On my recent drive home from attending a reenactment weekend with my father, I listened to the audiobook of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. It is his telling of his experience as a teenage Jew in eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust of World War II.
He grew up in a small town in Hungary where he studied the Talmud and aspired to study Kabbalah. He had planned to dedicate his life to this study. While he was working toward this, an adult who left the town returned with what the residents thought of as tall tales of what Hitler’s Germany was doing to Jews. No one believed him. Even when the Germans arrived in their town and moved them to ghettos. Finally, they were all marched off to concentration camps.
The descriptions of life there are harrowing. He and his father are separated from his mother and sister. He spends the rest of his teens in multiple concentration camps, on forced marches, trying to keep his father and himself alive. This book should be required reading for high school graduation so that we never forget how horribly human beings are capable of treating one another.
My rating: 5/5
Two decades ago, my father was just getting into Civil War reenacting. When he invited me to join him at one back then I said yes. It was a great time of father/son bonding. Fast forward to earlier this month, he invited me back to the same event. It was a six-and-a-half-hour drive from my home. One of the books I listened while driving was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
The Lincoln of the title is actually Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. The bardo is a sort of purgatory on earth of souls who are not ready to move on yet. After Willie dies, he isn’t ready to move on and teams up with other souls who also don’t realize they are dead in an effort to stay and try to get back to his father. Those other souls, throughout the story, do their best to support and help Willie. The story is very moving and sad. It explores death in a unique way. And it is an incredible portrait of a father’s love for his son.
It uses an unusual storytelling method. Many different character help tell the story from their perspectives. Also, may chapters start with quotes from nonfiction that describe the historical events that lay the foundation for the story. I struggled with the format at first, but I really think it works, especially as an audiobook. I highly recommend that format.
My rating: 4/5
This may be the best history book I have ever read. It most certainly is different than any other. Most tell history from the top down, from the perspective of the leaders and businessmen. This book attempts to look at history from the bottom up, from the point of view of the working man. The author was a self-described democratic socialist, and this comes through clearly throughout the text.
Coming of age in during the Cold War, I was raised and educated to view all things communist and socialist as bad and wrong. And if I had read this book back then, I would probably not have read very far. I am glad that I have a much more open mind now that I am older. Much of what I learned in this book I already knew. For instance, how the United States government violated and broke every treaty we ever made with Native Americans. But there were many details that I was not aware of. For example, not only was the Army segregated during the fight against Hitler’s racism, but so was the blood bank.
In the end, this is not a perfect history book. It definitely gives a fresh and needed perspective. Neither of the political/economic extremes (capitalism and socialism/communism) works particularly well. I would like a political system that better balances the rights and freedoms of individuals with a responsibility to the community at the same time. In order to get there we need multiple viewpoints of American history. And this book is a great step in the direction of balancing the hagiography that passes for most US history.
My rating: 5/5
As I have noted on my About page, I have volunteered for the Standard Ebooks project. One series of books that I wanted to do was the works of Robert Green Ingersoll (12 volumes). Unfortunately, these are outside of the collections policy of the project. As the tools for the project are open source, I decided to use them to create these books in the style of Standard Ebooks and publish them here on my site.
So, why was it important to me to publish these? As they are in the public domain in the US, they are freely available already at the Gutenberg Project. Unfortunately, they are not very well done. And why these books? In the late nineteenth century, prior to radio and movies, entertainment was always live—live music, theater, and lectures. This last group, lectures, is hard for us today to grasp. People actually went to hear people give talks on various subjects. This was a very popular form of entertainment. And Robert Green Ingersoll was a very famous and popular giver of lectures. He was known as the “Great Agnostic”, being openly opposed to religion and a fierce proponent of reason. He was also a close friend of Walt Whitman, delivering the eulogy at the poet’s funeral after his death in 1892.
After his own death in 1900, his brother-in-law collected his works and published them in twelve volumes. I have finished and published the first volume. You can download it on my Publications page. Be warned. Ingersoll is ruthless in his application of logic and reason to religion, and religion does not fare well in my opinion. If you are strongly religious, this book may offend you. But if you are open to examining your own beliefs, it may make you think in a fresh way about your spirituality. Regardless, it is an excellent way to dip your toes into the waters of one of the most well-known orators of the late nineteenth century.
My rating: 4/5
I read this one just for fun. Think of it as a modern version of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV. I used to listen to the author’s podcast Lexicon Valley, so I knew what to expect. While he is a linguistics professor at Columbia, he is also down-to-earth, funny, and entertaining.
Profanity in English has gone through a series of great shifts. Initially, bad words were those related to religion such as “damn” and “hell”. Then as religion became less important in every day life during the Enlightenment, cursing moved to those words related to our bodies like “fuck”, “shit”, “ass”, “dick”, and “pussy”. Today, the most profane and forbidden words are those that slur others. I almost hate to write them here, but the two he covers in the book are “nigger” and “faggot”. While I have used many of the others (and often still do), I never use the last two.
There is a chapter on each of these words. In each, the author goes over not only the word itself but how it became profane. He also covers any other versions of it and some fascinating insights. Here is one example.
