Given that my atheism was birthed from a Catholic upbringing, you'd think I'd know a little more about Christian history, but I don't. Enter Elaine Pa...moreGiven that my atheism was birthed from a Catholic upbringing, you'd think I'd know a little more about Christian history, but I don't. Enter Elaine Pagels, Christian historian par excellence! I'd heard her discussing Revelations on Fresh Air earlier this year and was intrigued, so I figured I'd give her work a try. Well worth it.
For the uninitiated, the canonical Christian New Testament represents but a handful of documents chosen from numerous texts about the life and times of Jesus written in the 200 years following his death. This book is about a number of them discovered half a century ago that describe a wild diversity of ideas, most of which adhere to a principle called "gnosticism," which, to put in terms that will make theologians cringe, holds that divinity should be sought through introspection, not through external sources, e.g. you don't reach God through the church; you need to find him/her your own self (or, as my friend n8 described it, "the Bible is SVN and the gnostic gospels are git"). Pagels' thesis is "to show how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy – and what this tells us about the origins of Christianity itself" (p. xxxiv), with the sub-point that texts included in the canonical Bible were often chosen for political and not ideological reasons.
Big claims! Obviously it's sort of impossible to prove things like this, but Pagels does a good job of trying. If you're going to unify a church it's pretty clear that rejecting texts that are explicitly anti-authoritarian is a good idea, but there are some less obvious ideas, like the appeal of Christ's literal suffering and resurrection over metaphorical interpretations, or who Jesus appeared to first after rebooting himself.
Aside from the many wondrous facts, what interested me most about this book was that it presented more evidence that the spread of good ideas is not inevitable. Reading about the rise of feminism in late-Roman / early-Christian times was a bit like reading that these people flew around in airplanes: if they'd progressed so far toward the present era's state of moral development, why didn't they take it further and abolish slavery (and check Facebook on complimentary airplane WiFi)? My conclusion from Pagels' descriptions of church political machinations is that ideas are only as powerful as the people who believe them. Gnostics believed all kinds of things, but they did not seem to truck much with organization and political power. The orthodoxy did. They won the popularity contest and spawned an ideology that swept the world. The gnostics spawned a few dusty scrolls in an Egyptian urn, and their ideas were extinguished until others could think them up again.
It's also a bit absurd reading any of these texts from an atheistic perspective. All of them, including the canonical ones, read like a crazy person's website, or the preachings of a street loony. I watched The Master halfway through reading this and it was hard not to imagine Philip Seymour Hoffman intoning some of this claptrap. I had to keep reminding myself that presumably large numbers of people took this stuff very seriously, so it's worth trying to figure out why.(less)
Featuring considerably less historical detail and analysis than I was expecting, this is a straight-up travelogue by a Brit who worries about blisters...moreFeaturing considerably less historical detail and analysis than I was expecting, this is a straight-up travelogue by a Brit who worries about blisters after two hours, but it's none the worse for it. Carey is a fun, goofy kind of guy to follow around, and he does drop the occasional historical nugget (e.g. there is a mountain in Japan called Fudesute, which means "thrown brushes", alluding to an incident in which the artist Kano Motonobu threw aside his brushes when he could not capture the beauty of the mountain).
The book suffers from what seems like a miserly publisher's foible: the Hiroshige prints and few accompanying modern photos are all on sequential pages, which quickly get out of sync with the text, forcing the reader to either flip back and forth or just ignore the contextual imagery. The prints are exquisite, and since Carey is trying to revisit the site of each one, he is constantly referring to them. No fault of the author, I'm sure, but frustrating all the same.
It's amazing how friendly the Japanese seem to be. As a Westerner who can speak Japanese I guess Carey is kind of a novelty, but it seemed amazing that people were constantly inviting him into their homes and offering him gifts. I doubt a Japanese professor wandering the American countryside would receive the same reception.(less)
Culture plays a significant role in the success or failure of civilizations. Interesting thesis, right? One that might not seem so objectionable until...moreCulture plays a significant role in the success or failure of civilizations. Interesting thesis, right? One that might not seem so objectionable until you state it in concrete historical terms: Western civilizations have dominated the world for the last 200 years largely because of their culture. Culture is personal, so people take things like this personally: you're saying Europeans are intrinsically superior to other people? Eurocentrist! Bigot! Racist!
