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

photo of golden cogwheel on black background

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.

U 29 Hillersjöhällen

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.