Words, Words, Words

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I’ve always been fascinated by words, meaning, and nuances. Editing honors theses and my work; I would get lost in finding just the right word to describe something or evoke an emotion which is why I found Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words so intriguing treatment. Although on the surface, it is an account of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, the better story is the subject of excluded or ‘lost’ words and why some terms are acceptable and some are not.

As a graduate student, one of my required readings was Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, in which he talks about language’s purpose is confusion and control and not communication. I was also introduced to what at the time was a new theory – constructivism. Many contemporaries in grad school (this was in the mid ‘90s) did not think much of the theory. However, I found the argument that words have multiple meanings and the interpretation has a political impact intriguing. For example, Alexander Wendt famously wrote that “Anarchy is What States Make of It.” In IR, anarchy or the absence of government is a significant concept. Saying that it did not have an agreed-upon definition undercuts critical concepts and theories.

This is the heart of Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words story. The connection of words and power. Williams’ ‘lost’ words are excluded because they are used by lower classes and women and therefore not ‘proper’ speech. By declaring them not ‘proper,’ it delegitimizes the speakers and dismisses them as members of the decision-making classes.

My point is that we are seeing this with the rise of rules about acceptable speech in the public sphere. Limits are established by ‘hate speech’ rules, tech company exclusions of ‘fake news,’ and the American government’s recent establishment of a Disinformation Governance Board. Unfortunately, the name has shades of the Soviet Union and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Unfortunately, this narrowing of speech is most evident in academia, where we are taught that defining what we are studying is the first step of an investigation. The rise of speech codes has limited discussion of important topics because students and nontenured faculty (over 50% of all undergraduate teachers) know that they will be penalized for using those words. Therefore, discussions of topics such as abortion, group versus individual rights, and policy issues such as COVID and Climate Change are absent or constrained.

In teaching and researching decision-making and public policy, I always highlight the influence of agenda-setting (what is important) and framing (how to talk about it) on the outcome. Prospect theory is based on how the framing of risk changes its perception. By restricting speech in academia and the public sphere, we end questions about the validity of policy and the possible solutions.

The fight for free speech is essential to our existence. As Wittgenstein said —

Mental Health and the Monkey

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If you have not heard, May is mental health awareness month and after the last few months, I think we can all use spending time thinking about our own mental health.

Although I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental health issue, I have also never seen a professional for a diagnosis. This could have been from avoidance or it could be that I just don’t like doctors, dentists and lawyers. However, I did realize that I was having issues and did what any academic would do — I researched depression, anxiety and other issues along with philosophy, especially the Stoics (although this was more about how to deal with life).

As any medical professional will tell you, this is not a great approach because you will assume that you have whatever diagnosis you are studying. That is why there are so many stories of interns having strange tropical diseases. In my case, I was convinced that I suffered from each of these – depression, anxiety disorder, asocial personality – and a few others that I tripped over in my research. In the end, my self-diagnosis was that I probably suffered from mild PTSD (not all related to my time and service) leading to dysthymia.

But, being the asocial self-reliant type, I chose to ‘cure’ myself by meditation and mindfulness training. After trying lots of apps (this being the 2020s), I started to use Insight Timer to track my moods and provide meditations (it provides options based on your self-reported mood). During one of the meditations, the counselor/coach talked about the monkey mind, the part of your brain that is constantly talking and creating confusion. Think of it as having social media constantly as background. In my case, I added my focus on ‘To Do’ lists, contingencies and all those little things that I want or think I should do (Duty is a big thing for me).

My solution was simple – Tell the monkey to SHUT UP!

And it seems to be working. I am not stressed and have been able to start writing again after not producing anything original (including blog posts) in months. And by that, I mean more than just this post. I’ve started revisions of a novella and a new story in my World War 1 series.

So, take time to identify your own monkey’s voice and learn not to listen.

Libraries and Librarians

After three weeks, I finally had time to post. University duties, building a set of book presses (for my wife) and monitoring the Ukraine conflict (for my classes) have kept me occupied over the last few weeks.

