Review: 1491

Review: 1491

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should begin by saying that this book is not what I expected, which necessarily entails some disappointment. I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the major pre-Columbian societies and cultures. What this book instead offers is a sort of overview of trends in research in this area, highlighting how these trends contradict the popular image of the Americas before European colonization. This is, of course, also a valuable and worthwhile topic—and, considering the book’s popularity, many have found it to be so—but I nevertheless must admit that, after putting down the book, I still have only a hazy notion of the actual cultures in question.

Mann sets himself to undermine the popular notion of scattered groups of savages in a pristine, ahistorical paradise, living lightly off the land in a perfect harmony with nature. He sets out to show that, first, there were orders of magnitude more people in the Americas than was originally suspected; second, that humans arrived in the Americas far earlier than previously thought; and third, that pre-Colombian societies radically altered their environment. The picture that emerges is of a continent teeming with complex civilizations, each one manipulating the world around them in unique ways.

Due to the limited and often indirect evidence available to researchers, and the comparatively nascent state of the field, Mann is unable to give a textbook-like overview of pre-Colombian societies. Our knowledge is simply too fragmentary; there are too many scholarly disagreements. He instead chooses to focus on individual scholars and their lines of research, showing how these converge to suggest the aforementioned new conclusions. The advantage to this method is that his narrative is enlivened with the stories of real research; and it also allows Mann to give a more realistic impression of the state of our knowledge. But the disadvantage is that this book often reads like an extended Nat Geo article—the report of a journalist tagging along on research expeditions—rather than the bird’s-eye view I was hoping for.

Another major drawback is that, by focusing on pioneering research, Mann is unable to give answers that are wholly satisfying, since the field itself has not yet reached a stable consensus. The research he relies on for his section on pre-Colombian population, for example, uses a combination of indirect evidence and simple speculation. Granted, I was convinced even before opening this book that European diseases caused significant depopulation after first contact. But whether the fatality rate was as high as 90%, as he suggests, is difficult to accept without more decisive evidence. Personally I find it hard to believe that one-fifth of the global population (to use his figure) could die off without leaving a far less ambiguous archeological trace.

That the research is in this state is not, of course, Mann’s fault; yet he is not merely reporting the results of different experts in the field, but choosing those whose research most strongly supports this book’s thesis. This put me naturally on guard, since I know from my brief time studying archaeology how varied scholarly opinion can be in a field where evidence is necessarily scanty, incomplete, and suggestive. This being said, I do want to emphasize that I was convinced of Mann’s major points; it was only the details that put me in a dubious state of mind.

Mann’s habit of focusing on the research that most forcefully bolsters his conclusions is part of a more general tendency to overstate his case. For example, I find it difficult to accept Mann’s assertion that the first generation of European colonists did not have a decisive military advantage over their American counterparts (which supports the thesis that disease was the decisive factor in the conquest). Steel blades, guns, and mounted cavalry were all landmarks in military technology in Eurasia, so I do not see why they would not lend an advantage in this context. I also could not swallow Mann’s argument that American Indian cultures played such a decisive role in the emergence of Western liberalism and individualism. Now, I have little doubt that the example of egalitarian, non-coercive societies did play a role in this development; but Mann makes it seem as if Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were reliant on this example.

But I should stop nitpicking a book which is thoughtful, well-written, well-researched, and which dispels many obsolete myths. And, really, it is my fault for choosing a book on new revelations, when I really wanted to learn more about the religion, art, architecture, and science of these vanished civilizations.

(I should note one error I caught. Mann says that the Spanish missionary Gaspar de Carvajal was born “in the Spanish town of Extremadura.” But Extremadura is region, or an autonomous community, not a town; Carvajal was born in Trujillo, which is indeed in Extremadura.)

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Review: Two New Sciences

Review: Two New Sciences

Two New Sciences/A History of Free FallTwo New Sciences/A History of Free Fall by Galileo Galilei

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But in what seas are we inadvertently engulfing ourselves, bit by bit? Among voids, infinities, indivisibles, and instantaneous movements, shall we ever be able to reach harbor even after a thousand discussions?

When most people think about the Copernican revolution, the name that comes most readily to mind—more even than that of Copernicus himself—is that of Galileo Galilei. It was he, after all, who fought most valiantly for the acceptance of the theory, and it was he who suffered the most for it—narrowly escaping the tortures of the Inquisition. It was also Galileo who wrote the most famous book to come out of the revolution: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, whose publication most directly resulted in Galileo’s punishment.

Some years ago I read and admired that eloquent work. But lately, after slogging my way through Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler, I have come to look upon Galileo’s famous dialogue with more suspicion. For it was only through the work of Kepler that the Copernican system became unquestionably more efficient than the Ptolemaic as a method of calculating celestial movements; and though Kepler was a contemporary and a correspondent of Galileo, the Italian scientist was not aware of the German’s groundbreaking innovations. Thus the version of heliocentrism that Galileo defends is Copernicus’s original system, preserving much of the cumbrous aspects of Ptolemy—epicycles, perfect circles, and separate tables for longitude and latitude, etc.

