Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Description of the World - Part 9

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (There’s a 500 dong bill wedged at the beginning of Chapter 7, Who’s Who or the Uncertainties of the Bourgeoisie. I have absolutely no clue how a piece of Vietnamese money found its way into this history of the end of the long 19th Century. I do note that this item is just about the only thing obviously communist in this book written by a historian who is probably most famous for dying an unrepentant Red. The usual moral drawn from the objectivity and obvious quality of Hobsbawm’s historical work is something about the virtues of professionalism. I sometimes wonder, however, if the true, but unthinkable explanation, is that opting for Marxist/Leninism wasn’t that crazy a choice. There is no need to come up with pop psychological theories about how the wrong-headed Hobsbawm could somehow also be a profound historian. He wasn’t an Adolf Wölfli, the dangerous paranoid schizophrenic who was also a world-class painter. I was never been a fan of the Soviet Union or an apologist for its activities, but this business of declaring or even implying that certain attitudes and ideas are unthinkable is unphilosophical. If there are thought crimes in the world, one has an obligation to commit them.)

Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland (I admired Iceland even before they told the bankers to go piss up a rope. The place had me at Njal’s Saga. This is a dull book about a fascinating society. It’s chock full of detail, however, and I can supply the motivation. Note: whatever the newspaper writers bleat, the devil is not in the details. God is in the details.)

Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (People occasionally say that you can get anything out of scripture. You don’t have to rely on the cliche, though. Books like this supply the evidence. More generally, the English Civil War provides a lot of evidence that universal literacy and a free press have a significant downside.)

A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, ed. J.R.Hale (I don’t buy reference books to consult ‘em. I actually read them. I’ve met quite a few people who do the same, though some of ‘em are embarrassed about doing do.)

Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians and Romans (Simultaneously scholarly and gossipy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always had fantasies about Galla Placidia—so you’ve married the Gothic king and now you’re upstairs and Athaulf doffs his scarlet cloak and says “Well, here we are…”)

Alfred Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth (I think I found this book on a remainder table or maybe I bought it from a garage sale. Tried to read it once or twice but found its pedagogic tone irritating and quit a hundred pages in. I guess the Modern Library folks thought it was a classic, a choice that reminds me of the time that the Nobel Prize was awarded to a guy who had invented a mining lantern. I did just learn, however, that Zimmern, who was a supporter of the British Labor party introduced the expression welfare state.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Ancien Regime (The aristocrats, bishops, and lawyers of this era didn’t think they were living in a fossilized kingdom. By their own lights, they were thoroughly modern.)

Edwin Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America (I always seem to glimpse Latin America, at least South America, out of the corner of my eye so I read this perfectly adequate if somewhat pedestrian history. I don’t know if it was the subject matter or the fact that I read the book while I was taking care of my desperately ill sister, but I still can’t keep the wars and dictators straight. Like the Chinese dinner of the cliche, half an hour after you consume a book like this, you’re hungry again.)

The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective ed. Arjun Appadurai (I got this collection of papers out of a brief interest in the Medieval trade in relics, though there’s only one essay on this topic in the book. I also probably liked the title, which reminded me of a book by Norman, which was originally called the Psychology of Everyday Things.

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