Review: Henry IV

Review: Henry IV
Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.

This is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays. In tone and atmosphere it is far more varied and naturalistic than its predecessor, Richard II. The scenes with Hal amid the low-life of London are fetching, and do much to alleviate the stiff and stuffy courtly atmosphere of some of Shakespeare’s histories. The comedy also helps; and this play contains some of Shakespeare’s highest and lowest comedy, both of which are embodied in the corpulent Falstaff.

Most readers will, I suspect, concur with Harold Bloom in deeming Falstaff one of the bard’s great creations—though we may not go so far as to put him on a level with Hamlet. Bloom is correct, however, in seeing one’s opinion of Falstaff as a defining fact in one’s interpretation of the play. There are those who see in Falstaff the spirit of carnival—the ecstatic embrace of all the pleasures of life and the total rejection of all the hypocrisies of society Others see Falstaff as a corrupter and a lout—a lazy and selfish fool.

For my part I vacillate between these two attitudes. There is no denying Falstaff’s wit; and his soliloquy on the futility of honor is wonderfully refreshing, puncturing through all of the political nonsense that motivates the bloody clashes. Still, I cannot help thinking that, if the Falstaffian attitude were embraced too widely, society itself would be impossible. Some social restraint on our pleasure-loving instincts is necessary if we are not to end up fat drunken thieves. On the other hand, a generous dose of the Falstaffian attitude can be a great antidote to the self-righteous nonsense that leads us into war.

In any case, Falstaff is not the only great character in this play. Hotspur is a mass of furious energy, an electrifying presence every time he is on stage. Prince Hal, though less charismatic, is more complex. From the start, he already has an ambivalent relationship with Falstaff, a kind of icy affection or warm disregard. Indeed, Hal holds everyone at a distance, and one senses a skeptical intelligence that is wary of committing until the circumstances are just right. It is hard to read his character’s evolution as that of a wayward youth who learns to embrace his identity. His actions seem far too deliberate, his timing too perfect. Was he hoping to learn something by keeping company with Falstaff and his lot?

Henry IV, Part 2

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Presume not that I am the thing I was.

Compared with Part 1, this sequel is significantly weaker as a stand-alone play. There is no antagonist to compare with Hotspur. Falstaff wanders about in pointless merrymaking, mostly separated from Hal; and unfortunately his wit is not nearly so sharp outside of his young companion’s company. The same can be said for Hal, whose youthful liveliness fades into a chilling uprightness. And the plot can be frustratingly meandering and abrupt.

The main drama of this play is the progression of Hal from prodigal son to the ideal young king. This transformation is apt to cause some misgivings. On the one hand, I found it genuinely admirable when Hal commends the Justice and bids him to do his work. And even if one loves Falstaff, it is difficult to wish that the King of England would keep such a lawless fellow around, much less lend him influence. On the other hand, the newly-ascended king’s rejection of his former friend and mentor is deeply sad. Perhaps he should have turned Falstaff away, but it need not have been with such cold scorn.

Again, there is a moral conflict here. Falstaff may best be described as amoral: uninhibited, pleasure-loving, devoid of both cruelty and rectitude. He feels no scruples whatsoever at dishonesty and robbery, and acknowledges no ideal as worth pursuing or even respecting. Hal, by contrast, is a moral creature: he wishes to uphold the moral order, but for him this may mean murder or bloody conquest. So one must ask: Which is better, to be a drunken pickpocket or to lead your country on an invasion? Neither the socially subversive nor the socially upstanding can be fully embraced, which is why Hal’s rejection of Falstaff causes such complex reactions.



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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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Review: Gotham

Review: Gotham
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared.

When I began this book, I thought that I would speed through it in a summer month of dedicated reading, while there was little else to distract me. Yet after four weeks of slogging I had not even gotten a third of the way through. Worse still, I never felt fully engaged; every time I returned to the book it required an act of will; the pace never picked up, the writing never become effortlessly pleasurable. So I put it aside, to finish at the end of summer. When that didn’t work, I put it aside, to finish during Christmas break. And when that didn’t work, I bought the audiobook, to finish the remaining chapters on my runs. Now, 261 days later, I can finally tick it off my list.

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace set an ambitious goal: to write an authoritative, comprehensive, and accessible history of New York City. In their words, they want to include “sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime,” and that list is only the beginning. The amount of research required to assemble this vast and teetering edifice of knowledge is almost nauseating. When you consider that this book, heavy enough to serve as a deadly weapon, is the condensed version of thousands of smaller books, dissertations, papers, and studies, you cannot help but feel admiration for the many hours of sweat and toil that went into this pharaonic task. And in the end they have accomplished at least two of their three goals: the book is authoritative and comprehensive. But is it accessible?

