This is a good survey of well known travelogues in, through, and around central Asia, from the 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, to the 17th-centuryThis is a good survey of well known travelogues in, through, and around central Asia, from the 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, to the 17th-century English trader Anthony Jenkinson.
Actually there are two additional travelers covered in the book after Jenkinson, but I generally lose interest entering the early modern period so stopped there. If possible one should read the travelogues themselves, and I intend to do this for several (e.g., Ibn Battuta and Babur really stood out for me). Some of Blunt's analysis is Eurocentric in an unselfconscious, twirpy way not surprising in the mid-20th century in which Golden Road was written, but pretty obnoxious now. But he means well, and is clearly taken with his subject matter. In general, this was a very enjoyable read and it contains great images....more
Having made it somewhere close to 400 pages in, I gave this book an honest chance. And if it magically gets better, or subsequent installments improveHaving made it somewhere close to 400 pages in, I gave this book an honest chance. And if it magically gets better, or subsequent installments improve, my sincere apologies.
Several people, whose opinions I trust (including my mom!), insisted it was surprisingly good. I absolutely loathed it.
I have read romance novels before, as well as that most specific of subgenres: the time-travel romance. 18th-century Scotland seems a popular choice in this regard, which is the case in Outlander. The one twist is that the book's “now” is late 1940s/early 1950s, not the 1990s of its publication.
I expected hokey sex, idealized characters, and traditional gender norms that are transgressed in non-transgressive ways. The time-travel aspect serves a lazy author well in this respect; by setting the novel in the past, merely being a woman with an opinion who considers herself fully human and has skills, can be interpreted as uncommonly plucky.
I set aside for the moment that to envision women in the past as embodying none of these things is (a) unrealistic, and (b) to the extent it was even kind of true--i.e., that women in times past were skill-less, opinionless creatures, or at least expected to behave as though they were--it pertained mostly to upper class white women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most women through most of history, including right now, have worked by necessity, contributing to domestic and public economies through their own skill and labor. And to believe humans under any circumstances fail to assert themselves however and whenever they can, betrays both an anemic understanding of human behavior and a profound lack of historical imagination.
So I began reading Outlander fully anticipating these normal pitfalls of time-travel romance novels. I did, however, expect to enjoy a good story and some decently researched historical fiction (in the generalized sense that the author will get period technology, politics, et al. correct). To give the author her due, the overarching story isn’t bad and her treatment of history broadly isn’t embarrassing. So why is it so god awful?
Because this book is a protracted rape fantasy. Which is extra disgusting given that a woman wrote it for women. Though this preoccupation certainly belongs to the genre and mustn’t be unique to Outlander, that didn’t give me any more patience with it. Rather, it caused me concern for my younger self who had read these kinds of fantasies before and been not just unperturbed, but game.
Gabaldon portrays rape as something that happens primarily in the past. Where—and this part seems less far-fetched—it is a constant threat. Women unaccompanied by men in many times and places (including some places in the world today) indeed seemed suspect or “loose” to those on the winning end of the power differential, who felt free to do pretty much whatever they liked; with the understanding that there might be a man somewhere who could exact some sort of restitution...on their own behalf, as though they were the harmed party. Naturally.
I think I could stomach reading about a constantly rapey past, if its pure factuality were the only thing to get beyond. You know, much like women today cope with the factuality of a frequently rapey present.
But for each time unwanted, aggressive male attention is portrayed as awful and frightening, it is just as often portrayed luridly, like it’s a little sexy that these 18th-century guys just can’t/won’t control themselves. I mean (I’m guessing the reader is meant to fantasize), that could be me getting all of that old-timey sexual harassment, and wouldn’t that be (just a little) hot?
Naturally, the 18th-century hero is constantly saving our time-traveling heroine from the constant rape (which adds to his hotness, no doubt). She even saves herself from it a time or two, which probably kept me reading 20-or-so pages longer than I might otherwise have.
So our hero is anti-rape, which starts to seem kind of refreshing. Until you realize that he is perfectly fine with beating women. Our heroine is properly upset…kind of…when she realizes her historic hubby is happy to use violence to “punish” her. Actually she just behaves huffily, like he forgot a birthday or something, and not like he beat her severely enough that she couldn’t sit down for several days.
She keeps on talking to him. Or more accurately, she lets him talk to her, because a man that’s just beaten you black and blue is so very fascinating. You just really want to know what he has to say. She slowly begins to realize as he speaks that, you know, he rolls 18th-century and shit. Maybe a little beating isn’t worth being so sour about. Maybe she even deserved it. She does exact a promise from him never to do it again. Because men who beat women can always be relied upon never…to do it…again.
