Catch me on the Media-Eval Podcast.

Source: Media-eval.

During the last week of August, I had the great pleasure of speaking to fellow medievalist Sarah Ifft Decker, host and show runner of the podcast Media-eval. Media-eval is a podcast about the Middle Ages in popular culture, but our conversation took a slightly different path.

Instead of talking about a movie or a TV show, we talked about what it is like to be a public medievalist while also being a working medievalist in academia. What are the challenges of straddling these sometimes diametrically opposed worlds? What are the benefits? How do we develop our voices in the public square while at the same time staying true to our ideals as scholars?

Click here to listen to our conversation on Soundcloud. You will also find Media-eval wherever you get your podcasts.

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


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The Diaspora and the Tyranny of the Primary Source. A Review of Judith Jesch’s THE VIKING DIASPORA

Beginning sometime during the late eighth century, people left Scandinavia in large numbers to raid, trade, and settle elsewhere. The Viking world, as we now call the area across which this movement of people took place, ended up reaching from North America in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east, the Arctic Ocean in the north, and the Mediterranean in the south.

The people who settled in different places across the Viking world are the subject of The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015) by Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham. Jesch is a trail blazer and a giant in the field of Viking Studies, being one of the first to work in the field as it developed during the final decades of the twentieth century.

The Viking Diaspora investigates whether the term “diaspora” can be applied to the Scandinavian settlements throughout the Viking world. This in-depth analysis of the term still reverberates across the field of Viking Studies today where “diaspora” and “the Viking world” have become nearly interchangeable.

Although I still agree that “diaspora” is a term that can be applied to the Scandinavian settlements that appeared between the ninth and eleventh centuries, I found myself being more convinced of its usefulness before reading this book than I am after. There are several reasons for this.

First, the term “diaspora” itself, and how it is defined as a theoretical term. To start the discussion about there having been a Viking diaspora, the nine criteria set up by sociologist Robert Cohen are listed, most of which are identified as applicable to the Viking world. The first two criteria on Cohen’s list define what a diaspora is as opposed to mass migration: a diaspora is migration caused by a traumatic dispersal from an original homeland, or an expansion from a homeland where large groups of people leave “in search of work, in pursuit of trade, or to further colonial ambitions.” (p. 70).

The discussion immediately gets into trouble here, because to be able to determine whether or not the migration from Scandinavia qualifies as a diaspora we need to know why people left. That is to say, we need to know why the Viking Age happened. Scholars have wrestled with this question for more than a century without reaching an answer, and, as can be expected, this book doesn’t answer the question either. It declares the traumatic event of people leaving Norway for Iceland in response to the repressive reign of Harald Fine-Hair as myth (which it is), and in the case of leaving the homeland in pursuit of opportunities and ambitions, it only manages to prove that raiding, trading, and settlement were the results of Scandinavian travels, not their cause.

Second, even though the research that the book presents is substantial, it is entirely focused on Scandinavian migration and settlement in the west. Scandinavian migration and settlements in the east are mentioned once in a while and in passing, even though there already in 2015 were enough evidence and available research of the same kinds of activities that are identified in the west.

The counterpoint to this counterpoint is one of scope. If the book were to have included the east in as much detail as it discusses the west, the book would have been too long and it probably never would have been finished. I think the problem here is that as scholars we tend to place ourselves under the tyranny of the primary source. Primary sources are important, obviously, but when we write syntheses, or present theoretical arguments like here with the term “diaspora,” too much focus on primary sources bog us down and prevent us from seeing the forest for the trees.

Third, the book declares that the Scandinavian settlements of the North Atlantic and the North Sea qualify as a diaspora because they fulfill Cohen’s criteria of collective memory, myth, and idealization of the homeland; a return movement; ethnic group consciousness maintained over time; troubled relationship with the society where the group has settled; co-responsibility for other settlements; and a distinctive creative life in the host society.

I do agree that the Scandinavian settlements in the west fulfill these criteria, but the question that the book never addresses is: What role did the kingdom of Norway and the Archdiocese of Nidaros play in this?

