Introducing “The Humanities in the Public Square@Illinois” blog series

Humanities scholars have long had multiple audiences in mind. The turn toward public humanities in the last decade has extended the reach of what we do, fueled in part by a sense of urgency about communicating our work to as broad a set of publics as possible. In the process, we have the opportunity to call some public communities into being and bring others into clearer view. At The Humanities in the Public Square@Illinois we feature posts by faculty and students working in various aspects of the humanities and seeking both to showcase upcoming events and draw new audiences to the many lively, vibrant humanities programs and events that animate the campus and beyond.

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Thank you for Reading!

Thank you for Reading! Reading Matters is ending but the IPRH Blog is not. Check back in the fall for our new series: “Humanities in the Public Square@Illinois”

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Food Studies and M.F.K. Fisher

Marika Christofides is Associate Acquisitions Editor for Anthropology and Food Studies at the University of Illinois Press. 

As a publishing professional, I don’t read outside of work nearly as much as I used to. But every time I do discover a new book or writer that I love, it can feel like discovering the power of literature all over again. That happened to me this past summer with M.F.K. Fisher. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is one of America’s preeminent food writers: the 27-or-so books she authored between 1937 and her passing in 1992 offer meditations on life, love, and hunger which are sometimes compared to and even said to surpass Ernest Hemingway’s writings during the first part of this time period. Not only that, but she is famous as the first writer to use food as a cultural metaphor in an era when food was seen as unworthy of thought or comment, essentially inventing modern food writing and its many sub-genres. Newly minted as the Press’s acquiring editor in food studies, I thought I should learn more about her. So I picked up The Art of Eating, a collection of her five most popular books – “Serve it Forth,” “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “The Gastronomical Me,” and “An Alphabet for Gourmets” – and took it on vacation with me.

I thought I wouldn’t like this book. I grew up in a food-obsessed household, where my mom kept an impressive collection of fancy cookbooks and Saveurs that I think may have dated from before I was born. I used to read them for fun, so I was no stranger to what I thought I recognized as a particularly stuffy kind of food writing: nostalgic for a European agricultural past, prescriptive about the purity of ingredients and the authenticity of recipes, insistent that *good* food “must” cost a lot of time and money.

Instead, The Art of Eating – and particularly “Serve it Forth” – reminded me of something that it’s easy to forget: food is more than just food. In Serve it Forth, Fisher interpolates essays that capture pivotal moments in her life through food, with essays that use culinary history to reflect on culture at large. A story about trying to impress a new romantic partner by taking him to a favorite Paris haunt after several years absence, only to find that the place has changed hands and her favorite waiter is an old drunk on the verge of being fired, is followed by a (hilarious) narrative of the fall of Rome through culinary excess. Her writing has a melancholy quality combined with a wry, matter-of-fact sense of humor that I really appreciated.

In one of my favorite chapters, “Borderland,” she describes a personal food ritual from her time in Strasbourg: “In the morning in the soft, sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al.” At the time that she was writing Serve it Forth, Fisher and her first husband Al had already separated. Fisher uses her share of “must”s, and she gives detailed instructions for how to enjoy a proper dinner party (as it turns out, you can’t invite more than six people). But “Serve if Forth” isn’t so much about The Good Life as it is about food as the stuff that our relationships—to ourselves and to each other—are made of.

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Patty Jones: What I’m Reading

Patty Jones is Associate Director for Research at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

I am always reading three or four books at the same time, usually a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I got a Kindle Paperwhite for a holiday gift, so now I am also starting to read e-books more often. I just finished reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo as an e-book and loved it. I had never read Saunders’ work before, and it was an unexpected treat. The book is an unusual style of fragments from different narrators, but it does tell a story that is elegiac yet sometimes playful. As a parent myself, I also found certain plot elements particularly wrenching. Now I am reading The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of our time by Keith Houston – and this is a book that you must have in a physical hardcopy because that is precisely the point. It is beautifully made with lovely paper and stitching, makes interesting use of color, and is also “meta” – the physical book itself has annotations pointing out its hinge, binding tape, foot, and so on. It is a concise and well-written history of the elements of the book – the invention of paper from papyrus to parchment to wood-based paper; the invention of writing, illustrations, and more. Right now I’m enjoying reading about illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

