England Made Me

On December 3rd I’m headed to London with my colleague Richard Nash for the FutureBook 2011 Conference. I’m presenting Small Demons in a session chaired by Peter Collingridge, on discoverability.

I’m excited. England is where Small Demons started for me.

In the mid 1990s I passed a few years at Oxford, first as a visiting undergrad reading PPE at Keble (1993-94), and then as a grad student at St Antony’s (1995-97).

From Blackwell’s to the Bodelain, there’s no shortage of places to find books in Oxford. While I was up at Keble my favorite was at the antiques fair held every Thursday at the Gloucester Green bus terminal. Every week I went there empty handed and returned with a backpack full of second hand novels. A lot of well worn orange Penguin editions, many interesting finds.

Every other week or so I’d visit my girlfriend at LSE, which meant hours lost at Forbidden Planet, the center of all good things in London. 

As an undergrad, stories were about discovery and escape. When I returned to Oxford as a grad student, that changed.

In the DPhil program at St Antony’s, my focus was on the symbolism of revolutionary politics—specifically, why revolutions never happen without the destruction of old symbols and the creation of new ones. And just how much this matters in the outcome when weighed against other factors. The sort of work Lynn Hunt set the standard for with her Politics, Culture & Class in the French Revolution.

I read broadly in the literature on this and eventually wandered further afield. To writers who also wrote about symbolism, but now within the context of narrative. Critics like Kenneth Burke, whose dramatistic pentad had a huge and permanent influence on me.

At Keble I trekked about in search of interesting stories. At St Antony’s I started to think deeply about what makes stories interesting. And I never really stopped.

I’ve kept all my notes from Oxford, and unpacked them today as I was thinking about the FutureBook conference. As it turns out, on December 3, 1996—exactly fifteen years before I head back over to London—I had just finished Hayden White’s The Content of the Form

I’m going to quote a portion of a sentence from his first chapter, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality", and use it out of context. Because I just love these twelve words:

to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story

With Small Demons, we’re doing one part of revealing and connecting the world that openly and always speaks itself as a story.


An afterthought: I brought all the books I found in Gloucester Green back home with me. I never finished my DPhil. To this day, I have a recurring dream that I’m headed home from Oxford, almost to Heathrow, only to realize I’ve left all my books behind. I never make it home. 


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