As we take our leave from fuck, I can’t help mentioning that on ye olde Fucker John and the descent of his surname from an antique French name Fulcher, I refrained from mentioning one of the chance renditions of the original word. One outcome of Fulcher, as humans rolled it around in their mouths over the generations, was Folger. Those of us who remember television’s Mrs. Olson, as well as those of us who are in on the fact that instant coffee is actually somewhat better than one might think despite the cultural penetration of Starbucks, can enjoy that on a certain abstract level, there are people across America starting their day with a good hot cup of Fucker’s Coffee.
This book was a fun romp through the crazy evolution of bad language. I recommend it to anyone who ever wondered about some of the profanity that is used in English, “Why do we say that?”
My rating: 4/5
I was looking for a single volume book that covers the history of ancient Rome. In school I had learned about the ancient Greeks and Alexander the Great followed by the Roman Empire and its Senate. But I didn’t know very much about either. My research for a history of Rome led me to this book, which tells the story of Rome from its founding in the eighth century BCE to the granting of citizenship to all free inhabitants by Emperor Caracalla in 212 CE.
Overall, I found the book enlightening. Rather than presenting a bunch of cardboard characters with names and dates, the author gives a surprisingly approachable history that presents the times as very much like our own with people just trying to live their lives. I learned about the leaders, generals, and emperors, but I also read about the poor and enslaved. I gained a view of ancient Rome that was very different than I expected from my cursory knowledge before reading the book.
The author is British. This posed a bit of a challenge for me as an American. Yes, the spelling was different with a lot of extra u‘s, but that wasn’t the issue. The perspective was just the slightest bit different with the use of some words I wasn’t familiar with. That slowed me down. The layout of the content added to the complexity of the topic. It is not strictly chronological, though it mostly is. The subject matter is so vast, there was a little bit of a topical focus that required a little back in forth in time.
In the end, I feel that this book gave me a much clearer and better understanding of a history I formerly only knew at the surface. The work was a little challenging and not a quick read, but I am grateful for the knowledge gained.
My rating: 3.5/5
I read multiple books at a time–at least one fiction and one non-fiction. At the same time that I started reading The Peacekeeper, I also started reading Origin by Jennifer Raff. The Peacekeeper is a novel that takes place in an alternative present where North America was never colonized. Origin is about the peopling of North America. It is written by a biological anthropologist–she uses genetics to study our ancient human past. It turned out to be a good pairing.
In this book the author presents both the archeological and genetic evidence for how and when humans first arrived in the Americas. I found the addition of the genetic evidence fascinating. While I might have thought that genetics would have unambiguously narrowed the possibilities, this does not seem to be the case. It brings some clarity but also some questions and therefore some dispute. Raff is open and transparent about this dispute, doing her best to simply present what the evidence could mean as well as pointing to what most archeologists believe.
What I most appreciated about this book is that it is sensitive to what the genetic research means to indigenous peoples. Tribes consider the DNA and bodies of their ancestors to be sacred. Scientists and archeologists have not always respected this. Raff discusses at length in the latter part of the book how this has hampered research and the trust needed between indigenous peoples and the scientific community that are required to perform it. All in all this book is a wonderful introduction and foundation for understanding the current state of genetic archeology in the Americas as it continues to develop.
After reading The Library, I was hoping for something a little more interesting in the realm of the history of books. I found this gem in my read pile and dug right in. The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress is the type of narrative history I was looking for.
Granted, it is more a history of how books are found in a library than a history of the library itself. It also has the flaw of being mostly about Europe and the United States, though due to the fact that the author is listed as The Library of Congress that is hardly surprising. Most importantly, the prose is both informative and engaging.
The added bonus in this book is all the photos. Yes, of cards from card catalogs but also of books, libraries, and individuals that are the core of the story. This book really brought back memories of time spent with a card catalog drawer pulled out, looking for just the right book. A fascinating look at book history.
I learned about The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen from a Jeff Jarvis tweet. I was intrigued by his comments and the subject matter of the book and added it to my read pile. I recently finished reading it and have to say that I was very disappointed.
The book is quite dry and very slow. In fact, it reads a bit like a graduate dissertation that was edited for the general public. The feel is that lots of facts were gathered together and linked with spare prose. The prose and the facts are interesting and informative but a long way from entertaining, at least for me.
Another drawback is that the book is almost entirely focused on Europe and the United States. There is no exploration of libraries or their history anywhere else except for the very brief discussion of the Library of Alexandria in Africa. Surely the Muslim world had libraries during the Dark Ages when Europe was basically struggling to simply survive.
As I said, this book wasn’t my favorite. Maybe I came to it expecting too much. I certainly expected more than it gave.
Today we live in world that is largely dominated by computers and the internet. The history of how we got here is well told by Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years, our future seems likely to be influenced by biology and epidemiology. Walter Isaacson’s latest book explores this recent history and potential future in his latest book The Code Breaker.
In The Code Breaker he tells the history of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing, centering it around the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. The first part of the book is partly a biography of her and her race with other scientists to unlock the key to editing human genes. The story is one of both scientific competition and collaboration.
The book raises ethical questions about editing human DNA. Will it create a privileged group of super humans, leaving the poor behind? At the same time, don’t we have an obligation to help those with genetic diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s disease?
Finally, the author covers the role these same scientists played in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing. The discoveries made there may lead to better and faster detection of many diseases beyond COVID-19.
If you are interested in how we got to the digital age we find ourselves in, read The Innovators. And when you finish that one, read The Code Breaker to get up to speed on our present and future in the biological sciences.