Tag Archives: History

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Cover Art

It sounds like Alberto Manguel has a hell of a library. He rebuilt an old barn just to house his 30,000 books. It’s where he begins his book The Library at Night. The title refers to the change he experiences at the end of his reading day: “But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence.”

The Library at Night is a book of essays about libraries. Manguel constructed most of them from a generous handful of anecdotes clustered around one or two topics on which he goes deeper. Every essay looks at one of the functions of libraries.

What do libraries do? Judging from libraries’ websites the most popular answer is the kind of banally lofty statement of purpose normally written by committee (“The UC Berkeley Library connects students and scholars to the world of information and ideas”). This is also the boring answer. Manguel isn’t writing about the day-to-day business of libraries but about their purpose.

The essays fall roughly into three categories. Sometimes Manguel writes about how libraries order information: not only how the books are ordered, but how the space works. Sometimes a library’s architecture leans over your shoulder and tells you how to feel about its books. An 18th-century concept for a library drawn by Étienne-Louis Boullée looked like a cavernous train station. A place like that would pressure you to flip through a book, scribble a couple of notes, and move on.

Boulle's library.

The other categories are about libraries as cultural institutions and libraries as expressions of individual minds. Mostly, Manguel is examining libraries as physical embodiments of ideas—public libraries reflect the aspirations and ideals of a group, a private library is an expression of a single person’s mind. It’s common to jokingly refer to modern technology as an “outboard brain.” In reality, we’ve had outboard brains as long as we’ve had books.

Manguel ends the book with “The Library as Home.” That third category of essay, about the library as a home for the mind, got me thinking about my own library. It’s a haphazard, unsystematic collection, actually. There are books I like, or want to read, that I’ve never bothered to acquire. On the other hand, I’ve bought a lot of books because they were sitting on remainder tables, looking interesting and flaunting seductively cheap price labels. (Let’s not mention used bookstores. I’ve had to stop going. I can find anything online these days, and it’s guaranteed to be what I actually wanted, and not an impulse buy…) Often these purchases turn out surprisingly well; sometimes they’re just books I might as well have borrowed from the library. I wonder, having read Manguel’s book, just what my half-random collection says about my mind.

Alternate Histories

Cover Art

I haven’t written much lately. I’ve felt used up and exhausted and, honestly, I feel like I haven’t been thinking much lately. Writing is thought set down and recorded, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t come up with much in the way of text.

Also, the random, unmoored weirdness of the news I’m reading overwhelms me. I have never spent so much time staring at my newsfeeds with the same expression as Krusty the Clown after a viewing of “Worker and Parasite.” American politics is deranged. Sometimes it’s goofy deranged, like a Muppet. Sometimes it’s scary deranged. Either way, the election coming this November, like a black hole in the center of the galaxy, looks set to pull American politics further and further into outer space.

I’d been thinking of jump-starting the blog with occasional posts, in the style of the “Links to Things” posts, documenting the stories that made me sit up and say “Huh?” So I decided on the ground rules–every story would be about an actual politician, current or aspiring, rather than some talk radio host or blogger–and collected stories. These were the first three I remembered:

It occurred to me that these stories had something in common.

There’s a science fiction subgenre called alternate history. It is what it sounds like: stories set in worlds where history happened differently. Alternate history bores the hell out of me. This is maybe a little strange given how interested I am in real history, but there it is.

I have to assume that Sue Lowden, Robert F. McDonnell, and the Republican Governors Association are more interested in alternate histories than I am. They’re living in them.

Governor McDonnell lives in a world where the Confederacy was untainted by slavery, where romantically doomed rebels fought for the lofty abstraction of “states’ rights.” The Republican Governors Association hails from a timeline where Guy Fawkes was not a terrorist but an anti-authoritarian V-For-Vendetta superhero. Sue Lowden remembers the good old days when country doctors made housecalls on poor-but-honest folk in little Norman Rockwell towns and would treat the concussion little Timmy got falling out of the apple tree in exchange for a basket of fresh zucchini.

None of these timelines much resemble the universe most of us live in. How did Governor McDonnell get there? How did Ms. Lowden pierce the barrier between the worlds? I think it has something to do with how we teach history. (Maybe. As with anything I write, this could be crazy.) Continue reading Alternate Histories

Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

Cover Art

I’m starting to write reviews again. I’m not entirely convinced by this one, but at some point I have to stop fiddling with it, so here it is.

