Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bibliophile: Gagaing on History, Vampires, and Porn at the University of Northern British Columbia

“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.”
― Oscar Wilde
This is Bibliophile.

Welcome to my weekly segment where I take a Canadian university, and search its library catalogue for interesting new books to comment on. As always, a bold H following an entry denotes that the book is held in my local university library.
I've had a bit of an odd hurdle today; I'm having trouble finding an appropriate university library to plumb. Normally, I just take whatever comes next from Wikipedia's list of Canadian Universities. But with under 500 students, University Canada West doesn't so much have a library as it has a few shelves that happen to contain books on them.  And the next up, University of Fraser Valley, might have a very fine collection, but its library website has currently disappeared, so it's off the list too. So that brings us to door number 3, the University of Northern British Columbia.  It doesn't have a new book page, and you can search by year, but only if you specify a subject,title, author, or keyword.  Ah, so it's going to be one of THOSE.  The first twelve books that have been published in 2013, fit the keywords I randomly choose, and strike my eye as interesting, after the break.

As per usual method, I'm using the University of Saskatchewan's classification of the Library of Congress listings to determine the keywords to search for.  First up: philosophy.

History in the digital age / edited by Toni Weller
This anthology is a collection of essays that address how history changes and has to change when digital techniques are applied.  I've recently had reason to develop a healthy respect for this subject; a lot of the job offers calling for people in my area are calling for expertise in archival systems, something that is intimately related to historical records, especially nowadays. And we've got a new professor in our local history department who specializes in it, and it's been useful to hear him talk. After Weller's introduction, the book is divided into four parts. First is "Rec-coneptualizing history in the digital age," which contains essays such as William J Turkell, Kevin Kee and Spencer Roberts' "A method for navigating the infinite archive," and David J. Bodenhamer's  "The spatial humanities: space, time and place in the new digital age."  Second is "Studying history in the digital age," where the essays, like Jim Mussell's "Doing and making: history as digital practice," focus on how the collection of data and so forth works with digital tools.  Third is "Teaching history in the digital age," with Mark Sandle's :Studying the past in the digital age: from tourist to explorer."  And last is "The future of history in the digital age," which includes an essay by Thomas and Johnson on how and if the digital changes things, and a conclusion from Weller. H.

Spatiality / Robert T. Tally Jr
 Thanks to a course I've been sitting in on this term, I'm on a bit of a spatiality kick.  So far, what I've learned is that Henri Lefebvre is a lot easier to read after four years of a PhD under my belt.  To speak to the matter at hand, Tally's book appears to be a combination summary/introduction to the subject of the so-called "spatial turn.."  (One of my favorite things about being a scholar is the use/abuse of the word "so-called."  It's just so utterly contemptuous of whatever comes next.)  Tally's centering this discussion on literary and cultural studies.  In other words, it's a focus on how spatiality and narrative fit together.  My own concerns are rather different--how the videogame and spatiality go together.  (Actually, I'm not the only person thinking about this; there's Michael Nische's Game Space book, and I recently found a blog of a post-doc in the same basic area.  It makes me wish I had something interesting to say on the topic to justify contacting him.)  Tally's book consists of five chapters: the spatial turn, which outlines the basic history of spatiality in philosophy and literature (from the modern age on, anyway; literary cartography, which looks at mapping in a metaphorical and allegorical sense; literary geography, which looks at Bakhtin and the choronotope, Raymond Williams' The Country and the City, Edwara Said's Culture and Imperialism; and the issue of geocriticism, which he describes as including Bachelard's poetics of space, Lefebvre's spatial dialectic, and Foucault's new cartography.  Personally, my interests are geared more towards conceptions of space that involve the digital, or at least the fantastic, but there'd probably be something worth knowing here for me. H.

Literature, geography, and the postmodern poetics of place / Eric Prieto
And so, we move from a consideration of spatiality and literature to a... different... consideration... of spatiality and literature.  Prieto's argument, however, is much more specialized than Tally's.  He wants to examine the issue of geographical emergence, how new geographical identities are helped along through literature. Essentially, as he describes it, he wants to look into how literature gets us to look at the space around us as demonstrating a way of life for the future.  And to do so, he's drawing on Samuel Becckett, France's suburban ghettoes, and the postcolonial proto-nations of France's Caribbean territories. Judging from the table of contents, we'll be looking at phenomenology, more Lefebvre, and postcolonial studies.  I suppose you could have guessed all that from the general subject area.  Heh.  Area.  Get it?  Because it's about space? H.

Next on the keyword list: psychology.

