A Discovery of Academics

English: The courtyard of the Bodelian Library...
The courtyard of the Bodelian Library, looking out the north gate from the south gate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve finally made peace with my Cloud, and come to terms with the fact that while I will continue to read books for pleasure on my Kindle, most of my actual research will be distinctly paper-based for the immediate future.  (I’m just waiting for the next great piece of kit to make that change.) But, oh, have I been reading a great book on my Kindle lately.  It might be about early modern history and written by Deborah Harkness, a well-regarded scholar in the field, but it is certainly not academic.  Here’s the run down:

An American academic is spending a year at the Bodleian working on her latest research on the history of alchemical science.   There she meets Matthew, a handsome, 30-something professor who has more publications to his name and more interdisciplinary interests than could ever be possible for a person his age. It’s a charming love story set amid the city of a thousand spires, but the salient fact here is that she is a witch and he is a vampire.

Everyone around me seems to reading Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches at the moment, and for good cause.  It is well-paced, inventive, a bit escapist, and quite stylish. What strikes me most, though, is its portrayal of academics and their circles.  Professorial phenoms, the book playfully suggests, are simply millenia old vampires who have had years to perfect their research and to develop their experience. Matthew’s poise, his polish, and his ability to turn out a slew of books in one semester seems supernatural precisely because it is. (And it’s a fun way to think of academics in the real world–just imagine how many thousands of years Harold Bloom has been around.)

More delightful, though, is the book’s portrayal of Diana, the American witch, and her understanding of academic insight.  As a child she shunned magic, not only because of the tragic death of her parents, but also because she wanted to be certain that her achievements really were her own.  And it’s a resolution, she is certain, which she has largely stuck to, particularly in her professional academic life.  When she happens to get stuck in her research or can’t see the next route her work will take, she simply imagines a large white table filled with the puzzle pieces of all that she needs to fit together–the dates, the events, the speculations, and the controversies of history.  And, in a snap, the puzzle comes together in her mind.  But it is only part way through the novel when Matthew finally explains to her that this visualization is magic, and, in fact, she had used magic all along.

Maybe there is something peculiar and even a bit supernatural about academics, from the young publishing wizards who defy their years, to the profoundly intuitive thinkers who can make sense of even the most illogical of analytical puzzles.   A Discovery of Witches is giving many readers an insight into the mania and joys of an academic life, and its an insight that perhaps many academics could learn from as well.

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