29 January 2007

Catholics and C. S. Lewis

While at the monastery guest house I would spend time in the library. I especially liked aimlessly reading The Catholic Encyclopedia -- a bit like web surfing. Here is an entry from my journal about it.
I think there are now Anglican orders, though I do not see how they could be thriving [I had been writing about how difficult it is for the Cistercians to recruit new members]. It is something I don't know much about. Sounds like one more trip to the library to peruse The Catholic Encyclopedia. It is very useful, but it is interesting how everything reflects the Catholic mind set. Most especially the article on C. S. Lewis. It doesn't even admit that he was an Anglican, only that while never becoming a Catholic, he was "close to the Catholic position." You are left to wonder exactly what he converted TO when he had his great conversion. It is a bit funny and a bit ludicrous. Or maybe just annoying.
[To add to this: I listened to about four hours of a Catholic bishop's taped lectures on the Narnia chronicles explaining carefully and in great detail how each little element illustrated an important Catholic tenet. I didn't finish them all, so I never reached the part where the good bishop explained exactly what faith Lewis adhered to.]

Ode to a Pen

What else do I want to say today? I have my old clunky mail-order pen - the one that Consumer Reports rated lowest - yet pointed out that it was the favorite of at least a few of their testers. It is big and solid and has survived the years – I can't even remember when I got it. I think I was still in Florida. An old companion if not a dear friend. The same is true of my little blue Schaeffer. I got it when I was still in High School (oh, surely not). I have kept it through all the years, while the italic Parker, which I loved, was lost in Boston back centuries ago, or at least a few decades ago. St Anthony did not come through on that one.

[from my retreat journal at the monastery]

At the monastery with my new machine

My sister-in-law gave me a tiny personal recorder to use for making verbal notes to myself. At first I wasn't sure how I would use it. On the last full day of my retreat I got up at 6:45 am and walked the quarter mile to the chapel for Lauds. I was so struck by what I was hearing and seeing that I pulled out my present and spoke a description into it. I'll transcribe it here, just as I spoke it early on one frosty morn in the great Shenandoah Valley.

It is just beginning to be morning. I can see a half-moon. The fields are illuminated. I heard a train. And the cows lowing. I can see the red lights of a car pulling into the parking lot in front of the chapel. It's not very cold, there are streaks of pink across the sky. High up are blinking towers. ‘Blinking towers' might be the right way to put it. I think the pink streaks are jet contrails catching the morning sunlight. It's still pretty dark. It's not very cold. I can still hear the train whistles, a very mournful sound but very pretty.

That was my morning walk as recorded on my new Olympus Personal Recorder. A neat little device. Thanks D-Annie!

Music, monks and me

It is odd but apparently universal how a piece of music will lodge in one's brain and not go away. No matter what. With me it happens with spectacular clarity. The choice of music can be quite spectacular too. I have no control over it at all. As I was walking around the monastery grounds on my retreat I began to hear one particular musical theme all during my five days there - from "Ilya Mourametz," a symphony by Glière, fourth movement ... the French horns. Well, really, what could be better? Music for a Russian Medieval epic, sounding almost like Orthodox Church music.

The second day a second piece of music with lyrics popped into my head - "Verecruz" by Warren Zevon, the Spanish part. Not exactly spiritual music, but beautiful.

The day after that my internal music machine kicked in as usual with Ilya and Warren, but at the end of the Ilya Mourametz piece I began to hear the reverberation of a theme repeating itself back in my inner ear. I teased it out until I could recognize it -- "Psalm szwedzkie," an extremely ominous version of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" written by Kazimierz Serocki for the Polish movie "Potop" (Deluge). It represents the evil Protestant Swedes invading Poland. Soon I had the whole thing, or at least the musical part, running through my head. I couldn't remember the lyrics - they're in Polish. Unconsciously I began to make it more triumphal, more joyous, which is probably the way Luther had intended it. As it is in the film it is a frightful dirge.