David Landes has been called a Eurocentrist, and probably meaner things too, but the author present in this book is clearly not prejudiced. He's distinctly postjudiced. He probably knows more about non-European cultures than you do, and extolls many of their virtues, but after thinking about a huge range of history, he finds themes in Western culture that he believes were critical to its success. I think that's a totally legitimate opinion, and I admire Landes for exploring a touchy subject in a world of haters.
However, as legitimate as it may be, it's still an opinion, which brings us to this book's first failing: arrogance. The very title is absurdly presumptuous in its scope, as if a satisfying explanation existed for the inequality of nations, but titles are meant to be provocative. What bugged me was the fact that the importance of culture in the behavior of groups is exquisitely difficult to prove in the present, under semi-controlled conditions, with relatively small numbers of people. Does Google outperform Yahoo because they have a superior culture? Or because they have better tech, better recruiters, better spies, better something else? That's very tough thing to prove, and if you wanted to try you would have to perform extensive surveying, interviews, and qualitative observation to convince any self-respecting sociologist. Scale that up to civilizations and restrain yourself to the scant anecdotal evidence history provides us and you really have to start injecting some first person quid pro quos, e.g. a lot of "I think"s and "In my opinion"s, something Landes rarely does. I guess this is a critique of history as a discipline more than of this book in particular, but the scale of the claims being made here, and the fact that there are specific interpretations being presented, just irritated the scientist in me. I suppose history, like so many branches of inquiry in which deduction is a practical impossibility, has a tendency to overstate its explanatory power.
The anal informaticist in me was also repeatedly incensed by some seriously un-cited passages, like one in which he explains that printing never caught on in China because ideographs are intrinsically hard to set in type, and that ideographs dissuade literacy: "one may learn the characters as a child, but if one does not keep using them, one forgets how to read" (p. 51). Perhaps he thought the challenges ideographs presented to printing are common knowledge or obvious, but I disagree. You have to cite facts! Granted I am a citation Nazi, but come on, he's a historian!
Speaking of historians, are there any histories that don't include numerous pointless tangents in which the historian lays out the factual history of pet interest X, regardless of whether X has any relevance to the overall thesis? Frankly I enjoyed most of the tangents in this book, but they really just muddy the waters. State hypothesis, present evidence, recapitulate hypothesis, analyze, repeat. Stay on target.
In the end, I enjoyed reading this, but I would only recommend it as a source for further reading material. I didn't find the largely secondary, anecdotal, and correlational evidence he presented convincing. I would very much mistrust any work that cites this book as a source of anything other than opinion. I am, however, interested in reading some of Landes's work on the historical importance of timekeeping.
edulcoration (n): purification (p. 34)
condign (adj): fitting, appropriate (p. 144)
cliometrics (n): application mathematical economic techniques to history (p. 165)
gravamen (n): part of an argument that carries the most weight, or any accusation. Perhaps also the name of my future metal band. Currently vying with "One Great Black Woolfe of a More Than Ordinarie Bigness, Which Is Like to Be More Feirce and Bould Than the Rest, and So Occasions the More Hurt." Definitely wins for brevity.
contumacy (n): stubbornness (p. 181)
cui bono (L): for whose benefit? (p. 225)
suzerainty (n): basically lordship. A suzerain was a French feudal lord. (p. 430)
irredentism (n): belief in annexing some other place to your own holdings b/c the people there share something in common with you. Pretty arcane. (p. 435)
The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia - cited a lot in the first chapter, a Eurocentric antecedent to Landes
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12... - published after Landes, but on the same theme, and solidly in the culture camp - Acemoglu wrote that interesting paper on disease and resulting societal structures
"Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of exactitude," De Waal writes at the beginning. "And this n...more"Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of exactitude," De Waal writes at the beginning. "And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return." This is a promising way to open a family history alarmingly described as "extraordinarily moving" on the back cover blurb, a blurb that also mentions Nazis. Maybe this won't be another history to further blunt the worn edges of my horror and outrage. Maybe it will be something else. Why does this British man have a tiny Japanese sculpture in his pocket?
