A Few Ideas Comparing the Past and Present

I was reading a book a while back about the importance of a handful of beverages in social history. Coffee was one and the coffee house was really the main focus of the chapter. Basically, in the Enlightenment (18th century Europe) the coffee house was the one of the social and intellectual centers of life for most people. While I had some problems with how the book in question presented and interpreted its information, it got me thinking about my own habits in coffee shops. Since I was in graduate school, the local Milwaukee coffee shops were where I got a lot of my academic stuff done. They also were good meeting up places for social get-togethers. When I moved half a country away, one of the first things I did was find the local places, and there’s been one or two added since then (about 5 years ago).

Two now come to mind: one, the current pandemic and social distancing practices, and two, what would the medieval equivalent have been?

I can’t think of a general equivalent of such a location for the Middle Ages that matches well; it would have to be somewhere that had both practical/business and social functions, as well as cater to a wide range of different kinds of people. Taverns could be an option, but those weren’t quite as socially diverse as a modern coffee shop, at least not to my knowledge. Certainly there were such places for the nobles and places for the upper class peasants and places for the lower classes, but was there much or any intermixing? It’s either too bad most libraries are closed right now, or this could be a chance for trying to research like most students would want to start (as in, To the Google!). Church or local festivals of public functions might be another option, but those are less about location and business, at least in some ways. It’s an interesting question in terms of history, but also in terms of modern society. How socially open are modern coffeehouses? Starbucks for example is supposedly open to any and all, but when you go into one, there isn’t necessarily a wide mix in terms of social standing.

Medieval Europe also has experience with pandemic and plague outbreaks, although Black Death was bacterial not viral. The bubonic plague of the 14th century does have some significant parallels including the social panic and distancing (think the frame of Boccaccio’s Decameron), as well as the origins of the term “quarantine”. Again, the details are quite different than the now, but the general parallels do make for interesting ideas.

Besides adapting to a lot more life and work online, I’ve also noticed another phenomenon with connections to the medieval past including the roles of books and reading, and personal written works. I kept a diary when I was younger (as in 20 years ago) but I have over recent years started to keep a journal when travelling. That’s unlikely to be much of thing for me this year since most of my summer travel has been canceled or postponed, but I have started to keep track of what goes on in daily life since social distancing went into full effect in my area, not quite two weeks as of this moment of writing. Looking at what I’ve got so far, it’s mostly just listing off things done, but also includes some general observations about for example how exciting it was to see a display of toilet paper and paper towels that wasn’t totally empty in a grocery store a few days ago, or how I took my fairly new car through a drive through for the first time ever (as in first time for the car, not first time ever for me). The travel journal was a major genre in the middle ages, to the point where now it’s hard to tell some of the fact from the fiction. For example, the Book of John Mandeville and the Book of Margery Kempe both contain aspects of actual travel as well as interpretive observations and thoughts and feelings about what’s been going on for the author. Then you’ve got the more household familial texts, like the Paston letters. The interesting thing here is that the forms are not quite what we might now call a journal, since Mandeville and Kempe’s are travel texts (at least as one of their main genres) and the Paston books are epistolary collections. The personal diary as we know it becomes a thing a bit later in history.

Then there’s the reading. Books as objects especially in the earlier part of the what we might call the medieval era would not have a been a common item in most households, since the printing press wasn’t around yet, and even towards the end of the fifteenth century when it was still a newer thing. Storytelling might have been one general option, and the popularity of the story telling collections from this time (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan – not necessarily in any kind of order here) suggest this might have actually been a possibility. Today, there’s a lot on social media about how some people plan to catch up on their reading, but there’s also responses about how realistic of an expectation this might be. Fiction definitely seems to have some kind of social effect, not just for the entertainment value (although it’s certainly that) but also for the ‘escapist’ factor. I would be willing to bet that there’s a good bit of promise in the idea, since I know that there’s plenty of scholarship on the book as an object. I also have to wonder how far a research project into the use of fiction as a coping mechanism could go without a research library since I for one find great value in shelf browsing. Not that the databases etc. aren’t good places to go, they are, but sometimes finding exactly the right search is a struggle, and you find the best sources by checking out what’s near whatever it was you had found in the catalog.

There have already been some more public comparisons to history of pandemics and outbreaks of disease, and this one here is by no means detailed or comprehensive. I’m mostly considering a series of general ideas and how they might apply both to the past and to the present, and maybe a little intot he future.

