Review: Plagues and Peoples

Review: Plagues and Peoples

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.

It is risky to write a book like this. When William H. McNeill set out to analyze the manifold ways that infectious diseases have shaped world history, it was almost an entirely novel venture. Though people had been writing history for millennia, specialized works focusing on the ways that civilizations have been shaped by illness were few and far between. This seems rather strange when you consider that it was only in the twentieth century when disease reliably caused fewer casualties than enemy action during war.

Perhaps thinking about faceless enemies like viruses and bacteria simply does not come naturally to us. We personify the heavens readily enough, and do our best to appease it. But it is more difficult to personify a disease: it strikes too randomly, too mysteriously, and often too suddenly. It is, in other words, a completely amoral agent; and the thought that we are at the mercy of such an agent is painful to consider.

This tendency to leave diseases out of history books has come down to our own day. The 1918 flu pandemic is given a fraction of the coverage in standard textbooks as the First World War, even though the former caused more casualties. Curiously, however, that terrible disease did not even leave a lasting impression on those who survived it, judging by its absence in the works of the major writers of the day. It seems that memory of disease fades fast, at least most of the time. The 1968 Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 Americans that year (which would translate to 160,000 today), and yet neither of my parents remembers it.

This is why I think this book was a risky venture: there was not much precedent for successful books written about the history of diseases. Further, since there was not much in the way of prior research, much of this book must perforce consist of speculation using the spotty records that existed. While this does leave the historian open to the criticism of making unfounded claims, as McNeill himself says, such speculations can usefully precede a more thorough inquiry, since at least it gives researchers an orientation in the form of theories to test. Indeed, in my opinion, speculative works have just as important a role as careful research in the advancement of knowledge.

McNeill most certainly cannot be accused of a lack of ambition. He had completed an enormous amount of research to write his seminal book on world history, The Rise of the West; and this book has an equally catholic orientation. He begins with the emergence of our species and ends with the twentieth century, examining every inhabited continent (though admittedly not in equal detail). The result is a tantalizing view of how the long arc of history has been bent and broken by creatures lighter than a dust mite.

Some obvious patterns emerge. The rise of agriculture and cities created population densities capable of supporting endemic diseases, unknown to hunter-gatherers. Living near large masses of domesticated animals contributed much to our disease regimes; and the lack of such animals was decisive in the New World, leaving indigenous populations vulnerable to the invading Europeans’ microbes. Another recurring pattern is that of equilibrium and disturbance. Whenever a new disease breaks in upon a virgin population, the results are disastrous. But eventually stasis is achieved, and population begins to rebound.

One of McNeill’s most interesting claims is that the great population growth that began in the 18th century was partly a result of a new disease regime. By that time, fast overland and sea travel had exposed most major urban centers to common diseases from around the world, thus rendering them less vulnerable to new shocks. I was also surprised to learn that it was only the rise of modern sanitation and medicine—in the mid 19th century—that allowed city populations to be self-sustaining. Before this, cities were population sinks because of endemic diseases, and required constant replenishment from the countryside in order to maintain their numbers.

As I hope you can see, almost fifty years after publication, this book still puts forward a compelling view of world history. And I think it is a view that we still have trouble digesting, since it challenges our basic sense of self-determination. Perhaps one small benefit of the current crisis will be an increased general curiosity about how we still are, and have always been, mired in the invisible web of the microscopic world.



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Review: And the Band Played On

Review: And the Band Played On

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story of these first five years of AIDS in America is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.

Though this book has been on my list for years, it took a pandemic to get me to finally pick it up. I am glad I did. And the Band Played On is both a close look at one medical crisis and an examination of how humans react when faced with something that does not fit into any of our mental boxes—not our ideas of civil liberty, not our categories of people, and not our notions of government responsibility. As such, this book has a lot to teach us, especially these days.