So I began intrigued, by De Waal and Iggy and Jiro and these weird little sculptures called "netsuke." Charles and the Parisian Ephrussis were interesting, though for much of this portion I just felt bad about not having read Proust, and while the netsuke make their entrance, they are not handled. They are not exact in the sense De Waal clearly appreciates, probably because this section seems the most constructed from research and public documents than the more personal sources he used from his own family. Nevertheless, an interesting portrait of Jews in 19th century Paris. Who knew they were such expert swordsmen?
In Vienna the netsuke encounter De Waal's direct ancestors, including his mother Elisabeth and his uncle Iggy. The family has more personality and the netsuke have a more definite position in De Waal's grandmother's dressing room, where her children would attend her as she prepared for an evening. They would take out the netsuke and she would tell them stories. The brindled wolf in the author's pocket acquires layers of memory with each glancing touch through the years, and De Waal conveys it, with poise and discretion. Elisabeth's return to Nazi-occupied Vienna and impersonation of a gestapo officer tantalizes with drama, real drama, but De Waal grants it only a paragraph, perhaps out of respect for his mother's carefully dispensed recollections, perhaps because appreciating that derring-do is another form of melancholy for things lost to time.
Some of this discretion, these omissions, make the book more interesting. Elisabeth burned many of her correspondences, and De Waal wonders why, but will never know. Iggy is gay but his gayness is never addressed directly. His partner is simply De Waal's Japanese uncle. Doesn't being gay on top of being Austrian, Jewish, and American living in Tokyo or fighting with the Americans in WWII form an essential part of Iggy's experience? Netsuke were originally practical objects that kept a corded pouch from slipping through a kimono sash, and yet they lost their utilitarian value entirely when they traveled to Europe and become purely aesthetic objects. Surely this transition concerns a ceramicist like De Waal, a man so concerned with tangibility?
In some ways I also wanted more about expatriates and assimilation. My parents are expatriates that have never chosen to naturalize despite living in the US for almost 30 years and raising 3 American children, and while I did naturalize and feel American, I still don't have roots in the land stretching back generations. De Waal describes the Jews of Europe and the Ephrussis in particular as perpetual expats, forever suspected by their gentile neighbors despite all efforts to assimilate, but I was more interested in Iggy in LA, Elisabeth in England, Gisela in Mexico, expats who not only left their homes but did so as individuals, creating homes and families of their on in alien places. What drove them? What kept them?
The book is a personal and personalized history that spans numerous cultures and places in ways I was not expecting (there's even a Middlemarch reference in there, Ak). Definitely recommended.
My brother got me these amazingly detailed netsuke-like magnets and cell phone charms when he was in Japan last spring:
Much like 1491, this book features a vague thesis (exchange between the Americas and the rest of the world in the past 500 years has shaped the presen...moreMuch like 1491, this book features a vague thesis (exchange between the Americas and the rest of the world in the past 500 years has shaped the present) over which Mann drapes digression upon digression, some of them fascinating, others decidedly less so, all thoroughly cited, but few of those citations referring to primary sources. Here's what I found interesting:
Chinese demand for silver drove a great deal of European expansion
When I think about the motives for European colonialism, I think of greed, flight from religious persecution, and geopolitical maneuvering. A Chinese capital sink was not on my radar, but Mann did a good job convincing me it played a role. I would have liked to see more exploration of what might have happened without a huge consumer for American silver. Inflation? Also, Chinese currency history and the endless successions of retribution in Potosi? Not that interesting. Summarize, cite, and move on, please.
Jamestown was a corporate enterprise, not a government one.
This was a minor point in the book, but I hadn't realized one of America's founding colonies wasn't exactly a bunch of people trying to reinvent themselves or the English crown making a land grab, but rather a corporation trying to turn a buck. Corporate greed is more deeply rooted in our history than I thought!
