Primer-Prime: Re-Reading the Diamond Age

Dan Steward is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department.

The Diamond Age by Neal StephensonRe-Reading Matters. I relish each new book I open, but I cherish all of the old books that I never close. These days, a particularly cherished book is Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. When first I read this book, in the closing years of the 20th century, readers still browsed through shelves in book stores. (The commercial behemoth we know as only went online the year that Stephenson published his book.) I spent happy hours browsing, drawn often to new books of genre fiction. Strongly attracted to science fiction and fantasy, I remember my delight to find new work from the author of Snow Crash. Stephenson, who spent some of his childhood here in Champaign-Urbana, was clearly a cyberpunk/steampunk visionary like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. The dot-com boom was just bubbling, the *nets re-weaving into a shimmering and GUI web, but authors like these were already looking past the cyberspaces (a term coined by Gibson) of the dawning digital age…

The Diamond Age glimmers as a not-too-distant future in which our Earthly cultures have been transformed by nanotechnology. (Drexler’s Engines of Creation was about a decade old when Stephenson’s book appeared, but the idea of a human-built world compiled from building blocks at the atomic or molecular scale has been kicking around since Richard Feynman joked about “plenty of room at the bottom” some decades before.) It is a world of marvelous gadgets, from vast airships with diamond skins strong enough to support a vacuum (no need of hydrogen or helium to be lighter than air), to tiny air-born nanobots swarming around and surveilling the world (the mite-y drones of the toner wars), to “chevalines” (robotic horses that fold into lightweight suitcase-sized packages), to “smart paper” comprising “a network of infinitesimal computers sandwiched between mediatrons” (Stephenson [1995] 2008: 64). (A mediatron itself being a thin, pixelated film looking and working much like the screens of our iPads.) And beyond the meso-scale gadgetry, this is a world of fine-grained terra-forming on a macro-scale. With a jumbo source (for the flow of building blocks) and a start matter compiler (to assemble the pieces), “geotects could make sure that every new piece of land possessed the charms of Frisco, the strategic location of Manhattan, the feng-shui of Hong Kong, [and] the dreary but obligatory Lebensraum of L.A.” (Stephenson [1995] 2008: 19).

The book (almost) opens with the emergence of a new island—a birthday present fit for (and given to) a princess—off the coast of Shanghai, and much of the action unfolds in the environs of Atlantis/Shanghai. In this world, both physical and political geography are somewhat fluid. The Shanghai of the Chinese Coastal Republic is situated between the New Atlantis of the sea and the ancient Celestial Kingdom of the interior. It sits within the tensions of many cultures, but especially those of the neo-Victorian power to the East and the Confucian power to the West. Our nation-state system is in decline in this world—territory, after all, is no longer quite the scarce resource it once was—but cultural aspects of various nations remain strong.

And it was this, more than the gadgetry, that most rewarded my early reading of the book. For it presages a world in which the forces of production are yielding an enormous social/economic surplus: The last instance kicked very far down the road indeed. But the relations of production still take on recognizable forms. When we are making our own history, it seems, our past is one of those circumstances not quite of our own choosing. What else can we do? Both the American and French revolutionaries drew heavily upon the stories and histories of the Roman Republic. Some in the Coastal Republic draw upon Confucian traditions as old as any traditions of Rome, and the New Atlantans draw heavily upon far more recent memes of Victorian England. Many societies (or “tribes,” “phyles,” or “claves”) of this (hypothetical) era are more-or-less continuous with those of our own (historical) eras. A neo-Victorian walking through the Coastal Republic might see “Ashantis, Kurds, Armenians, Navajos, Tibetans, Senderos, Mormons, Jesuits, Lapps, Pathans, Tutsis, the First Distributed Republic and its innumerable offshoots, Heartlanders, Irish, and one or two local CryptNet cells” (Stephenson [1995] 2008: 490). This list is just a sampler of the global gallimaufry of peoples in the Diamond Age. Some of these communities are coenobitic, others are utterly secular. Some of these are synthetic phyles that embrace their own social construction, others are recognizable projections from ancient histories. But the rituals, practices, artifacts, and institutions that hold communities together, the forms of social solidarity, are so many memes circulating among humanity. Sometimes cultures are coherent, sometimes not. The software khans of North America crafted a very buggy First Distributed Republic, a network of splitters, and we see signs of desperate experimentation among the nodes of the Reformed Distributed Republic. (This is not a future in which to find a dominating U.S.A.) But even the most successful of synthetic phyles, the New Atlantans, can use some tweaking. And this gives rise to new narratives, new stories, new histories…

