AI image making

So I come upon an article on Medium about creating images from text descriptions, and it occurs to me this might be a cool way to make book covers. The technologies the article suggested required complex signups, so I searched and found NightCafe instead and tried it.

I chose “oil painting” and the “coherent” filter, typed in Victorian street Grimshaw and got this:

Apart from the weird sky, I cannot tell what the hell that figure is supposed to be. I can only tell it’s a person because it has feet.

Next effort:empty victorian street streetlamp cobbles cabriolet cloudy day.

Huh. Skies full of cobbles. OK, how about Victorian London, the artistic filter, and the “steampunk” setting:

The architecture is better, but what is that thing? I write historical mysteries. OK, so no steampunk setting, just Victorian London street and “oil painting”, back to the coherent filter:

Another creepy non-person. And that vehicle? Yeah, right.

OK, so historical isn’t happening. I’ll try what it’s supposed to do, fantasy. Moonlit Thames river boat, with the “heavenly” style and the artistic filter.

So, love the idea. Not thrilled with the execution. But I’m interested in looking more into this for sure!

Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

It has been a standard narrative that America panicked on Halloween eve of 1938. That night, Orson Welles presented his radio program rendition of War of the World’s, H. G. Wells’ 1898 tale of the Martians attacking Earth. Some people believed the broadcast was real news, either having missed the opening and interruptions where Welles clearly said it was fiction, or misinterpreting as they became paralyzed with fear. Those near Grovers Mill, New Jersey, packed to evacuate. Millions, it is said, were terrified.

Articles and books have been written about this phenomenon, the most famous if which is Hadley Catril’s The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic , originally published in 1940. It’s the text often used to support the story of the panic, since Catril was a respected social psychologist. It also didn’t hurt that the Martians landed near Princeton, where he taught.

People love telling the story of their stupid fellow Americans who fell for the Halloween trick; it’s used as an example of how gullible the public is, how fearful everyone was of what was happening in Europe at the time, how mass hysteria is created through media. These days, it’s fun to see it as an example of “fake news”.

Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way. Read the first part of Catril’s book, and he’s very clear. Although the publisher says “a million” were infected with terror, and he says “thousands” at the beginning of the book, he is quick to note that his sample size of interviewees was 153, two-thirds of whom were self-selected from people who said they panicked.

Every so often (usually on anniversaries of the radio broadcast), the panic myth is revived. The Library of Congress has an article on how the panic didn’t happen, and there are other places on the web where one can find some debunking. But as the WST article points out, when the tale is kept alive (as with the 2013 PBS documentary) it’s hard to get the truth in there. A current article explores the faith people have in their own trusted sources, in the context of the panic. It’s a good article, but it seems to assume the panic really happened.

Why did the myth take off so fast in the first place? One reason is that Orson Welles was a wonderful publicity hound who encouraged it. Another is that it sold newspapers. Radio competed with print for people’s attention, so the papers were happy to blame the broadcaster and Welles for being irresponsible.

Of more interest is what happened in 1940, when both Orson Welles and H. G. Wells were in San Antonio, and recorded a radio program together. Two years before, when asked about his book and the panic in America, Wells had reportedly been firm that he had not authorized the radio network to change place names. In 1926 in Britain there had been a radio scare when a fictional 12-minute broadcast had caused some to believe that London was being attacked, and Wells didn’t want to be seen to condone the same thing happening in America.

Two years later, he considered the radio show had just been a hoax, but he said that Americans could have their fun because “you haven’t got the war right under your chins”. Although the double interview is awkward at the beginning, by the end both Wells and Welles are clear that alienating Russia, despite its autocratic government under Stalin, would not be a good idea.

There’s an interesting historical pattern to the popularity of both Wells’ novel and Welles’ radio show. In 1898, there were small wars in a number of places, interest in eugenics, and a fascination with space and Mars in particular. In 1938, war was about to begin in Europe, and Germany was on the move. Hollywood made a major motion picture of War of the Worlds in 1953, and Catril’s book was reprinted in 1954, during McCarthyism. The 1970s saw another revival, at a time of hijackings and terrorism. And now again when reality TV, extremism in pop culture, the decline of civil society, and a gullible public are current issues, the story is here again.

War of the Worlds may be timeless; the story of the panic shouldn’t be.


Do I want to know the author?

