Over my career, I have published several academic books, but the pandemic stimulated me to move on to a different mode of writing intended for a broader audience. During the first half of 2021, I wrote two books, both of which will be published during the second half of the year. The first of these is something of a philosophical exploration of the world based on my experience as an anthropologist and the second is an ethnographic murder mystery set in rural Japan. I will be publishing more novels in the future, under the name Jack Traphagan.
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Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures is the product of my thinking as an anthropologist who has studied and traveled to Japan for over thirty years. In one sense, the book is an anthropological memoir in which I work through ideas of uncertainty and undifferentiation evident in the writings of Dōgen as they relate to ethics and culture, but also explore other thinkers like philosopher Richard Rorty and anthropologist Clifford Geertz as I bring the reader through my own intellectual journey from physics, to political science, religious ethics, and finally cultural anthropology which, for me, has become a way of experiencing the world that undermines our sense of security with that which we see as normal. I describe what I call the ethnographic outlook, which has the potential to generate humility, as a potentially powerful means to transform both self and society. A central goal of the book is to explore the idea that all knowledge is inherently uncertain, including knowledge of right and wrong, and that the quest for certainty leads to many of the problems we see in the modern world. The book threads a discussion of jazz improvisation as a way of thinking about the human experience and presents the idea of the lead sheet as a metaphor for culture and the ongoing process of change that is the world. Available on Amazon.
The Blood of Gutoku centers on the thoughts and experiences of Jack Riddley, a recently retired cultural anthropologist who, with his wife, has moved to his field site in rural Japan. The book fits within the genre of the murder mystery, but also draws heavily on the ethnographic genre of writing about culture and blends in ideas about symbols and culture that reflect anthropological theory. Although the story is fictional, the details, including those of the people (all of whom have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities), are taken from the field notes the author has recorded over the course of his career as an ethnographer. Thus, the book represents an experiment in ethnographic writing; this may be the first attempt at an ethnographic mystery novel.
The plot brings together aspects of Japanese religion and life in the countryside as Riddley teams with a local Buddhist priest and a police detective to solve a pair of murders that occur in the main halls of two Buddhist temples. Both murder weapons seem to represent important symbols to Riddley and the second murder involves strangulation using a large set of Buddhist prayer beads that are approximately 300 years old. As the team works to solve the murders, they explore a secretive childhood initiation ritual that is part of the nembutsu cult, a Buddhist lay organization that has existed in the area for centuries. They also delve into the workings of a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall that has set itself up in the village where Riddley lives. A sub-theme that runs through the book is Riddley’s wrestling with retirement from his life as a professor at Yale. As he tries to understand the murders, he thinks about the nature of retirement and the transition from a career to the end of life that retirement can represent.
One of the main goals of the work is to develop a unique approach to drawing on ethnographic fieldwork the author has conducted as an anthropologist in the area in which the novel is set. The book intends to present a thick description of rural Japan that is entertaining to a wide audience by exploring the lives of actual people living in the area through the genre of mystery fiction. It describes local Japanese customs and artifacts to pull the reader into rural Japanese life as the team solves two complex murders largely through the ethnographic methods of Riddley’s anthropological fieldwork.