Randy Shilts was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This position allowed him to track the spread of this disease from nearly the very beginning. Putting this story together was a work of exemplary journalism, involving a lot of snooping and a lot more interviewing. What emerges is a blow-by-blow history of the crisis as it unfolded in its first five years, from 1980-85. And Shilts’s lens is broad: he examines the gay community, the epidemiologists, the press, the blood banks, the medical field, the research scientists, and the politicians. After all, a pandemic is not just caused by a virus; it is the sum of a virus and a society that allows it to spread.

The overarching theme of this book is individual heroism in the face of institutional failure. There are many admirable people in these pages: epidemiologists trying to raise the alert, doctors struggling to treat a mysterious ailment, gay activists trying to educate their communities, and a few politicians who take the disease seriously. But the list of failures is far longer: from the scientists squabbling over claims of priority, to the academic bureaucracies squashing funding requests, to the blood bankers refusing to test their blood, to the government—on every level—failing to take action or set aside sufficient funding.

A lot of these failures were due simply to the sorts people who normally caught AIDS: gay men and intravenous drug users. Because both of these groups were (and to some extent still are) social pariahs, major newspapers simply did not cover the epidemic. This was crucial in many respects, since it gave the impression that it simply was not worth worrying about (the news sets the worry agenda, after all), giving politicians an excuse to do nothing and giving people at risk an excuse not to take any precautions. The struggle in the gay community over how to proceed was particularly vexing, since it was their very efforts to preserve their sexual revolution which cost time and lives. As we are seeing nowadays, balancing civil liberties and disease control is not an easy thing.

But what made these failure depressing, rather than simply frustrating, was the constant drumbeat of death. So many young men lost their lives to this disease, dying slow and agonizing deaths while baffled doctors tried to treat them. When these deaths were occurring among gay men and drug users, the silence of the country was deafening. It was only when the disease showed the potential to infect heterosexuals and movie stars—people who matter—that society suddenly spurred itself into action. This seems to be a common theme to pandemics: society only responds when “normal” people are at risk.

Another common theme to pandemic is the search for a panacea. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, there were many claims of “breakthroughs” and promises of vaccines. But we still have neither a cure nor a vaccine. Fortunately, treatment for HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically since this book was written, when a diagnosis meant death. Pills are now available (Pre-Exposure Prophylactic, or PrEP) which, if taken daily, can reduce the chance of contracting HIV through sex by almost 99% percent. And effective anti-viral therapies exist for anyone who has been infected, greatly extending lifespans.

Unfortunately, these resources are mostly available in the “developed” world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where resources are scarce, the disease is still growing, taking many lives in the process. Once again, a disease is allowed to ravage in communities that the world can comfortably ignore.

One day, a hardworking journalist will write a similar book about the current coronavirus crisis and our institutions’ response to it. And I am sure there will be just as much failure to account for. But there will also be just as much heroism.



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Review: The Great Influenza

Review: The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People write about war. They write about the Holocaust. They write about the horrors that people inflict on people. Apparently they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people, the horrors that make humans least significant.

Like so many people nowadays, I have been scrambling to wrap my mind around the current pandemic. This led me, naturally, to the last major worldwide outbreak: the 1918 influenza. I have a distant connection to this disease. My great-grandfather (after whom I was named) was drafted out of Cornell’s veterinary school to work as a nurse in a temporary hospital set up for flu victims. I read the letters he sent to his mother, describing the experience.

John Barry’s account of this virulent flu is sobering to say the least. In a matter of months, the flu spread across the world and caused between 50 and 100 million deaths. More American soldiers died from this flu than from the entire Vietnam War. In most places the mortality rate hovered around two percent, but it struck much more fiercely elsewhere. In the Fiji Islands, 14 percent of its population succumbed; in Western Samoa, twenty-two percent; and in Labrador, a third of the population died. And because the disease mainly struck young people—people in their twenties and thirties—thousands were left orphans.