As a budding author (can you be a “bud” at my age?), I read a lot about what I’m supposed to do. Chief among the advice is to have a “social media presence” and an “email list”. I’m supposed to populate these forms of communication with tidbits and upcoming writings and fluff, designed to keep me connected to my “readers”.

Since I’m not published yet, that’s seriously on the back burner, but now I think of it when I look at my favorite authors. Anne Perry, Kate Morton, Rachel Cusk — I love their work. Am I on their mail lists? Do I keep up with their social media? It never occurred to me.

So tonight I’m hovering a finger over a button to join one of my favorite author’s email lists, and I’m thinking about it.

Many years ago, I had to deal with Rousseau. I loved his work. Then I found out that this author of one of our great books on natural education, “Emile”, and a supporter of mothers breastfeeding their own babies in a time of wet-nurses, had abandoned his own children to foundling hospitals.

It’s possible to discover horrible things about the authors (and artists and presidents and saints and celebrities) we admire. Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slave. Emily Dickinson drowned kittens. Charles Dickens was monstrous to his wife. Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein were womanizers. Andy Warhol was not only weird, he was cruel. Bernardo Bertolucci . . . well, you know.

About half the celebrities I’ve met and worked with have been rude. People are just people. I don’t think I’d enjoy an evening with George Bernard Shaw, Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, or Woody Allen. That doesn’t mean I don’t admire their work.

The big question, of course, is the extent to which we can, and should, separate someone’s life from their deeds. On the one hand, I know you can be a slaveholder and still be a good person. On the other, I might refuse to buy products from someone whose actions I find morally reprehensible. But by and large, I fall on the side of separation. People’s ideas may be universal and immortal — people themselves are fallible, and finite.

So, back to living authors. It feels callous that I’m not really interested in them, in who they are, their foibles and personal life. But I’m not — I’m interested in their creations, the products of their minds, the characters and stories they devise. I’ll follow what they publish because I want to read their work, and I’m happy to read or tune in for gems about writing if they’ve a mind to share.

But some of the things I’ve been told (don’t have a publicity photo with your chin on your hand, be sure to post pictures of your pets, talk about your hobbies) have nothing to do with my writing. Perhaps such trends are just indicative of today’s societal expectations in a time where emotion triumphs over reason and everything is personal, although I suspect it’s long been a problem — this promo by Hemingway is awkward enough that Scribner’s must have had a lot of trouble getting him to say the right things.

I think I’ll give the email list a miss.

Thoughts on art and windows

Some of the best things happening at the moment are related to art.

Not being an Instagram aficionado, I read in 1843 magazine that Instagram is the place for art and artists. So I signed on and followed my favorite museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi, the Getty, the Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam, the Victoria and Albert, the National Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Bodleian Library (yes, I know it’s not an art museum).

Each are posting an artwork a day, and most are responding to questions. It’s a delight.

Most of these works, like most of my recent blog posts, are not directly about the current situation. And yet they touch upon the values, knowledge, and sympathies that inform our response to it. So for example, Antonella da Massina’s “St Jerome in His Study” (c. 1474-75), from the National Gallery:



This has been one of my favorite works since I first saw it. I can see myself there at the desk, reading and writing. (This is despite the fact that Jerome would not have liked me at all, and that if you look at it realistically the place would be awfully drafty.)

On Instagram, people replied to this post asking about the birds in front and the lion in the back hall, and National Gallery staff explained about peacocks and wisdom and the story of Jerome and the lion’s thorn. It had over 23,000 views in 13 hours. It’s learning, without a class, but with guidance and expertise, in an interactive environment, with object-based instruction and student-based inquiry. A perfect lesson.

When I first saw the work of Vanessa Bell, it was in an exhibit where the curator, Laura Smith, pointed out how views out of windows relate to women’s experiences. An example is “Interior with a Table” (1921 © Tate):

Some would say that women’s domestic lives are often more isolated than men’s, that over time many have seen the world from behind a window. Given a choice, I often prefer life through a window, but that’s because nature and I have an enigmatic relationship. I want her protected, unpolluted by my footprints. I prefer the idea of wilderness to the idea of conserving nature for human use. But I’ve also been teased, having been camping only twice and told that my idea of “roughing it” is a hotel without room service. Looking out a window, one has the illusion that one is in control of what is behind it. The wildness and beauty of nature is beyond, seen through glass. It can do its own thing, while inside I do mine. A Room of Ones Own must be a Room with a View.