The Scandinavian settlements in the west were Norwegian tax lands (skattland), and their bishoprics belonged to the Archdiocese of Nidaros, which during the High Middle Ages was the largest archdiocese in medieval Europe. When reading the discussion about the Scandinavian diaspora, how and why it happened, you get the impression that the various western settlements, apart from Iceland after 1262, existed outside of any political or religious contexts, and any connections and exchanges between them happened because of individual initiatives.

The book mentions the kingdom of Norway once in its final chapter, and in doing so, it puts into question its entire argument: “This North Atlantic community was held together by the rule of the Norwegian king and then gradually fell apart.” (p. 198–199) The examples provided to illustrate how the community fell apart reveals a correlation between the retreat of the Norwegian kingdom from the North Atlantic and the collapse of the diaspora, which leads to the question: Was there a diaspora at all, or did it all hold together for as long as it did because of the kingdom of Norway?

Meanwhile in the east, neither the Swedish kingdom nor the Archdiocese of Uppsala ever reached into what is today Russia and Ukraine, and still, the Scandinavians who raided, traded, and settled there became part of society while maintaining a Scandinavian identity and connections to the homeland. Which leads to the question that perhaps there was a Scandinavian diaspora after all, but in the east? However, that is a different book.

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


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Update on the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible Book Project

Bookend of the Devil from the Devil’s Bible, purchased at the National Library in Sweden. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

On this day, July 15, in 2015, I published a post on Book Riot that would take my life in a new direction. The post was titled 10 Things You Should Know about the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible. I chose the Devil’s Bible and the listicle format because I had problems coming up with an idea for a post, so I used to a simple format to write about something I already knew and that fascinated me.

Three years later, in 2018, my listicle about the Codex Gigas was one of the evergreen Book Riot posts that drew traffic to the site. If I remember correctly, that post alone drove about 90,00 views to the site during the year of 2018. When I left Book Riot in June 2019, the post had already racked up more than 50,000 views during the first six months of that year.

In the late summer of 2018, I received a cold email from one of the producers of the TV-series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. They had read my post on Book Riot and wondered if I would be interested in filming a segment about the manuscript. I of course accepted and spent an amazing 24 hrs in the Czech Republic. We filmed the segment about the Devil’s Bible at the Broumov Monastery using a life-sized replica of this fantastic manuscript as our prop. The segment would later become part of the first episode of the third season of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, and aired on the National Geographic Channel in March 2019.

All of these things put together made me realize that there is a bigger interest in the Devil’s Bible than I had thought. I also realized that there was no book about the Devil’s Bible available in English.

So I decided to write one.

I have been working on this book about the Devil’s Bible since the spring of 2019. During this time, I have researched the manuscript’s history and the medieval history of the Czech Republic. I have learned about medieval book production, the history of monasticism, the history of evil, the history of Heaven and Hell, and the history of the Devil. I have gone through the digitized copy of the Codex Gigas and taken notes on every single page of the manuscript to get to know it and its creator better. This task alone took me almost nine months. I have written a first draft, which made clear to me that there were parts of my book project that needed additional research. This additional research took me another six months to complete.

Finally, this week, I started writing the second draft of my book, a draft I thought I would have started a year ago.

My book about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible is currently a work in progress. I expect to finish the second draft sometime early next year. I would be surprised if I finish sooner, considering that the university fall semester starts again in August.

When I finish the book, there is still no guarantee that it will be published. The journey towards publication is a different type of journey from writing with other forces at work. It could very well be that no agent or publisher is interested in picking up my book. It is a reality I must be ready to face.

But even if the book never gets published, researching and writing about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible has already been fulfilling and rewarding because I have learned so much in the process. Not only that, I have created a university course about the history of Central Europe based on what this project has taught me. If that turns out to be the only outcome of this project then that is a good one.

