Tag Archives: Books and Articles

Go read Coding Freedom

I wanted to take a little bit of time today to shamelessly plug my friend and co-author Biella Coleman’s new book Coding Freedom. When the book first came out I wanted to right a full review of it to explain that it is a full-length monograph about hackers, debian developers, anonymous, and other digital phenomena that carefully combines deep, deep ethnographic knowledge with a thoughtful theoretical contribution the literature on commons-based peer production, liberalism, and the trickster figure. Best of all, the book has been released under a creative commons license and can be downloaded and freed for free.

After taking a couple of stabs at it, unfortunately, I found that I just knew Biella too well to write a review that was neutral, or that pretended to neutrality. I kept writing sentences like “Biella RAWKS” and “Biella’s book is radz0r!!!”, which is sort of hard to massage into “this ethnography provides a substantive contribution to the existing literature on liberalism”. So instead I decided to write this ridiculously partisan plug to let you know how rad Biella is and how much her book rawks.

There are a lot of people doing cultural studies, qualitative research, ethnography, etc. on digital culture, virtual worlds, the Internet etc. and, frankly, the quality of much of this work is not very good. Much of the connoisseurship literature written by fans of video games, for instance, is better than academics writing on video games. Biella’s work bucks this trend by bringing a deep, immersive familiarity with the lifeworld she describes. At times, in fact, I think Coding Freedom does not do enough to show off her erudition in this area. Although people (including maybe Biella) will be tempted to see her work as exemplifying something new, non-disciplinary, or cutting edge, in my opinion what really makes her work so good is the way that it epitomizes anthropology’s values of immersion and description. She really knows her stuff. And after you read her book, you will too.

DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12

UPDATE 2/9/13: A bit of a correction to the title here.  I called this post “DeLong and the economists on Debt” but it should have been called “DeLong, the political scientist (Farrell), and the sociologist (Rossman) on Debt.”  Apologies for that–I didn’t do my homework there.  Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for pointing this out.

I was reading through some of the comments to Rex’s latest post about Jared Diamond, in which he ultimately argues that David Graeber’s Debt might be seen as the anti-Diamond (in terms of argument).  Debt, Rex argues, is one of the few “big picture” books that have been written by an anthropologist since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, which was published more than 30 years ago (1982).  Three decades is a pretty long time (and we anthros wonder why so few people seem to know what we do).  Diamond gets a lot of attention from many anthropologists, in part, because he is writing exactly the kinds of books that we really do not produce anymore.

Personally, I think we give him a little too much attention and air-time when we put so much energy into combating his arguments.  If anthropologists disagree with the version of world history that Diamond is putting out there, my answer (as it was when I wrote this) is to write solid books that make our case.  Yes, of course that’s easier said than done–but please tell me one thing that’s truly worthwhile that doesn’t require a ton of work.  Nobody said any of this should be easy.  If we have different–or “better”–ideas, then we need to find ways to get them out there (through books, or blogs, or interviews or smoke signals or whatever).  Going directly after Diamond every time he publishes is kind of a dead end if you ask me.  It continually sets us up for claims that we’re just reacting because of jealousy or sour grapes.  The way around that is to jump in the ring, take part, and produce the kinds of books that mark the way to a different explanatory path.*

Debt, argues Rex, is one of those books.  And I think he’s right. Continue reading

Polity rocks the biographies

What is it with Polity and biographies lately? The British press has unleashed a slew of new biographies in the past few years. The have translated Joachim Radkau’s biography of Max Weber (all 700 pages of it) and now they are bringing Fournier’s biography of Durkheim to English. Along the way they’ve also published biographies of ‘theorists’ like Derrida, Adorno, Bobbio and Barthes.

I read the Weber biography when it was first released and I highly recommend it for anyone teaching or thinking about Weber. Most American academics understand that the version of Weber that had such a big impact in the post-war US was a highly distorted and tendentious reading of the thinker, and since then a whole industry of outraged and extremely persnickety Weber specialists have worked to show us in extreme detail what Weber actually said — thus we have two new translations of Protestant Ethic and the new translation of the methodological writings (which has gotten less press but is more important). Radkau’s biography is valuable because it provides a single, comprehensive overview of Weber’s life.