One final gripe is how Gabaldon’s obsession with rape is used to utterly demonize homosexuality. The book’s villain, as it turns out, entertains homosexual fantasies, particularly about our wife-beating 18th-century hero. And when the villain can’t act on these, he beats said hero and then rapes him.
Again, as with the general rapeyness of the past, I don’t find it hard to believe plenty of homosexual people by necessity have led all kinds of repressed, upsetting lives in earlier times. Many do even now. And I’m guessing men raped men, as also happens today. But did that necessarily, or even mostly, overlap with what we today would call their sexual orientation? As the truism goes that, apparently, Diana Gabaldon has never heard: rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. Repression can be expressed in lots of ways; violence towards others, yes, but also in other pettier kinds of exercises of power, also in self-abnegation and self-harm. Finally, must a repressed sexual orientation configure an entire personality at all? It is surely significant, but humans are deep and sundry creatures who find all kinds of ways to live humanely in abnormal and inhumane circumstances, at least as often as they don’t. Why, I want to ask Gabaldon, is the only homosexual character in the whole book a raping, sadistic son-of-a-bitch?
But a better question: Why is this literary atrocity so goddamned popular?!
Amy Kaufman, a scholar of early English literature, has argued persuasively that by situating certain behaviors, like rape, in the past and claiming that they uniquely characterize that past, we not only pretend such things don’t occur today--and so, fail to address them when they do--but also create a space where readers/viewers can, in fact, fantasize about these behaviors and these supposed pasts in which modern taboos didn’t adhere…to the extent you can call a crime that occurs every day and goes largely unpunished a taboo.
Kaufman is concerned specifically with the Middle Ages, but her argument is relevant to general uses of historical periods-as-settings. She specifically deals with Game of Thrones and, saliently, the treatment of ISIS in U.S. rhetoric and in its own propaganda. She is also most preoccupied—as one should be—with these depictions of rape and female suffering as male fantasy. But Gabaldon’s popularity implies that men are not alone in entertaining fantasies of abuse by situating them safely in a fictive past time. Crucially, in Outlander female suffering is not precisely titillating, but the near miss of suffering apparently is.
Attraction, sex, and gender roles are wildly complex and separate, though interconnected, aspects of being a human animal. The difference between fantasy and reality, and how one does or does not influence the other is equally complicated. So I am not suggesting that Gabaldon’s popularity demonstrates that her female readers harbor secret rape fantasies. I am suggesting that her popularity suggests the skewed and self-destructive messages women receive from young ages regarding their relationship to sex and being the object of someone else’s attraction. It demonstrates the oversimplification of the dynamics between sex, gender, fantasy, and reality to the point of unhealthfulness.
I am also asserting that conceptually ghettoizing modern problems in a fictive past is an irresponsible and unimaginative way to present history and to consider our present.
For actual data regarding rape in the U.S. today, visit RAINN.org.
This work is primarily a compendium of excerpts from primary sources which Lewis has arranged in order to describe the development of a number of majoThis work is primarily a compendium of excerpts from primary sources which Lewis has arranged in order to describe the development of a number of major entertainments that developed over the course of the 19th century in the United States: dime museums, minstrelsy, circuses, melodramas, burlesque, wild west shows, amusement parks, and vaudeville. Lewis has collected rich and textured materials here. He provides minimal analysis, but observes in his introduction the foundational nature of this collection. Future historians can examine what he has pulled together and provide the analysis.
My two main takeaways from this book are:
1. Moralizing critiques of popular culture are nothing new. Even 150 years ago, well educated cultural gadflies were decrying the working classes' short attention span and taste for pure amusement...while periodically indulging in these amusements themselves. Apparently high culture has always been sliding steadily and irrevocably downhill, according to the self-appointed arbiters of public taste and decency.
2. American popular entertainment of the 19th century was, not incidentally but at its roots, deeply racist. Minstrelsy, a form of entertainment developed by northern white men who performed with black painted faces in a faux patois meant to mimic southern enslaved African Americans, is now notorious for its gross essentializing and perpetuation of damaging stereotypes of black Americans. I think less well known--or at least less discussed--is how exoticization/denigration of the "Other" (in whatever incarnation) enjoyed general and widespread popularity throughout the 19th century. From the so-called "Wild Men of Borneo" sideshow performers (developmentally disabled brothers of Irish ancestry from Waltham, MA) to the Jolly Darkie Target Game at Coney Island (precisely as aggressively awful as it sounds) and Buffalo Bill Cody's portrayal of Native Americans in his Wild West Show as savages who had been overtaken and tamed by "civilization," white America loved to turn its fascinated gaze on any entertainment that purported to describe the weird, the exotic, the less-than, the different.
