Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyA Humanist Take

  • Sun, 29 Mar 2015 06:15:49    Permalink

    Colleague Mike Buehler of Boston Rare Maps  just sent me a link to a fascinating article on modern uses and readings of nineteenth century ship's logs– (dig the YouTube videos of whale ship passages over time!) by a very cool guy named Ben Schmidt at Northeastern University. As near as I can make out, the writer argues for, and explains, the digital application of statistics compiled from ships' logs and journals. From these results he posits a discipline in which the traditional “humanist” reading of such materials would be altered.

    Yes, it sounds complicated. Perhaps I should let him explain it.
    The central conclusion is this: To do humanistic readings of digital data, we cannot rely on either traditional humanistic competency or technical expertise from the sciences. This presents a challenge for the execution of research projects on digital sources: research-center driven models for digital humanistic resource, which are not uncommon, presume that traditional humanists can bring their interpretive skills to bear on sources presented by others. We need to rejuvenate three traditional practices: first, a source criticism that explains what's in the data; second, a hermeneutics that lets us read data into a meaningful form; and third, situated argumentation that ties the data in to live questions in the field.
    As I said to Mike, the man must be brilliant. But if I had to share an office with him, I'd probably shoot myself. Or him.
    By contrast, here's a journal I just cataloged - definitely a "humanist" take...

    Manuscript.Log of Voyage in Sailing Vessel "Mantra" - Capt. Clifford Asbel. Starting Tahiti - French Polynesia May 1983. Edward M Southern, M.D. F.R.C.O.G, FALOG. Late Surg/Cmdr RNVR.4to, unpaginated. About 45 pages of manuscript entries. $200
    This looks at the outset like a fairly ordinary journal of a 20th century Pacific pleasure cruise, written by a recently retired MD. Soon, however, we realize that Dr. Southern is undergoing considerable mental anguish – perhaps a late midlife crisis. The journal begins April 30, 1983 as an accounting of expenses during a road trip from South Carolina to California. By May 1 he is comparing his experiences on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 with the present moment, as "possibly the worst day of my life." The trouble, it seems, is with his daughter, Judy. He is ending his relationship with her because he "can no longer stand the arrogant contempt of her prig of a husband who thinks he is perfect and has nothing but contempt for 'less people.' I am 20 times the man he will ever be." After a day of driving he purchases a ticket to Hawaii (on route to Tahiti) via California, where his son(?) Michael lives, carefully keeping accounts as he unravels mentally. “A new life awaits me if I do not have another heart attack or go back into deep depression again.” He drives 12 hours to Augusta, where he picks up a girl, though they do not quite have sex,then on to Birmingham, Baton Rouge, Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles – none of which is recorded in the 30 blank pages Dr. Southern has left to be filled in by a later iteration of himself. Then, on June 3, we find him in Tahiti, with Cliff, aboard the Mantra. Things seem to be going well enough there, with gourmet meals and interesting young women, until he begins wondering if he is "being screwed" financially by Cliff. He dismisses these fears, then treats us to an engaging illustrated tour of Polynesia – including Papeete. Morrea, Discovery Bay, the Bounty replica, and assorted beach combers and other characters he encounters along the way. Great fun! But a week later he's back to obsessing over the manner in which Cliff in preying on him financially. A few days after that, regarding his nemesis Cliff, "He appears to WANT to fight.” Dr. Southern is ready to leave Tahiti and the Mantra, but is trapped because his pension checks, being sent by the estranged Judy, have failed to arrive. He holds out hope that Michael will be able to sell the car he left behind in California. The Mantra returns to Papeete where, on Jun 16, cashing in his ticket, Dr. Southern flies back to California, his fantasies of a Pacific ramble dashed. The back of the book contains several pages of frantic, obsessive money worries and calculations, as he tries to imagine how he will live out his days. Fascinating journal of a troubled man, the kind you hope never to meet in your travels.

    After spending two months with Dr. Southern, I think I'd take that office with Ben Schmidt afterall.

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