Nowadays many people are supposed to be inside for awhile. There have even been art jokes about this self-isolating, and the tongue-in-cheek adapting of artworks. A copywriter named Peter Breuer in Germany posted this in Twitter:

Art can show, articulate, or contrast reality. A person can be put inside, or the outside can be swept of people. The work of Jose Manuel Ballester, which removes the people from art masterpieces, has a new resonance these days. For example, the Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” becomes “El jardín deshabitado” (2007).

I do miss the guy with the flowers.

Art appreciation can also be personal and timely — the Getty has people recreating art masterpieces all over the world. The idea of people using things they already have, to recreate great works, and create new things, shows the best of humanity. And yes, some people are working extra hours in dangerous conditions, while others are unemployed and too worried to create, but it is often at the busiest and worst times that art provides some comfort.

One of my Honors students just finished her final paper for this term. At the beginning, in January, she wanted to write about the history of social media. I assigned her Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall. As the term progressed, her topic gradually changed. Her paper is titled “Art and Technology as a Mechanism for the Reduction of Isolation”. And it’s quite wonderful.

It is said that the pandemic has proven the necessity of the arts and humanities. It’s true, and not just for the comfort they provide, but for the reminders. How to take the familiar and make it intriguing. How to hold an object in your hand so people see it and ask questions. How to change your perspective by changing your window. How to teach by showing instead of telling.

With the arts and humanities, we are part of a larger experience. We can be inside looking out, instead of outside looking in.

Knowing the ending

I joined many in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this week, attending the only San Diego screening of Apollo 11. Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary was made by recovering and editing many hours of audio and video recorded (usually separately) during the mission. The film was delightful at many points. I had heard the interview on BBC4 of how it had been made, and smiled every time they aligned the audio with the video of the headset chat between mission control and the astronauts. I gleefully recognized the “go – go -go” sequences as tributes to The Thomas Crown Affair, which came out the year before the mission (1968) and popularized split-screen cinematography. I even understood how conspiracy theorists could think the moon was a movie set (a la Capricorn One), because it looked so unreal. But even more impressive was the audience in the movie theatre. The movie-goers responded to the film while it showed, and applauded at the end, and I remember thinking, “this is strange — we all know the ending”.

I had wondered about that going in. How could the film be suspenseful when, unlike some of the other space missions, we know that the astronauts land, walk about on the lunar surface, and return safely? And yet here was an involved audience, and a geeky audience too — who else would spend their Saturday afternoon at the multiplex watching footage of the moon landing? The film was made for this group — there was no narration that wasn’t primary at the time (news commentary, control room conversation), and little explanation about what was happening. Clearly the audience played along as, for example, the line drawing of the ship rotated to latch onto the lunar module. They knew about all this, but laughed at the astronaut’s jokes, hmmm’d contently at Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind”, and held their breath during the re-entry into the atmosphere.

We live in a world now where it’s very difficult not to know the ending, even if you haven’t seen the film or read the book. “Spoiler alerts” are heeded mostly by purists. We see the trailers of the movie, and we know if it’s a comedy or drama. Everything is reviewed, in print and on the web, among friends in Facebook and Instagram. Even if there’s a twist, we know there will be a twist, just maybe not what it is.

It shows the best in human nature that we are willing to pretend, to suspend our knowledge. It’s as if the ending no longer has the responsibility of carrying the meaning of a piece. Instead, the story itself is the meaning, how it is told, or even the fact of it’s being told. It’s the opposite of cynicism, even as we live in a cynical world.

And I can certainly be cynical. I am not happy that the theatre didn’t show the film in their IMAX room (Lion King seemed to be more important), or that the Ruben Fleet Space Theatre IMAX isn’t showing it at all (WTF?), or that no one seemed to take advantage of the fact that the anniversary and Comic-Con were happening simultaneously (where do they think all those sci fi geeks come from?).  We have multiplexes all over the place and very few movies worth seeing — why was it just one showing in one theatre in the county?

I can also be cynical and patriotic at the same time. This was a huge American achievement — why is the BBC doing more coverage than American media? Why can’t we spend more public money on space exploration? I lived through the space shuttle years (I even went to see it land at Edwards Air Force Base). I assumed that the shuttle would always run and just get better and better, not stop. We shouldn’t be leaving space to Elon Musk and private money. In 1968 we funded the space program and the Great Society at the same time, so don’t tell me there’s no money. And if everyone wants to make us great again, what better than the space program to do that?