This is where my criticism begins. Burrows and Wallace attempt to gather together so many threads of research that the final tapestry is confused and chaotic. In a single chapter they can pivot wildly from one topic to another, going from department stores to race riots to train lines, so that the reader has little to hold on to as they traverse this whirlwind of information. The final product is an assemblage rather than a coherent story, an encyclopedia disguised as a narrative history. Granted, encyclopedias are good and useful things; but they seldom make for compelling reading. What was lacking was a guiding organizational principle. This could have taken the form of a thesis on, say, the way that the city developed; or it could have been a literary device, such as arranging the information around certain historical figures.

Lacking this, what we often get is a list—which, as it happens, is the author’s favorite rhetorical device. To pick an entirely typical sentence, the authors inform us that, in 1828, the Common Council licensed “nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour.” Now, lists can be wonderful to read if used sparingly and assembled with care—just ask Rabelais. But overused, they become tedious and exhausting.

This is indicative of what is a more general fault of the book, the lack of authorial personality in its prose. Perhaps this is because Burrows and Wallace edited and rewrote each other’s chapters, creating a kind of anonymous hybrid author. Now, this is not to say that the prose is bad; to the contrary, I think that this book is consistently well-written. If the book is dry, it is not because of any lack of writerly skill, but because the prose limits itself to recounting fact rather than expressing opinion or thought. Again, the book is an encyclopedia without the alphabetical order, and encyclopedias are not supposed to contain any speck of subjectivity. Unfortunately, even the most masterly prose is dead on the page if there is no discernable person behind it.

I am being rather critical of a book which, without a doubt, is a triumph of synthesis and scholarship. If I am disappointed, it is because I felt that I could have retained much more of the information in these pages had it been presented with more coherence—a larger perspective, a sense of overall order, an underpinning structure. As it stands, I do not have that satisfying (if, perhaps, untrustworthy) feeling that an excellent history can provide: that of seeing the past from a high perspective, as a grand and logical unfolding. Though not exactly fair, I cannot help comparing Gotham unfavorably with another massive book about the history of the city, The Power Broker, which forever changed how I look at the city and, indeed, at the nature of power itself. Yet after finishing this, I am not sure if my perspective on the city has been appreciably changed.

But I should end on a positive note. This is a well-written, exhaustive, and thoroughly impressive history of the city. And despite all my complaints and headaches, I liked it enough so that I will, someday, drag myself through its sequel.



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Review: Treatise on Light

Review: Treatise on Light
Treatise on Light (Illustrated Edition)

Treatise on Light by Christiaan Huygens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But sound, as I have said above, only travels 180 toises in the same time of one second: hence the velocity of light is more than six hundred thousand times greater than that of sound.


This little treatise is included in volume 34 of the Great Books of the Western World, which I used to read Newton’s Principia and his Opticks. In this edition the Treatise comes out to about 50 pages, so I decided it was worth combing through. Christiaan Huygens is one of the relatively lesser known figures of the scientific revolution. But even a brief acquaintance with his life and work is enough to convince one that he was a thinker of gigantic proportion, in a league with Descartes and Leibniz. His work in mechanics prefigured Newton’s laws, and his detailed understanding of the physics of pendulums (building from Galileo’s work) allowed him to invent the pendulum clock. His knowledge of optics also improved the technology of telescope lenses, which in turn allowed him to describe the rings of Saturn and discover the first of Saturn’s moons, Titan.

Apart from all this, Huygens was the progenitor of the wave theory of light. This is in contrast with the corpuscular theory of light (in which light is conceived of as little particles), put forward 14 years later in Isaac Newton’s Opticks. Newton’s theory quickly became more popular, partially because of its inherent strength, and partially because it was Isaac Newton who proposed it. But Huygens’s wave theory was revived and seemingly confirmed in the 19th century by Thomas Young and Augustin-Jean Fresnel.

Essentially, Huygens’s idea was to use sound as an analogy for light. Just as sound consists of longitudinal waves (vibrating in the direction they travel) propagated by air, so light must consist of much faster waves propagated by some other, finer medium, which Huygens calls the ether. He conceives of a luminous object, such as a burning coal, as emitting circular waves at every point in its surface, spreading in every direction throughout a space.

