Project draft: “Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars”

Extraordinarily good site header by my sister, Laura McCauley, who was kind enough to help me out

Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars is up and running on The site currently features its first content post, an examination of what the first Lord Peter Wimsey book, Whose Body?, can tell us about how shell-shock was viewed culturally and socially in British society in the early 1920s, as well as a host of informational pages to orientate users to the site and its purpose.:

  • About this site: This is a brief introduction to why the site was made and what its purpose is, as well as to the author of the site (that is to say, me.)
  • About Lord Peter Wimsey: Whilst writing the first content post for the site I realized that I didn’t really provide any sort of introduction to the series that makes it clear why reading it is worthwhile beyond its historical contents, which runs somewhat contra to one of my intentions for the site, which is that reading old books is entertaining and enjoyable and that gleaning valuable historical insights from them is a kind of bonus. I wanted to foreground that these books, on top of the didactic purpose they can serve, are tremendously fun to read, so I added this page introducing Lord Peter Wimsey as a character.
  • The Dorothy L. Sayers Society: This links out to the Society’s webpage, which is what is typically listed on published copies of Lord Peter Wimsey books as the main resource for learning more about Sayers’ life and work.
  • Reading literature for historical content: This was a page for the site that I had planned to include in my proposal, as in addition to doing my own historical literary criticism in the content posts on the blog, I wanted to demonstrate for the site’s readers how they can engage in similar practices while reading. This page briefly discusses historical criticism and New Historicism before suggesting some questions to keep in mind while reading in order to carry out such analysis. These sections are followed by an excerpt from the very beginning of the first Lord Peter Wimsey book and a demonstration, using that passage, of the sort of historical subtext that one can glean while reading.
  • Where to read: As I had mentioned in my original proposal, the Lord Peter Wimsey books have entered the Canadian public domain and as such are available to read online. In order to encourage site users to read them, I’ve provided the links to these texts on this page.
  • Site directory: This page will be updated with each new content post—it’s essentially serving as a table of contents for the site, organized by the different books in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I’ve linked the content post that’s currently up, and I’ve listed the posts that I’m planning to write.

The content post that’s currently up, “Whose Body? and shell-shock,” exists to serve as a proof-of-concept for what the rest of the site will eventually be. This post combines excerpts from the novel with analysis and some historical research to discuss the portrayal of shell-shock in Whose Body? and what that portrayal tells us about British culture at the time that it was written.

With the site’s framework set up and the first post published, I’d love the opportunity to get some feedback now before publishing more posts along the same lines. The site directory page includes the titles of several other planned posts, which constitute my next orders of business. Each post is quite an undertaking as it requires me to reread a book while looking out for a specific topic that I remember as having been a salient part of that particular story, then carrying out close readings of passages that relate to that topic, and then doing some additional background reading, so I’m aiming to have up perhaps three more by the end of the semester.

I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer about the usability and the usefulness of the site, and of anything that you think might improve it!

Exploring interactive storytelling with Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs

How well do you remember your earliest encounters with digital interactive storytelling? Rhizome, a website that preserves and celebrates born-digital art, and the New Museum have put some of the earliest examples of this art form up online as part of the exhibition First Look: New Art Online. Among these are Theresa Duncan’s 1990s CD-ROMs—per Rhizome, “three videogames that exemplified interactive storytelling at its very best.”

Thanks to the use of an embedded emulator, these three games—1995’s Chop Suey, 1996’s Smarty, and 1997’s Zero Zero—are available to play online now. Studying them reveals [something].

The webpage discusses the origins of these CD-ROMs, which began as the products of a partnership between Theresa Duncan and Monica Lynn Gesue while the pair were working at Magnet Interactive here in Georgetown. Gesue had been inspired by Richard Scarry’s Busytown, a CD-ROM game that I also played as a kid and which I personally still think about on an almost-daily basis (specifically the ship-building game that you can watch in the video I just linked, still the peak of gaming for me) to use the CD-ROM medium to create a “moving storybook.” After Chop Suey, Duncan and Gesue’s collaboration ended, but Duncan went on to work with other developers to create Smarty and Zero Zero, which are in a very similar vein as their predecessor, artistically and story-wise.

