Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past

Making History coverMaking History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past
Richard Cohen
Simon & Schuster (April 19, 2022), 770 pages
Kindle edition $19.99, Amazon hardcover $34.13

Richard Cohen’s new book on historians is rather long and somewhat uneven. But he certainly covers the breadth of history, ancient to modern.

Cohen begins by discussing the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. He goes on to cover the Roman historians, “from Polybius to Suetonius,” as his chapter subtitle states. He devotes a single chapter to all of the Bible, as he does to the entirety of Islam. I’m not sure that he has selected the best sources on the authorship and historicity of the Bible. Some of his interpretations are consistent with my understanding of those topics, while others are not. Since my knowledge of Islam is superficial at best, given my knowledge of the Bible, which is not superficial, I am reluctant to accept at face value much of what he says about Islam.

The author devotes a single chapter to medieval historians, before moving on to the Renaissance and Machiavelli. From there he moves across the channel to England, where he offers a chapter on Shakespeare, perhaps the most interesting in the book. Although Shakespeare wrote fictional drama, Cohen states, “no other writer, of any time or place, gives us a more lasting impression of what most of the fourteen Plantagenet kings were like.” He then provides some fascinating material about Shakespeare as a historian.

Cohen then discusses Voltaire (not generally known as a historian) and Gibbon, delving into their idiosyncrasies. He writes about the nineteenth-century historians and the history presented in novels, such as those of Jane Austen.

The author devotes a full chapter to the American Civil War. This is one place where Cohen’s overall credibility comes into question. He references a 2020 CNN poll that said only 16 percent of high school students knew that the civil war was about slavery. In fact, for Abraham Lincoln the war was far more about preserving the Union than about slavery. Nonetheless, Cohen provides some interesting perspectives. He writes about the famed photographer Matthew Brady. Cohen tells us that Brady took few photos himself, but rather had a staff of field photographers. And he was not above staging shots on the battlefield. The author discusses Ken Burns and his renown PBS special on the civil war, perhaps putting Burns on more of a pedestal than he deserves.

Cohen writes about World War II history and history as the Soviet regime presented it. He discusses history as the participants wrote it, including Julius Caesar and Ulysses S. Grant. He writes about Churchill and his vast output, focusing as much on what Churchill excluded as what he included. The author reflects on British academics and the associated politics in the mid-twentieth century.

It is only in Chapter 18 that Cohen gets around to writing about woman historians. (Though he does mention Jane Austen in an earlier chapter.) Once he gets here, however, he offers quite a range of women. He discusses Bān Zhāo, a member of the Chinese royal family in the first century. He writes about Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of the author of Frankenstein, and the contemporary classicist, Mary Beard.

Cohen follows that chapter by a discussion of African American historians, which is perhaps a bit too compressed to properly cover the subject. Cohen begins with George Washington Williams, who wrote in the nineteenth century and discusses W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, and others. The work is current enough to include a discussion of the writing about the murder of George Floyd. Cohen explores how governments present their own version of history and then discusses journalism as history, including some mention of George Orwell and his work in World War II.

The final chapter is about history on television. Cohen is British and the bulk of the chapter is about historians on British television. He leaves a short section at the end for American television, the bulk of which is a hagiographical treatment of Ken Burns and his brother Ric.

The book is, as I stated, uneven, and I am not sure than I am much the better for having invested my time in its 770 pages.


Wild Woman

Wild Woman coverWild Woman: A Footnote, the Desert, and My Quest for an Elusive Saint
Amy Frykholm
Broadleaf Books (August 3, 2021), 217 pages
Kindle edition $13.74, Amazon hardcover $14.10

The Wild Woman of the title is Mary of Egypt, a little-known saint in the Christian church. Amy Frykholm first discovered Mary in a book she stumbled across while verifying the footnotes in a book she was completing. It was only several years later when she heard the name mentioned at a writing conference that she felt drawn to pursue Mary.

Our primary source for Mary of Egypt is a life written in Greek by St. Sophronius, whose life straddled the fourth and fifth centuries AD. He tells the story through the eyes of Zosimas, a monk who encountered her in the Judean desert. As the story goes, Mary left her family in Nubia, in the north of Egypt and traveled to Alexandria, where she lived a life of offering sexual favors. In Alexandria she saw people boarding a ship headed to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Holy Cross. Without money she again offered her favors to gain passage, an offer the ship’s crew accepted. Once in Jerusalem she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but an invisible force held her back. She encountered the presence of the Virgin Mary, repented of her lifestyle, and was allowed inside the church. From there she crossed the river Jordan where she lived the rest of her life as an ascetic.