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson Word CloudOn a brand new island in the East China Sea, Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw converses with John Percival Hackworth. Their talk meanders from Wordsworth to schooling to pseudo-intelligence (what we call artificial intelligence) to career paths, for this is also an interview: The equity lord is testing his suspicion that this artifex is right for a special project. Hackworth passes the test, and soon is crafting the primer, a “propaedeutic enchiridion” (Stephenson [1995] 2008:184) for a young lady of New Atlantis. A book like no other, but a digital object that might be endlessly reproduced (recompiled in this case), this pseudo-intelligent artifact is also a prototype for a new model of education. Imprinting itself upon one young girl, the primer grows with her, reading (itself) to her, educating her, guarding her (and itself), changing literary styles as she grows, bringing appropriate characters and adventures into the foreground as (and when) appropriate, and patiently enduring (indeed, rewarding) endless questioning and re-reading of text and world. The Diamond Age is a book of many stories, but primarily of Nell and her primer, and the cascade of strange happenings that flow to-and-from their meeting. For Nell was not born a Vicky, but instead a “thete” girl (with no tribe) from the ghetto of Enchantment in the Leased Territories, and it is the primer that entangles her in the epochal struggles unfolding around Shanghai.

Coming of age, growing from girl to woman, Nell has adventures within and without the primer. Her tuition demands cleverness and rewards imagination, and she cultivates a scientific (but humane) habitus as she works her way through realms of faerie in her interactive and gamified primer. Coding and crypting, questing and questioning, Nell puzzles her way through test after test—including more than a few Turing tests. And in time she comes to understand that the primer is not merely an artifact, but a bridge to other very real intelligences and personalities in the world. Her precocious blend of curiosity, creativity, and courtesy serve Nell well as she navigates the strange social world of the neo-Victorians. Their traditional schools offer Nell (and us) an interesting contrast with the primer. We are invited to think about the purposes of education, the relations between learning and teaching, and the prospect of a radicalized liberal arts curriculum outside of elite institutions. (If still very much inside books.) It is this feature of A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer that now rewards my re-reading.

And not mine alone, for I have been reading and discussing this book with students, and it proves a provocative text. For all of the technological transformations of the Diamond Age, this alternative Earth echoes many of the social problems we know all too well today. (“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.“) Domestic violence, drug abuse, pollution, poverty, racism, sexism, violent crimes, and warfare: They’re all there. Technological change does not bring eutopia. But neither is this a technological dystopia. Features and bugs abound. The world will always need tweaking, so we tinker away, hacking as best we can, and making do with kludges when we must. And students are invited to re-read their world, thinking especially about how different technologies represent dangerous opportunities. Including opportunities for lifelong learning, perhaps with a tablet being compiled just up the road…

Stephenson, Neal. [1995] 2008. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York, NY: Bantam Spectra (Random House). 499 pp. ISBN 9780553380965.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

“I Really Like Slop!”

Kathryn Wicks is the Associate Director of the Urbana Free Library. 

At The Urbana Free Library, we enjoy sharing popular book titles with the community. Eager readers of all ages are always searching for page-turners they might add to their never-ending reading list. And they also want to hear what everyone else is reading. Because who does not get pleasure from learning they have read a book everyone is talking about?

What are people reading? To find out, I compiled a list of The Urbana Free Library’s top five circulating titles since January 1, 2016.

  1. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  2. Make Me: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child
  3. Tricky Twenty-two: A Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich
  4. The Guilty by David Baldacci
  5. I Really Like Slop! by Mo Willems

I Really Like Slop! by Mo WillemsThe first title on the list was not a surprise—it is a nouveau classic by a much-respected Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The second through the fourth titles are contemporary novels by best-selling authors and also not a surprise. However, the fifth title on the list had me singing, “one of these things is not like the others,” because it is an easy reader book by award-winning children’s author, Mo Willems.

If you have not heard of Mo Willems, he is perhaps one of the biggest literary heroes for children and their parents. His books are alive with clever humor, poignant messages, and characters that speak volumes in brief action lines and word bubbles. Books written and illustrated by Willems speak to readers and engage them in the dialogue—such as children yelling “NO!” or “Yuck!” to the book characters. As an animator, illustrator, writer, and stand-up comic, his multi-faceted talents echo in his books and delight his audience.

I encourage you to check out I Really Like Slop! from your Library. Whether you share the title with a child or channel your inner child and enjoy it yourself, find out why eating slop is part of pig culture!

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

“A Way to Attain a Life without Boundaries”: The Poetry of Juan Felipe Herrera

Tim Dean is a Professor of English. He teaches ENGL 101, Introduction to Poetry. 

In anticipation of US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s visit to Urbana-Champaign, the students in ENGL 101 (Intro. to Poetry) read some of Herrera’s work and shared their thoughts about it with me. Herrera manifests widely disparate influences in his writing and he works in many different genres—short fiction, prose, children’s literature—but we read him as a poet. The students appreciated how his Mexican-American heritage lends Herrera’s poetry a distinctive voice and perspective. “Herrera gives his audience a view of American culture and norms from the point of view of an outsider with a different background,” observes sophomore Haleigh Weszelits. “He is not afraid to address controversial topics and use his life experiences in his poems,” adds sophomore Alana Weitz, who praised Herrera’s “unique view.”

