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Books! (Ghosts and Empires Edition)

The Climax of Rome (Michael Grant, 2016/#7): It's easy to see the late history of the western Roman Empire as something of an ongoing catastrophe, and in many senses it was, but it was also an spirited and creative attempt to sustain a political entity of staggering ambition given their technological and demographic realities. One way of looking at it (not the author's, and perhaps untenably teleological), would be that the survival of the Roman Empire required the deployment of military might perhaps surpassing that of an Early Modern state, more than a thousand years before technological and societal developments made it even marginally possible; and yet, for a couple of centuries, and at staggering human cost, they made a bloody good attempt of it. The author is somewhat snobbish, and certainly philosophically opinionated, but he takes the Romans in the context of what they were facing, what they wanted to do, and what (material, intellectual, and, he would say, spiritual) resources they had at hand, and that's of no little value.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (part 2) (M. R. James, 2016/#8): A seamless extension of the first one.

Civil War: The History of England Volume III (Peter Ackroyd, 2016/#9): Ackroyd's ongoing history of England is, I think, a very good one, and this volume is as good as the previous two. I don't know how to segue into that, so I'll just say it: I laughed out loud when I read that, after a series of bungled military operations, people began to call Buckingham "the duke of Fuckingham." Things like that warm your heart with the undeniable unity of the human soul.

Please Pass the Guilt (Rex Stout, 2016/#10): A bit half-cooked, to be honest.

Ghosts by Gaslight (Ed. Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, 2016/#11): An enjoyable compilation of neo-Victorian (rather than Steampunk) supernatural stories.

A Thin Ghost and Others (M. R. James, 2016/#12): In the vein Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, but perhaps a trifle more perfunctory.


Sapir-Whorfing like there's no tomorrow

I'm trying to think of it as the Abundance Non-Problem: when you have more things that you want and can afford to do than time in which to do them, so you have to choose.

Case in point:

mrinesi@hannibal:~$ ls docs/queue/books/ |wc -l

This shouldn't feel like a problem, yet it does. And it's not something that's going to go away, unless we mess things up spectacularly; if anything, it's getting worse better more so. So it's more of a psychological readjustment (infinite books not being something any of us last century dinosaurs ever grew up with) than a technical or logistical one.

(I think I might have written about this in the past. I'm very likely to write about this in the future. Because, dammit, infinite books. It's existentially unsettling.)
Cities of Empire (Tristram Hunt, 2016/#1): A look at the history of ten cities, as influenced by and influencing the history of the British Empire. I liked this book very much, and I think it works well both in helping understand local history in its larger context, and to illustrate the evolution of the Empire. A caveat: the author is both a professional historian and a professional politician, so keep that in mind.

The Medici in Florence: The exercise and language of power (Alison Brown, 2016/#2): An awfully enjoyable collection of essays about the history of Florence, touching not only some specific aspects of the Medicis' rule, but also, e.g., Savonarola's. This is very emphatically not an overview, but rather a set of a dozen essays on very specific points: the first one, for example, studies how Cosimo de' Medici was described by writers (mainly an study of different traditions of literary sucking up in XVth century Florence), while another one deals with Savonarola's use of the trope of Moses to justify his political role, and how this influenced Machiavelli's views. Endlessly fascinating, and if you read Italian (I don't), there's a series of bonus tracks in the form of primary sources.

Europe's Steppe Frontier, 1500-1800 (William H. McNeill, 2016/#3): An interesting book about, roughly speaking, the bits of Eurasia that during that period were surrounded by Russia, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire, together with the history of those three empires as related to those bits between them. The explanatory framework feels outdated (the book was published in 1964), with a somewhat too facile psychological determinism, but the book isn't nearly as Euro-centric as the title would suggest, and it's full of interesting details about a place and time I've read about mostly only in an indirect fashion (e.g., a lot of times when reading about Venice, its relationship with the Ottoman Empire is mediated by what the latter is doing in "the Balkans"; in this book, that's the main issue, and Venice is what's going on in the sidelines). I have to say, it makes the Crimean War and the whole "Eastern question" much more understandable. A funny thing in the preface: the author talks about the falling levels of violence in the region, which is darkly humorous for anybody who went through the 1990s, but, of course, it was written during the Cold War (in fact, the book ends up with an appreciation of the Russian agricultural colonization of Ukrania that I think is factually correct in comparative terms, but indefensible in ethical terms; it assumes that the end justified the means).