But even my discontent was overcome by the actual history, and an excellent film about the main events. Since 1969, people who remember the moon landings look at the moon differently. There were young people at the film who now look at the moon differently too. We went there, they think, for real. Not on a video game, not CGI, but for real. I don’t know the ending, but I have hope about what they’ll do with that feeling.


Surf report

If you’re from around here, you know what a surf report it: “moderate waves today, let’s call it waist-high” a la Scott Bass on KPBS radio.

This is a report of today’s web-surfing, which is kinda different. Sometimes it’s piled a lot higher than my waist, but today I learned a lot, much of it triggered by Twitter posts. I don’t think I’m the only one who uses the “like” heart to file things for later, so I could find these again.

History Assessments

Except the first one. Somehow I found the Stanford History Education Group, and their Beyond the Bubble assessments. I’m not sure why I’ve never heard of this, but it’s a collection of items for teaching U.S. History. While geared toward the high school AP crowd, the method here is quite useful for college history. The primary source is embedded into the assessment. So for example, there would be a newspaper engraving of a protest from Harper’s Weekly, then a short list of facts related to that engraving, then open short answer questions. Sometimes these asked students to assess the veracity of the document itself in light of the other facts, or they might ask the student to say what the source tells us about the era.

These are short (usually just two short answers) and there’s a rubric with each one, indicating the level (proficient, emergent, basic) of various student responses. Some even include sample student answers that one is likely to see. Although undoubtedly intended to be used solely by the instructor, it might be interesting to give the rubric to students and have them analyze their own work!

The site has many assessments that a teacher could download, but it was their design that gave me ideas, because I could create my own assessments for any primary source I have.

And it was kind of eerie that I had just changed all my Learning Units to be inside the assessments. I must be very trendy in terms of design!


Next, I found a serious gap in my knowledge about the history of media. A tweet by Civil War historian Lisa Tendrich Frank led me to a Smithsonian Magazine article on the restoration of the cylcorama in Atlanta. Apparently, during the 1880s, cycloramas were a huge draw as entertainment. Painters created 360-degree paints, attached to the walls of a circular building, and people would come to experience it. The article notes a scene might have a dirt floor and some trees to add a reality-inducing effect.

Beginning in the 1880s, these completely circular paintings started appearing from half a dozen companies, such as the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee, where Atlanta’s canvas was conceived. APC employed more than a dozen German painters, led by a Leipzig native named Friedrich Heine.

Half a dozen companies? How could I not have known about this? This isn’t just virtual reality, it’s late 19th century entertainment for the people. The closest I’ve gotten to in-the-round entertainment was the film they used to have at Disneyland, America the Beautiful, a movie made with multiple cameras that surrounded you. Yeah, I know, in days where the Google truck drives through your neighborhood, this may seem archaic, but it was very cool.

So now I have a whole research area to discover.


Can I use this word in a sentence? It shouldn’t be new to me: it’s a word I keep bumping into, but somehow it never entered my thinking as something I could use.

A tweet by early Americanist Michelle Orihel sent me to Digital Paxton, and reading the post I had an Aha! moment. Advertising and editors’ notes and issue numbers, as included in Victorian periodicals, would be paratext! I may not have a theory, but I at least have a structure, an interpretation, a word I can use for what these types of things are.

Some days it’s enough to learn one new useful word.


The last item for today was a piece of email spam. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to open these, but there was no attachment and I decided to read it. I found it fascinating.

The title was:

Security Alert. was compromised. Password must be changed.

The email went on to explain that my account had been hacked, my information and surfing habits downloaded, and they wanted money, paid in Bitcoin. The blackmailer explained how s/he got access:

How I made it:
In the software of the router, through which you went online, was a vulnerability.
I just hacked this router and placed my malicious code on it.
When you went online, my trojan was installed on the OS of your device.

I noticed that there aren’t any contractions where you’d expect, indicating this person does not speak English natively. The OS of my device?

They also claimed to know that I have pornographic habits:

A month ago, I wanted to lock your device and ask for a not big amount of btc to unlock.
But I looked at the sites that you regularly visit, and I was shocked by what I saw!!!
I’m talk you about sites for adults.

