Wednesday, October 10, 2012


A welcome break from politics today. At one time I can love politics and not be able to wait until the campaigning is over.
You may have noticed that the subtitle of this blog is "My thoughts. What else?" Foremost in my thoughts on most days are books. I can't think of anything I own that I would care about half so much about losing, except perhaps this computer, than many of my books. I am sure there are people who read more in a day than I do in a week or maybe even a month, but, certainly, relatively speaking, I read a lot. It helps my numbers that I am one of those people who have to read many books at once. To some people, non-readers, I seem obsessed with it. But, it is one thing in which I am not alone. There would not be a Barnes & Noble or if I were. But, when I started writing this blog in 2006 I realized that part of the reason for it was that I really didn't have a lot of opportunity to talk about many of the things I love most, which were mostly either books or information I found in them. In fact, many of the posts here, whatever the subject, are just excuses to go through my library and share some stuff. This night, I'm just going to talk about them and they are the subject. Plus, people are always asking me what I am reading and I can never think of any thing.

In the last few years I've added to my reading what might seem like a ridiculous burden to some people - taking notes on what I read. I do this more and more and perhaps obsessively. By taking notes sometimes mean copying over much of a book on my computer. When an author is extremely detailed it can take months and literally hundreds of pages. My reading is not random. Much of it is on a fairly small number of somewhat related topics.  Looking at them, I am surprised myself how many have to do with liberty issues. Following are the issues that have guided my reading, mostly the last few years, referring to my favorites on the subjects or what I am reading currently.  I am not providing my opinions on the subjects here, only so much as to introduce and discuss the books.
1)  What were the conditions that preceded World War II?  History repeats itself, but only in a vague and somewhat illusory sense in that events are often similar, but are the same far less than they vary. Fears of a militaristic Germany rising again are not heard and I consider, in any foreseeable future, not worth being concerned about any more or less than New Zealand, Costa Rica or Mongolia rising in a threatening way to its neighbors. Studying history is not a tool for accurate prediction of precisely what will happen. Life is simply far too complex. But, it can help us understand ourselves better if we are always careful to remember that we will see things in terms of our own culture, including the narrative of history with which we are familiar,  the state of the social "sciences" and also our available technology.

By conditions that preceded WWII I include more particularly two subjects. First, what was it that attracted so many Germans to Hitler? Second, what was it the led Britain and France to the policy of appeasement with Germany when even then, the governments at large should have known what Churchill and some others knew for many years. If you are expecting an answer to these questions, I'm still learning, although I've been studying it for decades.  What books have been most valuable in studying these topics?  Well, that's a lot of books. But, that come to mind right away - Two related ones, Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich and one written about Speer - Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His battle with Truth, Donald Cameron Watts' How War Came, The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany, Telford Taylor's Munich, The Price of Peace, William Manchester's The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940 and Churchill's own The Gathering Storm, the first of his six volumes on the war. Not that there aren't many other great books on the War that I've read, and many more that I haven't. Of all of these, to answer the two questions that satisfy me the most, I would probably give Munich prize of place.
2.  Was Hitler of the right wing, left wing or something else?   This question has been made a well known controversial topic by conservative writers the last few years, as many commentators and now the hoi polloi has insisted that Adolph Hitler was properly of the left, not the right.  But, the argument is not new. I am still researching this topic too, and look forward to writing on it someday as I think my position differs from the two conventional ones, at least a little. Whether Nazis were left, right or something else, the right's passionately argued position, held even by one of my favorite scholars, Friedrich Hayek, differs from mine. Jonah Goldberg, a fairly prominent conservative writer most recently wrote a volume on it, but I found his effort less than scholarly and meant really to excite his party. There are many books from which I am garnering my argument, but two I am working on right now which were found at used library book sales are Richard F. Hamilton's Who voted for Hitler, a dense book to say the least, and Harold J. Gordon's Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch, another thick work which for me is both much more interesting and more difficult than popular works.

3. What the hell is liberty? I know that this sounds like a simple topic. Liberty means free, right? Nothing is so simple and less so something that is basically a human construct, perhaps most accurately a feeling. And, there are endless opinions on it. For example, one book I've started this year but am struggling with (actually, think I am pretty much giving up on it and won't even give its name) argues that what we call freedom developed only once in history and only by Western society and that there are three types of liberty. Not buying it. But, if you think this is a simple topic, and it is obvious, try Abraham Lincoln on it from 1864  -
" The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to—day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated."
In the past few years I've read a little Lord Acton (we mostly know him know from the saying, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," which is a great, if inaccurate quote, not always correctly cited to him, and which is actually found in one of his letters). His Essays in the History of Liberty is sometimes exciting, often boring, and would not make the top ten list these days. As famous as he is in the field, I sometimes doubt the accuracy of his scholarship, possibly unfairly. Two others from the 1800s make my list. First, the endlessly quotable Democracy in America by de Tocqueville,  of which you have probably heard and Frederic Bastiat's super pithy The Law, which you probably have not, but would enjoy immensely if you are of the libertarian bent.

