but I get a static tingle in libraries. Something about massing books, each representing a lifetime’s worth of experience, in such close proximity is powerful. There are so many stories about books being more than just pages, and libraries being more than just buildings. When I sat down to start world building, there was never a question of where to anchor the story. It had to be the Chester Fritz Library.”

Urlacher noted that something of Chester Fritz’s spirit lingers on our campus, observing, “Fritz had this unshakable optimism, and it comes through in his journal. He writes with an understated North Dakota humor, which is makes for very charming prose.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, The Library of Chester Fritz is available as a free download or as a paperback book from


Three Things Thursday: Data, Books, Teaching

This semester feels very odd to me. Not only did I start the semester a bit more tired than I expected to be, but I also didn’t have a clear set of goals and deadline ahead of me. After I submitted my revised book manuscript at the end of August, my fall semester seemed oddly under scheduled. It’s taken me a while to recognize that this is probably a good thing and more of a feature than a bug at this point in my career. 

This sense of being under-committed this fall has given me the space to work on a number of other projects in a less frantic way than I have in the past and today’s Three Things Thursday is about that.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, I posted about my work with the Isthmia data and my effort to corral and clean up various datasets produced by the Isthmia excavations over the past 50 odd years. My primary goal has been to work on Roman and Post-Roman material from the excavation and to focus particularly on Byzantine and Roman pottery. Earlier in the week I finished recoding the inventoried Roman and the Byzantine pottery so that it can be integrated with the stratigraphic data and context material from the site.

Then I moved on the the lamps from the site, figuring that most of the lamps found in the Ohio State and Michigan State excavations at Isthmia were Roman and later. Fortunately, Birgitta Wohl has just published a volume analyzing the lamps from these excavations, but her substantial catalogue identifies the lamps according to the inventory number and the area where they were found, but not their stratigraphic context or even trench. This is annoying, but perhaps not too unusual. 

More vexing is that I don’t have a table that includes all the lamps in Wohl’s catalogue. Instead, I have a partial table that I excavated from an Access database whose creator and purpose is unknown and I’ve spent about four or five hours now transforming Birgitta’s catalogue into data. This, of course, is both absurd and a completely normal part of archaeology as early-20th century practices and late-20th century digital tools continue to find opportunities for incompatibility. 

Thing the Second

This summer, I spent a good bit of time fretting about the number of projects I had wending their way through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. In particular, I was worried about a collaboration that I had hatched with our sister project, North Dakota Quarterly. This project involved the publication of a translation of Jurij Koch’s novella, The Cherry Tree, which would be the second book in our emerging NDQ supplement series.

Cherry Tree Cover FINAL

Our current plan is to release this title on October 11th. In fact, we don’t even have a landin page for the book yet, but the translator convinced us to accelerate the timeline so he could take some copies with him to Croatia next week. Because my fall is under scheduled, we were able to make this happen and while the book has not officially dropped yet, you can, if you know where to look, find a copy from a major online retailer

Thing the Third

Finally, I continue to think about whether being under scheduled is a privilege or something that university faculty should aspire to, and this has started to impact how I teach. In some ways, the current “syllabus as contract” driven environment creates an expectation that the schedule on the syllabus represents an accurate summary of student work during a semester. Because faculty (and students) recognize that under representing the quantity of material creates problems with student expectations, we tend to over represent the amount of material (or at least represent the maximum amount of material) that we hope to cover in a semester. This tends to compound a sense among students (and even among faculty) of being over extended or scheduled “to the max.” 

This doesn’t feel very healthy to me.

A Book By Its Cover: The Cherry Tree

This fall looks to be a busy one for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. We not only have three (and maybe a four!) books on tap for the next couple of months, but we also have plans to publish our first two novels. 

The second novel scheduled to appear this fall is in collaboration with our friends at North Dakota Quarterly as the second volume in our little NDQ Supplement series. The first volume in the supplement series was Snichimal Vayuchil, a collection of Tsotsil Maya poetry translated by Paul Worley. In 1984, NDQ published its first full-length novel, Thomas McGrath’s This Coffin Has No Handles

Today, we’ll share a copy of the cover of our next novel, Jurij Koch’s The Cherry Tree, translated by John K. Cox whose talented wife Kathleen T. Cox designed the fantastic cover.  