Speaking of Ukraine, this post about Ukrainian librarians canceling a conference until they have ‘vanquished the invaders’ has been viral on my Facebook feeds.

This motivated me to write about what I see as a new historical fiction genre – books about librarians and booksellers.

I think that the grandaddies of this category may be 84 Charing Cross, the epistolary novel set before and during World War 2. The focus is the relationship between an American author and a British bookstore. However, the focus is on the books and not the conflict. By the way, this was turned into a lovely movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (pre-Hannibal Lector).

In the last few years, it seems that this has been augmented by an outbreak of new novels.

  • Although it overlaps with World War 1, the conflict in The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, J.P. Morgan’s librarian and the woman that built the Morgan Library. Her conflict was with both racial and gender stereotypes. The story of how she overcomes these and class distinctions is an amazing story of intellect and belief in one’s self.
  • The Paris Bookseller has been getting a lot of press and it should. Like The Personal Librarian, this is the fictional account of a real person. In this case, it is about Sylvia Beach, who started Shakespeare and Company, an English language bookstore in Paris. The real heart of the story is her trying to get Joyce’s Ulysses published in the United States. At the same time, it describes the life of the ‘Lost Generation.’ Details of their lives and loves added much to an appreciation of their work
  • Moving from historical fiction based on real people, there was The Last Bookshop in London. A charming book, it is situated in London during the height of the Blitz. It details the effect of the bombings and death on the population and how they found salvation through books. My heart broke when a favorite character was killed (no spoliers), but I loved the way it ended. A great read for anyone whose idea of a good time was an afternoon in a bookstore (preferably an independent).
  • I am currently racing through The Paris Library about the American Library in Paris during World War 2. The novel is split between Paris before and during the war, and 1980s rural Montana. It is about survival and intergenerational connections through a love of literature.
  • More Rom-Com than historical fiction, I am including The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend in this list because it is just a fun read. After reading the from tales in these other books, you need to take a break.

The links for the books are to Amazon. This is not an endorsement, nor do I get money for the links. It was just the simplest way to add details to the listing. I got most of these from my local library in Longmont, and I recommend that you get your copy from your local library because they can use your support.

By the way, if you have any recommendations, please add them in the comments.

HAPPY READING!

Free Speech?!

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This is probably the only time that I agree with Chomsky

Since I ‘do’ politics every day as a university instructor, I have tried to keep this blog ‘politics-free.’ However, a trend that I’ve seen as my students make me fear for my third career as a writer.

In both classes in political rhetoric and conflict studies, I’ve had students advocate for limits on speech. When I ask them what speech should be limited, they say that ‘hate speech’ or any speech that advocates violence should not be allowed. Unfortunately, their definition of hate speech is generally anything that offends a ‘protected class.’ (For those not familiar, protected classes are defined as individuals or groups defined by a particular trait.)

I point out that as a veteran I am a member of a protected class. Joining the service in 1973 (when I went to the Military Academy), I had individuals wearing that sign swear at me. — What if I say that the peace symbol is offensive? Should I get it banned as a symbol of hate speech?

As for promoting violence, I ask if they would ban the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense both of which were cited as reasons for violent actions?

The sad part is I remember the Free Speech Movement which started on campuses and with the left. It seems now that the sensitivity of modern society and students has made a joke of these efforts.

I won’t get into the banning of books (ALA – Banned and Challenged Books) which looks like a list of great literature.

I don’t have an answer. You can classify this as a rant. But I fear for politics, society, and culture when banning any material because it might be offensive becomes acceptable and a norm.

I leave with this quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who I remember as a great defender of free speech.

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My Biography as a Reader

        

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    I probably started to read at a young age, but I could not tell you exactly when. It must have been when I was very young because I remember being very excited about getting my library card. In New York City, that meant I was probably five years old and could read by then.