Added to this, the most decisive advantages in favor of Copernicus’s system over Ptolemy’s—explaining why the planets’ orbits seem related to the sun’s—are given little prominence, if they are even mentioned. Clearly, a rigorous defense of Copernicanism would require a demonstration that it made calculating heavenly positions easier and more accurate; but there is nothing of the kind in Galileo’s dialogue. As a result, Galileo comes across as a propagandist rather than a scientist. But of course, even if his famous dialogue was pure publicity, Galileo would have a secure place in the annals of astronomy from his observations through his improved telescope: of the lunar surface, of the moons of Jupiter, of the rings of Saturn, of sunspots, and of the phases of Venus. But I doubt this would be enough to earn him his reputation as a cornerstone of the scientific revolution.

This book provides the answer. Here is Galileo’s real scientific masterpiece—one of the most important treatises on mechanics in history. Rather inconveniently, its title is easy to confuse with Galileo’s more famous dialogue; but in content Two New Sciences is an infinitely more serious work than Two Chief World Systems. It is also a far less impassioned work, since Galileo wrote it when he was an old man under house arrest, not a younger man in battle with the Catholic authorities. This inevitably makes the book rather more boring to read; yet even here, Galileo’s lucid style is orders of magnitude more pleasant than, say, Kepler’s or Ptolemy’s.

As in Two Chief World Systems, the format is a dialogue between Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati (though Galileo cheats by having Salviati read from his manuscript). Unlike the earlier dialogue, however, Simplicio is not engaged in providing counter-arguments or in defending Aristotle; he mostly just asks clarifying questions. Thus the dialogue format only serves to enliven a straightforward exposition of Galileo’s views, not to simulate a debate.

The book begins by asking why structures cannot be scaled up or down without changing their properties. Why, for example, will a small boat hold together if slid down a ramp, but a larger boat fall to pieces? Why does a horse break its leg it falls down, but a cat can fall from the same distance entirely uninjured? Why are the bones of an elephant proportionately so much squatter and fatter than the bones of a mouse? In biology this is known as the science of allometry, and personally I find it fascinating. The key is that, when increasing size, the ratio of volume to area also increases; thus an elephant’s bones must support far more weight, proportionally, than a mouse’s. As a result, inventors and engineers cannot just scale up contraptions without providing additional support—quite a counter-intuitive idea at the time.

Galileo next delves into infinities. This leads him into what is called “Galileo’s paradox,” but is actually one of the defining properties of infinite sets. This states that the parts of an infinite set can be equal to the whole set; or in other words, they can both be infinite. For example, though the number of integers with a perfect square root (4, 9, 16…) will be fewer than the total number of integers in any finite set (say, from 1-100), in the set of all integers there is an infinite number of integers with a perfect square roots; thus the part is equal to the whole. Galileo also takes a crack at Aristotle’s wheel paradox. This is rather dull to explain; but suffice to say it involves the simultaneous rotation of rigid, concentric circles. Galileo attempts to solve it by postulating an infinite number if infinitesimal voids in the smaller circle, and in fact uses this as evidence for his theory of infinitesimals.

As a solution to the paradox, this metaphysical assertion fails to do justice to its mathematical nature. However, the concept of infinitely small instants does help to escape from of the Zeno-like paradoxes of motion, to which Greek mathematics was prone. For example, if you imagine an decelerating object spending any finite amount of time at any definite speed, you will see that it never comes to a full stop: the first second it will travel one meter, the next second only half a meter, the next second a quarter of a meter, and so on ad infinitum. The notion of deceleration taking places continuously over an infinite number of infinitely small instants helped to escape this dilemma (though it is still unexplained how a thing can be said to “move” during an instant).

Galileo had need of such concepts, since he was writing long before Newton’s calculus and too early to be influenced by Descartes’s analytical geometry. Thus the mathematical apparatus of this book is Greek in form. Galileo’s calculations consist exclusively of ratios between lines rather than equations; and he establishes these ratios using Euclid’s familiar proofs. Consequently, his mechanics is relational or relativistic—able to give proportions but not exact quantities.

This did not stop Galileo from anticipating much of Newton’s system. He establishes the pendulum as an exemplar of continually accelerated motion, and shows that pendulums of the same length of rope swing at the same rate, regardless of the height from which they fall. He asserts that an object, once started in motion, would continue in motion indefinitely were it not for friction and air resistance. He recounts experiments of dropping objects of different masses from the same distance, and seeing them land at the same moment, thus disproving the Aristotelian assertion that objects fall with a speed proportional to their mass. (Unfortunately, there is scant evidence for the story that Galileo performed this experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) Galileo also makes the daring asserting that, in a vacuum, all objects would fall at the same rate.