And what a life it is. Radkau’s all-embracing biography comes across a bit distanced and quirky in English (although it is well translated) but the detail — and the convenient small sections it is broken down into — make it worth reading. In the book Weber seems less a Faustian genius grappling with the deepest forces of modernity and more a broken man deeply damaged by his punishing Victorian upbringing. Up-to-date and also deeply immersed in historical research, it is the go-to source of Weber in English.

I haven’t yet read Fournier’s Durkheim bio, but given his monumental biography of Mauss I am sure it will also be a treat. The English language translation of the Mauss biography cut out, like, a hundred pages of stuff about Mauss’s involvement in socialist politics that was relevant to the French but not to us — and I was ok with that. The Durkheim bio looks like it is a complete translation, so we will see. Although there has been biographical work on Durkheim done in the past, frankly scholarship on Durkheim has improved a lot since then and we need a new scholarly biography. So I am looking forward to Fournier’s bio. One thing, however: Durkheim’s life was much much more boring than Mauss so I do fear I am going to plow through seventy-five pages chunks on the minutiae of academic politics at the University of Bourdeaux. But we’ll see. I think I’ll take a pass on the Derrida bio. 

 

Mad Shouts Out To Cambridge Anthropology

One of my favorite journals when I was a graduate student was Cambridge Anthropology. It was a small, obviously DIY production of the Cambridge Anthropology department that was filled with wonderful things: embarrassingly frank early pieces by scholars who would go on to be famous, wonderfully clubby little potted histories of early figures in Cambridge’s history, and a lot of short, good, personality-filled articles which were clearly produced free of the need to conform to colorless academic norms. Many of the issues looked like they were designed on someone’s Centris 650 — which they probably were. That was back when journals were intellectual samizdats not identical, corporate-run business hotels.

So I was very excited to hear that the journal had been relaunched by Berghahn books. It’s the usual publisher with the usual suspects, and it looks like its slightly more ambitious — the old Cambridge Anthropology always had an air about it that they didn’t think anyone outside of Cambridge would ever get their hands on it. That looks to have changed, but the new up-to-date journal looks like it’ll still retain some of the spirit of the old one.

And since the new Cambridge Anthropology is being published by Berghahn, I’m guessing it will still be as difficult to find as the old one — although probably because of cost rather than scarcity. I love Berghahn, even the rather large metastasized version of it that is kicking around today, and I appreciate that it’s independently owned. But… well its not exactly the cheapest thing on the market is it?

My real question is: what are they doing with the back issues? Is there a chance that they will be digitized and made open access? Or even rolled into the current journal? That, for me, is the most interesting part of the journal’s rebirth.

Let’s Nip This ‘Crude’ Thing Right In The Bud

In preparation for my course on anthropology and oil in the fall I’ve done a lot (a lot) of background reading. Moving from the mining industry into oil requires orientation to a whole different set of problems and technical systems than the ones I’ve dealt with in the past — although at the same time, a lot of the issues are very similar. There is one different between the Mine Anthropologists and the Oil Anthropologists, however: the whole Crude thing.

First is was Suzana Sawyer’s Crude Chronicles back in 2004, and now more recently the new and very interesting looking Crude Domination from Berghahn, which could be key to shaping the anthropology of oil… if it didn’t cost eighty five frickin’ dollars. And then there are books by Peter Maas, Sonia Shah, and others. I fear we are about to descend into a black sticky mess of anthropology of oil titles that employ sorta-but-not-really clever twists on the word ‘crude’. It’s inevitable. Anthropologists are too much on the left to ever describe the political economy of petroleum as light and sweet — even the bits of it in Libya. If we are not careful we are going to descend to the depths the field reached in the late 90s when chiasmus was incredible common and the incredibly common was chiasmatic.

So please: if you are doing work in the anthropology of oil, think of the kittens and go with something other than ‘crude’ in the title of your work.

p.s. in a year or two I will write another post just like this one about how the word ‘curse’ is over-used. So if you want to be really fashion-forward you might start avoiding that one as well.