And an addendum to takeaway number two above: for each mention Mark Twain gets in American schools as a great writer, there ought to be another mention of what a foul white supremacist he was. Among the many American writers quoted at length by Lewis, none of them come off so alarmingly hateful and racist as does Samuel Clemens...and I mean alarmingly hateful and racist even for a 19th-century white guy. It's so apparent, I'm ashamed it was news to me.
I can't recommend this book enough for the welcome adjustment it provides to the normal inherited view of pre-recorded pop culture as quaint and simple, or of modern pop culture as comparatively sophisticated and novel. Our gadgets have changed. Hopefully we're growing more inclusive as a society, less frightened and fascinated by the sheer fact of difference (although that remains to be seen). But, in the "pop" sense, we still just want to be distracted and dazzled. ...more
As a physical volume, Ancient Egypt, edited by David P. Silverman, has the look and feel of a survey history textbook. But before that puts you off, nAs a physical volume, Ancient Egypt, edited by David P. Silverman, has the look and feel of a survey history textbook. But before that puts you off, note that the content is far superior.
The print decisions here are excellent in every respect and are what lend the book-as-object a textbook vibe. The paper is fairly heavy and there are full color, high quality images (marginal, half, and full page) throughout. Many pages contain inset textboxes that focus more specifically on a topic treated generally in the running text. The end of each section’s running text, with very few exceptions, coincides with a page break, which makes for easy navigation in a volume containing so many separate authors, sections, and topics. All of these decisions make the vast and varied amounts of information presented, coherent and digestible to the reader. One last textbook-y characteristic of which I am less fond is the omission of footnotes. A lot of people hate these anyway, but the academic in me misses them.
Lack of footnotes notwithstanding, Ancient Egypt still excels where most textbooks fail. With multiple authors, but a single editor, the text reads cohesively, yet makes space for the different areas of expertise of each author without watering down points of possible contention among them. One of the worst aspects of traditional textbook content is the impression of omniscience and univocal historical agreement that an army of editors cannot help but convey. The resulting “consensus” usually destroys any sense of unknowability, which is an inherent aspect of historical inquiry in general, and especially of inquiry into the distant past given the fragmentary nature of the historical and archaeological record.
Instead of a bland consensus, the various sections in Ancient Egypt successfully convey the impression of a complex bygone culture, as well as the enormity and non-definitive nature of the centuries-long project of Egyptology itself, ,i.e., the painstaking piecing together of ancient Egypt’s culture, beliefs, politics, and language.
I’ve read works about ancient Egypt before, but I’ve never encountered such a sweeping, comprehensive-while-not-reductive, treatment of this incredible stretch of time. Readers are so often given a vision of the Egyptian empire that highlights its stability, its unchangeability, and its “obsession” with death. Silverman’s volume instead provides a sense of the dynamism of the Egyptian empire and of its liveliness.
Taken together, these characteristics—layout and concept of a textbook, content of a thoughtful secondary source—make it an engaging, unusual, and really informative book. ...more
Girolamo Cardano was a 16th-century Pavian polymath who gained most notoriety during his lifetime for his mathematical, medical and astrological knowlGirolamo Cardano was a 16th-century Pavian polymath who gained most notoriety during his lifetime for his mathematical, medical and astrological knowledge. He traveled Europe to treat a variety of Early Modern bigwigs, he cast horoscopes (his own, seemingly obsessively), taught, wrote copiously and, it seems, pissed a good number of people off.
The Book of My Life is a peculiar collection of Cardano's personal recollections and meditations on his life, given as a set of discrete essays on a variety of topics: descriptions of his appearance; of his habits past and present (he wrote the work while in his 70s); of his family; of his professional and financial troubles; a list of all of his published works and of notable people who mentioned him in their works; and an account of the great grief of his life, the execution for murder of his favorite son.
Cardano's Book is so strange, so highly idiosyncratic; it is simultaneously self-promoting and self-denigrating. He comes across as a little whiny but also disarmingly blunt, and frequently astute. His thoughts and attitudes were odd enough in his own time that one commentator noted that, had Cardano lived any longer, he may have been executed for a heretic. He is easy to find a little ridiculous, but I found it impossible not to like him.
