Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Description of the World - Part 17

Studs Terkel, Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession (I’ve read other Studs Terkel books and admire his approach, but I never managed to get into this one. It could be that a book like this one, which was written or compiled a quarter of a century ago, would be especially illuminating just now .)

Lucien Febvre, A New Kind of History (This is a collection of essays. The brief piece on frontiers has stuck with me: Though Febvre didn’t use the metaphor, it got me thinking of the borders of nations as rather similar to the cell membrane, a complex, dynamic systems that are anything but a geometrical surface without depth. The essay has the same shape as some of Febvre’s longer works such as the Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century, which also begin with philological detail and end with deep general insights. The title essay, a New Kind of History, is probably read more often now. Near the beginning Febvre writes “…ours is a civilization of historians.” That was probably a more defensible statement in 1949 than it is today. How about “ours is a civilization of amnesiacs?”)

Marc Bloch, Land and Work in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers (Febvre’s essay on history was largely an appreciation of Bloch. I note that many of the pieces collected in this volume are about the psychology of technical innovation in the Middle Ages. One idea that stands out to me: “As anyone who knows our countryside has observed on many occasions, it is chiefly the grandparents who more often than not see to the upbringing of children in peasant families. Their work in the fields, among the poultry and the cowsheds means that neither the father nor the mother has enough leisure to supervise them properly That is one of the causes, I believe, for the remarkable persistence of tradition in such communities.” It is commonly asserted that evolution selected for longevity in human beings because people improve the fitness of their descendants even after they are past the age of reproduction, in part by serving as a living memory. Whether ensuring the transmission of old cultural—or agricultural—forms is a plus or a minus depends upon the circumstances.)

Preserved Smith, Origins of Modern Culture: 1543-1687 (I read this book when I was in high school. It’s basically a textbook surveying every field of intellectual endeavor in the period in question. It’s very well written, and you have to credit anybody whose first name is Preserved; but you have to be a pedant in training to want to read such things. The upside of such efforts is the cozy sense of familiarity it creates. I’ve felt at home in the 16th Century for most of my life.)

John Peeble, The Lion of the North: One Thousand Years of Scotland’s History (Corking history. “…the brightly coloured knights were gaffed like salmon by the Scottish spears…”)

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