Like Newton, Huygens was aware of Ole Rømer’s calculation of the speed of light. It had long been debated whether light is instantaneous or merely moves very quickly. Aristotle rejected the second option, thinking it inconceivable that something could move so fast. Little progress had been made since then, because making a determination of light’s speed presents serious challenges: not only is light several orders of magnitude faster than anything in our experience, but since light is the fastest thing there is, and the bearer of our information, we have nothing to measure it against.

This changed once astronomers began measuring the movement of the Jovian moons. Specifically, the moon Io is eclipsed by Jupiter every 42.5 hours; but as Rømer measured this cycle at different points in the year, he noticed that it varied somewhat. Realizing that this likely wasn’t due to the moon’s orbit itself, he hypothesized that it was caused by the varying distance of Earth to Jupiter, and he used this as the basis for the first roughly accurate calculation of the speed of light. Newton and Huygens both accepted the principle and refined the results.

Huygens gets through his wave theory, reflection, and refraction fairly quickly; and in fact the bulk of this book is dedicated to an analysis of Icelandic spar—or, as Huygens calls it, “The Strange Refraction of Icelandic Crystal.” This is a type of crystal that is distinctive for its birefringence, which means that it refracts light of different polarizations at different angles, causing a kind of double image to appear through the crystal. Huygens delves into a detailed geometrical analysis of the crystal, which I admit I could not follow in the least; nevertheless, the defining property of polarization eludes him, since to understand it one must conceive of light as a transverse, not a longitudinal, wave (that is, unlike a sound wave, which cannot be polarized). In the end, he leaves this puzzling property of the crystal for future scientists, but not without laying the groundwork of observation and theory that we still rely upon.

All together, this little treatise is a deeply impressive work of science: combining sophisticated mathematical modeling with careful experimentation to reach surprising new conclusions. Huygens illustrates perfectly the rare mix of gifts that a scientist must have in order to be successful: a sharp logical mind, careful attention to detail, and a creative imagination. The world is full of those with only one or two of these qualities—brilliant mathematicians with no interest in the real world, obsessive recorders and cataloguers with no imagination, brilliant artists with no gift for logic—but it takes the combination to make a scientist of the caliber of Huygens.



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Review: The Age of Napoleon

Review: The Age of Napoleon
The Age of Napoleon (The Story of Civilization, #11)

The Age of Napoleon by Will Durant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally I have come to the last book in this series. It was four long years ago when I first read The Life of Greece; and these have been the four most educational years of my life, in part thanks to The Story of Civilization. Though I have had some occasions to criticize Durant over the years, the fact that I have dragged myself through ten lengthy volumes of his writing is compliment enough. Now all I need to do is to read the first volume of the series, Our Oriental Heritage, in order to bring my voyage to its end. (I originally skipped it because it struck me as absurd to squeeze all of Asia into one volume and then cover Europe in ten; but for the sake of completion I suppose I will have to read it.)

Durant did not plan to write this volume. His previous book, Rousseau and Revolution, ends with a final bow. But Durant lived longer than he anticipated (he died at 96), so he decided to devote his final years to a bonus book on Napoleon. It is extraordinarily impressive that he and his wife, Ariel, could have maintained the same high standard of writing for so many decades; there is no notable decline in quality in this volume, which makes me think that Durant should have written a book on healthy living, too.

The Age of Napoleon displays all of Durant’s typical merits and faults. The book begins with a bust: Durant rushes through the French Revolution, seeming bored by the whole affair, seeing the grand drama only as a disruptive prelude to Napoleon. This showcases Durant’s inability to write engagingly about processes and events; when there is no central actor on which to focus his attention, the writing becomes colorless and vague. Further, it also shows that Durant, while a strong writer, was a weak historian: he provides very little analysis or commentary on what is one of the most important and influential events in European history.

When Napoleon enters the scene, the book becomes appreciably more lively. For reasons that largely escape me, Durant was an unabashed admirer of the diminutive general, and sees in Napoleon an example of the farthest limits of human ability. Though normally uninterested in the details of battles and campaigns, Durant reveals a heretofore hidden talent for military narration as he covers Napoleon’s military triumphs and defeats. Some parts of the book, particularly near the end, are genuinely thrilling—an adjective that rarely comes to mind with Durant’s staid and steady style. Granted, he had an extraordinary story to tell; Napoleon’s rise, fall, rise again, and fall again are as epic as anything in Plutarch.

But as usual Durant shines most brightly in his sections on artists, poets, and philosophers. The greatest section of this book is that on the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. (For some reason, Durant sees fit to exclude Keats, even though the scope of Keats’ life falls entirely within that of Napoleon.) Less engaging, though still worthwhile, was Durant’s section on the German idealist philosophers; and his miniature biography of Beethoven was a stirring tribute. Many writers who properly belong in this volume were, however, paid their respects in the previous, most notably Goya and Goethe, since Durant thought that this volume would never appear.