Success of old-world tropical diseases predicated social institutions, particularly slavery
This was one of his larger points. Aside from the irony that Europeans generally failed to survive in tropical regions of the Americas because of diseases they brought with them from the tropics in other parts of the world, Mann focused primarily on the way these diseases shaped demographics and cultural institutions, drawing mostly from the work of Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson at MIT. Obviously it's hard/impossible to prove disease played a greater role than, say, suitability of an area for crops that can be grown en masse and require a lot of manual labor, but I think Mann successfully summarized the importance of disease. Acemoglu et al's work goes on to explore how differences in social / governmental institutions that were related to disease have influenced current economic success, basically pointing out that colonies where Europeans settled in large numbers are more economically successful today than colonies where they maintained small numbers but employed many slaves (they do a lot to separate the influence of disease on institution forming and the influence of institutions on economic success from other factors that I don't entirely understand, but I believe that's the gist). I wonder how this kind of analysis holds up when applied to US states, comparing slave and non-slave states.
American tubers and tobacco facilitated population booms and population expansion into agriculturally marginal areas in China and Europe, facilitating huge social and landscape changes
Many people seem surprised to learn that Italians hadn't heard of tomatoes before Columbus, or that the Irish weren't eating potatoes since the dawn of time, or that southeast asians weren't turbo charging their cuisine with hot chilies before Europeans showed up with their wimpy palates. If you're one of those people, be surprised no longer: all these veggies come from the Americas, along with tobacco, sweet potatoes, and corn/maize. If you're a food/history nerd, though, this probably isn't news. What I found interesting was the history of how productive, nutritional crops that could be grown in marginal soil abetted landscape changes in China (migration to hillier terrain, deforestation, increased erosion, catastrophic flooding), and how potatoes assuaged famine and may have effected political stability in European nations as those countries were industrializing and expanding their reach.
There were many synthetic communities of escaped African slaves that survived well into the present
I was totally unaware of these "maroon" cities, so this was definitely interesting. Much as the bulk of 1491 was an effort to illuminate agency among American Indian peoples, these chapters did the same for Africans in the Americas. However, I wanted to see more about how these independent hybrid cultures influenced the present. Candomblé was mentioned, along with some of Brazil's other Christianish religions, but it would have been cool to learn about what components of these practices originated in maroon communities and not among slaves.
Overall, interesting stuff. I would have liked to see some exploration of one of Mann's least supported assertions in 1491, namely that American democratic principles were influenced by Indian example, but maybe he's saving that for another book.
Notes & Words
moil (v): while this is basically synonymous with "toil," apparently it can also mean "twirl." Twirling, apparently, is hard goddamn work. (p. xvi)
ensorcel (v): bewitch (p. 5)
entrepôt (n): warehouse or distribution center (p. 8)
optative mood (n): like the subjunctive. Actually not clear what the difference is. Maybe optative is a subclass restricted to indicating a desired state? (p. 28)
p. 30 Apparently at some point a Swiss bishop exorcised a glacier. Looks like Ladurie 1971 p. 181 is the citation, but it doesn't look like it's been digitized.
p. 31 He doesn't dwell on this, but he describes the work of Dull 2010 asserting that Indian die-off lead to massive reforestation b/c of the absence of Indian-managed fire, which lead to massive carbon sequestration out of the atmosphere, which induced a reverse greenhouse effect that influence the Little Ice Age experienced from the 16th century to the 18th. That's pretty wild. Need to read the paper. I think the crux is how they measured carbon released due to burning.
anodyne (adj): relieving pain (p. 41)
p. 59 "By women his flesh was scraped from his bones with mussel shells and, before his face, thrown into the fire." Ow. Apparently this is from a primary source.
inanition (n): starvation, lethargy (p. 61)
lagniappe (n): a small bonus added on to a purchase, like a complimentary cookie from Bakesale Betty's (a bakery here in Oakland). Apparently comes from Cajun creole, and may have originated in S. America. Mann used this (to me) unusual word numerous times, yet I don't think he commented on its origins, which seems odd. (p. 142)
tisane (n): an aromatic tea (p. 152)
p. 197 apparently the word potato comes from the Taino word batata, which means sweet potato (which is unrelated to the potato)
sansculotte (n): a poor French revolutionary, literally "without knee breeches." I guess the modern equivalent might be sansipad (totally worth enduring the ad for).
p. 213 There exists 554 treatise entitled The Biogeochemistry of Vertebrate Excretion. I can't seem to find a copy online, but I imagine the first page of this review is just as funny.
encomium (n): formal high praise (p. 215)
p. 240 ullamamalitzli was a Mesoamerican sport played with a rubber ball in which players could only hit the ball with their butt. I was having some trouble visualizing this so YouTube to the rescue.
