Greetings. And welcome back to “Working on It.”

This week the American Religious Ecologies team released our interactive map of Roman Catholic dioceses in North America from 1511 to the present, with an accompanying essay. Check it out.

Screenshot of a map of Catholic dioceses

This is the first visualization that we’ve shipped, but we are working on more. It’s taken us some time because we’ve also been building our infrastructure for creating, analyzing, and visualizing historical datasets. In later issues, I hope to explain some of the considerations that go into making visualizations like this one.

But if that sort of thing interests you, you could also watch this video. This week I was supposed to speak about our ongoing work in Luxembourg, but for obvious reasons the host asked me to make a video instead. So I talked through the work we are doing to digitize the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies, the way we are creating datasets and visualizations, and what historical questions we are seeking to answer.

That’s the first video I’ve ever made, and it was a lot of work. Learning even just the rudiments of making videos at the same time that I was rushing to write a talk was not ideal. But I am glad to have learned enough that I could make another video if an idea or audience warranted it. And now that I’ve mentioned the video in this newsletter, I’m sure that its views will break into double digits. That’s enough to call myself an influencer, right?

While I was putting up the video, I also found a recording of a panel on “The Bible in Public Life” that I participated in. I’m linking to it now because—to be quite honest—speaking at the Library of Congress on the history of the Bible at the invitation of Mark Noll was everything senior-in-college Lincoln could have hoped for in life. I know the academy is full of people who make life miserable for others, but I’ve been fortunate to have encountered a long list of generous people, and Noll is at the top of that list. And the chapter in my co-panelist Valerie Cooper’s book Word, Like Fire, in which she wrote history as a kind of commentary on Maria Stewart’s “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” has been essential as I think through revising the form of America’s Public Bible.

That’s all I’ve got from YouTube. I promise never to do that to you again.

Random screenshot

A random screenshot

Brief book review

I came across a reference to Vaclav Smil’s book Energy and Civilization: A History (first edition 1994; revised edition 2017) while reading about religion and capitalism. The book seeks to explain that “the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them, in more affordable ways at lower costs and with higher efficiencies, into heat, light, and motion.” I learned a lot about how humans have captured and used energy throughout history. In particular, the basic problems and solutions of agriculture and industry in the nineteenth-century United States are much clearer to me now. Despite the language about “the course of history,” the book manages to avoid the reductionist notion that all of culture, society, and other forms of human endeavor can be reduced to energy flows, while also advancing what I found to be a compelling case that thinking about energy helps us understand global history over a long period of time.

The other reason I find the book interesting is its frequent use of sidebars and other texts within the text. This is quite different than the majority of historical writing outside of textbooks. The asides helped, rather than distracted from, the flow of argument in the book. In that regard, they are like the books of one of my graduate school professors, David Hackett Fischer. I asked Fischer why he included so many appendices, often a dozen or more. He explained that they gave different readers different points of entry to the book. There is a certain kind of reader who only cares about muskets (or uniform buttons!), and the appendices gave those people a reason to start reading and then stay for the more significant parts of the history. In this book, the sidebars also gave Smil a way to explain basic concepts for a non-specialized reader. At one point, I was reading a sidebar on types of levers the same day that levers were an assignment in my daughter’s science curriculum. It’s an intriguing model of writing on multiple levels.


Reading: Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time.

Listening: The Celeste soundtrack encourages a frenetic yet deliberate style of working, if that’s what you need.

Playing: PUBG, again.

Watching: The Game Maker’s Toolkit channel on YouTube has amazing video essays explaining how games work.