Providing additional interest to me is the fact that he was one of those paradigm straddlers we like not to discuss very often in our modern age, where it is more convenient to pretend there is a clear line between religion and science. Cardano was an early scientist, but he was also a devout Catholic, and an astrologer who saw omens everywhere. Like Newton, like Descartes, like many thinkers claimed as grandfathers to science, Cardano recognized no such distinctions. He wrote mathematical treatises, but also claimed to have a guardian angel. In general, The Book of My Life is a captivating peek inside this worldview, which it is increasingly difficult, I think, for people alive today to seriously contemplate: how can one (educated and reflexive) mind, hold both of these attitudes in one? And yet highly religious minds attuned to a world of signs and significance are what birthed the practice of science. I think they must be related, primordially, in some regard. ...more
What Four Thousand Years Ago lacks by being dated, it makes up for with its uniqueness and self-awareness. Geoffrey Bibby, an archaeologist writing inWhat Four Thousand Years Ago lacks by being dated, it makes up for with its uniqueness and self-awareness. Geoffrey Bibby, an archaeologist writing in the 1960s, was working with then-current evaluations of life in the 2nd millennium BC. Crucially, he was aware of the fact that those evaluations might change, of the existence of gaps in knowledge and of the dearth of archaeological investigation in many parts of the world.
He never makes a claim that he is presenting anything other than an educated person's best guess at civilizations from Memphis to Harappa, at lifestyles of people in the Arctic Circle and the Amazon basin. But his project is so novel, these stretches and guesses are reasonable and even welcome.
Essentially, in Four Thousand Years Ago Bibby has attempted to give a synchronic picture of life on earth during the millennium 2000 BC-1000 BC. He has adopted a narrative style that purposefully is not authoritative, but propositional. He chronicles the events, influence and trade of well-known civilizations like Mesopotamia and Mycenae, but also tries to piece together the lifestyles and industry of non-literate cultures like the fishermen of Scandinavia and the plains Indians of North America. The gaps are large, but Bibby draws attention to these - bemoans them - rather than trying to patch over or elide them. In Bibby’s idea world, there would be archaeologists diligently excavating all over the globe, unearthing details about of lives of hunter-gatherers and Egyptian pharaohs equally.
For Bibby is no snob, which is another thing that makes this book so enjoyable. He frequently reminds his reader not to mistake the wealth of knowledge we have about the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean, for the idea that these civilizations were more important than those in India or China, or than the cultures the world over that remained small-village dwelling agriculturalists, hunters or herder nomads and never built a single city.
More than anything this book provides the image of an ancient world interconnected, rather than the more typical picture we get of islands of civilization existing in a sea of nothingness. And it’s a very engaging read at that. ...more
Erik Larson writes a very readable, popular history and Thunderstruck is no exception. Here he weaves the story of Guglielmo Marconi's development ofErik Larson writes a very readable, popular history and Thunderstruck is no exception. Here he weaves the story of Guglielmo Marconi's development of ship-to-shore and transatlantic wireless communication into the tale of the H. H. Crippen murder. Larson offers a detailed and interesting vision of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, before World War I. In telling his twin stories, he manages to include a lot of information about tensions between England and Germany that fomented the first world war, the general xenophobia and trepidation of late Victorian English society, and the widespread (if uneasy) faith and interest in scientific developments occurring at the time. Larson excels at depicting his two main characters, Marconi and Crippen, in sympathetic but critical lights, thereby providing his reader with fairly subtle psychological insights. As an avid reader of academic history, I will always miss the extensive annotation of a scholarly volume, but Larson clearly did archival, primary research and displays a good command of his material. That he can turn this into a coherent and interesting narrative should not detract from his credibility (which sometimes is the case with popular history). Overall a fun, informative (and quick!) read....more
Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia is an exceptional resource to anyone interested in the religion and culture of ancient Mesopotamia. ItGods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia is an exceptional resource to anyone interested in the religion and culture of ancient Mesopotamia. It is a thoroughly cross-referenced dictionary full of entries on everything from individual gods and goddesses like "Enki" or "Ishtar", to broad topics like "afterlife" or "divination". A brief but informative introduction lays out the broad periods of Mesopotamian culture, what is even meant by the geographical and cultural term "Mesopotamia", and which people constituted Mesopotamians at a given time. Most terms and names are rendered in Sumerian and Akkadian.