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


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Conferencing in the Third Year of the Age of COVID, Or Reflections on the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America 2022

Ceiling decorations in Gökhem parish church, Västergötland, Sweden. The decorations are fromthe 15th century, and are probably the work of Master Amund. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I have always enjoyed going to conferences. Even though I am an introvert and not particularly good at networking, I go to conferences anyway. I do it to meet new people, put a face to a name I already know, and to get an idea of the newest and latest research.

When I was a doctoral student, I went to conferences all the time. At that stage of your scholarly career in Sweden, it is comparatively easy to get funding for attending conferences, and with Europe literally on your doorstep, there are plenty of gatherings to choose from.

After I moved to the United States, I stopped going. There were several reasons for this. First, I dedicated my first few years to getting a Green Card and finding a job.

Second, for a medievalist there aren’t that many conferences to choose from. There is the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, which changes location, and the Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, which is also ambulatory. There are of course workshops at universities here and there, but they usually cater to small, specialized groups.

Third, money. Traveling to any conference costs money and as contingent faculty, there is little to no funding to apply for. As for time, the conferences tend to be during the semester, which means that while the conference is happening, I am busy teaching. Or, as in the case of the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society, the conference takes place in the first week of January, usually a day or two after the New Year, when travel tends to be more expensive because people are traveling after the holidays.

Also, the hotel deals on offer for conference participants (again, I am looking at you AHA) are still very expensive. Add to that the fee to attend the conference, which can be pretty hefty. Most conferences do offer tiered conference fees where the fee is reduced for students and contingent faculty, but not all do. And then there is the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, UK, which offers a discounted rate but only for a limited number of attendees who first need to submit paper work of proof of income to demonstrate that they are of the deserving. (They do know that the Victorian and Edwardian eras are over, right?)

Then, COVID happened. Everything shut down and there was total confusion everywhere. Organizers of academic conferences scrambled to find a solution. Some canceled out right. Others went ahead as planned. Others hooked themselves up to various online conference platforms with varying success rates.

By 2021, things had settled. The pandemic was still raging, but vaccines were rolling out, and we had all become Zoom aficionados. As for conferences, they all went virtual. And for the first time in many years, I could start attending them again. So, I signed up for the Medieval Academy of America, the ICMS in Kalamazoo, and the IMC in Leeds (where I paid the full fee because the IMC discount requirements are undignified).

Now, in 2022, the pandemic is still going on, some of us are vaccinated, and we are slowly learning to live with COVID-19 as an unwanted, intrusive presence in our lives. As for conferences, they are either virtual or hybrid, that is to say, they are in person and virtual at the same time. Which means that I can attend conferences this year as well.

Last weekend I attended the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, a hybrid conference that took place at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and on the Whova virtual conference platform. What follows are my thoughts and experiences of this and other MAA meetings that I have attended.

Over the years, I have had an on-off relationship with the MAA. I first joined out of curiosity as a doctoral student and even attended the annual meeting when it was held at Yale University in New Haven, CT, in 2010. I felt then that the MAA as an organization was outdated, and eventually, I let my membership lapse. Recently, though, the MAA has developed into one of the more interesting academic organizations, and to support the work they are doing to make the field of medieval studies more inclusive towards contingent faculty and scholars of color, I am a member once again.

The MAA’s work towards inclusivity is visible in the program of the 97th annual meeting, at least when it comes to topics. Medieval studies is a notoriously white-dominated field, which has not changed much despite the MAA’s new direction. This is a systemic problem in medieval studies as a whole, and to address this issue, we all need to work towards a solution, not just the MAA. However, the annual meeting does show in distilled form how homogeneous the field currently is, and, judging by the doctoral students and early career scholars who participated, will continue to be for quite some time.

As for the sessions I attended, I chose which to attend based on the teaching and research that I am currently doing. I ended up attending four sessions out of 65, not counting breakfasts, social gatherings, and committee meetings of which I attended none. (What am I going to do, watch people while they eat?)