End of the year review: sort of

Maybe it’s just the people I’m around on social media, but it seems like nearly everyone was ending 2019 and/or starting 2020 with goals concerning reading, nearly always in the form of a goal number of books to be read or finish reading. Take Goodreads: it’s an easy way to keep track of what you want to and already have and are currently reading. It’s also pretty good for helping decide if a book is something you might want to add to your reading list, with the reviews. And it lets you do all this in public, in front of everyone you know via digital stuff. I’m reasonably sure you can’t turn off the feature that sends you an email every time you list another book as “Read”, although you can turn off or block the daily notices about what your friends are reading, adding, or finishing. So one question this all brings up is something of a paradox: reading is largely a solitary activity, and yet it has become a fairly public performance. The question then is how much of this is due to the oversharing/bragging/trolling (frequently anonymous) opportunities offered by social media, or how much of it is something else?

What strikes me is how much this resembles medieval practices in some ways. Books, or at least the contents of books, essentially were a form of social media, they were a prestige item, they had social and solitary aspects to them, and people had opinions about them. Books also existed in multiple formats, much as they do now, although obviously some of the forms themselves have changed.

Take audio books for example. I’ve never really been able to get into this method of experiencing books, but it is quite popular. Back in the Middle Ages, this way actually how a lot of people would experience books. The origins of the term “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and that’s how higher levels of education were often provided. The instructor would read from the lone copy of the textbook, and possibly commentate, while the students took notes. In some cases students could copy out their own versions of the book, but this would need to be done by hand, either by themselves or someone they paid. There are also records of medieval monasteries that indicate that it was a practice to have someone reading from scripture or other religious text while everyone else was eating.

Certain forms of ebooks also have medieval analogues or at least general comparisons. On several online platforms, including GoogleBooks, you don’t flip through the pages, you scroll. The modern book through which one flips or turns pages is a descendant of the codex, while the scroll through counterpart is the much older roll or scroll. You read as you unroll and re-roll. There’s actually an older hilarious video called “Medieval Helpdesk” (you can find it subtitled on Youtube, since it was originally done in Norwegian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ) that makes the very real suggestion that, at one time, the book in the shape that it’s now most commonly known for was a revolutionary thing.

Books had a social function much as they do now as well, especially if you follow platforms like the above mentioned Goodreads. People would leave comments in the margins containing critiques, comments, and sometimes even discussion threads. One of my favorite examples is from the Devonshire Manuscript (British Library Additional 17492). This book was originally passed around a group of lady friends at Henry VIII’s court, and one page has a poem composed by a gentleman hoping to court one of the ladies. Here is Cynthia Roger’s description of the thread:

Poem 8 on fols. 6v-7r is a declaration of love to Mary Shelton from one of her admirers. The first letter of each stanza spells out her last name. She seems to have known the author, as she writes a tart reply to his poem just below it— “Undesired service, requires no hire (payment).” Margaret Douglas seems to have also known the author and the fact that her friend was rejecting him, as she writes out to the side of this poem, “Forget this.” Mary, being a little more charitable, writes underneath Margaret’s comment, “It is worthy.”

Manuscripts like this also show people sharing favorite bits of text, much in the way we might now retweet or share a post we particularly enjoyed or wanted to share, and many such examples still survive.

Reading in the Middle Ages and beyond was commonly a public activity. In times before the printing press and better sources and methods of production came along, books were not something readily available. So, in this time which was also before modern forms of entertainment like television and streaming, people might get together and read to each other.  We get a look at this even in stories, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. After Pandarus has agreed to help Troilus win Criseyde’s affections, he goes off to find her, and he finds her and two companions listening to a fourth lady reading out loud:

Whan he was come vnto his Neces place,

“Wher is my lady?” to hire folk quod he;

And they hym tolde and he forth in gan pace

And fond two othere ladys sete, and she,

With-inne a paued parlour, and they thre

Herden a mayden reden hem the geste

Of the siege of Thebes while hem leste.      (II.78-84)

 

Reading could also still be a private activity in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, especially when it came to producing and collecting books. The anonymous writer of the lyric “Pangur Ban” for example describes a scene in which the monk studies alone, while his cat pays attention to the mice. Such scenes of personal solitary reading or study also show up in a lot of dream visions, like the introductions of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Parliament of Foules. Many medieval books that still survive come to us from private collections gathered during the Early Modern period and later, and possessing such a personal or private library would have been a sign of wealth or prestige, or in other words, something only a few people could or did do.

Bookmaking was itself both a solitary and group activity. A monastery scriptorium for example was a public space used by many, but each copyist or artist was largely working alone on his part of the book.