Frykholm was so drawn to the life of Mary that she set out on her own journey to visit the places where Mary would have walked. Her mother and her husband sharing different segments of the journey, she visited Nubia, the Monastery of St. Anthony in Egypt, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and the Judean wilderness.

The author describes her visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where she learned that there was supposedly a chapel dedicated to Mary. She was frustrated in her attempts to find the chapel. She was told that it was closed, or that it was only open one day a year. The Copts told her that the Orthodox were responsible for it, and the Orthodox told her that the Copts were responsible. Finally, with the help of a local who had connections with the community around the church, the Orthodox archbishop found the key and let her in. She was disappointed that there was little associated with Mary there.

Frykholm then crossed the Jordan and visited an archaeological site that had an association with Mary, a place that was once a hostel for pilgrims. From there she made a trek into the Judean wilderness to understand the terrain in which Mary supposedly lived. She saw a dragonfly chrysalis in which she felt the essence of Mary.

Interweaved with her own story, Frykholm writes about her best friend Ali, an Episcopal priest, and Ali’s struggle with cancer. Ali parallels her quest with Frykholm’s.

The author was so engaged with the story of Mary that she asked her father, a scholar of the Greek language, to help her learn Greek, which he did via Skype. The two of them then created an English translation of Sophronius’s work, which appears as an appendix to Wild Woman.

Frykholm’s own journey is every bit as engaging as the life of Mary. She continues the sojourn in an eight-episode podcast for The Christian Century called In Search Of. She interviews some of the people she mentions in the book, and others who have helped her with her mission to understand Mary of Egypt.

I had never heard of Mary of Egypt until I learned of Frykholm’s book, but as it happens Mary appears in the 2018 edition of the Episcopal volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts. You’ll find her on April 3, with her name in brackets, meaning that she’s there for trial use.

I am grateful to Frykholm and to Mary of Egypt for enriching my own spiritual journey.


The Greatest Invention

Greatest Invention coverThe Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts
Silvia Ferrara
translated by Todd Portnowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 1, 2022), 280 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $23.78

The author is an expert in the world of writing and scripts. In The Greatest Invention she talks about the history of writing. And “talk” is an appropriate word here, as her style is conversational.

She begins writing about Crete and tells us that ancient Crete produced four scripts: Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, the Phaistos Disk, and Linear B. Scholars have deciphered only one of those: Linear B. On the island of Cyprus there are four tablets written in what scholars call Crypto-Minoan. That is also undeciphered. From here Ferrara goes to Easter Island, where she discusses the Mamari tablet, written in the undeciphered Rongorongo script. Ferrara received a grant to lead a research group focused on the invention of writing and to decipher these so-far undeciphered scripts.

Ferrara then goes on to discuss when and how writing arises. She writes that when a civilization reaches a population of ten thousand you will find writing. However, she emphasizes that civilizations have existed without writing systems, and that “writing systems have formed like pearls in oysters, with no warning, no territorial expansion, no clear purpose.” Many people believe that writing arises out of the needs of bureaucracy, as we see in the Linear B scripts of Mycenae and the cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia. That idea, she says “is just reckless drivel.” Ferrara dispels the notion that writing was invented only once. She cites multiple examples that show writing must have arisen entirely independently in different places.

Ferrara delves into means of communication that did not involve writing, for example, the Incan quipu, which she describes as “rows and rows of cords, all strung together like charms on a necklace, all covered in knots.” She says that these were used for record keeping, but perhaps also to tell stories.

The author spends a lot of space discussing the rebus: a combination of letters and images. It seems a lot of ancient scripts used them. No doubt you played with rebuses in elementary school. For example:

bee in a rebus
kind

 

She also writes about emojis. She tells us they are here to stay. Heaven help us. (One of the disadvantages of reading this book in the Kindle edition on my iPad is that the rebus and emoji images were very hard to see.)

