Friday, December 24, 2010

Reading in the Future

I read a lot. That includes the quotidian micro-reading we all do (email, Twitter, Facebook, texts, news) as well as more sustained reading, such as books. Over the last few years, micro-reading - short works, up to a few paragraphs - has migrated mainly to my phone, which is always with me. But sustained reading has mostly stayed where it's always been (for me): in books and in printouts, annotated mostly through small sticky notes in the margins.

Why? And should that change? I've been wondering over the last week or so whether I should migrate to an e-reader.
1984-ish: My brother and I buy a Commodore 64, disk drive, and printer. We begin playing an Infocom text-only adventure, Deadline. It's complicated, so we decide to set the game to print every interaction so that we can review it later. Soon we run out of paper.

1986-ish: I write a report for high school in longhand. My mother types up the final version on a dedicated word processor.
Transitioning from print to digital was not intuitive. Those of us who went through it thought that a printer was a vital accessory: The computer was where you produced a text, but paper was where you composed it (in longhand), edited it (sometimes on a printout), and shared it (not just out of preference, but also necessity: few friends had a C64, let alone a disk drive or modem). But there were other reasons to use paper.
1989: Working on my undergraduate degree in computer science, I draft programs on paper, type them into the computer, then try to compile them. At the end of a session, I print out the code and hand-edit it. I have to. The screen only shows 80 characters per line and only 24 lines, so I can't get a panoramic view. With a printout, I can lay out several pages, compare different parts of the code, and see how they relate. Also, the printout is much more portable than the computers in the university computer lab - I haven't bought my own computer yet. When I explain my process to an experienced programmer, he says, "Oh, you can't compose on glass?"

1990: I get a home computer and a home copy of Borland's Turbo C Integrated Developer Environment. It changes everything. Now I can split the window and look at code at two different places simultaneously. I can search for unique identifiers too. I can also try out code more rapidly. I don't have a home printer, although I do print out code at school - more occasionally.
Access is a big deal, but so is text density. You simply can't fit much text on an 80x24 screen, and it's very hard to remember the shape of the text you can't see. When you're used to relying on reading strategies based on a broad field of vision, and you lose that broad field of vision, you have to develop new strategies or new tools to compensate. The split screen and search were two such tools.
1994: I begin using Mosaic.

1998: Working on my dissertation, I oscillate between printouts (which I heavily mark up at coffee shops and in my office) and the computer representation, which resides on my home hard drive and at least two 3.5" floppy disks.

1998: I borrow a Palm Pilot and try the to do list, calendar, and notes. I begin to see the potential for microreading.

2000: I'm playing Mario Kart with three other players in Lubbock. The screen shows four different viewpoints, one for each player. I have a hard enough time interpreting what's happening in my quadrant. But one of the other players easily watches the four screens simultaneously. He laughs as he launches a blue shell, then sees it pass through the other players' viewpoints to hit the one in the lead.
Tools aren't the only thing that can improve reading, of course, because human beings don't come off an assembly line. Human beings develop strategies for reading too. When I realized that my friend could pay attention to all four quadrants simultaneously, I realized that he had developed strategies that I couldn't realistically hope to develop. This made me feel old.
2000: After trying to take field notes in notebooks for a month, I buy a Palm Pilot and a collapsable keyboard, on which I take the rest of the field notes. I set up macros to speed up the process and I obtain a simple Palm-based database for managing participant information. (These data eventually become my second book.)

2001: I encourage my students in the computer lab to save their work to a USB drive. One doesn't - instead, he simply mails the file to himself in Yahoo Mail, which is accessible anywhere. I am fascinated at what suddenly seems like an obvious solution.

2002 or 2003: I use a small grant to buy a Sharp Zaurus, which runs Linux. I start outlining papers on it, but find that even with its greater screen density, it's too hard to get a sense of how the paper develops. I also get a copy of mysql running on it, which I use for formulating queries of my field notes.
Microreading is great for small screens. And we do a lot of microreading: to do lists, shopping lists, calendars, references. For sustained reading, though, I have trouble getting the hang of using the small screen. That wasn't for lack of trying. Meanwhile, more and more content was migrating online.
2007: Inspired by research on multiple monitors coming from Microsoft, I request and receive a second monitor. It helps tremendously. I start grading online.

2008: I buy an Android phone and am frustrated that I can't edit Google Docs with it.

2010: Android now allows Google Docs editing. I use it a little.

