New Reading List

Comprehensive Exams in less than 12 months. So, it's time to be serious about the reading. More or less.

I put up a
new (tentative) list, covering all my North American reading. I think I'll keep the British reading separate, on the Radicals site. The titles on this list will actually be split across two official "fields," but they really go toward the same basic goal. So they're together on this list, at least for now.

Reading & Sk8ing

I’ve been spending the days reading for my comprehensive exams, so evidence of my existence seems to be gathering in my reading blog rather than here. Along the way, I discovered why I really can’t stand Thomas Jefferson.

But I’ve also been trying to get outside a little. Found an 11-mile paved trail from Amherst to Northampton. It’s not really smooth, and it has some bad bumpy sections (I fell once last week). But that makes the skating more challenging, and in the end will improve my strength and balance better than a perfect trail would. So far, I’m doing six mile loops. In a month or so, I should be ready for the whole round-trip!

New Harmony

The Communal Studies Association is having their 2010 Conference at the site of Robert Owen's New Harmony community in Indiana. I’ve been invited to give a paper there, about utopian communities at home. I’ll have to double-check the exact wording of my proposal, to see what the scope of this will be; but as I remember it I said I wanted to talk about Charles Knowlton and his friends, who started a Free Enquirers’ Society in Greenfield. My interest was in people who felt themselves to be outside of the mainstream, who had assimilated some of the ideas people like Owens implemented at places like New Harmony, but who stayed home.

Knowlton was a friend of
Robert Dale Owen, and probably knew Frances Wright (Nashoba). As a freethinker and a doctor, he had a strange status in Franklin County society. He and his Free Enquirer Society friends (men and women, because the Society considered women full members with all the rights of their male counterparts) were clearly interested in utopian ideas well outside the mainstream of their Western Massachusetts communities. But what did they do about it? Did the fact that they stayed home give them any influence on their home communities? Politics? Culture? I’m looking forward to talking about this, and to hearing what other people have been thinking about intentional communities this fall.

Pioneer House

So the family is going to spend a long weekend this summer in upstate NY in about 1805. We’re going to the Genesee Country Village and Museum. Staying in the Pioneer (log) House. Living like people in 1805. Steph applied a month or so ago and we sort-of forgot about it until she got a call today. They normally don't let families with little kids go -- but what they heck! They raised kids in this house. We have to send them our measurements for period clothing. During business hours, we're one of the museum exhibits. Should be an interesting weekend!

American History

As I’m getting ready to read for my comprehensive exams, I’m struck by the number of books that are crossing my path about the role of history in society. Especially in popular culture and secondary education. This year began with a book about teaching history in “Intro Class,” and ended with a bunch of things jumping off the shelves at me: Lies My Teacher Told Me and Teaching What Really Happened (Loewen), Thinking Through the Past (Hollitz), Telling the Truth About History, (Appleby, Hunt, Jacob), and Who Owns History (Foner). Makes me think I have some particular interest in this angle of the history thing...

Seriously, though: lies my teacher told me? Are we to imagine some cabal of historians, textbook editors, publishing executives, school committees and teachers; all conspiring to defraud young Americans with propaganda about the American past? Really?

Wouldn’t it be more realistic to imagine that most people don’t know what really happened (and maybe think it’s impossible to know), and in the absence of knowledge opt for the most convenient and reassuring stories they can find? Even the historians who continue to over-write the central stories of America’s identity: are they saying the people who came before them were all propagandists and liars? Or something more subtle and interesting; which could be as simple as “okay, yeah, that happened. That’s all well and good. But what about this?”

With a universe of past events to talk about, you can write a lot of different stories. A historian acquires a point of view through education and life experience. So it matters whether the historian lived through the Revolution, the Great War, the Depression or the Cold War, etc.

Nothing earth-shattering here. These ideas are all old hat to professional historians and graduate students. We study historiography, the history of history-writing, to understand not only what happened, but what people said about what happened. What people believed was important about the past, and how that changes over time.

But we don’t do such a good job of telling that story to our relatives, friends and neighbors outside the profession. When Presidents’ Day rolls around, we all smile at each other and wink. “Parson Weems,” we’ll say to each other knowingly. But how many of our own kids get through high school without knowing that the Cherry Tree and other myths of Washington’s youth were fabricated by an itinerant book-peddling minister?

So I thought while I’m reading both the history and the historiography of the 19th & 20th century U.S., that I’d try to write about it for high school students and college undergrads. That I’d try to identify not only “what really happened,” but also what historians and regular people believed happened. What they thought was important, and how that changed over time. This can be tricky, because the same histories we read to find out what happened have to be read again, differently, to find what was on the historian’s (and presumably his audience’s) mind. This can be tricky, but it’s a skill high schoolers and undergrads need to develop if they’re going to keep from just passively believing everything they’re taught and told in life. It’s a form of critical thinking, and it’s a way of digging deeper into the past that reveals very clearly how important that past is to the present and the future.

At some distant future date this may be a book project. To me, 2 years seems like long-term planning. In the meantime, it’s my field reading and notes toward some type of story that digs into the American past and our stories about it.

Local Money

Just when I was beginning to lose interest in Adbusters, I was flipping through a backissue and came across a little article about a local currency project happening in western Massachusetts called Berkshares. This is interesting to me, because I’m doing a lot of research right now into the period (between the Jacksonian Era and the Civil War) when local currency abounded.

The rural merchants that I’m studying spent
a lot of their time getting credit notes on inventories, drafts on consignments to urban merchants, etc. And then converting these instruments to forms of currency they could use to pay local farmers, that the farmers could in turn use to buy stuff from them, other merchants, and each other. They worked with a dozen banks throughout their region, as well as many of the local rich men who had money laying around or were willing to endorse their notes. Later in their careers, a couple of them even started their own banks.