The last full day I was there one more tune was added - a piece from the Klezmorem album "Metropolis." Maybe that one came from listening to a recorded version of a Yiddish novel about the great Ukrainian revolt that turned into a massacre of the Jews (this happened in 1648, just a few years before the Swedish invasion of Poland in "Potop"). But the music by the Klezmorem is the happiest music I know.

Go figure.

27 January 2007

A great literary line

My wife is reading a mystery novel set in Laos. It has such great names from the past like Luang Prabang and Vientiane. And then there is this line:

"He stepped carefully to avoid setting off the dog fart flowers."

And if that is too much local color for you, I didn't even mention the "old bull testicle trees."

26 January 2007

The New Libraries

My wife now works in the Lykes Co Library. She likes it partly, I think, because it is so educational. This snippet of an article by Thomas Washington from The Washington Post therefore struck a chord:

I became a school librarian because I loved books and wanted to bring
the joy of reading to young people... Silly me. Young people no longer read for pleasure, and libraries are no longer places to discover great works of literature and biography and history. We librarians now exist soley to help bored students maximize their database searches, so they can complete papers and assignments in minimal time. When students do check out a book on, say, Jane Austen or Thomas Jefferson, they don't actually read it; they check it back in the next day, having copied down what they need to cite the book as a "source."

Camen has a young colleague at the library who is taking a course at the
Lykes Community College and had a paper to write for one of her classes.
She was going through a web site rapidly cutting and pasting paragraphs.
When Carmen ask her is she was able to read the blocks she was cutting at that
speed the young woman said no, but that was all that was needed to complete the

25 January 2007

An Evil Memory from the Past

In my early teens I was greatly troubled by news stories about the murders of civil rights workers and African Americans in the south, usually in Mississippi and Alabama. I was both outraged and embarrassed by the fact that the murderers were known and protected, even honored, within their communities. In one case the Feds brought the murderers to trial in a local courtroom, proved their case, the defending attorney ranted about how worthless blacks were as a race, and the jury found the men, all local law enforcement officers, not guilty. Several of the jury members helpfully explained that the murdered boys deserved it and they wouldn't find anyone guilty of killing them.

All of this came back to mind today when I read a story on AOL about one of these cases that has been resurrected. Here are some snippets from the story about the arrest of a former deputy for the murder of two young men:

The former deputy, James Ford Seale, of Roxie, Miss., was named in a federal indictment charging him in connection with the teens' disappearance and deaths while they were hitchhiking in a rural area of the state east of Natchez. Until recently, Seale was thought to be dead, and the investigation into the two deaths had long been abandoned.

[At the time] Federal authorities, who were focusing on the more famous "Mississippi Burning" killings, turned the case over to local authorities. A short time later, a justice of the peace called an end to the inquiry without presenting evidence to a grand jury.

The case is the latest long-dormant civil rights-era killing to be reopened decades after the crimes were committed. The others include:

-A 1994 conviction in Mississippi of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 sniper killing of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

-Bobby Frank Cherry, convicted in 2002 in Alabama of killing four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963. In 2001, Thomas Blanton was convicted in the church bombing.

-Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former Klansman, convicted of manslaughter in June 2005 in the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three civil rights workers who were killed near Philadelphia in 1964.

That's a long list of old cases. What's going on here?

Basically the Feds knew they couldn't get convictions and that no one in these communities would cooperate. So over time they lost interest and lost track - btw, do you really think that anyone who had ever known Mr Seale ever thought he was "dead"? In other words these murderers were known and protected.

This was what I knew at the time and that made me mad, disgusted, and ultimately cynical, especially about that good ol' down home religion I knew so well. Every one of these murders took place in communities that are as religious as any in the country. The murderers all went to church and were well known in their Christian communities. And every one of these Christian communities covered up for them, and in some cases made it clear that they regarded the perpetrators as honorable men simply defending their godfearing communities from godless outsiders - the words Jews and Yankees came up frequently in their conversations (this was all long ago, and my memory is no better than anyone else's, but I do not believe I am mischaracterizing what I heard at the time).