2010: Apple releases the iPad. I am unimpressed. It's too big.

2010: I finally buy an eBook, Phillip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent, for $9. It's 679 pages. I try to read it on my phone, and quickly realize that although I'm reading the words, I'm not retaining them. It feels like I'm reading through a straw. A week later, I find the same book at a used book store and purchase it for $2.
At this point, I have microreading down. I read an enormous amount of text through my phone. But when I try sustained reading on the phone, it eludes me. It's as if I'm still stuck in 1990, still trying to figure out the tools - or in 2000, realizing that I don't have the strategies to cope. Sure, I can add a monitor, but I realize that I'm trying to meet two opposing conditions: field of vision and mobility. Greater mobility means a smaller screen, which means a smaller field of vision, which means less sustained reading.

This would not be a big deal but for three things:
  • I like mobility. I don't like hauling books around.
  • I like tools. I want to use tools that will enrich my reading experience, such as search, and print books don't offer many new tools.
  • I like strategies that improve reading. And part of me is worried that I'm missing out on strategies that will improve my reading - and that some may simply be beyond me, though they'll be intuitive to younger readers. That is, I begin to wonder if my reliance on print books is my version of the VCR my parents couldn't figure out how to program.
So that's where I am now. I'm interested in how others are dealing with the same issues. In particular, if you read ePubs:
  • On what form factors do you read them? Laptop, tablet, dedicated reader, phone?
  • What tools do you use to aid your ePubs reading? Search, highlighting, notes, other? Are some of these outside the ereader?
  • What strategies do you use when reading ePubs? Do you combine them with other versions? Tackle different types or sections of readings on different form factors? Follow a nonlinear pattern when reading? Bring different expectations to ePubs?
I'd love to hear what you think. Leave your comments, or tweet me @spinuzzi.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reading :: How Writing Came About

How Writing Came About
By Denise Schmandt-Besserat

In grad school, I ran across an article that made a deep impression on me, Denise Schmandt-Besserat's 1986 article on the origin of writing in the West:
Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1986). The origins of writing: An archaeologist’s perspective. Written Communication, 3(1), 31-45.
The article, which I ended up citing in the preface of my first book, really altered my understanding of writing. Based on extensive archeological work, Schmandt-Besserat argued that writing was not developed for literature, religion, or storytelling. Rather, it was a hacked-together accounting system, originally implemented as a set of clay tokens. Here's how I glossed it in my book:
Denise Schmandt-Besserat argued in 1986 that Sumerian writing, which was at that time considered to be the oldest example of writing, essentially started as a quirky Sumerian accounting system. According to her account, tax collectors began making clay tokens representing livestock, bushels of grain, and containers of oil to tally the actual goods that they had collected. Since it became unwieldy to carry around these tokens, eventually Sumerian bureaucrats began making clay “envelopes” to hold them. And since it was not possible to see inside these envelopes, they would press each token into the side of the clay envelope to make an imprint before firing it. The resulting group of impressions functioned as a tally of the livestock. Eventually some clever accountant realized that once the impressions were made, the tokens were moot. Soon the envelopes became round tablets and scribes eventually began imitating the tokens’ impressions with a stylus. The rest, as they say, is history.
The article really brought home to me the materiality of writing - and the series of accidents and adjustments that went into our most protean tool.

Of course, Schmandt-Besserat's 1986 article was a summary of much longer works. Another, lengthier summary is her book How Writing Came About, a popularized version of her more scholarly Before Writing: Volume 1: From Counting to Cuneiform.

I haven't read the scholarly version yet, but How Writing Came About is just breathtaking. For me, at least, I mean that literally: at several points I was actually holding my breath. Maybe that's corny, but when Schmandt-Besserat carefully peels back the years and reconstructs the trail of innovations that gave us writing, I got a clearer sense of the length of time involved, the problems that had to be solved, the societal and organizational changes that accompanied writing's evolution, and the many ways in which it could have been stifled. Schmandt-Besserat isn't a suspense writer by any means - she has a dry style even in this popularized version - but the material makes up for that, carrying the story forward.

So what's the story? There are two.

