Nov 22 2008

Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader

This book was an extraordinary combination of history, prehistory, geography, geology, and anthropology that greatly illuminated my understanding of this vast continent and its people. But precisely why Africa has failed to develop in pace with the rest of the world is left a mystery.

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Nov 14 2008

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

When I took Shakespeare in college the professor dismissed this play as silly, but he can’t have been reading the same play. The love story is touching, not just the romantic courtship between the gentlemen and the ladies, but also the friendship between the two gentlemen, and the play is only saved from being a tragedy at the very last minute. There is also a barely averted forcible rape–“I’ll woo thee like a soldier!”–that is rather shocking in an Elizabethan romance. This play is one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies.

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Nov 12 2008

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

This is a wonderful work of imagination on Wells’ part, but it is interesting to me for two reasons that are tangential to the story. The first is that it was written before the close of the nineteenth century, when Britain was thought of as the most powerful nation on earth, so it made sense at the time that the Martians would first attack Britain rather than the United States or Russia or China. The second is the long monologue made by a soldier that seems to profess that it may actually be good for humanity to endure such a cataclysm as an invasion of Martians, as it will toughen the human race and eliminate all the weaklings. This is consistent with the social Darwinist thinking that was prevalent in Wells’ time and is still prevalent with a certain crowd. The story itself is interesting enough, yet for all of Wells’ imagination and scientific speculation he cannot escape the rather provincial sensibilities of a Victorian English gentleman. But this is a book worth reading.

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Sep 21 2008

Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Florence Dupont

The author is obviously enamored of the ancient Romans, and I suspect that she projects her own preferences and prejudices onto them. But this is a fascinating book that takes a look at what kind of people the Romans were, apart from the endless wars of conquest and political intrigues that historians typically dwell. Dupont makes them out to be virtuous to an extent that strains the reader’s credulity, but she also accurately describes them as a people whose lives were lived in public and who had very little sense of the solitary or introspective life. As with most classical historians, she tends to focus mostly on the habits of the upper classes; it would be refreshing to get a glimpse into the lives of the common people of Rome, who are mostly neglected by historians. I am probably more Greek than Roman in my attitudes and preferences, but the Romans have never failed to fascinate me, and this book adds much to my knowledge and appreciation of them.

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Sep 17 2008

In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells

Wells was not a religious man, yet somehow this strikes me as a deeply religious book. He seems to have had a profound conviction that the world we live in is a fallen world that has gone horribly wrong, and he seems to have been equally certain that nothing short of a deus ex machina like a comet from outer space could ever set things right again. From a world of injustice, oppression, inequality, pettiness, and cruelty emerges a new utopia of peace and brotherhood and love. Yet the part of the book that describes this utopia is rather dull and anticlimactic; far more engaging is the earlier account of the narrator as an angry young man with a vendetta against society and a chip on his shoulder against fate. I identified with this bitter young man and his sense of outrage against Things As They Are; I was rooting for him to exact his vengeance when the vapors of the comet suddenly brought peace to the world. Not a great story, but a potent expression of Wells’ vision.

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Sep 06 2008

Caesar: Politician and Statesman by Matthias Gelzer

An excellent study of the crisis of the late Roman Republic, the Gallic and Civil Wars, and Julius Caesar’s personal genius. To put it as mildly as possible, Caesar was a man of remarkable ability, not the least of which was his extraordinary knack for never missing an opportunity, and he was born at the just the right time to take advantage of the festering political situation at Rome. Monarchy hardly seems to most of us like an improvement of the political system, but I would argue that the Empire was better off for the first two hundred years under the rule of the Caesars than it ever had been under the Republic. Caesar may have destroyed the Republic, but he undoubtedly gave the Empire a new lease on life. Modern Europe, which is the heir of the Roman Empire, can thank him for this.

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Aug 17 2008

A History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola

A good source of information, if not an exciting narrative, on the largest country in Africa. The story is typically African: colonial exploitation is followed by a brief and heady period of independence, which is followed by a long period of political corruption, ethnic violence, and economic decline. I personally remain as mystified by Africa’s continual failure to thrive as I am by the unparallelled success of the United States. Is Africa under some kind of curse? Nigeria has all of the resources necessary to make it a successful nation, except competent political leadership. I try to remain optimistic, but sub-Saharan Africa has had fifty years of independence in which to get its act together, and its record has not been impressive. Here’s hoping that Nigeria will soon break free of the evil spell it has been under.

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Jun 17 2008

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Freud doesn’t get a lot of respect these days, but I found this book for the most part lucid and rational, if not exactly scientific. Part of Freud’s thesis borrows from Rousseau in arguing that civilization represents a compromise with the individual for the sake of preserving security, but for Freud this is problematic, because he sees civilized society as repressing the natural instincts of man and thereby causing unhappiness and neurosis. For Freud the conscience, or the “super-ego,” is merely the internalization of society’s condemnation of man’s natural but at times antisocial desires, and as such it is a source of constant anxiety, as these desires are for the most part impossible to eliminate. Freud does not seem to have made his mind up whether civilization is a good thing or a bad thing, but as a psychoanalyst he sees a clear and unfortunate conflict between civilization and the individual pyche. An interesting discussion, if a bit ponderous.

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Apr 21 2008

The History of Germany Since 1789 by Golo Mann

This was a beautifully written book that covered Germany from its earliest nationalist stirrings following the French Revolution to the postwar partioned Germany up through 1965. There were colorful portraits of German statesmen such as Bismarck, William II, Adenauer, and yes, the most famous one of all. The chapter devoted to the Nazi episode was thorough and spared no one, but the author goes to great pains to argue that the German people at that time were not as evil as the people who led them. The book concludes on the note that Germans have regained their prosperity and their prominent place in the world without being the threat to anyone that they were in former times. The author, by the way, is the son of the famous German literary figure Thomas Mann.

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Apr 09 2008

Napoleon Bonaparte by Alan Schom

This is a well written and well researched book, but it is the most anti-Napoleon book I have ever read. The author gives the devil his due, acknowledging Napoleon’s outstanding abilities as a battlefield commander, but other than that, he has nothing nice to say about the great man. And he takes the peculiar position that the traditional monarchies and aristocracies of Europe were actually honorable and benevolent, a most unusual position for an American historian. There is plenty of Napoleonic dirt to dig up, and Schom dishes it with a little too much obvious relish, but after reading this book one can only conclude that the Corsican was mostly a force for evil rather than good. Still, Napoleon was the outstanding personality in nineteenth century European history, and I think he deserves a little more respect from his biographer.

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