Three books to help you understand right now

I promised this year some book recommendations as part of my little blogging experiment, but I’m going to apologize in advance: a lot of what I read (and, in some cases, listen to) aren’t exactly cheerful, but they definitely end up being incredibly informative on a lot of levels. I’ve decided to start with the three books below because in many, many ways they help to frame the situation that we are currently living in today–in the case of one of them, have been living in since at least 2016 and in the case of the other two, since roughly March of 2020. If you prefer listening to these books rather than reading them, all are available via Audible and the voice performance on each is excellent.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

How Democracies Die is one of those books that I have not stopped recommending to people since I read it. Coincidentally, I read it as part of a political science class focusing on democracy and authoritarianism and the discussions my class had regarding this book were probably as good as the book itself was (which speaks highly of the quality of conversation that we had in the class). Levitsky and Ziblatt are political scientists who have written academically on competitive authoritarian regimes and the trajectory of governments in Latin America and the post-Soviet bloc, so they definitely know what they’re talking about as they approach the question of democracy–in this case, the threats faced by purportedly strong democracies like the United States, which is their primary focus for this work. They take time to explain the norms and practices of democracy in the United States, describing the “guardrails” of governance and the changes over time within American government. While some of the suggestions they’ve made at the end of the book do not seem to be as possible as they might have been when the book was released three years ago (January 2018), the book is chock full of explanations of how we got to where we’re at and insights onto how to fix at least some of the problems we’re facing.

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

This is one of two books on the 1918 flu that I’ve listened to recently–coincidentally, the second book I started listening to on the subject and the first one that I finished. Because the 1918 flu is a research interest of mine, I had actually consumed this book well before the pandemic began, then returned to it this summer for a second time through. Pale Rider is extremely accessible for those who are maybe not as fascinated by the historical minutia of how the state of medicine changed in the early twentieth century, offering up the various theories on where the flu started, how it spread, why it came to be called “the Spanish Flu,” and how it affected ordinary people. It gives an incredible overview on the subject and represents an excellent entry-level book to the subject.

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

In contrast to Pale Rider, The Great Influenza offers a much deeper dive into the history of medicine in the early twentieth century, the science behind combatting the 1918 flu, and how the flu not only reshaped society, but reshaped medicine, especially in the United States. Barry has been in the news on and off throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (I remember reading a few articles he wrote for the Washington Post on the subject throughout 2020) because of his expertise. The Great Influenza is definitely a much thicker, more academic tome than Pale Rider, but it is just as fascinating, if not moreso. The information it provides, too, offers insights into the current behavior of a lot of people in the United States currently suffering major pandemic fatigue–and explains why so many have wanted to deny the severity of the illness in the first place.

All three of the above books offer insights into where we’ve been in the past year. I didn’t find them too depressing–the latter two were much more fascinating than depressing, but I also read both before the pandemic actually started. None of them are necessarily for the faint of heart, but I would suggest that all three are essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about the functioning of American democracy vis-a-vis competitive authoritarian regimes or about the 1918 flu.

MAA conference postmortem – part 1

So, it’s been a while since I updated, and now seems to be a decent time to do it!  I’ve been buried under thesis work, the job, GMing, and various other pursuits recently so updating the blog hasn’t been high on the list of things to do.  Hopefully, that’ll change pretty quick (yeah right, but we can hope).

I spent this weekend in New Haven, CT, for the 85th annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (which apparently has a blog now).  I met a lot of very neat people, including future colleagues, and most of the men and women I met this weekend, quite a few of them luminaries in the field, were personable and very lovely.  As a result of this meeting, University of Toronto, York University (Canada), Northwestern, St. Louis University, Cambridge University (UK), Harvard, and Yale have been added to the list of prospective schools.  Loyola, U Chicago, Fordham, and Brown remain on the list.  U of M has been dropped.

The conference itself was hosted on the campus of lovely Yale University, which was simply amazing (I’ll post pictures in the second installment of the post-mortem, as well as to the MedGrad Facebook group, as promised, since most folks weren’t carrying cameras).  The campus is beautiful and New Haven itself was a very neat place to visit.  If I get the opportunity to come again, I most certainly will.

