Reading Matter & Matters of Reading

Reading Matter & Matters of Reading

Part I – On Some Rumours Concerning the Untimely Death of the Blog to a colleague of mine the blog is dead. 

“Whatever happened to blogs, eh? You don’t hear anything about blogs anymore, do you? It seems that bubble has well-and-truly burst. No one blogs anymore. Blogs are totally old hat now!” 

Hmmm …

 “Au contraire, Blackadder!” 

… The ‘blogosphere’ is certainly still very much in the rudest of healthinesses! 

This little chat the other day set me thinking about blogs and on-line reading habits. It seems I know many people who are avid readers, and many of them find much of their reading matter on-line. I certainly do. And so, taking my lead from the concept of the History Carnival, I thought I would write a brief résumé here of all the blogs which I currently follow. I hope some of these might be of interest, dear reader; and, similarly, I’d be very interested to hear of any recommendations for intriguing websites or interesting blogs which you think I might not have come across …

History Carnival is a good site to start with, as it provides a monthly digest of the most interesting posts on history blogs; it’s hosted by a different blogger each time, thereby helping to keep the topics fresh and varied. Similarly Exeter University’s Imperial & Global Forum provides a weekly round-up of news articles found that week relating to the themes of colonialism and empire. There are quite a few blogs which focus on particular historical themes, for instance: Borderlands HistoryPort Towns & Urban Cultures, and The British Cold War. But there are also a number of individual historians who write excellent blogs about their own teaching and research, for instance: Joanne BaileySerena DyerLucy AllenMatt HoulbrookSteven GrayDan HicksRichard Blakemore, and Caroline's Flickering Lamps. It was actually Rachel Leow’s blog, A Historian’s Craft, which first prompted me to think not just about starting a blog myself, but also to think about returning to University to pursue an MA in History, which has since very happily lead on to my current PhD studies.

Naturally, many of the blogs I read most regularly relate to the main areas of my research interests – mostly China and Central Asia, and these tend to be a mix of history, archaeology, and anthropology; for instance, blogs such as Sam van Schaik’s early Tibet, Justin Jacob’s Foreign Explorers in Xinjiang, Geoff Barstow’s The Lost Yak, Imre Galambos’s Chinese Manuscripts, and Llewelyn Morgan’s Lugubelinus, Hans van Roon’s Mongols, China & the Silk Road, Dan’s Tibeto-Logic, and Hannibal Taube’s Trans-Asia Trektravelogue and China research blog.

Michael Woodhead’s In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock was another blog which inspired me to begin blogging, not least because part of my own research and travels similarly centred on creating “then & now” contrasts of old and modern photographs from the same part of the world. 

Two interesting blogs with a wider and often more current regional focus are East by Southeast and Steppe Dispatches.

A good notes and queries blog for anthropologists is Savage Minds.

And for Asian art topics there’s the Asian Art Blog, and Rachel Marsden’s Words.

More China-specific blogs which I’m always checking-in on are the historian, Robert Bickers’ own personal blog, Meena Vathyam’s Sikhs in Shanghai, Austin Dean’s The Licentiate’s Ledger, Sue Ann Tay’s Shanghai Street Stories, Josepha Richard's Gardens of China, Covell Meysken's Everyday Life in Mao's China, as well as Frog in a Well, plus Visualising China, and, the Sinica Podcast.

More local to where I live, London history blogs are also of great interest to me too. They can often be a spur to turn off the computer and go exploring historical places much closer to home. My main pick of these would be: A London InheritanceThe History of London Isle of Dog’s LifeA Rotherhithe Blog, and Running Past. Twitter, itself dubbed as a kind of ‘micro-blogging’ site, has some great historical Tweeters; History of Stokey and Cornish Bygone Times (admittedly located a bit further beyond the M25!) are just two of many which regularly post wonderful historical photographs and local history info about their respective areas. Ian Visits is also a good source of occasionally obscure facts and interesting nuggets of London Transport history, as well as being a good source of local events info too. Paul Talling’s Derelict London is a mesmerising site for anyone like me with a historical fascination for the aesthetics of urban decay.

Which (very loosely) leads on to another broader category of interest for me – these are blogs which focus more on themes of geography, nature, place, psycho-geography, and urbex (urban exploration), such as: Paul Dobraszczyk’s rag-picking history, Julian Hoffman’s Notes from Near and Far, Stephen Rutt’s North Ron’ Diaries, Alex Cochrane’s adcochrane, Sara Evans’ website on travel and nature photography, Fraser MacDonald’s Modern Lives, Modern Landscapes, Laurence Mitchell's East of Elveden, Paul Scraton’s Under a Grey Sky and Traces of a Border, as well as Lines of Landscape, the Fife Psychogeographical Collective, and Atlas Obscura. All great escapes from the everyday.

Cartography, old maps, antiquarian books,and manuscripts always hook my interest – good examples which I follow are Cornelis J. (Kees-Jan) Schilt’s Corpus Newtonicum, Erik Kwakkel’s medievalbooks, Jonathan Crowe’s The Map Room, Nicholas Danforth’s The Afternoon Map, plus Melville’s Marginalia, and, the Public Domain Review

A number of institution-based blogsregularly post a lot of interesting articles about their work. The British Library has a number of first rate blogs – such as, Endangered ArchivesAsian & African StudiesUntold LivesMedieval Manuscripts and Maps & Views. There’s also the excellent International Dunhuang Project. SOAS also field a number of good blogs – such as their Special Collections Archive and South Asia Notes. The South Asia Archive & Library Group brings together a lot info relating to these areas too. Other notable sites include, the Senate House Library blog – The Royal Asiatic Society blog – The Institute of Historical Research blog, as well as, Translating Cultures, and The Himalayas & Beyond. The list goes on …

… and yet, my colleague reckons that blogging is dead?