Mysterium Coniunctionis (Carl Jung, 2016/#4): I'm reminded of Borges' comment about metaphysics being the most creative form of fiction — I think that's a fruitful approach to this book. Jung's view of alchemy being the empirical expression of psychological processes doesn't seem to me to be unfounded (what human activity, to various degrees, isn't?), and the material he describes and his interpretations of it are if nothing else entertaining, but his emphatic description of those underlying processes, with specific and complex assignations of meaning to things like "three," seems to me to be a reenacting, and almost to no degree an explanation, of what alchemists did. The fact that I'm most likely doing it myself right now only makes the thing exponentially more hilarious. Of note: he's extremely concerned about the psychologically deleterious effect of secularism, which I can understand as a reaction to Nazism (ignoring, though, not only the religious machinery of the Nazi Party itself, but the very European religious tradition of the pogrom). I'm, not unexpectedly, not as keen as he is on the idea of some revitalization of Christianity as the only possible way of restoring psychological sanity at large scale. Also of note, and also not unexpectedly, his observations about the female mind, infrequent as they are, are every bit as idiotic as you'd expect. For a person who made a point of remarking multiple times that his theories were grounded on the scientific observation of empirical fact, this amounts to professional malpractice.

Distrust that Particular Flavor (William Gibson, 2016/#5): A collection of non-fiction articles and talks. Looking at the age of some of them, and what has happened since then, I don't know if I know anybody else so attuned to the intersection of technology and culture as he is. Exaggerating only a bit, it's almost shamanic.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (M. R. James, 2016/#6): Terrifying breaches of the natural order of things, taken with polite, inquisitive fear, followed by, at most, a lifelong but mild case of nerves. It's hard to imagine a more stereotypically British (or antiquarian) approach to the supernatural.


Books! (Last Ones of 2015 Edition)

War Stories From The Future (Atlantic Council, 2015/#83): A serviceable collection of short sci-fi stories (or fragments of longer texts) illustrating different (potential) aspects of future wars, put together by a think-tank. Most of the stories are, as I said, serviceable without being brilliant, although literary merit wasn't the point of the project. The point was the conceptual exploration of future warfare, and in that side (without being anything else than an interested layperson) I'm giving it middling grades; it's more a collection of currently "hot" ideas (drones! hacking! infrastructural attacks!) rather than anything truly innovative. Still, perhaps they were going for plausibility rather than originality — a sci-fi-flavored white paper, if you will.

The Insidious Doctor Fu-Manchu (Sax Rohmer, 2015/#84): A reread. Still mindbogglingly racist and appallingly misogynist.

The Second Confession (Rex Stout, 2015/#85): A reread.


(I'm not going to be anywhere near my usual 100-120 books/year target, and I don't even have last years' quagmires as excuse. I don't like this. Let's see if I can get back to a hundred next year; if the things I do aren't leaving me enough time to read, I'm going to have to take a harder look at them.)

Over My Dead Body (Rex Stout, 2015/#78): I'm not sure I remember a Nero Wolfe story where we learn more about his past than in this one. I'm not sure I like it, just as I'm not particularly interested in Sherlock Holmes' early years (although I'm inordinately interested in Bruce Wayne between Crime Alley and his return to Gotham). A fine Wolfe story nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed Inspector Cramer's new and effective crime-solving strategy: literally not leaving Wolfe's house until Wolfe solved the crime and told him what he wanted to know. It doesn't go exactly like that, of course, but all things considered the plan has sheer elegance in its simplicity.

From a Geometrical Point of View: A Study of the History and Philosophy of Category Theory (Jean-Pierre Marquis, 2015/#79): What the subtitle says. It's a fascinating book, very close to my preferred sweet spot between formalization and philosophy when describing mathematics I want to know about rather than know. A big problem was the surprisingly large amount of misprints in the mathematical expressions.

Manual de Supervivencia (Werner Herzog (interviewed), 2015/#80): The short texts about Herzog in this (also short) book are too hermetic for my taste, but Herzog himself here is perhaps as straightforward as I've ever read him; perhaps relaxed would be a better term.

The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (H. P. Lovecraft, 2015/#81): A thousand pages of rereads.

The King In Yellow (Robert W. Chambers, 2015/#82): A reread.


(Save for a short trip, errands, and quite a few naps. )

I feel somewhat guilty, as work has been keeping me from real (read unpaid and purely for my own amusement) work for the last few weeks, and this weekend was probably one of my few chances of dedicating some hours to it before things go back to normal tomorrow.

On the other hand, I was suffering from that compulsion that grabs you now and then to not stop reading until you've finished a certain book. It doesn't always reflect the quality of the book of your curiosity about its contents (I had certainly read everything in this one before), but it's no less powerful because of that. As compulsions go, it's one of the relatively harmless, I guess.

Anyway. H. P. Lovecraft: an ugly bigoted racist bastard even for his day and age, and more than sufficiently sociable for a biographically unsupported seclusion not to be an excuse, but he got *one* idea and *one* mood and ran with both of them further than most others had done before, and that's two things more than most writers ever get to do.
(A) I love electronic books. Partly because they are extremely convenient, but mostly because, given my budget, geographical location, and reading interests, there's no way I could sustain my habit without the help of the scannier side of the net.

(B) I love having books around it's both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally comforting, both as a set and through the separate associations and memories of each one.

So you see the problem. My (growing) set of (electronic) books is out of sight, while my set of (physical) books is visible but mostly stalled. There are close to fifteen years of reading that are, to one degree or another, in my head and, as of late, on the book notes I post here, but not where I live, and I wish they were.

