Monday, July 11, 2016

Description of the World - Part 66

Top Shelf

Lord Macaulay, The History of England (Despite the title, this history focuses on the Revolution of 1688 and has little to say about the rest of English history except as prologue or consequence of that “Glorious” event. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote the introduction to this abridged edition, sees the work as an answer to Hume, whose own version of the Revolution was the received Tory view. T-R portrays Macaulay as simultaneously hostile to theory and completely dogmatic. That sounds right to me. Macaulay’s Whiggish narrative of progress is political, not scientific; but his assurance that what he says is transparently right is highly reminiscent of the attitude of the New Atheists, who also think they are simply reporting the facts. Hume, who was a philosopher but not a dogmatist, was more empirical as a historian, which is why he didn’t focus so much on political facts and was accordingly sensitive to the emotional atmosphere of various eras. 

Alev Lytle Croutier, Harem: The World Behind the Veil (Of all the books I’ve bought and pretty much forgot I owned, this must be the most unlikely. Although it is a serious account of the custom, the subject is both exotic and erotic and the book is magnificently illustrated. Nevertheless, I don’t seem to have read it. Opening it at random, I came upon one description of one bathing sultana: “She had an indescribably fine complexion! Like fresh feta cheese….”)
K.N. Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe (I found my summary of this work on the title page: “some interesting information suspended in a jello of useless theorizing.” I think what especially irritated or amused me (the two things are always hard to distinguish in my case) was Chaudhuri’s rather weird invocation of set theory as “a powerful logical instrument for identifying unities and discontinuities.” I read that and then searched in vain for the payoff. It’s not that you can’t think about such things in terms of sets. You can think of absolutely everything in terms of sets. I have plenty of tolerance for theory, but if you’re going to theorize, theorize. Don’t just throw in a “deconstruction” or two. Claim something.)

Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (I was a little surprised when I realized that this book came out over 30 years ago, not that I actually thought of it as newer. It would fit just as well in the 70s or 90s or the aughts or last Wednesday since the conflicts in America between individualism and social responsibility and “the monoculture of technical and bureaucratic rationality and the specificity of our concrete commitments” are enduring tensions and certainly enduring themes, especially among mainstream sociologists. The moralizing tradition of what Bullah calls “social sciences as public philosophy” goes back to Talcott Parsons in this country and to figures like Durkheim in France. I don’t mean to denigrate this preoccupation. A critique of the limits of individualism, both as an explanation of what happens in society and as a basis for ethics and politics is absolutely needed. I just wish it weren’t so infernally boring.) 

Harvey J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society (Graff uses quantitative methods to try to figure out not only how literacy advanced across world history but what literacy (or literacies) amounted to in practice. “Measuring the distribution of literacy in a population may in fact reveal relatively little about the uses in which such skills can be put.” For example, religions often promote literacy so that people can read the scriptures, but that doesn’t mean they want lay people to be able to read critically, and it certainly doesn’t mean they want them to read the wrong kinds of book. Almost all Americans can read, at least at a basic level, but few read more than a single book a year; and, as I’ve been complaining about for decades, college educated people seldom read serious nonfiction books at all. Graff calls the notion that literacy per se changes everything the literacy myth—he wrote a book with that title.)

F.J. Monkhouse, A Regional Geography of Western Europe (Despite the title, this work actually covers only France and the Low Countries as per 1967 or so. Readers of European political, military, and economic history will understand how a book like this can be an absorbing read. I enjoyed it for the same reason I watch the Tour de France. It puts a face on all the names. The setting goes a long way towards explaining the play.)

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