Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Description of the World - Part 10


Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (Too bad nobody has written an equally convincing account of what happened in the 27 years 1988-2015. It would take somebody with astonishing powers of synthesis to make sense out of the collapse of Communism, the triumph of neoliberalism, the decline of democracy, the rise of China, the new Thirty Years War in the Middle East, the electronic integration of the planet, and the arrival of global warming in 300 pages or so. Not that Hobsbawm’s task was that much easier.


Donald Leach, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume 1 The Century of Discovery (One of the pleasures of this exercise in impressionistic bibliography is recalling how much I enjoyed reading all these books. I’m not much of traveler; but in one respect, at least, I’m a born tourist, the original sessile nomad. Particular books connect with episodes in my private life, too. I met Charles Boxer at Yale, where he was famous for leading undergraduates in choruses of dirty songs at drunken parties. Boxer, who started out as a professional soldier, became well known later on in his life as a historian of the Indian Ocean and the Portuguese empire—he was better or at least luckier at history than soldiering. As second in command at Hong Kong in 1941, he lost an arm defending the Gin Drinker’s line and spent the war in a Japanese prison camp. One of the themes of the Leach book is how the Portuguese lucked into an incredibly good thing and quickly learned that a small country can easily have too much good fortune.)

Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (I wrote a brief review of this book in Indoor Ornithology, praising it for recognizing that there are monsters of the ego as well as monsters of the id, a comment Barton apparently endorsed. Glancing through the book, I noticed that I underlined a quotations from one of Flaubert’s letters. “Because I wanted to understand everything, everything is a mystery” and commented in the margin “This from the author of Bouvard et P├ęcuchet.” That “Know Thyself” isn’t a cure all is something both Flaubert and I should keep in mind.)

Jacques LeGoff, Medieval Civilization (The plan of the Monastery of St Gall reproduced in this volume should suffice to convey the complexity of medieval societies. I didn’t get the message from this book, though. I originally got that from my aunt’s travel book with its many photos of the walled city of Carcassonne, and I’ve been to Chartres. The Medievals didn’t inhabit ruins—it was once all new—and the invisible cathedrals of their ideas were as elaborate as the marble ones that still stand.) 

Blood, Sweat, and Tears: the Speeches of Winston Churchill
, ed. David Cannadine (I understand that Churchill wrote out his speeches in lines one breath long so they looked like verse. The approach works best for perorations delivered at times of crisis and those are what we remember best since they were designed to be memorable. I don’t think Churchill was as good at making an argument as, for example, Lincoln. Most speakers tell people what they think they want to hear, the honest ones more or less accurately report their own thoughts, but Lincoln’s extended speeches come across as thinking out loud. I don’t get that from Churchill.)


Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich (I can’t remember a thing about this book. It must have seemed virtuous to acquire it, and I’m certainly interested in the general topic of the great divergence; but I apparently forget I owned it.)

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (To judge by the marginal notes, I read this book carefully; and leafing through it, I begin to recall why I took it seriously. Since I read it, though, my regard for Wallerstein has been influence by reading his later writings, which tend to endlessly repeat the same themes—core/periphery, bosses, henchmen, subjects—in a rather lifeless way. Eventually you end up writing textbook accounts of your own ideas, assuming you can remember what they were. That shouldn’t ruin your reputation. That would be like thinking that a love affair was a failure because it didn’t last. Many great marriages end in divorce just as many great love affairs end in marriage.

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