Clark Gifford’s Body is an obvious reference to the old song about John Brown, who sparked the Civil War with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Which may have been a blessing in disguise; arguably, only the war could have put an end to slavery in anything like a reasonable amount of time.)

A hundred years later, in the far-flung year of 1959 (Clark Gifford’s Body was published in 1937; no explicit date is given for the raid, but, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction, it’s not hard to work out), Clark Gifford and his “Committee for Action” seize radio stations across the country–Gifford himself takes WLEX in Bonnfield–and spark a twenty-year civil war.

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Clark Gifford’s Body demonstrates the importance of typography–in this case, the importance of getting the page numbers right. The page numbers are in the same font as the text, printed at the same size, located just under the text, where the next line would be, if there were one. So on the left-hand page my subconscious was constantly interpreting the page number as part of the text, and I kept getting knocked out of the story by phrases like “The short-wave of a number 200 of local stations…”

Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body in fragments. Narrative islands, written in different styles from different points of view, form a bigger picture like the dots in a pointillist painting. The sketches are set up to thirty years before and thirty years after Gifford’s raid. It’s a history of the future.

As such, Clark Gifford’s Body is technically science fiction. It may not satisfy many SF readers: socially and technologically, the future looks a lot like 1937. I’m willing to forgive. Within the story, we have a limited view of this society, and that twenty year civil war would not have laid a smooth road for the march of progress. In more critical terms, this kind of near-future SF is really about the present. Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body about his own world.

Continue reading Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

Cover Art

The fantasy genre is the last redoubt of the three-volume novel. Your local Barnes and Noble contains shelves of geography-spanning tomes–most longer than they should be–split into threes. There is no sensible reason for this… but the book that inadvertently invented Fantasy as a marketing category was The Lord of the Rings, and the form passed from the first hack imitators of Tolkien into tradition. Even good fantasy writers work in the multivolume format by default1.

So I love Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris Trilogy (City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch): three different books about the same world that combine, Voltron-like, into something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s weird that more fantasy series don’t work this way. We get few novels2 about any given fantasy world, all written by the same author and therefore sharing a family resemblance. But why are they so often slices of a single story, and almost always written in the same style? Walk over to the “Literature” section and you’ll see a near-infinite variety of novels set in the real world, about all kinds of events, starring innumerable people, written in every possible kind of prose. The world is not one thing. A city is not one thing. Why shouldn’t an invented world be seen from many perspectives, described in many styles?

So City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of literary short stories. Shriek: An Afterword chronicles the lives of two underachieving siblings, told in alternating, arguing voices, with bigger things going on in the background…

And Finch is a hard-boiled detective novel, set after the Gray Caps, the mushroomy original inhabitants of Ambergris, have taken over the city. And it’s great–Finch is everything a hard boiled detective novel involving intelligent fungus ought to be. The Gray Cap overseers send John Finch, a tired steampunk Humphrey Bogart, to solve a murder. Finch bounces from faction to faction and picks up pieces of the puzzle from various interesting people who proceed to beat him up or knock him out. Everybody wants his help. Nobody asks for it without a threat.

The prose in the first two Ambergris books was straightforwardly literary (with digressions into reference-book style for certain parts of City of Saints and Madmen). Finch is written in short, sharp sentences. Sometimes sentence fragments. Telegraphese. There are food shortages and power cuts and Finch can’t spare the resources for a coordinating conjunction.

(I get a little more into analysis after this point, and some of it is spoilery, so I’m putting the rest of the review behind a link. Just go read the book, okay?) Continue reading Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

Patrick Leigh Fernor, A Time to Keep Silence

Cover Art

A Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fernor’s account of his experiences as a guest in two French monasteries during the 1950s, and his visit to a long-abandoned monastery carved out of the rocks in Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s a short book, less than a hundred pages; it describes the monasteries and tells their histories, but doesn’t get too heavily into analyzing what it sees. Fernor has theories, but he doesn’t try to definitively explain why the monks chose a silent, regimented lifestyle, or what it means to them. He doesn’t feel qualified.

