Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What I am reading these days.

Could be that someone who read this blog even once might go away knowing that it's about books more than anything else?  I can't think of anything (skipping some people) that has given me as much mental pleasure throughout my life. Earlier this week I went to the boxes of books in cartons in the garage -- those still unpacked from moving last year -- to make a list of what each one contained. I can't think of a reason other than I wanted to look at them and know at a glance. Obsession? Okay. Some people like NASCAR or wine. I'll take books. This post is just on what I am reading now or in the recent past (that is, the books are still sitting in my car, next to the bed, where I work, etc.) divided up into categories:


Very interested this past year in 16-17th century religion/politics, particularly in England, but throughout the continent too. This is not the first time I've had this interest.  I started with it in the late 1970s (I believe with the great Catherine Drinker Bowens, The Lion and the Throne, which details the life of Sir Edward Coke [probably pronounced Cooke], who was alternatively a vicious tool of the royal bully, James I, and a St. John the Baptist for political freedom) and every decade or so I  seem to plunge in again. Between the 16th and 18th century, Britain and other European countries wrestled not only with religious toleration but the nature of its government. Was the King above or subject to the law and when could someone oppose him? Was the king subject to the "true religion and duty bound to defeat heresy? These two seemingly dissimilar issues are actually quite intricately related and also concerned the nature of the law, individual liberty and other fun topics.  From the chaos of intolerance, then thought necessary to stability, came many of the principles that formed their country, then our country, and which we still revere and fight over today.
Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I 1603-1625. I found this in a pile of books, purchased last year and accidentally forgotten.  James, King of Scotland, was picked by Elizabeth I to rule after her, if you care.  The book is just what it sounds like and yes, I am well aware it would put most people to sleep on page one. Not a lot of folks out there who would find chapters entitled Speech to the Judges, 1610 or The Ex Officio Oath invigorating. I expect even I will have to take it in doses. Yet, I am excited about it.

The Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution (William and Mary "invading" Britain with Dutch troops at the invitation of a Cabal of powerful men and welcomed by most of the English other than Catholics and James II, virtually powerless, fleeing for his life) was pretty close to bloodless and cemented the issue of limited monarchy once and for all in Britain. The book contains selections of essays on various issues discussing how much of it was really about the Whigs and Tories (not as much as sometimes thought) or the Country and Court parties or all of them, discusses when Locke wrote his Two Treatises (we really don't know, but there is a lot of interesting evidence), what right King William had to the throne and how involved he was in taking it; why he and Mary were enthroned together; whether the Jacobites (followers of James II) were right about some things after all; what the revolution really accomplished and related topics.
A Freeborn people: Politics and the Nation in Seventeenth-Century England (Underdown) - More of a social history than the previous volume.  Foremost, from it, I reaffirmed by conviction that people throughout history have often been convinced that the world was ending because social conventions were changing.

The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold:  The subtitle is a bit of an exaggeration as Cromwell more than anyone was clearly the driving force, a fact made plain even in this book. But, it deals with John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I, leading to his beheading, and who was rather a radical lawyer at the time, and wrote books first seeking many legal reforms we take for granted now.  When Cromwell died and Charles II returned as King, Cooke suffered a far more harrowing death than the king in retaliation. There is no other biography about him, and Geoffrey Robertson, an attorney, did a professional job. Still working my way through it in the car and the bagel shop. I have read a review of a new book detailing the manhunt for Cooke and the other regicides, but it seems that it relies heavily on Robertson and is more sensationalized than historical. I'll pass.

For a guy who has never taken a physics' class* I am sure obsessed with the topic. I don't even remember how that happened. It is possible I picked up a very old used book in the 1980s called Lawrence and Oppenheimer (or was it Oppenheimer and Lawrence), without knowing who they were, and got hooked. Right now though:

Rabi: Scientist and Citizen - Almost done with this one, having read it a page or so at a time over about a month.  Isador I. Rabi was one of several Hungarians who radically changed our knowledge and capacity in nuclear power and related matters. Rabi is not as well known as John von Neumann (who could certainly compete for smartest scientist ever - and that includes Einstein, Newton and Galileo) and has more to do with your life today than you can imagine; it is literally impossible to sum up his accomplishments in a sentence or so; but it tickles me to state that he was also a horrifyingly bad driver, or, Leo Szilard (essentially the creator of the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, which he had patented before he was even a nuclear scientist - see my 1/9/07 post), Edward Teller, sometimes called the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb, and who at least deserves some of the credit for it with Von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam, or even Eugene Wigner (math and nuclear theory).