The sessions I attended were session 19. Technologies of High Medieval Science, which I selected based on my research into the Codex Gigas; session 21: Northern Seas and Liminalities, which I selected based on my expertise in the Scandinavian Middle Ages; 47. Teaching (and Learning) the Global Middle Ages; and finally, 57. New Religious Histories. I had also wanted to attend session 20. Finding Meaning in Global Medievalism, but since it was scheduled at the same time as session 21, I had to make a choice.

As for what I got out of these sessions, the results were mixed. A recurring issue with the sessions at the MAA is that the session titles promise a wider scope than the individual presentations ultimately deliver. A case in point is session 19 of this year’s program where the title was the far-reaching “Technologies in High Medieval Science,” which ended up consisting of three papers that focused on specific aspects of specific primary sources.

Session 21 was very interesting, mostly because all three presentations, and the discussion that followed, succeeded in balancing the narrow with the broad. For example, Jonas Wellendorf’s presentation about the mythical island of Hvítamannaland, imagined to be located off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, taught me something new about the medieval Icelandic worldview, while Krystin Christy’s presentation on slavery among badgers and beavers in the writings of Gerald of Wales provided me with a deeper understanding of bestiaries and animals as medieval allegories. Session 47, meanwhile, made me want to write an op-ed on how the Global Middle Ages so easily become Western Imperialism by another name, even when the scholars involved consider themselves proponents of post-colonial scholarship. Session 57 was interesting, mainly because an argument was made in favor of taking seriously how people of the Middle Ages related to the supernatural; we need to take it seriously, because they took it seriously.

As for the hybrid format, I support the continuation of a virtual component because it enables so many more people to attend conferences. Starting last year, conferences like the annual meeting of the MAA have extended their reach with scholars and attendees connecting from all parts of the world, which is great.

However, when comparing the hybrid format to a complete virtual format or a conference that is entirely in-person, the hybrid format is the least productive when it comes to scholarly interaction.

In session 47, all speakers were virtual, as were the attendees, which resulted in a group of people speaking on a screen in front of an empty classroom. When I logged out of that session after it had run almost 10 minutes over time and showed no signs of stopping, it had become a fully-virtual conversation between the speakers, who also had written a book together.

In session 57, the speakers were both virtual and in-person, but at the start the mic was picking up sounds in the room and it was difficult to hear the speakers before it could be fixed. Also, one of the in-person speakers had a weaker voice, and because there was only one mic in the room, it was difficult to hear parts of his presentation. In this session, the classroom was full, and the audience was in a good mood and talkative. All this is great, but the result was, as a remote participant, the session ended up an experience similar to watching live-TV. One of the moderators addressed us who were attending virtually and asked if we had any questions, but if I had turned on my camera and unmuted myself to speak, it would have felt as if I were intruding, rather than contributing.

Overall, my experience of the 2022 MAA annual meeting is similar to my experience of the 2021 and 2010 MAA annual meetings in that this is not a meeting for me. I don’t mean this as criticism of the MAA; they are doing a great job putting these meetings together in an age where everything is in flux while also working to make the field more welcoming towards scholars of color and scholars who, for one reason or another, are on a professional trajectory other than the traditional path.

The feeling I get when I attend the MAA, regardless of the conference format, is one of alienation. I am on the outside looking in. I think the reason why is because the community of medievalists in the United States is small, and the group of scholars who would attend a meeting such as the MAA is even smaller. Personal contacts are key, and these personal contacts are mainly established during post-gradual studies.

Coming from the outside with no connections to any parts of the American educational system makes it nearly impossible to break into a conversation that has been going for decades, unless you yourself have participated in at least some part of it. (I am aware that all scholars who move between countries face challenges like this, but, what sets the American higher education system apart is that universities here claim to be places where scholars can come from anywhere and thrive, which is not true. Classism and xenophobia is rife, is what I’m saying.)

Also, the view of the medieval world that is presented at the MAA, whether it be in its original Eurocentric form or in its expanded Global form, is decidedly American. At its core, the study of the Middle Ages is the study of European history, but as a person from Europe with a terminal degree in medieval history from a university in Europe, what I find when I attend the MAA are ideas about an abstract Europe in the distant past with little to no connection to the actual Europe existing today and how this Europe interacts with its own past.