Empathy, or, seeing from within

Anthropology report is running a round-up piece on empathy in anthropology and its centrality to our discipline. It’s a timely subject, given the recent edited volume on the topic. In this post I wanted to point out another article having to do with empathy, in this case an oldie-but-goodie: Robert Lowie’s “Empathy, or, Seeing From Within” which appeared in a massive festschrift for Paul Radin that appeared back in the day. Check it out — it’s a classic.

It’s a great piece which puts empathy, not ‘cultural relativism’ (whatever that is) at the center of our endeavors. My favorite part of the piece is central section where Lowie suggests that even Nazis are deserving of empathy. It’s an extraordinary statement, especially coming from a German Jew. I don’t want to automatically assume that everything Lowie said is right because he is old and important — there is a lot unattractive about Lowie — but this idea that anthropologists should be able to see things even from a Nazi’s point of view has always struck with me.

This impulse for empathy sits uneasily with anthropology’s other moral intuition: activist denunciation of power in the name of a leftist populism. Frankly, a lot of work done in this vein is carried out in an emotional tone that is very far from empathy indeed.

I think this is one of the reasons why I personally have never had much use for an activist framing for my own work. This often surprises people, since I work on such a sexily political topic: huge mining company crushes indigenous people. But in fact most of my work is about how this simple framing doesn’t capture the facts on the ground, even if it does tell a simple story of the sort we like to hear.

For me, a commitment to social justice is part and parcel of empathy. As in: if you have the later you think people deserve the former. I study all aspects of mining, from the boardroom to the ball mill to the communities living sandwiched between waste dumps. And to be honest, I have empathy with everyone in all parts of that chain. This doesn’t mean that I agree with them, but I feel that if Lowie can be empathetic of a Nazi, surely I can put myself in the shoes of a mining executive.

I teach courses in political anthropology that are focused around particular topics such as the 2008 Financial Crisis and Great Environmental Disasters Of The Global Oil Industry. Reading these topics with my class has taught me that students don’t need to be cultivate a critical attitude. Reality, as they say, has a well-known liberal bias. All you have to do to be outraged is possess some baseline socialization into American culture. My experience in these courses is that empathy, rather than denunciation, leads to moral certainty. There is no better way to be sure that your moral intuitions are correct than to really, really try to see it from the point of view of someone else. When you do this and still think they are a total asshole, then you can have faith that your moral intuitions are correct.

It’s for this reason that I’ve always preferred empathy to anger-driven activism — not because the first is apolitical, but because the second is a shortcut to a judgment that is too important to be rushed. Even a Nazi deserves empathy — even if in the end we do not agree with them.

Winter Reading

What better way to spend your winter break than to read all those books you didn’t have time to read because you were busy reading other books? I thought I’d mention a few things that are on my reading list that deserve more attention than they might otherwise get:

In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility by Dinah Rajak: How has this book not been getting more play? An ethnography of Anglo American (!) a prominent mining company, which starts in London boardrooms and ends in the mine itself. What I’ve read so far is well-written, intelligent, and very ethnographic. A great account of how morality and the market interpenetrate in new ways under CSR which manages to show, rather than tell, the sinister side of this phenomenon in a balanced way.

Going Abroad: Traveling Like An Anthropologist by Robert Gordon: That’s right, a travel book by an anthropologist. Bob Gordon is a superb ethnographer with decades (and decades and decades) of experience working in highly politicized situations (think: Namibia) and who has developed exquisitely tuned bullshit detectors as a result. He is also like a superathlete who can climb over mountains just by looking at them. So when he tells you what sort of shoes to pack or how to ask who is benefiting from the political economy of your touristic encounter, you should probably listen. Great for tourists, and I’d even give this one to graduate students heading into the field.

Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics by Graham Harman: When this first passed my radar I thought ‘good lord a secondary source on Latour?’ and then I felt a little queasy. But in fact when I started reading this book I found it to be absolutely marvelous. It’s clearly written in some thing like Latour’s style, and does a superb job of covering Latour’s work from Pasteurization of France to Pandora’s Hope (i.e. missing a lot of the more recent stuff), although to be honest it’s not like these books are hard to read. In particular Harman ties Latour to broader philosophical conversations, which is really helpful, although some readers might not be interested in how Latour takes issue with Aristotle’s theory of substance. More useful is the way this orients the reader to the hopping philosophical circles that Harman moves in, and for the biographical and characterological notes on Latour himself. It really, as they used to say in the eighties, ‘lifts the kimono’ on a lot of this stuff. Plus best of all it is available free for download as an open access PDF. Let he who has ears hear.