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

One example that sparked lively commentary from the students was “Blood on the Wheel,” a poem from Herrera’s 1999 volume, Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream. This book’s title evokes the American dream that has drawn immigrants since the nation’s founding, but “border-crosser” evokes also the hot-button politics of the US-Mexican border (Herrera is the son of migrant Mexican farmworkers). Discussing “Blood on the Wheel,” junior Bianca Claudio observed that this incantatory poem “is about the hard work that Mexican workers do that too often is not appreciated.” The poem “creates emotions of guilt and empathy through the use of vivid descriptions and repetition of the word ‘blood,’” Bianca explains.

Blood inside the quartz, the beauty watch, the eye of the guard
Blood on the slope of names & the tattoos hidden

“Herrera describes the workers’ blood that goes into creating the luxuries that many people are able to enjoy (such as watches, diamonds, and theatres), as well as the blood that goes into making everyday items such as coffee and pins,” Bianca comments. The poem’s kaleidoscope of images reveals the unexpected—beautiful as well as violent—sites of blood. Senior Olivia Morrison notes the poem’s “strong sense of violence.” Laborers’ blood goes into the making of products that, in the United States, tend to be taken for granted. Yet, at the same time as Herrera conjures ethnic specificity in the poem, he “emphasizes that though cultures have different traditions and lifestyles, blood is a substance that flows through everyone, interconnecting them in ways that they may be unaware of,” argues Haleigh Weszelits. Blood may join as well as divide us.

187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border

Many students felt that the power of Herrera’s writing lies in his capacity to speak to the reader or listener independently of ethnic categories. “One can make a strong connection and identify with Herrera’s words,” says junior Jennifer Flannery, an Elementary Education major who read Herrera’s novel Calling the Doves (about a migrant farmworker’s childhood) in her “Literature for Children” course at the University of Illinois. Freshman Amy Tomazin comments on the way that “his poems really pull you in deeper because of how they slowly develop in such precise details.” Amy loves how Herrera’s poem “Water Water Water Wind Water” doesn’t have any punctuation. “To me it was like the wind and water flowing, because there really is no end to the wind and water as they move about the earth.”

Speaking of the poem “Exiles,” freshman Lauren Hanouw said, “After reading this poem, I felt deeply moved and began to reflect on my own heritage … I am taking the influences of Herrera and using them in my own life.” One of his earlier poems, “Exiles” (from Exiles of Desire, 1983), describes how new arrivals to the United States are neither in their homeland nor yet in America but “en exilio”. The poem ends by suggesting that those who observe the new arrivals paradoxically may have lost or forfeited their own exilic status: “Where is our exile? Who has taken it?”

Questions of place and belonging, so central to Herrera’s work, are made more vivid and yet complex by his art. Freshman Jen Lee picked out the poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings” to encapsulate what Herrera regards as the promise of poetry.

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries

Several students noticed how easily Herrera switches between English and Spanish in his poetry—far more easily than anyone crosses between the US and Mexico, for example. Linguistic border crossing is one of Herrera’s specialties.

The mixing of languages and idioms is particularly striking in Herrera’s spoken-word poetry, much of which is collected in 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border (2007). Sophomore Taylor Dugas, who has some experience with spoken-word traditions, admires how, in “Punk Half Panther,” Herrera combines languages and cultures:

to the whistle of night bats—
oye como va,
in the engines, in the Chevys
& armed Impalas, the Toyota gangsta’
monsters, surf of new world colony definitions

Such poems need to be heard, not merely read on the page. Inspired by the performative dimension of Herrera’s poetry, students such as Ronald Oliver found clips on YouTube of Herrera performing his work, some with musical accompaniment. It may be that Herrera’s poetry is best appreciated live. We are fortunate indeed that IPRH is bringing him to the University of Illinois for an evening of live performance.

Juan Felipe Herrera will be at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Thursday, April 28, 2016. Herrera will read his work at 7:30 p.m., in the Alice Campbell Alumni Center. A book signing will follow the event. Learn more about Herrera’s visit at the IPRH website

Herrera’s visit is supported by IPRH, the Chancellor’s Inclusive Illinois Lecture Series, the Departments of English and Latina/Latino Studies, the Trowbridge Seminars in American Culture, and the Robert J. Carr Visiting Author Series Fund.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

Family Reading Time

John Wilkin is Dean of Libraries and Maria Bonn is a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Their son, Nick Bonn, is a 5th grader at Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

John: Reading is a big part of our family culture. We’ve joshed with both of our kids that the family rule is that they must play a sport (even badly), play an instrument (even badly), and read a bunch. And provided they do that, we’re inclined to be fairly forgiving on most other things. So it’s probably not surprising that we read aloud together most evenings.

