Going for it: A Review of “Fourth and Long”

Sam LeRoy is a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Marketing and Management as a Chancellor’s Scholar. He serves on the Illini Pride Student Athletic Board as a Block I Chair where he designs the football student section’s famous card stunts for the 2016 season.

I’m an athlete to the extent that I can run a respectable 5K and can occasionally shoot a basketball accurately. I played competitive high school basketball, but lacked the ability and passion to develop into anything more than a bench player on a sub-par squad. Despite my meager athletics career, however, I became quite good at cheering on sports teams. Growing up in Champaign, it was only a matter of time until Fighting Illini fandom took hold during the magical Rose Bowl run in 2007. I may not have the skill to play on a football field, but I do know how to yell for three hours in Memorial Stadium and have some voice leftover for the volleyball match that night.

Though my fandom remains fervent as ever, as I matured I became exposed to the often nasty underbelly of collegiate athletics: player abuse, academic fudging, recruiting violations, heart-wrenching firings, and under-compensated workers (cleverly termed ‘student-athletes’). There are the political pressures from donors and administrators mixed with ideological battles within universities over whether pumping millions of dollars into an auxiliary service is the best use of limited resources. In just my previous year as a student at the University of Illinois, the athletic department faced three different player mistreatment scandals—football, women’s basketball, and women’s soccer—before cleaning house and hiring a new athletic director and football coach at record (and somewhat controversial) salaries.

Fourth and Long: A fight for the soul of college football by John Bacon

John Bacon’s book Fourth and Long: A Fight for the Soul of College Football sheds insight into the contemporary soul-searching questions of collegiate athletics from inside four Big Ten programs: Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Penn State. Embedding himself into the programs and learning from the players, coaches, and administrators, Bacon provides institutional knowledge and first-hand accounts of each program’s major storylines at a tipping point in their history.

For Michigan, he chronicles the attempted rebuild from the disastrous Rich Rodriguez regime and the experimental tenure of a corporate world, bottom-line driven athletic director at a school where tradition often demands the more expensive option. At Northwestern, he covers to Wildcats’ remarkable rise under coach Pat Fitzgerald and their efforts to maintain relevancy while adhering to the highest academic standards in the conference. In Columbus, he follows Urban Meyer’s takeover of an Ohio State program reeling from a scandal where players received improper benefits for autographs and personal tokens. The Penn State sections describe the impossible task of returning not only success but ethics and morality to the Nittany Lion program in the wake of Jerry Sandusky. Perhaps the most interesting and relevant storyline, however, is the apparent correlation between a winning football program and academic success, local economic prosperity, and quality of student life.

Financial investment in these programs is a unifying theme, as is the relationship between gridiron success and academic excellence. The benefits a university and its home community enjoy as a result of strong athletics programs is evident throughout, especially in the case of Penn State. Many football fans are unaware that Penn State sought Big Ten membership primarily because of academic ambitions. Penn State was already an established national football power even as an independent, but the Big Ten’s powerful athletic brand offered even more national exposure and revenue. Big Ten membership also included access to the league’s academic counterpart, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (now the Big Ten Academic Alliance), which facilitates research and teaching collaboration.

Without an elite football program Penn State would likely never have attracted a Big Ten invitation, and to their credit university leadership reinvested the financial rewards into a drastically raised academic profile. Bacon shares that over the ten-year period leading to Fourth and Long’s publication Penn State’s liberal arts faculty grew from 240 to 360, a 50% increase. Since joining the conference, they have enjoyed a tripling in federal research grants to nearly $800 million. In 2012, the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked Penn State forty-ninth, marking their first top-fifty appearance.

The other schools recognize the economic impact of quality athletics as well. A recurring thread in the Ohio State sections is the Buckeye’s surge in academic profile over several decades, a by-product of academic investment by university stakeholders jubilant from conference and national championships. In Ann Arbor, a single football weekend can generate up to $10 million in revenue for the local community. Even Northwestern is increasing athletic investment, citing the benefits to the student-athletes, quality of campus life and stronger school spirit for all students, and improved town-gown relations galvanized by touchdowns and bowl appearances.

Athletic prowess certainly doesn’t guarantee academic excellence—with due respect few would consider reigning champion University of Alabama an academic peer to the University of Illinois, while the University of Chicago dumped Division I athletics all together and remains one of the elite universities of the world. Nevertheless, Fourth and Long does successfully illustrate the academic and local economic benefits a winning football program can provide in a fascinating discussion on the modern issues of cut-throat Division I athletics. Bacon’s book is an honest assessment of college athletics at its best and its worst, and is a worthwhile read for sports fanatics and skeptics alike.

