Today’s selection of interesting new books ponders the origins of religious impulses and also their detractors. These works look interesting enough to read, in my humble opinion.
The first book is Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity, by Peter T. Struck, and it’s being published tomorrow, July 19. There has been a renewed interest in historical scholarship in what was once dismissively labeled as “magic” in history, and this book provides a deeper examination into divination–the reading of signs–as perceived by ancient philosophers. The thesis, in a nutshell, suggests that the philosophers saw divination as a form of human intuition and took it seriously, unlike academic scholarship until as of late.
In February of this year, Susan Jacoby published her book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Her approach looks at a slice of religious history related to the changing of faiths of various prominent people. Since faith exerts such a powerful influence in people’s lives, the locus where a person decides to accept one path over another seems like a worthy area of study.
Finally, published by Knopf last year, we have Tim Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. The central theme of the work appears to be that atheism wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment but rather has its roots even in classical antiquity. As a religious person myself, such a book would be challenging (in a good way) to read, but I think it is important to remember the complexities of religious experience as well as the adherents of atheism that profoundly changed our world even for the better (such as Democritus, who posited the atomic theory of the universe).
Yesterday, I watched “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. The movie follows the story of Newton Knight, who led a pro-Union rebellion deep in Mississippi during the American Civil War. I liked the movie, and there are a few things that stood out to me about it.
First, the film challenges the idea that all white Southerners during the Civil War were racists bent on preserving the institution of slavery. Newton was a complicated man who bucked convention, married a black woman, and also allowed an ex-wife to live on his property. His rebellion in Jones County seems to have been as much a socioeconomic one as well as abolitionist — he resented the poor fighting a rich man’s war.
Second, the film portrays the transmutation of racism in the south throughout generations very well. There are scenes cut into the Civil War narrative of a 20th-century trial of Knight’s descendant that put the question of his racial composition to the court. The institution of “apprenticeship” during Reconstruction and of course segregation itself illustrate how the South continued to grapple with virulent racism even after the overthrow of slavery.
An interesting article to read as a supplement to the movie is the Smithsonian’s “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.'” It examines attitudes toward the film in the complicated world of the South today. It also clued me into something that I wish the film did portray. Newt Knight was staunchly pro-Union, but strangely ended up voluntarily enlisting to fight in the Confederate Army. I wish the film would have explored Newt’s pre-war life to explain this contradiction, but already being over two hours long, it may have risked excess.
I’m always on the look-out for interesting perspectives on history. The books I will feature today are just such finds. I again have not ready them yet, but they do look intriguing enough to spend a few evenings with.
The first one is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Author of The Perfect Storm, Junger in this later work–which came out on May 24–examines humans’ instinctual tribal affiliations and the powerful alienation that happens when modern society fails to organize itself into meaningful and productive tribes. I think that “tribe” is an interesting category with which to study history, and personally agree with the general points made about the importance of tribes to human life that are mentioned in the book’s synopsis.
The second book is Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World?, which was released on May 10. Chomsky is one of my personal heroes because, though I don’t always agree with him, he argues his points dispassionately and always buttresses them with hard facts. Although he usually takes an axe to established modes of thinking, I think there has been a growing awareness in society that America is not in the best of shape. Perhaps his and society’s views are converging. Either way, his perspectives are always provocative of thought.
I heard about the third work on the radio–fittingly, since it was published in April by StoryCorps. This is Dave Isay’s Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. I’ve been on a longish search for my own “calling” in life, so philosophical works such as this are appealing to me. It seems to be a collection of stories describing everyday people’s relationship to their work–some as humble as a popcorn seller at a baseball game (this is the one I heard about on the radio). It promises to be an inspiring look at human creativity in even the unlikeliest of places.
Today we’ll look at an eclectic selection of books about colonial America in the second installment of this “series.” As I always like to mention, I have not read these books yet; I’m earmarking them rather as interesting works to check out later.