Now I should clarify for a moment that my daughter is 19 and off at college, so she’s no longer a part of our ritual. Nick, our son, on the other hand, is 10 and is deeply committed to our nightly communal reading. Nick is a voracious reader of sprawling fantasy novels. His school backpack is always stuffed with several books (and sometimes a Kindle), each several hundred pages long, and it’s often the case that he’s reading several simultaneously. Nick looks forward to this very performative nightly family reading event, and so I asked him if he would join me in writing a few words for the blog:


Funke_inkheartNick: When we read together it is a time when we forget our troubles and go into a world of words. It is a time when all we do is read to each other. For instance right now we are reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. The whole context of that book/trilogy is just about the world of books. We kind of go into a state like that but less real. You’ve probably heard the saying “books are magical. ” You’re readers for heaven’s sake. It is true, they have their own kind of magic swirling about them. Right now I am reading a book called Fablehaven. It is teeming with magic. But I believe books have more magic when read in a family that just wants to admire the story.


John (again): I suspect there’s a viewpoint that holds that there’s an age at which a kid is too old for reading aloud, but I’m fairly sure I haven’t reached that age yet. I don’t really recall whether Naomi might have decided that she was too old to be read to, but I’d wager that the primary reason we stopped the nightly reading with Naomi was that it got to be too much with high school homework, piano, track or cross-country, and everything else going on in her life. It’s always been great fun for us, and I have no doubt that, especially for the kids, hearing unfamiliar words—words you may not know how to pronounce when reading them, words you’re hearing in context in a meaningful way—helps build all sorts of cognition. And, as Nick noted, it’s an incredibly important shared experience.


Lewis_NarniaMaria: I’ve spent my life as a voracious reader, first riding the tide of books into a PhD in English literature and then into a life as librarian. My parents did NOT read to me once I had learned to read to myself, but I insisted on sharing my favorite books with them, often reading aloud to my mother after school as she worked away at her sewing machine. Having another opportunity to share those stories with my children (hello again Chronicles of Narnia and Chronicles of Llyr!) has been one of the great pleasures of parenting. And before we became readers with our children, John and long ago started a Sunday morning ritual, that continues today, of battling for air time to read the “best stories” from the Sunday NY Times to each other over the breakfast table. (“Can I bug you?” “Er, yeah?” “Listen to this!”) Several years ago, I suffered a life threatening injury that rendered me unconscious for days. As I drifted back to the surface of life, what washed over me were the voices of my family reading me stories. First John and Naomi and then five year old Nick who was just learning the art of forming words out of letters. When I was released from the hospital, weeks later, part of my welcome home as to have a book placed in my hands so I could read aloud and really “be back.” That too was a kind of magic.


Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | 2 Comments

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

Brett Ashley Kaplan is the Director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society and a Professor and Conrad Humanities Scholar in Comparative Literature. She works on Holocaust art and literature and contemporary Jewish American Literature. Her newest book is entitled Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth. Brett lives with her partner, Philip Phillips (a theoretical physicist) and their (combined) three kids.

Anya Kaplan-Hartnett is a subbie (8th grader) at Uni high. Anya plays flute and piano and sings. She recently performed as a fairy in the Lyric@ Illinois production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream at Krannert. Anya lives with her mom and step-dad and her sister, Melia, and her step-brother, Orestes (who lives half the time with his mother), and two dogs, Argos and Charlie.

Adult_LythcottHaimsBrett (mother):

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims caught our attention through Uni high where our eldest daughter is a subbie. The counselors sent a note to the whole school recommending the book. It was a serendipitous dovetailing of the general direction we were going with our three kids—we were just then working on increasing autonomy and self-reliance. We are a blended family—the adults are both divorced and have biological children from our first marriages; the kids are 13, 11, 11 with a 6 month gap between the eleven year olds so their grades are 5,6, 8 (all at three different schools!). Blending families is, as I am sure many of you know first-hand, not always the smoothest. But we’ve been doing lots of talking, strategizing, thinking and feeling and the overall mood of the family has improved dramatically as the kids have become more and more accustomed to each other. A crucial part of blending, then, has been fostering autonomy and indeed, raising adults. So I had a rare quiet weekend when—unusually—my partner and all the kids were away and I finally had a few minutes to read most of How to Raise an Adult. I have to say that I did find myself doing a fair amount of self-patting on the back because my kids have learned to be fairly self-reliant; in part they had to because my first husband and I divorced when they were 2 and 4 and there was no way I could take care of everything in the year that I was a (dating) single mom. So it is perhaps adversity that has taught some useful life skills and self-reliance. Nonetheless there are probably more things we could delegate to them to prepare them for the world beyond the home.