I want to say – you are a BIG pervert. Your fantasy is shifted far away from the normal course!

There’s a normal course for the viewing of pornography online? I had no idea. But that explains why so much money was being requested.

I’m know that you would not like to show these screenshots to your friends, relatives or colleagues.
I think $701 is a very, very small amount for my silence.
Besides, I have been spying on you for so long, having spent a lot of time!

Wait, $701? Cheap at twice the price!

After payment, my virus and dirty screenshots with your enjoys will be self-destruct automatically.
If I do not receive from you the specified amount, then your device will be locked, and all your contacts will receive a screenshots with your “enjoys”.

I guess we’ll see…

(Discovered after posting: turns out this is a known spam thing and I should dedicate as much worry about it as I have already done. So that’s five things learned online today!)

Self-portrait with mahl stick

We interrupt the sabbatical work for a combination of art, feminism, and technology.

It’s this self-portrait by Catherina van Hemessen, whom I had not heard of till today (by way of a reference from a community college art history class):

Catharina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait (1548)

In that context, I was told that it’s the first self-portrait by a female artist. But on the Wikipedia page about her, it claims it may be the first self-portrait of anyone at work at an easel, and references a book by Frances Borzello. So I went off looking for her. Yup, she’s qualified and literally wrote the book on female painters and their self-portraits.

So I looked at the book with Amazon’s search. There are images of women painting their self-portraits in Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (c. 1402-4) on page 20 of the book. Borzello also claims that an illustrator named Claricia drew herself into the letter Q in medieval manuscripts. What Borzello actually says, on page 40, is that Hemessen’s “has been claimed as the first self-portrait showing an artist of either sex at work at the easel”.

Oh, ok, then. Not quite as grand as the first self-portrait ever, of man or women, and limited by “at work at the easel”. When did easels start? And what’s that rod in her hand?

It’s a mahl stick, still used to keep the painter’s hand steady and prevent smudging. I found out about it here (well, I’m not an artist, obviously).

And, according to this Victorian book, easels have been around since at least Roman times.

Under what circumstances is a story “untold”? If I’ve never heard of either van Hemessen or Claricia, that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t there. Over and again, things that are forgotten re-emerge. The current focus on feminist history and heritage is a case in point. While I am not in favor of anything that separates humans from each other, or sets them in opposition, the histories of particular groups of people do tend to generate the re-emergence of essential knowledge. It is this re-emergence, particularly in the Internet Age, that makes it possible to find information, and more importantly, other sources of information, like Borzello’s book. And sites about mahl sticks.

Six hours in Manchester (& notes on curation)

Manchester is a ways from where I’m staying, so the train takes awhile. But six hours was enough to know I like the city. It is so exciting, so youthful, so interesting.

Manchester City Art Gallery had several pre-Raphaelite paintings I wanted to see, the most important of which was this one:

Ford Maddox Brown, Work (1852-65)

I studied this work last year as part of a class I was auditing, and really took to it. So much so that when I was in Hampstead, I went to find the street:

There were other very interesting items, including several works by Millais (the one Ruskin’s wife ran off with). But there were artists of the era that I had never heard of. This one caught my eye because of its subject matter as well as its execution:

Eyre Crow, The Dinner House, Wigan (1874)

The curator card indicated that it is indeed unusual. [I find it’s a good idea to always take a picture of the card right after photographing the work itself.]

This helped explain why the scene reminded me of Bizet’s opera Carmen, with the cigar factory women coming out into the square.

The pre-Raphaelites enjoyed the symbolism of medieval Christian art. According to the curation card, this hired shepherd is neglecting his duties, so the sheep are “blown”. I can see they look ill, they’re lying about, but I didn’t really understand what was meant: overfed? poisoned somehow?

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd (1851)

So, Google: “blown sheep eating corn” (because it said they’d gotten in to the corn). I got results on modern sheep raising. How about “blown sheep eating corn pre-Raphaelite”? Aha! A book called William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism, by George P. Landow (2013). Page 39 says that Hunt’s subject is “Hogarthian” and that he explained to a J.E. Pythian (not much result there from Google – he seems to have written books on art) that it was based on a Shakespeare’s King Lear about sheep, which in this case are “doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call ‘blown’.” He also mentions that the girl is feeding the sheep sour apples.