I don't really have a solution to this, but sounds like a good Datasthesia project (a vague idea would be some sort of cube, tablet,or projection that works as a dynamic, fractal index to my digital library).


Books! (War and Rules Edition)

Golem (Moshe Idel, 2015/#67): A fascinating book about a long and heterogeneous religious tradition; the legend of the Rabbi Loew isn't nearly the most interesting part of it.

And Four to Go (Rex Stout, 2015/#68): I swear, the byzantine mechanisms of Wolfe and Archie's relationship are often the most interesting part of these books (which is no slight on the other aspects). The sheer amount of energy, time, and brainpower these two professionally intelligent adults dedicate to the ritual complexities of their friendship-cum-psychological-warfare is astounding. And I hadn't realized this before, but Archie would have made one hell of a lawyer; he'd pretty much own any courtroom he walked into, of course, but his analytical skills for complex rule-bound situations are also superb. He's always thinking in terms of what he can, should, and must or mustn't do, legally and morally, which isn't something many characters (and certainly very few fictional detectives) do.

Brunelleschi's Dome (Ross King, 2015/#69): A history of how the Duomo of Florence was built, both in human and technical terms. I've been to Florence and admired it, but I want to go again, now that I know quite how much of an astounding technical achievement it was, how much intrigue and jealousy and art went into its construction. Fun fact one: Brunelleschi was perhaps the first person in European history to get a patent for a mechanical invention (the man was vain, secretive, ambitious, and bad with money, and also a mechanical inventor of the first order). Fun fact two: to get revenge on a guy who missed a party (!), Brunelleschi set up an elaborate prank where dozens of people, from city officers to random extras on the street, conspired to make the guy believe he had switched bodies with somebody else. The guy was so shaken up by the experience that he left the city and moved to, if I recall correctly, Poland. Brunelleschi: engineering pioneer, architectural genius, an early master of perspective, and gaslighter extraordinary. Fun fact three: a Florentine mathematician called Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli used the Duomo to make astronomical calculations to improve navigational tables. He also made an slight miscalculation regarding the size of the Earth, prompting him to send a letter and map to the King of Portugal suggesting a western route to the Indias. The King didn't buy the idea, so Toscanelli contacted one Christopher Columbus, who eventually found a backer for the ill-conceived but lucky endeavor, and I'm sure you've heard about what happened then (also, the thing about balancing an upright egg was Brunelleschi's, not Columbus).

World Without End (Hugh Thomas, 2015/#70): An overview of the development and local practices of the Spanish Empire during the reign of Philip II. Plenty of very interesting information; at times I think it takes the Spanish too much at their word, but it's true that sometimes we tend to do the opposite. The most fascinating angle (although a very minor one) is the amount of interest Spain had on the conquest of China, which at some point they thought might be accomplished with eight or ten thousand soldiers.

The Mongol Art of War (Timothy May, 2015/#71): More detailed on logistics than on tactics and strategy, but a good summary of the underlying narrative. One clear lesson, although not emphasized in the text: the Mongols were constrained by ecology, but collapsed because they couldn't solve the problem of political succession. To be fair to them, it's a very difficult one; once you have multiple independent armies, you end up almost inevitably in a late Roman mess.

An Age of Neutrals (Maartje Abbenhuis, 2015/#72): This book makes limited, but I believe well-supported, claims about the importance of the concept of neutrality as a tool of international statecraft by European countries between 1815 and 1914 (that is, the Congress of Vienna and the First World War, aka the "long" nineteenth century), with some initial forays in the centuries before that. It's certainly an interesting angle, and in the context of 21st century state-sponsored violence, it might be worth revisiting.


Books! (Money, Murder, and Canals Edition)

(It's clear 2015 is going to have an unusually low book count. Not unsurprisingly so, maybe, but I hope it doesn't become a trend.

Venice: A Literary Companion (Ian Littlewood, 2015/#62): Writing about what others wrote about and while in a city might be boring in other cases, but for Venice, it's possibly be one of the best approaches, and this book uses it to nice effect. By now, it's less a city than a consensual four-dimensional hallucination, so unique in geography and architecture, so implausible in history and manners, so overwhelmed by layers of memory, that it's not even quite real anymore.

Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence (Tim Parks, 2015/#63): What it says on the cover. Enthusiastically written, and it doesn't shirk from the subtly shifting but still all-pervading role of religion in their society.

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection (Ed. Gardner Dozois, 2015/#64): Perhaps the best annual anthology of contemporary science fiction. Of special fannish interest, Daryl Gregory's The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm, an street-level view of a realistically bleak and quite Eastern European Latveria (serial numbers filed off).

Three at Wolfe's Door (Rex Stout, 2015/#65): Three unconnected novellas; the format doesn't seem to cramp Nero's style, but I noticed that it doesn't leave much time for Archie's usual romantic antics.

Venice (Jan Morris, 2015/#66): A reread. One of my favorite books about my favorite city.


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