This is another diverting instance of Eco playing around with history, mythology, and ideas like a kid with Legos or something. This one is nominallyThis is another diverting instance of Eco playing around with history, mythology, and ideas like a kid with Legos or something. This one is nominally set in 12th Century Byzantium and Northern Italy, but pulls in all kinds of crazy stuff from the early Sorbonne to the court of Frederick Barbarossa to the Assasins to the greater part of a mythological bestiary. The main thrust is the use of the Prester John myth as a political tool for Barbarossa's attempts to expand his power, but as with most of Eco's work, people soon start believing their own tales, and the protagonists set off on a quest for John's mythical kingdom, where all kinds of mythological and quasi-historical madness ensues. If you like Eco's other stuff, you'll definitely enjoy this one too....more
This is pretty much everything you could ask for in a biography of Mill. It covers the whole spectrum, from his personal life to his work to the intelThis is pretty much everything you could ask for in a biography of Mill. It covers the whole spectrum, from his personal life to his work to the intellectual and political contexts in which he did it, and does so with sympathy and verve. You could do much worse for a history of the progress and development of liberal reform in Victorian England, which is appropriate since his ideas were so central to it. What's unique here is that the author makes it clear that Mill was much more than a man of ideas, and that his was a throughgoingly humanist life, in which he was willing to put his fortune and reputation on the line to fight for his beliefs, even when the times were not yet ripe and the odds weren't in his favor.
The one strange exception to his universal generosity and esteem was his family, and it was a bit jarring to learn that someone who I admire so much and who seemed so far ahead of his time on so many issues, could be so callous to some of the people closest to him in life, albeit for complicated reasons arising from his nonconformist beliefs and his famed relationship with Harriet Taylor. That's a good lesson though, and reinforces the need to judge the personal, political, and intellectual spheres separately and on their own merits....more
An interesting attempt at a revisionist history of Genghis Khan and the Mongols. I only bother to say revisionist because in his (somewhat justified,An interesting attempt at a revisionist history of Genghis Khan and the Mongols. I only bother to say revisionist because in his (somewhat justified, as we will see) eagerness to vindicate the Mongols, he does go rather out of his way to downplay the havoc they spread. He spends all of maybe a page and a half on the sack of Baghdad, which resulted in the brutal and complete destruction of the greatest city of the most advanced civilization and culture of the era. This was a Big Deal, and what was destroyed and lost really needs to be taken into account along with what the Mongols built and enabled.
But what they built is quite impressive and important, and that's the story told by Weatherford. The semi-standard narrative of the Renaissance is that Marco Polo and the Venetians opened up trading routes with the East, commerce and cultural exchange in the Mediterranean and Near East grew from there, and eventually we rediscovered our birthright of ancient Roman and Greek culture and ideas. What's left out is who they opened up trading routes with, and how much that exchange had to do with Europe's ascent from the Dark Ages.
They opened trade with the Mongols, who had built the world's first true multicultural and international empire covering most of Asia and the Middle East. Although they did sack and burn and kill, that's not all they did. They also built safe roads and a postal system that allowed trade across thousands of miles of Eurasia, facilitated cultural and technological and religious exchange from Japan to Western Europe, invented paper money, militarized gunpowder and revolutionized siege tactics, used printing widely well before Gutenberg, and instituted efficient administration and the rule of law over a vast area. They even founded universities. They were probably the first multinational, meritocratic, ecumenical, and in many ways, modern state, and that state covered more territory than any other before or since. They created modern China under Kublai Khan, and their descendents ruled India into the 19th century. Not bad for a bunch of marginal, illiterate, yak-herding yurt-dwellers.
It's pretty amazing that the story of this remarkable man and his people doesn't figure more prominently in our history, but a combination of time, racism, chauvinism, and in modern times, a lack of access to what scant records remain due to the Cold War has kept it fairly marginal. So, in that way, this is a very important book, and I feel like it really filled an big gap in my understanding of history.
On the downside, the sourcing does seem a bit thin and/or legendary at times, but no more so than what we have on someone like Alexander or most other ancient world figures. Just take into account that he's a) going easy on the Mongols to try to counteract their really nasty reputation, and b) working from fragmentary and/or mythical information in some cases, and enjoy it for what it is, which is a well-told tale of a criminally neglected era of history....more
Another in an ongoing series of American readings, wherein I'm trying to get a better overall picture of my country's character and history. An impresAnother in an ongoing series of American readings, wherein I'm trying to get a better overall picture of my country's character and history. An impressive and inspiring story of a man who dragged himself up from nothing against great odds; a man of astounding will, personality, integrity, and intelligence, all of which were severely stunted by the society he lived in. It’s also a good look into the kinds of conditions that foster and perhaps even justify radicalism. I can at least understand, if not necessarily condone, his divergence from King and the integrationist/civil rights movement after reading about what he and his family/friends went through as black Americans. I can see how one could come to the conclusions that he did, given his harrowing experience, even if I don’t agree in the end. Of course, neither did he, in the end. It’s too bad he didn’t live to finish his evolution as Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. It would have been a great ending to an already inspiring and gripping story....more
Dense and foreboding. Some of the best and most subtle writing about the social and the melancholic that I've yet seen. A chronicle of the small thingDense and foreboding. Some of the best and most subtle writing about the social and the melancholic that I've yet seen. A chronicle of the small things we do to build bulwarks against time, death and despair, and of how sometimes they're not enough....more
This book addresses globalization almost exclusively from an economic standpoint. Viewed within those bounds, it seems pretty good, though I had a harThis book addresses globalization almost exclusively from an economic standpoint. Viewed within those bounds, it seems pretty good, though I had a hard time telling how much to take at face value since I didn’t feel like I had enough of a grasp of macroeconomics, trade, and finance to really engage and argue with it. He seemed to be making every effort to be even-handed, in that sober British-empiricist sort of way, but it’s hard to tell if that’s genuine or just a rhetorical strategy.
But, I’ve also not had much doubt that globalization has been an economic boon, if a somewhat fraught and unstable one, for most people and countries involved, or that the lack of integration with global markets is what’s really killing the poorest of the poor countries, which is the best and most compelling argument he makes. The problem is that he refuses to engage the argument that there might be other values that aren’t strictly economic but are nonetheless requirements for human health and happiness. Economic growth is of course incredibly important, but it’s necessary-but-not-sufficient, and economists can never seem to grasp that simple fact. He also blatantly caricatures those who would make arguments against a solely economic valuation of human happiness, almost always picking his putative opponents from the dumbest and most flamboyant 5% of people who question the costs of globalization, etc. The old “dirty hippies” kneejerk thing, which I would have thought he was above based on the soberness of much of his argument. Whenever he argues against fellow economists, he’s always evenhanded and fair, but anytime a non-economic concern comes up, he quickly gets dismissive and petulant.
So, if you want a look at globalization as an economic phenomenon from a market fundamentalist who at least seems fairly even-handed and willing to acknowledge and critique the errors and injustices that have happened in a strictly economic context, this is your book. If you want a broad-based argument for or critical examination of globalization that really addresses environmental, social, cultural, and the myriad other associated concerns, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Definitely worth reading as part of a broad survey, which is sort of what I’m gradually doing on the topic, but I wouldn’t read it as a sole source....more
A wide-ranging story of the development of the Socialist/Communist movement in 19th Century Europe, from the post French Revolution roots up to Lenin’A wide-ranging story of the development of the Socialist/Communist movement in 19th Century Europe, from the post French Revolution roots up to Lenin’s arrival in St. Petersburg(at the Finland Station) to lead the Bolsheviks in 1917....more