There are still more riches to be excavated. Galileo asserts that pitches are caused by vibrating air, that faster vibrations causes higher pitch, and that consonant harmonies are caused by vibrations in regular ratios. He exhaustively calculates how the time and speed of a descending object would differ based on its angle of descent—straight down or on an inclined plane. He also shows that objects shot into the air, as in a catapult, descend back to earth in a parabolic arc; and he shows that objects travel the furthest when shot at 45 degrees. In an appendix, Galileo uses an iterative approach to find the center of gravity of curved solids; and in an added dialogue he discusses the force of percussion.

As you can see, this book is too rich and, in parts, too technical for me to appraise it in detail. I will say, however, that of all the scientific classics I have read this year, the modern spirit of science shines through most clearly in these pages. For like any contemporary scientist, Galileo assumes that the behavior of nature is law-like, and is fundamentally mathematical; and with Galileo we also see a thinker completely willing to submit his speculations to experiment, but completely unwilling to submit them to authority. Far more than in the metaphysical Kepler—who speculated with wild abandon, though he was a scientist of comparable importance—in Galileo we find a true skeptic: who believed only what he could observe, calculate, and prove. The reader instantly feels, in Galileo, the force of an exceptionally clear mind and of an uncompromising dedication to the search for truth.

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Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books whose great merit was in undermining itself. When it was first published, in 1970, it must have been a shock to the Americans who grew up reading and watching movies about the heroic coy boys, settlers, and soldiers who settled the West. It was—and to an extent, remains—a key part of our national myth. But like so many national myths, it left unnoticed the people who were repressed, marginalized, or exterminated on the road to the country’s greatness. Books like this one, a people’s history, told from the perspective of the vanquished, are a necessary corrective to this, and perform an important moral function in our society: shining a light on the misdeed perpetrated by our national heroes.

The greatest testament to the success of a book of this type is to render itself obsolete, and I think this is what has happened in this case—at least, to an extent. For by the time I went to school it was the Dee Brown version of the West, not the Buffalo Bill version, that was taught to us. (Admittedly this must vary a lot depending on where you go to school; I come from quite a liberal area.) Thus the story told in these pages was, however depressing, entirely familiar: broken promises, cultural misunderstandings, blatant dishonesty, and wholesale slaughter. As a result I admit I did not enjoy this book as much as I expected, for everything that Brown narrated was fully expected. Of course, there were moments that pierced through even my dullness, such as the description of the Sand Creek Massacre, which was as horrible as anything I have read about the Holocaust.

Brown is a strong writer, and evokes people and scenes with the power of a good novelist. But I was disappointed at how much of this book is given over to descriptions of battles and skirmishes. The pattern was always the same: the Indians are promised land, the whites decide they want the land after all, tension escalates, and then conflict ensues—with the American military usually coming out the victor. I think it was important that Brown narrate this fighting from the other perspective, since it formed such a cherished part of our myth, but apart from sheer drama I did get much out of it. I would much have preferred that Brown dedicate space to the customs of the groups he is describing—the Navajo, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and many more. Without this, we get a sense of brave cultures being swept away, but not a sense of what was actually lost.

A few more criticisms come to mind. Though this book is well-researched and well-sourced, it is clear even at a superficial reading that Brown has imaginatively embellished quite a bit in order to get the novelistic style he was after. More importantly, now that we are (hopefully) moving past this Spaghetti-Western version of American history, I believe a different kind of book is needed. Any book that tells the story exclusively from one side, either victor or vanquished, will leave important parts of the story out. Apart from more ethnographic description of the American Indians in question, I would also have liked a much deeper analysis of the government and settlers. This would have given more insight into why these interactions played out the way they did.

But these criticisms are somewhat unfair, since they are predicated on the book’s success. Without a doubt this was a necessary book, and Brown did us a service in writing it—and in writing it so well.

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Review: The Great Bridge

Review: The Great Bridge

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn BridgeThe Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”

On the inside cover of my copy of this book its previous owner has inserted a little love note. The brief message is written in a very neat script, in red ink, apparently on the eve of a long separation. Now, you may think that a book about the Brooklyn Bridge is a rather odd gift for a lover—and, considering that the book ended up in a used book shop, this may be what the recipient thought, too—but, now that I have read McCullough’s chronicle of the Brooklyn Bridge, I can see why it might inspire such sentimental attachment. For it is a thoroughly lovable book.

This is my first McCullough work, and I am pleased. He is a fine writer. His prose is stylish yet unobtrusive, striking that delicate balance between being intelligible but not simplified. He has a keen eye for the exciting details of a seemingly dry story; and effectively brings together many different threads—the personalities, the politics, the technology—in such a way that the past looms up effortlessly in the imagination. The only parts which I think could have been improved were his explanations of the engineering, since he used too many unfamiliar terms without explaining them, perhaps thinking that such explanations might swell the book to unseemly proportions. In any case, he is a writer, not an engineer, and he shines most when discussing the human experience of the Bridge.

