The Book by Keith Houston. Or, In Praise of the Lone Genius and How to Erase the Persian Empire from History

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The ruins of Persepolis, Iran. Persepolis was one of the capital cities of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Source: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=655691

What would you say is the greatest invention of the Middle Ages?

To me the answer is obvious.

The greatest invention of the Middle Ages is the book.

Or rather, the codex, to use its technical term.

A codex is a stack of folded sheets, made from papyrus, parchment or paper, collated along one side to form a spine and then placed within a protective casing made from wood or thick paper. In other words, what we today call a book.

The reason why codex is the technical term for a book is that “book” is a collective term for different types of objects that serve as repositories for writing, either printed or by hand. Other such objects are clay tablets and scrolls made from papyrus or parchment. The codex itself can be divided into several different types, such as illuminated manuscripts (handwritten on parchment during the Middle Ages), incunabula (books printed before the year 1500), or chapbooks and pamphlets (cheap pocket-sized printed books popular during the 17th and 18th centuries).

41UHen-IwaLThe history of the codex is a fascinating one. So fascinating in fact that Keith Houston decided to dedicate an entire book to the history of the book. His book is called The Book. The subtitle is A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time.

I agree with Houston that the book is a powerful object. Even though the physical format of the book is ever changing–from clay tablet to scroll to codex to digital tablet–the book itself endures. However, Houston’ book is not a book about the book. It’s a book about the history of how a book is made, with particular emphasis on the development of printing techniques.

Houston starts his narrative in Ancient Mesopotamia and the invention of writing, without which there would be no books. He then moves through history and discusses the inventions of papyrus, parchment, and paper; the making of ink; the development of writing as an everyday mode of communication; and the development of printing presses in China and in Europe.

At this point, Houston makes a jump in time and in content. Instead of discussing the book as a powerful object during the Early Modern Period with the advent of the chapbook and the pamphlet, without which there would not have been an English Civil War nor an American Revolution, no liberal democracy, no Freedom of the Press Acts or demands for free speech and social equality, Houston instead falls into the rabbit hole of the mechanics of printing. The siren song of the story of the lone male genius is powerful, and Houston steers his ship right towards its rocky shore.

If Houston is to believed, four Ancient civilizations contributed to the development of what was to become the codex–China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. China’s inventions are recognized but their actual influence on Europe is questioned. Mesopotamia and Egypt serve as conduits towards the achievements of Greece and Rome, here presented as European civilizations which, in turn, upholds the out dated argument that Mesopotamia and Egypt were somehow European as well.

The traditionalist Eurocentrism of Houston’s historical summary causes him to dedicate two pages to dismissing the significance of the Phoenicians and their alphabet with the purpose of maintaining the link between modern English and Egypt as a “European” civilization. And, he skips over the one Ancient civilization that did more for normalizing the use of writing in everyday communications than any other, namely Persia.

The Persian Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BCE) was the largest empire of the Ancient world. From its heartland in present-day Iran, the Achaemenids ruled a territory that reached from the shores of the Levant and North Africa to the Indus Valley in northern India. They kept this vast territory together through an intense letter exchange between the ruler of the empire, the King of Kings, and the satraps, or governors, of the empire’s many provinces.

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Notice the King’s Highway/Via Maris between Susa and Sardis that for millennia connected the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean. In the Persian Empire, this road served as the backbone for government communications through letter writing. By Original creator: MossmapsCorrections according to Oxford Atlas of World History 2002, The Times Atlas of World History (1989), Philip’s Atlas of World History (1999) by पाटलिपुत्र (talk) – This file was derived from: The Achaemenid Empire at its Greatest Extent.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73745174

When Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire, he kept the system of satraps and the network of communications, which after the Successor Wars became part of the states of the Hellenistic kingdoms. As Hellenism spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, other states and empires became Hellenized as well, among them Rome.

If you ask Houston, the history related in the above paragraphs never took place. According to him, letter writing as a means of state communication that led to the normalization of writing for everyday communication happened in Rome.

