Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Review: Crucible of Faith

Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World
Philip Jenkins
Religion, philosophy, history

Crucible of Faith is well outside my usual reading areas. My religious education is nil. I am, however, interested in the history of ideas, and, well . . . why not give it a try? And on balance, the verdict is pretty good. Crucible of Faith wasn't such a gripping read that I'd recommend it far and wide (unlike some other books I could name), but it was good enough to keep me reading.

Jenkins's thesis is that a vast chunk of what we consider "mainstream Judeo-Christian thought" only developed comparatively late in Jewish history--c. 250 - 50 BC--as the result of a period of intense conceptual ferment, owing in large part to the Jews' sudden immersion into the cosmopolitan intellectual life of the Hellenic period. Such concepts as the vast hierarchy of named angels, life after death, the emergence of Satan as a major figure, dualism and its discontents, Gnosticism, and apocalyptic writing were innovative, not traditional. I have no firm opinion on whether he's right or wrong, but he does a good job arguing the case.

What's especially strong is Jenkins's argument that Judaism was radically altered by forced engagement with a philosophical ecosystem that was both widespread and much more sophisticated: Greek philosophy, especially Platonism. This I find plausible. Imagine an Aristotle or an Eratosthenes smiling indulgently at this rustic collection of folktales and wonder stories that the Jews called "scripture." How it must have rankled! There's evidence, it seems, for strong and sometimes violent conflicts within Judaism--between Hellenizers and ethnic nationalists, as well as among various sects. It seems a pity that the Hellenizers lost out, but that's just me.

Some of Crucible of Faith is less accessible. The digressions into Biblical historiography, for example, are mainly of interest to specialists. Also, it must be said, I'm sufficiently ignorant of the basic texts that some of the arguments more or less rolled off of me. Overall, though, this was a successful experiment in expanding my own philosophical boundaries.

My reading doesn't include a lot of companion books, but The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve might be a good crossover.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: The Bohemians

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature
Ben Tarnoff
Literature, biography

The Bohemians isn't a bad book, but it's not original or insightful enough to be a great book. It's another IYTTSMSIYPETB. The big problem is that it wouldn't exist without Mark Twain, and Mark Twain does not lack for previous literary coverage. Without Twain, the three remaining Bohemians would consist of Bret Harte--briefly famous, now obscure--and a couple of (from a literary viewpoint) nonentities. It was Mark Twain who reinvented American literature; the others were "and supporting cast".

Okay, maybe that's a little harsh towards Harte. At the outset he was far better-known than Twain. He was the first to crack the eastern literary establishment, and he was a friend and mentor to Twain when the latter first fetched up in San Francisco. He didn't launch Twain's career by himself, but he played a part. So, too, did the city of 1860s San Francisco itself--its roaring debauches, its raw frontier cosmopolitanism, its outrageous Western characters, its sprung-from-nowhere ambiance, its boosterism. The city is a character in The Bohemians, one that Tarnoff limns particularly well.

If Tarnoff had stuck to the relationship among Harte, Twain, and San Francisco, this would be a more focused and more interesting read. No doubt his other two protagonists--Ina Coolbrith and Charles Stoddard--have a moral right something more than obscurity, but obscurity is what they have, and The Bohemians gives us no reason to think it should be otherwise.

Justin Martin's Rebel Souls is about the first American Bohemians--the New York set centered around Walt Whitman. There, too, there's the problem that one member of the cast completely obscures the others. I thought it was more enlightening than Tarnoff's book, though, in part because the New York Bohemians made a somewhat lasting impact as a group.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Book Review: The Wizard and the Prophet

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World
Charles C. Mann
Science, biography, ecology, philosophy, politics

[DISCLAIMER: Charles C. Mann graduated from my alma mater and lives in my home town. I don't think we've ever met, but it would be surprising if we didn't have connections in common.]

It's quite likely that The Wizard and the Prophet will be my favorite book of 2018.

Here's the core of the matter: in thirty years, the world will have ten billion people. Should we:
  • Make wise use of our existing resources, conserving and cutting back as necessary, in order to minimize the damage we cause to ourselves and our planet? That's the "Prophet" response, exemplified in Mann's book by the early ecologist William Vogt.
  • Innovate, adapt, embracing creativity and dynamic capitalism, in order to expand the carrying capacity of the world and lift more people out of poverty? That's the "Wizard" response, as espoused by Norman Borlaug--a man who won a Nobel Peace Prize as the father of the so-called "Green Revolution".
From this deceptively simple opposition Charles Mann spins out an amazing story. It's a parallel biography of two extraordinary men--and then some. It looks at both approaches in detail, examining the different answers that each of them would give to a wide variety of looming problems: climate change, hunger, clean water, pollution, and so forth. The writing is fluid and beautifully structured; I read the book in about two days.

Most importantly, Mann is scrupulously fair towards both Wizards and Prophets. He presents each sides's arguments fairly and in their best lights, and then presents the other side's critique with equal insight. That lifts the book up from "enjoyable" to "important". These are big ideas, and they are consequential. How we think about them will have a profound effect on life on earth--within our lifetimes.