Barry’s book is not, however, simply a record of deaths. He sets the historical scene by giving a brief overview of contemporary medicine. In the early 1900s, modern medicine was just coming into its own. After centuries in which it was thought that bad air (“miasma”) caused illness, and in which bleeding was the most popular “cure,” researchers were beginning to discover viruses and bacteria, and were beginning to understand how the immune system combats these germs. Major public health initiatives were just getting underway. The John Hopkins School of Public Health had been founded, and the Rockefeller Institute was making new types of research possible. It was not the Dark Ages.

The other major piece of historical context is, of course, the First World War. Undoubtedly this played a major role in the epidemic. Not only did troop movements help to spread the disease, but press censorship virtually guaranteed that communities were unprepared. Barry notes how newspapers all across the country consistently downplayed the danger, which ironically only further increased panic. (The pandemic is sometimes called the “Spanish flu,” because the press in neutral Spain was uncensored, and so reported freely on the disease.) The war effort overrode all of the warnings of disease experts; and by the time the disease struck many communities, most of the available doctors and nurses had been sent to the military.

Barry’s narration mainly focuses on the United States. Partly this is because this is where he believes the disease originated (there are several competing theories), partly this is because the disease’s impact in Europe was overshadowed by the war, and partly this is simply because of the amount of easily available sources. I did wish he had spent more time on other countries—especially on India, which suffered horribly. The sections on science—both on the history of science, and summarizing what we know now about flu viruses—were in general quite strong. What was lacking, for me, were sections on the cultural impact of the disease.

But perhaps there are not so many. As Barry notes, no major novelist of the time—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence—mentioned the pandemic in their works. I have noticed the same thing myself. I cannot recall a single mention of this flue in biographies and autobiographies of people who lived through the pandemic, such as John Maynard Keynes or even John D. Rockefeller (who personally funded research on the disease). This is perhaps understandable in Europe, where the deaths from the pandemic were swallowed up in news of the war; but it seems odd elsewhere. What is more, the pandemic did not seem to exacerbate existing racial or class tensions. In many ways the virus seems to have swept through communities and then disappeared from memory.

(Barry does have one fairly controversial claim in the book: that Woodrow Wilson contracted the flu while negotiating the treaty of Versailles, and that it caused him to capitulate to Clemenceau’s demands. If this is true, it would be a major historical consequence.)

It is illuminating to compare the 1918 pandemic to the current crisis. There are many similarities. Both are caused by easily transmissible viruses, and both spread around the world. The H1N1 flu virus and the SARS-CoV-2 virus both infect the respiratory system, causing fever, coughing, and in severe cases pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome). In both cases, no vaccine is available and no known treatment is effective. As in 1918, doctors are turning desperately to other therapies and medicines—those developed for other, unrelated diseases like malaria—and as in 1918, researchers are publishing at a frantic pace, with no time for peer review. Police are again wearing masks, hospitals are again overrun, and officials are struggling to catch up with the progress of the virus.

But of course, there are many important differences, too. One is the disease itself. The 1918 flu was almost certainly worse than the novel coronavirus. It was more deadly in general, and it killed younger people in far greater numbers—which resulted in a much bigger dip in life expectancy. (Young people died because their immune systems overreacted in what is called a “cytokine storm.”) The H1N1 flu also had a far shorter incubation period. This meant that the gap between infection and the first symptoms was short—often within 24 hours—and patients deteriorated far more quickly. Barry describes people being struck down within mere hours of showing their first symptoms. The challenge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, is the very long incubation period—potentially up to two weeks—in which people may be infectious and yet not show symptoms. This makes it very difficult to keep track of who has it.