The first story is that of the archaeologist unraveling the evidence to determine the origin of writing - not an easy feat, given how broadly that evidence was scattered and how deeply embedded were the assumptions about writing. As Schmandt-Besserat explains in the Introduction, myths claim that writing was a gift from the gods - or God. In the 18th century, scholars adopted the pictographic theory: that writing evolved from pictures (p.4). And in the 1930s, when very early tablets surfaced that seemed to contradict the pictographic theory, archaeologists tried to reconcile evidence and theory by positing earlier versions from which abstract symbols evolved (p.5). Yet challenges continued to occur. One was that tablets did not emerge until well after the establishment of cities. "How, then, did the Mesopotamian city-states function without record keeping?" (p.6). Nevertheless, archaeologists stuck by the pictographic theory. "At the same time," Schmandt-Besserat tells us, "excavations steadily produced small tokens that, as I will show, were the antecedents of writing" (p.7).

Yes, tokens:
small clay objects of many shapes - cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc. - served as counters in the prehistoric Near East and can be traced to the Neolithic period, starting around 8000 B.C. They evolved to meet the needs of the economy, at first keeping track of the products of farming, then expanding in the urban age to keep track of goods manufactured in workshops. The development of tokens was tied to the rise of social structures, emerging with rank leadership and coming to a climax with state formation. (p.7)
Right. And this gets us to the second story.

Tokens were counters, counters that allowed people to keep track of their goods - a vital precursor to city administration. But counters don't scale well by themselves, since once you get past a certain point, it's quite unwieldy to carry around tokens. So people developed a variety of methods to store and archive tokens. One way was to create clay "envelopes" (like hollow balls) in which tokens were placed and sealed. Of course, a closed and sealed envelope doesn't give you a good idea of how many tokens, or what kinds of tokens, are inside, so "accountants eventually resolved the problem by imprinting the shape of the tokens on the surface of the envelopes prior to enclosing them" (p.7). (I explain to my students that this method is similar to baking a calzone after embedding one of the ingredients on the outside.) Soon - "soon" in archaeological time, anyway - accountants realized that the outer markings made the tokens superfluous. They began producing solid clay balls with token markings on them, then began using a stylus to imitate the imprinting of tokens. "The signs were not pictures of the items they represented but, rather, pictures of the tokens used as counters in the previous accounting system" (p.7).

At this point, the author provides a few photographs. And if you're like me, you stop breathing. I'm not overly emotional, but there's something arresting about seeing these crude tokens and envelopes, invented and adapted by nameless scribes in the deep past, just trying to solve a problem and unwittingly creating a system that would eventually encode legends, histories, laws, sacred texts, mathematics, as well as picayune applications such as bubble gum wrappers and this blog post. It's like seeing the first wheel or hammer. But in these precursors of writing, you can actually see the fingerprints of the craftsmen who developed them. These tools weren't developed by a faceless mass of people - they were developed by individuals with names and families, aspirations and disappointments.

The solid clay balls were a turning point because the markings, although superficially the same, "assumed an entirely new function. Whereas the markings on envelopes repeated only the message encoded on the tokens held within, the signs on the tablet were the message" (p.55). After the envelopes gave way to the clay balls ("tablets"), it took 200 years (eight generations) to move from token impressions to additional pictographic representations (p.57). The plainer tokens were conveyed by being impressed, while more complex tokens were "transcribed into incised pictographs" (p.79). That is, there were two different scripts. Why? The author speculates that this is due to "the way tokens were handled in various offices": simple tokens were impressed because they were kept in clay envelopes, but complex tokens weren't - because they were "perforated and strung," that is, kept on strings or thongs (p.57). And why were there two different kinds of tokens stored in different ways? "The plain tokens represented products of the farm and the countryside, whereas complex tokens stood for goods manufactured in the city. It is therefore logical to assume that the two types of tokens were handled by different hands in different offices" (p.57). Eventually, they met in the emerging writing system.

The plain/complex token division gives us some idea of the environments that produced writing. In Ch.5, Schmandt-Besserat further explores these environments, taking us back to pre-writing symbols (e.g., notches on bones), then to the neolithic symbols that emerged in conjunction with agriculture: "the clay tokens modeled in distinctive shapes, each representing a precise quantity of a product" (p.93). Unlike the previous symbols, the tokens were entirely manmade and entirely for communication and record keeping (p.93). "The greatest novelty of the new medium, however, was that it created a system. ... This system made it feasible to simultaneously manipulate information concerning different categories of items, resulting in a complexity of data processing never reached previously" (p.93). And "Furthermore, the system was open; that is to say, new signs were added when necessary by creating new token shapes, and the ever-increasing repertory constantly pushed the device to new frontiers of complexity" (p.94).

