More Good Books. . .
Trevelyan, George M. England in the Age of Wycliffe, 1368-1520. AMS Press, 1978.
This book and Tuchman's, two excellent books on the same period, are as different as two books can be. Tuchman writes the story of the nobility, their alarums and delusions, in a folksy style and a narrative framework. Trevelyan writes in an academic style, and much of his work revolves around bourgeois and even peasant culture. Tuchman, for all of her down-home style, prefers the objectivity of the academic historian. Trevelyan is unabashedly on the side of the good guys, and is not ashamed to talk about the battles "we" won it the Hundred-Years War. He is far from being a post-modernist, however. He is far from doubting the objectivity of truth; he is absolute in the knowledge that the truth coincides with his opinions, though he never loses the humility of the true scholar.
Trevelyan, unlike Huizinga, manages to find a lot that's good in Froissart, even in his style. He also knows how to make useful comparisons with contemporary events.
Men who saw the year of mutiny in India declare that, as fast as the news of the outbreak at Meerut flashed along the great trunk road, thousands swarmed out against their neighbours, not to overturn the British rule, but to plunder and amass wealth during the abeyance of authority. So it was in England in 1381.
Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. HarperCollins, 1994.
Yet a third approach to Medieval history, one based on broad overviews of social movements and on the history of ideas. In The Beginning, "archaeology offers change in economic forms as the explanation of the rise of a narrow elite", with the new forms as the substrate for all later European history. Cantor does warn us, however, that "archaeologists... are bound to attribute social change to alterations in the means of production because their evidence only discloses such alterations".
The Middle Ages themselves are similarly treated, with the main themes being the political and metapolitical conflicts between Church and State and the triangular battle among the Aristoteleanism, 'stultifying' literalism, and mysticism/pietism within religion itself. The development from the collapse of Roman society to the different land-based society of the Middle Ages to the beginnings of bourgeois society are also treated at length.
The final fable on the significance of the Medieval tradition in our life is probably even more true now than it was in 1992. Postdoc, don't you sometimes feel like you're reliving Huizinga?
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials.
The essays by this famous critic are honest, clearheaded, and well written, but I'm not sure how often he hits the nail on the head. Nabokov's puns are entertaining in context; Gogol is indeed both a satirist and a realist.
Wilson seems to have completely missed the point with Kafka: the critic can't understand the terrible in the ordinary.
Wilson's technique often involves bringing an analysis of the author's life into an analysis of his works. He is at his most entertaining discussing such minor genres as murder mysteries, horror stories and, yes, etiquette books, but he is probably at his most useful when he casts light on the opinion opposing his own.
Burnshaw, Stanley, ed. The Poem Itself. University of Arkansas, 1995.
The purposes of criticism are to help the artwork produce its effect and to help the beholder evaluate the artwork. By both criteria this book is a success, especially the opening essay by Stanley Burnshaw. He gives simple explanations of what is new in modern poetry in terms of three revolutions: of syntax, of prosody, and of public comprehensibility. The essays on the individual poems, bound almost letter by letter to the poems themselves in the spirit of European criticism, also help.
This collection makes it easy to compare Baudelaire to his successors, both before and after him in time. We all knew that the twentieth century began in 1857; after this book, we also know that it ended in 1857.
The anthology also includes near-literal translations, as well as the French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese originals.
Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance.
As is to be expected from a historian of Roth's caliber, this is not just a book for Jews. The coverage of the Jewish/Islamic contributions to both the Aristotelian and the Neo-Platonic Renaissances is more detailed than that which is found in more general books. The observation that Emmanuel of Rome originated the conversational framework for an anthology, so famous from Boccaccio & Co., is important and surprising.
Roth's general observations as a historian of culture are also worth reading.
"In the fifteenth century... new standards of... aesthetic appreciation became general."
"[The Divina commedia] is not merely a vision of Heaven and Hell. It is a complete conspectus of the Universe - the world and the After-World - exactly delineated in accordance with a most elaborate plan..."
A curiosity: Roth wrote at length about the specific history of women long before it became the path to a cheap doctorate.
Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Of the two books here, held together by toothpicks and white paste, I'll ignore the first: three essays on three "primitive" cultures.
The second is an essay on the structure and function of anthropology. The genius of anthropology is to find the "consistent pattern", the "whole configuration" of each culture. Why bother? To understand. Why? To prevent another Third Reich. (Margaret Mead said this more strongly in an introduction somewhere.)