Cherry Tree Cover IMAGE

Without giving too much away, the cover captures the role of motion and movement in Koch’s compelling tale, while preserving the sense of mystery at the core of the story.

If you want to read a bit more about the book and what it’s about, go here

Layout Work for a Busy Fall at The Digital Press

There are three books in various stages of layout and design this fall. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota particularly excited to publish a novella titled The Cherry Tree which will appear as the second volume of a series co-produced with North Dakota Quarterly. The Cherry Tree is the first major Sorbian work published in English and its author, Jurij Koch, is perhaps the best known Sorbian literary figure. The novella was translated from the German by John K. Cox. 

John has described the novella like this:

Set in the Sorbian-speaking region of the former East Germany, this unique and thought-provoking novella focuses on Ena, a young farm worker, who is torn between her family’s culture and the growing demands of modern society. She must navigate the conflicting demands and competing world views of her two lovers, Mathias (a Sorbian farmer) and Sieghart (a German engineer), even as she moves to Paris and then deals with the passing of her beloved grandfather. The story is tight and intense, with touches of magical realism as well as beautiful descriptions of nature. Koch’s pithy, accurate descriptions of life in Brandenburg and Saxony are animated by the author’s steadfast and heartening appreciation of rural traditions, the visits of a pre-Christian goddess, and…a surprise ending.

Cherry Tree Proof 0 pdf 2022 08 24 06 05 47

In my reading, the novella has a distinctly modernist vibe to it and I wanted to capture that in my page design while still keeping the overall feeling contemporary and tidy. As a result, I tried a new font to me: PS Fournier, which is a transitional font used for works like the first edition of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and a 1930 edition of Thoreau’s Walden. I combined it with the perhaps most distinctly modern German font (and a Digital Press favorite), Futura.

Cherry Tree Proof 0 pdf 2022 08 24 06 04 03

PS Fournier is set at 11.5 pts which should make this a pretty easy book to read and enjoy and give it a pleasant “heft” appropriate for its significance. I’m pretty happy with how it looks and we’re just waiting on the cover and some final edits and this book should appear later this fall! 

Stay tuned for more updates.

Teaching Thursday: A Practicum in Editing and Publishing

Next semester, I’m teaching a course once again in the English Department. This course is a practicum in editing and publishing and it will be taught in collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly.

Since I have nearly two weeks before classes start, I don’t have a very clear idea how I’m going to go about teaching this class, but I do know that I want it to be as much of a practicum as possible. This means to me that the course should be hands-on and give students as much real world experience as possible with actual projects. As a result, I’m laying out a series of editing and publishing related projects that intersect with NDQ. These range from the immediate and necessary to the rather more long term and ideal.

First, the most proximate concern is getting NDQ 88.3/4 out. This means not only handling author correspondence, but also, and more importantly, putting the manuscript in order for delivery to University of Nebraska Press.

Second, NDQ will publish a novella this fall which will require production checks and carefully reviewed page proofs. We will also need to produce a press packet: press release, marketing material, and so on.

Third, NDQ will contribute to a panel at the Northern Great Plains History Conference on “the state of the state’s journals” in September. It would be great to get the students involved in preparing this paper. 

These are three pressing and proximate responsibilities that I have as editor of the Quarterly this semester. 

The next three tasks are less pressing but represent the kind of work that publishers often take on.

First, we have archived MOST of the issues from volume 1 (1910) to volume 74.2 (2007). But we have not digitized the issues from volume 74.3-84. This is a thankless task, but one that is necessary to make sure that the digital archive of the journal is complete. We will need to digitize 24.1 (1954) and 57.2 (1989).

Second, there is the somewhat larger issue of creating a local archive of back issues of NDQ. Right now most of the archive exists at the HathiTrust and we have released these issues under a CC-ND license. What we’d like to do is download these volumes, extract each issue from the volume, and upload them to our local institutional repository. This is tedious, but important work.

Third, part of the challenge of the NDQ archive is its size. It is almost 90 volumes, hundreds of issues, and thousands of pages and contributions. Aside from an NDQ reader prepared a couple decades ago there is really no way to engage with this archive. A medium-term goal of the Quarterly is to produce some kind of guide to the archive that allows a reader to engage with the century of content that the Quarterly has published.  

