Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella vocal music on historical themes, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. She writes about history for a popular audience at and about SF and fantasy-related matters at

Palmer's latest book is The Will to Battle, the third book in the Terra Ignota series.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I’m reading John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), one of the very earliest works defending freedom speech and the importance of a free press. The tail end of 2017 is a powerful moment to revisit our first articulation of the value of free expression. Milton addressed the book to Parliament because in the 1640s lots of people in England supported tightening control of the press, largely in response to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1641) which was so hated and feared that by itself it sparked a widespread call for more censorship. Publishers hoping to make money from controlling intellectual property were also—contrary to what you might expect—in favor of more censorship since it meant more control. We tend to assume that that notions of copyright have existed since time immemorial, and that censorship tools like the Inquisition existed throughout the Middle Ages, but in fact both developed into their mature forms only in response to the spread of the printing press after 1450, and of the Reformation after 1517. So Milton’s book was written in a moment when huge new information technologies had just come in (much like today), and when religious divisions, violence, and xenophobia were major fears in people’s lives (also much like today). Milton’s England did not have a free press as we might think of it, and one could be arrested and prosecuted for printing any sort of political criticism or controversial religious ideas, but it had a freer press than Catholic regions, where all books were effectively pre-banned and had to be read and approved by a censor (usually a bishop, a royal officer, or a Dominican or Jesuit) before they could be printed. It’s heart-wrenching seeing Milton argue so beautifully for the importance to thought and to art of having a free press, even though the free press he celebrates is so much less free than our own, and it’s powerful revisiting the work now at the end of 2017, when issues of free speech and censorship are so in our own world, and on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation which was such a major cause of people supporting censorship.

As for lighter reading, I’m absolutely loving Fumi Yoshinaga’s Tiptree-wining manga Ōoku: the Inner Chambers. It’s a secret history of Tokugawa Japan, imagining that the reason Japan closed itself off from the outside for 200 years was that a plague which only affected men reduced the male population to 1/5 the female, and Japan was trying to conceal this from the world for fear outside nations would see it as weakness and invade. Yoshinaga brilliantly examines all the cultural, political and social changes that would come with women so outnumbering men, and develops her powerful and three-dimensional characters over multiple generations, so sometimes we see a character’s cherished dream finally come true fifty years after her death thanks to the aftereffects of her hard work, and love is never ever happily after, it’s always still there to be affected by the next historical moment. I’ve never read a volume of Ōoku without tearing up, sometimes at tragedy, sometimes at beauty.
Visit Ada Palmer's website.

The Page 69 Test: Too Like the Lightning.

--Marshal Zeringue