Only read the first chapter, but there were no citations and no analysis of *why* China as so innovative. Also, Game of Thrones began dominating my re...moreOnly read the first chapter, but there were no citations and no analysis of *why* China as so innovative. Also, Game of Thrones began dominating my reading life. So. Back to the library.(less)
This was a text in a class on modern Japanese history (from the Meiji Restoration to the present). It's one of the few texts that I still keep with me...moreThis was a text in a class on modern Japanese history (from the Meiji Restoration to the present). It's one of the few texts that I still keep with me, mostly because it's small, but also because it's a well-written summation of an area I know almost nothing about. I just picked it up the other day to check some facts from The Thousand Autumns of Nathan de Zoet. Turns out there really were Christian rebellions in 17th century Japan (the book also has some summary of pre-Meiji material)!(less)
First-person history is truly amazing. Even if all you do is marvel at how some things have changed while others have stayed the same, it is still fab...moreFirst-person history is truly amazing. Even if all you do is marvel at how some things have changed while others have stayed the same, it is still fabulous. Grizzlies everywhere! Completely unselfconscious racism! No roads! Moaning about the monotonous summers! Racial diversity! California crazies! So good.
If you didn’t take the time to read the description, this book comprises letters written by one William H. Brewer during his time leading a field crew for the California State Geological Survey from 1860 to 1864. He and his band of beans-and-bacon-fed chaps traipsed o’er hill and dale (and desert and chaparral and flood plain and alkali flat and glacier), up and down the great state of California, mapping it, collecting biological specimens, and, most importantly, investigating its mineral wealth. Brewer was technically hired to be the botanist, but did more surveying and logistical work.
That would would all be meaningless if Brewer were not Brewer. He was a fastidious measurer and recorder. I mean, he measured everything. If he was staying in a room and felt it was a bit chilly, he would whip out the thermometer and write down exactly how chilly it was. When he saw a big tree, he was not satisfied until he wrote down exactly how big it was. If you were to do a shot every time he measured something, you would be drunk in 10 pages, dead in 50. This compulsion is annoying, amusing, eventually endearing, and ultimately reassuring, because it engenders trust in him as a faithful narrator, and that trust is what makes this such an exceptional window into the past. There’s a scene in the book where Brewer meets some fellow Yale alumni on a steamer headed down the Sacramento toward San Francisco, who he later employs in the survey. His account is succinct and unremarkable, but a footnote includes a letter by one of the men he met recounting the experience, and it is incredibly dramatized and colorful by comparison. Little tidbits like that make me believe Brewer when he says he walked extraordinary distances, or that his companions were turning blue on top of Mt. Shasta, or that the majority of the Central Valley flooded one winter.
My only disappointment was the lack of botanical detail, and frankly, given the info in the intro, I suspect there wasn’t actually much to report. Brewer surely collected quite a bit, and many California native plants and animals bear his name (including the lovely Brewer’s clarkia, which I long to see), but apparently he recognized very few of them, most likely because they were new to science. I’d be curious to take a peek at his field journals, which he intended for personal use, and not for more general consumption.