The author of How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims is a Dean of Students at Stanford and a parent and has thus had an excellent vantage point from which to chart the increasing reliance of college age students on their parents. She offers an excellent contextualization as to why our generation of parents (i.e. those of us born in the 60s) tend to over parent and over involve ourselves in our kids’ lives. Among the reasons she gives are that our parents tended to be involved in changing the world, launching careers, key-partying or whatever else so that we were largely left to raise ourselves. Thus, when we became parents we had a tendency to overcompensate. Another reason she lists is that whereas it used to be totally normal for a 12 year old to get him or self from A to B the spate of child abductions that began to be widely publicized in the early 1980s set off a panic to such an extent that parents who let 12 year olds go places on their own can sometimes be arrested! So there are not only personal and emotional reasons for over parenting but also societally enforced institutions that demand it. Her overall argument is that all of this over parenting means that by the time kids get to college they are still kids and neither self reliant nor responsible. A memorable example she gives is of a 21 year old texting his father to say he was lost in New York when he had all the wonders of his iPhone at his disposal!

Sometimes Lythcott-Haims goes on a little too long and offers too many examples but overall I absolutely agree that we all need to be fostering autonomy! I left How to Raise an Adult on the coffee table and sure enough, Anya, our eldest, picked it up and read it very quickly. Here is what she says about the book:

Anya (daughter, 13):

When my best friend and I were in fourth grade, we were obsessed with baking. I loved going over to her house and making cookies and cupcakes with fancy frosting and paper umbrellas. I anxiously awaited my tenth birthday, when I would be allowed to use the oven on my own. The first thing I made were scones that had the consistency of rocks since I was so proud to have completed a solo baking mission without burning down the house. I don’t think I even noticed that most people politely refused my scones. My point is that kids just love having autonomy.

I see that many parents nowadays try to do everything for their kids. For example, a lot of my classmates have their lunches packed by their parents. I can see why- it’s faster, and you can make sure that your kid gets just the right amount of protein. But those kids often complain that they don’t like what’s packed, and they don’t eat it. They often say that they wish their parents would let them pack by themselves. You see, parents need to get that when they refuse autonomy to their kids it sends the message: “No, I don’t trust you to do this by yourself. Let me do it- I know how”

Last year, when I went to Edison middle school, one of my favorite things to do was go to the library with my friends. Walking over there by myself felt good—it was an accomplishment. Now that I am going to Uni, I walk to piano lessons, and I meet my mom on campus after school. I love that feeling of freedom, and I can see how it translates to school and the rest of my life: “You might be a kid, but you can do this!” I feel confidence and pride in my very own accomplishments, like learning a song or doing a new kind of math problem, because I know that I did it myself.

Parents sometimes assume that a new experience is frightening for their kids, and they are likely right. The first time that I walked to the library myself, I was afraid that something bad might happen on the way, but it didn’t. I learned not to be afraid of walking around without an adult, and I wouldn’t have learned that if my parents didn’t let me go. Parents, have you ever been afraid when you were growing up? Did it help you develop as a person? Let your kids be scared sometimes, because they’ll learn from it and then, next time, they can know what to expect.

In Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book How to Raise an Adult, she mentions her friend’s four step system to build life skills: “First we do it for you, then we do it with you, then we watch you do it, then you do it completely independently”. As a kid, I love this because it captures exactly the way that kids want to grow up. We want help at first, but at the end of the road our greatest hope is to do it ourselves. By then, we’ll know that we can do anything.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

Reading Easter 1916 by Estibalitz Ezkerra

Estibalitz Ezkerra is a PhD candidate in Comparative & World Literature. She is currently writing her dissertation on insurgency, the body, and memory in Irish and Basque fiction. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Éirí Amach na Cásca or the Easter Rising—an event whose celebrations I’ve been following with great interest due to the nature of my work, which focuses in part on the representation of insurgency in Irish fiction, but also as a Basque who was brought up with a keen sense of the importance of the Irish struggle for independence in the context of nation formation in Europe and elsewhere. In contrast to the 50th anniversary when all the celebrations focused on “the men of 1916,” this time the interest has shifted to the voices often unheard, disregarded, or forgotten by the official records. As a result of this shift, new publications are coming out on subjects ranging from women’s involvement in the rebellion to the experiences of the relatives of the rebels and of the English soldiers deployed in Ireland at that time.

A Star Called Henry by Roddy DoyleAlthough not new, Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry (1999) is a novel I enjoyed reading the first time and like rereading from time to time precisely because it tells the story of Easter 1916 from a quite uncommon perspective—that of an orphan who grew up in the slums of Dublin. Through his acquaintance with the socialist leader James Connolly, Henry Smart, the main character of the story, learns that the cause of his misfortunes is not natural nor, as his mother believed, the consequence of having been named after a deceased brother who turned into a star in the sky the day he passed away. It is rather the product of the inequality perpetuated by class. Driven by the dream of a classless society where no child will die of starvation in the streets, as was the case of his younger brother Victor, Henry joins the Irish Citizen Army and plays an active role in the 1916 rebellion. There is no sense of heroism in Henry’s account of the events. It is rather a rough account through which the readers get a sense of the conflicting interests of the participants. After Connolly’s execution, Henry realizes that his socialist dreams won’t be fulfilled any time soon and the nationalist character of the struggle in the following years corroborates it.