Fernor begins in a Benedictine abbey, where he comes to feel relatively at home. He then moves to a Trappist monastery where the monks’ lives consist of ceaseless work, endless prayer, and a distinct lack of central heating.1 He has less direct contact with the monks and their values never cease to be alien. Finally, he describes the long-abandoned Cappadocian monastery, not a living place but a part of monastic history, its inhabitants long gone. Fernor zooms out as he goes. Each section creates more distance between the reader and the monks, each section takes away from the reader’s sense of connection. Compared to most nonfiction A Time to Keep Silence is structured backwards; it begins looking like it might have the answers but it leaves with only questions.

Fernor’s more certain about the monastery’s effect on himself. At first the lack of distraction is disorienting. He spends most of a couple of days asleep. He suspects he was recovering from “the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries,” created by the thousands of minor stresses and demands on our attention everyone faces every day, which have grown exponentially in the fifty years since this book was published. He feels peaceful, focused, and attentive.

You don’t have to be religious to see why certain people might find this attractive. We live in a world of noise, distraction, and random hostility. Sometimes even the most ordinary inanimate objects–jar lids, DVD cases, computer programs, new shirts full of pins–are out to get you. Sometimes you just want to get the hell away.

“The Abbey was at first a graveyard,” says Fernor; “the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders.” Fernor doesn’t share in the monks’ religion and doesn’t try to explain what their lives are all about, but I suspect for at least some of them the answer to that question is closer than it seems.

  1. The Trappist monastery’s program was developed by a seventeenth-century aristocrat gone radical. According to a legend recounted in the book, after his mistress died he walked into her sickroom to find the undertaker had decapitated her body to fit it into the coffin, casually leaving her head on a table. ↩

The Crusades Drag On

Gustave Dore does the Fourth Crusade.

When I open a book called The Fourth Crusade I sort of expect to read about the Fourth Crusade, so the preface to Jonathan Phillips’s The Fourth Crusade came as a speed bump. It’s a two-page argument that the “holy war” has no equivalent in modern Western societies—we’ve given it up for the “just war,” so good on us. It became easier to understand what the hell this was doing here when I checked the copyright. This book about a turn-of-the-thirteenth century European army whose targets had nothing to do with the stated purpose of their war would have been getting its final polish at about the time George W. Bush’s Iraq war was getting started. The preface is a troll prophylactic. “I’m not criticizing the Fearless Leader!” says Jonathan Phillips. “Honest!”

Once you’re past the prologue this is a readable layman’s overview of a war that, even by crusading standards, was pure sleaze from start to finish. It started with propaganda: a round of sermons exhorting the faithful to head out and take Jerusalem back from the Moslems. (Wikipedia gives most of the credit to Fulk of Neuilly. According to Phillips the guy didn’t actually do a hell of a lot, but I wanted to mention him because I like the name “Fulk.” More parents should name their kids Fulk, is what I say.) Some people signed on, partly out of self-interest: crusading would buy them forgiveness for their sins. Which was great, because by the time a crusade was over they’d need it. Continue reading The Crusades Drag On

Comics for Health Care!

I’ve linked to these in blog comments elsewhere, but haven’t yet done so on my own blog.

First, Kevin Huizenga discovered Superman plugging universal health care in a 1952 issue of The Adventures of Bob Hope. (Isn’t it amazing that there was once a comic called The Adventures of Bob Hope? Today, Bob Hope would be a gritty, morally questionable comedian whose kid sidekick died violently at the hands of Dorothy Lamour, and he’d get killed off by an evil Bob Hope from an alternate universe and be replaced by Bing Crosby and then come back to life as a zombie.)

Second, here’s a pro-health-care Steve Canyon strip from… I can’t quite read the copyright… it looks like 1949. Steve Canyon was cold war propaganda and Milton Caniff wasn’t exactly a hippie. So it’s interesting that, in extolling the virtues of the Free World, Caniff is proudest of exactly the things modern conservatives decry as “socialism.”

Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio

The cover of Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio.

Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio is a great, odd book. It doesn’t quite fit any contemporary category. Some of these stories are folktales or fairy tales; some are the kind of “I swear, this really happened!” supernatural yarns you find in books of “true hauntings;” some are news of the weird. Pu Songling never drew these distinctions; to him, they were all Strange Tales. Penguin’s volume of excerpts from his apparently massive collection of stories mixes them as randomly as he did.