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Keep Reading History

Steve Beckett is ’70 B.A. History grad and a ’73 J.D. (Law) grad.

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas FlemingI am just finishing Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas J. Fleming.  It’s a fascinating book, that is not too long but basically tracks the romantic interests of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  It is certainly a different perspective of American history’s great figures, and relies heavily on original letters as source materials.  It has a solid review of the Jefferson – Hemmings controversy.

You can read other reviews of Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers on Goodreads.

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon HallidayI went to China in May on behalf of the law school and delivered a couple of lectures on American criminal law and procedure and to promote the International Program at the College of Law.  I picked up and read Mao:  The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.  It is a comprehensive biography that is quite lengthy but also an eye-opening read about recent Chinese history that puts the current relationship between China and the USA in proper context.

You can read a review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Michael Yahuda at The Guardian.

We Illinois History graduates need to keep reading history!



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On Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History

Rachel Jensen is a musician who maintains a bustling studio in Urbana, where she teaches piano, coaches singers and speakers, and churns out the occasional poem. She earned her masters and doctorate at UIUC.

Lines: A Brief History by Tim IngoldThis book caused more lights to go on in my head than anything I’ve read in a very long time. Tim Ingold is a social anthropologist who winds fluently into both philosophical and poetic realms. I found these traversals to offer a rare genus of intellectual ecstasy. He discusses the primal topic of what lines are, have been, can be in human history and development and, further, how certain suppositions about them might thwart what it means to be alive if left unconsidered.  That is to say, Mr. Ingold discusses how thinking more carefully about this construct, the line, can assist us, perhaps free us a bit, to undergo our lives rather than to exist in blind dashes, pressing from point A to point B and losing the entire In-Between. There is much more to consider as this thinker examines several specific human endeavors in turn. Within the context of each of these explorations, Mr. Ingold poses the important question of what could happen if we were to become aware of the inadvertent lines we “walk,” un-straighten certain lines of thinking and moving through our lives, and become devoted to a less limiting passage through our singular and collective scribble of existence. Others have, of course, posed similar questions in other ways. Mr. Ingold’s inquiries, however, are so penetrating and original that the reading itself proves transformative.

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Practising Interdisciplinary Conversations

Felicity Callard (an academic at Durham University in the Department of Geography and the Centre for Medical Humanities) is participating in a Bio-Humanities Interchange on September22, 2016 at 4:00 in the IPRH Lecture Hall, Levis Faculty Center, Fourth Floor (919 West Illinois Street, Urbana, IL).

ConfigurationsHow do a poet and a cognitive neuroscientist think together—in conversation—about practices of experimentation, noise and voice in their respective research practices? James Wilkes (a poet) and Sophie Scott (a cognitive neuroscientist) have just published an ‘Interdisciplinary Conversation’ in Configurations—a journal that is the official publication of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, and which is co-edited by your colleague Professor Melissa Littlefield, in the Department of English (who works across a number of disciplinary boundaries in her own research on literature and science). What, moreover, can attending to the form as well as substance of interdisciplinary conversations help open up for those of us intrigued by the shifting plate tectonics of disciplinary boundaries evident in the university today?

I admit partiality, here. I first read Wilkes’ and Scott’s conversation in draft formas I was embarking on a new interdisciplinary collaboration with James that focuses on rest and its opposites (noise, work, exertion, tumult) in neuroscience, mental health, the arts and the everyday. James and I were figuring out if and how we might be able to work and think together. How might his poetry and creative criticism, my efforts to mine the fertile seams that enjoin the humanities and the social sciences (as well as the research and practice of many others from many other disciplines) cross so as to allow new routes into rest as a clinical, aesthetic, historical and physiological problem?

What I lovedand continue to loveabout the conversation that Wilkes and Scott published in Configurations was their taking seriously conversation both as a complex genre and as a place to try things out rather than communicate to the other already established positions. They do not attempt to secure false equivalence between the tools and methods through which each engagesas poet and laboratory scientistin experiment. Nor do they pine for a future in which science and poetry might embrace one another in integrated bliss. Their conversation, rather, pries open how concepts and forms emerge in the sciences and in the arts, and how they are forgotten and abandoned. It is interested as much in the labours of un-doing and recursiveness, as in the building of new structures. Their conversation allows us to think anew about the temporal scales through which we might understand the making of scientific knowledge as well as the making, and re-making of literary canons.