The science of deception : psychology and commerce in America / Michael Pettit
Remember that Ricky Gervais movie, The Invention of Lying?  This is the nonfiction version of that.  No it isn't, I'm lying.  Or am I? Pettit's book looks at lying and deception particularly in terms of the role its served in commerce and psychology, how modern psychologists use deception to as a way to establish themselves as authorities on that very subject, through the employment of tools like the lie detector, psychotherapy, and personality tests. The description tells us the book is filled with "engaging tales of treachery" that will appeal to scholars and general readers, but I think when it comes to the scholarly value, it might be... well, you get the joke by now.  I'd be interested in how Pettit portrays deception, and, through implicit connection, truth.  He could take the approach that it's always relative, and the psychologists are interested in making us believe they can give definitive answers.  Or he could say that it's an absolute, except the pyschologists are propping up things to keep us from it.  Connecting psychology to commerce and deception is particularly interesting, because we've come to accept psychology as a sort of medicine, which distances it, in some way, from what we conceive of as commercial greed--there's the image of the doctor as someone who genuinely wants to help.  At the same time, there's an even longer standing societal belief in the doctor as scoundrel, the humbug who's stringing us along.  Pettit seems to be drawing on that contrast.

Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture / Henry Jenkins
I was surprised to see this book in the psychology section.  In part that's because it was published first over twenty years ago (this is apparently a new addition--text book reprints: nice work if you can get it, Jenkins), but also because I never really thought of Jenkins' brand of popular culture fandom studies as mainly psychological.  On the other hand, I've never actually read Textual poachers, so there you go.  In the addition to the original material, it comes with an interview between Suzanne Scott and Jenkins on the history of the field since then (couldn't Jenkins write a new introduction himself? I suppose he is pretty busy these days, but it still strikes me as odd.) and a study guide to suggest how it can be used in the classroom.The essential argument of the book is that fans aren't brainless consumers, but savvy producers, skilled at finding meaning and making remixes of their favorite works so that they speak more directly to them.  It's a book, in other words, about consumption, media theory, and cultural production, on a large scale.  As fandom has exploded in every direction with the Internet, Jenkins' early 90s work has been pretty much vindicated; in fact, he's made a name for himself in game studies, pursuing the same subjects from videogame perspective. H.

Deconstructing Twilight : psychological and feminist perspectives on the series / Donna M. Ashcraft 
A colleague of mine recently wrote a blog essay on the subject of feminism and Twilight, one that made me reconsider some of the stance I've taken on the books here on this blog. (In fact, check out her comment section for my own exceptionally conflicted response. And I do stand by the Heathcliff comparison.)  So I'm coming to this book with an open, slightly cautious, mind. Ashcraft is being thorough, investigating Bella and Edward's relationship, the character of Bella, and the series as a whole in terms of feminism, from the perspective of fans and detractors, through personality and social psychology, from passages in the book and reader surveys on relationships, motherhood and women.  Judging from the description, it's a book aimed at an undergraduate level, as an introduction to gender issues and psychology.  And she also brings her own experience, as a mother of preteen daughters, to bear on the subject. And what's her conclusion?  Well, remember how I said I was conflicted? Well, Ashcraft doesn't have that problem. A quick perusal of the introduction suggests that Ashcraft's final assessment is a very negative one. She argues that the books present Bella making choices that maintain traditional gender roles, especially in terms of female behavior, career interest, motherhood, and the need to be rescued.  While she admits that it is essentially feminist that Bella chose these gender roles for herself, anyone who follows her model could sabotage their potential, especially in terms of accessing later nontraditional choices.  I'm not really interested in issue, to be perfectly honest, at least, not as it relates to Twilight, but any book on the subject is noteworthy if no other reason that Twilight has had such a big impact on North America culture.

Next: history.

The culture of connectivity : a critical history of social media / José van Dijck  
I feel as if I've read something by Dijck, though I'm at a complete loss as to what. She's been writing books on digital media and technology since at least the early 2000s, though, so the odds are good that I've stumbled onto him at some point.  Looking at the subtitle, it would be interesting to trace the history of the term "social media" in regard to "digital media."  I'd suspect that the former is almost always used as a subset of the latter; yeah, a public speech or a letter could be considered social media, but I don't think anyone uses the term in that way.  Anyway, since this book IS a history of social media, I guess it's indirectly covering the history of the term as well. After two general chapters on platform and sociality and engineering connectivity, Dijck starts looking at specific trends: Facebook and sharing; Twitter and following and trending; Flickr as the thread between communities and commerce; youtube as the connection between TV and video sharing; Wikipedia and nuetrality; and the ecosystem of connective media.    It's written at a university but introductory level--but it's also a European university introductory level, which means there's a bit more theory than the Western equivalent. H.

The secrets of alchemy / Lawrence M. Principe
Finally, a guide for how to turn lead into gold.  No?  Oh, it's a history of alchemy.  All right, that's good too. Alchemy, the book's quick to tell us, has had an odd history in Western culture, because it's always had one foot in science and one in mysticism--I think it was largely to remove itself from the latter that it was eventually rebranded as chemistry. Part of the reason for the mysticism, I think, is that it comes to the Western world from the Middle East.  At any rate, Principe's book is a pop history examination of alchemy (it mentions Full Metal Alchemist and Harry Potter on the first page; while that doesn't necessarily mean it's going a pop history route, it certainly suggests it very loudly.) and it unfolds chapter by chapter in a largely chronological way, looking at the Greco-Egyptian origins of alchemy, then delving into the Arabic development, and the Medieval adoptions. Another chapter takes it from 18th century to present, then jumps back to the 19th to continue the historical progression.  The reason for the jump, Principe explains, is that it's the 18th century where most of the misconceptions of alchemy that exist today have their origins.  And he also mentions that each chapter has thorough end notes, for the reader who wants to go beyond the basic text, which is a nice touch.