My second book I recently found at the Illini Union bookstore – Seven Words for Wind: Essays and Field Notes from Alaska’s Pribilof Islands by Sumner MacLeish. It is a short and beautifully written account of the author’s move to the Pribilof Islands that includes elements of ethnography, nature, journalism, and history. Each chapter is named after a type of wind in the Aleut language; for example, “Asxi-lix” means roughly “to go against the wind”. The colonialism elements of this history still reverberate with the native Aleuts to this day. The natural world is dynamic, harsh, and beautiful, and its exploitation by fishing and other industries is a fact of life. The people are a wonderful mix of perspectives. It makes you think about your own “village” and why it is the way it is. My third book is one that I purchased a long time ago and finally popped open – the time travel science fiction classic The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. A 1983 everyman English professor gets swept up into a secretive millionaire’s scheme to travel through time – but this is only possible during certain windows of time and space. I am only about 15% of the way through the story so far, and it is very engaging to see nineteenth-century London through the eyes of a somewhat modern American. It is fun, mysterious, and fast-paced, and I can certainly imagine it as a really cool HBO mini-series. Speaking of which, if I was in charge of HBO, here is my slate of books to turn into the next Game of Thrones-style lavish juggernaut series of mystery and adventure:

1. Orphan of Creation by Roger MacBride Allen.

2. The “Southern Reach Trilogy” by Jeff VanderMeer.

3. The “Hyperion” series by Dan Simmons.

4. The “Pliocene Saga” by Julian May.

5. Pastwatch by Orson Scott Card.

(PS: And, I am really looking forward to “American Gods” later this month on Starz!)

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Books That Changed the World: The Third Annual History Soapbox

Marc Hertzman is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for History. 

What am I reading right now?  Baby books to my son, class material, and a few primary and secondary sources for research.  Beyond that I’m stuck in a familiar purgatory of seemingly endless, unfinished New Yorker articles, with no good books in sight.  Fortunately, on March 30th the History Department will be holding its Third Annual Soapbox, a raucous event sure to inspire anyone out of the reading doldrums.  During the Soapbox, faculty, students (grad and undergrad), and staff compete to make the best case in six minutes or less for why one single book changed everything. The incomparable Carol Symes won the first competition with a mesmerizing performance punctuated with the literary equivalent of a mic drop—she concluded by slamming her book shut.  What book did she argue changed everything?  The Justinian’s Law Code, a smart choice since most people consider it to be the world’s first, um… book!  Last year, our amazing chair Clare Crowston won with a somewhat more controversial selection, Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.  This year’s contestants will bring arguments for a new and truly inspiring list of books, some of which you have surely heard of – The Communist Manifesto, presented on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, George Orwell’s 1984, Virgil’s Aeneid – and others that you may well not have: for example, Gustavo Gutierrez’s Teología de liberación (Liberation Theology) and one of our boldest entries yet: The English Football Association’s 1863 Rules of Association Football.


On March 30th, the Soapbox will begin at 7:00 PM in 210 Illini Union (General Lounge) and conclude only once a winner has been declared.  Please join us to be inspired, to debate, and to propel your favorite book to victory in the Audience Favorite category.  Hope to see you there!

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Celebrating Literary Achievement at UIP

Angela Burton is the Rights & Permissions/Awards Manager at the University of Illinois Press.

I am the awards manager at the University of Illinois Press, and it is always a good day at work when I can inform my colleagues that one of our books has won an award. Editors and other press staff are always very excited for the authors who have worked for years on their books, and it is gratifying to find that a book has not only reached its audience of scholars but also been recognized as exceptional in its field.

Nearly 120 UIP titles have won awards since 2011 from numerous organizations–including the American Folklore Society, Association of Black Women Historians, Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Modern Language Association, National Communication Association, Organization of American Historians, and Working-Class History Association. Over the last year, about 20 of our books have won awards, and a handful of titles have been recognized by more than one organization.

Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga by Jane Beck is one of those titles. It won the Chicago Folklore Prize from the American Folklore Association (AFA) and the Wayland D. Hand Prize from the History and Folklore Section of the AFA and was named a Choice 9780252080791Outstanding Academic Title.

Daisy Turner was born in 1883, the daughter of freed slaves. She was the caretaker of her family history, which she had learned from her father, Alexander Turner. He was born in 1845 as a slave in Virginia, escaped slavery during the Civil War, and moved to Vermont, becoming a farmer and marrying and raising a family. Alexander Turner had learned of his family’s story from his father, who had been born in Africa, and Alexander was adamant that his children know this history.

Daisy Turner became the family chronicler, with a narrative of her family going back four generations. Jane Beck, a folklorist for the Vermont State Arts Council, interviewed and filmed Turner in the mid-1980s. Daisy Turner died in 1988, and Beck spent the next thirty years writing a history of the family. A review in the Oral History Review stated, “If you are interested in how oral history can lead to discovery and help chronicle a family legacy, then you will find [this book] a necessary guidebook.” Beck researched the Turner family’s history, using written documents and archival sources, skillfully interweaving Daisy’s narrative with her own research. Describing the importance of the Turner family history, Beck states, “Seldom is an oral family narrative transmitted so fully across the generations. While memory is considered unreliable, it is always meaningful. This book considers how memory and fine storytelling can serve as a signpost to recorded events and enrich historical documents by offering emotional content from an individual perspective.”


