March 27, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2016

Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
The story told here is just as appalling as the sub-title promises. Blackmon focuses on Alabama, but makes it clear that stuff like this happened all over the South. Since this is popular non-fiction rather than professional history, there is a bit more of you-are-there detail than I like, and I wish there had been more about things like the Great Migration and the impact of agricultural mechanization.
Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country
Mind candy: the mis-adventures of an African-American family of science fiction fans in 1950s Chicago, in a world where it's not clear whether eldritch abominations or ordinary life is more soul-destroying. It's a bit episodic, but still well done. (Previously for Ruff.)
Jo Walton, The Just City
This is, obviously, exactly what would happen if Athena and Apollo conspired to realize The Republic with a population of time-traveling Platonists, 10,800 child slaves bought in antiquity, and robots. Exactly what would happen, down to Socrates trolling everyone so hard that, well --- read it.
Genre note: I thought the chapters from Simmea's viewpoint did a very good job of both sounding plausible, and playing off the now-well-worn conventions of young adult dystopias. Because, of course, from a certain angle that's what the the Republic would be.
(Shoved to the top of the pile by the outstanding Crooked Timber symposium on this book and its sequel [which is on its way to me].)
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades
Mind-candy fantasy, sequel to City of Stairs, continuing the story of how the first technological power in a fantasy world deals with the consequences of having killed all the gods. It is as awesome as its predecessor, though I should perhaps say that Bennett is quite prepared to deal brutally with sympathetic characters. (There was a moment near the end where I thought he was going to reprise the cyclical metaphysics of Mr. Shivers, but fortunately I was wrong.)
J. H. Conway, Regular Algebra and Finite Machines
I liked the first half or so. In particular, the notion of the derivative of one regular event with respect to another is neat in itself, and the corresponding Taylor series gives a very direct way of translating a regular expression into a finite machine. But then Conway zoomed off into the algebraic stratosphere, and if there was any tether connecting him back to actual problems with formal languages or automata, I completely lost track of it, and didn't see the point.
(This is formally self-contained as far as automata and language theory goes, but definitely presumes a strong grasp of abstract algebra. Its full appreciation also evidently presumes more mathematical maturity than I possess.)

Posted at March 27, 2016 23:09 | permanent link

March 19, 2016

"Reassembling the History of the Novel"

Attention conservation notice: Only of interest if you (1) care about the quantitative history of English novels, and (2) will be in Pittsburgh at the end of the month.

I had nothing to do with making this happen — Scott Weingart did — but when the seminar gods offer me something this relevant to my interests, it behooves me to promote it:

Allen Riddell, "Reassembling the History of the Novel"
Abstract: How might the 19th century novel be studied and taught if all (surviving) novels were readily available to students and researchers? While many have lamented the fact that literary historians tend to ignore works outside the "canonical fraction" of the ~25,000 novels published in the British Isles during the 19th century, there have been few concrete proposals addressing the question of how surviving novels might productively enter research and teaching and participate in our thinking about the nexus of literature and society. This presentation describes the prospects for a data-intensive and sociologically-inclined history of the novel focused on the population of published novels, the novels' writers, and the writers' penumbra. (A group's penumbra is the set of individuals acquainted with members of the group.) Marshalling evidence from a range of sources and aided by probabilistic models of text data, I will demonstrate how this approach yields insights into two significant developments in the history of the English novel: (1) the rapid influx of male writers after 1815, and (2) the dramatic increase in the rate of publication of novels after 1830. The presentation also features a discussion of Franco Moretti's call, echoing Karl Popper, that literary historians should advance risky---and, in some cases, "testable"---hypotheses.
Time and place: 4:30--5:30 pm on Wednesday, 30 March 2016 in Studio A, Hunt Library (first floor)

As always, the talk is free and open to the public.

Writing for Antiquity; The Commonwealth of Letters; Enigmas of Chance

Posted at March 19, 2016 20:24 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth