Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Description of the World - Part 4

Top Shelf

John V.A. Fine, The Ancient Greeks (I learned Greek history from Bury. I just read this book to see how the old story had been updated. Dull read.)

Passell and Ross, The Best (Like most books that were ever published, a throwaway, though it might be interesting to see what look so wonderful in 1974 when the question was what’s the best Baskin-Robbins flavor and not what’s the best Ben and Jerry’s—Mandarin chocolate, if you’re curious. I can just barely remember what that tasted like. The author’s choice for best pizza, the Spot in New Haven, seems quite right to me. The Internet informs me that the place still exists.)

Jacquetta Hawkes, The First Great Civilizations: Life in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Egypt (The first volume in a series. I keep reading books about ancient societies even though I’m on record as opposing the notion that the origins of things are especially important. I guess I haven’t convinced myself yet.)

A.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (I used to think that a teacher should make it a goal that students should learn at least one thing from every hour in class. That seems like a pretty modest standard, but I wonder how many profs meet the test? Anyhow, the thing I learned from Olmstead, at least the thing I remember from him, was the idea that the Persian empire’s tax policies, though not extremely onerous, had the effect of creating deflation throughout their empire by sequestering gold in the imperial palaces. The Macedonian conquest had a hugely stimulative effect by flooding the Hellenistic world with species and led to a region-wide boom. Keynesianism with spears.)

Werner Jaeger, Paideia, three volumes (Jaeger is one of those Germans who never got over the Goethezeit, hence his interpretation of Greek civilization as a set of attempts at personal cultivation. That’s not a criticism, exactly, though it is pretty one-sided. Everything becomes a Bildungsroman, including your own life. I read the first two volumes of Paideia in the late 60s. The third volume turned up at Green Apple a couple of years ago and I finally read that. The inspiration seems to have gone out or maybe it’s just that writing about Isocrates isn’t as inspiring as writing about Socrates. I’m reminded of another third volume that’s not as exciting as the first two: the sequel to Alexander Alekine’s My Best Games of Chess.)

Ed Robert Strassler, The Landmark Herodotus (I’ve read four or five translations of Herodotus and some bits and pieces of his histories in Greek. It isn’t that the new translations improve on the older or even that one or another stands out for its own literary qualities. I just like the excuse to reread Herodotus. As a ten or eleven year old I sent away for my first copy of Herodotus because I thought a book about the Persian Wars would exciting. The material about the sexual customs of the Babylonians proved to be even more so and almost (but not quite) as educational as the photograph of the Australian aborigine lady in the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Landmark Herodotus features a great many maps, which would actually be more of a help to folks who aren’t as familiar with the geography than they were to me.)

L.B. Bury, A History of Greece (My first Herodotus was a Modern Library editions. So was this copy of Bury. The first edition of Bury was published in 115 years ago, at a time when it was still perfectly possible for an Englishman of the high empire to think of himself as the heir of the Greeks. As a kid, I certainly bought into notion that as an American I somehow had a genealogical affiliation with people from the southern Balkans who lived 2500 years ago. At least Bury was in the same hemisphere.)

Nicolas Gremal, A History of Ancient Egypt (I like to read scholarly books even when they aren’t particularly pathbreaking, deep, or well written. In fact, dull but authoritative works are useful if you just want information and can supply your own motivation. You aren’t distracted by the talent or personality of the author.)

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