A history of popular culture : more of everything, faster and brighter / Raymond F. Betts with Lyz Blyid
A lot of histories this time round.  I suppose that's what happens when you look up "history" as your subject term. This is the second edition of the book originally published in 2004, with Blyid given the task for touching it up for all these digital things. It's another book written at an introductory level, and it starts its subject at the end of World War II. Betts argues that the diffusion and hybridization of culture that happened since then is a result of instantaneous communication, widespread consumption, and the "visualization of reality," a phrase that I already want to pick apart and tear into teeny morsel sized pieces. He's also covering the effects of global conflict, the effects of urbanization, changing demographics in the political arena and the work place (which I'm reading as code for pop culture producers realizing that women and minorities exist), contemporary music culture, the growth of sport as commercial enterprise, and film and television.  It might make an interesting companion piece to Jenkins' work, or an introduction to Jenkins. H, but only the 2004 edition.

Next: Literature.

The Eudaimonic turn : well-being in literary studies / edited by James O. Pawelski and D.J. Moores
People like to talk about turns in the humanities.  The spatial turn.  The pictorial turn. The Eudaimonic turn.  I think I'd like to write a book with the title "The Turnless Turn: How Everything's Stayed the Same."  Just to be different. Eudaimonia generally refers to well-being, and this book is in response to a 20th century move in scholarship that had scholars employing suspicion to reveal how a text was complicit with a particular undesirable ideology. Now, we're looking for alternative modes of critique, which has pushed us into interdiscplinary directions in a "post-theory" moment.  I'm not sure how that works--post-theory IS a theory--but I do like the general trend now not to adopt any theory or type as central beyond all others. It's an anthology, so lets do the now traditional title list. It's a collection of 11 essays, most with a literary bent. Three examples: "Ramblers, Hikers, Vagabonds, and Flaneurs: America's Peripatetic Romantics and the Rituals of Healthy Walking" by Michael West; "Spenser's 'vertuous... discipline' and Human Flourishing" by Paola Baseotto; and "Falling from Trees: Arborescent Prosody in John Clare's Tree Elegies" by Erin Lafford Emma Mason.
Good prose : the art of nonfiction / Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd 
Good prose, from what I gather, is a manual for writing nonfiction, with plenty of personal anecdotes and directions, including the book the two of them wrote together previously, The Soul of a New Machine.  (I knew I'd heard of these two before; that book was on the history of the computer in the 20th century.) They focus on three main forms: narrative, essay, and memoir.  Topics include the ethical challenges of nonfiction, making a living as a writer, the current state of affairs, and how to find a story.  I've got an odd relationship to nonfiction; I generally don't read it for entertainment, as I prefer fantasy and sci-fi for that.  Most of my nonfiction reading is for my work.  And yet, I write a lot of nonfiction, between this blog and, again, my work.  So there might be something in this book for a person with my background. I'll also note that the book has 34 reviews and an average rating of 4.5 on Amazon, which is impressive for a book that is fairly recent and fairly niche.

And at this point, I didn't really know where to go. I just need one more book to fit the even dozen, so it shouldn't be too hard.  Popular culture, I guess?  It's been kind of covered but... 

Porno? Chic! : how pornography changed the world and made it a better place / Brian McNair 
In a nutshell, Nair argues that the proliferation of pornography and sexualized culture has advanced the rights of women and homosexuals.  Note that he's specifically looking at the time period since 2002.  It's an argument that's linked heavily to socio-economics, and I can kind of see where that works; if there's a market for it, under capitalism, it'll develop to the point that its customers are free to purchase it--or at the very least, develop an extensive black market.  On the other hand... it's hard to point to how the release of, say, "Girls Gone Wild" has advanced women's rights.   Yes, it's giving drunk young women the choice to be objectified, but as our Twilight author would argue, that's not quite the same thing as, say, feminism. I will give him points for the horrendous pun of chapter six, "Gaga-ing for it: the feminisation of pornography and sexual culture." MCNair's preface baldly states that he's aware of the concerns I'm voicing, but he still argues that societies that permit pornography and sexual liberalization are more progressive in sexual politics than those that are not.  All right, that I can fully agree with. I can see some problems down the road for particularly arguing that capitalism fuels this open acceptance, because it would probably be more accurate to say that it fuels it for a small, elite segment of people who it targets as consumers, rather than those who it exploits for labour. But on the other hand, McNair also uses the phrase "pornosphere," which I find deeply amusing because I have a sexual maturity of about 12 or so.  Clearly, I am deeply conflicted about this book, which means it's a discussion worth having--and it would probably make a good pairing with the earlier Twilight book.  (No, I'm not equating Twilight with porn, mainly because that's pretty low hanging fruit, you know?) I should probably also note that this is a sequel of sorts to his earlier book, Striptease Culture, in 2002, which is probably why this book covers the post 2002 time period. H.

That's it for this week.
Later Days. 

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