Though I am happy to reach the end, I am saddened that I cannot continue the story of Europe’s history any further forward with Durant. He is an inspiring guide to the continent’s cultural treasures.



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Review: Newton’s Principia

Review: Newton’s Principia
The Principia

The Principia by Isaac Newton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is shown in the Scholium of Prop. 22, Book II, that at the height of 200 miles above the earth the air is more rare than it is at the surface of the earth in the ratio of 30 to 0.0000000000003998, or as 75,000,000,000,000 to 1, nearly.


Marking this book as “read” is as much an act of surrender as an accomplishment. Newton’s reputation for difficulty is well-deserved; this is not a reader-friendly book. Even those with a strong background in science and mathematics will, I suspect, need some aid. The historian of mathematics Colin Pask relied on several secondary sources to work his way through the Principia in order to write his excellent popular guide. (Texts by S. Chandrasekhar, J. Bruce Brackenridge, and Dana Densmore are among the more notable vade mecums for Newton’s proofs.) Gary Rubenstein, a math teacher, takes over an hour to explain a single one of Newton’s proofs in a series of videos (and he had to rely on Brackenridge to do so).

It is not that Newton’s ideas are inherently obscure—though mastering them is not easy—but that Newton’s presentation of his work is terse, dense, incomplete (from omitting steps), and at times cryptic. Part of this was a consequence of his personality: he was a reclusive man and was anxious to avoid public controversies. He says so much himself: In the introduction to Book III, Newton mentions that he had composed a popular version, but discarded it in order to “prevent the disputes” that would arise from a wide readership. Unsurprisingly, when you take material that is intrinsically complex and then render it opaque to the public, the result is not a book that anyone can casually pick up and understand.

The good news is that you do not have to. Newton himself did not advise readers, even mathematically skilled readers, to work their way through every problem. This would be enormously time-consuming. Indeed, Newton recommended his readers to peruse only the first few sections of Book I before moving on directly to Book III, leaving most of the book completely untouched. And this is not bad advice. As Ted said in his review, the average reader could gain much from this book by simply skipping the proofs and calculations, and stopping to read anything that looked interesting. And guides to the Principia are certainly not wanting. Besides the three mentioned above, there is the guide written by Newton scholar I. Bernard Cohen, published as a part of his translation. I initially tried to rely on this guide; but I found that, despite its interest, it is mainly geared towards historians of science; so I switched to Colin Pask’s Magnificent Principia, which does an excellent job in revealing the importance of Newton’s work to modern science.

So much for the book’s difficulty; on to the book itself.

Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Matematica is one of the most influential scientific works in history, rivaled only by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Quite simply, it set the groundwork for physics as we know it. The publication of the Principia, in 1687, completed the revolution in science that began with Copernicus’s publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium over one hundred years earlier. Copernicus deliberately modeled his work on Ptolemy’s Almagest, mirroring the structure and style of the Alexandrian Greek’s text. Yet it is Newton’s book that can most properly be compared to Ptolemy’s. For both the Englishman and the Greek used mathematical ingenuity to draw together the work of generations of illustrious predecessors into a single, grand, unified theory of the heavens.

The progression from Copernicus to Newton is a case study in the history of science. Copernicus realized that setting the earth in motion around the sun, rather than the reverse, would solve several puzzling features of the heavens—most conspicuously, why the orbits of the planets seem related to the sun’s movement. Yet Copernicus lacked the physics to explain how a movable earth was possible; in the Aristotelian physics that held sway, there was nothing to explain why people would not fly off of a rotating earth. Furthermore, Copernicus was held back by the mathematical prejudices of the day—namely, the belief in perfect circles.

Johannes Kepler made a great stride forward by replacing circles with ellipses; this led to the discovery of his three laws, whose strength finally made the Copernican system more efficient than its predecessor (which Copernicus’s own version was not). Yet Kepler was able to provide no account of the force that would lead to his elliptical orbits. He hypothesized a sort of magnetic force that would sweep the planets along from a rotating sun, but he could not show why such a force would cause such orbits. Galileo, meanwhile, set to work on the new physics. He showed that objects accelerate downward with a velocity proportional to the square of the distance; and he argued that different objects fall at different speeds due to air resistance, and that acceleration due to gravity would be the same for all objects in a vacuum. But Galileo had no thought of extending his new physics to the heavenly bodies.

