08 July 2015

Clemens' Book Shelf

I have been keeping a running list of things I have read or listened to lately. I'll put them up here, month by month.

March 2015

Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson. audio book. Part of the fine trilogy Atkinson has done on the Americans in World War II in Africa and Europe.

Political order and Political Decay by Francis Fukayama. audio book. Huge, immensely engaging, thought provoking -- and probably a book I need to read the old fashioned way. There is a lot of stimulating theories regarding the development of the modern state and where we are now. Fukayama is careful however to give no advice on what we do now!

April 2015

The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Read. Splendid work by a genius, not always writing as a genius, but never less than interesting. Life on a daily basis for a family of a gifted fellow who was a celebrity of the times. Also his opinions about a great many things he never gets around to in his books, such as how to write an autobiography. A thick read but perfect for daily reading while you wait for your coffee to brew.

The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella by W.H. Prescott. Read on Kindle. Another great classic whose reputation has suffered because he clearly could not be as clever as modern historians. Do not believe that for an instant. Prescott's achievement has not yet been equaled in English and he still has a lot to teach us. Considering that he wrote within a culture deeply vested in believing the Black Legend in which Catholic Spain was evil, "medieval," superstitious and cruel, it is a remarkably balanced account. He makes no bones about his admiration for Isabella. It could take you all summer to read it through.

Crusading Warfare by R.C. Smail. Read. The path-breaking work on medieval warfare in general and Crusading warfare specifically this is still a useful work to read, though dated in many ways. It opens with a good survey of the literature and is based squarely on primary sources. I ordered it for my class on medieval warfare mainly because it is a good starting point for debate and because it is both in print and affordable, not something you can say about many books on this topic.

End: The Defiance and Defeat of Hitler's Germany by Ian Kershaw. An amazing book that throws new light on a period of history one might assume has been covered enough. Kershaw's starting point is that it is unusual, almost unheard of, for an entire society to go down fighting in blood and ruins. Not even the Japanese did it.  Yet the Germans did. Kershaw writes to learn "why?" and that answer is fascinating and disturbing. By the end I came away convinced that if the Germans had not fought on until their society was virtually obliterated the free, democratic, and peaceful Germany we know today would never have seen the light of day.

Gray Lensman. E.E. "Doc" Smith. audio. A brilliantly hammy narrator made a revisit to a classic from my teenage years a delight. Nevertheless I was struck by the fascistic and racial dictatorship of the Patrol (i.e. the space military) and the values its stories must have instilled in legions of addled young men. Like me, say. This is definitely a guilty pleasure and I can't really recommend it for anyone, but I intend to listen to the whole serious. The was an entire Japanese TV anime series based on it, called "Starblazers" in this country.

The Fiery Trail by Eric Foner. audio. A revealing account of Lincoln and his evolving attitude towards both slavery and race. If you have seen the movie "Lincoln" you should read this. In fact, read it anyway for whatever reason. America would be a different place if not for Lincoln. It makes clear that all actors in history are simply humans, subject to the errors and tides of judgement all of us are, but some manage to craft great and good results from it.

The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan. Audio. Excellent intro to the concept of "geopolitics" and how it developed. Hitler based much of his idea for germanic expansion on the early works of geopolitics and much of US diplomacy - especially in the Kissinger era - has been based on it. A good place to start I think.

William Marshal: Knight Errant, Baron, Regent by Sydney Painter. Read. Not the version of William Marshal's life I would have picked, especially since I've read it at least twice before, but it is the only decent study in any language still in print. William led an eventful life at the peak of the English military aristocracy spanning a career from landless knight and tournament champion to virtual ruler of England. Painter does him justice, but I would also recommend the biography by David Crouch. There is a new book on the Marshal by Thomas Asbridge that I hope to read soon.

The Old Testament. read on Kindle. Took months, a bit each day, learning something every day, sometimes terrible, sometimes moving and sometimes uplifting. And sometimes you wonder just what the Author had in mind. One of the few books, or collections of books, for which you can honestly say everything you have heard about it is true.

That's it for March and April. More to come. 


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