On many occasions over the course of the two-year residency (“Hubbub”) that I have directed in The Hub at Wellcome Collection, I and many collaborators have thought about and talked about the seductiveness and liveliness of experimentas practice, form, and ethos. We have been attempting to shape a different topology of disciplinary practiceone in which the arts and humanities are not simply appendages to other epistemological domains (as has so often been the case in ‘Sci-Art’ projects). Attending to the long and compacted history of experiment in the arts as well as in the sciences has been one of my strongest epistemological commitments in the course of this residency. The seduction and surprise that Wilkes’ and Scott’s essay engender in me, even after multiple readings, makes me realize how much more there is to be done to diversify the genres, forms, and styles through which we make interdisciplinarity in the academy today.

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Read Mysteries, Not Facebook

Darrell Hoemann is the owner of Darrell Hoemann Photography and the Visual Editor of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. 

When I had referred the 40th person to snopes.com this political season because they were spreading inaccurate information, I knew it was time to take a Facebook break.

For me this meant indulging in a mystery. Our household is serious about our mystery books, even attending mystery book conferences on a semi-regular basis.

Season of the Monsoon by Paul MannI took this opportunity to finish the George Sansi series by Paul Mann. The first of this three book series was part of my readings when my wife and I accompanied a study abroad trip to India this past January.

In order to get a sense of culture before we went, as well as plane ride fodder, we chose fiction set in colonial India, post-colonial India and this series, set in the early 1990s.

Sansi, a half caste Oxford educated lawyer, returns to his mother’s India in “Season of the Monsoon”, only to find he needs connections to practice law, so he joins the police force.

The book combined an emphasis on politics, culture and corruption, with a constant reminders of a British influenced class system. All this helped me in some small way to make sense of what we encountered on our visit.

Devil of Delphi by Jeffrey SigerIn a similar vein, I indulged in another Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis mystery, “Devil of Delphi”.

Author Jeffrey Siger (you can read a nice story on Siger on The Huffington Post) also blends culture and politics so a reader not only follows the resolution of a mystery, but gets a sense of the people and places.

We were fortunate to hear him moderate an panel at this year’s Left Coast Crime on “Setting as Character.”  He and other authors described the importance of their intimate knowledge of location, an attribute I find as intriguing as a carefully crafted plot.

So maybe before I return to Facebook, I’ll check out another favorite, the Anne Cleeves series set in the Shetland Islands, also a BBC series. Wonder if it is available on Kindle yet?


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The summer I rediscovered books

A proud East St. Louis native and U of I graduate, Julie Wurth is one of those Champaign-Urbana short-timers who stayed – 29 years and counting. As a News-Gazette reporter, she’s covered higher education and just about everything else, and authors the “Are We There Yet?” parenting column and blog.

About a year ago, I was asked to contribute to the “Reading Matters” blog.

I panicked. I hadn’t finished an actual book in ages. Don’t get me wrong. I read constantly— The newspaper, in my hands. Our website. Other media websites. I read news releases and board packets, emails and PDFs. I comb websites for background and spreadsheets for data. I digest scientific research way over my head. I browse Twitter on and off during the day, ostensibly to post stories but inevitably to get sidetracked by the latest  election/Olympics/parenting news.

I reflexively turn on news radio in the car, when I can’t read. I check my phone for headlines during downtime. But a book? For grown-ups? Not lately.

I’m always been a reader. When I was growing up, our house had reading material within arm’s reach no matter where we sat. A pile of magazines. Books on an end table. Newspapers in the kitchen. Paperbacks on the nightstand.

I spent a month one summer recovering from a bad case of poison ivy, reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while lying in air-conditioned comfort on our living room couch. But now I’m a parent of two. For a long stretch my reading material consisted of Corduroy and Good Night Gorilla, and later Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse.

Then my kids started reading on their own, as I got busier with life: returning to work full-time, dealing with family health crises and schedule craziness. Every once in awhile I’d optimistically check out a book from the library, only to nod off every night trying to make it through.

But this summer, my daughter and I went to the library together just before a planned vacation. She picked up a half-dozen books, and I checked out three – two “light” mysteries and Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s riveting account of her solo hike on the Pacific Trail.

Wild by Cheryl StrayedThat night, my daughter called me into her room and asked me to read to her, something we hadn’t done in quite awhile. I was so tired that I literally dozed off once —
Mom!” — and completely 
made up one sentence because the words were swimming across the page. She laughed. But I was glad I did it.

I went into my room and opened one of the mysteries, and miraculously didn’t fall asleep. The books kept me company all through our summer travels, and even when we returned—to the point of interfering with things I should have been doing (like work). I got so engrossed in Wild that I’d spend an hour reading in the morning, before everybody woke up. I’d tuck it into my purse to read in waiting rooms or during lunch breaks. When I finished, I had that familiar longing for more—the sign of every good book.