The two best of the best I've come across in this field so far are Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, which is much deeper than his more famous, but slightly more accessible The Road to Serfdom (generally, he's not a fun writer) and his fellow Austrian compatriot, Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, The Spell of Plato, which nearly made me jump for joy as I read it, as he understood Plato's politics the way I and not so many others seem to.  And, if you still think this whole liberty issue is simple, take a look at my 9/26/08 post on the man who was the inspiration for al Qaeda.  Freedom is complicated.
 4. Religious history.  What is your friendly neighborhood atheist doing reading religious history and textual criticism? For one thing, religion is inextricably bound up with history and freedom, so . . . . My favorite right now is Father John P. Meier's encyclopedic A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, which, not surprisingly, considers Jesus and the New Testament from a historical perspective.  There are four volumes and are so thick in citation that I am only half way through the second volume after a number of years. It is not a meal, but a steady diet. Recently, I more leisurely enjoyed the endlessly instructive Gary Wills' much lighter Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine and the Mystery of Baptism. Wills is one of the most instructive and creative American history writers I've come across, and though it is a little surprising, he frequently writes on Catholicism too (and, of course, Shakespeare). But, I don't recommend Font to anyone who isn't fascinated by the subject. There is one found in my favorite used bookstore that I'm working my way through every day.  I left it in a hearing room one day and had to order another online. It is J. W. Allen's 1928 A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century. I guess I can't recommend that to anyone either who isn't as interested as I am in the topic, but I'm loving every page. Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Anabaptists, Fox, Huguenots and even Machiavelli. What's not to love? It was the best century for Christian religious controversy for me.  Much more accessible, but dealing to a great extent with the same century is Benson Bobrick's Wide on the Waters, which deals with the translation of the English Bible. These translations were much more controversial - often fatal - than you would think. Bobrick is a rather unique and versatile historian who has also written on the Civil and Revolutionary wars, Ivan the Terrible, subways, Siberia, astrology and stuttering, though I've only read his book on Ivan and Angel in the Tempest (on our founding) in addition to Wide on the Waters, which I found good enough for a second reading, years apart. The most interesting parts for me concern John Wycliffe's Bible in the 14th century, William Tyndale's brilliant translation success - though, he burned for it - and, finally, the making of the The King James Bible.  Of all of the above, other than wending your way through the Bible, either testament, I'd recommend Bobrick first to wet your whistle on it.

6) Heretics: I can't say that I have read any book specifically on heresy, unless you call all books on the Protestant reformations so. But,  it is inseparable from the history of the Church in Western society, and therefore I read about it every day. To some extent the history of the Catholic Church and Western society are co-extensive, but you might argue that much of Christian history and western civilization is about successful heresy (and further, that all of the issues of liberty we talk about today can be found there).  Probably the book which introduced me to the topic, and which I read over a quarter century ago on a flight to Europe, is Will Durant's The Age of Faith, volume four of The Story of Western Civilization.  Some of the heresies concern subjects that many modern people would find astonishing, particularly as they involve torture or murder in order to enforce orthodoxy, but were quite important to those involved - in fact, they were everything. Some were heretics, then not heretics, then heretics again. 
I have spent some time thinking about why people get so bent out of shape about others being less than conventional (for myself, I maintain that I am 99% conventional but that since I was a kid the 1% drives some people crazy -- although Bear may just say I was and am difficult). Just the other day, in the J. W. Allen's history on political thought in the 16th century I referred to above I came across his own take on this subject which matched mine completely -

"It has to be remembered, also, that there of course existed, on all sides, the constant tendency of the human mind to resent disagreement and to regard those who differ from ourselves as foolish or perverse or wicked. . . Men have to learn not to resent contradiction; and when the proposition in question is one that seems of the utmost import, the lesson is hard to learn. That which has convinced me, ought, it seems, to convince all others, or, alternatively, it ought not to have convinced me. The alternative may seem intolerable."
And, though often the "heretics" he spoke of were as intolerant as those they were trying to reform or rebel from, there trials relate to the development of tolerance and liberty but also the philosophical issue of free will -- one of those insolvable problems.  Somehow, through constant controversy, the ideas that many people had about simply wanting to be free to believe as they were inclined (even if they wanted if for themselves and no one else) caught on here and there, with many steps back, and perhaps inevitably, but also by accident, it found its way to what we have today, a system almost unique in the world - the legal guarantee that in matters of conscience or religious belief we are free.