Tokens were in fact "the first code," and evidence suggests that they even used a rudimentary syntax: "It is likely, for example, that the tokens were lined up on the accountant's table in a hierarchical order, starting on the right with tokens representing the largest units. That was how Sumerians organized signs on a tablet, and it is logical to assume that the procedure was inherited from former usage in handling tokens" (p.94). As a code, the token system spread intact across the entire Near East.

Schmandt-Besserat speculates that the token system itself evolved from "a former usage of counting with pebbles, shells, twigs, or grains." But "the various shapes have no known Paleolithic or Mesolithic antecedents. But the counters have the merit of bringing together as a set, for the first time, each of the basic geometric shapes, such as the sphere, cone, tetrahedron, triangle, quadrangle, and cube" (p.94). Some were probably iconic, but others appear arbitrary (p.94).

Yet as the system became more widely used, it failed to scale well. For one thing, "the tokens lacked a capacity for dissociating the numbers from the items counted" (p.96). For another, "the number of types and subtypes of tokens multiplied over time in order to satisfy the growing need for more specificity in accounting. ... This proliferation of signs was bound to lead to the system's collapse" (p.96). The system had advantages: "the system was simple" and "the code offered new performances in data processing and communication" (p.96). And the system "presaged the Sumerian writing system" in its semanticity, discreteness, systematization, codification, openness, arbitrariness, discontinuity, independence of phonetics, syntax, and economic content (pp.97-98). But its drawbacks included its format, the difficulty of making permanent records, and its inefficiency due to its limited repertoire of tokens (p.98). These drawbacks led to writing, which offered permanence; accommodation of more diverse information, an end to the repetition associated with one-to-one correspondence, and an end to the limited system of concept signs by becoming phonetic (p.98).

Look how long it took:
  • 30,000-12,000 BC: tallies
  • 8,000 BC: tokens
  • 3,100 BC: writing
In Chapter 6, Schmandt-Besserat puts these different systems into socioeconomic context. "Tallies, plain tokens, and complex tokens were different because each fulfilled the needs of a distinct economy and social organization. Writing, on the other hand, was a result of other stimuli" (p.101). Specifically, "Tallies, plain tokens, and complex tokens kept track of vastly different items: the former recorded time, whereas the latter two computed agricultural products and manufactured goods" (p.101). This part really got my attention, since it reminds me of some of the epochal readings I've been doing over the last few years.
  • The author argues that before agriculture, people needed only to track time (via tallies), since "lunar notations would make it possible for dispersed communities to gather at intervals to reaffirm their ties and celebrate rituals" (p.101).
  • But "agriculture brought about a need for accounting," so tokens appeared (p.102). Interestingly, tokens did not seem to be used for trade yet.
  • With the advent of industry, the token system expanded, for the first time generating "complex tokens" that represented "finished products typical of urban workshops, such as textiles, garments, vessels, and tools; processed foods, such as oil, bread, cakes, and trussed ducks; and luxury goods, such as perfume, metal, and jewelry." Still, these complex tokens were not related to trade (p.102). Complex tokens were strung, while simple (agricultural) ones continued to be kept in clay envelopes.
Schmandt-Besserat ties these writing precursors to their societies' socioeconomics. Specifically,
  • hunter-gatherer societies do not accumulate many goods, so they don't need an accounting system, just a tally system for keeping track of time (p.103). She estimates that the egalitarian system typical of hunter-gatherers can manage a maximum of 300 people (p.104).
  • agricultural societies are "rank societies," in which an elite oversees a redistributive economy (p.104). Such rank societies involve both redistribution and control - two functions at which writing excels. "Writing was the backbone of the economy of redistribution - an economy that brought prosperity to Sumer" (p.105).
  • The State resulted in complex tokens (p.107). "Complex counters belong to the Mesopotamian temple institution, where they coincided with such socioeconomic changes as monumental architecture, the monopoly of force, and bureaucracy which point to new strategies in pooling communal resources" (p.108). These changes also include taxation (p.108).
Writing, then, is the outcome of abstract counting - the subject of Ch.7. (As I tell my students, if you enjoy reading and writing, go thank an accountant.) In Ch.7, Schmandt-Besserat goes into the details of counting and the transition to abstract writing. Just go read it.

Part III of the book consists of pages and pages of artifacts - mostly tokens - categorized by type and function. It's fascinating.