Finally, the reviews. In addition to marginalia, medieval versions of reviews and trolls and fan fiction still survive, even in highly respected literary works. Gower and Chaucer and Lydgate all participated in such activities. Towards the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer makes a dedication to “moral Gower” a label which stuck and has been taken as a slight insult towards his acquaintance and possibly friend. Lydgate frames his Siege of Thebes as an additional Canterbury Tale. While it’s not possible to definitively prove Chaucer’s intention in his remark about Gower, it has long been taken as snarky in a way that might pass for light-hearted trolling. It is possible to prove Lydgate’s fan-fiction though since Lydgate directly places himself within the frame of the Canterbury Tales, and he wrote admiringly of Chaucer in other works, such as The Fall of Princes.

There is a good deal of serious research and scholarship that has been done on reading as practice and what it meant culturally in medieval Europe, not to mention a good deal of modern scientific work on how the human brain may have evolved or adapted to/for reading and how it manages what appear to be several complex simultaneous processes that need to happen in order for reading to be done. While I’m not touching much on those details here, it is worth realizing that the idea of reading as well as the practice is far more complicated than most people realize. It’s something worth thinking about, even if only in terms of personal practice.

The Online World of World Lit

I am facing an interesting challenge for the new year: teaching my first ever fully online class. I’ve taught World Literature 1 every semester I’ve been at my current institution (4 ½ years), but now I’m facing adapting it to a new platform. I have taught some hybrid courses (up to 50% online), but now I have to work out how to adapt everything to the online platform. In addition to the existential strangeness of likely never meeting many of those students in person, I also have to work out a variety of different ways to replace in-person classroom activities and interactions.

This is probably the biggest challenge in terms of technology, much of which I have at least theoretical familiarity, but it’s also got me thinking about texts. As with many institutions, textbook costs have been a concern of note at my university of late and there has been a push towards lower cost or no cost materials, nearly all of which are digital. There are a lot of good quality ancient and medieval texts in translation online, but the problem for me is that when I’ve assigned online texts before, I have noticed a distinct drop in the likelihood that members of the class have done that reading, as opposed to how many would have done it if assigned from the physical paper textbook. I remember the one and only fully online course I myself took, and the biggest thing I remember from it was how little I got from it intellectually. I remember especially one online discussion board when the professor made a comment on something I’d posted, and I responded hoping for more discussion, but never got anything back. I also remember totally forgetting about a fairly sizable assignment until the last minute, rushing to find a suitable source text online because for some reason, probably date or time, the local library was closed. I’m pretty sure I must have done at least ok in that class since otherwise I’d remember it better. My point is, I don’t have a lot of practical experience with the fully online class, but I’ve got enough of an idea of things that can go wrong to be a little concerned about how I set mine up.

With texts in a general literature survey like this one, I’ve found over the years that what seems to work best is a fairly even mix of things students have probably heard of or even read bits of previously (Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Milton) and things they likely have not (Ramayana, Tukaram, Boccaccio, Rabelais, The Abencerraje, Tales of the Heike). I also like to include a few things likely to be more intellectually challenging like selections from the writings of Boethius and Confucius.

I have found myself emphasizing more and more the fact that nearly all of these texts are in fact translations from another language, time, place, and/or culture. It has started especially when a new edition of the textbook was published that used a totally different translation of Sunjata. The 3rd edition had a translation more faithful to the original poetic style of the recitation, while the 4th edition had a prose translation. I’m guessing the editors made that decision because the poetic version was a little more difficult to comprehend in terms of story and character, but the prose version loses so much of the cultural and historical feel. When I realized I was going to have students with both versions, and I still do even though it’s been a few semesters since the new edition was released, I really liked what happened when students with the different versions had to work together in class. This is the kind of thing I now have to figure out digital ways to replace. Each section or unit of the course is going to have some kind of group or not-solo thing in it, but I want to have things that are more interactive to encourage students to engage and collaborate in ways beyond just posting to a discussion board and generally agreeing with each other as seems to happen most of the time.

One project I’m hoping will enable some of all the things I’ve been considering is a “where did this come from” or “how-why do we still have this” kind of thing where students look up the textual histories and transmissions of various texts. Because so many repositories of ancient and medieval texts have been digitizing and making more freely available not only the digital facsimiles but also general information about the various texts and copies, my hope is to have students make use of these resources. The group aspect would come in the form of students collaborating to cover multiple time periods of transmission or textual history. For example, with something like the Illiad, one student would work with what is known about the oral text and ”original” composition, another with the ancient manuscripts, another the medieval translations and copies, and the final with how the text was thought of and existed in the mid-Renaissance era. Each individual would be responsible for researching and putting together their own section, and then they would have to collaborate in putting everything together as a timeline or other to be figured out format. I’m also thinking that these projects should be shared with the rest of the class.