Yes, the MAA is the Medieval Academy of America, so it makes sense that the participants are either Americans or based at an American university. However, to come across references to research done on medieval Europe in Europe by scholars at European universities that are not Oxford and Cambridge is rare.

The problem here is that positioning yourself among other American medieval scholars matters more than engaging with research outside of American medieval studies. After all, this is how careers are made, regardless of where your university is located. However, if you are studying a part of the world that is not where you live, you need to start paying attention to what is going on there. And here I’m not talking about American scholars traveling to European archives and reading the primary sources in the original languages; that they do and they are very good at it. But any kind of production of knowledge is ultimately a conversation among scholars, and that conversation is here being ignored.

With the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America behind me, the question remains what I will do when the 98th annual meeting comes around in 2023. Right now, all I can say is that it remains to be determined.

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


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THE BRIGHT AGES by Gabriele & Perry, or What It Means to Be New.

It’s rare that there’s a buzz surrounding a book on medieval history written by two academic historians. It’s also rare that I get swept up in a book’s pre-publication hype. But The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry is the exception to both of those rules.

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval history at Virginia Tech and David M. Perry is an academic adviser at University of Minnesota with a PhD in history and several freelance publications under his belt. Active on social media, Gabriele and Perry each have a substantial number of followers who are happy to participate in a major book launch, hence the buzz and the hype.

The Bright Ages is Gabriele and Perry’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about what the Middle Ages were really like. The Middle Ages was a time of violence, persecution, misogyny, and bigotry that we like to point at as a deterrent to make ourselves feel better about the violent, persecution-ridden, misogynistic, and bigoted times we live in. Or, we use the Middle Ages as inspiration for how to create an intolerant society in the present. But, as Gabriele and Perry demonstrate in their book, the Middle Ages are so much more than that.

The purpose of The Bright Ages is to wrest the Middle Ages out of the hands of political pundits and other unsavory characters and show that the Middle Ages were a time of sophistication, light, colors, complexity, and diversity, a purpose I agree with wholeheartedly.

Still, once I finished the book, it left me with a strange aftertaste. On the one hand, The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read. On the other hand, I am flabbergasted by the liberties taken by the authors in order to make their point.

The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read because of its beautiful prose, its clever storytelling, and for turning your expectations on their head at every twist and turn. The book opens beautifully with a description of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, built c. 430 CE in Ravenna, Italy, and then seamlessly transitions into a discussion on the arbitrary nature of historical periodization. The life of Maimonides cleverly opens with Rambam’s brother David, a Jewish merchant from Spain living in exile in Egypt who sets sail for India to trade but never makes it there because his ship founders. By starting the story with David, Gabriele and Perry quickly establish the global inter-connectivity of the medieval world, where for the duration of the Middle Ages the center of the world economy was the Indian Ocean, not the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean, which we tend to assume.

The term The Bright Ages serves three purposes in the book. First, it’s the book’s attention grabbing title, placed at the center of a gorgeous dust jacket wrapped around a beautifully bound book complete with a blind stamp on the front cover. Second, it’s the rhetorical device around which the entire argument revolves as the antonym of the Dark Ages. Third, the authors introduce it as a time period of its own.

According to Gabriele and Perry, the Bright Ages can be said to have lasted from the year 430, when Galla Placidia’s mausoleum is estimated to have been built, to 1321 when Dante Alighieri, of The Divine Comedy fame, died. During this time period, the authors argue, the Middle Ages were particularly bright, complex, diverse, and sophisticated. There are a couple of problems with this. First, the beginning and end of the Bright Ages are based on the Middle Ages in Italy, and apply only to the developments there. This in contrast to the book’s full title (The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe) which claims to be a new history for all of medieval Europe. Second, the time period from the fifth century to the fourteenth century is also known as the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages, respectively, two subperiods of the Middle Ages that in traditional history writing are considered as, you guessed it, brighter, more complex, and more sophisticated than what came after, namely the late Middle Ages, in this book represented by the Black Death.