The first book is Revolution: Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783 by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen. This seems to be essentially an atlas for the Revolutionary War which uses the beautifully-designed maps made during that time period to tell the story about battles and other important events. In an era before photography, creative works like these help to better illuminate in our minds what happened during those important years.
Our second work is about perhaps as unique an individual as you can find in this era. Turk McCleskey has written The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier. Ned Tarr was one of the first freed black landowners in America, was a community leader, decided to take two wives (both white women), and had to fend off efforts to reenslave him by his former master’s son. Sounds like a fascinating read about an individualistic personality in history.
Lastly, we have a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph J. Ellis, called The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, works like these about the Constitutional era, I think, are very important to dispel the myths that are thrown about by politicians about what ‘the Founders intended.’ Often those Constitutional era debates were as messy and varied in their arguments as any modern political discourse, so even grouping “the Founders” together into a single category can be a simplistic rhetorical trick that is not reflective of the variety of history.
Today marks seven years since I started blogging on HistoryJournal.org! I did have another history blog before that on blogspot, called Trojan Walls. In this post, I’ll do a bit of reflection, per tradition, on how I have been blogging lately.
The year of 2015 was very sparse for me in terms of updating my blog. But in 2016, I’ve had a recent spurt of posts about upcoming history books, which I’ve been following on Amazon and taking notes on for some time. These posts are relatively easy for me to create — and I enjoy making them — so I think I’ll be focused on them for some time. Hopefully they are of some value to others beside me, who also enjoy keeping up to date in the latest literature about U.S., Russian, and ancient history (my general areas of focus).
About my much-promised podcast… I think I’ll cease for now to make more promises about it. I have everything ready to go in terms of hardware and software, but I can never quite be satisfied with anything I’ve recorded already to bring myself to publish it here. This is perhaps, admittedly, a lame excuse. But in any case, since blogging (and podcasting) are meant to be hobbies for me, I’m hesitant to push myself too hard on content creation if I’m not naturally feeling an inclination toward creative endeavor.
So I’ll try to continue on the path I’m currently on, publishing semi-daily posts about upcoming history books. And I’ll see where it goes from here. Thanks for coming along on the journey with me for the past seven years, and hopefully there will be more to come!
Today we’ll take a look at books about colonial- and revolutionary-era America that have come out this month or last.
First up is The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss. The tagline really caught my eye for this book — the events of 1721 prefiguring the revolutionary events of 1776. Also, in a fascinating twist, the author is neither a professional historian nor a journalist but rather works in marketing. Very unique, especially to be published by the likes of Simon & Schuster for his first book! This would be a good author to interview for my ever-elusive podcast.
Next up is Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution by Patrick K. O’Donnell. The work is about a single regiment during the Revolutionary War who fought a rear-guard action to protect and evacuate the rest of the Continental Army during the Battle of Brooklyn.
Finally we have The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, written by Fergus M. Bordewich. I feel like books about the early American government are especially important today because “the Founders” are often invoked in an inaccurate way by our politicians to serve whatever agenda may be convenient for them. The truth is often more messy and complex than the mythologies and legends we may create about the past.
After a hiatus, here’s finally the second part of the post I started in January, this time about the violence that befell Russia during and after the First World War. The books below are ones that sparked my curiosity; I have not read them yet.
The first is Joshua A. Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire, which was published last November. This work is particularly important because it was Russia’s failures in WWI that opened the door for the Bolshevik Revolution and hence subsequent developments (the Soviet empire, the Cold War, etc.).
Next up is a book for the enthusiast and specialist, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 by David R. Stone. This work is valuable because scholarship about the eastern front conflict during WWI is scarce, and it essentially seems like a monogram about Russian efforts in that theater of war. Undoubtedly some of the recent works that have been published about WWI–even about the more obscure topics–are because right now is the centennial anniversary of that conflict.