Cara Finnegan’s Making Photography Matter: A Viewer’s History from the Civil War to the Great Depression, explores the rhetorical practices of viewers of photography, as it became the primary visual medium in the late nineteenth century. To explore this history, Finnegan provides four fascinating case studies: reactions of Americans to photography during the Civil War (including “spirit photography”); responses to an Abraham Lincoln portrait in the decades after his death; use of photography by opponents of child labor amid a changing view of childhood; and responses of viewers to the Farm Security Administration photography exhibition during the Great Depression.

Finnegan finds rhetorical traces of reactions to photography in the written evidence of the time period, including articles, court testimony, speeches, and comment cards, to show how engagement with photography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped viewers negotiate and address anxieties and crises of U.S. public life, including war, grief, national identity, poverty, and the economy.

Viewers, she concludes, were not passive observers of this medium; they were rhetorically conscious and created sophisticated arguments about photographs. They engaged in discourse using a repertoire of “presence, character, appropriation, and magnitude,” and Finnegan determines that viewership was not identical or fixed but was contextually located in time and place within interpretive communities that helped guide the responses. Making Photography Matter won Outstanding Book of the Year from the Visual Communication Division of the National Communication Association in 2015 and the James A. Winans and Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address from the NCA in 2016.

Another multiple award winner is Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures by 9780252081101.jpgL. H. Stallings. Describing Funk the Erotic as “part critical theory, part philosophy, and part cultural manifesto,” Stallings argues that scholars should regard funk, a multisensory and multidimensional philosophy, as an alternative methodological tool to Western philosophies for the study of black sexual labor, sexual expressivity, and sexual culture. The book maintains that the use of explicit sexual expression in black literature and culture was a rejection of the Western will to truth, a literary tradition that Stallings terms funky erotixxx. Stallings argues that those who produced in this genre were proposing “a notably different understanding of sexual and erotic labor because they are also exploring new sensoriums and ways of being that cannot and do not align with Western traditions of humanism.”

Stallings uses the idea of transing, drawn from queer theory, to explore black sexuality and culture without the moralizing judgment and stigmatization of Western culture and to show how the use of funk by black communities provides alternative knowledge about imagination and sexuality. She embarks on an enthralling transdisciplinary study of black sexuality within multiple texts and media, incorporating literary theory, affect theory, legal scholarship, dance studies, music and performance criticism and theory, feminist theory, and queer of color critique.

Thoroughly engaging and thought provoking, Funk the Erotic won the Emily Toth Award for Best Single Work in Women’s Studies from the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) and the Alan Bray Memorial Book Award from the GL/Q Caucus of the Modern Language Association. The book was also a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards in LGBT studies.

More information about award-winning titles from the University of Illinois Press can be found here:


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A Newly (Re)born Comic Fan

Mara L. Thacker is an assistant professor and the South Asian Studies librarian at Illinois.

I read Archie comics pretty regularly as a kid. They were a special treat that I could sometimes finagle my mom into buying me in the grocery store checkout line. I also religiously read the Sunday comics in the newspaper. Even so, it never would have occurred to me to call myself a comic fan. I also never would have imagined that I’d start a South Asian comic collection that would become core to my professional life and research.

For the most part my relationship with comics as an adult has been attending academic lectures about comics, reading articles and chapters about comics and libraries, and reading comics from India (which have relatively fewer fans in the United States). It’s nice to feel like an authority on South Asian comics but I felt a bit like an outsider here in the US, unable to speak the language of DC, Marvel, Image, and Vertigo. Reading comics and graphic novels from the US felt like a giant “should” hanging over my head. Which of course meant I dragged my feet despite all warm welcome and recommendations I have received from the comic fans in my life.  But then…

A friend lent me a copy of volume one of Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel series, Saga. And thus, finally, I began my journey as a voracious devourer of graphic novels. Saga now has a firm place in my list of top books of all time because it is the book that made me fall in love with American graphic novels as an adult. I’m a big reader so this is a high honor because I like so many books that I have very few that I would designate as favorites. My favorites earn that distinction both because of the writing and aesthetics, and because of the emotional impact or transformative power they have had in my life (if you want to know, my other favorites include: Half of a Yellow Sun, The Art of Racing in the Rain, A Fine Balance, and Veronika Decides to Die).

Saga is a love story and it is also story about a war between a planet and its moon, which grows to encompass other universes as the fighting is outsourced to other planets. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between the destruction sowed by racism and hatred in Saga and the current global political climate.

What do I like so much about Saga? First, I love the aesthetics of the art. The colors are vibrant and the artist Fiona Staples captures an extraordinary depth of expression in the characters. And these characters aren’t just human—there are robots, animals, aliens, cyclops, and animal-human hybrids. My favorite is Lying Cat, whose dialogue is minimal but has an often comedic effect when she points out that people are lying.