The games themselves are best studied as pieces of art, rather than as video games by modern standards. Playing Chop Suey today, you can sense a lineage between it and the narrative-heavy, aesthetically rich, and strategy-light genre pejoratively referred to as the “walking simulator.” In a typical modern game, like Skyrim, you’re completing quests and progressing on a storyline that requires you to do magic and shoot arrows and fight bears and that sort of thing. In a “walking simulator,” you’re…walking. There’s a narrative arc, but you’re not making it, you’re discovering it. Rather than playing an active and decisive role in the story, you’re exploring the world of the game and letting the developer tell you a story. “Walking simulator” isn’t a term that gets used by people who like this type of experience; make of this what you will, but many gamer-types will charge that they aren’t really games.

Looking back at video game history with games like Theresa Duncan’s establishes an important continuity for these kinds of artistic storytelling experiences in video games. A more recent entry into this lineage, 2013’s Gone Home, in which players simply explore the protagonist’s family’s home and use the things they find to piece together an understanding of what has recently gone on with the family, was denigrated by some as a “walking simulator,” because really, you’re just walking through a house and opening drawers and such. But Gone Home also sparked a critical discussion of video games as art for its rich, complex, and layered narrative. Playing Chop Suey, I came to see it as something of a forebear to Gone Home and games like it—sure, you don’t get to build a ship like you do in Busy Town, but the game offers you a storybook and the opportunity to explore it however you like, to have a subjective and nuanced aesthetic and narrative experience. Imagine if you could crawl inside a painting. It’s more like that.

Beyond their legacy in modern video game development, there’s a lot to be said about Theresa Duncan’s games. All three feature female protagonists and were made mainly for young girls—generally not the most catered-to demographic in the games industry. They’re also magnificently inventive and more than a bit bizarre. Rhizome’s writeup of the games discusses this surrealism in the games’ visuals and audio cues quite extensively, but it’s kind of hard to really get it until you give the games a try for yourself. In my playthrough of Chop Suey, the following things happened to me.

I innocently clicked on a bush and was greeted by this beatnik firefly, who recited a bug-centric parody of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl.” There is not an option to get out of this situation once you are in it. You are just listening to the bug poem now. His audience is invisible but receptive.
I innocently clicked on a photo and was greeted by a dreamlike, cereal-centric, recursive smorgasbord of figurative language.
I innocently clicked on a house (sensing a pattern?) and was greeted by this completely non-interactive tableau of a seedy-looking witch stirring a stew of frankly unbothered child in a cauldron.

The games are just like this. You get to explore, and what you find is generally quite otherworldly and at times confusing. Of course, that’s entirely the fun of it, and that’s also part of what makes it hold up so well. We’ve found a million ways to improve on Mystery House—we have better graphics, the opportunity to tell more robust stories and the space to do it in, inventive mechanics for crafting better mystery games, and at the very least, we have capabilities for writing text adventures that recognize a greater wealth of commands and objects. If you want a better horror game or if you want a better mystery, there are now myriad options that you will find significantly less frustrating; people playing Mystery House now are more likely doing it for the novelty of it or for its historic value. But games like Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero hold up well because they can be enjoyed precisely as they once were meant to be enjoyed: as fantastical storybooks open to the player’s exploration.

Playing Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROM games today isn’t just a thought-provoking look into the history of video games or a look at the lineage of video games as art and the “walking simulator” genre. It’s also a means to a fun, aesthetically rich, and surreal interactive storytelling experience! Do give them a go. It’s wonderful that they’ve been preserved for play using the emulators on Rhizome’s site—keeping that little bit of video game history accessible is crucial for keeping it alive.

Time for a deep dive into file formats

If your oral history project includes the creation of any sort of digital audio or video files—and it almost definitely will—you are going to need to make some informed decisions about what file formats you are going to use to store your data.

Kara Van Malssen’s article, “Digital Video Preservation and Oral History,” offers a highly practical introduction to how you might begin to make those decisions. If Van Malssen leaves you wondering what the big deal is about formats anyway, the “Format Theory” chapter of Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format offers an interesting historical look at what formats mean and how they develop.