Okay, let's wrap it up. Go get this book and read it. As I said, it's a popularization of Schmandt-Besserat's scholarly work - work which I'll need to read and cite soon - but it's packed with insights and careful inferences that will change your understanding of writing. It's especially important for those who study the history of writing, but I hope you can also see how it informs information design, information architecture, professional communication, and socioeconomic studies of writing. If you have a scrap of reverence for writing, this book will make you breathless too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reading :: Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
By Clay Shirky

When I got this book in the mail, I started reading the plaudits on the back aloud. "Clay has long been one of my favorite thinkers on all things Internet." "Clay masterfully makes the connections." They seemed very impressed with me until I confessed that it was really Clay Shirky's book.

Okay, so maybe I'm a little envious. But Shirky earns those plaudits with clear, engaging writing and a thesis that is both unintuitive enough and intriguing enough to get people reading. In this case, the thesis is that economic changes have given us free time, and each generation finds ways to invest its free time. For newly industrialized London in the 1700s, the solution was gin. For 1950s US, it was the sitcom. For this generation, it's the Internet and other connectivity tools. That is, this generation's cognitive surplus is no longer completely wasted: people can actually make and share things. In one anecdote, Shirky recounts explaining Wikipedia to a TV producer, who sighs, "Where do they find the time?" "Hearing this, I snapped, and said, 'No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from.'" (p.9).

Bravo. As Shirky passionately argues, the TV generations spent enormous time in the basement comparing Ginger and Mary Ann. The Internet generation - some of it - spends time producing things. Those things might include the innumerable versions of "Bed Intruder" that I surfed on YouTube this morning, sure. But some include the blog post I'm currently writing, which may possibly help someone out, or Wikipedia, or fan fiction. That's not simply because of innate generational differences. "Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do" (p.121).

Overall, the book is well written and intriguing, and does a great job explaining how "makers" fit in and thrive. I'd recommend it to anyone who's trying to figure out participatory culture - or trying to find some good pleasure reading.

Reading :: Postmodern War

Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict
By Chris Hables Gray

In the Preface of this book, Chris Hables Gray announces that he wants to address a "dogma" of the history profession: that history is not progressive. Gray disagrees: "There are patterns we can see that clearly show a kind of progress, if we remember that love and cancer both progress, grow, and spread" (p.vii). This seems like a statement at odds with postmodernism, but Gray, who apparently developed this book from a dissertation directed by Donna Haraway, is clearly concerned that war as a way of life really is progressing. He signs his Preface "Love and Rage, Chris Hables Gray" (p.viii).

Love and rage do permeate the pages of this book, particularly the latter. Unfortunately, rage makes people careless. Gray criticizes Arquilla and Ronfeldt, but he confuses their netwar concept with Network-Centric Warfare (p.24 and elsewhere); he criticizes Latour for claiming that nonhumans should have rights as humans do (p.75 - a mischaracterization); he criticizes AI researchers from not learning from the Bhagavad-Gita (p.72), forgetting that this sacred book's central message was that Arjuna should put his conscience aside and slaughter his enemies for the glory of Shiva. Finally, Gray proves his point that "while the enemy is labeled female, our weapons can be considered male" by quoting - the owner of the New England Patriots (p.43).

With this track record, I am reluctant to take many of the book's assertions at face value. Gray attempts a cultural studies-based critique of postmodern war, and in some places he succeeds, but this 1997 text suffers from the events of the last 13 years. For instance, he scoffs at the suggestion that Third World countries are an actual threat, and instead suggests that they are simply justifications for further swelling military budgets (p.34); today, we are dealing with the aftermath of the A.Q. Khan network, including the actual threat of actual long-range missiles tipped with actual nuclear warheads, and SDI has new life as a shield against such threats. He criticizes the move to heavily "market" military news (p.41); now we can see the repercussions of controlling information during warfare, repercussions that don't just belong to the US (see readings by Arquilla and the US Army War College).

That being said, Gray does provide some valuable thoughts about postmodern war. Some of the best contributions are represented by the bullet points on p.169, where Gray argues that "the main moral justification for war is now peace"; "war is becoming cyborgian" (think Predator); "the battlefield is now a [3D] battlespace"; "many targets may not be attacked"; and "wars can only be won politically" (pp.169-170). These statements, and others in this chapter, not only make sense but seem in accord with later work on fourth-generation warfare. (Search this blog for Arquilla, Ronfeldt, Robb, and 4GW for more examples.)