I noticed the apples first, because to me it is also a painting about temptation and sex. They’re not just flirting — she has no shoes on. The moth is just a way for the lad to get closer to her, and the apples all over the place have something to do with Eve, tempting him from his work. This is mentioned briefly in Landow, to do with a Biblical interpretation by John Duncan Macmillan, but is dismissed.

Maybe I just interpret things differently. How about this one:

William Powell Frith, Claude Duval 1859-60

“Oh my!” (to quote books in various shades of grey).

The card says the painter was trying to show the lady as beautiful but terrified. I’d say he failed utterly. The lady looks, shall we say, erotically enchanted. She seems fascinated by the highwayman, even while her companion has swooned, criminals are running about with guns, and the older people are in states of heroic scorn or supplication. She’s ignored them all and is totally engaged, her eyes wide open. That’s why the man leaning on the chest is laughing. He’s seen this before.

Does this mean the curation is wrong? No, but it is curation. I could see both the Frith painting and the Hunt in an exhibition about lust (and not just because I’m reading the book by Simon Blackburn).

One painting actually fooled me. At the Manchester City Art Gallery, there is one anachronistic piece in each room. So, for example, there is a room full of 18th century Romneys and Reynolds, but there’s also a pot by artist and provocateur Greyson Perry. When I encountered this work by Leighton, I thought it was an anachronistic photograph with costumed actors at a fair or something — that’s how accurately it’s painted. Hard to see backlit online, but still.

Edmund Blair Leighton, Waiting for the Coach (1895)

Oh, and here’s a group of cows that looks more like a family than many families I’ve seen:

William Watson, Morning – Loch Goil (1893)

The art gallery wasn’t all we saw, of course.

Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral is fantastic, and also needs some curation because it’s been done and redone in so many different ways (partly because of the 1940 Blitz). One of the misimpressions I had about Manchester was that it really didn’t exist until industrialization brought droves of people. But it is actually quite old, and the cathedral’s base is 14th century.

The energy of Manchester is evident just walking the streets. It is a modern city, with an exciting vibe. See…

More photos…

Why journalists write such good history books

In an only slightly different life, I would have been a journalist. As a significantly younger person, I followed Watergate closely, reading All The President’s Men (as well as Haldeman’s The Ends of Power), and attending a lecture by John Dean given at my college. I saved all the Newsweek articles on Patty Hearst, and all my newspaper clippings of the 1975 World Series, in a laundry basket. I became copy editor and then editor of my high school newspaper, writing articles and proofing galleys and protesting the truancy laws. I majored in English at UCLA.

I switched to History due to an odd series of events involving a high school counselor who didn’t tell me when the AP English test was offered, a fascination with the musical 1776, and a brilliant course I took with historian Joyce Appleby. I never took a journalism class after high school, but instead trained as a historian. My degrees are in History, and my certificates are in Education.

For the past decade or so, I’ve studied the evolution of the web as a teaching tool, and in particular online pedagogy. I’ve experienced the typewriter, the internet, the web, as customer and creator. I’ve used rotary dial phones, dial-up modems, and cell phones. Even as I experienced digital history unfolding (or perhaps because I experienced it), I have “reported” my findings rather than studying the phenomena as a historian. After years of being the person in the room saying “but this has all happened before”, I have recently returned to the study of history as my primary task. And yet, the history books I most enjoy reading now are not written by historians. They’re written by journalists.

Most of these works are about the history of technology, which was my specialty in grad school (although I studied medieval, not modern, technology). Tom Standage (The Guardian, The Economist) published his brilliant The Victorian Internet in 1998, the same year I began teaching online. The book became a reference for me, a way to connect the present (in which I was frantically operating) with the past I understood. In 2003, a student gave me a copy of Empires of Light, by Jill Jonnes (New York Times), about Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse. It was another reminder that so many things (commercial competition, technological advancement, bloody-minded geniuses) are not new. Atlantic and NY Times writer Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) was a delight, part of a body of his work that supported my gut instinct that the web was making us stupid and that our dependency on computers had a serious dark side (that was the same year that saw the rise of MOOCs).

Steven Johnson (Wired, NY Times) wrote The Ghost Map, a 2006 book so clear and brilliant in its discussion of the cholera epidemic in London that I assigned both the book and his TED talk to students.