In the final quarter of the book the author ends her conversational tone and takes on a drier, more academic approach as she discusses how scholars study language. She admits that computers have been of great help in attempts to decipher those still undeciphered scripts. But she emphasizes that it is the human effort that is the best tool for studying language and she insists it is a multidisciplinary undertaking. She enumerates: “epigraphists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geomatics engineers, historians, cognitivists, semiologists, and computer scientists. And linguists.”

Ferrara originally wrote the book in Italian. Todd Portnowitz translated it into English. This is interesting because there is a lot of casual language, idiom, and word play throughout the book. I have to wonder whether the Italian version differed somewhat from this English edition and if this is a revised version specifically intended for an English-speaking audience. I suspect Ferrara must have been involved in the translation. Her English is no doubt good enough. Her biography at the end of the book states that she studied at University College London and at the University of Oxford. It says she researched archaeology and linguistics at Oxford, and that she has taught at University College London, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. That makes me wonder why she didn’t simply write the English version herself.

No matter. If you are interested in the history and science of script and writing, take a look at The Greatest Invention.


Lost & Found

Lost & Found coverLost & Found: A Memoir
by Kathryn Schulz
Random House (January 11, 2022), 241 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $19.08

Kathryn Schulz’s memoir Lost & Found came out to favorable notices. Justifiably so.

Schulz opens the book describing her reaction to learning of the death of her father and her own experience of being lost. She writes about her father who came to the United States as a youngster, fleeing the war in Europe. She recalls her father as she was growing up, and how he was a skilled storyteller. Schulz then describes how her father was constantly losing things: keys, wallet, whatever. That didn’t bother him much, but it kept his wife and his two daughters busy following up. Schulz tells us how literate her father was and how capable he was as a lawyer.

The author then circles back and writes about her father’s decline and how hard it was on the family, as he did not have the clarity he once did. Staying on the theme of loss, she writes about how the family finally had to decide to let him go.

Schulz then moves to the theme of “found.” She writes about meeting a sister writer with whom she quickly fell in love. She describes how their relationship developed and how C. (as Schulz refers to her) helped her move her parents out of their house and into a condo (loss again).

She tells us that her parents loved C. and she describes meeting C.’s family who were completely accepting of her. The author provides a detailed account of their wedding and how well the two families got along. This was remarkable in that Schulz’s family was midwestern and nonobservant Jewish while C.’s family was Southern and devoutly Christian.

Near the end of the book Schulz tells us that she and C. were expecting a child. She did not say which one of them was pregnant nor how the pregnancy came about, but I suppose those things (especially the latter) are none of our business.

Lost and Found describes a lot of pain and a lot of joy. Rather like life.


Dessert Can Save the World

Dessert Can Save the World coverDessert Can Save the World: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes for a Stubbornly Joyful Existence
Christina Tosi
read by the author
Random House Audio, March 08, 2022
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with a Audible credit

I found this book when the “Newly Published” column on page 4 of the New York Times Book Review mentioned it as a noteworthy new audiobook. The reviewer was spot on in saying that this book deserved attention.

Christina Tosi writes about her obsession with dessert. When she was a child she would eat her grandmother’s raw cookie dough, ignoring warnings about salmonella. Her grandmother stored baked cookies in the freezer in the basement until it was time to serve them, but Christina would sneak down there and steal the wrapped cookies. When she was in high school she delighted in developing her own creations. She was always a rebel. She writes, “I knew from a relatively young age that I was going to be uncool, which I was totally cool with.”

After high school when she realized it was time to leave home, she went to New York City where she attended culinary school by day and worked in a restaurant at night. She describes in detail the grueling work and the long hours in the restaurant business. But her rebel nature showed itself in these jobs. Head coverings were of course required in the kitchen, and there was a standard white cap the chefs expected staff to wear. Tosi one day, however, donned a colored scarf. She got away with it.

Tosi writes about how she worked in all aspects of the culinary world: on the line in the kitchen, the front of the house, and the dessert corner of the kitchen. This confirmed for her, she says, that it was the dessert part of that world she loved the most.

Tosi was working at a high-end New York restaurant as the head pastry chef when the landlord evicted the tenant next door. She took that as the opportunity to open her own bakery, Milk Bar. What she was not prepared for was the immediate success of her venture. She writes about the ridiculously long hours and the challenges she faced. She describes her stubbornness while finally realizing that: 1) she could automate the baking processes, and 2) she could rely on others and not carry the whole burden herself.

