Sunday, May 29, 2016

Description of the World - Part 65

John Man, Atlas of the Year 1000 (Things weren’t going swimmingly in Western Europe at the turn of the millennium, but other regions of the Earth were enjoying golden times, the Southern Song especially. The episode that captured my interest in this era, however, was the career of Mahmud of Ghazni who vandalized a good chunk of India in the name of Islam and the pursuit (no fooling) of an immense golden lingam. I know perfectly well that Mahmud was not a typical character, that Muslim invaders didn’t all go in for systematically destroying temples and monuments; but monotheistic religion is a permanent excuse for a certain kind of barbarism and Islam, whose crude purity is so appealing to ferocious young men, has licensed spasms of destruction right up to the demolition of Palmyra. That said, it’s an irony of Mahmud’s career that one of the luminaries of his court was Al-Buruni whose book on the Hindus, called the Indica in the West, is a model for the sympathetic understanding of one culture by another. As Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”)

James D. Robertson, The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer (When the paperback was updated in 1984, there still wasn’t a lot to say about American beer. The revitalization of the Anchor Steam Company went back go the 60s, but Sierra Nevada was only founded in 1980. In those days you were a snob if you ordered Michelob. A good part of the point of this bibliographic exercise is to mark the passage of time—what else are us old men good for, after all—and at least in this one dimension there really has been progress. These days the beer aisle at the local Safeway makes me regret I have but one liver to give for my country. (The organ hasn’t sunk yet, despite the many torpedoes I’ve fired at it.))

Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (I don’t necessarily believe that once you’ve bewailed the loss of metaphysiche Gesamtwissenschaft, the next thing you know you’re invading Poland. Nevertheless, if cultural conservatism isn’t responsible for the disaster, the profs didn’t do very much to prevent it. Ringer’s book is a sociology of knowledge study analogous to Pierre Bourdieu’s works on the French intellectual scene (Homo Academicus, etc.), but when I first read it (badly, no doubt), it mostly awakened the personal conflicts I’ve got about a tradition I both respect and distrust. I couldn’t get into the empirical part of it very well because I was looking for a homily. Or maybe, as an amateur player of the glass bead game myself, there was an element in self-flagellation in reading about the despair and protest of these men, this collection of characters who were, for all their accomplishments—and what the world owes German scholarship is seldom adequately recognized to this day—were also a prize collection of stuffed shirts who turned out to be criminally naive about the world. I note in passing that a dear friend of mine inherited Ringer's job at Indiana University. There are always connections.)
Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, 3rd edition (As much as I like wine, I think I got this book because I like maps even more. I’m a sucker for landscapes with texture, the kind of places where great wines grow—featureless plains, plonk. Even when I was a kid, I associated quality with an intricate setting and not just when it came to wine. It struck me that so much of civilization originated in Greece because of its nooks and crannies. What matters is not the average but the deviations. Even a bug collector can share my taste for fine-grained heterogeneity. California is something of a paradise for entomologists because its innumerable microclimates make it home to an enormous range of endemic species.)