I've added it to my "perpetually reading" shelf because, as a reference work, I can see myself consulting it again and again as I read other historical or archaeological works about ancient Mesopotamia. I found this slender volume in the overstuffed shelves of Brattle Book Shop (a fabulous used bookstore in downtown Boston) and consider it a gem of a find. Even though it is a dictionary with discrete, alphabetically ordered entries, I read it cover to cover and was sorry to finish it....more
I read this book for the ladies, so I am shelving it as (among other things) unfinished. I cannot speak to the life of Abbot John of Cantimpre, whichI read this book for the ladies, so I am shelving it as (among other things) unfinished. I cannot speak to the life of Abbot John of Cantimpre, which I did not read.
The other three lives are fascinating for a variety of reasons. Thomas of Cantimpre personally knew Lutgard of Aywieres, and spoke with living people who had known Christina and Margaret. Each of these three women lived in the same region in what is now Belgium and were part of a new female mysticism that became prominent in the 12th and 13th centuries, in part through the attention paid to them by clerics like Thomas, who found their apostolic and frankly sensual expressions of piety extremely compelling. Thomas may not have chosen a word like "sensual" to describe the religious behavior and belief of these three saints but he did, for instance, write Lutgard's life as an echo of the Song of Songs, a famously erotic canonical text, so I am still comfortable making this assertion.
I also generally enjoy reading saints lives because it interests me to consider what kind of separation between real life and fictive/religious tropes are on display (a separation, I should add, that I doubt Thomas or his contemporaries understood in the way we do). Christina's feats, for example, mirror then-current descriptions of the torments of Purgatory...did Thomas add some of these feats retroactively to make his narrative comport more obviously with these descriptions? Or did Christina purposefully choose the torments she underwent so that they resonated with extant traditions concerning Purgatory?
And, of course, there is always the question of just what really happened with these folks. Did Christina really lactate magically to feed herself? Did Lutgard truly dispense a magical wet willy that restored a deaf person's hearing? And if not, what did happen? It's not historically important or answerable to ask this kind of question, but I think it's inescapable to a modern person's sense of curiosity about such otherworldly activities portrayed so matter-of-factly.
I picked this book up originally to educate myself about Christina, whom I depicted in a painting. I am grateful to the wonderful editors, translators and annotators of this volume that I could find her life together with these others, which I may never otherwise have explored. ...more
Alternately enlightening and mystifying study of medieval modes of perception based on period chronicles. Brandt's assertions about how medieval peoplAlternately enlightening and mystifying study of medieval modes of perception based on period chronicles. Brandt's assertions about how medieval people perceived their world, especially nature and man, are sometimes compelling and sometimes utterly opaque. His textual analysis is problematic in that he generally does a poor job in showing the reader precisely how he is reading the passages in question to arrive at his hypotheses. He also seems to take something written in a chronicle as one-to-one evidence for how medieval folks actually led their lives, confusing literature for reality and, for example, confusing how a male chronicler describes a woman's life with a medieval woman's life. For all of that, there are some really interesting points in this short volume. Worth a read if you're really really into medieval history. ...more
This is a really thorough, fascinating look at a much neglected part of American history. Tracing the rise and fall of Comanche power in the southernThis is a really thorough, fascinating look at a much neglected part of American history. Tracing the rise and fall of Comanche power in the southern plains of present-day U.S., Hämäläinen really fills in some gaping holes in America's "grand old" narrative (which famously omits so many events and people) by reinserting the story of the development of Comanche trade dominance from about 1650-1850. For these centuries, the Comanche successfully adapted from a more agrarian existence in the mountains to a nomadic way of life on the plains and proceeded to totally dominate trade relationships between themselves, Spain in the southwest, first France and then the U.S. in Louisiana, as well as the host of other tribes who held stakes in the region's resources (including the Wichita and Utes, among many others).
The only reason this is going down in my shelves as "unfinished" is because Hämäläinen's writing is a little dry and repetitive, and I happened into a used bookstore this last weekend where I found a slew of academic medieval history books that I could not wait to get started on. I also left the Comanche at the peak of their power, where I hadn't yet read too much about the extreme shittiness of my forebears (as a Euro-American) as regards their conduct, in connection with their megalomaniacal race for "manifest destiny", toward the Indian tribes of what would become the United States. I want to pick this up again at some point and finish the story, but knowing a bit of what was coming surely made it a little easier to lay aside for now. ...more