Digital video preservation

When you’re creating digital video files, it’s not great form to just pick up a camera and jet off to the races. The decisions that you make in the earliest stages of a video’s creation have lasting implications for its preservation later on.

Van Malssen provides a very helpful in-depth look at these decisions, but for the purposes of this blog post, we’ll content ourselves with understanding some basic information about file formats and reviewing some of Van Malssen’s overall recommendations.

Anatomy of a video file

The important components of a digital video file are the file wrapper and the encoded video and audio tracks.

The file wrapper dictates what we’d think of as the format, which gets represented as an extension. The file wrapper binds the video and the audio tracks together and stores metadata. Some common extensions for video files include:

  • .mov
  • .avi
  • .mpg
  • .wmv

When we talk about encoded tracks, we’re acknowledging that within the file wrapper, the audio and video tracks are created using different codecs. These codecs encode the tracks for storage and then decode them at the moment of playback.

Van Malssen offers several examples of popular codecs:

  • H.263
  • DV (Digital Video)
  • Apple ProRes
  • MPEG-2
  • MPEG-4

Understanding the makeup of your digital files is key to preserving them.  Now, let’s review some of Van Malssen’s best practices for preserving your files.

Recommendations for digital video preservation

  • Choosing a recording device: Get one that uses one of the codecs listed above (others might be hard to support, and may not even be playable one day) and that produces video at the highest bit rate you can possibly support.  You can always compress your video to reduce its file size, but you can never restore bits that weren’t recorded in the first place.  It’s like the opposite of seasoning while cooking.
  • Transcoding: Transcoding is moving a file from one encoding format to another.  It always results in a loss of quality, so transcode judiciously!  What does that look like?  Basically, make sure you keep different versions of your file for your different purposes.
    • Creating a preservation master file: The point of a preservation master is to keep your original footage intact at the highest possible resolution.  You can use it to create new versions of your file, but you want to preserve the original file’s integrity as much as possible.  Store this safely, and don’t replace it with any of your edits!
    • Creating a mezzanine file: This will be your working copy, which you use to create new edits and proxies as you need them.  If you don’t need to make any dramatic changes to your file size, you may not need a mezzanine.
    • Creating a proxy file: This is your low-resolution file that you use for distribution, especially online.
  • File naming: Use a clear, consistent file name convention to make managing your collection easier.
  • Metadata: Similarly, use consistent, descriptive metadata.  Van Malssen recommends using a tool like MediaInfo to collect technical metadata output attached to your files, and to use standards such as the Library of Congress’ VideoMD or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s PBCore to keep it consistent.
  • Storage: Store at least two copies of your preservation master in two different storage locations, even in two separate geographic locations.  Your files can degrade over time as your storage material decays, and having more than one copy of your master on more than one storage medium is a good way to safeguard against that!  Storing smaller mezzanine or proxy files in the cloud can be a good idea, but your preservation masters should be stored on hard drives, data tapes, or both.
  • Preservation planning: Use open-source, standard file formats and codecs, like those listed above, to keep your files accessible long-term.  Keep up with the technological landscape so that you know if the file formats you’re using are at risk of becoming obsolete, and keep your original files in as high of quality as possible to ensure for the best possible outcome if you do need to transcode them.

Format theory

After all that discussion of the practical implications of formats, Jonathan Sterne’s “Format Theory” chapter interrogates the idea of a format.  The MP3 is the most common audio storage format used today, but, as anyone who’s ever spoken to a person who really cares about headphones knows, it’s certainly not the audio storage format that allows for the highest quality.  So what gives?

Put simply, the MP3 is small.  It compresses recorded audio and uses significantly less bandwidth than other formats, which is ideal for transferring files and communicating.  In contrast with Van Malssen’s advice to keep your files in the largest format you can, the proliferation of the MP3—a super-compressed, lossy format—puts a premium on distribution over preservation of quality.

Sterne explains this by contextualizing the MP3 within a history of compression.  “As people and institutions have developed new media and new forms of representation, they have also sought out ways to build additional efficiencies into channels and to economize communication in the service of facilitating greater mobility,” he writes.  Over the course of time, so many of our attempts to make media more widespread and easier to share have resulted in compressing the media.