These people were and are the immediate ancestors of the Bible Belt communities that gave rise to much of the religiosity current in America today. I am not saying that anyone still feels that way or is in any way responsible for what happened so many years ago. In fact there is a sprig of hope in the fact that attitudes have changed enough for these cases finally to be brought to trial.

But I am a child of my past, as is everyone. This is what I picture even now when I am confronted with a certain type of religiosity. It is, perhaps, a mindless prejudice I should abandon. Perhaps. I just have this nagging feeling that not enough has changed, or can change. Human nature is eterenal. Substitute Muslims, or gays, or HIV positive people, for the black, civil rights workers and Jews of my youth and you can see what worries me.

I could be wrong, I keep telling myself.

23 January 2007

How Politicians see us

Frank Lutz' work as a Republican pollster is profiled in todays Wall Street Journal. He has written a book called Words that Work, i.e. words that have been tested to get a buzz from the hearer (notice it is not the idea that is tested, merely the words). His thesis is that it is not what is said, but how it is said that is important in politics. As the author of the profile says,

Mr. Luntz describes the American people, on the whole, as ill-read, provincial, sullen and frightened. They are, he says, susceptible to mere rhetoric and responsive to arguably bogus appeals to values, no matter what the facts. True, his analysis of the 2006 election doesn't fit this portrait: He sees former GOP voters as all too well informed about the performance of the last Congress and not liking it. Still, Mr. Luntz's own public statements--and many passages in "Words That Work"--suggest that often, for him, communication is really just a form of manipulation.

Of course, the Demos now think this is the clever way to go and are busy imitating Lutz and his ilk. Welcome to the wonderful world of politics in the 21rst Century.

18 January 2007

The IQ elite and minimal responsibility

There is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray titled "Aztecs vs. Greeks : Those with superior intelligence need to learn to be wise."

You will have to read the whole article to see what the title means, but it argues that putting those with IQs of 120 and over in regular classes is a very bad idea. It is ironic though. When I was going through school the more rigorous standards and demands the author calls for in special classes for the 'gifted' (god I hate that term) were simply part of our regular classes (thank you Mr McClung, among others).

The basic thesis is: "
The top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital or stagnant, our culture healthy or sick, our institutions secure or endangered. Of the simple truths about intelligence and its relationship to education, this is the most important and least acknowledged: Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence."

Murray defines the problem:

The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. It requires first of all recognition of one's own intellectual limits and fallibilities--in a word, humility. This is perhaps the most conspicuously missing part of today's education of the gifted. Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, "I can't do this." Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall, just as all of their less talented peers do, and that can come only from a curriculum and pedagogy designed especially for them. That level of demand cannot fairly be imposed on a classroom that includes children who do not have the ability to respond. The gifted need to have some classes with each other not to be coddled, but because that is the only setting in which their feet can be held to the fire.

Again, when I was in school this seemed to be where our regular classes were pitched. My work, as well as that of the kids who were clearly smarter than I was, was rigorously critiqued and we were allowed no airs due to our performance. I sure felt like our feet where held to the fire and then some!

His solution:
I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty. If that sounds too much like Plato's Guardians, consider this distinction. As William F. Buckley rightly instructs us, it is better to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. But we have that option only in the choice of our elected officials. In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. That is the reality, and we are powerless to change it. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations. For years, we have not even thought about the nature of that task. It is time we did.

The whole article is worth a read. Though he uses the word 'elite' frequently Murray is no elitist. Elsewhere in the WSJ he argues that many of the intellectually superior should NOT go to college - they have better things to do with their lives. He is trying to spark a debate about education, unelected elites, and solutions.

It is all the more important as many of our colleges and universities, mine among them, are retreating from this very concept in favor of a more technically careerist orientation with lower standards. We are, after all, market driven.

