Twitterary Theory

In my last term before graduating as a library student, I took a course in social media for library professionals, and for this course each of us had to maintain a blog. There is one particular post (link) for that blog which I want to share. (While I am arranging a move, I thought it would be smart to re-run old work.)

A little background, first: One of my classmates, Fiona Hanington, wrote two posts about Twitter (which I linked in the post, if you want to read them, which you should do), considering specifically how context relates to what a particular tweet means. This sort of question was in my wheelhouse, as I had fairly recently been tackling the problem of interpretation on a much broader, more summary scale (see here for a table of contents), so I used that background to reply to Fiona’s more specific questions. That post is as follows:

Twitterary Theory: Meaning, Context, and Responsibility

An image of many pigeons--at least four dozen--on telephone lines.

Gustavo Gomes, CC BY 2.0:

A few days ago Fiona wrote two posts about Twitter, tweets, and Twitter essays: in the first, she discusses Jeet Heer, who numbers tweets to structure them together into an essay; in the second, she talks about how a person ought to read tweets. In particular, Steven Salaita had an offer for a tenure position withdrawn over a tweet which seemed, on its own, to be incendiary:

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If Aristotle Wrote a Tragedy: On Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean

An image of a bust of Aristotle

Source: Nick Thompson at

Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is a first novel that does not read like a first novel, likely because the author was first a poet; the pacing and characterization are both very professionally done, and tie in well with the novel’s central themes. That connection is important, given that this is a novel about Aristotle as he tutors the young prince of Macedon who will become Alexander the Great, and that its themes include philosophy’s effects on life, and life’s influences on philosophy. You can see traces of the way Aristotle’s experiences sow the seeds for his philosophy, to the extent that late in the novel Alexander accuses Aristotle of creating a philosophy out of how great it is to be Aristotle. Like everything Alexander says, this criticism is unfair and it is also very close to the truth; its perversity is in how he can fumble or limit the truth just as he grasps it.*

Of course The Golden Mean is about Aristotle in Macedon, and Aristotle’s life to that point; it is also about depression, at times, or the soul’s vicissitudes generally; it is about the relationship between teachers and students, fathers and sons, and the ways they fail each other. Toward the end of the novel it seems as though Lyon wanted us to understand that the novel was about what counts as the good life: certainly this is Aristotle’s question, but in the last fifth of the novel particular versions of this question—“What is the mean between extremes?”; “Is it better to live a life of action or a life of contemplation?”—become more obvious and insistent. I do not know whether this is primarily my failure or primarily the novel’s, but it was not clear to me until the end that these were the novel’s major questions, and I would not have noticed if Lyon had not made it so obvious, almost too obvious, in the final pages. But of course the question about the good life is the one that most occupied the Greek philosophers, so it makes sense that it should occupy a book about Aristotle.

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A Mad Anthropologist’s Book Collection

1. A Far From Serious Thought Experiment

Shaft into Cold War bunker; photo by Tom Blackwell at

Shaft into Cold War bunker; photo by Tom Blackwell at

Imagine that humans have learned to colonize other planets, but once people have arrived at their colony it is unlikely that they, or their descendants for quite a few generations, will get to leave. Or imagine that the earth has been stripped of resources and humans are beginning to launch space stations on which they can survive. Or imagine that, in anticipation of nuclear war, people are building and moving into underground vaults. The specifics don’t matter—what does matter is that some people live in small, isolated, pre-planned communities. More importantly, imagine that the people who planned these communities decided it was a good opportunity to do some unethical experimental social science, as in a certain computer game.

The social scientists constructed libraries for each colony (or station, or vault); about 2 000 volumes represent the entire cultural legacy for each community. The vast majority of these volumes are identical across communities, but they have made careful adjustments to a randomly-selected sample of libraries. For instance, while most libraries contain J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and derivative works, a few stations (or vaults, or colonies) have L. F. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and derivative works in their place. A few vaults (or etc.) have been carefully combed over to remove any work by or reference to William Shakespeare. In others, it is William Wordsworth who has been so excised. Perhaps a few libraries have more radical changes—one has no works authored exclusively by men, or by white people, and another has only works written by people who went, or are rumoured to have gone, blind. These more radical changes are really just an indulgence, I guess; it is not the best experiment design, to change so much. Continue reading