Beyond the detailed artistic renderings of these characters, I love how complex they are written too. The heroes are not purely good, nor are the villains purely evil. Sometimes the text and art come together in ways that are so evocative that the reading experience leaves one overcome with emotion. Even micro-interactions and practically anonymous characters can move one to tears. For example there is one scene where a field medic mouse from one of the planets conscripted into the outsourced battle explodes because he was not given proper equipment.  He is in the act of saving an injured ally from a more powerful planet when a chemical weapon is deployed. His eyes become large and liquid as he realizes with horror what is about to happen to him and the casual banality of his death, which could have so easily been prevented had his more powerful allies cared to protect the less privileged conscripts is horrifying. Yet equally at fault is the other side which violated a treaty against using those weapons. The resonances with the current global geo-political situation are stark. Illustration of the medic mouse scene

So what’s a newly (re)born comic fan to read next? Here are my post-Saga picks that will accompany me during my morning coffee over the next few weeks. Note, because I am myself, this list does contain an Indian comic. Along with the name and title, I’ll include a small explanation for why they made the list:Photo of the below mentioned comics

  1. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda: A gorgeous graphic novel with art deco/steampunk influenced art created by women with a female protagonist. (Note this isn’t in the above picture because as soon as I finished it, I lent it to a colleague)
  2. Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire: A dark, post-apocalyptic tale of a young boy who is half human and half deer. The art has a rawer feel than Monstress and Saga, but it fits the tale well and it is beautiful colored by Jose Villarrubia.
  3. Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia Butler, Damian Duffy, and John Jennings: Did you know that Chambana is home to a New York Times bestselling comic author? As of last week, Kindred is the New York Time’s number one bestselling hardcover graphic book and Damian Duffy is a recent PhD graduate of ISchool and a current instructor. A very timely adaptation.
  4. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra: Recommended to me by the same friend who recommended Saga, this series imagines that there is only one man left on earth and follows his travails to discover why he is the only male survivor in a female-only society.
  5. Invincible by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker: A series about the children of superheroes as they begin to develop their own superpowers and contemplate becoming superheroes in their own right.
  6. The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, Jackie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson: The premise of this series is that every ninety years, twelve gods are incarnated as human pop stars. As someone who studied Religion in undergrad, I can’t wait to see how gods are depicted as pop stars.
  7. Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen: This series has been recommended to me several times as a fun, female-centered series that has women creators as well as the protagonists. The intended audience for this series is good deal younger than the others on this list, but it seems to be enjoyed by adults and kids alike.
  8. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd: Having recently watched the movie and been thoroughly creeped out giving the resonances with today’s political climate, this graphic novel seems like a must-read. Alan Moore is a legend in the comic world and I would be remiss without reading his work. It also helps that one of my favorite colleagues consistently describes this as one of her favorites.
  9. Black Mumba by Ram Venkatesan, Devmalya Pramanik, Rosh, Kishore Mohan, and Aditya Bidikar: This is a noir comic anthology in which the main characters are Dev of the Mumbai Police and the city of Mumbai itself. The art is all in black and white which only serves to highlight the different artists’ styles. It’s gorgeously rendered, and captures well some of Mumbai’s darker idiosyncrasies.

Illustration of Black Mumba

If you have any recommendations to pass along for some of your most beloved comics or would like a tour of the South Asian comic collection at Illinois, please get in touch! You can email me at

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Why I (Used to) Hate Poetry

Jane Desmond is a professor of Anthropology and  Gender and Women’s Studies.

Well, of course that isn’t really true.  I never really “hated” poetry;  I just actively avoided it.  Yes, I appreciated the occasional haiku printed in the newspaper, or the well turned line of a rap song, or a dynamic performance at a poetry slam…but I never sought out books of poetry. I never reached for a poem when it was time to read something other than the densely theoretical, closely argued (and oh so heavily footnoted ) academic texts that are my daily working landscape as both scholarly author and reader.  Leisure reading, for me, was usually a mystery novel, a reliably engaging, narrative piece of genre fiction with enough twists and turns to keep me interested (say, something by Henning Mankell, since I’m partial to Scandinavian writers, and once got to sit at “Mankell’s table” in a restaurant in Malmo, Sweden.) Poetry demanded too much attention, like literary novels. Somehow, I felt I had to “get ready” to read poetry. I had to clear my mind, marshall my resources, and function on all cylinders to enjoy the complex play of dense semiosis. Reading poetry was clearly too much work after a day of working.

This is why I shocked myself on vacation in Maine last summer by buying a book of poetry—totally voluntarily.  Reading it through, dipping in as into a box of chocolates…testing out each poem.  Poking the edges to see if I liked it.  Then, coming home, I went on-line and bought every other book of poems written by my new favorite poet. When they arrived, I read each and every poem in each book, a few each evening, like a dessert at the end of the day.  I fantasized about writing poems myself.  This was another totally out of character event for a person whose last written poem was one she published in her high school literary magazine decades ago.  I even (get this), went on-line to see if my new favorite poet was teaching writing in a summer workshop somewhere so I could study with him. (Unfortunately, no, for he is busy right now being the Poet Laureate of Maine.)