At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'NeillA Star Called Henry was written eight decades after the rebellion, at a time when there was a substantial increase of risk of poverty experienced in households headed by women in the Republic (see Callan et al. Poverty in the 1990s), and scandals such as the abuse suffered by children between the 1930s and the 1970s in the state childcare system were exposed by the media. The novel can be read then as a reflection on the promises listed on Forógra na Poblachta or the Proclamation of the Republic of 1916 that went unfulfilled after independence and for which the Irish state must be held accountable. Similar is the strategy of  (2001), although in this case the focus is on gay rights. The protagonists of O’Neill’s novel are two boys who fall in love and decide to join the rebels to fight for a free country where they will be able to love freely each other.

The Devil I Know by Claire KilroyAlthough not exactly an Easter 1916 novel, Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know (2012) points at the same direction as the two previous examples in the sense that it reads current events in the light of Ireland’s past history. In this case, however, the 1916 rebellion and the events that followed didn’t bring absolute independence as the Republic continues to be hunted by its colonial past. In a passage of the novel a group of politicians and influential businessmen, encouraged by the success obtained with their real estate enterprises in Ireland, decide to take over England’s market next, then Great Britain’s, then Europe’s, and finally the world’s. This vivid example of “colonization in reverse” is one of the many instances where Kilroy’s novel, a satirical take on Ireland’s real-estate development boom amid the Celtic Tiger, alludes to Irish anxiety to overcome and remediate, in this case through capitalism, the psychological trauma caused by its past yet ever present identity as England’s former colony and as Europe’s other. Yet as the protagonist of the novel, Tristam St. Lawrence, says, the cure may be worse than the ailment—in his view, by embracing aggressive capitalism the Republic has achieved what the English couldn’t: complete colonization.

These days I’ve been reading a lot about why Easter 1916 holds such an iconic position in Irish history and memory when it didn’t actually bring the end of British rule, although it certainly set the process of independence (Forógra na Poblachta issued by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army was invoked in the Declaration of Independence in 1919). I think A Star Called Henry and At Swim Two Boys give us one possible answer: it was a year full of possibilities and potential, a promise of a better country for the Irish. However, not everybody agrees on that. In revisionist circles, the main argument is that the rebellion was insignificant in terms of the number of people involved since it didn’t have the support of the majority of the Irish who regarded the rebels as “criminals”—in some revisionist accounts the authors go as far as to call them “terrorists.” The violence displayed during the rebellion is now cause of discomfort for some as the West has become less accepting of the use of violence as a political means on Western soil. Wars are still fought, but they happen elsewhere and for the sake of democracy, or so are we told.

Easter 1916: A Global History by Keith JefferyEaster 1916, however, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Keith Jeffery’s recent book, Easter 1916: A Global History (2015) reads the rebellion in relation to no less violent events happening in Europe and in the colonies as World War I progressed to shed some light on the circumstances that made the rising possible. If anything, Easter 1916 reveals the violence at the heart of the birth of the nation, a characteristic all Western nations share, and the trouble of decolonization. But then, as Ernest Renan famously said, forgetting is equally important to the creation of the nation for in the erasure of the foundational violence from the collective memory depends its success.

Recently a group of high school kids were asked in a debate contest if the memory of Easter 1916 should be put to rest and no longer celebrated in the Republic. A similar proposal is put forward in Edna O’Brien’s A House of Splendid Isolation (1994) as an antidote to the modern “troubles” in the North. In the novel, published the same year the Provisional IRA and the Loyalist paramilitary announced a complete cessation of military operations, the North has become a foreign country for the good citizens of the OBrien_HouseOfSplendidIsolationRepublic, where history lives in folk tales and songs. The Fenian of 1916, as Josie tells IRA activist McGreevy, are all dead and their cause long gone. McGreevy disagrees and responds to the old lady in whose house he’s sought refuge that the South has forgotten the North.

There is no single memory of Easter 1916—it’s at least double. For the South, 1916 was the beginning of the end of British rule and the creation of the Irish State. Yet for the North that same date represents an unfulfilled promise since five years after the rebellion Ireland was partitioned with six counties of the north remaining under British rule. As it happens, 2016 is also the 35th anniversary of the hunger strike that took place in Maze prison to protest against Margaret Thatcher’s decision to suspend “special category” for Republican political prisoners. As a consequence of the hunger strike ten Republican prisoners died.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

Reading about Home by Dorothee Schneider

Dorothee Schneider is a Lecturer in the Department of History.

I have always been interested in reading about people who find themselves in a different place, from the one they used to call home. How does one lose one’s home? Is home tied to place, or can we make homes that move with us, free of a physical location?