Finally, there are those intermediate term projects that either need to happen regularly or should happen sooner rather than later.

First, there is the blog. Right now, myself or someone from my editorial board posts weekly on the NDQ blog. Mostly post a combination of announcements, new content, and archival gems with the occasional “new content” thrown in. What can the class do to add to the impact of the blog?

Second, there is promoting the Quarterly on campus and in the community. I continue to suspect that there are “low hanging fruit” subscriptions on our campus and that people simply don’t realize that the Quarterly still exists. How do we go about raising the profile of the Quarterly on campus and in the community? Are there fun ways to make it more visible?

Third, there is the issue of moving offices. We have at least two file cabinets filled with material relating to the recent history of NDQ that needs to either migrate to the UND archives or be discarded. Publishing, whether we like it or not, produces massive amounts of paper and figuring out how the manage this paper is part of our responsibility as a publisher and editor.

Finally, there is the challenge of “market research.” Whether we like it or not, publishing and editing is a competitive industry and understanding how NDQ fits into the “market” is part of helping us articulate a vision for the magazine going forward.

Editing and Publishing: Trust, Shared Authority, and the General Public

There was a bit of a dust up last week on Twitter in which an editor and an author had it out, in public, over a rejected book review. I won’t go into detail about the reasons for the dust up or its aftermath, but it prompted me to think a bit more critically about being an editor (and publisher). This is particularly useful because next semester, I’m teaching a class on editing and publishing, and I need to begin to pull together the things that I’ve learned over the last half-decade into something like a coherent student experience.

The Twitter dust up reinforced three things in my head about being an editor. Just to be clear, I’m not writing this to tell either party that they did something wrong or to deliberately ignore the substance of their dispute (which I wasn’t able to grasp entirely via the narrow window that social media provided). Instead, I appreciate the public character of the conversation which, albeit in dramatic fashion, opened a window into “how the sausage is made” behind the scenes in publications seeking to bridge the gap between academia and the wider public public.

First, various critics often preach that academics should write for a broader audience or “the general public.” I’ve written about this critique a good many times on this blog. I’ve noted that this is hard, considered our responsibilities in this area, and even suggested that it is important. That said, despite being an editor of little magazine and publisher of a press hoping to capture a broad audience, I hadn’t thought much about how editing work intended for a general audience is different from editing work intended for our fellow academics. In my experiences (other than a brief, traumatic, and entirely necessary experience early in my professional career at the hand of a very patient journal editor), editors have exerted a remarkably light hand on my work, and as readers of this blog know, this is not because my work is well written. I suspect it is because academic style is often regarded as secondary to argument and unadorned or even clunky academic prose might even represent a kind of efficient expression. After all, the goal of most academic writing is not to entice, entertain, or even instigate a reader, but to contribute to established and usually well-known conversations. 

Writing for a non-academic audience means understanding that most people won’t be familiar with the conversations to which we want to contribute. Moreover, many people in the general public won’t care about these conversations per se even if they care about the implications that these conversations might have on the broader state of knowledge. This also means that writing for the general public is less likely to have a ready-made audience of individuals already invested in a particular debate. Thus, as an editor I have to do more to get writers to make the significance of their contributions understood in the name of creating an audience for their work. This often means urging them to de-emphasize parochial, technical, and specialist debates (which often suffice to attract narrower academic audiences) and encouraging them to prioritize the bigger picture. This can be tricky business because academics often have deep attachment to our specialist knowledge (indeed, this is often where we hang our professional hats as experts) and communities in which various forms of specialized knowledge develop. Asking academic writers to step away from these commitments often means asking them to shed their credentials and community in the name of broader cause.

Second, one of my favorite editorial comments in a modernist magazine appears on the cover of the short-lived Dadaist journal The Blindman edited by Marcel Duchamp, Beatrice Wood, and Henri-Pierre Roché, which reminds their readers: “The Second Number of The Blindman will appear as soon as YOU have sent sufficient material for it.” In other words, editors of little magazines or other public facing publications recognize that our contributors are often our readers. Or at very least our contributors dictate the subject matter, tone, and direction of our publications as much as our editors do. Ideally, our contributors and readers overlap sufficiently to ensure a constant flow of relevant material, but not so tightly that we can’t expand our audiences. In fact, it seems to me that the best editors recruit contributors not only to expand their readership but also to expand the character of contributions. This involves walking a tightrope between shaping the publication from the top down and creating conditions for the publication to develop from the bottom up. 

It also means accepting the unexpected, the less than ideal, and the complicated in the name of expanding the reach of the publication and diversifying its content. As the editor of a little magazine that occasionally publishes content that doesn’t feel particularly compelling to me or lands a bit wide of the mark, I’ve come to accept this as part of the long game of allowing contributors to “share authority” in producing the publication that I edit.

One of my most regular critiques of academic journals that celebrate the presence of or bemoan the lack of particular kinds of contributors (e.g. women, POC, early career writers, or whatever) is what percentage of one’s submissions come from the groups that you’re trying to attract. If the number of submissions from a particular group is high, but the number of published contributions remains low, then the problem seems to be with the editorial process. If the number of submissions is low, however, then the problem might well be the audience for the publication. Finding ways to get a journal in front of people who you would like to contribute means targeted marketing, soliciting submissions, and, perhaps most importantly, sharing authority with the groups who you’d like to see as readers and contributors.

As an editor and publisher, I’m still working on this in part because I’m very personally invested in my editing and publish projects, but I also know that they’re almost always better when I lead from behind my contributors. 

Third, one of the hardest things that I’ve had to learn is the value of trust between the editorial team, my copy editors, and my contributors even when (and maybe especially when) they make me feel uncomfortable. In the Twitter dust up, without getting mired in specifics, it would appear that trust between the writer and the editorial team broke down. 

In my experiences, I recognize that the editing and publishing process can be intense especially with the stress of deadlines, the need to maintain workflows and processes, and the desire to produce a final product that advances larger goals. Moreover, COVID has added a layer of stress to every thing we do and the confluence of semester schedules and press deadlines often creates delays and complications that reverberate throughout the publication processes. Maintaining transparency and trust during these times feels as important as it can be potentially fraught. Again, I’m not suggesting anything about the specific case that occupied Twitter, but as for my process, I’m trying to think more carefully about what I need to do to ensure that people who contribute their work, time, and effort to my publications feel like they can trust my editing. More than that, I’m trying to remember that I need to also trust their critical boundaries and recognize how their voice and vision are part of what makes the publications that I produce unique and important.

Music Monday: Sun Ra Sundays

Over the weekend, I started the final push on a long simmering project over at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This project is called Sun Ra Sundays and it involves the converting a well-known blog by musician and music collector Rodger Coleman into a book. Sun Ra Sundays was a long running blog which explored Sun Ra’s musical output during the 1960s and 1970s.

Sam Byrd, a librarian and musician, took on the considerable task of editing and organizing Rodger’s posts and we ran the entire gaggle of them through the editorial wringer to create a more cohesive volume that nevertheless preserved some of the spontaneity of the original posts. 

This book is going to be good. 

First, it’s going to be timely. People are interested in Sun Ra these days not only as part of a new appreciation of his music and improvised music more broadly, his role in the development of Afrofuturism, his poetry and philosophies, and his connection with the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. A few months ago, I published a review of recent work on Sun Ra and it only scratched the surface. You can read it here.

Second, despite this recent outpouring of interest, there has been remarkably little accessible engagement with his musical legacy. While any number of scholars recognize the significance of his dense and often obscure music, it remains incredibly difficult to untangle his music from its convoluted discography. In fact, Ra’s discography is so complicated that it requires a massive scholarly book by Robert L. Campbell and Chris Trent called The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (1998) that runs to nearly 500 pages. This book for all its erudition does little, however, to help the average listener appreciate, understand, or even identify key recordings from this singular musician.

Sun Ra Sundays does just that. In an accessible and conversational style, it offers a guide to Sun Ra’s music from the 1960s and 1970s with enough context to give a reader the foundation to explore more widely on their own. 

This weekend, I produced a draft of a cover for the book. It’s not a great cover right now, but I think it captures some of the informality of Sun Ra’s discography and makes a certain graphic impact. I think I want to add a kind of hieroglyphic element to the cover before we go to press probably down the right side of the page.

Trim View 2022 04 02 15 09 22

The interior book design is pretty convention visually, but incredibly challenging. Not only are there over 130 individual chapters, but they vary in length considerably.  