Besides some of the logistics, the biggest challenge for me is that while I have great familiarity with many of the European, especially UK libraries and collections, I am going to need to locate English language sources for things that are held in other parts of the world.

I’m also most likely going to have to put together the class as the class proceeds, something I don’t really like doing if possible because it can feel rushed, and that’s not usually not my personal best work.  I know most of the text selections pretty well by now, and I have discussion cues and assignments to go with them, but those are all designed for a different delivery. I’m thinking of using this whole semester as an opportunity to experiment a little more than I might otherwise do with some class elements. For example, I’m thinking of pairing shorter excerpts from the standard works, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with much less known writers and texts from the same period, and giving students a choice of the second text from a list. So someone might have to read the required pieces of the Canterbury Tales, and then their choice of the following: online excerpts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis or Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. Somehow, some way, I also want to figure a way to work in Hoccleve’s Complaint. I’m thinking that something like this, where everyone has one text in common, and then one text that they can’t be sure other class members have looked at, might help get some kind of collaborative learning going. The problem is, it’ll be tough to pull off without more reading than usual, and students sometimes have enough trouble keeping interested or up with the reading calendar as it currently is.

The next few months are likely going to be me figuring things out as I go, and probably a fair bit of thinking out loud here.  We’ll see how this goes.

Reading Classics: Challenges and Ideas

I am not likely to meet a goal/deadline: I wanted to finish reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes by the end of October. It’s got really pretty, literary writing, but I’ve had to sometimes force myself through certain parts when I get bored or lose focus. This got me thinking about the struggle to read something because you have to or feel you should. I’m planning to teach something that takes inspiration in part from Bradbury’s novel, plus it’s a classic work by a canonical author which I’ve never read. The thing that’s causing me some trouble here is I suspect that I want the story and the style to work better together; for me at least, I’d like to be able to enjoy the two things together, but it’s been hard so far to do that. Mostly, I’ve only been able to focus on one or the other. If I, who have lots of academic literary training have a hard time with something that’s supposed to be a classic, then what must students sometimes feel when asked to read things like this, or things even less familiar in terms of language and/or cultural background?

For commonly assigned longer readings, like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Canterbury Tales, I have found that students have often already read at least excerpts, and thus get bored, or they find the material and style too difficult, and give up on actually doing the reading. I noticed pretty quickly that when I included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on syllabi for World Lit and Brit Lit 1 surveys that a lot of students had had to read at least some of those texts in previous classes. One problem is that it’s difficult to introduce some of the more intricate issues and interesting problems of either one of these two texts when about half the class knows the story but the other half does not. Issue two is that in most surveys, reading the entirety of multiple longer poems like this can be difficult to get students to actually read, as opposed to the Shmoop, CliffNotes. Grade Saver, etc. summaries. Some of that kind of thing is inevitable, but when students get tired of struggling with the style, that makes considering some of the features of the actual poetry more difficult, and those are some of the things that most survey students are not as likely to have encountered before.

This is something I can relate to from Something Wicked This Way Comes because the style is so much the point of the book, more so than with an average novel at any rate. I have to admit I looked at some of the supplementary materials in the edition I have and found out enough that I can already summarize the entire plot without having read half the novel yet. On one hand, now that I know the story I can focus a bit more on the style and more literary elements like foreshadow etc, but on the other I won’t be able to follow the gradual building of the characters and the world as naturally.

Something I’ve been considering doing is switching to some lesser known texts that cover many of the same literary and cultural elements as the commonly taught ones. For example, instead of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon contains a lot of the same warrior culture stuff and literary elements, and has the added bonus of being relevant to actual history as well as the Vikings. One assignment I personally would enjoy would be to have students write their own endings and/or introductions to the story since we know the history for guidance but enough of the text is missing that students could get creative.

Instead of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think selections from a sister text like Pearl might be an interesting option. As with the Old English texts, there remains a lot of cultural and historical and poetic room for exploration and interest. I taught excerpts of Pearl in a Middle English language and culture course one summer, and I was surprised a little at how much some of the students took to Pearl. I have not really looked, but I have to wonder if there is a passable translation readily and freely available for students to use. I know for a fact such things exist for The Battle of Maldon, so I have some hope for Pearl. Maldon is short enough that it can be done in its entirety, and wouldn’t be too much of a burden on someone’s attention or interest if it turns out this just is not something they can get into; for Pearl, I would imagine that the opening sequence and the conclusion would provide enough for students to work with and appreciate, but likewise not be overly difficult to get through if again it turns out this is just not something a given person gets into.