The author includes an interlude on what she calls dirty dessert secrets. These are taking snack and cookie items from the grocery store (or the gas station minimart, or even, she says, from the dollar store) and mashing them up with other items found in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Most of those sounded unappetizing to me. She insists that everyone has a dirty dessert secret and says she wouldn’t believe you if you told her that you didn’t have one. I have to say, though, that I don’t. I’m quite happy with the chocolate chip cookies I bake from the tub of cookie dough I buy at my Winco supermarket. (For a while it was Snickers fun size, but for now I’m stuck on the cookies.) Really, I don’t need a mashup.

Fortunately, however, there are a lot of more conventional dessert recipes in the book, many of which are very appealing. If you listen to the audiobook you can also download a PDF file containing the recipes.

Tosi writes a lot about making others happy, whether it be her own customers or people in need. At the end of the book, she discusses the work that her company has done to support charities and social justice. She says:

quoteInvite in the joy whenever, however, wherever, it comes along, be it dessert or anything else. And go all out to spread that joy to as many people in as many ways as you can. Because one act, by one person, sparks the change that, when shared, generates a revolution.

I love that Tosi narrated the book herself. Her joy in creating desserts and her enthusiasm are apparent. After listening to Dessert Can Save the World I would buy her desserts.


Whole Earth

Whole Earth coverWhole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
John Markoff
Penguin Press (March 22, 2022), 416 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $25.97

If you spent any time in bookstores in the 1970s or if you were around the counterculture of the time, you no doubt encountered one of the many editions of the Whole Earth Catalog. Perhaps you subscribed to CoEvolution Quarterly, or as I did, to its successor, Whole Earth Review. If so, you are aware that the man behind these publications was Stewart Brand.

In his comprehensive biography of Brand, author John Markoff shows Brand to be a far more complex character than you might have expected. Certainly more complex than I expected.

Brand grew up in the Midwest, but he went west to Stanford for college. Markoff mentions that Brand joined the ROTC as a freshman but says nothing about his ROTC activities as an undergraduate. The military resurfaces when Brand graduates and Markoff notes that Brand wore his dress uniform to his graduation. The author then goes on to Brand’s time in the military and describes how Brand failed in his training to become part of the elite Ranger corps. Ultimately Brand got himself assigned as a photographer and was eventually able to secure early release from active duty. This came with the obligation for Reserve activities, reminders for which Brand tended to ignore.

After leaving the army he returned to the Bay Area where he experimented with LSD. He involved himself in some of the legal, controlled experiments at the time and also later indulged recreationally. Brand hung around the fringes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters but was never fully a part of that group. Native American culture fascinated him and did a photo essay of the Warm Springs tribe.

Brand became intrigued by Buckminster Fuller’s philosophy and the idea of innovative uses for tools. He opened a business in Menlo Park he called the Truck Store where he sold books and tools. That, along with his fascination with Fuller’s work, eventually led to the Whole Earth Catalog.

Markoff describes in detail the creation and the ups and downs of the Whole Earth Catalog and its various editions. He also discusses Brand’s fascination with technology, and his creation of the WELL, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, in the mid-1980s, which was an early online public online forum, though far from the first. If you think that managing online behavior is a recent phenomenon this book will tell you that Brand and his WELL manager, Tex, faced those same issues from the beginning.

Brand was not the maven of the counterculture that the Whole Earth Catalog might suggest. He had some conservative views and helped found the Global Business Network, where he gave lectures and presentations to corporations. He believed in city life (as opposed to rural) and in nuclear power as ways of combating global climate change. When he published these views in his book Whole Earth Discipline in October 2009 he made enemies and many who knew Brand’s work felt betrayed.

Stewart Brand was married twice. Both wives were key to the successes of his various businesses. His first wife, Lois Jennings, was the glue that held the Whole Earth Catalog together. That marriage ended in divorce, though Markoff’s subtext implies that the marriage could have worked had Brand put in a little more effort. Of his second wife, Markoff writes, “Patty Phelan had made him a nicer person.” That marriage lasted, and Phelan was an entrepreneur in her own right.