Make Your Home among Strangers by Capo CruzetTwo writers, Sayed Kashua and Jennine Capo Cruzet have some interesting things to say about these questions, though from vastly different perspectives. Capo Cruzet’s novel, Make Your Home among Strangers (2015) tells the story of Lizet, who pushes herself out of her Hialeah Cuban immigrant family onto the campus of an Ivy League college where everything is polished to a chilly shine and comfortably upholstered. As it turns out, Lizet’s family is unforgiving, but not necessarily in expected ways. Her mother also decides to leave home. She becomes a full time community activist to secure the future of a young boy, Ariel Hernandez, as an American immigrant. The story is closely modeled on the 1999/2000 case of Elian Gonzalez. Other family members are overwhelmed by the drive that both Lizet and her mother have and which pulls them to opposite ends of the American cultural universe. Ultimately Lizet sees that she cannot return to a home that no longer exist; she has to take “home” with her. The novel has many cringeworthy scenes (think “Dear White People”), but there is also a chick-lit vibe to the book that makes it an enjoyable read from the start.

Native by Sayed KashuaSayed Kashua’s Native (2016) is more modest in its literary ambition. It is a collection of essays, first published (in Hebrew) in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, where Kashua writes a regular weekly column. The vignettes, about Kashua’s life as an Israeli Arab have a cumulative power that can be hard to match in fiction. The tone is quiet and the stories are laced with humor—in Israel Kashua is known as a humorist. But the light touch of the earlier essays (published in 2010) gives way to a more frantic urgent tone. By 2013 there is less space for the Israeli native and his family as borders are drawn more tightly within the homeland. The essays end with Kashua’s decision to leave the country, for a while, at least.

Like many colleagues, I moved to the University of Illinois from a far-away place, and sometimes I still wonder how I got here and why this became home. Capo Cruzet, who lives and teaches in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Kashua, who has lived and worked in Champaign-Urbana for the past three years, have helped me answer that question in their distinctive ways.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

Healing with Jewelweed by Sharon Irish

Sharon Irish works at the Center for Digital Inclusion at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. She’s active in FemTechNet too.

JewelweedI ponder the end of life quite a bit, which is to say, I wonder what it all means. That has been especially so this year, with the deaths of two friends from my amazing book group: Jane Hedges, on June 17, 2015, and Nancy Abelmann, on January 6, 2016.

We in the book group miss them very much, so I thought I would take this chance to share some thoughts about a book that we read in January. We lit candles for both of them, and discussed Jewelweed by David Rhodes (Milkweed Editions, 2014).

We mostly read fiction, occasionally wandering into biography, memoir, or history. Within the fiction category, we hew to 20th and 21st century authors, seeking a good story and sympathetic, well-developed characters. Experimental writing, not so much, though if the sentences are exquisitely crafted and the details stellar, maybe.

Jewelweed by David Rhodes

Jewelweed has all that—a compelling plot woven with intriguing sub-plots, very likeable characters who daily struggle to get along with each other within unforgiving systems, and a setting in west-central Wisconsin that Rhodes evokes with fond attention to canned peaches and church suppers, fields and back roads, huge skies and little streams, wild ginger and nettles, big rigs and small motors, and a cast of non-human critters. I dove right in. It’s a world familiar to me, having grown up in Minnesota, yet full of new realizations about living with cystic fibrosis, or being paroled from a supermax prison to cope and work in a small town. While a felony record certainly burdens Blake Bookchester, one of the central characters, it doesn’t define him. He is defined more by his relationships with motors and non-human animals, as well as those he sputteringly builds with people. There is a town full of memories—violent as well as soothing—that erupt or glow in turn, and curious children actively making mischief. Another central character, Dart Workhouse, was, according to her ten-year-old son Ivan, “the fiercest defender anyone could ever hope for.” But Dart undermines herself too. She “lies to keep bad things from happening,” but, at other times, recognizes that bad things “that happened…[do]n’t have to mean anything about me now.” This is a seesaw that many of us ride, hoping for redemption.

I like novels that incorporate our own current, complicated intersections: Rhodes isn’t a pedant or a preacher, but his novel has characters whose racialization, economic status, family histories, neurovariances, and genders matter as they push back against injustices. There are no diatribes against agribusiness or the “ever-expanding penal infrastructure”; on the other hand, the people in Jewelweed hold pretty firmly to their anger about the rich getting richer and bullying those just trying to survive. Survive they do, much to the credit of the land their ancestors stole from the people who were there before them. Nate, Blake’s father, sits under a large silver maple during one of his delivery runs, imagining “the roots of the tree entering the hill beneath him, tunneling down, extending tendril threads into the roots of the corn plants, passing from one to another, following the rows, moving in all directions through the ocean of plants, on to the ends of the earth.” As this 450-page book unfolds, the people within it, like the plants, grow tendril threads that entangle and nurture all of them in quite marvelous ways.