            Like most of my generation, the first books I remember were Dr. Seuss books (they were new back then) and the ‘I Can Read All By Myself’ series. With my library card and a bicycle, it meant that I could make independent trips to the library (before that was considered bad parenting). The only other books I remember are Emil and the Detectives which my mother bought me because she had read when a child and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, wonderful tales of Chelm, the village of fools. I remember reading many of the children’s history and the ‘All About’ series from Random House but cannot recall any specific title. There were probably books from the Scholastic Book Service, and I remember I had a subscription to Reader’s Digest when I was in the sixth grade. It was also when I was introduced to Kipling. His Jungle Stories were in a Boy Scout manual that I had, although I was not a scout. I remember reading and rereading it at night under the covers. Later, I bought a bound set of his stories and poems at a library book sale for one dollar. It has stayed with me through all of my moves, as had a volume of Robert Service bought about the same time.

            My parents probably read to me, but I don’t remember it. For me, the first storytellers were radio drama, which was still available in 1960, and Jean Shepard, who had a nightly show on WOR radio. I did not understand a lot of what he talked about, but I fell in love with his ability to tell a great story. He also introduced me to George Ade and Ambrose Bierce, who I read later when I was in junior high school.

            Because I started reading so early, I quickly got better at it so that when I was tested in 5th grade, it turned out I had the reading ability of a high school senior. Unfortunately, the educational bureaucracy set limits, so I read Jules Verne for pleasure and stuck reading the assigned readers in school. I would be so bored that I would start talking to other students or playing at my desk. Finally, the system figured out I was advanced, and I skipped a grade. Although it seemed a good idea, it caused me problems until college because I was always one year behind my contemporaries for dating, driving, and just about every other mark of growing up.

            I do remember that junior high school was the first time I had required reading. The only ones that stuck in my mind were Johnny Tremaine and David Copperfield, neither of which I liked. They had probably been chosen because they had teenagers as their main characters, but living in suburban New Jersey in the late 1960s, I could not relate. I was also reading a lot more advanced writing as mentioned and had started to read Ray Bradbury, who was classified as science fiction. Still, I think he is an excellent example of American magical realism. During this time, I also remember reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, which spoke to me about growing up orthodox Jewish in America. I think this may have been the first time that I read Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 although I probably did not understand them as much as I would later. (All three ended up on the syllabus of my Politics and Literature course.)

            During high school, I started my love of science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury were my go-to writers. I also had a subscription to Analog and a Science Fiction Book Club membership. I still have the copy of Foundation Trilogy that I got for signing on. Later as a graduate student doing formal modeling, I had an illustration of Hari Seldon on my desk. It was also the first of many times that I read Starship Trooper. Until my son lost it about ten years ago, I had my original copy with multiple sets of notes and underlining. I was into drama at the time, so there were a lot of plays being read. Vonnegut was popular back then (the early 1970s), and I read almost all of his books, but I just saw them as science fiction. I’ve never gone back to reread, but I probably should.

The early 1970s was a strange time, so I sprinkled my reading with sociology, history, and politics. Two books from this time stuck in my mind. The first book I remember was Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. I remember being fascinated by the interrogation scene and how the interrogator did not drink or eat during the long sessions to deny the prisoner the moral upper hand. The other book was Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which started my study of rhetoric and propaganda.

High school had its reading requirements, most of which I have forgotten except for those associated with our theater teacher. First was Spoon River Anthology, which showed me a new way to present a story. My high school copy has become so ragged that I had to buy a new version so I could continue to reread. The second was Chaucer in the original Middle English. I fell in love with how it sounded and still read it out loud to myself. The last was selected Shakespearean plays. It was less the plays, then it was the first time I was taught how to deconstruct something to find additional meanings. I remember writing the term paper on the use of ‘word’ in Richard III.

            College didn’t give me much extra time to read, and most of it was for escape. Mack Bolan and those styles of adventure stories were all I remember reading for fun at the time. The plus side was that I tested out of basic English as a freshman and took advanced English, which consisted of American literature from the colonial period to modern times. I remember that Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus was the ‘modern’ novel and that I didn’t think much of it.

            Surprisingly, being in the service did not slow my reading. I can remember reading Hawthorne and Poe (volumes from college) on tank ranges and field problems. In one assignment, I would go to the library on Friday night, take out a book or two and spend the better part of the weekend reading them. This was a period of strong Anti-American sentiments with Baader-Meinhof and others targeting soldiers, so travel was often not recommended. However, I did spend on Christmas leave in Switzerland and Austria and managed to collect all of Asimov’s Before the Golden Age series, buying them at rail station bookstands. I still have them and refuse to let anyone borrow them. I also read a lot of Ngaio Marsh and Robert Ludlum because they were popular at the time, and I could get them at the AAFES bookstore. For a while, a few of the lieutenants in my battalion were big on John Norman’s Gor series, and we used to trade those among us. Somewhere during this period, I also read a lot of Hunter Thompson. The most likely reason was that paperbacks showed up in the AAFES bookstore, and I liked the covers.

            I want to say I remember what I read over the next 20 years, but I honestly couldn’t tell you. I remember picking up Dune before a TDY and reading it on planes. And somewhere, I ended up reading a lot of Kafka (including Amerika). I shipped a box of books to Honduras for my deployment, but they were mostly cheap second-hand paperbacks that I ended up leaving there.

            Graduate school and two sons slowed down my reading, although I remember reading Harry Potter and the Animorph series to both. Once I got my degree, I could back to reading for pleasure and discovered writers such as Ha Jin and Hosseini, both of whom are on my list of authors whose books I will buy in advance. For a few years, I taught Politics and Literature, which let me combine my love of fiction with teaching about politics. At a book a week for the entire semester, we went through several books.

            I have recently gone to reading purely for pleasure and will read anything that catches my attention. This has led me into urban fantasy, the unclassifiable Chronicle’s of St. Mary’s, and literary fiction such as Amor Towles and Michael Chabon. I tend to obsessively read them until I exhausted their output, after which I follow them in Goodreads to find out their latest. So, I’ve read almost all of Carrie Vaughn, she crosses genre, and Hailey Edwards.

            The saddest thing I can remember anyone ever telling me was when my mentor, Steve Chan, said he could not remember the last fiction he had read. I found that extraordinarily sad.

Images in the Future

My collection of photos, postcards and stereoscope pictures have served as a reference and inspiration for my stories about the Great War. I also have a collection of my own time in the service, which I regularly look through. At the same time, the thousands of pictures I’ve taken with my digital cameras and phone are rarely looked at unless I am searching for a specific image.

With everyone carrying cameras with their phones and chronicling their lives with social media, there is the possibility of recording almost every moment of life. This is the premise of Dave Eggers’ two novels, The Circle and The Every. According to my students that are veterans, the same occurs in combat zones (creating an operational security nightmare, I’m sure). I asked if they ever looked back at the pictures (which they can access on their phones at any time), and most said no. Not because of the images’ subject matter; it just doesn’t occur to them.

Changing phones, computers or just memory errors can lose all these photos. Even if you are backed up to a cloud account, change accounts or subscription to a backup service, and you may no longer have those pictures.

More important is how few people catalog those photos. I’ll admit that I don’t catalog outside of downloading after hikes or events and labeling the folder; I don’t catalog. I suspect most people don’t. Even in my family, it is not done except for my son, a photography hobbyist. Meanwhile, I can look at the shelf of my photo albums. Each is labeled with dates and pages with flat memorabilia like programs, tickets, and photos. I can remember going through my parents’ albums and telling me the stories of their lives.

This brings me to the question – will future historians and writers have this treasure at their fingers when recounting the past?

That is why I leave you with this suggestion. Do what you did when you were younger (if you are my age) or what your parents did – print the pictures, label them and put them in an album.

I am not a number

Growing up, my favorite show was The Prisoner. The import from England had the tagline, “I am not a number. I am a free man.” Unfortunately, if Number Six were around today, he would find he is a number. Or, more correctly, a set of numbers.

Statistics and algorithms have become the defining element of the early 21st century. We can and do collect data about every part of our lives, so we do. Between smartwatches and smartphones, we measure our lives n more ways than we can count (yes, that was intended). The ease of technology comes at the cost of being reduced to a data set.