Currently sitting in the Starbucks at the corner of Church and Chapel (yes, there’s an intersection of Church and Chapel!) and killing time before I have to catch my shuttle to Bradley International to fly back to Detroit this evening.  I find myself thinking about all the very, very cool people I’ve met here, including Simon Meecham-Jones (whom I sat with at banquet on Friday), Nancy Partner (who advised me to read something more current than her Serious Entertainments, though I didn’t get the chance to ask her what I should read instead!), Barbara Newman (who told me to definately, definately, with much enthusiasm look at Northwestern for my Ph.D program after her panel on female devotional life and haigography on Thursday afternoon), Katherine Sale, some lovely people from UCLA, Fordham, and Sacred Heart, and Michael McCormick, who was probably the most enthusiastic scholar I met all weekend (Barbara Newman and a couple others ran fairly close seconds).  He encouraged me to at least apply to the Harvard graduate program, even though it’s very competitive.  Such a nice man, and he’s developing a program in archaeology that would be awesome for me–someday, if I’m not locked into a job or otherwise someplace!  And he introduced himself to me and two other graduate students (whose names, I regret, I don’t remember!  I remember my male dining companions (Joseph and Eric),  but not theirs except to remember that one was from Ohio State University and the other was here at Yale and a first year graduate student) directly after the banquet on Friday night, as we were preparing to hike back to our hotels after missing the shuttles from the Commons to the hotels.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet the medievalist from Brown I’d intended to meet, but I’m sure that Tom (one of her graduate students that I did have the pleasure of meeting) can probably introduce me via e-mail to her at some point in the future if I ask.

Note to self: must get on the MedGrad list.

I’ve been seriously encouraged by everyone here to go to the Kalamazoo conference, the Medieval Institute conference, in May.  It would be significantly less expensive than this trip, but I have to consider the feasability of taking the time off from work, ect.  Jeff and Sebastian, amongst others, attempted to make the decision for me with regards to it (Jeff’s goodbye to me was a hug and the statement “I’ll see you in Kalamazoo.”).  It was nice to actually meet Tom and Miti in person at the conference, and I’m sure I met even more people that I’ll come to know better on the MedGrad list.

There’s some observations that have to be made about medievalists, at least of my academic generation, and I’ll make them here.  (1) It seems that most of us, in some capacity or another, write fiction (which is hysterical).  (2) Most of us, on top of the fiction, are gamers (and several are GMs).  (3) Oftentimes, we dress more…sharply? than some of our older colleagues in our fields.  I guess when you get to be pretty eminent in your field, however, you can wear whatever you want.  (4) Many of us are very interdisciplinary in our approach.  (5) We’re pretty much more tech-savvy than most of our elders (and by elders, I mean most scholars 10+ years older than us).  Why use powerpoint if you don’t know how to use the software?  Really.  Really!  There were some people who were very, very good with it, and then there were some people…yeeeah.

Silly me, I ended up in a couple panels that concentrated on the Old English language, though I don’t actually regret going to them–they were extremely interesting.  Some of my favorite papers, however, came out of panels dedicated to Jewish-Christian relations (I went to that one almost on a whim) and two papers dealing with medieval forests (one with the relationship between managed forests and romance and the other on the legalities of medieval forestry in the Champagne region of France).  The conference, in short, was amazing, and I wish I had more time to go into greater depth regarding everything I learned, took notes on, ect.  I wasn’t the only one at the conference here to shop Ph.D programs.  There were a couple undergraduates that I spent some time with and some graduate students who, like me, are doing terminal programs and currently shopping around for their later programs (Annie, who I met last night and then took a tour with this morning, was one of those — she’s at UConn; I want to say her undergrad was at Rutgers).

There was a very interesting panel where I met Dr. Martin Foys and got to speak with him later regarding the Digital Mappaemundi Project, which was fascinating and amazing all at once.  It may not help me yet, but it’ll help our intellectual children and grandchildren–hopefully.  It’s one of those things that makes me lament the relative unavailability of primary source material on the internet and our dependence on other people’s money and whims to get those sort of sources digitized so everyone can benefit from what’s currently languishing dustily away in repositories across the world–things like the Lollard archives, which are relatively unexplored except for a select few documents, and are something that perhaps will never really be studied all that well considering the geographic limitations on archival research.  Not everyone can drop everything (and several thousand dollars) on research trips to European archives or even to US archives.  It’s very frustrating and a shame.