Uh… I think that’s it for now. What do you all have on your reading lists for the next couple of weeks?

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Racial Differences In Skin-Colour as Recorded By The Colour Top

colortop

The “Bauhaus Optischer Farbmischer”
(via Mabak)

The title of this post comes from a 1930 article in Man which discusses the superiority of such tops over various other ways to measure skin color, such as Broca’s skin color charts. While I knew anthropologists had used Broca’s charts, I don’t recall reading about the use of color tops, which was apparently quite common. The tops used were actually by Milton Bradley, but as best I can tell they were quite similar to the Bauhaus design pictured above. [Can anyone find a picture of the actual Milton Bradely tops?]

The colour top is a device made by the Milton Bradley Company, of Spring- field, Mass., U.S.A., a firm which manufactures kindergarten supplies. It is, primarily intended for teaching children the principles of colour blending. The first investigator to use it for recording skin-colour was Davenport, who employed it in his study of the heredity of skin-colour in Negro-White crosses in Jamaica (1913). The principle is one with which we were all familiar in our childhood. The apparatus consists of a small top, of the disc variety, spun by means of a wooden spindle kept in place by a nut. On this basal disc, which is of cardboard, are placed paper discs of various colours. When the top is spun the colours blend… The proportion of each colour which goes to the make-up of this composite surface can be varied at will, by merely moving the discs round upon the spindle… By suitable adjustment of these four discs, the spinning surface can be made to reproduce,with a considerable degree of exactitude, the colour of human skin of all shades and gradations that may be met with.

Be warned, however,

The judgment must always be made while the top is rotating at full speed. Even slight slackening of speed renders matching difficult and the records unreliable.

I learned of the use of these tops from an interview with Michael Keevak, author of Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. It sounds like another interesting book from the man who wrote The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax, which I blogged about back in 2006.

Deleuze and Playlists

The latest issues of Cultural Anthropology is out, featuring new editors Anne Allison and Charles Piot. A new feature of the journal that I was surprised to see was the inclusion of ‘playlists’, which the editors define as “a feature of iPods that list one’s top song picks of the moment”. This slightly awkward attempt to signal an understanding of Apple products doesn’t really ring true to people who actually make playlists in iTunes, but that’s ok since the feature itself is not a list of music anthropologists listen to (which would be rad) but actually just a list of books that members of the editorial board are currently readings (as far as I can tell this is open access).

Did you get that? A list of the books that members of a top-tier journal’s editorial board are reading? This is the sort of inside scoop that I think a lot of people will be interested in: content filtered by a source whose taste you (presumably) value. Cultural Anthropology is not alone in doing this — my alma maters are increasingly sending me “give us money, here is what your old professors are reading” junk mail, so perhaps this is a growing trend.

Continue reading

Award Winning Anthropological Writing

I just went through the “Section Prizes” page of the AAA website and listed all the award winning books and articles listed there. I limited myself to works published after 2008 which I could find references to online. That means I included books listed in Amazon.com which only received “honorable mentions,” but did not list award winning student essays for which no online link was given. Unfortunately a lot of the links on the AAA site were dead, and many AAA sections don’t properly list their award winners, or haven’t updated their pages since 2007. The list is also missing award winning English language works from other anthropology associations outside the US. I’d love to add such works to the list as well if someone can point me to such lists. Or if you have a Mendeley account, you can add them yourself.

Since I haven’t yet read any of the linked works, I won’t comment on what the list tells us about the state of our discipline, but I imagine a thorough investigation of the listed works might be able to tell us something – especially if we were able to compare it with a similar list from a decade ago. I did notice that about half of the listed ethnographies are available on Amazon Kindle for about $15 which encourages me to think that I might actually read some of them!

Without further ado, here is the list.

Breaking Ranks

Since we’ve just entered the 10th year of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan (well, 10 years this century) it seems a good time to say a few words about Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak Out Against The War (University of California Press 2010) co-authored by Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz.