17 January 2007

What you pay for when you pay for gas

Well, it's certainly not even a minimal amount of safety, neither for the giant BP gas company's own employees nor the environment. Here's the results of a damning report on BP's systematic shortchanging safety at its refineries - one of which blew up killing 15 people. And then there is the Alaska pipeline that BP allowed to deteriorate to the point it burst.

The Texas City plant was not the only refinery in need of greater company spending. The panel said that many hourly workers interviewed at BP's Whiting, Ind., refinery reported that as a result of underfunding, "preventive maintenance was seldom practiced, the refinery had a 'run until it breaks' mentality, and the workforce had a great deal of experience running equipment with 'Band-Aids.' " A survey of people working at a Toledo refinery showed that 33 percent of operations managers, 44 percent of maintenance technicians and 63 percent of health-and-safety employees disagreed with the statement that "process safety programs . . . have adequate funding."

After a consultant hired by BP urged bigger refinery budgets, BP increased spending somewhat. But in late 2004, weeks before the explosion, BP headquarters had asked its refineries to trim costs by an additional 25 percent. "It is not clear to the Panel why the U.S. refineries did not receive greater funding," the Baker report says.

Remember the billions inwindfall profits BP and other companies raked in when your gas prices went up to $3 a gal? The price spike that ended, oh, just before the last election?

16 January 2007

Holy Cross Abbey

For a nice run down of Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, where I stayed last week, click here. It also has some pictures of the main monastic house and the road leading up to it. I liked to walk out that road at least once a day through the pastures on either side where the cattle were kept. I had a little pair of binoculars and I would look across the herd and watch the monks tending to them. Reminded me a lot of growing up on a farm.

Here is an overview of the abbey.
You can see the original stone house on
the right that was built in the 1780s. The
long section on the left is the chapel.
I only made it there for the 3:30 am
Vigils once. It's dark and cold at that hour,
at least up in the Blue Ridge.

Lost in Translation

"Yah-hah, evil spider woman! I have captured you by the short rabbits and can now deliver you violently to your gynecologist for a thorough extermination."

English subtitle for a Hong Kong kung-fu film.*

Hmm. Reminds me of Princess Dragon-Mom in "Ultra Man."

*According to my "365 Stupidest Things Ever Said Calendar," at least.

Jefferson and Islam

Thomas Jefferson is the closest thing to a secular patron saint Americans have, perhaps only equalled by Washington. It was a brilliant move for our new Muslim congressman to be sworn in on an old copy of the Koran once owned by Jefferson. Now Christopher Hitchens adds a little bit of context to Jefferson here. It also puts our relations with Islamic countries into some historical perspective.

Back from the Monastery

I have returned from my four days at the monastery, and my weekend wandering in Northern Virginia and the District. When I have had a few days to think it over I will write more on my experiences. It all depends.

But I had an excellent time, it accomplished all that I had expected and perhaps a bit more, and I had a chance to see some old friends.

Now I will get back to making some posts on my blogs.

07 January 2007

I am retreating

Tomorrow morning bright and early (ie by the crack of noon) I take off for the Holy Cross Abbey of Berryville, Virginia. There I will spend four days in the monastic guest house, pretty much on my own. I plan on walking a lot, writing in my journal, translating one or two gospels from the Vulgate, and reading a little bit of a Gene Wolfe novel. I intend for it to be a time of washing everything about my job as a teacher and quasi administrator out of my mind. When I come back on the following Monday, after spending the weekend in Washington, I intend to immediately get started on my new research projects.

While at the monastery I will be away from phones, fax, computers, and TVs. So I will not be posting until next Monday.

Hope everyone is having a good time.

[Jack- I like your last post and will respond when I return]

05 January 2007

Origins of the Proto-Indo Europeans

By popular demand! (oh ok - one person did ask).

I have learned from reading Brian Fagan (see my post on 20 favorite books) that around 5000 years ago the Black Sea was only a large lake down in the lowest part of the Black Sea basin. It was a fresh water lake and is called the Euxine Lake by those studying it. There were small agricultural villages along its shores and various hunters and gatherers in the hinterlands and up in the rising slopes of the depression.