It subtracts nothing from Mann's wonderful book to point out that the dichotomy he points out is an artificial one. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing": Prophets and Wizards are hedgehogs, but the answer probably lies with the foxes. It's true that we should waste less, decentralize our electrical grid, be skeptical of claims that innovation will inevitably save us. It's also true that innovation has produced miracles, that more people are living better now than ever before, that the doomsayers have hitherto been wrong. We should recognize both truths.

Related books worth reading are Gretchen Bakke's The Grid, Rose George's The Big Necessity, and Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City. Mann's own 1491 and 1493, though unrelated, are also good.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book review: One Hot Summer

One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858
Rosemary Ashton

Interesting topic, thorough research, lackluster writing. The connections among the characters are intriguing. "What do Disraeli and Brunel have in common? Or Disraeli and Karl Marx . . . ? Frith's [painting] Derby Day and Brunel's [ship] Great Eastern? . . . " asks Ashton, in a very promising start. The answer, too often, turns out to be "not much, except that they were all contemporaries." Ashton focuses relentlessly on the micro scale, so the thematic spine of the book is weak. It will undoubtedly be very interesting to intense students of the period, but not so for general readers, nor even general history readers.

Not a beach book, in spite of the title. Did you wonder for a moment about the precipitous decline in my reading standards?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Book Review: Wife of the Gods

Wife of the Gods
Kwei Quartey

Setting: A (Ghana)
Characterization: B+
Writing: C
Plot: D+

That's pretty much all there is to say. If you're in a mood to read for flavor, immersion, and sense of place, this is a book for you. If you're looking for Agatha Christie, it's not. I might pick up another one from the library.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Book Review: To the Edge of the World

To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad
Christian Wolmar
Trains, travel, history

There are books about trains that aren't meant mainly to appeal to train fanatics. It's just that there aren't that many of them. To the Edge of the World, while perfectly decent, doesn't add to their number.

Christian Wolmar really knows his stuff. His stuff is trains. Train transportation, train travel, train infrastructure, train history, train politics, train finance . . . it's all here. He's got a lot of scope, too. The construction of the Trans-Siberian touches everything from the abolition of Russian serfdom to the Russo-Japanese War to the settling of Siberia. All of it finds its way into To the Edge of the World.

There are some writers--John McPhee; Simon Winchester, on his better days; Stephen Johnson, maybe--who could take that material and run with it. They could maybe turn the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is already the spine of a nation, into the spine of a wide-ranging book. That's not Christian Wolmar's way. He sticks to his tracks.

Nor will the writing seduce you; Wolmar's prose is more stately than sparkling. He has a habit, too, of serving up substantial helpings of other authors' writing. Sometimes this works. He's unearthed some accounts from contemporary travelers which are eye-poppingly vivid, for example, and he knows how to use them. All too often, though, he lapses into "As was so ably pointed out by Schmendrickhausenstimpfel, in his classic Geschicte der Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften . . . " Who's writing this book, anyway?

The thing is, the railway itself really was an astounding achievement. We American train nuts get all het up about our own first transcontinental railroad (completed in 1869). Well, the Trans-Siberian is almost three times as long, and built by a less-developed nation over a much harsher and emptier landscape--using mainly muscle power. It's probably fair to say (and Wolmar says it well) that everything about Russia would be different without the railway. As a book about trains, then, To the Edge of the World is worthy. As a book about anything else, it's a good book about how anything else was affected by trains.

Glorious Misadventures is set well before To the Edge of the World gets underway, but nothing much about the looking-glass world of Russian imperial politics seems to have changed in the meantime.

As Wolmar points out, the best comparison for the Trans-Siberian Railway isn't the United States, but Canada. The Impossible Railway, by Pierre Berton, is an excellent book about the building of the Canadian Pacific. At least, it's excellent for us train fanatics. It's probably very good for the rest of you, too.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Book Review: White Pine

White Pine: American History and the Tree that Made a Nation
Andrew Vietze
Nature, history

To be honest, White Pine isn't really a great book. I liked it anyway.

This is the kind of book that you get when you combine an author with a deep, idiosyncratic interest in a subject with a lack of high-powered editing. White Pine isn't about Pinus strobus in general. It's about what interests Andrew Vietze, and what interests Andrew Vietze is (a) New England, and (b) the history of the tree's importance in colonial and revolutionary times. Which, to be fair, is pretty interesting! White pines were the premier trees used for making masts for the Royal Navy, and so they were constant flashpoints for royal decrees and local dissent. The broad arrow used to mark trees reserved for the King became such a hated symbol that many early revolutionary flags bore a pine tree as a mark of defiance.

That history takes up about two-thirds of White Pine. There's then a sort of middle-of-the-book epilogue chapter that drifts lightly across the nineteenth century, a couple of chapters of contemporary reportage, and a summation. An opinionated editor, looking at this, would say that White Pine is either too much or too little concentrated on colonial New England. Too much, if it's intended to be a general biography-of-a-substance book; too little, if it's intended to be about that specific time and place.

And yet the book is kind of charming. It's written in an agreeable, readable tone, with some nice personal touches. The history is genuinely illuminating--it's a great window into a little-known but very evocative microcosm of the tensions that led to the American Revolution. There are some lively characters, some famous names, some natural history. 

Andrew Vietze, in short, loves his subject maybe a little too much. There are worse flaws.