Then I squeezed in a fourth book that I picked up at a friend’s wedding reception (their theme was “libraries,” where they met in law school). I finished it a few days before school started. 

And the very next day, as it happened, I got another email about that blog post. So here I am, with actual books under my belt. I’m hoping “The summer I rediscovered books” will carry over into the fall. If not, there’s always next summer.

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Multi-track reading for a Multi-track mind

MaryCate Most is a senior studying Journalism and Political Science at the University, as well as last year’s IPRH David F. Prindable Intern. MaryCate is pursuing a career in science and policy communication, or a field that ties together her interest in politics, science, and writing. This past summer she worked as the Digital Experiences Intern at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, where she interviewed curators, conducted research, and then wrote blog posts and app content about some of the greatest (though often forgotten) stories of flight/spaceflight.

As a journalism major, I have a multi-track mind. My head is going in a million directions at once because I’m fascinated by so many subject areas (science, history, politics, art, etc.) and I am often presented opportunities to speak with and learn from experts in these fields. One look at the books I’ve been reading this summer will tell you all that and more.

Martian Summer by Andrew KesslerI wake up at 6:30 a.m. every morning to make it to work by 8:30. Since I’m spending this summer interning at the National Air and Space Museum, I need to be focused and scientifically-minded when I get in the door and sit down to write more blog posts for the Museum’s website. So on my walk to work, I listen to the audiobook edition of Martian Summer by Andrew Kessler. This non-fiction book tells the story of a journalist who was awarded the opportunity to go inside NASA’s Mission Control during the Phoenix Mars mission. Kessler does a marvelous job dissecting complicated, high-stress mission operations and making this piece of history light-hearted and human. Mars rover coding is so much easier to comprehend when you can picture the control room itself—with NASA scientists anxiously eating soft-serve ice cream as they wait for results to come back, drinking wine at 8 a.m. because it is 5 o’clock on Mars, and brainstorming ideas for how to break up a clump of Mars soil trapped in the rover. It’s the perfect way to ease into the space mindset that I need every day.


Three-Eight Charlie by Jerrie MockAt work, I have a whole other stack of books to read. From biographies like Three-Eight Charlie by Jerrie Mock and Return to the Moon by Harrison Schmitt, to cookbooks that feature recipes from “famous personalities in flight,” I am constantly looking for ways to explore the stories of air and space history that are overlooked by the public. We have a wonderful set of resources at the Smithsonian, both in terms of the extensive collections in the archives and in terms of the curatorial staff that works here.


The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonBy the time work is over for the day, I have nearly satisfied my space/history fix and I move on to fiction novels or stories. Right now, I’m reading The Luminaries, which is a intricately woven, mid-19th-century mystery about a murder that has occurred in a New Zealand mining town and the 12 men that have become entangled in this crime. I’ll be honest and say that while I’m enjoying it, I’ve had to reread a number of passages partly because it’s written in 3rd person omniscient, making it hard to remember what character is thinking what. Hopefully this novel is keeping me sharp for the beginning of my senior year.


The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God by Etgar KeretFinally, to fill in the cracks, I’m reading Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories. Keret is a beautiful writer and his stories delicately tackle the most complex (and yet familiar) human emotions. After taking a creative writing course this past year where we focused mainly on short story writing, I’ve been inspired to spend a few hours each weekend brainstorming story ideas and then free writing. Reading a few Keret short stories before I write helps me “warm up” in a sense and I’ll oftentimes emulate his style in my own writing to give myself a jumping-off point. Saturday mornings spent reading and writing is good for my soul, I’ve come to believe. I definitely plan to keep reading Keret during the school year, because his stories are so easy to breeze through, even if you only have a few minutes to spare.

Some people have joked that I might be juggling a little too much at one time, but I think that reading a few different kinds of books at once is wise for someone in my field. I’m not all one thing. I’m sometimes scientific, sometimes complex, sometimes concise, and sometimes creative. Journalism allows me to delve into so many fields at once, and I’ve chosen to mirror that learning method in my reading selections. You can learn a lot about someone from the contents of their nightstand and iBooks library, and I am no exception.

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Summer Reads

Jacque Kahn is the Academic Advisor and Administrative Coordinator for the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.

You know summer is just around the corner when book sellers and reviewers begin announcing their list of “summer reads” or “books for the beach.” You could argue that these lists are nothing more than a not so subtle marketing strategy that tells you nothing about the books themselves. But the suggestion remains—and I suspect that many readers take it for granted–that the reads will be lighter or easier, and, in some ways, of lesser value than the ponderous tomes we supposedly immerse ourselves in the rest of the year. I recall my childhood summers when my mother, who was simultaneously proud of and provoked by my habitual bookwormishness, routinely forced me to go outdoors to play like a normal child. I’d sneak my Nancy Drew—or my Penguin edition of Jane Eyre—under my shirt and perch myself in a densely leafed maple. It’s still true to this day: the only real difference between my summer reading and the reading I do the rest of the year is that I do it outdoors.