Breaking Ranks recounts, largely through interview excerpts, the stories of six Iraq War veterans who became involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and other military anti-war organizations and participated in the larger GI Rights Oral History Project. It takes us from their decisions to join the military, through combat, anti-war epiphanies, homecomings, and involvement in anti-war activism.

The patchwork composition of the book reflects the veterans’ attempts to piece together a narrative of their lives defined by the watershed of their experiences in Iraq. While book’s overall structure parses these experiences into a general arc of life—from enlistment, to the shock and fog of war, to political awakening, to struggles with trauma, to activism—it doesn’t smooth over the rough edges of these experiences or impose too clear an order on the muddle of reflexive memories that the soldiers offer.

As the authors note in the introduction, the book is an account of how these six people (five men and one woman; three soldiers, one sailor, one Marine, and one National Guardsman) found their way to a public, anti-war position and of “the striking and original ideas each developed to understand the war and what it meant. Their critiques are not simple matches to those of the civilian antiwar movement or to our own as authors” (8). Thus Breaking Ranks suggest that while it is possible to speak of a single anti-war movement, that singularity subsumes a multiplicity of different meanings and the ones we hear here are not always foregrounded.

Gutmann and Lutz’ Zinn-ian project of documenting the grassroots critiques so often written out of American History is well complemented by their anthropological attention to the little details of daily life (in the military, at war, and after) that aggregate into feelings of frustration and individual acts of political resistance, suggesting the complex and divergent paths through which soldiers come to, as they say, “speak out”.

Thought the text of the book is devoted to six stories, it is also peppered with facts and events that position these very diverse lives within a single post 9/11 historical moment which is also linked, by both the authors and the subjects, to the American legacies of the Vietnam War and its contemporary anti-war motifs.

In their curation of the stories, Gutmann and Lutz also demonstrate the ways that war insinuates itself into civilian life in America, making military service seem like the best possible option for many Americans whose lives are made hard or unstable by the exigencies of family expectations, national pride, poverty, and youth. The Introduction and endnotes are also full of data and resources for further reading about the ‘dark side’ (as Alex Gibney might say) of America’s war in Iraq.

Lately, ‘the good war’ in Afghanistan is consuming more and more of America’s attention and resources and, in the months since Breaking Ranks was released this summer, American combat operations in Iraq have been declared over (again) and the ‘draw-down’ of combat troops and ‘civilian surge’ there have begun. In this context, we can read in Breaking Ranks deeper questions about the different justifications for American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq at the level of individual experience and public discourse alike, as well as about the fundamental nature of wars in which nation-states confront non-state entities through the sanctioned, violent acts of their citizens. As our attention, and perhaps attitudes, to America’s two main post-9/11 military operations seems to be shifting, Braking Ranks can help readers think about how things have (and haven’t) changed in military life and policy at home and down range.

In addition to being a powerful documentary record and conversation starter about the Iraq War, Breaking Ranks strikes me as an important, accessible, and eminently teachable book that speaks of the conflicted experiences of soldiers in war, the political failings of America’s doctrine of pre-emptive war, and the contingent evolution of personal conflict into political action. It would be well suited to undergraduate classes on war, trauma, social movements, public or activist anthropology, and—given its format—methods courses that discuss life-story interviews and practices of ethnographic writing.

[A bit of full disclosure: Royalties from Breaking Ranks are being donated to IVAW; an organization with which I did some fieldwork in 2008 and which I’ve personally supported]

Stone knappers of knowledge

The latest number of the Journal of Archaeological Science — yes, I read the Journal of Archaeological Science — has another ingenious piece on how people learn to competently knapp stone tools. For over a century archaeologists have been teaching their students how to make stone tools by hand, both as a way to learn about the techniques behind the tools as well as to get students interested in what might otherwise seem to be merely oddly shaped pieces of rock. As anyone who has ever tried to make a stone tool can tell you, there is nothing primitive about them — it takes a great deal of skill and craft to knock those things out.