Yes. The blog is dead. Long live the blog! 


Part II – Re: Matters of Infinitely Multiplying Reading Matter anyone regularly reading this blog will no doubt have long since realised, books are a substantial cornerstone of my world. I spend a lot of time in libraries and bookshops. I often find myself heaving bags of these weighty things from place to place. My flat is filled with books, and it’s never long before any empty surface therein swiftly becomes the locus in quo for a towering pile of new tomes to magically manifest. Indeed, I very much feel that a life without books would be no life at all.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that I often write about the books I’ve read here (and elsewheretoo), but, as an avid reader, books are not my only source of reading material. Naturally, the internet is now the largest public library open to plunder and I spend a lot of time doing just that – but it’s easy to get lost in this Borgesian labyrinth, and so, like Theseus, its best to have a strategy to help navigate it. My on-line reading habits have evolved over time. I now have a set of favourite sites on the web which act as portals or siphons respectively opening up and channelling web content which might be of interest to me and my studies – Twitter and 3 Quarks Daily are two such sources of endless supply.

Many of the on-line archives and research forums I follow I’ve bookmarked using my Bundlr page. I’ve also bookmarked a number of blogs there too, however, I generally use the RSS Feed in my internet browser to keep up-to-date with notifications of new content being posted. Perhaps (for me at least) the most invaluable tool on the web nowadays to keep connected and up-to-date is Twitter. I find a lot of bloggers and academics use Twitter – it’s a brilliant way to share links to new reading matter with colleagues and friends. It’s also a great way to connect with other readers, writers, and researchers. I’ve got to know some very nice people through Twitter, and, occasionally, with a fair few of them (several of whom I’ve mentioned above) the conversation in cyberspace has happily transferred over into the real world and continued over a cup of coffee, or a pint of beer or two! really highlights the connectivity and sheer speed of the internet age. For instance, late one night, whilst I was working hard on an essay towards my MA, I thought I’d take a break from writing by making a cup of tea and having a quick peruse to see what was happening on Twitter. By an astonishing coincidence, one of the first tweets which popped up on the screen was posted by an academic (whom I follow) with a link to a recent interview he’d given. I clicked on the link and as I read the interview I realised it was highly relevant to one of the points I was at that very moment making in my paper and therefore it was something which I should definitely cite. So, flipping back to my draft essay, I added the citation there and then. It was only a day or so later, during a final proof-read, that I noticed the “access date” I’d given for when I’d read the interview preceded the actual “publication date” of the piece by a single day – after a moment’s puzzlement I realised this was because the website on which the interview was featured was based in Australia. My late night reading of the piece – only moments after it had been uploaded as it turned out – meant that I was reading an interview published on the other side of midnight on the other side of the world – hence the inadvertent and seemingly impossible feat of academic time-travel! … Research rarely gets any more up-to-date than that!

I don’t (yet) own a Kindle (and, to be honest, nor do I really want to own one), but I do own a tablet PC (which, in many ways, is perhaps something of sorts far beyond a simple Kindle!) And ... I'll happily admit that my tablet PC is invaluable. I read a lot of academic journal articles as part of my PhD research, and many of these I access and download electronically, via JSTOR or via Birkbeck College eLibrary. On the whole I do prefer to print-off a paper copy of these, as I find paper-versions are much easier on the eye when reading, rather than staring for long concentrated periods at a screen, plus you can scribble notes and marginalia more easily on a paper copy than on a PDF, but there’s a limit to the resulting piles of paper which can thereby accrue alongside the already teetering towers of books! … Consequently, the tablet PC is actually the best way to store and refer to these types of text (plus it is possible to highlight and annotate passages using this system too).

When I was still in High School I remember reading an old Isaac Asimov ‘David Starr Space Ranger’ story in which a particular character (a hermit-like chap living alone on a asteroid, I think) was described as owning a vast library of “books on tape”. Even though this story was written (and I too was reading it) in a pre-digital era, I couldn’t really picture what such a library might have looked like – the closest thing, I supposed, was perhaps a library of video cassettes. Now I often find myself thinking back to my younger self puzzling over that mental picture from Asimov’s story when, simply sliding my finger lightly across the touch screen of my tablet PC, I flip through these endless rows of neat little PDFs ... It may not quite be Space: 1999 yet, but the world has certainly changed rather fast in some respects!

The internet as a global platform seemingly without boundaries (for the most part) has definitely transformed both the means and extent of dissemination and sharing of information. It’s easy to see why the present time period is best described as the 'new information age' – this is an era which is revolutionising the way we live, enhancing global communication and connectivity through immediacy; reducing time and distance, and making a global outlook an increasingly normal part of our day-to-day lives. It’s easy to overlook how truly remarkable this transformation actually is.

Some people seem to think it’s turning us in on ourselves, with our "introverted and narcissistic" Facebook updates, our selfie-sticks, Instagram pics, and personal blogs – but I don’t agree, if the internet is a mirror I think it’s a parabolic one (an ‘eccentric parabola’, perhaps?), projecting as much as reflecting ... Maybe, living in the here-and-now, as we do, precludes us from realising this? Perhaps we’re simply too close to see the remarkable nature of all these new connections we are forging? ... Our resources nowadays seem to be an ever broadening horizon. Certainly, looking back, I can’t begin to fathom how I managed to even begin – let alone complete – my first degree in the then decidedly more muffled pre-internet age.

P.S. - I've just noticed a near cosmic alignment - this post's time stamp almost forms a palindrome: 15:20 6/6/2015.

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