If you like history and you love the California landscape, you should check this out.
p. 13 "The weather is soft and balmy—no winter, but a perpetual spring and summer. Such is Los Angeles, a place where 'every prospect pleases and only man is vile.'" Given that I live in Northern CA and that it is thus my sworn duty to look down upon the benighted fools who choose to live in SoCal, this passage made me laugh. The quote isn't cited, though, so I looked it up. It's from a hymn called "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" by Reginald Heber, a Brit and former Bishop of Calcutta. Brewer was probably commenting on the mixed Mexican population of Los Angeles at the time, but I thought it was a sort of nice piece of romantic environmental misanthropy as well. Turns out the original has become quite controversial and emblematic of European colonial arrogance with respect to native peoples, derided by no less than Mahatma Gandhi (the next lines are "In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown / The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone"). Oh so much more on Wikipedia.
p. 41 "Such a pickle!" It filled me with joy to learn that people used the word "pickle" this way in 1860.
p. 63 Brewer encounters an Indian who has caught several "vivaparoa fishes" which give live birth, "a thing," he claims, "nowhere known except on the coast of California." There are, in fact, quite a few viviparous fish in many parts of the world, but given the fact that he was on the beach in CA, I'm guessing the Indian was catching surfperch (family Embiotocidae), which are all apparently viviparous (so sayeth Pacific Coast Inshore Fishes).
p. 68 yarb (n):Wordnik has it as a colloquial synonym for "herb."
p. 70 "No place but California can produce such groups." Brewer commenting on the racial diversity at a church service including Spaniards, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese and Anglo-Americans. So interesting that even then the area was remarkable for its diversity.
p. 71 Brewer loves the ladies. Well, he is forever talking about them. A lot of days are like, "Found a big oak, was afraid of grizzles, met several lovely daughters." He doesn't seem like a lecher, so maybe he was just starved for female companionship?
p. 82 He seemed quite afraid of tarantulas early on, but he mellows out later.
p. 121 "Much as can be said about this lovely climate, yet give me our home climate, variable as it is. This is healthy, very healthy, lovely, but it is monotonous—four more months, long months of dry air and clear sky." Tell it, brother. I love it when Brewer gets all Northeastern.
p. 121 "There is no canopy like the tent, or the canopy of Heaven, no bed so sweet as the bosom of Mother Earth." Sometimes Brewer is clearly Romantic, but he's no environmentalist in the modern sense. Constantly killing animals for sport, doesn't criticize the massive environmental destruction of mining. Strange.
p. 142 Stockholders exploit the miners, miners (sexually) exploit the Indians, the whole system exploits the land. It's like a David Mitchell novel.
p. 160 "I wish you could see those Mexican ladies ride; you would say you never saw riding before."
p. 242 He describes almost the entire Central Valley flooding in 1862: 6,000 square miles under water (which prompted 11,000 lbs of rescue ham!). Astounding.
p. 251 "What the 'Nigger Question' is at home, the 'Mongolian Question' is here." Brewer dislikes the Chinese lack of integration. "The morals of this class are anything but pure."
p. 256 Apparently Tamalpais could mean "bay country mountain" in... Miwok?
p. 257 Here and elsewhere Brewer laments the fact that the Spanish land grants have left huge tracts of land in the hands of a few, preventing smaller farmers from settling and making a living for themselves. I wonder if this is at least partially responsible for the relatively large areas of land that have been conserved in the West.
p. 261 meerschaum (n): a soft white mineral, often used for pipes.
p. 295 "Previous to 1848 the river was noted for the purity of its waters, flowing from the mountains as clear as crystal; but, since the discovery of gold, the 'washings' render it as muddy and turbid as is the Ohio at spring flood" Again he draws the connection between mining and environmental changes, and the decreasing utility of the river as a result, but digs no further. Later he describes the silt as "surely filling up the Bay of San Francisco" (p. 328). He seems perfectly free with his opinions in other matters (e.g. the "feelings of deep disgust" (p. 322) excited by most Indians he meets), so why doesn't he at least worry over the wanton destruction of the landscape he so enjoys exploring? Was there some stigma associated with criticizing "progress" and Westward expansion?
p. 348 "At Tomales there are several houses, but the only one where we could get 'accommodations' was a very low Irish groggery, kept by a 'lady.'" He's none too fond of the Irish either. Gotta love the word "groggery" though.
p. 367 He says Marin was pronounced "Ma-reen'", whereas today we pronounce it mah-RIN, last syllable rhyming with "tin." Wonder when that changed.
p. 411 "Such was our camp—picturesque, romantic; but prosy truth bids me to say that mosquitoes swarmed in myriads, with not one-tenth the fear but with twice the ferocity of a southern Secessionist." One of those things that hasn't changed. Speaking of Secessionists, he often calls them "Secesh," as in "We have a lot of 'Secesh' at my boarding house." Love it.