SRS TEST 2 pdf 2022 04 04 07 29 48

This through a spanner into my efforts to always start chapter on the recto, for example, and pushed me occasionally start a one-page chapter on the verso. Notice the slight misalignment of the line separating the chapters title from the text. I’ll have to fix this before we go to press.

SRS TEST 2 pdf 2022 04 04 07 37 10

For the record, I love Tisa OT as the font in these chapters. It not only produces an incredibly readable text block but also gives it just a bit of contemporary swagger appropriate for one of the founders of Afrofuturism.

Keep an eye out for this title later in the summer!

Three Things Thursday: Dissertations, Epoiesen, and Some Poetry

It’s almost mid-term season here and I’m eagerly awaiting the semester to enter its second half and start its long, springtime slide to completion. To help things along, I’m starting to make summer plans and, more importantly, try to wrap up a few wintertime projects before taking my usual early summer break for fieldwork, recovery, and new data. 

This week’s Three Things Thursday will focus on some simmering projects that are just about to reach a boil.

Thing the First

A number of readers asked me for more complete citations for my piece yesterday on Indian residential and boarding schools. I promise that is coming in the future (ideally by next week!), but for now I’d like to highlight a pair of dissertations and a master’s thesis that are really outstanding work and that have influenced my thinking about how archaeology (broadly construed) contributes to making visible thing at sites designed to promote the appearance of order and suppress evidence for resistance.

I found Davina Ruth Two Bears’s 2020 Berkeley dissertation “Shimásání dóó shicheii bi’ólta’ – My Grandmother’s and Grandfather’s School: The Old Leupp Boarding School, A Historic Archaeological Site on the Navajo Reservation” not only helpful, but also inspiring. Katherine Lyndsay Nichols’ University of Manitoba master’s thesis: “Investigation of Unmarked Graves and Burial Grounds at the Brandon Indian Residential School,” is remarkable work for a student at the MA level and shows the potential of collaboration between First Nation tribes and researchers on a very basic and grassroots level.

Finally, while this dissertation does involve Indian schools, Kaniqua L. Robinson’s 2018 dissertation at the University of South Florida, “The Performance of Memorialization: Politics of Memory and Memory-Making at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.” She builds on the work of the USF led team who documented the unrecorded burials of Black children at the Dozier School for Boys in South Florida. Her dissertation not only summarizes much of that work, but also considers past and future memorial practices at his site.

Thing the Second

We’re slowly getting together Epoiesen volume 5. For those who don’t know about Epoiesen (and you really should!), it is a relatively new journal edited by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa and it has really gained momentum in its fifth year. I’m especially honored to have TWO pieces in the most recent gaggle of contributions. The first is “Hearing Corwin Hall: The Archaeology of Anxiety on an American University Campus” with Michael Wittgraf and Wyatt Atchley and the second is a response to a pair of poems on Pompeii that I developed over the last few weeks on my blog while struggling with COVID recovery. 

Each year, I typeset the digital journal to give it pagination and ideally to expand its reach to people who just really prefer paper. One of the most interesting aspects of this is working with our cover template where we include a single panel visual essay. Here’s the cover for Epoiesen volume 5:

Cover Epoiesen5 DigitalFinal6x9

Thing the Third

North Dakota Quarterly 89.1/2 is almost ready for production and I’m chasing down the last few permissions and manuscripts these days. It should be a pretty cool collection with not only the usual poetry, essays, and fiction, but also a special section dedicated to translation. As we live in a world where groups and individuals often struggle to recognize one another’s shared humanity, translation offers a window into the communicative process where it becomes possible to build bridges. 

Over the last few months, I’ve been posting some content from the last issue of the Quarterly (88.3/4), but I really look forward to sharing material from the next issue soon! 

Graeber and Wengrow or I Like Big Books

My holiday reading consisted of wading my way (almost!) through David Graeber and David Wengrow’s massive book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). I like the book and I like their argument and I’m hoping that it spurs a wide ranging discussion of how our views of the past shape how we imagine the present and the future.