The explanation for this difference lies in the nature of the virus. A virus is basically a free-floating piece of genetic code incased in a protein shell. It needs to highjack animal cells in order to reproduce; and it infiltrates cells using proteins that link up with structures on the cells’ surface. Once inside, the virus begins to replicate until the cell literally bursts, spilling virus into adjacent cells, which in turn get infected, and which in turn burst. Each burst can release thousands of copies. The rate at which the virus replicates within the cells determine the incubation period (between first infection and first symptoms), and coronaviruses replicate significantly more slowly in animal cells, thus explaining the slower onset of symptoms. Their greater speed also means that flu viruses change faster, undergoing antigenic drift and antigenic shift, meaning that new strains of the virus are inevitable. The novel coronavirus is (likely) more stable.

Another potential difference is seasonality. Flu viruses come in seasonal waves. The 1918 virus struck first in spring, receded in summer, and then returned in autumn and one last time in the winter of 1919. Every wave hit very quickly—and then left just as quickly. Most cities experienced a sharp drop-off in cases after about six weeks of the first patients. The seasonality of the 1918 flu was partly a result of the genetic drift just mentioned, as the different waves of this flu were all at least subtly different strains of the virus. Atmospheric conditions—humidity and temperature—also presumably make some difference in the flu virus’s spread. COVID-19 may exhibit a very different pattern. It may, perhaps, be less affected by atmospheric conditions; and if it mutates and reproduces more slowly, it may linger around for one long wave rather than several short ones. This is just my speculation.

Well, so much for the virus. How about us? The world has changed a lot since 1918. However, not all of those changes have made us better prepared. Fast and cheap air travel allowed the virus to spread more quickly. And economic globalization did not help, either, as both medicines and medical equipment are often produced overseas and then imported, thus rendering countries more vulnerable to supply-chain disruption than in the past. As we witness countries and states compete for supplies, this vulnerability is very apparent.

But of course we have many advantages, too. Many of the deaths caused by the flu and the coronavirus are not from the virus infection itself, but because the virus renders us vulnerable to secondary infections by bacteria, causing pneumonia. Antibiotics (which did not exist in 1918) can save many lives. Another advantage is medical care. The most severe patients of both epidemics were struck with ARDS, a condition with an almost 100% mortality rate for those who do not receive intensive medical care (using a ventilator machine). In 1918 they were able to administer oxygen, but far less effectively than we can. Even so, even with the best intensive care, the survival rate of ARDS is between 40-60%. And our ability to administer intensive care is quite limited. The ventilator shortage has become a global emergency in itself, as hospitals are overrun.

Medical science has also advanced considerably. Now we can isolate the virus (which they could not do in 1918), test individuals for it, and work on a vaccine. However, testing has so far been unable to keep up with the virus. And the most optimistic estimate of an available vaccine is in a year. Arguably a much bigger advantage is information technology. The press is not censored—so citizens have a much better idea of the risks involved—and experts can communicate with each other in real time. We can coordinate large-scale societal responses to the pandemic, and can potentially even use technology to track individual cases. As we come to better understand the virus, we will be able to use more sophisticated statistical methods to understand its progress. None of this was possible in 1918.

One thing that we will have to contend with—something that is hardly even mentioned in Barry’s book—is the economic toll that this virus will take. Even in the ugliest days of the 1918 pandemic, governments did not require businesses or restaurants to close. War preparations went on unabated. (In 1918, after years of slaughter and at the height of the war, life was simply cheaper than it is now.) Our societal response will likely mitigate the health crisis but will create a secondary economic crisis that may ultimately be more difficult to solve. The solutions to this crisis could be our most lasting legacies. Already Spain’s government is talking of adopting universal basic income. Though of course it is far too early to predict anything with confidence.

Comparisons with 1918 are partly depressing, and partly uplifting. Depressing, because we knew this was possible and did not prepare. Depressing, because so many governments have gone through the same cycle of early denial and disorganized response as they did back then. Uplifting, because we do know much more than we did. Uplifting, because—after our early fumbles—we are finally coordinating as a global community to deal with the crisis. Perhaps most uplifting of all, despite some ugly stories here and there, the crisis has revealed a basic sense of solidarity in the face of a universal threat. Hopefully, unlike 1918, we will not do our best to forget about this one.