This brings me to another related idea; when you are told something is canon, classic, or traditional, it can give the impression that you must like it to demonstrate you are a person of intelligence and/or taste. I would like to figure a way to allow students to dislike something as long as they can explain why in more depth than “Boring”, “Too hard”, “Too long”, etc. I hesitate to use examples of my own personal taste because then students are apt to go with the strategy of “cater to Prof’s personal interests”. However, I do think the general idea has some merit. I don’t especially care for Leaves of Grass, but I can explain why in terms of technical details of poetry. I also cannot stand a lot of traditional chivalric romances, particularly those in the Arthurian tradition. A lot of Crétiene de Troyes’ works annoy me in a fairly visceral way and I absolutely cannot stand Le Morte d’ Arthur for their overly melodramatic and soap-opera-esque characters and plot-lines. Nevertheless, these things do have cultural and historical interest to them, and a lot of people are likely familiar with some of the basics but not as much with the original stories or versions.

To the original question of what to do about classic works and the perceived need to read them, there seems to be a bit of a stalemate: one the one hand, students should have at least some basic familiarity with the literary canon in order to consider where current trends (literary, historical, cultural, etc) might have come from and they might actually discover a surprising interest, but on the other the majority of the time, reading such things can be burdensome when forced, making it far less likely a person would be able to appreciate anything about a particular text. This is why I’m thinking of changing a few things out to see if it makes any difference. As for Bradbury, I will finish it in part because it would be professionally useful for me since I am planning to teach a novel with direct literary debts to this canonical original. Whether or not I end up enjoying the original is still unclear, but we’ll just have to see.

No Clear Door or Window or Gateway

About 7 months ago, V.E. Schwab gave the annual Tolkien lecture at Oxford. Her theme was gateway stories, books that really draw someone into the world of literature, especially fantasy. Her overall thesis was two-fold: 1) She argued that stories and book considered “literary” should not be required reading for fans of a genre because forcing yourself or being forced to read something just to say you’ve read it risks killing any potential enjoyment. 2) There is no such thing as pure fantasy. To be good, proper fantasy, what a story should do is allow “the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world. But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.” I also had the chance to hear her speak in person around the same time, at the Decatur Book Festival 2018. In her talk she suggested that there are two general kinds of fantasy- those which provide doors (a more immersive and complete experience of the world and narrative) and windows (those which provide only a partial view of the world of the story ad require more inference on the part of the reader).

About a month and a half ago, I participated in a series of interviews with high schoolers, many of whom mentioned (often prompted) the book or story that really got them interested in literature and reading. There were connections, both in titles as well as general ideas. Several shared V.E. Schwab’s experience of Harry Potter being their gateway into fantasy and reading. Some others named Rick Riordan, particularly the Percy Jackson series. What caught my attention was not only the trends of these two series for this generation, but also how uncanonical they are in terms of the traditional “literary canon”; both series are best-selling popular fantasy fiction.

About the same time as the interviews, there was a thread bouncing around Twitter which had been started by someone asking academics and scholars about reading they considered guilty pleasures or fun junk; the majority of the responses were likely not what the author of the original Tweet had been looking for. Most of the responses that I saw were something along the lines of, “why should any reading be shameful?” and “just because something like a romance novel isn’t considered literary doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about enjoying it”. Putting these three events together in terms of both proximity and general argument, there would seem to be a bit of a trend developing where tradition and popularity converge, particularly in the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy.

All this got me thinking about what titles were my gateways since many of those mentioned above were not the ones that really got me into reading; I’m slightly older than V.E. Schwab, and now nearly old enough to be the biological parent of a high-schooler. I’m also a professional academic and scholar who tries to make time for ‘fun reading’, which in my case often leans towards the speculative, both fantasy and sci-fi. I avoided Harry Potter at first because it was on the best-seller lists, and I didn’t have much luck with enjoying titles that usually ended up there. But by the time the third novel was published, I’d gotten curious and borrowed a family member’s book club copy of the first one. This was my senior year in high school. Throughout college and a few years following, I became one of those fans who waited in line for the midnight release, and who downloaded and had to wait for the filters to buffer the movie trailers for the first film. Around the release of novel #6, I’d started to lose interest. I didn’t find out about the Percy Jackson series until I was in my early 30s, but I read all of them and enjoyed them. I tried a few of the other series as well, the Roman one and the Egyptian one; I just couldn’t get into the Egyptian mythology series, which is too bad since the actual mythology is fascinating. My point is that neither of these series could be my gateway since I’d gotten interested in reading beforehand, and neither really made me a lifelong fan of fantasy.

I agree with V.E. Schwab about the nature of fantasy and the nature of fandom. I also half agree with the Twitter thread. While I agree that there should be no shame in enjoying a book of any sort, whether we like it or not, there are some pretty clear expectations and cultural assumptions about what is canonical, popular, and literary. These things sometimes intersect, but frequently they do not.