I’m not going to review this book in part because people much wiser and more engaged than I am have already started to think about its arguments. In short, Graeber and Wengrow argue against the idea that early societies developed from small, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers into larger, hierarchical societies organized around settled agriculture and settled in towns and cities. The demonstrated that evidence exists, often from indigenous sources and archaeology, that reveals a far wider range of social, political, and economic organization than the linear narrative of development would suggest. In fact, they argue that the linear narrative which situated egalitarian societies as precursors to more rigidly organized hierarchies derived from Enlightenment encounters with indigenous peoples who Europeans deemed inferior. As a result, European thinkers located absolutist monarchies and other forms of authoritarian governments as superior and more developed than the more egalitarian forms they encountered in the Americas. And, making a long story rather shorter (and more on this later), Graeber and Wengrow argued that this initial conceit effectively suppressed evidence for the wide variation in forms of political organization in the past. More egalitarian forms of social organization often appeared side-by-side with more autocratic forms either seasonally within the same society or amid different groups who occupied the same region.  

It is clear that a book of this size and scope, written by authors of such significant standing, will generate debate. In fact, my social media feed is already simmering with comments from people engaging with this book at present. One of the more intriguing questions centers on the intended audience for a book like this. I suspect that readers like me are the intended audience. While I have some experience as a field archaeologist, I’m hardly a specialist in the periods and regions that Graeber and Wengrow discuss. As a result, I understand how archaeology works as a discipline both on the ground and in terms of the discourse, and this understanding reinforces the plausibility of their arguments and emphasizes the subversive character of their approach.

More than that, the book is long. While the writing style is accessible, it requires both time and patience to wade through their arguments and explore their citations. This is not a casual book or one that lends itself to recreational reading necessarily. In fact, I’d argue that its length is both a strength and weakness. 

As a weakness, it is clear that the book was not necessarily well edited. I don’t mean that it wasn’t edited well at the level of copy editing. It feels as polished in this department as one might expect from a trade book. Instead, I mean that the book proceeded casually and without any clear impulse for efficiency in argument. It was not quite discursive, although at times you could almost feel the authors pulling back from a thread that they would have liked to pursue, perhaps to the detriment of their larger argument. But it wasn’t an efficient book and in that way resembles the inefficiency of books like Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome (2019)

In this reflects a choice by the authors and publishers. Part of this is likely a choice on the part of the authors to publish the book when it was done rather than when it was finished (and as someone going through revisions right now, I understand that). It was also probably the product of David Graeber’s untimely death and the desire to preserve a sense of the moment in the book (which emerged from conversations between the authors over the course of decades). There is no doubt that a lightly edited book is more economical to produce than one that requires a series of significant interventions. This is true both for authors and publishers.

On the other hand, it might be that long books also have other values as well. They do impart a kind of seriousness to an argument through their scale alone. A book the purports to write a new history of humanity should be big as humans have been around for quite a while and existing histories of humanities would fill an entire library. For a non-specialist reader (like myself) the size of the book reinforces the scale and scope of the authors’ argument and for a casual reader it serves to communicate the utmost seriousness and weightiness of this topic.

Big books, however discursive and loosely bound they may be, remain an appropriate outlet for weighty ideas produced by major and serious scholars. Thus, they not only offer a model of efficient scholarly production, but they also present an icon of serious, substantial, and important scholarship (which unsurprisingly come from two major, male, senior scholars).  

Free Books for Cyber Monday!

I can think of no better way to spend the digital hellscape that is Cyber Monday, than downloading and reading free stuff from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

To make this easier and a bit more fun, we’ve put together some download bundles full of good books that you can download absolutely free:

First, you can grab all of our archaeology titles with one click here including Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Siegfried’s latest book, Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. Download it here.

Then, you can grab all our titles that have to deal with North Dakota with one click here including Kyle Conway’s innovated volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. Download it here.

Then, you can check download all of our books that deal with critical issues including Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s historical and savory edited volume Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook! Download it here.

Finally, if you want to think more broadly and creatively about our world, check out this packet of books from The Digital Press and our creative partners at Epoiesen and North Dakota QuarterlyDownload it here.

Oh, and if you just want all the books that we’ve published ever. Click here for a 1.6 GB megapack.

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If the very idea of cyber anything gives you hives, you can always get books from The Digital Press at and most of our titles are available from as well. allows you to support local bookstores when you buy a copy of Deserted Villages, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust, and One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920.  


Finally, if you want something really cool to make you cyber Monday less obnoxiously consumer, check out this preview of Rebecca Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist.

Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

Get it here.

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