Around 4500 BC the Mediterranean Sea burst through the heights that separate it from the Euxine basin and created a spectacular waterfall jetting out into the depression. The resulting flood, moving about as fast as a slow walk, inundated the entire basin, created the Black Sea, and drove all of the farming communities out of the area - running for their lives no doubt.

Think of the Euxine basin as a tube of toothpaste that has been stepped on. All those people have to squirt somewhere. The farmers go up the great river valleys in every direction. It forces the spread of agricultural communities into Europe and out towards the Ukraine and points east. There is probably a reflux of farmers back into Anatolia as well.

Who were these people? The origins of the original Euxine farmers would probably be Anatolia which some, though not many, have seen as the original homeland of the proto-Indo-Europeans. If so, then obviously many of those down in the basin who had to flee upland would also have been PIE people.

This is what I think happened: A wave of earlier farmers using all the techniques pioneered by the ancient Middle East, moved across Anatolia into the great Euxine basin, establishing settlements around the lake. These were the ancestors of the PIE people (the Proto-proto-Indo-Europeans?). Then came the great flood and the settlements scattered - these refugees are the PIE people, speaking a language that was fairly unified at the time of the flood. As they spread outwards their language develops into various dialects and then into distinct languages. These languages would be what we call the Indo-European languages which stretch from Ireland to China and from Scandinavia to India.

This theory (not well thought out yet) does explain several puzzling aspects of Indo-European. One, how can we postulate one distinct homeland, a fixed version of the PIE language, when language is constantly in flux and changing. This theory fixes PIE to about 5000-4500 BC in a fairly localized region - the shores of the Euxine Lake. Two, the trail of ancestral PIE dialects across Anatolia would explain the position of Hittite. While the language of the ancient Hittites, or Nusli, is clearly related to Indo-European languages, it is different enough that some historical linguists see it as a sister language rather than a daughter language. In other words it is not a development of PIE but the daughter of the same language that gave birth to PIE.

It's just a theory and needs more work, but it's worth considering I think.

The Death of Saddam

A few days ago I posted some quick thoughts about the botched execution of Saddam Hussein. Now Charles Krauthammer and Christopher Hitchens weigh in.

Oddly enough, the last two agree with each other! And with me, more or less. Most be some kind of harmonic convergence.

03 January 2007

A Congressman and the Koran

You may have read that Minnesota has elected a Muslim, Keith Ellison, to the House of Representatives. Reb Ellison wants to use the Koran when he is sworn in. This has outraged some of our more xenophobic citizens, including Virginia Rep Virgil Goode who saw it as a threat to American values.

Goode also used it as an opportunity to fulminate against Muslims immigrants and call for a halt to such immigration. This neatly overlooks the fact that Ellison is a native born American who converted to Islam and as an African American has ancestors in this country from long before the Civil War.

Goode also overlooks the fact that the official swearing in ceremony makes no use of any holy book and it is merely a custom that Representatives hold a Bible for the official picture to show to the folks back home. Since the voters of Ellison's district were well aware he was a Muslim when they voted for him, they probably won't be too shocked if he holds a Koran.

Now Ellison has neatly finessed the situation. He is going to use the Koran owned and initialed by Thomas Jefferson. And as we all know (well, if you grew up in Virginia), Jefferson was born in Albemarle County, which is the district Goode represents.

By the way, what validity would an oath sworn on the Bible by a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a non-believer have anyway?

02 January 2007

Oh No! How could I forget these two books.

Thought I had done a good job of checking through my list. Nope. Left out two of my favorites so I will put them here, and you can decide which of the former twenty you want to drop to make space for them (after all, you are Time magazine's 'Man of the Year').