On a side note (and very tangentially related): the book rooms (yes, there were three, but they were classrooms, thus small) were amazing and I probably bought too many, though two of them, at the very least, will be very useful to my thesis research and another will probably be quite useful as I move foward in my studies.  I also got two free books this weekend–one was swag from a panel my one of the grad student friends I made went to (he didn’t want the book/already had it/something) and the other was a preview copy of a book that I assume is coming out later.

I also have copious handouts from the conference, at least one of which is going to be mailed to Mr. Fry of Dear God What Have We Wrought?! because he’ll find it utterly fascinating (and will probably be jealous that I met and spoke with as many scholars of Old English as I did this weekend, Fred C. Robinson being amongst them).  I’ll make a medievalist of him yet, I’m certain, and he’ll probably freak out to learn that there’s entire programs in Old English (I seem to recall him being bummed that they weren’t going to be spending a lot of time on Anglo-Saxon and Old English in his History of the English Language class).

I have two books tucked into my bag to read on the plane, though it remains to be seen whether I read either of them.  Surprisingly enough, mentioning at dinner to Simon Meecham-Jones that I was reading Lesley Coote’s Political Prophecy in Later Medieval England got me the name of someone (I presume at Cambridge) that’s working on a book on politicla prophecy right now to potentially contact.  He was a very cool guy to sit and have dinner with (we were seated at a far end of the room; a Dr. Bugbee from University of Texas – Austin was sitting there with us as well and a six students, including me).  My only gripe about the banquet was that the filet mignon was too pepper-encrusted (usually, when they say pepper-encrusted, it doesn’t set my mouth on fire.  This more than certainly did.).

The Commons, which I’ll post a picture of later, reminded everyone (and I do mean everyone) of Hogwart’s when they walked in.  It was very cool.  It was also, apparently, where they filmed the library scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.  Very, very cool.

That’s about all I have time for now — most post-mortem after I’m back in Michigan!

Never say never

Never let it be said that when you write your thesis or your dissertation that no one will read it in the future, since that’s simply not the case.  I have yet to e-mail the advisor on this particular thesis, but I’ll let the cat out of the bag right now:  I’m fascinated by a Ph.D thesis out of the University of Minnesota from 2004.  The thesis in question is on St. George of England and English national identity–a subject I’ll at the very least touch on in my own thesis on the uses of the Arthurian legend during the reigns of Edward I (r. 1272-1307), Edward II (r. 1307-1327), and Edward III (r. 1327-1377), since the sense of identity and “Englishness” plays a role in why the image of King Arthur was used during these reigns.

Amusingly (as almost a side note) the thesis cites my advisor’s work on pilgrimages and miracles in the first chapter.  Go figure (then again, totally not surprised, since it is a saint’s cult and the image of the patron saint of England that’s being discussed in the thesis, after all).

In any case, it’s bloody hard to borrow anyone’s thesis–really, really hard, since most universities don’t lend them.  I have to shoot an e-mail to the history department at the University of Minnesota to thank them so much for letting me borrow this text.  I’ve already found quite a few references that I’ve ordered or will be pulling from Kresge Library at OU so I can take a peek at them based on what he’s gleaned out of them for his work–things that it seems to me may well be important for my work.

So, wherever you are, Dr. Jonathan Good — thank you.  You wrote a monster of a dissertation, and I’m very pleased to have had the chance to read it.

Basic update – 2.18.09

So the rough page count on the thesis stands at fifteen, including a page of figures (which is actually just a map from Caroline Shenton’s fantastic article from EHR 114).  About…hm.  Half of that is actual things written that I’ve thought through and mulled over in my brain.  All single spaced.  Still a ton of work to do, though — a huge, major ton of work to do, which may either commence tonight or tomorrow morning, I’ll decide after I’m done writing this (the sister brought me coffee from Starbucks, so I’m going to be up for a wihle longer, that’s for certain).  As for Epsilon, the count stands at six and a half pages (a shade over 4,000 words) on draft 3.5 (waiting on feedback from a couple folks on the beginning; I’ve been scribbling notes in a notebook like crazy for a couple weeks, though).  Not a bad start, considering I hadn’t really touched it in more than a year.  Things are looking to become far darker and strangely more interesting the more I stew over concepts and ideas for the story.

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