I’ve always been struck by the duality I see in how archaeologists approach knapping. On the one hand, they produce articles like the one in the Journal of Archaeological Science, full of exhaustive and incredibly sophisticated methods to study the acquisition of knapping skills from the outside in. On the other hand, they round up a bunch of 20 year olds, give them some gloves (hopefully!) and make them knapp till they bleed — which often doesn’t take very long. This is knapping form the inside out, the skill passed down from one archaeologist to the other via bruised, calloused fingers.

Although there is a lot of variation within anthropology, I would have to say that one of the most distinctive things about our discipline is our commitment to learning about humanity from the inside out. It is surely one of the most unique things about our discipline that we are committed to the idea that being human with other humans is a far more sophisticated way of learning about them than any other sort of method that works from the outside in. Some methods distrust our intuitions and sympathies as biases distortions, but we feel that we are by ourselves infinitely more complex instruments for gathering data than the artifacts we make.

Of course, this commitment to learning from the inside out has its drawbacks. There is such a thing as bias, and there is a lot of value to be gained by using formal methods or advanced instrumentation — remember, I began this blog entry saying that I found the Journal of Archaeological Science worth reading! But on the whole we feel like if we can learn to make the arrowheads and hafted axes of social life, then we have something that counts as knowledge that we can pass on to others, and we can skip the meticulously recorded and coded video records of people knocking bits off the edge of a stone blank.

Admittedly, this means we often get little respect from people with much more myopic definitions of knowledge, but I think this demonstrates the limits of their vision, not ours. Like stone tools, there is nothing primitive about our discipline. Or, perhaps, there’s something primitive about it that’s worth holding on to.

Two books on indigenous methods

I am a late adopter of Twitter (r3x0r — feel free to follow me), and one of the nice things about being late to the party is that all of your old friends have already arrived and had a few drinks by the time you find a place to park. I’ve been trading tweets lately with Tad McIlwraith about some books on methods — particularly books on anthropological-y methods by indigenous scholars and activists who have better things to do than be anthropologists.

For many years the gold standard for those of us living and working in the Pacific has been Linda Tuhawai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies. Smith’s book has been trailblazing, but it is also in many ways a first step — like Lassiter’s volume on collaborative anthropology, a lot of the book is taken up not so much with a discussion of methods per se as groundclearing: building a genealogy for your study (Lassiter) or thinking through what it means to decolonize one’s self (Smith) (although more recently she has hooked up with the Denzin/Lincoln crowd to produce a Handbook on Critical and Indigenous Methodologies I’d like to read if ever appears at a non-ridiculous price).

In comparison, Research Is Ceremony seems focused on how, concretely, one could do ethnographic research with a distinctive indigenous twist. At times, this sort of thing can become too New Agey for my taste, but as far as I can tell (having not read the whole thing yet) Wilson does a good job of wearing his heart on his sleeve and providing good insights on how to do research.

The other volume — which Tad is promoting heavily — is Living Proof: The Essential Data Collection Guide for Use-And-Occupancy Map Surveys. This volume, published by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, basically outlines a method for people map their land and make their claims to it ‘legible’ on their own terms. Again, I haven’t had a chance to look at it, but it looks really interesting and useful.

Even though most anthropologists are not indigenous, I think it is really important that we keep up date with work being done on indigenous methods for several reasons: to make sure our discipline is a place indigenous people want to come study, to make sure we understand what is going on with other people who are committed to ethnographic and qualitative methods, and finally (of course) to learn something new. It would be great if in the future anthropologists working in indigenous communities (or pretty much anywhere) could learn to use and spread these methods, not as yet another case of appropriating indigenous culture for our own ends, but as a way of learning from people who are our equals and perhaps even, methodologically, our superiors.

Books on writing books

Yesterday I attended a looong seminar by an acquisitions editor of a university press in which he went over everything from how to revise your dissertation to how the covers of books get designed. It was a rare opportunity to hear from acquisitions editors what they were thinking about and how their job worked (thanks to all who organized). The guy there mentioned a book which I’ve found very helpful in the past and which I thought deserved a nod on the blog for anyone thinking about turning their book into a dissertation. Namely,

Getting It Published by William Germano

Germano’s book does not actually have a series of easy-to-follow steps that will lead to being instantly published, but it does help give you context for what decisions are made in publishing and how they are made. It’s a valuable reality check for someone looking to publish. Like I say I’ve read it and found it really helpful.