What was it about these poems that turned me into a poetry reader and buyer? There was a combination of bite-sized ness that made them seem alluring, not exhausting. I didn’t have to “get ready” to read say, a sonnet, or a poem of ten pages. These were one, two pages at the most.  And each had a concrete image that grabs the reader, hooks her into a journey of thinking and feeling, and then takes a swift twist at the end , a sort of dancing contre temps that flips the line of thought from the minute detail to the large scale, the concrete to the symbolic. That little mental gymnastic move gave me the great pleasure of surprise and reflection with each poem.

Photo of Stuart Kestenbaum

Stuart Kestenbaum

The poet is Stuart Kestenbaum. It is no accident that for nearly three decades, right up until about a year ago, he directed the Haystack School of Crafts in Maine—one of the leading crafts schools in the country. I found his books when I visited Haystack last summer. It is place of concrete creation united with daring imagination…a mind-opening place perched above a stunning ocean cove, where artists craft beautiful surprising things out of humble everyday materials like cloth or willow or clay. Kestenbaum too starts with the humble, the concrete—the welcomed warmth of a coffee cup in the hand, the whine of the straining engine of an old car trying to start in winter’s 5 below.

I wanted to put a sample poem in here, but copyright probably forbids it.  Still, it is easy to find many samples of his work on line, including at,  and at   I’m not his only fan of course.  U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser says:  “Stuart Kestenbaum writes the kind of poems I love to read…heartfelt response to the privilege of having been given a life.” And there is a sort of grace in these poems, a deeply felt thanksgiving for that privilege.  The titles of these slim books, published by small independent presses, reflect that: Pilgrimage, House of ThanksgivingOnly Now, and Prayers and Run-on Sentences.  These books about giving thanks and making pilgrimages are not prayers in a religious sense, although Kestenbaum’s Jewish heritage emerges explicitly in some lines.  Rather, they are prayerful in that they speak about large forces moving in the world and beyond.  They capture moments of knitting together the tiny mundanity of daily actions and larger questions of existence that, if we listen as Kestenbaum does, always haunts those actions and gives them meaning, crafting a politics of relationally between people, among communities, and with the material world.

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Seven+ Confessions of a Reader of Science

Antoinette Burton is the Director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.

Science magazineI recently joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in part because I wanted to get a subscription to their weekly magazine, Science.  I am, after all, the director of a humanities center on a STEM campus. A historian by training, I did some work very long ago on the history of science but I am an outsider even in that subfield– albeit it a curious one. Perhaps characteristically for a humanist, I was motivated to join up by my sense that one way into the intellectual community
of scientists was by reading the organ of the AAAS, which touts itself as “the world’s largest general scientific society.”

I have not been disappointed by my subscription. I love reading the table of contents, the opening editorials (which typically gloss a research article or issue to follow in the main section of the journal) and especially the weekly endpapers, which are featured under the column called “Working Life.” These are career stories designed to allow practitioners to talk about how they got where they are and what that might mean both for science and for the social and cultural environments in which it works.

In the October 7, 2016 issue, Lorena Barba, an associate professor at George Washington University, wrote about “the hard road to reproducibility”— a short “Working Life” reflection on the challenges of guaranteeing that experimental results can be replicated. This has been a concern of scientists since Louis Pasteur, but it has become an issue in light of recently debunked experiments and correlative claims that as many as 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments. That figure was reported in Nature, an organ that calls itself “an international weekly journal of science” (Confession #1: I don’t subscribe to Nature. I know my limits).

I enjoy the “Working Life” essays in Science not just because of the biographical idiom they are written in but because they try to contextualize scientific problems and to link what’s happening in labs and classrooms to contemporary headlines and unfolding stories of science in the world at large. I find myself ripping out these endpages and sharing them with colleagues because they resonate with things we think about in the humanities as well: knowledge production, experimental practice, and the ongoing challenge to all kinds of expertise, whether that is rooted in data or its interpretation. When I finished the Barba essay I Googled her. She tweeted that when her piece in Science was published, she got so much attention and so many requests for help with the question of reproducibility that she developed what she calls “The Barba-Group Reproducibility Syllabus,” which has a list of top 10 readings in the subject.  As I scrolled from 1-10 I marveled at the fact that my subscription to Science had taken me to this page, and to a discussion of the credibility crisis in all domains of today’s learning, scientific or not.

Confession #2: I could read Science online but I have a paper subscription because, not having been “born digital,” I know I am more likely to read the hard copies as they pile up on the coffee table next to the cozy sofa I do all my best reading (and writing) on. And while I do rip out the “Working Life” page I also often go into the online version of the journal and pdf the essay for easier circulation and sharing. And obviously (Confession #2a), I Google Nature, and practically everything else as well.

