Dilettantism, or: It’s five in the morning and I can’t sleep

I know exactly what I did, too — I had some Coke Zero about seven hours ago. In any case, since I’m sitting here in the dark wondering when it’ll be OK for me to get up and have breakfast, I thought I would do another post, in this case mainly about what I’ve been reading recently.

I seem to have been reading a lot of stuff about comics recently. I read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: the Untold Story recently, along with biographies of Alan Moore and Jack Kirby. And very informative they were too. It got me to thinking about obsession and how people’s obsessions fascinate me even though I don’t really have any myself. Not real obsessions.

I have a shelf of books about comics — not too many, but more than one. The Howe, the Kirby bio, Gerard Jones’s book, a few other bits and pieces, some of them history and some of them academic analysis. In most rooms I spend time in, I probably know the most about comics and their history and criticism. But obviously I spend a lot of time reading the books and blogs of people who know much more than I do, people who’ve really put in the hours and the money to build some mastery. So my perception is that I know very little about it. Similarly, I greatly enjoyed Jon Peterson‘s superb Playing at the World, a history of the development of Dungeons and Dragons, but obviously I’ll never have the patience or dedication to research the details of its origins to the level that Peterson displays in this terrific video:

So while, again, I probably know more about the development of D&D than a randomly-selected room of people, just by dint of having read the book and hung out with some people who do really care about the game’s complex history, I could hardly call myself an expert.

And then I think I can say that about my “proper” academic interests as well: I have a pretty good grip on my period and field, I like to think, but I’m not one of the great experts. I’m not even sure that I could hammer out a really great piece on my thesis topic these days; I don’t feel like I have the level of focus and energy the task would need.

The more I look at the range of my interests, from archaeology in general to folklore to early medieval history to, heck, history in general to Lovecraft to geek stuff to my (small but beloved) collection of vintage typewriters I sort of see myself as … I don’t know … as having like a B in everything and maybe a B+ in some things. I guess that makes me a dilettante.

Perhaps this is an exaggeration; it is, after all, five in the morning and most of my thoughts are taken up with Pop Tarts. And it’s certainly true that self-confidence is (and has always been) an issue. If I thought I could really achieve mastery in some one field I might be more motivated to put in the time and effort.

But then, on the other hand, is it so bad to be a dilettante? I know a moderate amount about a lot of things; I can happily teach the Thirty Years War section of my class even though that’s not my specialist topic and I haven’t done a whole huge ton of research for the purpose, because I know the basics well enough. And it’s not bad at parties; I usually know enough about whatever’s being discussed that I can at least follow along.

The question, the real question, is how you get paid for being a dilettante without also knowing anything about sports.

Anyway, I have blathered long enough, so as a reward for you making it to the end of this post, have some fun stuff:

This map shows Anglo-Saxon placenames on a map of Anglo-Saxon London. It is fun to think about that city’s development, much of which has been relatively recent. I remember reading recently about some Elizabethan person becoming successful enough to buy a little country place in … Fulham. Which is not quite how you think of Fulham today.

In light of the recent Strawman Arena about the centennial of the First World War, I was looking around at recruiting posters. This poster is not from WWI, but it’s so goddamn weird that I thought I’d put it in.



That’s from 1972, when apparently the US Navy was trying to persuade the parents of bewildered-looking African-Americans skeptical of the military’s good intentions to sign them up for it. I think what really makes this poster perfect is the young man’s expression. He looks confused and unhappy, which is not exactly what you’re going for in propaganda in general.

I have high hopes that Movie Monday will be on an actual Monday this coming week. Thanks for keeping me imaginary company on a rough morning.

Dilettantism, or: It’s five in the morning and I can’t sleep