I was always encouraged to read as a child. I don’t remember any favorites, but I do remember some series’, which I take to mean I must have liked them. I remember Dorrie the Little Witch (fantasy), Amelia Bedelia (comic but real world), and Babar (fantasy). I also remember reading C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia in the originally intended publication order which is not fully chronological in terms of narrative. I remember more about the BBC tv movie versions (late 1980s, early 1990s) than I do the books. The one novel I do remember was The Horse and His Boy which is set in the same world, but features characters that have little to do with the Pevensies. I also remember liking the Little House on the Prairie novels. With the exception of Dorrie, all of these series are well-known canonical children’s series’; I honestly don’t know if Dorrie is still especially remembered and read.

The novels that stand out to me most as my likely gateway into fantasy and reading for fun are both something I found in a used bookstore in downtown Dublin (Ireland), Chapters, which is apparently still there (Long may it prosper!).  I had two experiences here that I’m pretty sure shaped my reading habits towards what they still are 20 years later. Both times, I saw a book, picked it up, thought it looked interesting, but put it back. After repeating this a few times, I finally bought and read the book. The first one was Watership Down by Richard Adams. The second was Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Both of these titles are fantasy, but one is recognized as more literary than the other. Part of this may be due to Watership Down being older (1972) than the Discworld series (The Color of Magic, 1983), but the best-selling nature of many installments of the Discworld series likely also factors in. Both have also been turned into tv programs, cartoons and live-ish action.

Terry Pratchett led to Neil Gaiman which led to Gail Carriger and a years-long steampunk kick. After college, when I started getting interested in Gaiman (I think Anansi Boys was my first novel of his- I really enjoyed it), I also got interested in manga and graphic novels. This I distinctly remember and can place. In 2006, I’d moved to an area rural enough to not have a bookstore, and to have a library but one which was not terribly well stocked for my tastes. I started picking up the Shonen Jump monthly, which was still in print at the time, at the grocery store, and flipping through it. I started buying that, then subscribed, and eventually started getting into the graphic novel forms, manga first, then comic books. The interesting thing about the graphic novel world is that no matter what the form or style (manga or comic book) a significant percentage of the titles belong in some way to a genre or sub-genre of fantasy.

I’m reasonably sure that it was manga and anime that brought me away from fantasy to science fiction; not that I don’t still read fantasy; I most certainly do, but I seem to have been expanding my fun reading a bit more the past year or two.  I just can’t quite pin down a gateway. If I had to, I supposed it might be either Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” (c. 1390s) or Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (2018). I’ve also read some of the more canonical and popular science fiction but it’s never really grabbed me. I read Neoromancer because I figured I should; I didn’t enjoy it. I read Planetfall by Emma Newman because I loved her fantasy Split Worlds series. I didn’t like Planetfall.

My point? Inspired by the conversation going on about the nature of literature, popular, canonical and otherwise, examining my own reading habits and what got me started both supports the current discussion and disagrees. I definitely agree with V.E Schwab that there should be no such thing as required fan reading. Case in point: the things I’ve read because I figured I ought to, I frequently did not enjoy. V.E. Schwab is herself an exception to my general experience with best-sellers, since I don’t often agree with the general public opinion on the amazing-ness of the novel. The things that I don’t agree with quite as much is the existence of the single or few gateway books or stories. For those who have them, I say ‘good for you’. My experience suggests that it is also possible for the introduction and fandom of anything, including fantasy, also has the potential to be lot be more gradual. As far as I’ve seen, this option hasn’t been really addressed.

End of Summer Randomness

The Fall semester starts in just under two weeks for me, which means that it is now time for the annual rush to get lots of stuff done in time and/or before things actually get started. I have especially noticed the past week or so the pre-semester struggle to balance working on syllabi and calendars and a new class with scholarship. If I don’t feel like one, I can do the other right? In general, it is not a bad thing to switch off between two tasks as long as both get done. The problem comes in when you want to do one more than the other, or avoid one more than the other. I’ve been struggling with getting motivated to write the scholarship. The goal is to have a complete draft of an article developed from a conference paper done before August 13 (Monday, first day of class), but it’s been rough actually making myself start some days.