p. 434 glutton (n): a synonym for wolverine!
p. 474 "You at home little know the blessed charm that letters can have, their true value to the person that wanders, homeless and desolate, especially when his bed is the ground and his canopy the sky, and when all he holds dear is so far away."
p. 493 On the subject of "half-breed" white/Indians, he writes, "It is a good American doctrine that a man not entirely white has few rights or privileges that a pure white is bound to respect..." On the same page, he laments the murder of many Indians at the hands of white settlers: "They went in the night to this island and murdered the whole of these people! Women, children, infants at their mothers' breasts, decrepit, infirm, and aged people were killed in cold blood and with the most revolting cruelty." He then goes on to say that their husbands and fathers now plague the area, seeking revenge, and the only solution is "their absolute extermination." People of the future will probably look back on our time and marvel at the same discordancy between our professed compassionate egalitarianism and our unwillingness to intervene when genocide threatens predominantly non-white nations. I guess the recognition of our hypocrisy is a step in the right direction. Yay?
p. 521 "A few days ago, before we got the deer, the boys shot a large arctic owl, an enormous fellow. They dressed and cooked him. I have often heard of 'biled owl,' but this is the first time that I have practically tested it, and it is nothing to brag of—strong, tough, and with a rather mousy flavor." Ew. Just... ew.
p. 546 "They are generally the 'poor white trash' from the frontier slave states..." Wikipedia would have us believe that the phrase "white trash" emerged in the 1830s among black slaves to describe poor whites. Amazing.
p. 567 "begirt with a hackamore" apparently means "encompassed by a kind of bitless bridle," as in the animals doesn't have a bar of metal in its mouth.(less)
The prose is also a little flowery at times, and he occasionally gets a little too caught up in his tangents into local history (a...moreOld review from 2005
The prose is also a little flowery at times, and he occasionally gets a little too caught up in his tangents into local history (a topic he clearly adores), but for the most part that history is quite interesting and usually relevant to his subject. Overall it’s a great history of rattlesnakes in colonial America. If/when I return to New England, I need to go looking for these guys…(less)
This was referenced in a lecture on / performance of Dvorak's string quartets I attended. Not really sure I'll ever get to it, but thought I'd jot it...moreThis was referenced in a lecture on / performance of Dvorak's string quartets I attended. Not really sure I'll ever get to it, but thought I'd jot it down.(less)
Long have I sought a work wherein the word "piratical" appears as a descriptive necessity, and not humorous affectation. That, act...moreOld review from 2006
Long have I sought a work wherein the word "piratical" appears as a descriptive necessity, and not humorous affectation. That, actually, is a lie. A very helpful bookseller at Diesel recommended this to me when I inquired after books cataloguing different types of ships, sails, and riggings one might encounter in a Patrick O'Brian novel. The book has nothing to do with such concerns, of course, but it does do the job of feeding my budding nautical history obsession. So far so good, more upon completion. Yar.
Certinaly some shortcomings, including an almost exclusive emphasis on pirates of British extraction. Cordingly takes pains to emphasize that stripped of the strange glamor of romance they've accreted over the centuries, pirates were (and are) savage criminals who were as careless in their violence as they were ruthless. It seems odd, then, that he spends so little time on pirates of modern times in southeast Asia and elsewhere, pirates unfamiliar and lacking romance. I think that a comparative approach would have better emphasized the criminal nature of piracy and stripped them of their romance. Instead, Cordingly takes off his shirt and rolls around in that romance, spreading it all over and making little castles, giggling all the while. Ok, that's not true. I just wanted to write it. He does seem to express an admiration for certain pirates, though, pirates with a sense of style or daring. Seems odd.
p. 67, Mary Anne Talbot, passed as a male soldier and sailor for many years in the last quarter of the 18th century. Any relation to the Sandman story in World’s End? Also, Hannay Snell and Rebecca Johnson. Mary Read and Anne Bonny, women pirates operating in the Caribbean and along the east coast of North America, tried in 1721.