If the Whole Earth culture is part of your past or if it otherwise interests you Markoff’s biography will tell you as much about Stewart Brand as you could possibly absorb.


Minor Characters

Minor Characters coverMinor Characters: A Beat Memoir
Joyce Johnson
read by Samara Naeymi
Brilliance Audio, March 16, 2021
$21.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Joyce Johnson’s memoir has gone through multiple iterations. Houghton Mifflin first published the book in 1983. Johnson wrote a new introduction for the book on the occasion of a 1994 reissue. Then Ann Douglas penned a thoughtful and illuminating introductory essay about American women in the 1950s for a 1999 edition. Finally, Samara Naeymi recorded the unabridged audiobook version, which Brilliance Audio released only last year.

When we read about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, we generally encounter the names of men: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady, to name the most prominent figures. You will find all these men mentioned in Johnson’s book. But the prominence of the men diminishes the role women played in the movement. Johnson writes about her own involvement close to the movement but behind the scenes, and about how her close friend Elise Cowen and the wives of the Beats were very much a part of that world.

Johnson recounts her childhood and how her mother desperately wanted her to be a success in musical theater. That was not what Joyce wanted. She describes how she and her friend took the subway to Washington Square to participate in the folk music scene, telling their parents that they were doing something more wholesome. Her father was a corporate accountant who got little pleasure out of life other than playing the horses with the bookie at the newsstand and stopping by the bar for an occasional beer.

Johnson’s mother was intent that Joyce attend Barnard College, making her one of the few Jewish people to attend what has then an all-women’s school. (She was born Joyce Glassman.) Johnson spent four years at Barnard but did not graduate because the school had a physical education requirement that she ignored.

The author describes finding secretarial work after her non-graduation and maintaining a social life. Margaret Sanger had recently opened her birth control clinic in New York City, and the word among the young, unmarried Barnard alumna was that one could visit the clinic using a made-up married name to obtain the necessary services. Johnson admits that there was no logical reason for her hesitancy to do that herself. That omission had its consequences, and she describes in detail her experience of obtaining an illegal abortion by a seedy doctor in an unpleasant part of the city.

Elise Cowen and Johnson were close friends in college and maintained that friendship after their Barnard days, sometimes sharing an apartment. Cowen met Allen Ginsberg, with whom she immediately became infatuated. This was shortly before Ginsberg acknowledged his homosexuality, but Cowen never gave up hope, futile as that was.

It was Ginsberg who brought Johnson and Jack Kerouac together. Kerouac, constantly without money, suggested that he stay in Johnson’s apartment, something to which Johnson readily agreed. Kerouac was not one to stay in one place for long, however, and was always off to one place or another, whether it be Mexico, San Francisco, or Florida at his mother’s house. But he always had a place to stay with Johnson when he was in New York City.

Johnson makes a point of noting that Kerouac, always on the road (book reference intended), never headed out with a woman. Except for his mother. He moved her from Florida to San Francisco, back to Florida, and then to the New York countryside once his income from On the Road permitted his purchase of a house there. Loyalty to his mother transcended all other loyalties. He invited Johnson to visit their new home in New York, but afterward told her not to come back. His mother did not like her much. Among other things, she used too much hot water washing the dishes.

The author is clear-eyed in her perception of herself and others. She recognizes Kerouac had no romantic interest in her. (Sexual interest was a different matter.) She writes about how Kerouac kept insisting that they were “friends.” She also admits that she would have immediately taken him in had he chosen to commit. Johnson tells us that Kerouac never owned a typewriter. He always borrowed someone else’s, or very occasionally rented one. I have written here about how Kerouac famously composed On the Road on a scroll, and I have said that Kerouac scholars have said that the scroll consisted of sheets of paper taped together. Johnson says that he actually used a teletype roll that one of his friends obtained for him.

Johnson was at the center of the media frenzy after the publication On the Road. Kerouac had just returned to New York City and was living with her at the time. Johnson fielded telephone calls, sorted through the mail, and made sure Kerouac arrived on time for radio and television interviews. He was neither a gracious nor a pleasant guest for his media hosts.

Near the end of the book Johnson writes about breaking up with Kerouac (as if they were actually a couple in any genuine sense of the term). He had taken up with another woman and Johnson had reached her limit. It was outside a restaurant in New York City when she told him that enough was enough.

The final chapter is about the women in her world. In particular, she writes about how Cowen, who had been in a mental hospital, committed suicide rather than move to Florida with her parents. Although Johnson saw success as a writer, she tells us that the decade of the sixties did not hold she same attraction for her as the fifties did.

Samara Naeymi is superb in her reading of Johnson’s work and Johnson has structured her memoir with the flow of a novel. Listening to Minor Characters was time well spent.


Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul

Sacred Earth Sacred Soul coverSacred Earth, Sacred Soul: Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World
J. Philip Newell
HarperOne (July 6, 2021), 285 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $21.28

I can’t think of anyone better qualified to write about Celtic spirituality than J. Philip Newell. He was, after all, once the director of the retreat center on Iona, and continued (in pre-pandemic times at least) to lead pilgrimages there. Newell does an impressive job of discussing several individuals who were instrumental in furthering the cause of Celtic Christianity.

The author begins his survey with Pelagius, who was a contemporary of St. Augustine. Pelagius believed that human nature was not inherently sinful. He also believed in teaching women. For this and other (in the church’s eyes) heresies, the Roman church condemned him more than once. Newell then discusses St. Brigid. Brigid, of course, has pagan routes. Once source said that she was a Druidess. The Celtic Church, however, heartily embraced her.

Newell goes on to discuss John Scotus Eriugena, who lived in the ninth century. Eriugena saw the sacred in all the natural world. The author then gives a treatment of the life of Alexander John Scott, a Scottish minister of the nineteenth century. Scott’s teachings got him into trouble and very little of his writing has come down to us. Newell, however, believed that Scott’s teachings were important and chose to write his doctoral dissertation about him. While his advisers were dubious Newell was able to resurrect enough source material from contemporary sources to resurrect his legacy.

The author discusses both John Muir and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Muir, the son of a Calvinist preacher, had a spiritual side we rarely hear about. Teilhard believed the divine existed in the material. I had often seen him referred to as a paleontologist, but Newell states that the church sent him into the field because of his writing. (Other sources, perhaps closer to Teilhard, say his paleontological work influenced his thought.) The Catholic Church banned his writing, but he signed all of his books over to his literary assistant who was able to publish them after his death. Newell also writes about George MacLeod, who was responsible for the modern incarnation of Iona as a retreat center. Clearly Newell has a great fondness for MacLeod. Finally, Newell devotes a chapter to the poet Kenneth White, who had a Celtic mentality and wrote poems about the sacred journey.

Newell devotes a chapter to the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Celtic poems and songs. A man named Alexander Carmichael, who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gets credit for compiling many of these. These pieces were originally written in Gaelic, and Newell writes that the Gaelic spoken in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland is related to Sanskrit. He says that one can find in these works the same sense of the sacred found in Sanskrit poetry.

Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul is an excellent introduction to or review of Celtic Christianity.


The Quiet Before

The Quiet Before coverThe Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas
Gal Beckerman
Crown (February 15, 2022), 447 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99

The subtitle of this book is misleading. The Quiet Before is much more about the variety of ways in which ideas have been communicated than it is about their origins. And certainly not all the ideas Beckerman discusses are radical. Nor are the chapter titles helpful. Given that, I kept my own notes about the means of communication he discusses in each chapter. I also don’t see a “quiet before” in his various narratives. Nonetheless, Beckerman has an intriguing thesis and he delivers some interesting material.

After an introduction in which he makes a cogent argument as to how social media is not conducive to civil and productive discourse, his first chapter discusses the power of the old-fashioned letter. Beckerman describes how Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc used the letter in the seventeenth century to pursue his scientific ends. His goal was to make the measurement of longitude more accurate. To do so he needed multiple people in a variety of locations to take measurements of a lunar eclipse. He wrote letters to encourage various individuals to make those observations, and his efforts did largely make the measurement of longitude far more accurate.

Beckerman goes on to discuss the petition. An activist named Feargus O’Connor in the nineteenth century tried to use petitions, mostly without success, to convince the British Parliament to enact laws to ease the burden on laborers. In the early twentieth century a woman named Mina Loy involved herself with a group of thinkers who called themselves “futurists.” They used the manifesto to express their ideas, and sometimes developed competing manifestos. In West Africa locals opposed to how the British were treating the natives set up newspapers to express their ideas. In the former Soviet Union dissidents employed a methodology known as “samizdat.” Beckerman says that this was a contraction of the words “self” and “publishing.” This was a means of distributing censored material, usually with typewriter and carbon paper. The author then moves on to the late 1980s when young women started creating ‘zines with scissors and glue sticks. They copied them on photocopiers and distributed them by postal mail.

The author then inserts a section entitled “Interlude” in which he discusses Stewart Brand’s creation of the WELL: the Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, one of the first computer bulletin boards. Those were the days in which you had to own a modem and dial in to the WELL’s servers.

From here Beckerman moves into the computer age, discussing how protesters created Facebook pages to promote their movement and how members of the alt-right used chat rooms on various platforms to further their agenda. He describes how a virologist named Eva Lee was at the center of an ongoing discussion made up of doctors, scientists, and healthcare professionals during the early days of the COVID pandemic. They continued their conversions via email and a Twitter Direct Message (DM) group while the occupant of the White House at the time downplayed the whole matter. Finally, Beckerman discusses how activists use hashtags to promote social causes.

The tale does not promise us a happy ending. As Beckerman told us from the start, social media is not conducive to productive discussion or lasting change. But perhaps in knowing that we can find workable solutions.


Around the World in 80 Books

Around the World in 80 Books coverAround the World in 80 Books
David Damrosch
Penguin Press (November 16, 2021), 432 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $21.78

David Damrosch had big plans for this book. In the tradition of Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional hero in the novel Around the World in 80 Days, Damrosch planned to make a world tour, giving lectures and meeting people, basing the trip on eighty books. Then the pandemic hit. Conferences were canceled and travel was restricted. So instead he set up a web site where he discussed a different book each day, five days a week. The web site became this book.

To Damrosch’s credit he does not purport to be offering any sort of canon. He makes clear that the selections are his own, and that someone else would have made a different set of choices.

Like Phileas Fogg, Damrosch starts in London, and like Fogg he travels east to west. In London he discusses Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Interestingly, his selection for Doyle is The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I still have the copy of that two-volume set that I got when I was a youngster.

From London he travels, as it were, to Paris and then to Kraków, Poland. From there he visits Venice, where he offers an interesting selection: the writing of Marco Polo, Dante with his Divine Comedy, and Boccaccio’s Decameron (a book that has resonance for today with its tales told in a plague world). He also writes about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but before that discusses By Its Cover written by contemporary expatriate mystery writer Donna Leon.

I won’t mention all of his other stops, but Damrosch covers the Middle East, Africa, China, and Japan. From Japan he moves on to South America, where he interestingly writes about Candide by Voltaire and Utopia by Thomas More, two European authors. His rationale is that the action in these two books took place in South America. In his discussion of Candide, Damrosch oddly fails to mention Dr. Pangloss, whose optimistic philosophy is central to the book’s theme. At the book’s end, where the characters choose to settle down in their own corner of the world, they say, you will recall, “We must cultivate our garden.” Damrosch italicizes “our,” saying “Our life’s path… is a social rather than an individualistic imperative.” I haven’t read Candide since high school, but I have always clearly taken that phrase to say that we should stop trying to fix the larger world and do what we can with our own small space. It is an individual, nuclear family, or small group endeavor, not a social expectation.

Damrosch then goes on to Mexico and the Antilles in the Caribbean. From there he makes a big jump to Bar Harbor, Maine where he spent his earliest years and then to New York City where his family moved while he was still in elementary school.

In the New York chapter he writes about one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Damrosch describes how L’Engle was living in New York at the time and he not only met her, but she personally gave him a copy of the book. Damrosch and I are the same age and I admit to being jealous.

Although he includes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the New York section, Damrosch writes, “Our own imagined journey reaches its end, as we return to England with our eightieth book.” A good place to finish the journey, indeed.

There are omissions in Damrosch’s list from my perspective. He completely ignores California, the Midwest, and the American South. There are certainly many West Coast authors he could have included, and what about Mark Twain in the Midwest (I still have The Complete Novels of Mark Twain from my childhood) and Faulkner for the South?

Still, Damrosch delivers an engaging survey and many of his eighty books are no doubt well worth reading or re-reading.