The Liebster Award, or, Becoming Aware of an Internet Tradition
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert, Uncategorized

The Liebster Award, or, Becoming Aware of an Internet Tradition

Photo of a red limestone building with a weathered gateway of white stone carved in relief built into it
The very rich and very patient can ignore practical constraints on their collecting too: random Tudor gateway built into the Burrell Collection, Scotland.

A few weeks ago Alexandra of ascholarlyskater nominated me for the Liebster Award. Thanks Alex! I see that Judith Weingarten won one of these in 2013. Although I do not normally post personal things on this blog, I thought I would get into the spirit of things in my reply. Those of you who are here for the history can come back next week when I will have something nice and martial and either Babylonian or Phoenician.

•Pick any work of art or artifact from any time or place to display in your home. Feel free to ignore all practical concerns when answering this question.

Humh, there are so many possibilities: the collection of ancient military manuals from the imperial library in Constantinople in the Biblioteca Laurentiana, the Pazyryk tapestry, Getty MS. Ludwig XV 13, a stuffed doublet covered in a nice brocade from 1370 or so, a copy of Ctesias’ Persica, one of the glazed Chinese bowls which provides the MacGuffin in “We also walk dogs …” In the end, I think I will say the Solokha comb. A giant golden comb decorated with statuettes of battling warriors is not very practical, but bulky things are difficult in my wandering life, and I have always admired it as a work of art.

•What was your major in college and why did you pick it?

I did a double major in History and Computer Science. I am good at and enjoy both math and the humanities even if history is my passion, and I think it important to have at least one rare skill which is easy to translate into a job. I suppose that it says something that I dropped out of my startup to start graduate school.

•Imagine that you wake up one morning and have a rare day off, with no responsibilities whatsoever. How do you spend the day?

I think I would go for a hike and try to find the prähistorischer Brantopferplatz which I have seen on maps of the hills between Innsbruck and the Brenner Pass. Last time I tried I was not able to find the right path, but a day hiking in the mountains is never wasted.

•Describe your personal sense of style by referring to the characters or pop culture icons it most resembles.

A trusted third party suggested Barry Allen in his mild-mannered-forensic-scientist identity from the new DC Flash series on TV. As always, citation does not imply approval or disapproval.

•Who is your role model and why?

You know, that has always been a difficult one for me. It sort of seems that if you expect too much of people you will spend your life disappointed, and that scholarly people these days need to carve their own path. So I will use this post to talk about someone whom I learned something important from.

L. Sprague de Camp studied aeronautical engineering but when jobs proved hard to find in the Great Depression he drifted into freelance writing. In his long life he wrote books on everything from patent law to the Atlantis myth to swords and sorcery adventure, worked himself raw at a lumber yard in Upstate New York, developed technology at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during WW II, volunteered on archaeological excavations, and traveled the world. All of his writing projects an attitude of whimsy and an amazed, amused, and slightly shame-faced sense of the strangeness of human behavior. He very pointedly did not pick some people as an in-group of superior and similar minds which should wall itself away from the flawed strangers in the wider world; his attitude was that any community contains plenty of strangeness and silliness, that those who are loudest in complaining about others are the busiest making fools of themselves in some other way, and that his friends in ancient Greece or 20th century Kenya had more or less the same foibles as the Americans he knew.

L. Sprague de Camp was a human being and not without flaws. Those who want to find criticism will easily turn it up with their favorite search engine. I will just give two anecdotes that show what kind of person I think he was. The first is that he once published a little versicle about his time as a Navy Reserve officer in a research job. The words and the title slipped out of my brain somewhere amidst Greek chronology and cuneiform sign-lists, but he had a few verses on ancient and medieval warriors including Richard Cour-de-leon “clad in his mail/wielding his brand on the fields of Arsuf” and then “Mister de Camp with his stripes of gold lace/clicking his slide-rule behind a desk.” The second is that in the oughties, his private website contained an essay by himself or wife describing how he realized that he had been underestimating her education, curiosity, and skill as a writer sometime in the middle of the last century. You can’t expect too much of people, and pompous moralizing never helps, but all we can do is not take ourselves too seriously, admit that we err but are poorly placed to notice when and how we err, and try to do better today than yesterday.

•What is your favorite non-fiction book (because everyone always asks about fiction)?

How can I pick just one! I will say that there is always something worth thinking about in Herodotus, and that any book from another another age and culture can give things which no book by a contemporary can. This is especially important for those of us from rich English-speaking countries, who as members of a hegemony can very easily forget that the customs of our tribe are not the laws of nature, and the squabbles of our subtribes do not define the cosmic space between good and evil.

•Do you think a movie can ever be better than the book it’s based upon? (I know I’m being scandalous here!)

I think it could, but I do not think I have seen one. Maybe The Fellowship of the Ring where Peter Jackson restrained his temptation to tinker more than in his other five films set in Middle Earth …

•What is your dream job (real or invented)?

I want to do something which keeps me interested, pays enough to live modestly and travel and save a bit, gives me access to good libraries and thoughtful people and energy to get to know them, and has a regular routine where one week is like another. That might be a teaching job, but to get a good teaching job at a university one must be lucky.

•What would the title of your memoir be?

Wandering Forwards, Looking Backwards? Self-forty-years-later would like to warn readers of this post that he will not be held to self-in-2015’s choice however!

•Would you rather have an unlimited, forever-replenishing supply of good books, cute clothing, or yummy snacks?

Humh, this one requires a bit of thought. I can rule out snacks, because I am a reasonably good baker, and a batch of cookies or crumble can last a single man for a good long while. Clothing is tempting, because I would still like to get an outfit in the fashion of a poor North Italian gentleman circa 1370 together, and unless one is very lucky in where one lives or very rich that requires very hard work as a tailor and seamster. I think that most experts in reproducing the fashions of the later fourteenth century would admit that they do not know how to make fashionable men’s clothing look the way that people at the time wanted it to look. I am no expert, just a military historian with a hobby. But I think I will go with books, because while I can bake all the snacks I want, and could sew all the historical clothing I want if I had the mind, I sure can’t write all the things which I want to read.

•Pick a foreign language that you want to learn.

Living in north Tyrol in a town where many people from the Italian-speaking parts of Tyrol come to study (they even teach Italian law here!), I wish that I had time and energy to learn some Italian beyond “uno biglietto per favore” und “mi scusa.” With my childhood French and adult Latin it should not be too difficult to learn simple Italian. But German, French, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Aramaic are more than enough for me right now.

I think that I will pass on nominating other bloggers right now. I do not read as many blogs as I used to, and several which I do read do not feel like the type of people which would appreciate being tagged. But thanks to Alexandra for the nomination!

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