1. The Foreigner's Gift: the Americans, the Arabs and the Iraqis in Iraq, by Fouad Ajami. Simply a brilliant book by a man who knows the Middle East as both an insider and an outsider. Ajami, who grew up in a Shi'ite family in Lebanon spent considerable time in Iraq to write this book. Partly because of his friendship with both the Bushies and the Chalabi family he is often derided as a Neo-con flack, but attaching a glib label is neither an assessment nor an argument. Ajami writes of Iraq with deep sympathy and an air of pervasive sadness for all concerned. Whatever you think about Muslims, Iraq, or the war, this is at least one book you should read.

2. Barbarian Tides by Walter Goffart. Goffart is one of the best early medievalists in the world. Years ago he came up with a theory about the barbarian invasions that finished off the Roman Empire in which he argued that they were simply a real estate deal with the Romans, ‘an imaginative experiment that got slightly out of hand." Here he writes an equally brilliant book reconsidering his theory in the light of several decades of impassioned criticism. He says now that he didn’t go far enough! He was right the first time, and now he will reformulate his thesis and shore up the few weak points in it. Whether you agree with him or not, you cannot read this book and not be informed about the later Roman Empire and the coming of the Barbarian Kingdoms in ways you never imagined.

It is, I should point out, serious scholarship intended for scholars who have read all the sources and are prepared to listen to arguments entailing detailed examination of the Latin texts. Thus not for everyone. And when I say 'brilliant' I don't necessarilly mean he is right, but damn it is a good book.

In looking back over my list I realize that I must have left off several good books that I read over the last year. Still, I think these were the best.

01 January 2007

Top Twenty Books Read in '06

Now that I am home again (hence the two day gap in posting while we drove back to Lykesboro), I have located my list of books and am ready to make my choices. Here they are in no particular order:

1. The Late Roman Empire by Ammianus Marcellinus. This is an abridged version of one of the greatest and most readable of the Roman historians. He is of special interest both because he was an army vet and wrote during the first century of the Christian empire.

2. Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud. A wonderful fantasy adventure trilogy (this is the last volume) set in an alternate universe where magicians rule and carry on war and politics for purely selfish end (remember, it's an alternate universe). Has one of the best depictions of how a decent youngster loses his soul step by step and regains it - maybe. A great read for mature youngsters, in some ways the equal of the Harry Potter books. If you all know any kids with a taste for reading, rush to get them copies. After reading them yourselves, of course.

3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, trans by Edith Grossman. Actually as great as its rep would have you believe.

4. Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher. A fascinating intro to why and how languages change over time. Worth its price for explaining the development of Arabic verbs if for nothing else!

5. The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. THE adventure story of all time. And with the greatest villainess ever.

6. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. A wonderfully evocative and human story of an American legend, for good and bad. And Penn Warren got both the good and the bad down perfectly.

7. The Excellent Empire by Jarislav Pelikan. An extended conversation between Pelikan and Edward Gibbon on the meaning of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire from a Christian perspective.

8. The Dark Tower VII by Stephen King. Not great, but comes so close by showcasing some of King's great talent that all seven volumes are worth the read (or in my case, the listen).

9. The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West by Aldo Schiavone. This one surprized me. I am not generally impressed by the European style of historical interpretation, but this was simply splendid.

10. The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather. I've written about this in several spots. I have loaned it to two of my colleagues, both of whom agree that it is a wonderfully written and compelling account of what went wrong for the Romans. In fact, the last guy won't return it!

11. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Another classic that deserves to be. It held my interest from start to finish which is no mean feat. It is a leviathan of a book!

12. Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the conciliator by Gene Wolfe. The best thing I can say about this is that Mr Claw of the Conciliator himself was right about everything he said about it. The vocabulary alone is worth an essay (someday).

13. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J. K. Rawlings. Any work that can get eleven year olds to plow through 600 plus pages of prose and come back screaming for more has my vote! They are great fun, grand storytelling, and characters who can take you by surprise. I don't fully understand why some lovers of fantasy turn up their noses at them.

