I write this on Friday, December 30, 2016. In less than 48 hours it will be a new year, 2017. In years past I’ve taken the opportunity of the turn of the new year to do a retrospective on my blog–what I’ve done, what I learned, the articles I’m most proud of–and that has usually been quite an elaborate affair, such as my three-part “countdown” of the best articles of 2015 ( I – II – III ). I confess that I face the new year with a lot less enthusiasm than I did the last few. My online habits–social media, blogging, news and entertainment consumption–have been changing drastically, especially since the election. While I don’t have the heart to do the lavish spread of year wrap-up articles that I’ve done before, I do, however, think I’ve done some pretty interesting things on this blog during 2016, and I thought I’d showcase them here.
I was just browsing, month by month, my articles that appeared on SeanMunger.com. Here are the ones that I think represent some of my best work, and are closest to the ideal of what I want this blog to be and to say to the world. Unlike in years past, I have not ranked them 1 to 10. Here they are in chronological order.
Star Wars was big on my blog this year. Following the popularity of The Force Awakens, released in December 2015, I did this article comparing the physical settings of the Star Wars films from an environmental angle, using the skills I’ve learned as an environmental historian. How do people (and aliens) live in the deserts of Tattooine? What do the characters of the Ewoks tell us about the forest moon of Endor? Why is Hoth such an improbable location? I think these are interesting questions, and I enjoyed ruminating on them here. For more Star Wars, see also my analysis from September of the politics of the franchise.
If one experience has united most of us in 2016, it has been loss: the loss of elections, loss of hope (in many cases), and the collective loss of celebrities, some of them shocking in how young they were and unexpected were their deaths. In January I did a retrospective on beloved British actor Alan Rickman within the context of a review of a favorite movie, Bottle Shock from 2008 in which Rickman plays sommelier Steve Spurrier. I like this article because it unites two common themes on this blog, movies and wine, but also included something topical and newsworthy. And, as we remember celebrity deaths of 2016, it’s worth again remembering Alan Rickman, a gifted man who brought joy to millions in his various roles.
And here again is loss. This one I felt keenly not merely in an artistic and creative sense, but an intellectual one. In February 2016 Italian medievalist and novelist Umberto Eco passed away. He is the author of my all-time favorite novel, The Name of the Rose, and other brilliant books like Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before. His incredible mind helped us see how medieval people thought and felt and lived their lives. I hate doing obituaries on this blog, but I admit I’m proud of this one.
This was a two-part article; Part II is here. In November 1983, when I was 11, I remember a massive winter storm that buried my then-hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Thirty-three years later I decided to research the historical record about this storm and see how closely my memories matched it. This is a new technique in environmental history, and the results caught the eye of the Canadian historical consortium NiCHE who listed it as “environmental history worth reading” for March 2016.
Given the result of the election, it is unlikely I will be doing many more politically-themed articles in the future. But while I was still engaged (publicly) with political subjects, I enjoyed uniting three different aspects that this blog sometimes covers–history, movies and politics–into one article. There are many similarities between the now President-Elect and the character of Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, from Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York, which itself is a mythical retelling of the urban history of New York in the 1860s. The political, racial and narrative undercurrents in this story are very complex, and I think I did a good job explicating them here. The less said about the President-Elect, the better.
This article was just plain fun. I recall, growing up in the early 80s, before our family had a VCR, we had CED videodiscs. This was a brief home video fad of the time, obsolete on the day it was released, that so few people remember–whenever I post the link to this article on Twitter I get someone exclaiming, “How come I’ve never heard of these?” or something to that effect. But CED discs were a thing, and in this article I explain how they worked, their troubled history and what they meant to our family so many years ago. This is one of my all-time favorite articles I’ve ever done.
At the end of August 2016, I stayed one weekend at the Red Lion Jantzen Beach Hotel in Portland, Oregon as part of a charity convention. It turned out that I had been to this hotel before, for the same convention, in 1992 when both the hotel, Portland and the world were incomparably different. In this article, which began life as a simple photo essay of the mostly-empty corridors and meeting rooms of this hotel built for a different era, I researched the history of the Jantzen Beach Hotel and how and why things have changed to turn it into what it is today: a thinly-disguised but fascinating anachronism. I love this article because the streams of history and memory converge within it, and the photos I took were so evocative of a vanished past. This is also the article for which I probably did the most research I’ve ever done for any single blog post in 2016.
I admit to mixed feelings about this article, which I wrote when it seemed fairly certain that Hillary Clinton was going to be elected President of the United States. I developed a theory about the personality types of people who become major party nominees, from FDR to Richard Nixon to the Clintons, and even in light of the election’s surprise results I think my theory holds some water–or is at least food for thought. As for that result and whether it validated my theory on Presidential personalities, let me say this: Secretary Clinton received 3 million more votes than did the technical winner of the election, and she was clearly the choice of the majority of the American people.
Here’s another article in the pure-fun category, and for it I have to thank my friend and fellow blogger Robert Horvat, who ran a series on his own blog soliciting fellow bloggers to list and describe their five favorite streets (or locations) around the world, and why. Here was my entry. From Wacken, Germany to a footpath along the Oregon coast, I think my choices are pretty interesting, and it was a lot of fun to write. I also reblogged some of the other entries in the series, here and here.
As I drop this entry I notice that it’s the third of my top 10 articles for 2016 having to do with environmental history, and one of four that combines various subjects I like to cover on this blog. In this December article I talked about the hit Netflix series The Crown, detailing the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and especially one episode about an environmental disaster–entirely man-made–that killed as many as 12,000 people in London in December 1952. This article was a hit with the online environmental history crowd as well as fans of The Crown itself. I’m pretty proud of it.
It’s been a strange and tumultuous year, both for the world and for me personally. My blog is a reflection of my life, and thus its ups and downs are clearly visible here. But I hope some of these articles have sparked some thought and contemplation, or at least were entertaining, and I hope I can continue to produce quality articles in 2017.
Happy New Year.