Another observation I have made is that it seems like I find a new writing technique to try out about every year. Admittedly, the beginning of a new semester is a good place to start a new habit like this but it seems like I’m needing a new one about once a year. In any case, the new process is an adaptation from something I saw addressed to novelists on social media (Twitter maybe): 500 words OR 5 pages editing OR (my addition) 2 hours of research 5 days a week. So far it seems like 500 words is not a lot at one sitting, but it’s supposed to add up, which in theory it does. The problem with this technique is that it does not account for the amount of time that researching or running down a source can take in academic writing. Most scholars know the feeling of trying to figure out a something as small as a footnote, which can take hours or days. Or finding a really promising citation, but then spending an hour trying to figure out if you have access to the source. Then you have to read the source, and if it does suit your need, work it into what you’re doing, not forgetting to record the citation. This takes time. I figure 2 hours is about what it would take me on average to meet the writing or editing part of the rule, so that’s what I’m going with.

I think that part of the reason for the annual reset is that I’m usually just back from a conference mid-late July, full of all kinds of new ideas and possible interests to pursue.  This time I was in Toronto for the Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society. Something I’d noticed previously at Kalamazoo (ICMS 2018) was that in addition to the usual which panel sounds better out of two interesting ones I was having to decide between something that sounded more like fun (as in popular culture) and ‘I have no idea what this is but it sounds interesting’ (‘scale jumping’ anyone?) and something more traditional that sounds like I should go to that one (manuscript-y things). More often than not, when I went to one of the first two, I enjoyed the panels far more and got more ideas for myself than the last one. It’s an interesting trend, although I’m not entirely sure what it means.

As often seems to happen, I was again reminded of some things that students face, like getting an assignment just right before it’s due. In my case, this was discovering a much more concrete thesis idea somewhat under pressure (I figured it out about a week before the paper was scheduled to be given) and a good conclusion (in this case, a Mythbusters reference closing a paper on Chaucer). As with many conferences, there’s the inevitable informal competition to see who can or who did put off writing or finishing their presentation each time. May I never be a winner for that one.

There were however a couple of firsts for me at or immediately following my panel. Someone whose work I’d used in my research was there (and asked me a question, which is kind of an academic high five), and I’m just glad I’d seen his name badge earlier and knew who he was. Right after the panel, someone else whose work I’ve used came up and pointed out a small, but possibly highly useful point that would allow me to bring in some manuscript evidence in to the argument if I ever manage to get it developed enough for submission to a journal, and all together I think this may have been the first time that I walked out of the panel and had to immediately take down a few notes on my own paper (on my presentation copy).

I once heard someone say that academics don’t go on vacations; we go to conferences. There is some truth to this. Especially when the conference is held somewhere I have never been to or haven’t been in years, it’s interesting to get to explore a little bit, both on my own and for conference events. This year I had to skip the excursions day the day after the conference formally ended to head back home, but I still got to see a bit of Toronto, especially around the University which is within walking distance of downtown and Chinatown. There are also quite a few fun coffee shops, which is something I personally like to try out. Seeking out and exploring the local coffee culture has becomes a little bit of a habit for me in recent years, and Toronto has a good mix of places as far as I can tell. I also had more ramen (3 out of 5 nights) than I have had in a long time.

During the conference itself, there were two events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One was more of a cocktail hour, but the other was a special small display of medieval Ethiopian artifacts pulled from the collections just for the medievalists. This included some painted polyptych wooden pieces, and a few books. The spell and anti-spell books were pretty impressive, and I wish I could have read them to see how they compared to the European ones (mostly in Latin) that I can read. After viewing this little exhibit, we were free to visit the rest of the museum. As it turns out, there was a major special exhibit dedicated to Canadian Inuit artists. I wandered in by accident, and by the end I was pretty fascinated by the art and the ideas behind it: http://ago.ca/exhibitions/tunirrusiangit-kenojuak-ashevak-and-tim-pitsiulak

What first caught my attention was an aesthetic that I appreciated, and then there was the artist’s explanation of the owl image that seems to be her most famous work. I’d never thought of owls that way, and I really liked how she put it. This year the conference seemed especially interested in taking notice of the local native culture, as evidenced by a notice early in the program concerning how the University of Toronto is built on lands originally belonging to local native tribes, as well as opening the conference with a smudging ceremony. I had no idea what this was when I saw it on the program, but it turns out it’s a native purification ceremony, which in this case was followed by presentations not entirely in English. There was also a play performance of a Nigerian adaptation of a piece of the Canterbury Tales, and it too was multi-lingual. This new focus on multiculturalism is most certainly intentional as medieval studies has recently been facing some public (at least if you’re an academic interested in these areas) issues with inclusivity and racism. These issues are more complex and difficult than I can address here and now, but they’re out there and not hard to find. Just ask Google

Tracing Science Fiction Trends from the 1300s on

Here is the list that I am working on to base my eventual argument that Science Fiction has genuine medieval roots. I’ve included a few basic notes with each to briefly summarize what the text is and how it fits into the genre.