By Newton’s day, the evidence against the old Ptolemaic system was overwhelming. Much of this was observational. Galileo observed craters and mountains on the moon; dark spots on the sun; the moons of Jupiter; and the phases of Venus. All of these data, in one way or another, contradicted the old Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. Tycho Brahe observed a new star in the sky (caused by a supernova) in 1572, which confuted the idea that the heavens were unchanging; and observations of Haley’s comet in 1682 confirmed that the comet was not somewhere in earth’s atmosphere, but in the supposedly unchanging heavens.

In short, the old system was becoming unsustainable; and yet, nobody could explain the mechanism of the new Copernican picture. The notion that the planets’ orbits were caused by an inverse-square law was suspected by many, including Edmond Haley, Christopher Wren, and Robert Hooke. But it took a mathematician of Newton’s caliber to prove it.

But before Newton published his Principia, another towering intellect put forward a new system of the world: René Descartes. Some thirty years before Newton’s masterpiece saw the light of day, Descartes published his Principia Philosophiæ. Here, Descartes summarized and systemized his skeptical philosophy. He also put forward a new mechanistic system of physics, in which the planets are borne along by cosmic vortexes that swirl around each other. Importantly, however, Descartes’s system was entirely qualitative; he provided no equations of motion.

Though Descartes’s hypothesis has no validity, it had a profound effect on Newton, as it provided him with a rival. The very title of Newton’s book seems to allude to Descartes’s: while the French philosopher provides principles, Newton provides mathematical principles—a crucial difference. Almost all of Newton’s Book II (on air resistance) can be seen as a detailed refutation of Descartes’s work; and Newton begins his famous General Scholium with the sentence: “The hypothesis of vortices is pressed with many difficulties.”

In order to secure his everlasting reputation, Newton had to do several things: First, to show that elliptical orbits, obeying Kepler’s law of equal areas in equal times, result from an inverse-square force. Next, to show that this force is proportional to the mass. Finally, to show that it is this very same force that causes terrestrial objects to fall to earth, obeying Galileo’s theorems. The result is Universal Gravity, a force that pervades the universe, causing the planets to rotate and apples to drop with the same mathematical certainty. This universal causation effectively completes the puzzle left by Copernicus: how the earth could rotate around the sun without everything flying off into space.

The Principia is in a league of its own because Newton does not simply do that, but so much more. The book is stuffed with brilliance; and it is exhausting even to list Newton’s accomplishments. Most obviously, there are Newton’s laws of motion, which are still taught to students all over the world. Newton provides the conceptual basis for the calculus; and though he does not explicitly use calculus in the book, a mathematically sophisticated reader could have surmised that Newton was using a new technique. Crucially, Newton derives Kepler’s three laws from his inverse-square law; and he proves that Kepler’s equation has no algebraic solution, and provides computational tools.

Considering the mass of the sun in comparison with the planets, Newton could have left his system as a series of two-body problems, with the sun determining the orbital motions of all the planets, and the planets determining the motions of their moons. This would have been reasonably accurate. But Newton realized that, if gravity is truly universal, all the planets must exert a force on one another; and this leads him to the invention of perturbation theory, which allows him, for example, to calculate the disturbance in Saturn’s orbit caused by proximity to Jupiter. While he is at it, Newton calculates the relative sizes and densities of the planets, as well as calculates where the center of gravity between the gas giants and the sun must lie. Newton also realized that gravitational effects of the sun and moon are what cause terrestrial tides, and calculated their relative effects (though, as Pask notes, Newton fudges some numbers).

Leaving little to posterity, Newton realized that the spinning of a planet would cause a distortion in its sphericity, making it marginally wider than it is tall. Newton then realized that this slight distortion would cause tidal locking in the case of the moon, which is why the same side of the moon always faces the earth. The slight deformity of the earth is also what causes the procession of the equinoxes (the very slow shift in the location of the equinoctial sunrises in relation to the zodiac). This shift was known at least since Ptolemy, who gave an estimate (too slow) of the rate of change, but was unable to provide any explanation for this phenomenon.

The evidence mustered against Descartes’s theory is formidable. Newton describes experiments in which he dropped pendulums in troughs of water, to test the effects of drag. He also performed experiments by dropping objects from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. What is more, Newton used mathematical arguments to show that objects rotating in a vortex obey a periodicity law that is proportional to the square of the distance, and not, as in Kepler’s Third Law, to the 3/2 power. Most convincing of all, Newton analyzes the motion of comets, showing that they would have to travel straight through several different vortices, in the direction contrary to the spinning fluid, in order to describe the orbits that we observe—a manifest absurdity. While he is on the subject of comets, Newton hypothesizes (correctly) that the tail of comets is caused by gas released in proximity to the sun; and he also hypothesizes (intriguingly) that this gas is what brings water to earth.