Last thing. Gray starts his book in Sarajevo, where World War I started in 1914 and where the US and allies tried to stop ethnic cleansing in 1995. What jumps out here is that these dates bookend the "Long War" that Phillip Bobbitt discusses in his masterpiece The Shield of Achilles. Although Gray and Bobbitt seem to come from very different places, I saw several points of possible conversation between the two books throughout.

Reading :: Through the Interface

Through the Interface: A Human Activity Approach To User Interface Design
By Susanne Bodker

Here's another book from my grad school days - although it wasn't on my reading list. I had just become interested in activity theory due to a talk David Russell gave one of my classes in either fall 1994 or spring 1995. At the time, activity theory had only been discussed by a handful of rhetoric and writing types, so I began looking outside the discipline, specifically at human-computer interaction and related areas (since I was very interested in how electronic communication would impact our field). This 1991 book was in the library, and I remember being incredibly excited as I leafed through it, then borrowed it, then bought my own copy.

The first thing I want to point out about the book? No triangles. When Bodker wrote her dissertation, which was the basis of this book, she hadn't heard of Yrjo Engestrom, whose work (and triangle diagrams) has since become the face of activity theory in the West. Bodker eventually heard about Engestrom at a conference, and ends up throwing in an incidental citation to Learning by Expanding in the book, but the work is actually based directly on Leont'ev and Vygotsky. Consequently, Bodker focuses much more on the levels of activity than we might expect, and leans on Wittgenstein to discuss objects and representations. It's a really interesting take on activity theory, particularly after being soaked in Engestromian AT for so long.

But this book is useful for interaction designers even if they don't care to learn about activity theory. That's because Bodker was also involved in the fabled UTOPIA project, in which the techniques of Participatory Design were developed. So Bodker's empirical cases, theorized within a second-generation AT framework, are interesting from a designer's point of view: inventive, often low-tech, driven to encourage participation. For instance, she discusses mockups developed with paper and colored slides, designed both to educate her users about computer interfaces (most had never seen one) and to encourage their full participation (they could modify the paper mockups easily). From my perspective, it's a fascinating account of how these techniques developed, how Bodker theorized them, and how they came to impact UTOPIA and Xerox PARC. (They have, of course, impacted a range of disciplines in the intervening time; see my article "Lost in the Translation" for a fuller account.)

Although the book still bears the marks of a dissertation, it's still a solid piece of scholarship. It inspired me deeply when I read it, and I was saddened when it disappeared along with a box of books during my move from Texas Tech. I finally got around to ordering a replacement, and I'm glad I did - it still holds up. Pick it up if you're interested in AT, PD, or interaction design.

Reading :: Local Knowledge

Local Knowledge: Further Essays In Interpretive Anthropology
By Clifford Geertz

I picked up this book in grad school. It was on my reading list for the qualifying exams in my Ph.D. program - at that time, rhetoric and professional communication was going through the "social turn," so we were reading a lot of cultural anthropology. But I confess I didn't quite make it through the book back then. I did recently, but it involved a lot of skimming. Honestly, this classic didn't keep my attention. I think there were at least two reasons why.

The first was that these insights, which were fresh when Geertz was first writing, have become pretty well integrated into scholarship in the interim. Geertz studied cultures all over the world, and he notes issues such as multiplicity, associative thinking, and (what some might call) postmodernist blurring of categories. Such issues were still fairly new and contested in 1983 (when the book was published) and even less well known in the preceding decade, when Geertz delivered the lectures on which the chapters were based. But much has been written about these issues since 1983, so the book didn't provide much in the way of additional insights for me.

The second reason the book had trouble keeping my attention was stylistic. As noted above, the chapters were based on lectures Geertz had delivered. I could tell: The chapters were scoped too broadly, covering too much ground, without enough local detail and focus to keep me engaged or to make their arguments concretely. As summaries that connected the dots of Geertz' vast work, they did well, I assume. But I haven't read Geertz's other work, so I was frustrated by how much was glossed over, including (in many cases) methodology. Additionally, like a good lecture text, these chapters did away with strong navigational cues such as headings.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the general arc of the book. In particular, I appreciate how he got across the same lesson that Rogoff later communicated: that we must examine cultures within their own value systems and milieux. Geertz not only preaches this, he practices it.