But there are other reasons, also ethical: to learn as people to live in our own society. To learn as molders of society to make our culture livable even for people different from the norm.
As the blurb says, "she is also a psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher,... a poet". This book belongs to a more innocent age.
Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra. Bantam, 1995.
There is not even a hint here of what became clear from Journey, that what motivated Massie to write this book was his own experience with a life determined by his child's hemophilia. This book outwardly seems to be the story of the last Czar of all the Russias (I know, I know!), with a view to illuminating the fall of the Romanovs and the events which led to the Communist experiment.
The impression one gets of Nicholas' part of the story is that his evil was that born of lack of intelligence. He was remarkably like the stereotype of the Russian peasant which he so despised and idealized. Rasputin, more visibly the villain of the story, seems to be much more responsible for his own evil, but he is also much more difficult to understand.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. Little, Brown, 1988.
This book is beautifully written, and as one would expect, at its best in describing personalities: Congressman John Randolph, "incapacitated for leadership by... dazzling, pathetic and uncontrollable tirades.", John Taylor, who accidentally prepared the philosophical basis for the Civil War over a tariff question, Nicholas Biddle, the chief banker with delusions of grandeur, Daniel Webster, the eloquent tongue of the Union, if paid in advance. It also includes wide and deep analyses of such questions as the struggle over the Bank of the United States and Jacksonian democracy as an intellectual movement.
Is this book the source or the result of our liberal orthodoxies?
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
This is almost certainly the most famous first-hand account of slavery ever written, as well as an important document about an exciting period in America's social history. It is characterized by a profound remarks on human nature too simple to be found in most books:
It was impossible for me to repeat the same old story [of his own slavery] month after month and keep up my interest in it.
... that great law of attraction which... ordains that men whose malign and brutal propensities preponderate over their moral and intellectual endowments shall naturally fall into the employments which promise the largest gratification to their predominating instincts or propensities.
Don't be frightened by this last example. The general simplicity of the language say a lot for a style molded by the King James Bible and Shakespeare.
Includes a contemporary, insider's document on gunboat diplomacy and banana imperialism.
Rosner, Fred, ed. Maimonides' Medical Writings, v. 4: Moses Maimonides' Three Treatises on Health.
This is part of Fred Rosner's complete collection of Maimonides' medical writings, in seven volumes. As far as the medicine goes, I'm afraid I'm one of "the people [who] feel that Maimonides' medical writings are not as original as his theological and philosophical writings." They will serve, however, as a good introduction to medieval medicine and medieval science in general, which for all of its faults, is not nearly as silly as the high-school teachers would have us think. It may also serve as an introduction to late antique syncretistic philosophy.
There are many scattered remarks of philosophical importance, such as those on death at the end of the "Regimen of Health". There is also a lot of good observation, clinical and otherwise.
The indexes, introductions, and bibliographical articles are excellent, although most of the translations give the impression of having been made from the early Hebrew translations, with the Arabic only compared. Each volume is an independent work.
Hart, Henry H. Venetian Adventurer: Marco Polo.
This is both a biography and a monograph on Marco Polo's Travels. Hart recognizes the many problems with the Travels, but rejects the 'wasn't there' theories. Much of the book is an epitome of Marco Polo's work interspersed with remarks based on less reliable editions and with entertaining historical asides, such as those on the history of paper money, on the writing of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", and the property rights of the medieval Venetian wife.
The bibliography, while obviously out of date, is very good for historical background relating to the Travels. If Huizinga's Waning gives something of the feeling of aristocratic life in the late Middle Ages, and Coulton's Medieval Village does the same for peasant life, this book does the same for a large commercial city.
Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages.
This book cannot be considered a success as social history. It surrenders too completely to the aristocratic delusions of the medieval court authors themselves. Its importance lies in some of its observations in philosophy and art history.
Huizinga's observations on the connection between cruelty and thinking in abstract nouns have gained a significance which they could not have had in 1924. His remarks on the debasing of religion by over-familiarity and by superstition have also gained a new meaning, in this case from the resurgence of fundamentalism which he could not have foreseen.
The definitions of the Renaissance which Huizinga argues against, definitions based on classicism and realism, are still being taught. "The triumph of the Renaissance was to consist in replacing this meticulous realism by breadth and simplicity."
Maimonides, Moses. A Guide for the Perplexed. Dover, 1950.