The bridge’s designer was John A. Roebling, who deserves a book unto himself. An eccentric polymath, who among other things studied philosophy under Hegel, he came to America to found a Utopian village and ended up the foremost expert on suspension bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge was his project; but tragically he died during the first year of the project, after his foot was crushed, his toes amputated, and he contracted tetanus. His son, Washington, immediately took over—in many ways just as remarkable a man. A Civil War hero with a tenacious memory, the bridge ruined his health, too, through a combination of stress and the bends.

In those days the bends were known as “caisson sickness,” named for the compartment sunk underwater in order to excavate for the bridge’s foundations. These were filled with pressurized air in order to prevent water from seeping in. Unfortunately, in those days the dangers of rapidly depressurizing were not understood, so many people fell ill during the construction—including Roebling himself, who spent the final years of the bridge’s construction as an invalid, observing the work through a telescope from his apartment. Luckily for him, his wife, Emily, was a remarkable woman—diplomatic and brilliant—and helped to carry the project to completion.

These personalities come alive in McCullough’s narration, turning what could have been a dry chronicle into an enthralling book. And this is not to mention the political corruption, the manufacturing fraud, the deadly accidents, and the glorious celebrations that took place during the fourteen years of the bridge’s construction.

Yesterday I revisited the Brooklyn Bridge, which is beautiful even if you know nothing about it. As a friend and I strolled across in the intense summer heat, elbowing our way through crowds of tourists, I blathered on about all the fun facts I had learned from this book—which I am sure my friend very much appreciated. Sensing his discomfort, I made sure to emphasize that a fraudulent wire manufacturer had tricked the engineers into using sub-par cables, and that a panic broke out a week after the bridge’s opening, which resulted in twelve people being trampled. You see this book has already helped my social life. Maybe next I can write my own love note inside.

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Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Parallel LivesParallel Lives by Plutarch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ease, and speed of execution, seldom produces work of any permanent value or delicacy. It is the time which is spent in laborious production for which we are repaid by the durable character of the result.

In the course of his grand theory of history, Oswald Spengler distinguishes what he sees as the fundamental difference between the ancient Greco-Roman and the contemporary Western cultures: the Greek’s ideal concept was of bounded, perfect forms, while the Western soul craves the boundless, the formless, and the infinite. It is a somewhat vague statement, I know, but I kept coming back to Spengler’s idea as I read Plutarch’s Lives.

Specifically, I kept thinking of Spengler’s idea as I mentally compared Plutarch’s conception of personality with Montaigne’s. I could not help making this comparison, you see, since it was Montaigne who led me to Plutarch. The Frenchman idolized the Greek; and the Essays are full of quotes of and references to Plutarch. Indeed, Montaigne specifically praises Plutarch for his insight into human nature:

The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else… the variety and truth of his internal qualities, in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within, than upon what happens from without, are the most proper for my reading; and, therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me.

For my part this quote better describes Montaigne than Plutarch. Since it is exactly in this—the representation of personality—that I think Spengler’s idea most aptly applies in these two writers.

Compare the representation of a person in a classical Greek statue and in a portrait by Rembrandt, and I think you will catch my meaning. The first is all surface—shapely limbs, a well-proportioned body, a harmonious face, whose eyes nevertheless stare out serenely into vacancy, suggesting nothing internal. In Rembrandt it is exactly the reverse: the face may be ugly, the body largely hidden in shadows, yet all the energy is focused on the expression—an expression of endless suggestion, which brings to us a definite human personality.

I feel the same contrast between Plutarch and Montaigne. Plutarch’s method of characterization is statuesque. He enumerates his heroes’ virtues and qualities as if they were set in stone; and he derives all of their actions from these static characteristics. Montaigne is completely the reverse: he contradicts himself a thousand times in his book, and in the process reveals the qualities of his mind far more exquisitely than any straightforward description could accomplish. Plutarch’s heroes never change: their character is their destiny; whereas Montaigne is nothing but change. Indeed, for me it is hard to say that Plutarch’s heroes have “personality,” in the sense that I can imagine meeting them. They are no more relatable than a Greek statue.

They were certainly relatable to Plutarch himself, however, as he writes in a famous passage:

It was for the sake of others that I first undertook to write biographies, but I soon began to dwell upon and delight in them for myself, endeavoring to the best of my ability to regulate my own life, and to make it like that of those who were reflected in their history as it were in a mirror before me. By the study of their biographies, we receive each man as a guest into our minds, and we seem to understand their character as the result of personal acquaintance, because we have obtained from their acts the best and most important means of forming an opinion about them.