This is only the roughest of lists. Omitted, for example, are some of the mathematical advances Newton makes in the course of his argument. Even so, I think that the reader can appreciate the scope and depth of Newton’s accomplishment. As Pask notes, between the covers of a single book Newton presents work that, nowadays, would be spread out over hundreds of papers by thousands of authors. The result is a triumph of science. Newton not only solves the longstanding puzzle of the orbits of the planets, but shows how his theory unexpectedly accounts for a range of hitherto separate and inexplicable phenomena: the tides, the procession of the equinoxes, the orbit of the moon, the behavior of pendulums, the appearance of comets. In this Newton demonstrated what was to become the hallmark of modern science: to unify as many different phenomena as possible under a single explanatory scheme.

Besides setting the groundwork for dynamics, which would be developed and refined by Euler, d’Alembert, Lagrange, Laplace, and Hamilton in the coming generations, Newton also provides a model of science that remains inspiring to practitioners in any field. Newton himself attempts to enunciate his principles, in his famous Rules of Reasoning. Yet his emphasis on inductivism—generalizing from the data—does not do justice to the extraordinary amount of imagination required to frame suitable hypotheses. In any case, it is clear that Newton’s success was owed to the application of sophisticated mathematical models, carefully tested against collections of physical measurements, in order to unify the greatest possible number of phenomena. And this was to become a model for other intellectual disciples to aspire to, for good and for ill.

A striking consequence of this model is that its ultimate causal mechanism is a mathematical rule rather than a philosophical principle. The planets orbit the sun because of gravity, whose equations accurately predict their motions; but what gravity is, why it exists, and how it can affect distant objects, is left completely mysterious. This is the origin of Newton’s famous “I frame no hypothesis” comment, in which he explicitly restricts himself to the prediction of observable events rather than speculation on hidden causes (though he was not averse to speculation when the mood struck him). Depending on your point of view, this shift in emphasis either made science more rational or more superficial; but there is little doubt that it made science more effective.

Though this book is too often impenetrable, I still recommend that you give it a try. Few books are so exalting and so humbling. Here is on display the furthest reaches of the power of the human intellect to probe the universe we live in, and to find hidden regularities in the apparent chaos of experience.



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Historic Hudson Homes: Kykuit

Historic Hudson Homes: Kykuit
John D. Rockefeller Sr.

By common consent, the richest man in modern history was John D. Rockefeller. At his peak he was worth at least three times more than the world’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos—over $300 billion to Bezos’s $112 billion. In a world before income taxes or antitrust laws, it was possible to amass fortunes which (one hopes) would be impossible today. Strangely, however, this living embodiment of Mammon did not have extravagant tastes. To the contrary, for a man of such unlimited resources Rockefeller was known for his simple, even puritanical, ways. According to Ron Chernow, a recent biographer, Rockefeller had a habit of buying homes and keeping the original decoration, even if it was absurdly out of keeping with his own taste, just to avoid an unnecessary expense.

Thus when John decided to buy a property near his brother William’s estate (Rockwood), near the Hudson River, he simply stayed in the pre-existing houses. (William’s Rockwood mansion has since been torn down, but the property has been transformed into a wonderful park.) The spot Rockefeller chose occupies the highest point in the Pocantico Hills overlooking the Hudson; it is named Kykuit from the Dutch word kijkuit, which means “lookout.” Likely enough Rockefeller would have been satisfied indefinitely with a fairly modest dwelling, had not his loyal son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., decided to take charge of a manor house to be built for his father.

Junior and his wife, Abby Aldrich, set to work on an ambitious, architecturally eclectic design. They worried about every detail, as they knew how exacting and finicky the paterfamilias could be; the planning and construction took six painstaking years; the couple even took the precaution of sleeping in every room in the house, just to be sure that it was perfect. Nevertheless, John the father was unsatisfied; and he could not conceal his dissatisfaction. He was disturbed, for example, that the servants’ door was right underneath his bedroom window, so he could hear it clapping all day. Eventually (and doubtless to his son’s dismay) Rockefeller concluded that the house needed to be completely remodeled; and thus the current, Classical Revival form of the house came into being.

(An amateur landscape designer, Rockefeller was also dissatisfied with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, whom you may remember as the designer of Central Park. Senior decided to do the landscaping himself.)