There are a few other books that the editor didn’t mention but which I’ve also gotten some mileage out of that may be off the academic radar that I thought I’d mention as well. The first is

Making The Perfect Pitch: How To Catch A Literary Agent’s Eye, by Katharine Sands

Of the bintillion ‘how to get your first novel published’ books out there this is the one that I think is actually worthwhile. It’s quite ethnographic, actually — it contains numerous five-to-ten page reminiscences by authors and agents about how to write one-page pitch letters to attract a literary agent. It’s a frank, engaging book that features people finally laying down on the page all the complaining and advising they’ve been doing for years. There is no real overview or formula or big idea — just a chance to see some good (and bad!) examples and to climb into these people’s habituses. Habitoi? Habtiusi? Even though we academics don’t do agent-based publishing its still a great read.

Finally, in distant third is:

Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of “books Lifehacker is breathlessly enthusiastic for this week”, and particularly not books like this which stray into social science territory. In this book the Heaths attempt to boil down into a simply formula the six things that supposedly are memorable ideas have. To a lot of people it will seem like a fluffy mix of cognitive psychology and folklore studies that could have been ten pages long. Bu I have to admit that ever since I’ve read this book I find myself unwillingly recognizing the utility of their framework. I’ll be explaining how ‘theoretical contribution’ is measured by the NSF and find myself saying “it’s like the ‘unexpectedness’ criteria from Made to Stick” or be talking about a dissertation proposal and say “it’s really got ‘story'”. So maybe there is something to it after all. At any rate if you just go to the book’s website you can check out the six principles and if you give them your email address you can download a bunch of stuff and just skip the book entirely. So a guarded thumbs up for this one as well.

I know there are other books on publishing out there — I think ‘the art of abstracting’ is a strange a lovely hommage to the work of being a full-time absracter, for instance — and would be interested in hearing other people’s recommendations.

Andrew Abbott on how browsing works

I’m back from my summer of research in Papua New Guinea. I managed to read a couple of things over the summer, but one of the best — and one that is available open access — is Andrew Abbott’s article The Traditional Future: A Computational Theory of Library Research. The article focuses on several of the topics that Abbott has written on recently — what research is and how it works, different forms of research and knowledge, and the future of the library. I am a big fan of Abbott’s work, and I particularly like this piece, which combines a rich and humanistic sense of how life works with a very quanty sensibility — very typical of Abbott’s style.

The main purpose of Abbott’s paper is to describe how library-based research actually works. While standard social scientific work is sequential (you plan, gather data, then analyze it), he claims that library work is a massively parallel — as you read and pull things from the shelves you are planning, gathering, and analyzing all at once. Its a strikingly true portrayal of how library work works, and how important browsing and chance encounters are for library work.

Since most of the insights of library work come out of the incredibly complex and serendipitous processes that occur when a mind meets a library, Abbott claims that the only way to make library work better is to increase the value and capability of the mind that is engaged in it. Or, as I sometimes say, there is a lot of be said for reading eight hours a day. No matter how many fancy tagging programs you run or PDFs you download, if a tremendous amount of resources haven’t been put into the human using them, then it is all for naught.

Even worse, Abbott points out that the torrent of new information available on the Internet floods us with low-quality work (and ‘juvenalia’ he notes disparagingly), and makes it easier to find citations we want, when in fact what we need is a system — like a library shelf — which gives us things that we don’t know we needed until we ran into them. I think he may underestimate the serendipity of good web browsing, but his argument does speak actively to a topic that has rolled up on Savage Minds before: given that we can now browse forever, how do we balance different speeds of research? Now that we can browse an endless sea of information endlessly should we? And how much value is there in just sitting down with a book for a day, week, or month? Abbot comes down firmly on the side of good old fashioned deep engagement with a small number of quality texts.

Abbott’s work often has a contrarian, and perhaps even crotchety, streak. But I have to admit that two months in Papua New Guinea with limited Internet connection has reminded me of the value of not-browsing and just-reading. It was a pleasure to sit down with reports from PNG’s National Research Institute and actually read works that would otherwise get Zotero’d into oblivion in my everyday browsing. Its a piece worth reading, and I’d be interested in seeing what you think about it.