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Review: The Wright Brothers

Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When you open a McCullough book you know what to expect: fine prose, strong storytelling, and inspiring stories of American heroes. That is his domain, and he is the master of it. This book about the Wright brothers exemplifies all of these virtues in just over 300 pages. The audio book in particular, narrated by McCullough himself—whose folksy and yet erudite speaking voice encapsulates his ethos—is perhaps the most concentrated form of McCullough that you can imbibe.

Like many people, I was surprised at how little I knew about the Wrights. My hazy impression of their story was thus: The brothers were eccentric bike mechanics who, through a series of trial and error, managed to make some primitive flying machines, devices that could putter a few hundred feet and lift a few dozen feet off the ground. This is quite wrong. The Wrights approached the problem of flight with remarkable dedication and care. They read all the scientific literature they could find; and they performed careful experiments, documenting each step of the way. Their final product was not just some clumsy motor-powered kite, but a sophisticated machine capable of crossing the English channel and flying over the Eiffel Tower. Their creative vision was matched only by their persistence and perfectionism.

The story of the Wrights is legitimately inspiring. Having no special resources, no roadmap, no background, no support, they were able to succeed where so many other famous and wealthy inventors failed. They endured countless setbacks, both in the research and development of their craft and then in achieving recognition for their accomplishments. But in the end, two modest men from Ohio profoundly changed human life. It is a testament to their tenacity as much as to their intelligence.

It is difficult to criticize McCullough, because he does so perfectly what he sets out to do: show us how people in ordinary circumstances accomplish extraordinary things. But of course, this requires minimizing or even ignoring many aspects of a story that would attract other writers. One prominent example of this is the Wrights’ personalities. McCullough portrays them as dignified and diligent, representatives of an old-fashioned work ethic, unconcerned with fame or fortune. But in the hands of another biographer, the Wrights might not come across as so perfectly admirable. To me, they seemed curiously aloof, distant, and even repressed. The fact that Orville flew into a rage when his sister got married, for example, seems to be worth more investigation than McCullough is willing to give it. He dismisses the long estrangement as one of Orville’s “moods.”

Reading McCullough is a bit strange in today’s political climate. He was never concerned with being cutting-edge; but now more than ever he feels distinctly like a holdover from another era. As is commonly observed, American life has become deeply divided; so McCullough’s mission—to write about universally admirable Americans—seems especially quixotic. Yet McCullough’s reputation appears to have survived the late polarization relatively intact. And I think that is a good thing. True, it is wise to be wary of national mythologizers. But for the life of me I cannot find anything to trouble my conscience or divide the nation in the figures of Wilbur and Orville Wright.



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Review: Maya to Aztec

Review: Maya to Aztec
Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed

Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is another excellent lecture series by Edwin Barnhart. Just earlier this year I listened to, and greatly enjoyed, his series on the civilizations of North America. Now he is on his home turf, for Barnhart is a specialist in Maya archaeology. Surprisingly, however, I thought that the lecture series got off to something of a rough start. He jumps right into the Olmecs without enough framing or background. But soon enough I got my bearings, and the rest was a delightful trip through Meso-American archaeology.

Although I was somewhat more familiar with the basics of the Mayans and the Aztecs than with the ancient peoples of North Americans, I was still astounded at the depths of my own ignorance. It is frankly incredible that you can go through the American educational system and learn infinitely more about the Babylonians, Egyptians, and the Greeks than about the Mayans and the Aztecs. Granted, much of what we know about these civilizations was discovered fairly recently. The Mayan script was only deciphered in the 1970s; and as Barnhart points out, there is so much left to be discovered, including whole cities. Barnhart himself discovered a city (Maax Na).

The pyramids, pictoral script, and ancient date of these civilizations naturally bring up associations of Egypt. Yet the comparison is somewhat misleading, since the peoples of Meso-America consisted of a patchwork of cultures, sharing obvious similarities but equally important differences, whose fortunes waxed and waned through the centuries. Egypt, by contrast, was a singularly homogenous culture. Mesopotamia is likely a better comparison in this regard. But, of course, the Meso-American cultures have many distinct features.

