Monday, June 30, 2008

Books, books, books

I was having a less than stellar dad moment the other day, and the lovely and talented Kirstin (yes, I think she's both things even if she says "sneakers") sent me off to the book store before I,  a) gouged out my eyeballs and b) put both girls through the pasta maker.

I loaded up on stuff for our impending summer travels.  I think I found a few good ones:
- Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World  (mmmmmm, nerdy)
- The Pirate Queen (about Elizabeth I and the beginning of England's overseas empire, the start of the slave trade, and robbing the Spanish of all their silver. Nerdy, but intriguing)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (you cretins will probably remember this story as Daffy Duck's The Scarlet Pumpernickel.  I'll be honest, so did I.  But now I've got the real thing)
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (I read it a long time ago, and it's so good it's worth another go)

I also finished a bunch of books lately.  Here they are, in ascending order of quality:
1) Benjamin Franklin, by Walter Isaacson.  Franklin might be the most intriguing guy in American history: printer, inventor, statesman, etc..  And you'd be right, as long as you didn't read this book.  With all of the breathless vacuity of Thomas Friedman telling you about his own summer vacation, Isaacson managed to make me yawn out loud in boredom on page 27.   "And then this one time, when he was 18, Franklin totally went to Philadelphia.  And then he wrote these stories under assumed names, and they were totally funny, and people really thought they were funny, so he was really funny."  You can almost hear him giggle when you read it.
2) The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman.  Kind of a fun intellectual history of the world from roughly Paul to Thomas Aquinas.  Needless to say given the title, Mr. Freeman does not treat the rise of Christianity very well.  He documents a string of intellectual hiccups that plagued the (very secularly minded) bishops and emporers as they tried to shoehorn Christianity into a religion they could use to keep the Roman Empire from falling apart.  Sometimes it runs a little dry, as there are only so many ways to tell me that Paul was a misogynistic sociopath with an inferiority complex, but it does a nice job of illuminating how official Christianity deviated from its origins as a couple of Jewish guys in a supper club.
3) A Farewell to Alms, by Gregory Clark.  This is by an economic historian that I dig, so take my positive review with a grain of salt.  This is big-picture history on how Europe converted itself from a mud-caked hive of human ignorance into the effete cigarette-smoking gaggle of pansies we know and love today.  He pushes aside traditional economic explanations (in short - a) luck, b) the steam engine, c) Parliament) and proposes that in some sense Europe evolved into a modern economy.  He documents, without getting too mired in data and figures, that in fact it was the rich people who had all the surviving children between 0AD and 1800AD, even though poor people had more babies (that quickly succumbed to the mud-caking before breeding themselves).  This means that the cultural norms of rich people (thrift, hard work, tight pants, ruffled collars) spread through society and replaced the cultural norms of poor people (lice farming, hooch drinking, poor dental hygiene).  After a sufficiently long period of time, Europe had a bunch of thrifty people who worked hard to produce lice-free ruffled collars, and these anal-retentive wank-jobs were the kind who liked to stay late at the mill to improve the efficiency of the water-mill.  Once this got underway, you get economic growth on a broad scale.  He doesn't really get into where the effete cigarette-smoking came from, but I guess he had to leave something for the sequel.

1 comment:

Lollyblogger said...

I am reading this out loud to matt as we drive from az to Cali and now matt is giggling out loud at Jewish supper clubs and lice free ruffles.both of us agree that we are envious of your students that get to hear u lecture. Much love to all of ur girls