These days, labeling a book as summer reading is no longer the insult it once was. Attitudes about genre fiction are changing, and the pervasive study of popular culture in higher education, along with the rapidly dwindling number of academic holdouts who still believe in masterpieces with a capital M (or even literature with a small L) means that you can get college credit for reading Bridget Jones’s Diary instead of Pride and Prejudice. Still, certain class distinctions prevail. Even on the beach, you will always get more respect for reading Moby Dick over The Da Vinci Code. Whether you enjoy it more is an entirely different question.

Everybody's Fool by Richard RussoFortunately, entertainment and enlightenment are not mutually exclusive; I was as totally immersed in The Sixth Extinction as I am in a Louise Penny mystery. Still, there have been times in my life when I found myself agreeing with Michael Chabon, who, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, argues that fiction’s greatest gift is to satisfy the reader’s need to escape from the “ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation.” We’ve certainly had all of the above this year, and so, for the purposes of this entry, I’m going to recommend a couple of novels that might fall into the contentious category of summer reading. I’m partial to fiction set in small towns because it resonates with my own background, but this is only one of the reasons I’m a huge Richard Russo fan. His characters are as alive as your next door neighbors, and his plotting (and sub-plotting) hearkens back to some of my favorite 19th century novels. This summer I read his latest novel, (yes, by the pool) Everybody’s Fool. It’s funny and suspenseful and enormously entertaining: if that’s your criteria for summer reading, this is the perfect book.

You can read about the plot of Everybody’s Fool in an online book review; I’ll just say here that although Russo writes largely from the perspective of male characters, at times he, like John Irving, vividly bridges the gender gap. Ruth, the overworked owner/operator of a struggling diner, is fighting a losing battle with her husband, a hoarder ostensibly building a business repairing and reselling “broken worthless crap.” Ruth is the kind of wife who says out loud what other wives only think to themselves. “I’m dying to know,” she says to her husband when she finds him on the couch after her long workday, “why men have to take off their pants to watch TV.” Ruth daydreams about a vacation in Aruba, and pours over pamphlets with “enormous white white-tiled bathroom,” showers “with no door, nor curtains, just silver shower heads coming down out of the ceiling” and a “gleaming white vanity, perfect for a woman traveling alone. Because she certainly would be traveling alone. She had no desire to whatsoever to go there with Sully or her husband or any other man, including Brad Pitt. To allow a male into a bathroom that pristine would be a desecration.” I couldn’t help but think of Hemingway’s short story, and this passage as the working-class woman’s rejoinder to his “clean well-lighted place.” Of course there could very well be men who fantasize about clean bathrooms. It probably depends on how often they clean them.

Florence Gordon by Brian MortonMy other suggestion is a novel I actually read last summer, Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon. Morton’s dialogue is pointed and witty, and his chapters are rarely more than a couple of pages. Some of them, in fact, are only four or five lines– just one indication of his extraordinary skill as a novelist.

There are many things I love about Florence Gordon, not the least of which is that its heroine is a 75-year-old world famous feminist scholar. The opening chapter encapsulates the dilemma facing both Florence Gordon and Brian Morton: “Florence Gordon was trying to write a memoir, but she had two strikes against her: she was old and she was an intellectual. And who on earth….would want to read a book about an old intellectual?” In fact, Florence realizes, she has three strikes against her, because she is also a feminist: “If you’re an old feminist, anything you say, by definition, is strident and shrill.”

Florence Gordon is not exactly what I would call a feminist novel. At times Morton pokes good-natured fun at academic feminism (and academia in general); Florence herself, although independent-minded and intelligent, sometimes comes across as the caricature of the cantankerous, outspoken old woman. Still, I couldn’t wait to read what she’d say or do next, and the developing relationship between Florence and her teenage granddaughter will strike a chord with feminists young and old—or for that matter anyone who’s struggled with and learned from generational differences.

As somebody who works at Gender and Women’s Studies, I’m keenly aware that, although I’ve written about their female characters, I’ve just recommended two books by white men. I guess I’ll let myself off the hook this time, since it’s only summer reading. For the record, I’m on the public library’s waitlist for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. I’m looking forward to reading these books, but sadly, it looks like I’ll be reading them indoors.

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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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 amazon.com 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.

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“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!

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