This quote also illustrates Plutarch’s moral purpose. For a book written by a Greek living under Roman domination, comparing the lives of Greeks and Romans, he seems to have been quite bereft of political purpose. He is, rather, a moralist. Through his biographies he hopes to determine which actions are noble, which nobler, and which noblest, an analysis he performs through his comparisons at the end of the paired lives. He writes biographies in the conviction that we naturally imitate which we see and admire; we are drawn in by the attraction we feel for noble characters, and become ennobled ourselves in the process. This is why Plutarch eschews writing strict history:

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

This sounds promising enough: teaching moral lessons through depicting great personalities. My problem—aside from not being able to relate to the heroes—was that I questioned the very greatness of their actions. Of course there are many virtuous actions recorded here, worthy of praise and emulation. However, nearly all of Plutarch’s heroes are military commanders; and these pages are spattered with blood. The cutthroat world of ancient political squabbles, territorial conquests, internal strife, did not strike me as promising ground to teach virtue. Voltaire was perhaps thinking of Plutarch when he made this remark:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

Plutarch, to his credit, does give a remarkable portrait of the Newton of his time: Archimedes. But this is tucked away in his life of the Roman general, Marcellus.

For these reasons I had a great deal of difficulty in finishing this book. After every couple Lives I had to take a break; so it took me three years of on-again, off-again reading to finally get to the end. My ignorance did not help, either. Plutarch, being an ancient author, sometimes presumed a great deal more knowledge that I possessed about the relevant political history; and so I found myself frequently lost. And his style, though eloquent, is also monotonous (at least in translation), which was another challenge to my attention.

But I am glad I read Plutarch. This book is an extraordinary historical document, an invaluable (but not infallible) source of information about these ancient figures. Plutarch loved a good story and these pages are rich in anecdote—some of them so famous that it is likely you know one even if you have not read Plutarch. And though I struggled through many of the less famous figures, I was entranced by Plutarch’s biographies of the heroes I was acquainted with: Pompey, Alexander, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony. (Shakespeare followed the latter two Lives very closely in his Roman plays.) If Plutarch was good enough for Montaigne then, by Jove, he is good enough for me.

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Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams : An AutobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.


Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.

I read this book in preparation for my visit to Chartres, which was just last week. I had not been very fond of Adam’s most famous book, his Education, but I had high hopes that his writing would improve when his focus shifted to something other than his own life. Yet I have found the two books discouragingly similar.

As a stylist Adams appears, at least superficially, quite strong. His sentences are clear and mostly elegant, occasionally epigrammatic. But stylistic problems appear on a higher level of organization. Both Adam’s autobiography and this book were not originally written for publication, but for his close circle of family and friends; and as a result, Adams seems to explain everything except what most needs to be explained. His ideas float against a background that he does not provide, making his train of thought appear out of context. In this he reminds me of George Santayana, who similarly omits to signal where he is going and why he is going there, though Adams lacks the philosopher’s occasionally forays into sublimity to compensate. The result is rather irritating, superficially clear but actually opaque, like overhearing an eloquent old man talk to himself.

But my gravest complaint about Adams, both here and in his autobiography, is his tendency to organize his books around central ideas that I find vague and vapid. In the Education, this takes the form of his armchair theorizing about “force,” the Dynamo, and the laws of physics as applied to history, and even more prominently in his main theme of “education,” his conception of which remains unclear to the very end. In this book it mainly takes the form of his insistence that “The Virgen” was personally involved in the construction of Chartres Cathedral. To be fair, he tends to treat these ideas (and himself) with a considerable amount of irony; but the irony does not amount to full satire, leaving it unclear whether he is merely kidding or if he intends these ideas to be somehow insightful.

Again, just as in his autobiography, here the dominant mood is notalgia. Though extremely successful, Adams apparently felt out of harmony with his world and yearned for a time when society was simpler and more unified. This leads him quite naturally to the Middle Ages, to the poetry, to the great cathedrals, and to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which unite art and science into a seamless whole. Consequently this book, far from being historical analysis, is more of a personal appreciation of the French Medieval period, spinning off into fantasy or speculation wherever it suits him. This self-indulgent tone is grating to somebody trying to learn about Chartres.

Now that I have gotten all this criticism out of the way, I must admit that the book, like his autobiography, has its merits and charms. He is obviously fond of this period, and so writes in a tone of enthusiastic admiration that proves quite infectious. This keen appreciation for the “spirit” of the Medieval period is the book’s most useful attribute, helping to put the reader in the mindset to appreciate the epoch’s art, poetry, and thought. I found Adams’s chapters on architecture, specifically on Chartres, to be stuffy and difficult to follow—for here, as in his chapters on British politics in the Education—he assumes a level of familiarity (specifically about the French royal family) that the reader is unlikely to possess. But when context is provided by an external source, Adams can be quite pleasant. When I visited Chartres, and saw its magnificent stained glass for myself, his chapters ceased to be so vexing.

The chapters I most enjoyed were the final three, about philosophy—specifically, Abelard, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas—since here my background was not so lacking. Yet even here it must be said that Adams’s comments are more in the spirit of an amateurish aficionado rather than a serious student. He interprets Aquinas as an “artist” rather than a thinker, repeatedly disqualifying himself from passing sentence on Aquinas’s arguments (though he says some perceptive things in spite of this).