The fairy tales are the most developed as stories but the least interesting. Most involve fox sprits and attractive ghosts, and once you’ve read a few they all seem pretty much the same. Usually a minor scholar or bureaucrat—actually, these were almost the same profession—meets a beautiful ghost (or fox spirit) and has sex with her. Then he meets a beautiful fox spirit (or ghost) and has sex with her, too. In the end the scholar and the fox spirit and the ghost get together in a sort of group marriage. Pu Songling was a minor scholar himself and I think he needed to get out more.

The other stories, though, are weird—and, yes, they’ve been translated from a foreign culture and there are references and allusions I’m not getting, but allowing for that these are still damn strange. In one tale, the ghost of an elderly woman is seen inexplicably hopping around a courtyard, water spraying from her mouth. In another story a man sneezes and small animal falls out of his nose; it runs up his leg and fuses to his belly, and the story ends there, inconclusive and gnomic. To find these uncanny, surreal moments, it’s more than worth skimming through pages of fox spirits helping bureaucrats salve their mid-life crises.

The Secret History

Emperor Justinian

Procopius was a respected historian back in his day. Upright. Sober. The go-to guy if you wanted to know what was up with Emperor Justinian.

So everybody was kind of surprised when, a few centuries later, somebody dug up The Secret History. Procopius hated Justinian. Hated him. Hated hated hated hated hated him. Not as much as he hated Empress Theodora, but still a lot. It wasn’t that Justinian was stupid. It wasn’t that he was corrupt. He managed to be stupid and successfully corrupt at the same time: “never of his own accord speaking the truth to those with whom he conversed, but having a deceitful and crafty intent behind every word and action, and at the same time exposing himself, an easy prey, to those who wished to deceive him.”

The Secret History was where Procopius vented the bile he couldn’t pack into his official histories without getting executed. He starts out… what do they call it these days? “Shrill?” As the pages go by he gets shriller and shriller until he reads like a steam whistle. Look at the chapter titles from the Penguin edition—I think they were added by the translator, but they give you the flavor. They start with “Belisarius and Antonina,” and progress to “Justinian’s Misgovernment,” and then “The Destruction Wrought by a Demon-Emperor,” and by “Everyone and Everything Sacrificed to the Emperor’s Greed” Procopius’s face is bright red and he’s muttering to himself and steam is jetting out of his ears and you’re sort of afraid he’ll pull out a couple of pistols and shoot up the room like Yosemite Sam. (Then you remember he’s been dead for over fourteen centuries. We’re safe!)

Continue reading The Secret History

A Voyage Long and Tedious

As I’ve mentioned before, history is big and the layers go down forever. The more you read themore you realize how much you don’t know. The narrative you built out of the things you remember from school is full of holes.

Tony Horowitz had a hole moment on a visit to Plymouth Rock. A guide told him that among the top tourist misconceptions (along with the idea that the ten-foot Indian statue is life-sized. What is wrong with these people?) is the conviction that Columbus and the Pilgrims came over on the same boat. And he wondered: what did happen over that century and a half, anyway? So he wrote A Voyage Long and Strange. And I read the jacket copy and thought, hey, good question.

I didn’t get very far. Horowitz came to the project as a journalist rather than a historian. He seems to have assumed, without really thinking about it, that a history writer should travel to places where things happened. So to prepare for his chapters on the Norse he wandered around Newfoundland, and before writing about Columbus he visited the Dominican Republic.

Not that historians don’t travel. But Horowitz isn’t doing original research; he’s digesting already well researched information into a manageable lump for a general audience. So it’s not clear why he’s taking these trips. Occasionally he hits on some insight into how the history influenced the character of these places today, but these insights are rarely deep and his travels are mostly standard magazine-article tourist ramblings.

And he won’t shut up about them. He doesn’t introduce Columbus by describing the present Dominican Republic, or use his trip as a follow up to the history. He jumps back and forth within the same chapter, and can’t seem to get through more than a couple of pages of history at a time. Constantly, just as the book was getting into, say, the history of the Taino, it would stop dead so Horowitz could gripe about the difficulty of renting a car in Santo Domingo. I gave up somewhere during Horowitz’s quest to trace Coronado’s route through empty desert interspersed with a series of modern-day tourist sites. Somewhere in the world may be the perfect book to rectify my ignorance about that century and a half. This isn’t it.