When he argues for the importance of format theory, Sterne encourages us to view formats as a part of history, entrenched in a context that reflects the cultural moment in which they become popular, as well as the operational and industrial needs of that moment. 

Both of these pieces of context inform which formats become popular.  Culturally, in the case of the MP3, many people prefer distorted audio over verisimilitude, and many prize easily sharable audio over very high-quality audio.  In terms of operational needs, I remember an instance years back, in which a friend shared an album with me in AAC format, which allows for higher-quality sound at about the same bandwidth as an MP3 file, and I was frustrated because I wanted to burn a CD to listen to in my car, but the software I had available would not let me burn AAC files to a disc. 

Considering this outside context complicates the idea of formats progressing in a linear fashion to higher and higher quality and explains why some formats succeed and others don’t.

How does understanding format theory enhance our understanding of digital file preservation?  What are the implications of the proliferation of the MP3 on the prospect of preserving modern files?

Digital project proposal: “Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars”

One of my favorite things about reading old books is the look that they offer into the past.  While as a history student I spend a great deal of my time reading more didactically-focused texts, I appreciate how much can be gleaned incidentally about an author’s culture and time period from the novels that they write. With careful enough study, a novel can serve as a sort of microhistory.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ series of Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels provides an uncommonly well-developed portrait of an era.  In Sayers’ case, her eleven Lord Peter novels published between 1923 and 1937 chronicle life in England in the interbellum period; although the books were not written to be intentionally didactic, they entertain while teaching modern audiences about English culture between the wars.

For this reason, I propose to create an online exhibit titled “Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars” that explores the cultural history of England during this time period using the Lord Peter Wimsey books as a window inside.

Admittedly, the Lord Peter Wimsey series is fairly niche in the modern era.  However, an audience still interested in Sayers’ work is out there!  Clues: A Journal of Detection has continued to publish articles on the Lord Peter novels as recently as 2018, and the Dorothy L. Sayers Society continues to “support and promote the appreciation of the many aspects of Sayers’ work and interests,” as well as writers and creators who work with her novels.

Additionally, while Golden Age mystery novels enjoy only a narrow following, cultural history is a subject of perennial interest to scholars and amateur historians alike.  My aim is that the exhibit will provide illuminating and useful information to students of cultural history who seek to better understand England during this area through the interesting and engaging lens of the Lord Peter stories.

Comparison with existing projects
Lord Peter is hardly online.  The Sayers Society webpage only offers links to traditionally published materials on the author’s work, and other widely available online material is scarce.  Although all eleven novels have entered the Canadian public domain and are thus available on FadedPage, and although Wheaton College has Dorothy L. Sayers’ papers in their special collections, none of this material is interpreted in any extensive way.

However, similar projects have been undertaken with other sources.  For instance, the American Antiquarian Society’s “Women and the World of Dime Novels” site provides a model of a site examining literary women in the context of their society and era and gives a look at what “Lord Peter’s England” might look like on Omeka.

I have not yet decided between Omeka and WordPress for the platform—while Omeka lends itself more easily to building exhibits, Omeka sites’ focus is often more on uploading and sharing collections than on writing interpretive material.  WordPress might be a better option for a relatively text-driven digital exhibit.  It would also allow a simpler means for audience engagement through commenting and using tags to make the exhibit more discoverable.

As for the exhibit’s contents, I plan to organize the site thematically, exploring how the Lord Peter Wimsey books address certain topics.  The themes I currently plan to explore include:

  • Shell-shock and men returning from war
  • Economic vicissitudes postwar
  • The woman’s place in British society: her role in relationships, in academia, and in the workforce
  • Attitudes toward immigration and foreigners
  • Consumer society

For each theme, I plan to include a synthesis of traditional historical scholarship on the topic along with a review of how it plays into the literature, analyzing the historical implications of the literary text.

Additionally, I plan to include at least one page whose purpose is to teach visitors how to read literature historically, using excerpts from Lord Peter Wimsey novels to illustrate what historical context in a novel might look like so that visitors will be able to identify similar features in other old books.