As in Sunnyside, tours are given by the Historic Hudson Valley. But you cannot go directly to the Kykuit property. To visit, you must buy a ticket in the gift shop of Philipsburg Manor, another historic site (a 17th century farm) in Sleepy Hollow, right across from the Cemetery. After you sign up for a tour, you board a small bus, which transports you on the 10 minute ride to the property. A cheesy informational audio clip plays during the trip, giving some brief background information about the family and the property. This sets the scene for the tour guide. I have, incidentally, heard that the content of the tour can vary significantly depending on the guide’s interests.

As the bus rolls in, through the gates and beyond the walls—passing by a “play house” still used by the Rockefeller family (many of whom still live somewhere on the massive estate)—one gets a sense of the private, exclusive, and isolated world inhabited by the world’s richest man. Widely known and, for a time, almost universally hated, Rockefeller needed to create his own refuge. My favorite detail was the tunnel underneath the mansion that was used to make deliveries without disturbing Rockefeller’s rest.Kykuit_facade

The bus deposited us in front of the house, near an impressive Oceanus fountain, copied from a fountain in Florence. Ivy crawls up the stone facade, all the way up to the neoclassical tympanum. An eagle crowns the top, displaying the family crest. From there the guide led us up onto the porch, where two strikingly modern statues stand flanking the doorway. This is a constant feature in Kykuit: the juxtaposition between classic and contemporary tastes. John D. Rockefeller himself had very little taste in art, conservative or otherwise; his son, Junior, was enamored of the past—Greek, Medieval, even classical Chinese. Meanwhile, Junior’s wife, Abby, and his son, Nelson, were important patrons of modern art. Thus the house is an, at times, uneasy incorporation of these divergent tastes.kykuit_side

As a case in point, there are beautiful examples of Chinese porcelain on display throughout the house, protected by plexiglass cases. (The guide explained the glass was installed to protect them from playing children.) In a room used by Nelson Rockefeller there is also the vice-presidential flag, commemorating his term under Gerald Ford. Nelson wanted to be president himself, and he had the experience to do it—he was the governor of New york from 1959-72—but according to Ron Chernow, his divorce made him an unpalatable candidate. (How times have changed!) There were also portraits of the Rockefellers, and a phenomenal bust of the bald, decrepit, and yet mesmerizing John D. Rockefeller Senior—whom I was excited to meet, since I had just read a book about him.

After this, our guide led us into the gardens. The most notable feature of these are the modernist statues scattered about—gruesome metal bodies amid neat hedgerows. Unsurprising for such a commanding spot, the view is excellent. On a tolerably clear day you can see all the way to Manhattan from the back porch. I imagined lounging on an easy chair, sipping some very posh drink—for some reason a mint julep comes to mind—and contemplating the Hudson. But of course the Rockefellers were Baptist stock, and teetotallers all, so the drink is pure fantasy. Beyond view (and beyond the scope of the tour) was the reversible nine-hole golf course that Rockefeller used with Baptist scrupulousness; after God and Mammon, golf was his top priority. Likely Rockefeller Senior would have been shocked and appalled by the massive modernist statue (resembling an alien squid) that was airdropped by helicopter into place on the property during his grandson’s tenure.

Then we made our way inside to visit the art gallery in the basement. This includes original works by many modern artist, the most famous being Andy Warhol; but the best works on display are undoubtedly the Picasso tapestries. These were commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, to be made by Madame de la Baume Dürrbach, for the purpose of making his works easier to display. The biggest of these tapestries was a copy of Guernica, now on display at the United Nations building. Of the ones in this private gallery, my favorite is of Picasso’s Three Musicians (the original hangs in the MoMA). Even when I toured Kykuit as a child, tired, hungry, and very bored with all this old-people nonsense, I was impressed that a person could have Picassos in his basement; and my opinion has not changed.

To speed through the tour somewhat, we eventually boarded the bus again to go back to Philipsburg Manor. However, we did stop at the stables on the way back, which was filled with antique horse carriages and old luxury automobiles. In addition to being an avid golfer, you see, Rockefeller Senior also loved to go riding in his carriage and, in later life, to take fast drives in his fancy cars. (A strange detail from the biography is that, in later life, the upright and conservative Rockefeller would grope women during these rides. He was a man of many contradictions.)

This fairly well sums up my visit to Kykuit. It is an impressive place—six floors, forty rooms, and twenty bedrooms. Even so, considering Rockefeller’s vast fortune, and considering the kinds of monstrous mansions that other rich families—most notoriously the Vanderbilts—built for themselves, it is a restrained edifice. One can see the old Baptist tastes coming through, even amid all this wealth and splendor. Even so, I cannot imagine living in such a private world, so far removed from pesky neighbors and city noise. But the Rockefellers apparently had no trouble house; Nelson Rockefeller lived in it up until his death in 1979, when it was donated for use as a museum.