Dart demands to know: “Do you think people can ever be forgiven for what they don’t know about themselves, for paying too much attention to what frightens them and too little to what makes them happy? Do you think there is any future for people who have been so ignorant for so long about everything?” Immersed in this book, I felt rather hopeful that the answer was “yes.” That “what it all means” includes undermining ignorance with compassion and care, as Jane and Nancy did so well, each in her own wise ways.

“There aren’t many good feelings left in this world,” says a waitress at the beginning. That’s true, though I found quite a few good feelings in these pages. It’s been a rough year and I thoroughly welcomed the chance to lose myself in this sensuous gem, flavored with ripe musk-melons.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

Why I Choose Memoirs by Kaylee Barron

Kaylee Barron is a graduate student in the department of Education, Policy, Organization, and Leadership studying Higher Education.

If I am reaching for a book, nine times out of ten it is a memoir. I am always searching for a good laugh and a story about something true. Memoirs tell how certain experiences have shaped someone’s journey, they give us insight into things we would otherwise not know about, make us laugh, and give us “so I’m not the only one who thinks/does that” moments.


LLove is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffieldove is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

Things I love: pop culture, love stories, memoirs. Add them all together and you have media writer Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Through mix tapes of days past, Sheffield tells of how he met and fell in love with his wife Renee as well as how he found a new normal when she suddenly passed away. Each chapter of Love is a Mix Tape begins with a tracklist of a mixtape Rob had during his courtship and marriage to Renee. How Sheffield turns something like a Hall and Oates song as a way to discuss falling in love with Renee is unlike anything else I have ever read. This is a man who loved everything there was to love about his wife and his use of old mixtapes to tell their story is so different and so wonderful. I laughed at his wit, cried at his truths.

“What is love? Great minds have been grappling with this question through the ages, and in the modern era, they have come up with many different answers. According to the Western philosopher Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield. Her paisan Frank Sinatra would add the corollary that love is a tender trap. The stoner kids who spent the summer of 1978 looking cool on the hoods of their Trans Ams in the Pierce Elementary School parking lot used to scare us little kids by blasting the Sweet hit “Love Is Like Oxygen”—you get too much, you get too high, not enough and you’re gonna die. Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug. The troubadours of our times all agree: They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple. Love is a mix tape.” – Rob Sheffield


That Book about Harvard by Eric KesterThat Book about Harvard: Surviving the World’s Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time by Eric Kester

As a graduate student in higher education, I am always searching for a book giving real insight into college life. I recently finished That Book about Harvard detailing the first year of Eric Kester’s life at the infamous university. What is so great about this memoir is that Kester pairs Harvard history alongside personal, and oftentimes painful, stories of being a first-year college student. Kester juxtaposes what makes Harvard Harvard to the struggles of being 18 and navigating the confusing waters of college. An added bonus of Kester’s memoir is his stories of being on the football team. As someone who shies away from any mention of sports, I found myself wanting more of Kester’s stories on the field. What is is like being a student athlete, having characters for coaches, and setting a new standard for the NCAA was more exciting because it all happened at Harvard.


What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir by Kristen NewmanWhat I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir by Kristen Newman

I oftentimes find myself wanting to read about a person who does things that make me say, “I could never.” Kristen Newman’s memoir about solo travel and the search for the perfect companion made me both cringe and smile. Weeks spent in Russia, Brazil, and Australia are fascinating as Newman takes every opportunity that comes her way, allowing her to meet the most interesting cast of characters. What I was Doing While You Were Breeding reminds us women that we need to get out there, stamp our passports, and do something new. Time spent traveling is never wasted, especially when a good story comes from it.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment

Tim Liao’s Reading Suggestions

Tim Liao is Professor of Sociology (and of Statistics) and served as Acting Director of the Center for East Asian & Pacific Studies (2012-2013).

The Vegetarian by Han KangThe power of fiction is at its most potent when it speaks universal truth, even if truth about the darker side of human nature. Two recently translated books by South Korean novelist Han Kang are best examples showing such power. Her book The Vegetarian is Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye, a homemaker “completely unremarkable in every way” in her husband’s words, refused to eat meat, scandalizing her family along the way, before rejecting life itself. The author here explores desires, satisfied and denied.

Human Acts by Han KangHan Kang was born in Gwangju, the site of the 1980 student uprising and the subsequent state-sponsored massacre. Though her family moved away to Seoul later, the memories of discovering at the age of 12 the massacre portrayed in the photos taken by foreign journalists in a secretly circulated memorial album hidden on the top shelf of the family bookcase inspired—and compelled—her to write Human Acts over 30 years later. The writing is sensual, brutal, disturbing, yet lyrical all at once, reflecting on the universal presence of injustice.

Posted in Reading Matters@IPRH | Leave a comment