Few of these people have history degrees. Johnson’s are in semiotics and English lit. Carr, also literature. Standage has a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford. Interestingly for those looking at women writers, Jonnes is the only one with a PhD in history, obtained after she was a published writer for the New York Times.

They don’t pretend to be historians. Standage notes his specialty is “the use of historical analogy in science, technology and business writing”. Johnson just calls himself a writer, and Wikipedia says the same about Carr.  Jonnes uses no noun to describe herself despite her degree.

With such a trend in evidence, it didn’t surprise me to read in Bloomberg Businessweek that New York Times reporter Cade Metz is writing a history of artificial intelligence.

Normally I’m quite the snob about non-historians doing history. For example, we have a number of departments at the college who offer classes with the word “history” in the title, but are taught by language or music instructors. The individuals teaching them are quite wonderful, but they aren’t doing history. They’re teaching cultural heritage, typically without reference to historical methodology. Their technique is usually narrative, rather than the development of a thesis to be proven with evidence. Similarly, the profusion of “history” days and months for groups of subcultures (women, African Americans, etc.) are all heritage-based, although they claim to be doing history in order to show they are on the right side of history, which is another thing entirely.

Such storytelling, however uncomfortable I may be with it as a historian, has always been important to human beings. It has become increasingly significant in recent years, as competing narratives are created to defend particular points of view. To the agggrieved, for example, all of human history may be a story of grievances. Historians study historiography, the “schools” of history formed by different viewpoints (such as Marxist history, or the Annales school, or the New Left). Historians tend to recognize these varying perspectives, though not always. Competing perspectives are inherent in the discipline. They’re a feature, not a bug. Historians know there is no “one” history, but rather histories told for varied reasons. That’s why historical evidence is so important — it is needed to support ones perspective, to ground it in fact.

Neither historian nor journalist, English prof Marshall McLuhan provided the foundation for many of the works mentioned here in his The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

So what do journalists and historians have in common? Both observe the world carefully, and note patterns. Both access the past for context. Both rely on sources, tell stories, create narrative, highlight key people and events. But they divide on method. A journalist may consult only a few sources, or a very broad selection of sources, and need not engage in exhaustive research among scholarly articles or primary documents. They may rely on scholars’ interpretations, since they themselves are not engaging in scholarship. Journalists may use more literary techniques to draw the reader in, to make clever connections. (These techniques have actually changed the way history is written by historians, as publishers now seek a broader audience for history books in an age where fewer people purchase books at all.)

Most importantly, journalists need not provide a new perspective beyond the telling of an interesting story. The originality lies in the creative telling of a tale, rather than in the development of an argument that must be proven with facts. Perhaps this is why the articles on Patty Hearst did not lead me to research the Hearst family, or terrorism, or cults. I never got into the history of baseball. I watched Watergate happening but did not feel an urge to research previous presidential scandals, or violations of the constitution, or the composition of the White House staff. The stories were complete in themselves.

So when a journalist turns a hand to history, it has the potential to be more lively, and more immediate. Liberties are taken (almost into “creative non-fiction”) with personalities, like those of Tesla or John Snow. “Bringing history alive” (a phrase that makes me cringe, with its implication of imposed drama) need not involve engaging in historical scholarship, but it does create the all-important analogies that Tom Standage mentions. These books bring facts to light, and connections between past and present. Without the work of writers like Standage and Johnson, it is unlikely I would have found the connections between what I was doing with my teaching, and what others have done in the past. Even if I discovered these connections while defending history in the various MOOCs in which I was enrolled, I might not have realized my own potential to write about them.

Skilled journalists make the reader feel engaged in the story, even if their thesis is nothing more than, “look at this cool series of events that happened”. Because they live in our time, their reasons for looking into the past are the same as those of historians: to find insights about ourselves in the present. With such similar goals, it isn’t surprising that so many good books featuring history are written by journalists.

Sometimes you gotta make something silly

Made with Blabberize to upload the image and animate the mouth, Google Translate to translate the French, Natural Reader preview to make the French voice, Snapz Pro to screencast record the audio (and Quicktime to stitch the audio sections together), Audacity to convert to mp3 for upload to Blabberize (yeah, I know, but Quicktime is faster for me), YouTube to upload and add English captions, HTML cc_load_policy=1 in embed code to force English captions to show.

Too much trouble not to make two: