More Good Books. . .
Chute, Marchette. Shakespeare of London. Viking, 1993.
"The book is not a literary biography. It does not concern the part of Shakespeare that was immortal and for all time. It concerns only the part of him that was mortal and belonged to the Elizabethan age. His plays are not discussed as literature, but only as they relate to the working problems of the London stage."
Miss Chute needn't have been so modest. There is much in her book which can increase one's appreciation of the plays. Her discussions of Shakespeare's contemporaries and their different audiences helps one to understand Shakespeare's view of the different social levels of his audience as it affected the structure of the plays. Her discussions of the Elizabethan stage in general help one to understand what Shakespeare put in his plays because is was a commercial necessity, what he put in his plays because it would not have occurred to him that one could write a play without them, and what he did which was new, and which makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. She also discusses his literary development in terms of his personal growth and the influence of historical events.
Some of Miss Chute's critical remarks on the plays, like her position that Hamlet's remarks to the players are almost the opposite of Shakespeare's own opinions, are unusual. Others, like depth of character as Shakespeare's contribution, were probably conventional in 1949, but need to be reread now that it is more important for critics to be original than to tell the truth.
Shakespeare of London also contains the details of Shakespeare's life, though in a rather dry style.
Lorentz, H. A., Einstein, Albert, et al. The Principle of Relativity. Dover, 1924.
This is a collection of English translations of some early classical articles on relativity by the founders of the field.
The first question which a layman always needs answered about a book like this is "How much mathematics do I need to understand it?". We can get a lot out of some of the articles even by skipping the mathematics altogether. For some of the articles, one has to have passed seventh-grade algebra and to been almost awake during the first week of integral calculus, just enough to have a vague idea what a definite integral is. For some of the articles, one really has to know mathematics. (I skip those).
The next question is, Why bother? These are historical documents, the story of the creation of part of our culture. Also, one gets a better idea from some of these articles about what caused the founders to invent relativity than one does from the popularizations. Lorentz already had technical solutions to the problem of the stationary ether, a problem which would interest no physicist any more anyway. What Einstein satisfied were aesthetic demands, the same aesthetic demands which drove Lorentz himself. The reader also gets here a feeling for differences of approach which don't come across in the popularizations. One gets the feeling that Einstein had to destroy our everyday concepts of space and time in order to save them. Not so Minkowski. I'm not sure whether he understood his new world as a mathematical construct or as a different way of viewing the place where he ate breakfast, but he couldn't have cared less about pendulum clocks and yardsticks.
You also get an idea from these articles about the problems and doubts which still exist about relativity, especially if one asks a physicist afterwards about the parts you don't understand. (That's what the Internet's for).
West, E. J., ed. Shaw on Theatre. Hill and Wang, 1958.
George Bernard Shaw is another of those rare great artists who could write intelligently about art. In this collection of short pieces all relating in some way to the theater, you will find Shaw on every relevant subject: on the bureaucratic reasons for the inevitable failure of censorship, on Shakespeare's serious faults as dramatist and poet, on the problems in producing Shakespeare for the modern audience. He also writes on the economic determinants of play production, but as a playwright, not as a doctrinaire socialist.
Shakespear and Goethe do not belong to the order which "takes no interest in politics." Such minds devour everything with a keen appetite - fiction, science, gossip, politics, technical processes, sport, everything.... But their theme was not this social question or that social question, but humanity as a whole.... Zola's novels are the product of an imagination driven crazy by a colossal police intelligence, by modern hospitals and surgery, by modern war correspondence, and even by the railway system.... A Doll's House will be as flat as dishwater when A Midsummer Night's Dream will still be as fresh as paint; but it will have done more work in the world.
Incidentally, this book will also introduce you to Shaw the textual scholar, if you don't already know him.
Naipaul, V. S. The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies - British, French, and Dutch - in the West Indies and South America. Penguin, 1993.
Naipaul's special talent is identifying groups of people with some salient characteristic in common, and then identifying and describing that characteristic.
C. S. Lewis has already remarked that in the eyes of Classical society, the mark of a slave was a smallness, a lack of generosity of soul. Naipaul shows us that this is also characteristic of whole societies with a long and recent history of slavery. In the West Indies, Naipaul's own country, so to speak, a West Indian who succeeds at anything by world standards is considered "conceited" by his compatriots. Naipaul also points out that while very sentimental, many West Indians will laugh at films about the concentration camps. The West Indian will always also assume that a foreign product is better than his own, even when experience tells him otherwise.
India is another place to which the Indian Naipaul devotes special attention. He points out how many features of Indian society can be explained as the result of giving symbolic rank priority over reality. Lest anyone think that this is in some way the product of the caste system, I can only say that I have seen the same phenomenon in ex-slave societies with no caste system.
Maybe knowing the slavishness inside of ourselves will help us to get it out, maybe not. That question is also a popular subject for criticism these days.
Fowden, Garth. Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity.
Styles in historiography come and go. For the classical Greek historians, history was partly the clever strategies of great generals, partly the well-cadenced speeches that should have been made, some descriptions of strange cultures, some geography. For the medieval chroniclers, history was melodrama: great battles, duels between heroes, treacherous murders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, history was the progressive improvement of forms of government. Eventually we came the history of attitudes of women to housework and the detailed history of underwear (no, I'm not kidding).
Garth Fowden has returned to an old idea, that beliefs have a powerful influence on history. In Empire to Commonwealth, his main thesis is that universalist, monotheistic religions helped bring about world conquest in late antiquity, and that their opposite had the opposite effect. Who are the monotheistic universalists? For example, the Byzantine Christians and the Muslims. Who are not? The Achaemenids, the particularist Jews.
The history of late antiquity, especially outside of Europe and Asia Minor, is a weak spot in the education of most of us, and it's pleasant to return to the historiography of ideas sometimes. The book is also well printed and well bound, and includes high-quality photographs with both artistic and historical significance.
Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone. Anchor, 1995.
This book is mostly a history of our knowledge of Ebola fever. It is one of those rare potboilers one can actually learn a lot from.
The imitation door-signs at the beginning of the chapters made me feel silly, and I never knew how much of the dialog was fiction, how much reconstruction, how much good, accurate reconstruction. On the other hand, the book probably includes more information on the "hemorrhagic fevers" than the average doctor knew a few years ago. It follows the Ebola virus from a ghastly death in Nairobi Hospital in 1980 to an airborne outbreak among monkeys in a laboratory near Washington, D.C., in 1989. It includes much information on the Centers for Disease Control and some army research bodies, as well as some good asides on the Marburg virus.
Roth, Cecil. History of the Jews in Venice. Schocken, 1975.
The life of the Jews of Venice was greatly determined by the attitudes of their neighbors and rulers. These attitudes were a palimpsest of personal prejudice, official discrimination by the government, semi-official non-discrimination by the same government, and occasional human decency (often by the pope against all comers). The self-contradictory attitudes of the Venetian government itself also had complex causes. The government needed the Jews to get itself out of the economic mires its own confused religious policies frequently got it into. It also wanted to pay occasional lip-service to its own religious lobby, and simultaneously show its subservience to and independence of the pope.
As Roth admits, the Jewish community of Venice was not of the first importance from any point of view. Still, there's a lot of fun here, in the adventures of the Duke of Naxos and his family and the strange history and customs of the community of Corfu.
Roth also states that this is the first monograph on the subject, and that it includes the results of much of his own research. His use of responsa as sources for social history is exemplary.
Pyles, Thomas. Words and Ways of American English.
The main subject of Pyles' book is the interrelationship between the American language and other aspects of American culture. Its thesis is that much of what is distinctively American in our language is the result of voluntary submission to the dictatorship of democracy, with occasional attempts to escape from that dictatorship. (It is well known that the United States is the only country in the world which has ever had a dictatorship of the proletariat; remember Tocqueville?).
Pyles' book also includes many interesting examples and asides. Among the famous Americanisms which Noah Webster managed to force into the permanent structure of our language are the spellings 'or' instead of 'our', 'ize' instead of 'ise', and 'er' instead of 're'. "It was not authority [which Webster] objected to.... What he objected to was the authority of others."
Among the modern expressions which survive from the 'tall tales' of the frontier are cahoots, kick the bucket, and go the whole hog.
On an etymology by Christopher Morley: Whether this etymology came to him by divine afflatus or he had evidence of any sort for it deponent saith not.
Fairbank, John King. China: A New History.
In addition to being a conventional history of China, from prehistory until the days of Deng, this book includes inquiries into some of the basic historical questions which China poses. How did one of the most openminded civilizations in history become insular and backward? Fairbank suggests footbinding, contempt for trade, and the exigencies of rice-culture among the reasons. Unfortunately, the question is more powerful than his answers. We have seen the same thing happen to other cultures which practiced neither footbinding nor rice-culture, and we have seen cultures which treated trade with contempt stay in the forefront of learning.
Fairbank also mentions in passing a phenomenon seen in other cultures, and worth going into. The Confucian culture of learning degenerated into a hollow shell of civility covering heartlessness and a respect only for externals. Why?
Fairbank's laughing at his own blind scholar's love for the Chinese, right or wrong, is refreshing. The whole book is a pleasure to read.
Lewis, Bernard W. The Jews of Islam. Princeton UP, 1987.
This book elaborates on several of Lewis' favorite themes. He here discusses the evidence that the Golden Age in Spain was not the Paradise that we sometimes think, that hatred of Jews didn't exist in the Arab world until recently, when it was imported from Europe, and that much of the cause of this hatred was the Muslims' seeing the dhimmis trying to break out of their inferior position.
There are also some new themes here, such as the Eastern Jews' loss of intellectual prestige and usefulness as a contributing factor in their loss of position.
Lewis here includes some interesting examples of Muslim responsa, with a helpful remark on the common origin of the form in Jewish and Islamic jurisprudence.
Migot, André. Tibetan Marches.
Tibetan Marches is a travel log by one of the neo-Buddhist searchers of the kind that the imperialist super-powers produced in quantity a few years ago. Migot can see no bad in Tibet, though his incidental remarks about initiation by banditry and shooting someone from behind in a fight over a horse make his Utopia ring a little false. He seems basically honest, however; he had many adventures, and his style is entertaining. He also describes in detail the daily habits and artifacts of the many cultures he found in China and Tibet, from the miserable life of the coolies to the grain-paste which in 1946 was the mainstay of the Tibetan diet.
Despite his powerful prejudices, Migot's book also incidentally throws some light on the political conditions which really obtained in China then.
Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words. Cambridge, 1991.
Jespersen quotes Meillet as saying that "for every certain etymology, the dictionaries give us more than ten which are doubtful". Maybe things aren't quite that bad today, but books such as Lewis', which discusses the history of twenty-five words or so, are a helpful adjunct to such serious lists of sources as are to be found in the OED and the Lisaan al-Arab, and a merciful substitute for the confident surmises which are turned into three-word fiats in the shorter dictionaries.
Studies in Words is mostly concerned with the relationships between social opinions and meanings, and between "the meaning of the speaker" and "the meaning of the word". Lewis has carefully selected common words for which this approach is useful, such as free, conscience, and world. He especially chooses words whose meanings in such works as Shakespeare and the Bible are close enough to the modern meanings as to cause confusion. Hamlet's "Sense, sure you have, Else you could not have motion" may mean something if one understands "sense" in its modern meaning, but Lewis is almost certainly right in saying that the reference is to sensation, and to Aristotle.
Lewis occasionally gets trapped into grinding air which his sources would have recognized as such, but the book it an good warning to the we-now-know-everything school.
Weir, Alison. The Wars of the Roses. Ballantine, 1996.
This book is well researched and excellently written, but it may be more important as a primary source in historiography than as a secondary source in history. Thinking about the Wars of the Roses reminds us that there are some good sides even to post-modernist history: Our earlier fascination with aristocratic wars which "had very little effect on the population at large" seems to be a relic of the time when only aristocrats could write. The popularity of this subject also underlines yet again the overwhelming influence of Shakespeare on our entire culture, which I've never seen adequately explained.
If she once more says "prevaricate" when she seems to mean "procrastinate", I'm going to scream, but the book's still a pleasure.
Eliot, T. S. On Poetry and Poets. Faber and Faber, 1985.
T. S. Eliot was that strangest of strange beings, an artist who knows about the principles of art:
Poetry has to give pleasure.... Every good poet, whether he be a great poet or not, has something to give us besides pleasure: for if it were only pleasure, the pleasure itself would not be of the highest kind.
If I were told that no more poetry were being written in the Norwegian language..., I should regard it as... the beginning of a decline which would mean that people everywhere would cease to be able to express, and consequently be able to feel, the emotions of civilized beings.
I have seen impoverishment of language and impoverishment of human decency going hand in hand, and the coincidence is suspicious.
Eliot organizes his essays like the demented speak: he wanders off his topic and sometimes forgets to come back. But it works.
Why are modern critics obsessed by the distinction between the voice of the poet as a person and his various personas?
more Good Books. . .
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