By contrast I thought the chapters on poetry were the worst, since they mainly consisted of excerpts of poetry, in Latin or Medieval French, with repeated assurances of their high quality and their untranslatable beauty. (His mostly bland translations serve to prove his point.) But in general Adams’s approach to poetry is the same as his approach to architecture and theology, mostly confined to passionate declarations of affection, without much attempt at analysis or insight.

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(Cover photo by Benh LIEU SONG; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book is an ordeal. It is very long and very depressing. Charting the Third Reich from the birth of Hitler to the collapse of Germany, Shirer tells the whole story with the sweep of a novelist and the detail of an accountant. He wrote the book after having access to huge stores of documents captured by the Allies after the war. Diaries, schedules, testimonies from the Nuremberg trials, the minutes of meetings, and much more were the raw material marshalled to create this tome.

As is often noted, Shirer was a journalist, not a historian, a fact that helps to explain much about this book. He lived in Berlin as a foreign correspondent from 1933 to the end of 1940, reporting on the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of the war, until the threat of the Gestapo forced him to return home. This firsthand experience lent color to his narrative, but also focused his attention on readily observable events. Rather than talk of larger trends—social shifts, economic pressures, cultural developments—Shirer focuses almost exclusively on the doings of individuals in power, such as he had been reporting on.

This focus makes the narrative vivid and pleasingly concrete, but also results in a superficial analysis. A historian would naturally spend more time on the rampant inflation of the times, the institutional weakness of the Weimar Republic, the wider political trends in Europe, the mechanics of a totalitarian state, and so on. Further, Shirer’s explanation of why Germany embarked on such a destructive enterprise boils down to: because it is peopled by Germans. That is, he locates a kind of cultural essence in the German people, an essence stemming from the Reformation and especially Martin Luther, added to by Hegel and then by Nietzsche, which came to full fruition in National Socialism. But this sort of cultural essentialism is, for me, just intellectual laziness. It can be used to explain anything or everything, since these posited cultural qualities are vague and unobservable.

In any case wider historical analysis plays a very small part in this book, which is mainly a record of the decisions and actions of the leading men of the Nazi regime. That is to say that this book is a political and not a military history. The Second World War is discussed, of course, but only insofar as its developments affected or were caused by the Nazi leaders. Shirer is mainly concerned with charting the rise to power of these ruthless men: how they outsmarted the Weimar Republic leaders, fooled the international community, bullied and threatened their way to conquests, and finally instigated a war that resulted in their own ruin.

The balance of the book is tilted heavily towards the rise of the Third Reich. This can make for some dreary reading. In retrospect it is stupefying to witness how blind, inept, and spineless were Hitler’s opponents, first within Germany and then beyond its borders, until the final crisis spurred the world into action against him. Though Shirer’s sturdy prose is normally quite plain and unadorned, he has a steady instinct for the dramatic and writes several unforgettable scenes. Nevertheless the scale of detail Shirer saw fit to include sometimes weighs down the narrative into benumbing dullness. The endless, petty diplomatic maneuvers that preceded the beginning of the War—negotiations, ambassadors, threats, ultimatums, calculations, second thoughts, and so on—made it a relief when the soldiers finally started shooting.

These political dealings of the Nazis constitute the vast bulk of this book. It is a masterclass in how far a little cunning, shameless lying, and absolute ruthlessness can get you. It is also a lesson in the need to cooperate to take decisive action against common threats. In the years since Vietnam, many have concluded that the main lesson to be drawn from America’s foreign policy is the folly of interventionist wars. After the First World War, the Western powers were understantly ever more chary of violence. And yet, at least in Shirer’s telling of the history, a timely show of force could have nipped Hitler’s rise in the bud. If England and France had upheld their treaties and defended their territories and their allies, Hitler could not have amassed so much power at a time when the German military was still small. (Though it must be said that Shirer’s intellectual weakness appears here, too, since he attributes this inaction to pure cowardice.)

In any case, this does bring out an interesting dilemma in foreign policy concerning the benefits and risks of violent intervention. In the case of Hitler, timely action could have prevented a disastrous conflict. And yet in many other historical cases, such as with Saddam Hussein, the threat of non-intervention was vastly overestimated, while the cost of intervention vastly underestimated. The word “estimate” is key here, since these decisions must necessarily be based on guesses of future threats and costs—guesses which may easily be wrong. Since it is impossible to know with certainty the scale of a threat that a situation may pose if left unchecked, there is no surefire way out of this dilemma. This, of course, is just a part of a wider dilemma in life, since so many of our everyday decisions must necessarily be made based on guesses of what the future holds.

You can see that this book, though a popular account, is not lightweight in its details or its implications. Yet it does show its age. Published in 1960, it was written before many valuable sources of information became available, such as the French archives. It also shows its age in its occasional references to homosexuality, which Shirer treats as a perverted vice. This is, of course, morbidly ironic, considering the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (something that Shirer fails to mention). But all in all The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains a gripping popular overview of this nightmarish time.