This list is not comprehensive or complete at the moment, as I’m still working on finding sources. I’ve also include links to the text, but some of the earlier texts are not translated into modern English, and some that are I’ve not had time to track down the original language to verify the accuracy of translation. I also can’t make any promises as to the stability or availability of the links.

Here’s a general outline of the texts upon which my argument so far is based:

1300s- Chaucer “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale”: a skeptical description of both ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ alchemists at work

The Book of John Mandeville: a travelogue to other lands, based on possibilities but not on known facts about real places

1400s- ??? still looking

1500s- Thomas More Utopia: a travelogue as above except that the place itself is also a possibility, not fact

1600s- Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene Book 5: features Talus the metal man-servant of a star given to a knight as his helper. This text raises a question of fantasy vs sci-fi; I would suggest that while it’s largely fantasy, in an otherwise standard fantasy, this part stands out as different.

Johannes Kepler “Somnium”: describes what life on the Moon is like. This might pass as fantasy save that Kepler was a scientist {astronomer}/ mathematician, and may have believed in the possibility of what he was considering. NB: there is no formal open access translation into English that I’ve found so far.

Francis Godwin “The Man in the Moone”: similar to the above, although with a Utopian emphasis

Francis Bacon “New Atlantis”: full on scientifically based fictional world that also takes a Utopian approach to a world based on experimentation and the scientific method.

1700s- Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels Book 3: the section exploring the flying island of Laputa, inhabited by a bunch of science-obsessed philosophers, is most relevant, although as with other of Swift’s writings, the satirical nature must be kept in mind.

Voltaire Micromegas: visitors from Saturn and Sirius are bemused about Earth customs. This may be the first alien visitation story.

Louis-Sebastian Mercier The Year 2440: the story of a science-worshipping society where science is the religion, and plays a role in all aspects of life.

1800s- Mary Shelley Frankenstein: the classic tale in which a scientist brings to life an artificially created man. Also The Last Man in which the lone survivor on a dead planet wanders around looking at the remains of a civilization.

Edward Ellis The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairie: Eliot, a curious young man, finds a steam-powered robot man and hijinks/adventures ensue.

Jules Verne 20000 Leagues Under The Sea: a submarine adventure that shares qualities with the travelogue. See also Journey to the Center of the Earth in which a crew of explorers discover dinosaurs etc. under the Earth’s crust.

HG Wells: The Time Machine: time travel both to the distant future and speculation as to what society becomes with some commentary on current Victorian England. See also War of the Worlds: an alien invasion and subsequent attempts by humanity to defend Earth.

William Henry Rhodes “The Case of Summerfield”: a mad scientist creates a death ray and must be stopped.

1900s- Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World: dinosaurs still survive on a remote island, although more time is spent with the local tribe of ape-people.

Arthur C. Clarke 2001: Space Odyssey: space travel and artificial intelligence that goes awry.

Isaac Asimov I, Robot: a series of short stories about the interactions between robots and humans.

William Gibson Neuromancer: cyber world versus reality in which a suspense/action story plays out.

One argument that gets brought up sometimes about the earlier parts of this list is that at the time they were written they were considered fantasy or another genre entirely, and only in retrospect might the stories by the likes of Kepler and Spencer be considered science-fiction. Another objection to some of these titles being true science fiction is that while they might demonstrate very early sparks of what would become science fiction, they don’t really show a building or continuing trend that constitutes genre.

To the first I say while that may be true to some extent like with Spencer (although even then, I would dispute is slightly), the sciences upon which the ideas were based was developing at the time the stories were written, and some of the key research was in fact being done by the authors. This would suggest that said authors, like Kepler, may well have considered what he was doing science fiction although he may not have known the genre term. Similarly when texts might have been intended as travel narrative or utopian fiction, that doesn’t mean that they cannot also have been based upon extensions of current knowledge, which is the basic definition of science fiction. Even in the Middle Ages, the concept of genre was fluid and flexible, far more so than many people realize, or even consider today.

To the second problem, I answer that the list I have compiled does in fact illustrate a trend. In fact, the earliest stories are travel narratives, a popular historical practice and genre at the time, and while satire might apply in some cases, it does not change the fact that such stories remain plausible within the realm of current knowledge. Next comes stories based on the rise of various scientific disciplines including astronomy (space travel and civilizations), then biology (Frankenstein or Hawthorne “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), then physics (time travel), then computers (AI, VR, etc).

A third and final potential problem that I can foresee being held against this list and its argument is that it is pretty thoroughly uninclusive. This is true; however, the purpose of this list is to present the basic historical outline, not the current developments which include increasing attention to gender, race, and a variety of other identities, in terms of both author and story.