The tripartite division of the Guide still works for us, though differently than it worked for Maimonides' students. The first part discusses how a rationalist should view the anthropomorphisms of the Bible. Whether one likes the Bible or not, its influence has been enormous, and one ought to understand how intelligent and modern people can understand it and try to live by it. Doing so will help one to understand rationalistic approaches to several revealed religions.
The second part makes an excellent introduction to Medieval philosophy. The real stuff, but without the forced minutiae of the Scholastics.
The third part is mainly a discussion of Jewish law by the scholar who may have been the greatest authority on the subject as we know it today. Again, it can serve as an introduction to the philosophy of the other 'total religions' as well.
The whole book can serve as a guide for the perplexed even today, but reading it that way won't be easy.
Lepschy, Giulio, ed. History of Linguistics: vol 1., The Eastern Traditions of Linguistics. Longman, 1996.
The moral of this story is that a while a scientific approach to linguistics, especially structural linguistics, seems to be rare, and historical linguistics is an aberration of modern Western culture, other societies have done deep linguistic research which, "when considered on its own terms..., proves to be a model study, diligent, conscientious, thorough in its smallest detail."
Lepschy presents "a view from within" of Chinese, ancient Near Eastern, Indian, Jewish, and Muslim-Arabic linguistics. The most entertaining for me was the article on Arabic linguistics, which details and emphasizes how thorough and yet how far from Western linguistic ideals classical Arabic linguistics was. The article on Hebrew linguistics tends to adduce hypotheses as facts, but it is reasonably thorough and includes some interesting observations on cultural attitudes towards Yiddish and Ladino.
Spinoza, Benedict de. The Ethics.
This is Spinoza's most complete exposition of his complete philosophy. As such it is of great historical interest, having influenced every philosopher since, including Einstein. It also speaks to us as few of the philosophical classics do.
The first part is Spinoza's metaphysics. By an extreme rationalism, he reaches the conclusion that nothing really exists except the spiritual. (To understand his demonstrations, it doesn't hurt to remember that "substance" is by definition that which exists, neither more nor less. This approach also solves many problems with Aristotle's ousia.)
Then the political theory. Spinoza further develops his theory of the republic without any emotional or even moral presuppositions.
Spinoza's theory of personal morality, and his theory of the mind and the soul, are once again the most extreme spirituality founded on the most extreme rationalism.
Katz, Steven T., ed. Jewish Philosophers.
Though this book is sometimes deeply lacking in depth, it makes up for this lack by being very broad, and a good introduction to both the main subjects and the main figures of Jewish philosophy. "It has now been shown that the rabbis [of the Talmud] were not familiar with formal philosophy." The reference is to Saul Lieberman's article on the subject. How about 'claimed' instead of "shown"?
On the other hand, Katz does not raise imaginary problems when discussing Maimonides' ideas on the Resurrection or the relationship of the Letter to the Yemenites to his other works. He also quite correctly discusses at length the problems which Jewish theology has had reacting to the Holocaust, unlike 'the preachers who explain and declaim to the simple people what they themselves don't understand'.
Coulton, G. G. The Medieval Village. Dover, 1989.
This is a detailed and heavily documented work on the life of the peasant in the middle ages. In its very scholarly (and also polemical) way, it is more frightening and more depressing than the more outwardly moralistic literized histories.
The average peasant has probably never known by sight more than two or three hundred men in his whole life; his vocabulary is almost certainly confined to something less than... six hundred words....
Delisle, on pp. 628 ff., gives a list of famines and plagues for which he can show documentary evidence in Normandy... chroniclers like Ralph Glaber tell us of countryfolk driven to cannibalism; and folk tales of the Hansel and Gretel type, drifted down from those ancient days, contain only too much truth on both sides; the children cast forth by sheer parental famine.
The appendix alone consists of 170 pages of documents covering everything from chattel slavery in the Roman Church to medieval football.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America.
Probably the most famous writer on American society and government, de Tocqueville caught some of the essence of the United States as only an outsider can. He described the independence of Americans, our mania for private action, our distrust of government, our litigiousness. He also discussed the social causes and the inevitability of the civil war. He perhaps created the cliche of the shallow American and the cultured European.
Was his fear of excessive democracy justified? Is his claim that state government is much more influential than the federal government still true?
Paperback: vol. 1 vol. 2
more Good Books. . .
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