The problems with the Bright Ages as a time period and how it connects to the book’s full title is further underlined by the geographical scope of the book. The Bright Ages claims to speak for all of medieval Europe, when, in fact, it is mainly focused on the Roman Empire in the west and its descendants. For example, on the only map in the book, Kiev is the only included “key location” east of the river Rhine and north of the rive Danube (in Ancient history known as limes, that is the border region of the Roman Empire in the northeast). On this map, the area between Aachen in the west (where Charlemagne was based) and Kiev in the east is a place where nothing happened.

Yes, the book does mention what is there, namely the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, and Hungary, but they do not give the Holy Roman Empire its own chapter, even though the Holy Roman Empire played a crucial part in the development of European society of the Middle Ages and served as a nexus in the connections between east and west. Instead, this part of medieval Europe is included in the book so that points can be made about other things, e.g., the controversial person of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the city states of northern Italy, and the Mongols. What is more, Bohemia is conspicuously absent from the account of the Mongolian presence on the European peninsula even though Bohemia was one of the very few who defeated the Mongols in battle.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

Any history of medieval Europe needs to include the Vikings, and The Bright Ages dedicates an entire chapter to them. To the authors credit, in addition to the more famous raids on England and France, the focus is here broadened to include the Scandinavians who traveled through Central Asia (this is why Kiev is included on the map, while, interestingly, the home region of the Rus who traveled there is not; the map cuts off north of Denmark).

There are several problems with the chapter on the Vikings. First, the authors date the Viking Age to 793–1066, a period that only carries significance in British history and is not related to the developments in medieval Scandinavia. Second, the authors oscillate between mentioning medieval Scandinavia as an afterthought and using the terms “Viking Age” and “medieval Scandinavia” as if they are interchangeable. They are not. (In Scandinavia, the Viking Age is a subperiod of the Iron Age, i.e., neither part of history nor the Middle Ages.) When the authors claim that “the Vikings seem to be a quintessential medieval phenomenon,” they are bending history to fit their narrative, something that becomes even more apparent when they also state that the Icelanders of the Icelandic Free State “loved democracy.” The Icelandic Free State was many things, but democracy it was not.

Which brings us to the Italian city states.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the city states of northern Italy, some of Ancient origin some of medieval, were economic, cultural, and political powerhouses. You can’t discuss the Middle Ages without also discussing the veritable explosion in urban life, and you can’t discuss medieval urban life without talking about the city states of northern Italy. Just as with the Vikings, the book dedicates an entire chapter to them. And just like the Vikings, the city states (Florence in particular) are credited with creating a society based on democracy. The authors do admit that this democracy was more similar to the democracy of Ancient Athens and Rome, that is based on an “elected oligarchy” rather than one-person-one-vote. But, medieval merchant and artisan guilds were not democratic organizations and they did not run their cities based on democratic principles. These were organizations with closely guarded memberships. Yes, their members were of what we today would call the middle class, and the middle class, according to how we explain the development of modern society, is the carrier of representative democracy. That does not mean you can apply this causality to the Middle Ages.

As The Bright Ages wraps up, it becomes clear that the claim to be a “new” history of medieval Europe has little bearing. Here, the authors place Dante in Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, which works as a narrative device but is ultimately fiction. To get there, the authors weave a tight tapestry where time is linear with a determined direction while exulting the importance of Dante in relation to the stars and the universe in the mausoleum’s ceiling. All of this put together creates an evocative blend of history as fiction within a Christian view of time and the male genius of the West at the center of the universe. It can’t get anymore old fashioned than that.

But in the end, this entire discussion on the merits and demerits of The Bright Ages is, as the saying goes, academic. The intended audience for this book is not Gabriele and Perry’s fellow historians such as myself. They wrote this book for the general public to combat the appropriation of the Middle Ages by those who wish to use it for their own nefarious purposes. For that, I applaud them, and I hope that as many people as possible get to read The Bright Ages.

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


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