14. The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History by Michal Biran. A book that I was prepared to plow through for the sake of the history involved. I was taken by surprise at how well it read and the political lessons it teaches. Really good history about an obscure people in a place most Americans know nothing about.

15. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. I cannot say enough about this work. For anyone who has read this blog over the last year I don't need to. This is the foundational work of Anglo-Saxon historical thinking on the subject. Almost every work in English on the fall of the Empire deals with it, in the case of Pelikan and Heather, quite clearly.

16. The Long Summer by Brian Fagan. Part of a series Fagan, an archaeologist, has been doing about how changes in the weather has effected human history. Wonderfully thought provoking. Have I told you my new theory of the origins of the Proto-Indo-Europeans yet?

17. The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Haffner. A German journalist tries to make sense of Hitler. Slim, a bit dated, and thin on new research, but a brilliant examination of what Hitler meant for Germany.

18. Baudolino by Umberto Eco. I am not certain this book has not been seriously overrated, but I certainly got a kick out of reading about it. It tells the story of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the sack of Constantinople by Crusaders, and a kingdom filled with just about every crackpot myth in the Middle Ages. A good read.

19. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman. A clear and very readable intro to the textual history of the Bible and some of the implications to the reality of a Bible with no real definitive edition. And it doesn't even deal with the pitfalls of translation.

20. The Good Book by Peter Gomes. After number 19 sends your head reeling with the impossibility of knowing exactly what the Good Book actually says, Gomes shows you a Christian, human, and rational way to get back to what is really important and worthwhile about the book in the first place.

That's it. I thought about including American Gods by Neil Gaimon and the Ilium/Olympos duo by Dan Simmons, but they occupy a different spot in my mind. And I have certainly written more than enough about Simmons to do for aught six and aught seven.

For some general comments about some of these, check here.

Happy New Year!

PS: I really liked this book too, but in the rush of the semester didn't finish it - and I read it mainly for a research project so I don't include it.

The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: the Indo-Aryan Migration Debate by Edwin Bryant. It's a good book from several standpoints. Bryant surveys the origin of the notion that the Aryans of India originated from outside India in some Proto-Indo-European homeland located close to Europe, if not actually in Europe. He then shows how this notion was used to shore up the British colonialist project in India and is now assumed to be, at least in the West, unassailable. But what is original and fascinating is that Bryant then goes on to look at the rejection of this narrative by Indian scholars and intellectuals and why they are so hostile to it. Unlike most western scholars, he is willing to look at their arguments in detail, noting carefully where they make good points. This is a contentious issue, and one that I would like to know more about while I work on my projected article on the origins of chariot warfare in the Bronze Age.

Saddam, death, and the surge

Some Iraqis are probably going to view Saddam's death in the same light as that of Atlahualpa (see last post). Others not. Here is a quote from The Washington Post's article today about his execution.

As the Shiites [in the execution room by government selection] chanted and proclaimed their loyalties to Sadr, who heads the Mahdi Army militia, which the United States is pressuring the Maliki government to dismantle, an Iraqi official turned to Haddad. "Now how are we going to disband the militia when we have such things?" the official asked.

After the outbursts, as Hussein recited his Islamic prayer for the second time, the chief hangman asked for silence. Then the floor of the gallows was opened.

The official's question is a good one. These were the official reps of the Iraqi government. They did not chant in the name of the Iraqi people, nor Islam, nor even the Shi'ite community. But in the name of one murderous militia leader who until recently was not even respected by most Shia.

Are these the people we are getting ready to send tens of thousands more of our soldiers and marines to fight for? Will they be fighting for this government? Against Sadr? Against the Sunni insurgents? The foreign jihadists? All of the above?

Addendnum to the last Reading post

Aside from becoming a reader and an historian I also became a cynic, perhaps at too young an age. The Atlahualpa story ended this way: Atlahualpa fulfilled his promise and his followers filled the large room as high as he had stretched out his hand. The Spaniards refused to release him. After some time, fearinig a revolt, they had him strangled.