Before ending this post, I should also mention two nearby Rockefeller monuments.

The first is the Union Church. This is one of two non-denominational churches (the other being Riverside Church in Manhattan) commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It is an attractive and modest building, made of cut stone with a steeply slanting roof. Though the church does have an active congregation, most of the time its main use is as a tourist attraction, also administered by Historic Hudson Valley. The church is notable for its stained glass. The rose window was designed by the modernist pioneer Henri Matisse; according to the guide (I was the only one on the “tour”), it was the last work the artist ever completed. It is a simple, abstract pattern, yet subtly interesting to look at. More memorable, however, is the series of stained-glass windows completed by Marc Chagall, using Biblical scenes to commemorate deceased members of the Rockefeller family. Though I am normally not greatly fond of Chagall’s work, I must say that the strong, simple colors of Chagall’s windows created a pleasant atmosphere—if not exactly profoundly religious.

Stone Barns

The second is Stone Barns, a center for sustainable agriculture established by David Rockefeller (Junior’s youngest son). (Sharing the Rockefeller talent for long life, David passed away just last year, at the age of 101.) The center lies on the edge of the Rockefeller State Park, alongside Bedford Road, surrounded on all sides by rolling farmland; in fact, the park’s paths extend into the property, making it a lovely place to stroll about. The buildings of the complex are completed in a style reminiscent of Union Church, as well as of the Cloisters museum in Manhattan: deep-grey cut stone. The farm is dedicated to growing high-quality produce and livestock without using anything “artificial.” Some of its products are served in the famous Blue Hill restaurant on the property—a place so absurdly fancy and expensive that, judging by the way things are going, I doubt I will ever get an opportunity to try. The menu, which costs $258 per person, consists of many different courses of artisanal dishes using esoteric ingredients. I have bought cheaper transatlantic plane tickets.

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: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Civilisation:  A Personal ViewCivilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room

I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.

Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.

Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.

The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.

Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.

This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.

A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.

These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.

Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.

I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Alistair Cooke's AmericaAlistair Cooke’s America by Alistair Cooke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. It says: ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’

(As in my reviews of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, this review focuses on the documentary, not the tie-in book.)

This documentary is a window into another time, when the public intellectual was a far more respected institution. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a popular program that contained long stretches of a man simply talking into a camera; nor it is easy to think of a contemporary program so fully dominated by the personality of one person. As the subtitle of this program indicates, this is “A Personal View,” not an attempt at impartiality or objectivity. Cooke is giving us America as he sees it, through the eyes of a highly-educated, well-traveled English immigrant.

The 13 episodes of the series follow a chronological scheme, beginning with the French and Spanish colonists and ending with the (then) present day. The exception to this is the first episode, the best in the series, in which Cooke tells his own story—coming to America as a young man during the Great Depression, and taking a road trip out west. As for the other episodes, there are few surprises in Cooke’s choice of subject: the English dissenters, the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, and so on, all the way up to the Cold War. We see Ellis Island and the Oregon Trail, New England foliage and the Hoover Dam, Hippie communes and Black Baptist churches—a panorama of American scenes.

In many ways this series falls short of the other two major BBC documentaries of the time, Clarke’s Civilisation and Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Cooke’s America has none of the gorgeous cinematography of the former nor the innovative editing of the latter. Indeed, the shooting style of the documentary is remarkably basic—which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case it imbued sections of the documentary with a soporific effect. Another difference in quality was due to the level of insight that the programs offer. Cooke, though no chump when it comes to American history, seems an amateur when his expertise is compared to Clarke’s grasp of art and Bronowski’s understanding of science. I was consistently interested, but I cannot say I came away from the program with any deep sense of insight into my vast homeland.

All this being said, there are some delightful sections in the program. Cooke has a great knack for finding fascinating props. He holds up a vial containing tea preserved from the Boston Tea Party, or he holds the manuscript of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the Morgan Library, or he itemizes the typical equipment and supplies taken by families on the Oregon Trail. And if the information he presents is not exactly striking, his easy eloquence and gentle wit give his facts a pleasing ring. Cooke’s voice—with his faultless Transatlantic accent—was made for broadcasting, and transmits a sense of confident sophistication that is entirely rare today. Most valuable for us is Cooke’s convincing sense of being above partisan politics—an intelligent observer unbound by any tribe. Again, could any similar program exist today?

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