  • My truck records how many miles and how many hours I have driven.
  • Grammarly keeps track of every word I write and sends a report at the beginning of the week (which informs me I still don’t know how to use a comma).
  • Fitness apps track workouts, calories, and minutes.
  • Even meditation apps ask you to track your mood and the number of times in a row that you have spent time meditating.

Dave Eggers takes this on in his recent The Every, but as outrageous as parts of it may seem, you realize that it is already here (or will be soon).

Even if you try and live in an analog world with paper and pen, users of bullet journals are encouraged to track their habits, exercise, sleep and anything else that ‘they really care about.’ Writing advice to write every day is accompanied by charts and spreadsheets to measure how many words, time, or days in a row you have spent writing. Readers are encouraged to keep track and rate through sites like Goodreads (“Goodbye Goodreads”)

I will not start in the way that statistics have dominated research in social sciences. But, unfortunately, it seems that the ‘quantoids’ have won the battle, so those of us that prefer the deep methodology of cases and history are relegated to academia’s backwaters.

Rather than “Dry January,” I am starting on ‘No Count New Year’ to escape from the tyranny of trackers. So this month, I am focusing on what I need to count and why? I don’t know where this will lead, but I hope it will be a humanistic way to live my life.

Goodbye Goodreads

After five years and over 950 books logged, yesterday I said goodbye to Goodreads. That is to say; I closed my account.

I am not anti-Goodreads. It was enjoyable and probably a good tool for those who want to increase the number of books they read. However, that is not a problem I have ever had. Even on field problems, I brought books. This included the footlocker worth I shipped to a six-month overseas deployment.

No, my reasons are personal

  1. I was reading for speed. Rather than enjoy a novel, I tried to read it as quickly as possible to add it to my count. This also led to –
  2. Reviewing while I read. Because Goodreads asks you to rate and review everything you read, I found myself composing comments that some readers would find intriguing and inciteful. Worse yet was being asked to rate escapist novels. It was like rating junk food.
  3. I have a very eclectic reading list ranging from serious nonfiction in security studies (my field of teaching) to historical fiction to lighthearted urban and romantic fantasy (thank you, Hailey Edwards and Kristen Painter). So, getting recommendations from other readers or Goodreads was not necessary. My ‘To Be Read’ list is already double column, page long.
  4. Finally, I was motivated to finish books that I would generally have put down so that I would not ‘waste’ my reading or have to put them on my ‘Did Not Finish’ list.

This does not mean I have slowed down my reading, nor does it mean I will not rejoin in the future. But for now, it is me, a book, and a snack in my love seat with no one overlooking my shoulder.

HAPPY READING TO ALL IN THE NEW YEAR!

Reading Month is Almost Over...Now What? | Edmentum Blog

Writing Space

My YouTube feed has been showing these videos about authors’ workspaces (Writers and Their Writing Desks. There was no ‘typical’ set-up and while I was jealous of the large offices with fantastic panoramas, I smiled when I saw that Stephen King worked in an attic and Ray Bradbury (one of my favorites) worked what looked like an unfinished basement.

Which is exactly where I write – an unheated corner of the basement with heating ducts (top of picture) and water pipes (just in view on the left side). It is also my office as a university lecturer and with repeated transitions to remote learning, my teaching podium.

The desk itself is what is left of a computer desk bought in the 1980s. It was unfinished lumber, but now has a patina of spilled coffee, various ink explosions, and the sheen you get from decades of human contact. The left side is for writing and drawing with an array of fountain pens and colored pencils at hand. My laptop is in the middle with my planner (still handwritten) and notepad on the right. Inspiration for my historical fiction comes from the framed magazine pages on the wall (it separates me from our crawlspace).

On the other side of the footlocker (which doubles as an armoire), are my references. These range from the modern to memoirs and manuals published during and immediately after the war. The prize in this collection is a bound set of The Stars and Stripes newspaper. Additional inspiration comes from the collection of postcards and trench art.

Not pictured is the Carhartt blanket that keeps me warm as I write.

So that’s my space. If you are a writer, I would like to see where you write.