One of the most important is the elaborate calendar system. Barnhart, an expert on paleo-archaeology, goes into great detail in explaining the Mayan numeral and calendrical systems. What is striking is not only the great complexity of the system, but also the cultural importance of the calendar. It was used by the entire region; and its keepers—who were religious men—communicated with one another even while their own states were at war. The calendar was filled with significance and omens, and was always consulted before important tasks. Barnhart speculates that the cyclical nature of the calendar also explains why cities were periodically abandoned.

Another peculiar feature is the Meso-American ball game, which was played across the region. This ball game was not just a sport, but a kind of living metaphor for Meso-American cosmology. I am not familiar of any other examples from the ancient world of a sport being so culturally central. And, of course, there is the human sacrifice—especially among the Aztecs. It is difficult to hear about these practices nowadays; though I do wonder which area had more religion-inspired killings during this time: Meso-America or Europe?

Barnhart ends the lecture series by narrating the first European contact and the eventual destruction of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés and his men. (There is a new series on Amazon about Cortés, which was made to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán, which happened in 1521.) It is an exciting and a depressing story, as the work of centuries is burned or buried. But Barnhart ends on a positive note, observing the many ways that these cultures have survived, and expressing hope that the modern descendants of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the many other cultures will take control of their heritage. For my part, now I really want to go to Mexico.



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Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As I wrote in my review of the standard music history textbook, writers of survey material find themselves in an uneviable position: threading the needle between technical description and subjective response. In other words, a textbook writer must somehow discuss the music objectively, but with an absolute minimum of specialized vocabulary. As a result, even the best writers are bound to fall a little short of perfection.

But Robert Greenberg resolves this dilemma by avoiding writing altogether. Indeed, the audiobook format is arguably a far better medium than paper for a survey course on music. Rather than resort to scores or diagrams, Greenberg can simply play a recording of the music; and if he needs to break it down, he can play sections on his piano. The result is more integrated and more satisfactory than the textbook approach. What is abstract on the page—motivic development, thematic contrast, timbrel coloring—can be clear as sunlight when heard.

If the format is ideally suited to the subject, the man is ideally suited to the occasion. Robert Greenberg is a wild ball of energy—joking, screaming, whispering, laughing, and blabbing—all while waving and jabbing his arms about. Seeing him lecture is a performance in itself, as he goes the whole forty-five minutes without a single misspoken word. While some might find him grating, and others merely hokey, his animating presence helps to make this most abstract of all art forms into something eminently approachable.

But Greenberg would be little more than a clown if he were not, as well, an extremely knowledgeable and passionate musician. His examples are all well-chosen to illustrate his chosen lessons, and his explanations are both insightful and easy to follow. The lectures work so well because he can immediately exemplify any point simply by playing the relevant bit of music, thus sharpening our ears. Of course, this being a survey course, he does not go into great detail in any one area, and there are many omissions. But considering the time constraints, I think it would be hard to improve upon these lectures.

After finishing the aforementioned music textbook, I wondered whether language might have something to do with music development. I am gratified to find that Greenberg, at least, thinks that it does. The dominance of German-language composers in these lectures is overwhelming. After German, the composers’ languages by frequency are Italian, French, Latin, Russian, and English. Personally, I found it striking that there was not a single Spanish composer even alluded to in the course. Certainly you could not do a survey of visual art or literature with the same omission.

I am not subscribing to some kind of linguistic determinism (though the idea that linguistic patterns influencing musical patterns is intriguing); I am only remarking on the strangeness that one culture, even one city—Vienna—could be so dominant, and another equally affluent culture so comparatively minor.

This is all rather beside the point. I am very glad to have listened to these lectures, and even a little sad to be done with them. Luckily for us, Greenberg is an extremely prolific teacher, and has seemingly endless courses on every area of Western concert music. Where does he find the time to conduct, compose, and play his own music?