Outreach and publicity
If I create the exhibit using WordPress, it will be easier to publicize using tags.  In any case, I plan to reach out to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society as well as to the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections to share my project upon its completion so that they can in turn share it with their communities.

With an eye to the limited audience for such an exhibit, I would consider the site successful if people visited it and offered feedback.  On the still more limited scale of this class and with the idea in mind that I may not finish an exhibit of sufficient quality to share with literary societies by the end of the semester, I would consider it a success if visitors to the site reported finding it illuminating about the period in question or reported reconsidering what literature can teach us about history.

Print project proposal: Shifting subjects in popular mystery fiction

Reading Jockers’ Macroanalysis and seeing how the author analyzed a large corpus of Irish literature in order to draw conclusions about Irish authors, the production of Irish literature, its themes, and other related topics inspired me to consider a similar project with my own particular literary interest area.  I refer to mystery fiction.  In 2017, I read 50 mystery novels—spanning in publication dates from 1868 to 2017, but centered during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and 30s—and engaged in some light analysis of the text that Jockers would characterize as “close reading.”  While it was an interesting way to draw conclusions about mystery fiction, it was neither an efficient one (as it did take me all year) nor a truly representative one (as I chose to read books I felt I’d like and ignored those I felt I wouldn’t like).

Macroanalysis inspired me to consider other tools for analyzing the world of mystery fiction.  My previous analysis blended the quantitative (how many characters died?) with the qualitative (how good was the book, rated on a five-star scale?) to come up with subjective qualitative conclusions.  (Seven out of 11 books to which I gave five-star reviews had 0 or 1 deaths; therefore, most great mystery novels are not bloodbaths.) 

But with digital macroanalytic tools, wider questions with deeper implications become available for our consideration and study.  For instance: What crimes have interested readers throughout time?  Within the past few years, we’ve seen two major patterns appear in popular mystery writing: true crime (such as Serial and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark) and psychological thrillers (such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train).  What patterns have emerged at other periods in history?

This is a huge question that would require a lot of work to answer, even with macroanalytic tools. The two main obstacles to this study are pretty major: first, the literary mystery corpus is unmanageably vast, and second, as Jockers discusses toward the end of his book, copyright laws block us from accessing that corpus easily. 

In order to combat the problem of an impracticably large corpus, I propose a more manageable project focusing solely on Agatha Christie’s novels.  A remarkably prolific author, Christie published 66 novels under her own name between 1920 and 1976 and achieved an exceptionally wide readership—as the back of all recently published Christie novels will remind you, her novels have been more widely published than any works other than Shakespeare and the Bible.  Although Christie cannot hope to represent the entire mystery fiction genre, if one author must be chosen as a representative, she seems the best suited to the task.

The copyright issue is a considerable stumbling block here: with some exceptions, the full text of Christie’s novels has not been digitized.  Her first three books are available through Project Gutenberg, and a few others can be read in plain text through the Internet Archive’s Open Library, but owing to the state of copyright laws, the books that are available in these digitized formats are generally Christie’s earliest, which is unhelpful to a project that seeks to track change over time.  To bypass this issue, I propose to focus my study on summaries.  Although a mystery novel’s summary will naturally not include everything that happens in the book, it will generally identify the crime that drives the story, which is the subject of my inquiry.  Synopses are included in ONIX metadata and, especially for constantly reprinted books like Christie’s works, multiple summaries for each book proliferate online on any number of sites, from WorldCat to publisher pages, Goodreads, and more.

After compiling these summaries, I propose to use MALLET’s topic modeling capabilities to examine the trends and patterns that show up in the summaries of Christie’s novels throughout time.  Wordle could also be a useful tool, at least for determining which individual words appear most often in summaries. Given the enduring popularity and wide readership enjoyed by Christie’s works, such an analysis will offer a window into the types of mystery and crime stories that have captured the public’s attention over a period of five decades.

As with all other types of media, the books that people read reflect information about their culture and the society they live in.  Mystery fiction in particular offers a fascinating look into people’s fears, their concerns about their society, and the threats they perceive in the world around them. My hope is that studying the literary mystery corpus will suggest some insights into the culture of Christie’s readership.