Okay, as long as I am at it, Confession #3: I mostly skip over the technical reports on research which make up the bulk of Science.  I do TRY to dig in, but I am typically foxed by the terminology, the math and the graphs.  The latter are beautifully rendered, I must say, and I admire them as aesthetic objects. “Figure 3: Theoretical analysis of the TCI step edge electronic structure” that accompanies the article by Sessi et al., “Robust spin polarized midgap states at step edges of topological crystalline insulators,” [volume 354, issue 6317, 9 December 2016, p. 1271] is particularly dreamy and mesmerizing, but it’s by no means exceptional in that regard. The art of visualization in science, and in Science, is an endless source of fascination, even pleasure, for me. It makes me think that it cannot be an accident that the call to visualize is as urgent and ubiquitous in the meditative healing literature as it is in the data science literature at this particular moment (but  [Confession #3a], I digress).

Meanwhile, my utter incomprehension of the meat and potatoes of the contents of Science does not stop me from enjoying what I do read, and doing my own modest ethnographic speculation about it. I frankly wonder at the expertise and knowledge and sheer hard work that has gone into the production of each and every one of the research reports – and at the complex collaboration and team work that goes into the experiments, the data collection and the write up. I am also fascinated by the high stakes of publication in this, one of the premier peer reviewed venues for global science. When retractions occur I worry about the research team. I desperately want to know the skinny on what they are saying to each other in the wake of that kind of negative notice in this most prestigious of publications.  Are they working night and day to challenge the challengers? Are they hanging their heads in shame? Did they lose their funding? Who is getting or taking the blame?

Confession #4: I feel a little terrified by the vast quantities of science I simply have no clue about, nor any hope of ever even remotely grasping in this short lifetime.   Yet despite being pretty intimidated by the entire enterprise of Science between covers, let alone STEM as an aggregate, I do love to dive into my subscription copy every week. The cover stories are enticing. Recent special issues have been devoted to “Genes and Environment,” “Photosynthesis in Crops” (wow! I actually found that interesting) and “Family Ties: Saudi Arabia Strives to Prevent Genetic Diseases.” There are always half a dozen “easy on the eyes” stories preceding the more technical research reports that provide analysis of science undergirding areas like health, neurodevelopment and even “collective action.”  That rubric pointed me toward a “Policy Forum” write-up of research by Nyborg et al. in an essay called “Social Norms as Solutions” which was about behavioral norm experiments and their use value for social policy.

And of course, the obituaries are endlessly fascinating and extremely thoughtful and well written. They stand up well against even the best of the genre in the business, the Economist obituaries, which appear at the end of that publication and are routinely tour de forces. In fact, so gripping are the Economist obits that they compelled me to start a practice I apply to several other weeklies to which I subscribe: I read them back to front. Not Science, though; at least not yet. I still need the orientation device of the table of contents at the start to help ease my sense of intimidation at the fact that I am trying to grapple with such interesting but forbidding intellectual terrain.

And yet, in fact, my anxiety is likely just habit because I thoroughly enjoy my weekly romp through the magazine. What prompted me to write this Reading Matters post (my first since IPRH launched the blog in the fall of 2015) is an article I ripped not out of Science but out of my college alumni/a magazine under a section called “Findings,” which features summaries of research in professional science and social science journals. This short squib details research from the journal Social Science and Medicine which suggests that “bookworms live longer.” Based on data from 3600+ individuals who have been involved in a study on health in people over 50, Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology, concluded that those who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week had a distinct “survival advantage” over those who didn’t. “More questions need to be answered,” Professor Levy conceded. “But we know that reading books involves two cognitive processes that could confer a survival advantage: the slow, deep immersion need to connect to content; and the promotion of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

Good news for Reading Matters readers! And for me in particular, as I am drowning in books that I both read and can never get to (let’s save that sob story for another post). When I am able to immerse myself in the pile, it is the equivalent of restorative medicine for me. In contrast, the habit of reading Science has made me nervous: I am now uneasy when I think about Levy’s research. What are the reproducibility factors for her study? What would Professor Barba and her group say? Will Levy’s research end up on some top 10 list of studies that fail the reproducibility test? (Confession #5: I have no reason to think it would, but I am paranoid about research on bookworms). Thanks to my subscription to the AAAS, I am, perhaps, a more self-consciously scientific reader than I used to be. Indeed, I might well have skipped over the bookworm article in my alumni magazine before I took up my weekly reading of Science. Though maybe not, since, shocking as this may be [Confession #6), I am and will always be a sucker for anything even remotely bookish.

And yet, my new habit has clearly left its mark. I have more confidence in my capacity to breach the walls of scientific writing and thinking, which are not so very intimidating after all. And even if more research needs to be done about bookworms like me, Science has likely contributed to my longevity — in ways that are not fully capturable through data or even experiment per se.

