A Writer’s Tools of Her Trade: The Importance of a Good Pencil Case and Calendar

When I turned thirteen, my Mom gave me a pencil case. I was starting junior high school (högstadiet) in the fall and would no longer have my own desk where I could keep my stuff. Instead I would be given a locker and carry everything I needed from class to class. I used that pencil case throughout junior high and high school (gymnasiet), as a university student and beyond until the summer of 2019 when the zipper broke irreparably.

I immediately set out to find a new pencil case. Since I am a historian and book critic of history and speculative fiction, I needed a pencil case that suited my professional needs in more ways than one.

First of all, the pencil case needed to be soft. When history and writing are your line of work, you are a writer, a scholar, and a teacher all at the same time. This means that your pencil case needs to hold a large amount of stuff of different shapes and sizes. In my case, this stuff consists of pens, pencils, whiteboard markers and highlighters of different colors, erasers, and small cases of 0.5 HB graphite rods (or “leads”) for my mechanical pencil.

Second, the pencil case needed to have a historical and/or speculative fiction theme. Museum gift shops are an often-overlooked resource for fun, innovative, and unique things, and after much searching among various online museum shops, I found what I was looking for at University of Oxfords’ Bodleian Library: a soft pencil case with a picture from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, painted by the author himself. The pencil case was part of the official Tolkien merchandise collection, and it was absolutely perfect. Because I had to order it from England, the postage cost nearly as much as the pencil case itself and the delivery took nearly six weeks.

After using this pencil case for a year now, I can tell you that it was time and money well spent.

Passion Planner and The Hobbit pencil case.

Around the same time that my old trusted pencil case kicked the bucket, I also realized that I needed to get a new calendar. When I became a university student, the pocket-sized calendars I’d used as a high school student didn’t suit my needs anymore. So I moved on to the professional calendar that was all the rage at the time–the Filofax.

The Filofax is a clever type of professional calendar in that you purchase a cover that doubles as a binder. Inside the cover, you fasten an annual paper calendar, which you at the end of the year remove and replace with the paper calendar of the next year. The cover and the paper calendars are available in different types. My Filofax was a medium-sized cover in green calf leather, and the calendar I used was the Swedish (sometimes pan-Scandinavian) weekly spread starting on Mondays that also came with a political world map, a time zone world map, national holidays for all countries in the world, an address book, and extra pages for note taking.

I continued using the Filofax after I moved to the US, but using a Swedish calendar when you no longer live in Sweden is actually not a good idea. But, when you are in the habit of doing something and that habit still works for you, why change it?

Last year, I realized that I hardly used my Filofax anymore. Instead, I used note pads for lists and appointments while the Filofax lay untouched for days. At the same time, I was writing articles and book reviews for magazines and online publications. Instead of writing down deadlines and other information I needed to keep track of in the Filofax, I used the Excel spread sheet I had originally created to keep track of my pitches and submissions.

Whereas finding a new pencil case proved tricky and required a couple of months of searching, finding a new calendar turned out to be easy. I remembered a conversation on the Slack channel hosted by an online book site where I used to be a Contributor where my fellow Contributors were raving about a calendar known as the Passion Planner. From experience I knew to trust the judgment of this particular group of people, so without further ado I got myself a Passion Planner.

The Passion Planner I ordered was the large-sized, black classic Passion Planner with one week per spread that starts on Sundays. It was a bit pricey, I thought, when I placed my order, but then again, I had just ordered a pencil case from England because it answered to my needs, so I decided to take a chance, despite the cost.

Reader, I am very happy that I took that chance. After one year with the Passion Planner, I no longer use note pads and the Excel spread sheet is only for tracking pitches (whatever few there are during the pandemic). Also, I find it easier to get an overview of what I need to do each week than I did with the Filofax. In fact, I am so happy with my Passion Planner that I ordered my Planner for 2021 already in September.

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

Book Review Round-Up

I’ve been reviewing some interesting books for Foreword Reviews lately, and I thought I’d share those reviews with you. Hopefully they will introduce you to books you might be interested in reading. Enjoy!

 

Mary McAuliffe, Paris, City of Dreams. Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Creation of Paris. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
The re-creation of Paris from a medieval urban maze to the city of lights and boulevards comes to life in Mary McAuliffe’s historical exposé Paris, City of Dreams.

 

 

 

Sam Van Schaik, Buddhist Magic. Divination, Healing, and Enchantment through the Ages (Shambala Publications, 2020).
Sam Van Schaik’s historical investigation Buddhist Magic reveals the significance and historical roots of magic in modern Buddhism.

 

 

 

 

Lynn M. Hudson, West of Jim Crow. The Fight against California’s Color Line. (University of Illinois Press, 2020).
California’s history of racist legislation against Black Americans is brought to light in Lynn M. Hudson’s West of Jim Crow.

 

 

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

I Was Interviewed for National Geographic

man wearing mask sitting down and holding newspaper with fire

Photo by Ashutosh Sonwani on Pexels.com

Catch me on National Geographic.com where I am quoted in the article “Why Every Year–But Especially 2020–Feels Like The Worst Ever.” The article is about how and why we perceive the times we live in as either the best of times or the worst of times at the same time.

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

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.

960px-Achaemenid_Empire_at_its_greatest_extent_according_to_Oxford_Atlas_of_World_History_2002

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.

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.