Within the history view put forward by Houston, this makes sense. Persia was the enemy of Greece, and Houston has obviously only read the Greek view of the Persians. He sees Rome as the foundation of European civilization, even though the Rome he is referring to was long gone by the time an idea of “Europe” began to take shape. Mesopotamia and Egypt are there to pave the way for what was to come.

Keith Houston’s The Book falls into the trap of the lone genius and provides a cherry-picked overview of the history of the codex.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

Range by David Epstein. A Book on How to Reinvent the Wheel.

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

Whenever I am asked what I do for a living, I say that I am a historian, nothing more nothing less. Most other historians I know are more specific in their reply. They can mention the time period they are experts in–medievalist, early-modernist, ancient. Or, they state the geographical region–Americanist, Europeanist, Africanist. Sometimes they mention the specific field of research to which they dedicate their professional life–literary history, language history, art history, Church history, to name a few.

Taken together, my work as a teacher and a scholar covers a time period of 5,000 years, it spans a geographical area that reaches from Scandinavia to Canada, the Arctic, Central Asia and North Africa, and it crosses disciplinary boundaries.

If I were to declare myself to be anything, I would say that I am a general historian. A generalist, I suppose. And if you ask author David Epstein, it’s us generalists who hold the future in the palm of our hand.

9780735214484In his book Range. Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein argues that the generalist has a greater chance at success than the specialist. Generalists are masters of more than one complex issue. They are well-versed in more than one field. They are skilled at handling people. They seek out environments that will spark their creativity and make them think outside their usual box. They ask broad questions. They use critical thinking. All this knowledge provides them with experiences that make them unique and irreplaceable, while the specialist becomes a highly skilled person working at an advanced conveyor belt. A 21st century version of the Renaissance Man vs Taylorism, if you will.

According to Epstein, if you want to be successful, it is better to go wide than to dig deep.  Epstein argues that society would be better suited for the challenges of the 21st century if children and young adults were allowed to receive a broad education where they are only allowed to specialize late, if at all.

The problem with Epstein’s argument is not the argument itself, but the evidence he provides. To make his point, Epstein uses case studies, which are all in support of his argument. None of them adds a critical stance, which would have added heft to Epstein’s own thinking. After all, an argument without a counterargument is not an argument; it’s an opinion. And if there is no counterpoint, then how can we asses the validity of the point being made?

Epstein’s case is further weakened by the fact that his case studies come from the worlds of sports, finance, STEM, and business. Not one case study is from the liberal arts or humanities. Why is this important? Because what Epstein spends almost 300 pages arguing in favor of is an education in the liberal arts, and he does this without mentioning liberal arts, or the humanities, even once.

In other words, Range claims to point out a path to the future but what it does is reveal the one-sidedness and the lack of a generalist approach inherent in the person of its own author. Instead of advocating in favor of the liberal arts, a generalist education program invented during the Middle Ages and still taught in universities across the United States, the only thing that Epstein and Range actually achieve is arguing in favor of reinventing the wheel.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

The Dark Fantastic. A Groundbreaking Book on Race in Children’s Literature.

We have all heard the saying.

Catch them while they are young.

Focus on the children and you will build the future you want to see. But what is that future you claim to be building? Are you building a future for change? Or is it a future that maintains a status quo that serves some groups over others?

In publishing, the issue of the future comes to the fore in children’s literature. In 2014, the non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books was founded in response to a publishing industry that publishes children’s book that fail to address the diverse experience of what it is to be a child in the United States today. The purpose of WNDB is to “help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Since its foundation, WNDB has helped shape the conversation on diversity in children’s literature, highlighting the good work that is being done and exposing the instances when children’s literature perpetuates racism, ableism, and gender discrimination.

71cPAgR+hKLIn 2019, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Associate Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the conversation with her groundbreaking book The Dark Fantastic. Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (New York University Press, 2019. Paperback, September 2020).

By taking a closer look at the representation of race in fantasy, Dr. Thomas cracks open the thick shell of the genre’s deep legacy of non-inclusivity and racism.  Dr. Thomas picks apart the massively popular franchises of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries and reveals their use of race, which, on the surface, looks like an empowerment of Black characters, but which at closer scrutiny is only more of the same.