Just because I enjoy lists, among the heretical movements and heretics themselves which have interested me most are the Arians (perhaps the first of the great movements once the Church had taken a visible form,) the Pelagians (quite a big deal in the Christian world at one time), Donatism (which lasted a few centuries in North Africa only to be finally put to rest by the Muslim invasions), Marcionism (which, interestingly, was Christian, but rejected the Old Testament and thought Jehovah a lower God than the God of the New Testament), Manichaeism (which incorporated some of Christianity and was for a while a serious rival that almost climbed the hill, as it was popular with the Roman legions) and of course, the Reformation cast of characters I've talked about above, and increasingly the early Anabaptists.  Lately, the Anabaptist offshoot, the Socinians, has caught my fancy, but I am really just starting my study of them. Though that sect is also centuries old, its heirs include modern Unitarians and Psilanthropists (like Thomas Jefferson). On a few occasions in my life evangelical Christians I have discussed religion with have insisted to me that I am really a Christian and just don't know it. It's not so, and I think they are just looking to make sense of me for themselves, but, were I one, I would most likely be a Socinian (though, again, others would argue, not illogically, that they are not Christians at all). Gnostics rarely interest me at all.
Probably a great starting place to learn about heresy is not a history or religious book at all, but Umberto Eco's two great novels, The Name of the Rose (a medieval Sherlock Holmes inspired adventure) and Foucault's Pendulum. There are, of course, many non-fiction sources, but most of what I learned some decades ago in Durant, particularly volumes 4 (The Age of Faith) and 6 (The Reformation) stands well today and I'm not sure I have learned more from any single source.

7) The Civil War.  I can't remember where, but I have covered this before. So, I will jump to what I am reading lately on the subject. First, once again, perhaps for the fourth time, I am rereading the Lincoln-Douglas debates with as much delight as the first time. The gravity of the discussions and the abilities of the two giants debating, make these 7 Illinois debates national treasures. Next, I've started as my night stand book Julie M. Fenster and Douglas Brinkley's The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder and the Making of a Great President, which is a true specialty biography, focusing on a small not so well known event in Lincoln's life, a murder trial, and really, his involvement was somewhat peripheral. It is not a great book and is slow going, as I soon fall asleep once I read a few pages, but I can't blame the book, from which I've already learned a few things about 19th century Springfield. Earlier this year I read a gift from a friend who doesn't know much about history, but took a shot with Tom Carhart's Sacred Ties: From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War. This focused on a group of West Pointers who graduated at the War's start, and who went on to great things, albeit some for the North and some for the South. Interesting to me was the information about West Point, but most enervating were the calvary battle scenes, mostly featuring Custer. I even learned a bit about Gettysburg, a Carhart specialty, that I didn't know before. In 2011 I read Ronald C. White's A. Lincoln: A Biography and was a little disappointed. It's not that it wasn't a good biography, and there were the tidbits here or there which were either new to me or I've forgotten. It's just that White's The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through his Words, which came out a few years earlier was one of the most scholarly and insightful Lincoln books I've ever read and White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, probably in the same neighborhood.  I recommend either heartily to the Lincoln buff.

8) The Revolutionary War.  I've probably listed my top Revolutionary War books here before too, so I'll just mention the ones that I've read recently. That's not that hard, as it has been few. One, I've been meaning to get around to for a while was Nancy Isenberg's (no, not my aunt) Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. Imagine my surprise a few years ago when I learned that my namesake (well, almost) had written a book on the very topic I thought I would write, if ever, one history book - that Aaron Burr was hardly the dishonorable creep he was painted as, but was mostly demonized by Jefferson and Hamilton, who knew how to do it. Professor Isenberg did a good job, but I naturally would have preferred my own.

10) The Greeks. This is the last subject I include here as I'm running out of my self imposed page limits. I can't tell you what is the best book I've read on Ancient Greece is (and if you don't see the liberty interest here, you really need to read a book on the subject), but up there I have to include one I read last year: Robin Lane Fox's Traveling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer. It describes the travels and colonization of the Mediterranean by travelers from the Greek Island of Euboea and how it figured in Greek mythology and even the writings of Homer. Probably the only books on Greece from which I learned as much are Durant's The Life of Greece (Vol. 2 of his The Story of Civilization, but the first of the series I ever read), Donald Kagan's four volumes on the Peloponnesian Wars (best of which was The Peloponnesian War) and, of course, Herodotus' Histories.
Almost done. Here's a list of other books I've read this year (or still working on), most of which worked for me and some of which fit into the above categories.