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Review: The History of Ancient Egypt

Review: The History of Ancient Egypt
The History of Ancient Egypt

The History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ancient Egypt, like dinosaur bones and outer space, is one of those things which seem to attract universal curiosity. It certainly did in my case. I remember visiting the Egyptian section in the Met, as a young boy, and marveling over the mummies and the massive sarcophagi, the mysterious hieroglyphs and monumental statues.

There is something curiously foreign, even inhuman, about Egyptian artifacts. For one, they are old beyond anything we are accustomed to think about. To cite one oft-repeated fact, there is more time between construction the Great Pyramid and the life of Julius Caesar, than between Julius Caesar and our own time. Even ancient history seems like yesterday by comparison. Aside from mere time, Egypt’s culture is strikingly unlike our own. God-kings who marry their sisters to keep the blood-line pure, mummified bodies interred in graves full of gold, jackal-headed gods and hieroglyphic script—it is alien indeed.

Yet it is beautiful. Egyptian art is undoubtedly one of the great art traditions in the world—as anyone knows who has examined the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, the seated scribe in Paris, or the statue of Hatshepsut in New York. It is a unified and coherent aesthetic, permeating everything from the smallest objects to the greatest temples, and lasting for thousands of years with only minor change. Even if it is enchanting, however, the art of Egypt also evokes this sensation of distance. Every image is so stylized, every human form is so rigid and unrealistic, every aesthetic choice pre-determined by tradition, that it is difficult to get a sense of real people behind these objects.

This sense of distance, of foreignness, of mystery, is what makes Egypt so exciting to study. (It is also why people talk about ancient aliens.) And Bob Brier is an ideal guide. I have never loved anything or anyone as much as Brier loves Egypt. This enthusiasm is infectious, and makes his series of lectures a real pleasure. He describes how he climbed into the Bent Pyramid—an early, failed attempt to create a pyramid—and how he traveled to the turquoise mines used by Egyptians themselves. He narrates Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and explains how the Rosetta Stone was translated. He even describes in detail how to make a mummy—and he should know, since he made one himself.

Apart from these entertaining asides, Brier takes the listener through the whole history of Ancient Egypt, from prehistory to the death of Cleopatra. It is a fascinating story, and Brier is a wonderful storyteller. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, his verbal mannerisms may remind one—pleasantly or unpleasantly—of the man in the White House; yet he knows how to dramatize the relevant details enough to make them effortlessly stick in the memory. His love of a good story does lead him astray, at times. For my part, his two lectures on the Biblical stories, Joseph and Exodus, were somewhat too credulous of their veracity. He is similarly generous when it comes to Herodotus. And his theory of Tutankhamun’s murder has now been disproven.

Aside from these mild criticisms, I should note that the series does show its age. Recorded in 1999, lots has happened in the world of Egyptology since then, notably the advances in DNA and medical technology which allow us to know more about the lives of Egyptians. For example, we now know far more about Tutankhamun’s many physical ailments, and we also know that he was not the son of Nefertiti.

Nevertheless, these lectures remain a wonderful introduction to the times. I cannot emphasize enough how enjoyable they are. They convert you into an Egypt fanatic. Now I want teach myself hieroglyphics and to go to Egypt myself. It must be incredible to see all of this in person. For now, however, I will have to be content with Brier’s virtual tour and whatever museums I can visit.



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Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

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Review: John Adams (McCullough)

Review: John Adams (McCullough)
John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.

Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.

Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.

Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.

Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.

Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.



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Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many on Goodreads, I decided to read this book because of Manny’s enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the language’s history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakers—grammar—while avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin.

McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features of English grammar: the so-called ‘meaningless’ do (as in, “Do you eat rabbits?”) and the use of the progressive in order to talk about the present (as in, “I am going,” rather than simply “I go”). Not coincidentally, these two aspect of English cause some of the most persistent errors in my students. In Spanish, just like in every other European language I know, there is no auxiliary verb needed for negations or questions; you can simply ask “¿Comes conejos?” Similarly, in Spanish, as in German or French, you can use the simple present to refer to what you are doing now; thus, a Spaniard can say “Voy” to express a current movement, and they reserve “Estoy yendo” for special emphasis.

Curiously, no other Germanic languages have these features. Indeed, they are absent (according to McWhorter) from every other European language, with the notable exception of the Celtic languages (specifically, Welsh and Cornish). This leads him to the quite natural supposition that the indigenous Celtic languages exerted an influence on the Old English spoken by the invading Anglo-Saxons. He musters quite a number of evidences and arguments in support of this thesis, to the extent that I was pretty worn out by the end of the chapter.

To be fair, this idea is considered quite controversial in the academic community, so McWhorter felt the need to champion it in full battle array. Nevertheless I think the maxim “Know your audience” applies here. I presume most readers of this book will be, like me, non-specialists, with little reason to be skeptical of the Celtic influence; to the contrary, it struck me as extremely plausible. So McWhorter’s harping on the point was simply taxing. In any case, if he is looking to influence the academic community, a short popular book is not the medium to do it.

McWhorter’s next chapter deals with the Viking influence, which he holds responsible for the jettisoning of much of Old English’s serpentine Germanic grammar, resulting in the relatively “easy” language we have today. And he rounds out the book by making the considerably more speculative argument that Proto-Germanic diverged in such a distinctive way from Proto-Indo-European because a large number of Semitic speakers (Phoenicians who had made it to Denmark) learned the language. At this point, I admit that I began to have reservations about McWhorter’s method. Despite the reasonableness of the Celtic-English and the Scandinavian-English hypotheses, the cumulative effects of McWhorter’s arguments was to weaken each.

McWhorter’s specialty is researching how languages influenced one another historically; and one begins to suspect that this academic orientation leads him to see evidence for this phenomenon everywhere. To me it is unsatisfying to write a history of English as a series of stories, however plausible, of how it was influenced by other languages. This is because, logically, in order for there to be distinct languages capable of mixing there must first be languages capable of transforming without any linguistic contact. It can all begin to sound like a biologist who insists that the reason elephants have tusks is because proto-elephants mated with proto-walruses epochs ago.

This is an unfair comparison, of course; and to repeat I think his Celtic argument is quite strong. However, the more one reads, the more McWhorter’s method can begin to sound unsettlingly like Just-So stories. Some inconsistencies in the arguments make this clear. For example, he brushes aside the paucity of Celtic vocabulary in English, while citing the many Scandinavian loan-words as evidence for Viking influence (not to mention the possible Semitic loan-words in Proto-Germanic). To me it seems prima facie dubious that Welsh and Cornish speakers were able to fundamentally transform English’s grammar without leaving a considerable stockpile of loanwords. Importing words is the most natural thing in the world when learning a foreign language; I do it all the time, as do my students.

To objections like these McWhorter is always able to point to a case where a similar event occurred as the scenario he is describing. But, again, one surmises that the corpus of available examples is large enough to back up any claim he wishes to impose. McWhorter criticizes other linguists for ignoring the causes of language change. But is invoking the influence of other languages a satisfying explanation? To me this is of the same order as arguing that life on Earth originally came from Mars. Perhaps, but how does life arise in the first place?

Now, it may be unfair of me to nitpick what is, after all, a popular book. But if McWhorter saw fit to include so much argument in favor of his uncommonly-held opinions, I think it behooves readers to be somewhat skeptical, especially since the general reader has no specialized knowledge to ground her acceptance or rejection of McWhorter’s conclusions. For my part, I think a more expository and less polemical book on the history of English would have made for far more pleasing reading. Yet McWhorter is an engaging writer and an original thinker, so it was valuable to learn of his approach to linguistics.



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