Tag Archives: books

Remembering Ernest Callenbach

I’ve just read Ernest Callenbach’s final essay, and I find myself inspired to post some thoughts here.

Callenbach, editor of Film Quarterly, was also the author of Ecotopia and a prequel Ecotopia Emerging.  Born in 1929, he died on April 16, 2012.  An announcement of his passing appeared on H-Utopia, as did the essay.  I encountered the essay, however, through Mark Bittman’s comments in today’s New York Times, and I’m grateful to Bittman for calling Callenbach to the attention of a larger audience.

I had been thinking of Callenbach lately, as my enthusiastic consumption of the Hunger Games trilogy and film reminded me of having read Ecotopia in a Humanities course on utopias that I took as an undergraduate in the early 1980s.  Suzanne Collins’s post-apocolyptic world in which an ostentatiously wealthy Capitol has bought its security through annual “games” in which teenagers fight to the death recalled to me Callenbach’s crunchy Northwestern utopia in which alternative energy, community-owned bicycles, and freedom of emotional expression came at the cost of a football-like “game” in which the losing team died.  When I taught Ecotopia in a First-Year Seminar several years ago, students found Callenbach’s world less appealing than I had as an undergraduate.  I have been wondering whether the popularity of the Collins novels might produce a different response now.

But today I am more interested in what Tom Engelhardt characterized as Callenbach’s “last words to an America in decline.”  In Ecotopia Callenbach had imagined a nation achieved through the secession of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.   This new nation functioned as an ecologically conscious model for the rest of the world, and in his final essay Callenbach acknowledged that our world’s interdependence makes survival through independent “good living” unlikely to say the least.  Many of his recommendations bring to mind contemporary homesteading as undertaken by some people I know and by some cohousing communities I have been exploring online recently.

It would be easy to read Callenbach’s final essay negatively, but I’m more interested in thinking about how his novels and his essay might help us think about questions of life, publishing, and liberal education in a world that continues to change radically, even if some say we are nearing the limits of Moore’s Law.

I’ll think more about this over the next couple of weeks, I’m sure.  What do you think?


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Browsing the Stacks: Braille, Code, and Digital Potentials

As I rode the elevator up to my classroom yesterday morning, I found myself staring unseeing at the Braille numbers on the panel, and I recognized the positions of the dots as a code.  Which is not of course, much of a discovery since Braille does indeed use a system of bumps positioned in particular ways to translate visual language into one readable through touch.  But even though Braille constitutes an example of code that is present in our daily lives, I would guess that many sighted people fail to recognize it as such.

So imagine my pleasure at seeing yesterday’s post on the blog of the Digital Public Library of America.  In “Redefining Reading,” Ben Naddaff-Hafrey notes that the pleasures of stack browsing have generally been denied to readers who lack the advantage of sight.  He writes about the Internet Archive’s use of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) to digitize a million books that apps can present as speech for print disabled readers.  He closes by noting that there is more to digital books than simply turning the physical into the digital.

I would add that whilst we often hear about how proponents of digital culture overestimate the potential of the world we are creating, I’m more impressed with how we underestimate it.  Recently I’ve spent a lot of time touting the learning potential for undergraduates in the processes of transcription and coding.  Since the elusive quality of “finished” products in digital scholarship are well known, we would do well to take into account the advantages we gain from including students in the process.  And I would echo Naddaff-Hafrey.  We who transform physical objects into digital ones cannot know the uses to which our “products” might be put.  That’s part of the joy of digital history.

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