I’m a reader and a writer. I write about reading, I read about writing. I write with reading and read with writing. I write about writing and read about reading and write about writing about reading and read about reading about writing. I like to talk with others who also like to talk about reading and writing. Much of this has something to do with stories and storytelling somewhere on the history-fiction spectrum.
When I’m involved in conversations closer to one end of that spectrum, I’m usually wearing my historian’s hat, currently as the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in History at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m a historical pataphysician with a commitment to work that plays: with forms and media of historical making, with the relationship between history and fiction, with the shape and texture of the imaginaries that spring from traces and documents of all sorts, and with metamorphoses.
My main research fields are the histories of science and medicine, early modern (Ming-Qing, late imperial) China, translation (broadly conceived), and Manchu studies. I spend some of my time writing about the history of the natural world: as an undergrad I trained as a paleobiologist and spent half a year living in Kenya studying wildlife biology and environmental studies, and the love of creatures and their histories never left me. My first book, The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China (Harvard University Press, 2009), used a compendium of materia medica as a playground to explore what it looked like to understand and argue about creatures and their medicinal uses in 16th century China. I still write on and around creaturely histories. Increasingly, though, I’ve been turning from animal histories to histories of and with translation. In one book project, I’m using Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as inspiration to write a history of translators and their practices in Ming and Qing China. In another project, I’m trying to understand how 17th and 18th century translators wrote about the anatomy and health of human bodies in the Manchu language, and specifically how they used what we might call “prepositions” (in, on, from, across, through, etc.) to understand and translate bodily relationships and the experiences they produce. For years, I’ve also been studying classical Arabic in preparation for a very long-term project on medieval and early modern Chinese-Arabic-Persian exchange. Whatever the topic, I take an a-disciplinary approach to generating and exploring historical questions, prioritizing the craft of the historian over the other sorts of boundaries that discipline history as a field.
When I’m trying to contribute to conversations closer to the other end of the spectrum, I spend my time experimenting with ways to tell stories, often about and with the past. Most recently that finds me fictioning with theory (as in a collaborative fictioning with Vilém Flusser’s work on gesture) or with philosophy (as in a collaborative fictioning with Plato’s Symposium). Sometimes this takes the form of what I’m calling “Reading Notes”: using a close reading of another work to explode out into a cloud of little fictional worlds inspired by the original book or essay. Other times I’m using stories to imagine alternative ways of inhabiting the past and creating histories of and with it. This can range from exploring Twitter as a medium for writing about history, to imagining imaged pages of Tibetan script as the setting for a creaturely love story, to using translations of medicinal recipes to create fairytales or theatrical works or to conjure relationships in space and time, to playing with an essay form based on the idea of an exploded view diagram. I’ve recently begun playing more with sonic media, weaving natural landscapes out of Manchu onomatopoeias or exploring the connected arts of DJ’ing and history. In any case, you can usually find me somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, trying to use history to inform my fiction writing or playing with elements of the fiction writer’s craft to inform my historical work.
The course syllabus is also a particular kind of writing genre, and it’s one that I love to play with. I archive all of my syllabi on this site, and until I get my act together and fix the formatting you can find all of them on this page.
When I’m not writing about reading or teaching about writing about reading, I’m talking about it as host of two podcast channels devoted to hour-long interviews with authors of recent books in the fields I work in: New Books in East Asian Studies and New Books in Science, Technology, and Society. I also occasionally host interviews for other channels, including the New Books Network Seminar, New Books in History, and New Books in Literary Studies. For a complete list of all existing interviews for NBEAS and NBSTS (including interviews by other people, and older ones pre-this-website) check out here and here.
I offer this site as a way to archive the ways that my work – always that of an explorer-stumbler – is moving and has moved. You’ll find links to essays, short experimental work, fiction, podcasts, books, lectures, syllabi, recordings, and other snapshots of moments along a larger journey. For another perspective on how I’ve thought about my work at two particular moments in time (and for further evidence that I wouldn’t be able to talk if you tied my hands behind my back), check out this winter 2012 interview by Peter Shea of the “Bat of Minerva” program and a 2013 interview with UO Today.
I support an academic culture that recognizes and acknowledges web-based media as forms of publication. Please feel free to cite anything on this blog using the format indicated below:
For Working Papers: Carla Nappi,”Working Paper: Title of Post,” Date, URL.
For everything else: Carla Nappi,”Title of Post,” Date, URL.
For those who have found their way here because they’re looking for a CV for some professional purpose or another, here you go: here’s a cv.
You can reach me via post to University of Pittsburgh, Department of History, 3702 Posvar Hall, 230 S. Bouquet Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. You can also email me at nappi -at- pitt -dot- edu. If you need to talk to me on the phone, it’s best to email me first to set it up: I rarely answer the thing otherwise.
Thanks for stopping by!