Anthony, David W., The Horse The Wheel and Language. Why am I so interested in which people were the beginnings of the Proto-Indo European language group, including, of course, English, so many thousands of years ago? I don't know, but  I read/perused this and M. L. West's Indo-European Poetry and Myth this summer. Perhaps it is because in a sense, unless you want to include all people everywhere - they started almost everything near and dear to us. These are not light books and feature not only the best of archaeology, linguistics and philology, but are a bit speculative as well. How could it not be when you are dealing with people who left nothing we can read but whose existence seems almost certain when you trace back the connections?
James Buchan's Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind. For the last few years I've been going on and on about enlightenment values. This is where much of it came from, geniuses like David Hume and Adam Smith, just to name two. Starting with the Bonny Prince Charlie's rebellion, we go through the sordid streets of Edinburgh with a constellation of Scottish stars.

Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough fame wrote the now virtually forgotten Psyche's Task for the purpose of demonstrating how "[f]rom false premises [man] often arrives at sound . . . folly mysteriously deviates into wisdom and good comes out of evil." Put a little more concretely, superstition has somehow, in some times and places, increased the respect for government, private property, marriage and respect for human life, that Frazer and many others consider the pillars of civilization.
Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman, who many think is the world's greatest living psychologist, has written a book that contains nothing a thinking person doesn't know - that we have our intuitive side which is easily fooled, and a rational side which makes better decisions and we tend to resort of rules of thumb rather than statistical approaches. But, of course, you knew all that. I can't believe that reviewers don't know that we know all that. However, the value in the book is in providing some empirical evidence to prove that we do what we all know we do. And, it's a lot of fun. Really. Do I think he is all that? I just don't. I know that would get me booed in most book clubs, but there you have it.

Thoreau's Life Without Principle. There may not be any bad Thoreau, but I haven't read everything he wrote, so I'm speculating here. Still, pretty sure. This one, really a short speech, I've read a few times, and the last time a few month's ago. Don't pass out now with this cliché, but it speaks to me. 

Okay, that's it. Love books, but everything has to end.  


  1. When you write about books you are truly remarkable. Your passion for learning and your natural curiosity shine through what you write and it is almost a conversation. Hang onto this tone when your write as it is remarkable. Love Shirer and Churchill on WW2 and share your admiration of Durant,of course. Would respectfully disagree with you about the best Lincoln bio. I put forth Donald's Lincoln, as not only the definitive book on Old Abe, but perhaps the best one volume biography I've read, period. Reading and would recommend John Ferling's "Independence" which describes the state of mind, conditions, and possible causes of the actions in the colonies and in England between 1774 and 1776. Very interesting, especially the English court politics in motion at the time. As the great Jefferson himself said, I cannot live without books! You are a kindred spirit in that regard.

  2. Let me tally the score. Insults this week - 68. Compliments - 1. Thanks. Although, if I read closely, you are also giving me what is sometimes called a backhanded compliment. I know you don't like my political posts, but I shall perservere.

    But, I did not actually say what I thought the best Lincoln bio was. However, on August 2, 2009, I wrote -

    "The Civil War is equally difficult to limit to a few books and I know I can't do it without waking up tonight in a start with a sudden memory of what I forgot to add, but, I loved the fictional Traveler, Harry Hansen's The Civil War and any book by Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, James McPherson and Douglas Freeman. And, I've already posted here on the wonderful memoirs of Edward Porter Alexander on May 15th of this year, the best, in my humble opinion, from the war. Henry Steele Commager's Living History, The Civil War is the veritable horn of abundance. Of course, all that leaves out books just on Lincoln alone, an even bigger group, but I've said before I probably enjoyed most The Library of America's Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, Ronald Whites' The Eloquent President, and Benjamin Thomas' and Steven B. Oates' biographies. Many think David Donalds' Lincoln the best, and it might be. There are many others, of course and I'm sure someone somewhere is screaming what about Doris Kearns Goodwin's popular Team of Rivals, which I thought was really good, but not among the best."

    So, maybe you are right. Ironically, when I went to look up that quote, I came across a drafted post that I apparently forgot to publish, It included my top ten Civil War books. I guess next week's post is all written.

    Thanks for the tip on Ferling, who I've never read.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .