Friday, December 21, 2018

Book Review: The History Manifesto by David Armitage and Jo Guldi

A lot more academics call for better public engagement and more creative academic thinking than actually do better public engagement and more creative academic thinking. The History Manifesto practices what it preaches. As an academic (far) outside the field of history, I was able to digest this short book easily and to grasp the authors' description of the movements of thought in the field -- the history of history.

They argue that in the latter half of the 20th century, long-term history gave way to focused microhistories, and that long-term history is coming back. They don't argue that microhistories should go away, but that the tools developed for such deep-dives into archival materials can now be applied to longer spans of time and bigger datasets. Microhistory in massive parallel, if you will.

I think they're right, and I especially appreciate the well-chosen examples of what they're talking about. As a chemist who constantly strays into geological and biological history, I am all for the parallel movement in natural history (although I was hoping to find a little more inspiration for my own natural history thoughts than I did here). If anything, their critiques of evolutionary biology should be more intense.

The only thing that tugs at me is a sense that they already know where their field will lead -- that the conclusions of new history will take down the ideas of those rival laissez-faire economists who always show up as dramatic foils in this narrative. Awareness of your own biases is crucial when designing these new historical studies and this book is more about inspiring new methods than in cautioning on the wrong turns that can be taken when implementing new methods. They're basically arguing that "cliometrics" should return as a data-driven historical field of study (while arguing that the ones really qualified to interpret such data must be trained historians) but they also honestly present the fact that the first studies to use this term back in the 70s were embarrassingly flawed. Why were they flawed? I would like to dig down more into how these flaws can be prevented from happening. Most of all, I want to be surprised by the data, so "knowing the result before it starts" is something to avoid.

The only reason I can even make a critique like that is because this book genuinely talks about important and foundational issues, and that's the sign of a good book.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

I read this book on the recommendation of an online review in which the reader said she was "haunted" by the book. Although it's not my usual genre I wanted to see what was so "haunting" about it. I'm not haunted but analytical: I file it away as genuine data for what it's like to be a 38-year-old woman adrift in longing and void, and how we're returning to a world haunted by pagan ghosts. It's well written: the narrator is a spot-on character with a strong voice, as the plot veers through comic and tragic episodes, as well as philosophical and downright carnal episodes. The transposition of Greek mythology into the modern day in the form of a long-lived elemental man-fish whom the narrator falls in love with is done well, and I appreciate how it affects the narrator's thesis-writing on Sappho. The story is always conscious of how this is derivative from and a critique of the Twilight genre. Its central theme is solid: the modern tragedy of complete freedom from everything (including meaning). But it's a theme that the conclusion doesn't quite live up to, verging on after-school special resolution mechanisms. And I feel like this reveals that I'm just not the target audience here, but all the sex scenes started to get boring, which I think/hope was intended? You know, NOT for kids. This spells out modern (er, post-modern, double er, post-post-modern) problems precisely, but it's asking so many questions that it never gets around to the answers. I was much more "haunted" by the similar-but-different story Fire Sermon, and got a much bigger picture of the problems of modern love and technological app-romance from Why Love Hurts. But this book more or less does what it sets out to do, and I always have to admire that.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book Review: The Evolution of Desire by Cynthia L. Haven

I was drawn into reading Girard by the first section of this book, which I read on Church Life Journal as part of my daily regimen of blog reading. On the strength of this and other mentions of Girard from authors as diverse as Richard Beck and Amos Yong, I read The Girard Reader and then Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. When I started, I wondered if Haven's comparison of Girard's theory to Schliemann's discovery of Troy was unfair. After reading these three books, I think it is unfair -- in its generosity to Schliemann. Girard's accomplishment is the greater of the two.

Haven's book must be the best introduction to Girard for a general reader. A few quibbles: It gets a little too bogged down in the politics of the conference Girard helped organize that introduced Derrida to America, and it could hold Girard's feet to the fire a little more than it does. I feel like Girard's Wikipedia page is more critical than this book. The thing is, I think Girard's theory more or less endures all the criticism thrown at it. But before this book existed, I would have doubted that someone could write it. Yet here it is. I'd like to know what someone thinks for whom this is the very first exposure to Girard, and maybe I'll give it as a Christmas gift? Friends, you've been warned.