But, Rabi was a Nobel Prize winner in Physics -- which, unlike the Peace Prize, should mean something - and not only led in the development of magnetic resonance (which eventually culminated in the now ubiquitous MRI machines), but was revered enough to be one of Oppenheimer's two advisors in the building of the first atomic bombs (the Dane, Niels Bohr, being the other).  I find their lives, particularly their achievements in science and their Manhattan Project years, endlessly fascinating.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes).  I've written at length about this book, and have stated here any number of times that it is probably the best single volume history book I've ever read, and stand by that assessment (though one friend tried it on my recommendation and found he just couldn't get into it). I have been re-reading it slowly, taking notes as I go (don't worry - I couldn't build a birdhouse, never mind a bomb). As it is sitting on the night stand and I've read it at least a couple of weeks so far this year, intermittently, I will count it.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Gary Zukav). Another re-read, I finished a few weeks ago (or is it month's?).  If you want to read one breezy, made for laymen, best seller on physics, which tries to explain things about purely statistical or mathematical subjects in a way that regular people can understand, this is one of the best choices. I first read it in the 80s or 90s. Reading it gets harder if you really try to understand the unfathomable quantum physics (as physicists like to point out -- if you think you understand it, you don't understand it).  I remember at least one time riding home from Vermont in the passenger seat, stuck on a page for an hour, trying to understand it as best I could. But, you don't have to put that much effort into it either, and it is written to be read even by those with a passing interest (but there has to be at least an interest -- it's not Harry Potter).

* I do not count my freshman course nominally entitled Physics 0/Western Civ. 0 as physics or history classes, as it was neither one but supposedly a program to help underachievers get used to working in college. I was an underachiever in high school, to say the least. But, I resented the class as unnecessary -- it really was -- and never really understood what it was supposed to teach me; my admitting this to my professors not surprisingly irritated them and probably resulted in one of my worst grades in college. It is ironic though that the three subjects I am most obsessed with - science (the non-mathematical variety), history and languages, were never subjects I took in college. I know that has to mean something.

Picked up a copy of the one new book I have been looking forward to reading this year in Bear's home library -- Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great. His Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra are two of my favorite autobiographies, Peter getting my vote for best one volume biography I've read.  I thought Catherine would round out the group well.  It is my nighty night book. So far, so good, though she is not even Empress yet where I've left off this morning. What horrible lives some royalty have had to endure in the dream of power. One thing I know for sure. The book has made me realize I have neglected Frederick the Great of Prussia too long.

A History of Freedom of Thought (J. B. Bury); The Travail of Religious Liberty (Ronald Bainton); and
Concerning Heretics (Bainton/Castellio). I lump these three together because they are lumped together in my mind. Bury, a snooty but dedicated classicist specializing on the Romans, Greeks and the Catholic Church, wrote a courageous book for his time, as in the late 19th - early 20th century being even mildly critical of established religions could get you ostracized.
Perhaps I have been reading a little too much by Bainton lately.  He is probably the foremost writer on the development of religious liberty, particularly in the 16th and 17th century, but by the time I got to Travail, I've read so much of him that I kind of breezed through the familiar territory.

Heretics is really not his, but a work by Sebastian Castellio, the courageous 16th century European opponent of the great but intolerant reformers (particularly John Calvin). Castellio's name should be known better than Calvin's and even Martin Luther's.  Bainton placed his own commentary in front and so gets half the credit. Fair enough, for without him, Castellio's name would have virtually been lost to history. Though Castellio was in Heretics, making out a case for toleration from the works others, it was not in some senses a great book, as he cherry picked from many of his subjects, who were often far less tolerant than he. But, his prefaces/dedications to the book are remembered among those who care about such things and it was used for years by others trying to defend their own calls for freedom.

The Fall of Arthur.  Working on this one right now, sitting on my nightstand next to Catherine. Thank goodness that Tolkien's son, Christopher, a scholar himself, lived so long so that he could edit his father's unpublished works. The Fall was one of his father's unfortunately unfinished version of the Arthur's story, based on the classic works by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory, etc . It is not that Tolkien's book itself is all that great (and, again, unfinished), but Christopher's commentary, comparing the various classics to his father's work, is riveting for me.  I read the original tales so long ago, I really don't remember the difference between them anymore, and it is a great refresher. I know, I just like the idea of knights running around chopping at one another or holed up in castles.
On Deck:

Thoreau as World Traveler (John Aldrich Christie): It is well known that Thoreau rarely traveled far from home. Did he mean what he said repeatedly about wanting to stay near home (e.g., "I would rather watch the motions of the cows in the Concord pasture, than wander to Europe or Asia and watch other motions there, for it is only ourselves we report in either case" (Journal) and "The world is but canvass to our imaginations. I see men with infinite pains endeavoring to realize with their bodies, what I, with at least equal pains, would realize to my imagination" (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)? Or was it just sour grapes? We can but speculate. I didn't know Thoreau personally, of course, and tend like most people who love his work to want to believe he was something akin to a Zen master (see my 6/2/08 - The Bare Necessities of Tao and 7/31/08 -Thoreau meets me posts).  But, I am also a skeptic at heart, and will not allow myself to be certain it was not largely an affection on his part.  Of course, perhaps it is an affectation of actual Zen masters too. How would we know?  Nevertheless, to read Thoreau is to follow his imagination and learn what he learned from others who traveled all around on fantastic journeys --  that is what Christie's book is about.  It's a clever premise, one possibly designed to impress an agent to promote it. I've only begun it, but it is next up on my bagel store list, after I finish The Tyrannicide Brief.
Thoreau of Walden. At the same time as I picked up Thoreau as World Traveler I also picked up used a more straightforward biography by Henry Beetle Hough, Thoreau of Walden. Haven't cracked the binding except when I picked it up to look at it. I've read a lot of Thoreau, some over and over, but have never read anything biographical about him (except that all Thoreau is autobiographical) and figured two books should do it.

The Life and Letters of John Hays (William Roscoe Thayer): Hays is a great American story - a mid-18th century Illinois boy who ended up one of Lincoln's private secretaries during the war and after a journalism and diplomatic career, Secretary of State to McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.  I read his Civil War diary and it was kind of fun to see a young man enjoying himself in the capital among all that pressure and death (though, sometimes I did think while reading it - you do realize there are people dying out there, right?)  Nevertheless, I don't see myself finishing Thayer's two volumes. They cost about $3 used together and I have been perusing them in the car, but, despite Thayer's reputation, they were, in my view, not well written and very dated.  I was actually recently thinking that there should really be a new biography of Hays -- and what do you know, one just came out, and has pretty good reviews. But, so much to read first. Maybe some day.

I have long fell out of the regular habit of reading fiction. My favorite authors, almost all British, have either died (Tolkien, Fraser, Mortimer, Fowles) or grown old (Le Carre, Forsyth) and now, if anything, I read breezy detective/action novels by only two authors. Robert Crais, whose usual heroes are the witty detective, Elvis Cole, and his hard fighting, non-smiling pal, Joe Pike, is one. Lee Child, whose Jack Reacher novels I devoured for a few weeks recently, is the other.  I have to say, some of Child's writing is a little thin - "She was drop dead gorgeous," being an example.  Of the two, Crais is the far better writer, and one of his side efforts - Demolition Angel - is one of the best works of fiction in that genre I've read in twenty years.  But, Reacher is just pure fluffy fun stuff and I guess I enjoy the literary testosterone the way women enjoy  the Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey series. A few weeks was enough and I'm sure it will be a while before I need another shot.
The Red Light Book: 

I usually have a book in my car dedicated to red lights. Though I've read some serious books like that (one that comes to mind was a wonderful biography of one of my favorite painters, El Greco), it is usually a lighthearted volume that I can immediately get into for a few seconds and pick up later without having to figure out where I was.  Bear sent me a copy of Brewer's Cabinet of Curiosities (Ian Crofton), which is essentially an almanac of stuff cobbled together in the 19th century by one Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, who wrote reference works. It is basically enticing lists of things like peaceful revolutions, heresies, day jobs of famous people, extreme cuisine, famous forgers, etc. You get the idea. Perfect bliss until the light turns green. 


  1. Love it. You are in your best groove when you are free associating amongst your books. I was even going to let you off the hook about John Hay, NOT "Hays" until you did it three times which methinks is not a typo. Some of my current book slogging:
    The Somme by Richard Hart - detailed, well written account of one of history's most horrific battles.
    The Panda's Thumb - I loves me the natural sciences, and S Jay Gould is as superb a writer as there is on the subject.
    Dicken's London - a collection of essays of Dicken's observations walking the streets of Victorian England, when he was a journalist and not yet a famous fiction writer. Awesome portraits of the time period.
    The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson - first in a series about a sheriff in Montana, now a popular cable tv series (Longmire). I was looking for my next Reacher and found my next Robicheau. Fabulous writing about the natural and anthropologic histories of the west, richly developed characters, superb crime/action fiction, much better than the tv show,which isn't bad.
    That's enough for now. The fact that we can go on tells you we are reading too many books at once.

  2. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. I am so bad at names. I've read his friggin' diary, read about him in literally dozens of other books -- I've even quoted him in this blog before -- AND I STILL SPELLED HIS NAME WRONG! Actually, no surprise really, as I do that all the time. There is a John (Coffee) Hays from the same time period - a little older, who was one of the most famous Texas Rangers. But, that's no excuse. I just need a proof reader.

    But, leaving that aside, thanks for your list. I might give this Craig Johnson a try. But "next Robicheaux" is a heavy mantle to drape on anyone's shoulders. I know you love Gould, but I did not. Can't remember why because I last tried him a long while back. Can't remember what book either, but even could have even been that one.


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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 . . . .