Confession #7: In the end, I have to wonder whether my own Science experiment is really just an example of confirmation bias – in my case, confirmation of my conviction that all knowledge is situated and that data doesn’t tell the whole story. Even if that’s true, I plan to renew my Science subscription — the hard copy, with access to the online version for ease of sharing all the great articles that resonate with everything we think and talk about as students of the humanities.

All of which begs the question: what if the humanities had a similar weekly?

What if there were an American Association for the Advancement of the Humanities — an AAAH? I’d definitely subscribe to a magazine called Humanities, as much out of intellectual curiosity as out of professional interest. And I’d like to think that our colleagues north of Green Street would as well. At the very least, it might give them the kind of survival advantage that anyone interested in the future of research knowledge is going to need — in this new year, and beyond.

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Reading by the Numbers, or what I learned about myself from 7 years worth of data

Kelly Delahanty is the Communications Coordinator for the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. You can see her visual design portfolio at and chat with her on twitter @kelldel.

I joined Goodreads, a “social cataloging” site for readers, in the summer of 2009 after I graduated from high school. I had an ever growing list of books I wanted to read and the post-its scattered around my room were no longer going to cut it. So like any good millennial, I turned to the internet to solve my problem. As of this November, I’ve added 1400 books to my Goodreads account.

One of the more recent books I’ve added is Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. Dear Data is the documentation of “a year-long, analog drawing project”—every week for one year, Lupi and Posavec collected personal data and then visualized the data through a hand-drawn postcard that they then sent to each other across the Atlantic. In addition to being a charmingly gorgeous art book, Dear Data is an argument for “small data”—looking at what personal data tracking can tell you about yourself, or as Dear Data states: “spending time with your data is spending time with yourself.”


Giorgia Lupi’s postcard from week 46, visualizing all the books she has at home. Source:

More than a few of the books on my Goodreads account are about data visualization and information design. My favorite work as a designer has always been about using design to facilitate understanding, whether it’s understanding how supercomputers work or what the impact of the National Endowment of the Humanities on University of Illinois’s research is. As I read Dear Data I began to wonder what my personal data would say about me. I use a number of apps to track my habits so I had a few different data sets I could choose from, but since this is Reading Matters, I decided to look at my Goodreads account to see what I could learn about my own reading habits.

So what kind of questions did I have about my reading habits and what did I learn? Well…

Question 1: How much do I read and how much do I want to read?

Let’s start with the basics: As of November 10, 2016 there are 1400 books on my Goodreads account. I’ve read about 30% of those. In comparison, 68% of the books are on my “to read” list, 1.7% of the books have been started and then “abandoned,” and I am currently reading .3% of the books on my list.

Pie chart showing the status of books on my goodreads account. 68% are to read, 30% are read, 1.7% are abandoned, and .3% are being currently read

Figure 1: Status of Books

So I’m certainly ambitious in how much I want to read and I rarely give up on a book. I also read multiple books at once, something I only started doing in the last year or so. But really, this information doesn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. It just lays the groundwork for more interesting queries, like…

Question 2: When did I read these books?

This gets a little complicated because when I signed up for Goodreads I attempted to back date some of the books I had read prior to getting my account. Obviously this included a lot of guess work (Did I read the first Harry Potter book the year it came out or the year after?) and loss of information (What was the name of that book about time travel and Stonehedge that I read in middle school?). The books I’ve catalogued as read prior to 2009 are hardly a comprehensive list, but rather serve as a showcase of the books I read during childhood that had a long lasting impact on me. Or books I had to write school papers about, but you know…same difference.

Post 2009 is another story. The most interesting fact in this data is the fact that I barely read at all my senior year of college, and that my reading habits have picked up considerably since graduating

Line chart showing how many books I've read per year. It goes up over time, takes a sharp dip in 2013 and then goes up sharply again.

Figure 2: Books read per year

This is most likely due to me being especially stressed and busy during senior year. This conclusion is further supported when I break down the last few years into how many books I read by month. Looking at this data, I can link the times when I read the least amount of books to times when I was particularly stressed or busy (which is apparently August, every single year, for some reason).

Multiple line charts showing how many books I read each month for the past 4 years. It typically starts higher in the beginning of the year, goes down in the summer, and then goes back up in the fall.

Figure 3: Books read by month

It’s also possible that I just read more in the winter months than the summer because it cold out and I refuse to leave the warm comforts of my bed for entertainment. If I had access to more people’s Goodread data this is something I’d love to look into. Do all readers cuddle up with a good book when it gets chilly or are most readers apathetic to the changing of the seasons? Do people read more in the wake of new year’s resolution, the same way new members flood the gym on January 1st?

On a personal level, I want to know what the heck had me so busy during March 2015?

Question 3: What do I read?

There’s two ways to interpret this question: by format (prose, poetry, comics, etc) or by genres/subject matter (fantasy, romance, biographies, etc).

Looking at the formats of books across all my lists reveals, unsurprisingly, that most of the books I read or want to read are prose and that most of those are fiction. About 12% of all the books on my Goodreads are fiction comics (also unsurprising to anyone who knows me), followed by 3.5% being poetry (not surprising to me, maybe a tad bit surprising to others), and 1.7% non-fiction comics (not surprising for the simple fact that non-fiction comics are not exactly flooding the shelves). Trailing in last place are a few plays and art books.

Pie chart show what the formats are of the books I read. 45% are fiction prose, 36.6% are non-fiction prose, 12% are fiction comics, 3.5% are poetry, 1.7% are non-fiction comics, .5% are art books, and .5% are plays

Figure 4: Format of books

I’m not sure that this information provides any particular insight into me as a person, but it doesn’t lay a bit of groundwork for understanding the data.

Breaking down the books on my “read” and “to read” list, I think it becomes obvious pretty darn fast what my favorite book genre is.

Bar chart showing how many books of specific genres are on my read and to read lists. The fantasy bar is much longer then the others. The Design, social science, and humanities and arts bars are also fairly long

Figure 5: Genre of books

So…I read a lot of fantasy, which is not surprising to me or anyone who knows me. I also have a lot of books about design (broadly defined to include graphic design, web design, video game design, motion graphic design, and probably some other forms of designs as well). I also, apparently, like non-fiction books about “Humanities and Arts” and “Social Science.”

But here’s where it gets complicated, because Goodreads doesn’t define a book’s genre—users do. I’m the one that decided to categorize something as a particular genre, and how can I decide what to categorize a book as when I haven’t read it yet? Goodreads does suggest genres for each book, but it’s based on what other users have categorized a book as and who knows how trustworthy that is. If only twenty people out of a thousand have labeled a book as science fiction, is it really science fiction or do twenty people not understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy with technology in it?

And because I love making my own life difficult, I decided to limit each book to one genre or subject matter for the purposes for this article. Which means that I had to make some executive decisions on books that technically fit more than one genre, which in turn brought up a number of issues. Do books with time traveling count as historical fiction? What about books that at first glance appear to be fantasy but—spoiler alert—they’ve been in a coma the whole time? How much can a biography look at the larger historical context of a person’s life before it becomes general history book? Should a book that’s about writing marketing copy fall under “writing” or “business”? And don’t even get me started a sorting out whether or not a book should fall into “Humanities and Arts” “Social Science” or “STEM.”

Ultimately I had to make some basic rules. Part of the reason fantasy is so overwhelmingly high is not necessarily because I read fantasy to the exclusion of all other genres, but because I decided to label nearly every book that could be classified as either fantasy or something else as fantasy. I figure that even if there are bodices ripping in horse-drawn carriages, the fact that the occupants of said carriages are time-traveling vampire wizards is probably more important to the story.* Science fiction trumped everything after fantasy was no longer on the table for a particular book, then historical fiction, then romance, and so on, until all that was left was “realistic fiction.”

Non-fiction was even more complicated. I’ve broken my non-fiction books down into a few broad categories, but for the most part this an oversimplification of how I and other Goodreads users label books. They don’t label something as “Social Science”—they label it as philosophy, as politics, as pop culture, as psychology, or as other words that start with “p.” Trying to break down my reading habits by very specific subject matter was unhelpful in extracting any real insight, so I decided I needed group these books into broader categories. And the lines between my three main non-fiction categories—Humanities and Arts, Social Science, and STEM—were not always clear. For example, if a book is about feminism, is that a humanities book or a social science book? If it’s about the history of a specific technology, is that STEM or humanities?

Ultimately it came down to a lot of gut feelings and guess work. I guess I’ll see how well I did when I finally get around to reading those books.


So what did I learn? Well, I don’t read when I’m stressed, and I read more when I’m cold. I read more poetry than art books, and more romance novels than mysteries. I love fantasy, way more than I even realized, and I’m maybe a tad bit obsessed with understanding the boundaries of genres.

There are a lot more questions I want to know. Do I read more stand alone novels or books from series? How soon after a book is published do I typically read it? Do I read more books written by women or men? What about books written by people of color? How do my ratings on books compare to other Goodreads users’ ratings? And how do my reading habits compare to others?

But despite all the unanswered questions, I really enjoyed this project. This seems like something I’d want to revisit again, perhaps once a year. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a Dear Data-like penpal to do it with me.

Anyone interested?

*As far as I know there are no novels about time-traveling vampire wizards who ride around in horse drawn carriages and rip their bodices open. If you know of one, please tell me. And if there are any aspiring authors out there looking for an idea for the next big best seller…you’re welcome.

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