(Cover attributed to Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-16196; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

La aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la CiervaLa aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la Cierva by Carlos Lazaro Avila

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has the very modest distinction of being the only book I’ve read whose author I have interviewed. Carlos Lázaro is a history teacher at the school in which I work; and when he is not scolding students or grading reports, he is researching Spanish military aviation history. This is one of the numerous books he has published on this topic.

La aventura aeonáutica is a dual biography of two of the most important innovators in Spanish aviation history: Emilio Herrera and Juan de la Cierva. Herrera was of the same generation as the Wright Brothers. His specialty was lighter-than-air crafts—dirigibles, zeppelins, and so on—to which he made great practical and theoretical contributions. Among his many accomplishments was his participation in the first intercontinental flight of the Graf Zeppelin, which earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He also designed what is considered the first spacesuit, for a planned but never realized ascension to the stratosphere. Later in life he was also important for his loyalty to the Spanish Republic in exile, even becoming its (mostly ceremonial) president.

Juan de la Cierva is mainly remembered for his invention of the autogiro, or autogyro. This was a sort of early-generation helicopter, designed to fly at speeds impossibly slow for fixed-wing aircraft. The principle of the autogyro is, however, quite different from that of a helicopter. Most notably, the rotor on top is completely unpowered. Forward thrust is provided by a small frontal propeller. This motion pushes air up into the rotor, causing it to spin—though notably, unlike in a helicopter, the air flows through the rotor upwards, not downwards. The rotor’s blades are angled so that the rotation provides lift. You may think of an autogyro as a plane whose wings rotate rather than stay fixed. For this reason autogyros cannot take off and land vertically, nor can they hover, unless there is a countervailing breeze. In any case, I hope you can see from this description that this was an ingenious and original contribution to aeronautic technology.

Like Herrera, De la Cierva was politically active; unlike Herrera, De la Cierva was a committed member of the Right, and threw his support behind Franco. His life was cut short in a plane crash—ironically a passenger plane, not any experimental flight—while trying to organize international support for the coup.

I found the lives of these two men fascinating, since I had not even known their names beforehand, much less any of their accomplishments. The book is admirably informative and concise, full of attractive photos and nifty little side-panels. Hopefully I will visit the Museo del Aire in Madrid soon, to see some of these historical craft for myself.

[Cover photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons; author unknown.]

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Review: The Ornament of the World

Review: The Ornament of the World

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval SpainThe Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Idealism—what we call quixotic idealism, so vividly is it depicted by Cervantes—is an act of the imagination, and perhaps a doomed one, and the question on the table becomes whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

This is a book about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It’s one of the tricks of our memory to filter the past through a sentimental lens, forgetting all the bad and magnifying the good. And when thinking about a time before we lived, we run the risk not only of twisting the truth but of inventing it.

Ostensibly the book is about Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain—from 711 to 1492—and specifically about the culture of tolerance that flourished during this period. Menocal takes her title from a remark of Hroswitha, the German canoness, who called Córdoba the “Ornament of the World” after meeting with an ambassador. Menocal does not, however, write a conventional, chronological history, but instead a series of vignettes from the time-period. Indeed, her approach is much closer to that of a journalist than a historian, picking out the most captivating personalities and focusing exclusively on them. And even though these vignettes often contain lots of interesting information, their primary aim is not to inform, but to evoke.

Menocal writes in a dreamy, wistful tone, a style that is often seductive enough to deactivate the reader’s critical facility. The land and the people she describes sound so fantastic that you want to believe her. And this, as well as the lack of almost any scholarly apparatus, makes me very suspicious.

It is hard to believe the book was written by a professor at Yale, for it is quite explicitly propagandistic, trying to counter the conventional view of the Middle Ages as backward and intolerant with a vivid portrait of an advanced, integrated civilization. Personally, I agree with both her ideals of tolerance and her desire to acknowledge the accomplishments of Muslim Spain; but this does not excuse a professor from the commitment to scholarship. All the repression and barbarism that existed during the time period is waved away by Menocal’s insistence that it was the work of foreigners, either Berbers from the south or Christians from the north; and everything positive is credited to Andalusian culture. It would be hard to be more partisan.

In short, I have many reservations about recommending this book, because I believe it wasn’t written in good faith, with scrupulous attention to facts, but rather in the effort to influence the public’s perception of Al-Andalus through storytelling. True, all scholarship is somewhat biased; but to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, using this fact to excuse extreme bias is like saying that, since a perfectly antiseptic operating room is impossible, we should just perform surgeries in the sewer.

Keeping the bias in mind, however, this book can be profitably read. There is a lot of fascinating information in these pages. Indeed, I recently revisited Toledo to see some of the things Menocal mentioned, such as Santa Maria la Blanca, a beautiful synagogue built in a Moorish style. And I do think that the story of syncretism, tolerance, and collaboration in Muslim Spain should be told, especially during this era of Islamophobia. It is too easy to forget how crucial the history of Islam is to the history of the “West,” if the two histories can indeed be separated at all. Menocal’s emphasis on the architecture, the poetry, and especially the translations of the Greek philosophers by Muslim and Jewish scholars, counters the common stereotypes of the Muslims as intolerant destroyers. What’s more, I fully understand how Menocal could be swept away in nostalgic awe after seeing the Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada; that the people who made those amazing structures could disappear is hard to fathom.

Still, even though I agree with Menocal’s goals, I don’t agree with her means. The bright, rosy structure is built on too flimsy a foundation. Propaganda is a bad long-term strategy, because when people realize they are being manipulated they grow resentful. Much better would have been a balanced, sourced, and footnoted book, acknowledging both the good and the bad. The society Menocal so effusively praised was undeniably great; the best way to praise is simply to describe it. The worst aspect of Menocal’s approach is that it didn’t allow her to say anything insightful about how tolerance arose. And this is important to know, since creating a tolerant society is one of the omnipresent challenges of the modern world.

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Review: A World Undone

Review: A World Undone

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

G. J. Meyer set out to write this book to fill a gap in the available literature on the First World War: a popular, holistic account that covered every phase and every front, without presupposing much knowledge from the reader. In this, he was undeniably successful. A World Undone begins at the beginning, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and ends at the end, with the Treaty of Versailles—signed five years to the day of the assassination of the infamous archduke.

Meyer’s scheme is simple but effective: interspersing “background” chapters between his main, military account of the war. These background chapters were inevitably more interesting for me, and provided much-needed relief from the seemingly endless string of battles, divisions, battalions, generals, troop movements, and so on that composed the military history. In these auxiliary sections, Meyer introduces us to war literature, major personalities, political traditions, economic crises, military technology, shell shock, and much else. The wealth of both historical backdrop and military history makes this book an ideal, if somewhat long, introduction to the “Great War.”

Meyer himself is an able and diligent writer, who steers a middle course between rhetorical excess and crass simplicity, keeping his prose lean and tasteful. He has the quintessential skills of the popularizer: the ability to compress information into a tight space, and to explain complex phenomenon without overwhelming the reader. He also wisely avoids speculation himself, leaving the analysis to the reader or the historian, keeping his eye focused on the surface-level events—which is desirable in an introductory text, I believe.

Even with a guide as competent as Meyer, however, the Great War is depressing and deadening. Meyer’s account, perhaps unintentionally, confirmed many stereotypes I had previously imbibed. In his telling, the beginning of the war was due to a combination of poor planning and reckless and incompetent advisors. That Germany could not mobilize its forces without invading Belgium, for example, or that Russia could not choose to mobilize only half of its troops, thus unintentionally threatening Germany—consequences of carefully-drawn plans, an arrangement that virtually guaranteed war—is difficult to believe or forgive.

As for the fighting, the impression one is left with is of remarkably courageous troops heedlessly wasted by monomaniacal generals. Offensive after ineffective offensive, with general after general trying the same tactics and achieving the same failures—leading to endless butchery. One quickly draws the conclusion that the leaders of Europe in this epoch were dim and shortsighted men.

It is this dreary and dreadful aspect that partially accounts for the First World War being overshadowed by its younger brother. The conflict was strikingly non-ideological. There are no Nazis, no Communists, no Fascists, no racial purges (except in Armenia), no freedom fighters, no Resistance—only obsolete Empires fighting for spheres of influence. The fighting, too, has none of the cinematic drama of the Second World War: only interminable shelling campaigns, repeated advances and retreats through no-man’s land, stagnant stalemates and antiquated tactics—there is nothing even vaguely romantic about the bloodshed, despite what Ernst Jünger may have thought.

But even if it is less compelling to learn about than the Second World War, the First World War arguably has even more valuable lessons to teach us. The logic of naked power confrontation is, after all, more historically common than ideological conflict. The comparatively colorless, and often incompetent, quality of the war’s leadership invites us to see the conflict in all its bare, barbaric brutality, without the distorting effects of charismatic chiefs. The manufactured hatred of whole populaces for one another—engineered through strict censorship, outright lies, and strident propaganda—is a case-study in how patriotism can be exploited for deeply cynical ends.

And most important, unlike the Second World War—a sad story that at least ends with the defeat of a genocidal maniac—the First World War has no silver lining, no comforting achievement to offset the millions of lives lost. As the vindictiveness of the victors proved, the winning side wasn’t on a clearly higher moral level than the losers; and in any case, the war didn’t even achieve a resolution to the conflicts brewing within Europe, only a partial deferment. In sum, the First World War is worth learning about because it was a calamitous, unnecessary tragedy that stubbornly resists romanticization or justification—and that is war.

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