The Dark Fantastic is a groundbreaking book for several reasons. First, it is one of few academic publications to discuss race in children’s literature. Second, to my knowledge, it is the only such publication to take fandom into account as an authentic source. Third, in addition to revealing children’s literature and publishing’s relationship to race, it simultaneously shines a light on racism in the genre of fantasy as a whole. Fourth, it presents a Theory of the Dark Fantastic and in so doing moves the field of research forward in that it provides future scholars and authors with a framework in which to position the work of their own as well as that of others.

The Dark Fantastic is a groundbreaking book on race in children’s literature that exposes and highlights while charting a way for the future of children’s literature.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

Valkyrie. Excellent New Book on Women of the Viking Age.

Sometime during the second half of the 11th century, a Swedish woman named Gerlög went to Torbjörn the Skald and asked him to do something for her. Gerlög’s daughter Inga had recently died, and as Inga’s only living relative, Gerlög came to inherit her own daughter. To avoid any accusations of having come into her inheritance by unlawful means, Gerlög needed to make a public statement of the course of events that led up to her inheriting Inga. Torbjörn the Skald was knowledgeable in runes, and this is the message that Gerlög hired him to carve into the bedrock.

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The Hillersjö Hill where Gerlög explains how she came to inherit her daughter, Inga. Source: U 29, the Swedish National Heritage Board.

Interpret, you! Germund was given Gerlög as his wife when she was a maiden. Then they had a son, before he (Germund) drowned. And the son died after. Then she was given Gudrik as her husband. He… this… Then they had children. But only one girl survived; her name was Inga. Her Ragnfast in Snottsta was given as his wife. Soon after he died and then the son. And the mother (Inga) came to inherit her son. Then she was given Erik as her husband. Soon after she died. Then Gerlög came to inherit Inga, her daughter. Torbjörn the Skald carved the runes.

9781788314770This inscription is known as the Hillersjö Hill (Hillersjöhällen) and is included in Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s new book Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020). Valkyrie is a history of the Viking Age that places the women of the time at the center of the story.

The Viking Age is commonly viewed as a time dominated by men where women are barely visible, but Viking society couldn’t function without a tight relationship between men and women. To run a farm, both men and women were needed, which means that women participated in those supposedly all-male Viking expeditions that invaded and settled all the way from Newfoundland in North America to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. Because without both men and women working together, those settlements wouldn’t have survived and the iconic Viking ships wouldn’t have been able to set sail.

Jóhanna’s contribution to the study of Viking history and society is immense. In her book, she successfully views the Viking Age from the point of view of its women and in doing so, she refreshingly and unapologetically pushes Viking men to the side.

Her use of source material is broad. In addition to using the sagas, she also uses rune carvings, grave goods, and other archaeological artifacts. Personally, I appreciate the inclusion of the rune carvings seeing as they are the only texts where the Vikings speak to us directly, many of them women like Gerlög. Rune carvings are mainly found in Sweden and using them as source material broadens the view of the Viking world, which all too often ends up focused on the British Isles, France, and Iceland in translation.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World provides a new perspective on old knowledge by letting Viking Age women take center stage and speak to us in their own voices.

In the words of my friend the Australian, I shall return.

 

The Puzzle of the Banquet Hall of the Dukes. A peer-reviewed article in History and Theory

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Akershus Castle, Oslo, Norway. King Haakon V (r. 1299–1319) began construction on the castle during the first year of his reign in 1299. Haakon V is the father of Duchess Ingeborg Haakonsdaughter, whose wedding in 1312 is at the center of my article published in History and Theory (1:2020). Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I have a research article in the latest issue (1:2020) of the peer-reviewed journal History & Theory (Wiley). In this article I am studying how incorrect facts survive the transition from pre-scientific scholarly work to scientific scholarly work and consequently become labeled as truth. The paywall that this article is usually behind has been lowered so here’s an opportunity to read the article while it’s available.

If you wish to read the article in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.