Finally we have The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World by Jonathan Smele, which came out last month. Speaking of obscure, the traumatic events of the Russian Civil War are not well known in the West, but they laid the foundation for Communist tyranny during the rest of the 20th century. The subtitle is a pun on the book, Ten Days that Shook the World, by reporter John Reed, a classic which sparked my interest as of late in the subject of the Russian Revolution after I read it a few months ago.
Today and tomorrow we’ll look at recent publications about one of my favorite periods in history: Russia at the time of World War I. Part 1 will focus on books about society at that time, while tomorrow I will preview works about the war and revolution themselves. I have not read these books and am merely sharing here what looks interesting to me in recent scholarship and why.
The first work is called Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle and is by Alan Shandro. One of the most fascinating historical turns in my mind is how in 1917 a grassroots movement dominated by workers councils turned on itself through the hands of the Bolshevik leadership and stripped rights away that were promised to the workers in the early days of the revolution. This new work seems to shed light on how this was seen as politically necessary by the nascent Soviet leadership.
Next up is Rebecca Mitchell’s Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire, published merely a week ago on Jan 5. The German philosopher had very interesting ideas about music, believing it to be the one form of art that most convincingly created a ‘new reality’ in the mind of a person (from what I remember of my readings of Nietzsche). Mitchell’s book shows how Russia musicians took this to heart and yearned to find in music a different vision of life in contrast to the chaos going on around them in society.
Finally, the “heavyweight” of the bunch is the work, The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution by Dominic Lieven. The author is a leading Russian history scholar, but unfortunately the reviews of the book on Amazon seem a bit mixed between praise for original research and complaints about the style of the work. Nevertheless, I think the new ideas may be worth the slog if you’re interested in fresh scholarship about these historical events.
Today let’s look at a small selection of upcoming new history titles from the University of North Carolina Press (UNC Press). Again, these are works that struck my curiosity from their catalog rather than books I have already read.
First up is The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century by Jon Grinspan. This one is interesting because we are in an election season, and young people of my generation don’t vote (but they should! though I am sometimes guilty of this myself) as often as their elders. I never would have thought that this was not the general trend in earlier times.
The next original work is The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina by Sean M. Kelley. The events described in the book took place in the mid-1700s and explores an overlooked segment of African-American history: the first-generation slaves brought to the American continents.
Finally, for anyone interested in podcasts and the new upsurge in popularity of talk radio, this work by Jeff Porter could be a worthwhile read: Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. Today’s great podcasts have their roots in the shows of storytellers who honed this craft on the airwaves when radio first became widespread in the early 20th century. This is their story!
Thanks for “tuning in” to these new blog posts. I will continue to look at new history works from other university presses as well as from popular publishers in the days to come.
Knopf is one of my favorite publishers because of their consistently high-quality printing and selection of titles. Here are a few books that stood out to me from their new history releases in 2015. I should also mention that in these types of post, I’m not reviewing the works (I have not read them) but rather indicating which ones have caught my eye among their list of newly-minted works.
The first is Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh. Although I am somewhat of a religious man myself, I recognize that religion in history has often been an oppressive and reactionary force. During such times, atheists and agnostics have done a lot to help move society forward. This work interestingly takes a look at philosophers and others who went against the grain of the theism of their times during the ancient epoch.
Next up is Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History by Bernard Bailyn. I know Bailyn from his highly influential work of scholarship titled The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1968). Unfortunately, I was bewildered by the dense writing style of that latter classic when I tried to read that work in college, so hearing what Bailyn has to say about the artistry of history writing would be interesting indeed.
Finally is Joseph J. Ellis’s work, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. The presidential campaign season in the U.S. always funnels me back into political inquiry, just as it is doing in 2015-16. The U.S. Constitution is frequently evoked by the presidential hopefuls, often in ways that are false in relation to the historical context. Reading about the time when the Articles of Confederation were in effect before the Constitutional Convention–which Ellis’s book focuses on–would shed some light on the true context of the issues that inspired the U.S. Constitution.
Tomorrow, I hope to take a look at some of the new offerings from the University of North Carolina Press, a powerhouse of classical studies.