I think these guys really
created a cash economy in their region. But, contrary to some of the histories I’ve been reading about the “transition to capitalism,” I don’t see them as outsiders, imposing some alien, urban (and corrupt, or corrupting, many of the histories imply) economic system on these poor, unwary rural folk. In the first place, these merchants are rural folk. And not only that; they’re popular. People like them. Sure, they get into occasional beefs with their neighbors -- but that doesn’t seem to be that rare, and it doesn’t seem to alienate them from their society. I’m going to keep digging at this, and see what more I find to back up my observations so far.

So, anyway, there’s this group of people in this region of the Berkshires around Great Barrington and Lee, who have decided to print and circulate their own banknotes. They’ve put about $2,500,000 into circulation, according to the E.F. Schumacher Society. They redeem them at 95% of the value of a U.S. Dollar, which they promote as meaning Berkshares users get a 5% discount on everything they buy with Berkshares (since retailers only list prices in US$, and take Berkshares at face value). The bargain for the retail merchants is that Berkshares are local currency, so their users are making a commitment to buy locally.

According to another little article in the same Adbuster issue, 68% of money spent in locally owned retailers stays local (mostly in the form of payrolls and taxes), versus 43% of the money spent at box stores or big chains. The effect is obviously enhanced if you can also buy stuff that is produced locally (and not surprisingly, local producers, artisans and service people are big supporters of Berkshares), but even if you buy a mass produced product at a local shop, you can do it with Berkshares. They look nice, too. And I’ve gotta believe they feel like money, since for generations
Dalton Massachusetts has been the source of the paper used in US$ greenbacks.

Year One

So my first year of the PhD program is pretty much over. I’m getting to work on the big reading project I’ve been flirting with this semester. I’ll probably post a different, much more comprehensive reading list in the next few days, and then tick the books off (and say something about them) as I go through them. For each of the fields, I guess. Although I completely expect the lists to be tentative pretty much up to the time (less than a year from now) when I take my field exams.

I’ll be reading some of the US History titles with a couple of other people in the program who are doing American fields. That’ll be fun. And I’m trying to do this reading in parallel with my research, because I think the two processes complement each other. But I’m not saying much about the dissertation/book until it’s pretty much done and sold...which I’ve gotta say, feels unnatural. But is probably the prudent way to go. Write, but don’t post. Weird.

Blood for Beltane!

So, we took some time off from the first day of serious yard cleanup, and gave blood at the animal shelter.
Or, we tried to give blood. Steph’s hemoglobin wasn’t high enough, so after two finger-stabbing tests, they “deferred” her. Mine was just fine. In fact, when the guy stuck the needle in me, he nearly got a face-full of hot purple blood! After finishing the first 100ml in mere seconds, I filled the bag in 5:05. A quick bag of pretzels and we were off to look at the cats and bunnies.


Looking at the first few minutes of a presentation Mark Bernstein made at the Boston weekend event, I was struck by a couple of things. First, by what Tinderbox doesn’t want to be: powerpoint or mindmap (which is good, because there's something creepy about productivity tools that claim to be based on a profound insight into cognition supplied by pop psychology). Second, by the idea of incremental refinement, which is what Tinderbox does want to be a tool for.

That’s a fancy way of saying that a lot of the time, you’re working with information before you know what it means. I’m hoping to use Tinderbox along with Endnote as a way to store and organize things I’m working on, with an eventual goal of
outputting information in the form of Comprehensive Exams, a dissertation, and a book. I'm not expecting spontaneous combustion, but I am hoping for flames.

(This is a rough map of books that appear in more than one bibliography of the core books I’ve looked at so far. I had to do this manually, but I assume once I understand the app., I'll find there's a cool agent that will do this for me. I feel like I'm in Hiro's office in Snow Crash. As I accumulate more books, I’ll hopefully begin to see patterns. I’ve already discovered some interesting things about who uses the same background texts and who doesn’t...)

I like the idea of knowing what went into a book, and where it fits in the “lineage” of a particular field. Rural History will probably draw from a couple of related fields. Ag. History and Enviro. are the obvious ones, but there will probably be books from Labor History, Political, and even general history that I’ll want to include. Everybody’s talked about the populists and progressives, for example. I’ll want to include things like Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform: from Bryan to F.D.R., which is a mainstream text. But wanting to include (or at least look at) a wide range of titles has resulted in an Endnote file that already includes 421 titles. So I need some way of thinking about these that helps me actually work my way through them!

(This is a timeline of major historians. It’s interesting, when in their lives they published the books I’m reading)

For the general US History reading list, I was trying to figure out who were the big names? People I need to be familiar with, in order to be credible. Some names were familiar, but others not so much. Looking at them on a timeline helped me a bit. One of my fellow students at UMass uses Beedocs Timeline to map out the events he’s working with -- I noticed there’s some info from the Boston event on exporting to timelines.

(This is a list of the letters I’ve transcribed or paraphrased so far. Interesting how they fall in time -- can’t see that when they’re just a set of files in a folder)

For the primary data, I haven’t done that much yet. But I was surprised to find out how my documents were distributed in time, which I didn’t know until I moved them around on the screen. I’m working with the surviving subset of a series of apparently daily letters written from one brother to another. It’s helpful to see that in some months (like November 1845), I have a lot of letters, while for other months I have none. I’ll be able to see when the writer was obsessing about money, and when he was worried about their railroad lawsuit, etc. And -- most importantly -- I should be able to find anything I need, rather than wondering where it was I saw that info...