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Entries by tag: books

John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy (William Caferro , 2018/#86): The biography (as much of it as we know) of John Hawkwood, perhaps the most famous of the condottieri working in 1300's Italy. Some observations: Mercenary companies were much more in the extortion business (Nice city. It'd be a shame if somebody happened to it.) than in the business of inter-state violence. Mercenary societies and their names came and went, reused or anew (sometimes, hilariously, to get out of contractual commitments, e.g. not attacking the city that had bribed you not to a few months ago; although everybody was both very serious about drafting detailed legal contracts and rather cavalier about fulfilling them); captains were into it for direct personal gain, and it was captains, not companies, that got rich and/or not. Italians saw the English as bloodthirsty violence-happy barbarians, and weren't, comparatively speaking, necessarily wrong. This predates nationalities in the 19th century sense, but the English hated the Germans, the Germans hated the English, the Italians hated both (and, as Tom Lehrer sang in National Brotherhood Week, and everybody hates the Jews.). Mercenaries were damn expensive, completely unreliable, and yet more or less the strongest military actors of the area, where by the way cities (even the richest ones, like Florence) lacked the financial resources to pay them off, not that they wouldn't have raised their prices anyway — you can imagine the resulting issues. Hawkwood was a ruthless, shameless, money-hungry negotiator, and better and that than as actual warfare (both the author and his contemporaries made him up to be a genius; maybe it's all a matter of context and expectations?); his good reputation is mostly due to not having taking a bribe to switch sides early in his career (a move he didn't repeat very often) and having died just after conducting a good retreat while working for Florence, which — in the context of inter-city rivalry shown, among other ways, in "my mercenaries were/are better than your mercenaries" comparisons, specially after they were safely dead. That said, he was consistently sought by and bid for most of the Italian city states, who often thought it was money well spent to pay him to keep him from working for somebody else. Hawkwood always saw himself as English, ran diplomatic errands for the English king (actually he did a lot of diplomacy during his career (in his own name and for his own purposes, had a lot of money invested in Florentine debt and the Venetian market, and held a varying assortment of territories, often gave to him as payment or bribes — not a clear-cut difference there — from his employers, including the Pope, who had more territories, or at least was happier to give them away, than money), and kept buying states back home. Interestingly, he died, old and somewhat infirm, after a last military triumph (ok, successful retreat), when he had liquidated his territorial holdings in Italy, collected as much of the money he claimed it was owed to him as he could, married his daughters, and was ready to go back to England. If poetry applied here, I'd say that he might not have thought of himself as Italian, but Italy did see him as hers. (Frankly, if we are to imagine an Spirit of Italy, she'd been more than happy to see that bloodthirsty, unreliable, violent (and a cause of inter-state violence) thug dead or gone as soon as possible.) Doyle's The White Company (which was the name of many companies, one of those the one, made up basically from soldier who had fought in the ongoing French-English war, that Hawkwood rode into Italy as part of) has him as a minor character, by the way.

The Birth of the Archive: A History of Knowledge (Markus Friedrich, 2018/#87): The history of archives from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern period, mostly in France and Germany (with the obvious note that there was no such thing as Germany). The emphasis is double: archives are seen as activities rather than places — whatever power they have or enable is only after and through sustained, expensive, complex inputs of energy, political support, money, and resources, and even so never in a continuous or certain way — and how they look and how they are used has not just changed, but changed in ways that are less teleological than adaptive. There's continuity, constant partial disruptions, hybridities, etc. Given that, two important transitions that can be pointed out are first how more formalized (and centralized) concepts of nobility came to find much practical value in genealogical research — Early Modern nobles came to worry about that much more than their ancestors, who after all had more recent and, let's say, practical claims to power —, and second, how the French Revolution and associated disruptions in the Holy German Empire, even if to some degree rolled back, destroyed the charter-based, atomized concept of political power, and thence the very concrete patrimonial value of archives, which up to then were practical repositories that allowed people in power to supply (or, of course, hide) evidence of specific rights. An interesting if necessarily partial book; very little is said of the contemporary papal archives (a pity, although outside its geographical focus), and almost nothing of the Venetian ones (also a pity). But do keep in mind that the intersection of texts and numbers, matter, money, power, news, space, and time is one I find endlessly and viscerally fascinating in a way that's even more aesthetic than intellectual.

Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (ed. Martin Edwards, 2018/#88): A collection of late 19th-century/early 20th-century locked room(and -ish) murder mysteries in the Golden Age tradition. Some of them I had already known, and not everything has aged well — I find myself tolerating much better amateurish construction than editorializing authors (specially the self-describing first person POV), and editorializing authors than the racism and misogyny that pervaded, and/or was at the structural foundation of, those societies, not that we've improved that much — but, my tendency to endless fractal parenthetical asides aside, there were some entertaining stories in the collection.

Dominion: A History of England Volume V (Peter Ackroyd, 2018/#89): The Victorian bits, with the emphasis located on a mixture of Parliamentary politics (reasonable, given the tremendous legal changes during this period, pretty much building up the modern concept of State, if by a weird mixture of religious-social paternalism and short-term expediency) and impressionistic notes on culture and society. No manageable volume could possibly provide a good structured overview of a time in which so many things changed so profoundly — I think it was Vaclav Smil who noted that the last couple of decades of the 19th century, and the first one or two of the 20th, saw more significant change than at any other time before or since — but the overall impression was... muddled. Perhaps by design; one recurrent theme in the book is that nobody in power really new what the hell they were doing, even when (and it wasn't always) they new what they wanted to do. In that sense, it's a good political companion to Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, which emphasizes the contingent and, I'd say, Latourian way in which technology developed. Of note: at the local scale, it was a far less violent period than they feared it could or would be, but much more than we usually imagine.

The Final Frontier (ed. Neil Clarke, 2018/#90): A good collection of contemporary short SF around the topic of space travel; there's a very "now" flavor to the technologies and plots, even when that technology is far from ours.

Islands and Military Orders, c.1291-c.1798 (ed. Emanuel Buttigieg and Simon Phillips, 2018/#99): A collection of articles on, well, the mutual interaction between islands (mostly Rhodes, Cyprus, and Malta, with an smattering of others) and European military orders most active during the period in the title (mostly the peripatetic Hospitallers, with a bit of the Teutonic Order and, when looking back, the Templars). Some of the articles focus strongly on the theoretical aspects of life in islands, most making variations of the argument that, given the relative costs of transport by water, islands weren't necessarily disconnected from mainland culture, economy, and politics, as much as compact — I would put it as nodes rather than fields — and that the built-in international nature of the Orders meant that this factor was multiplied. Rhodes and Cyprus had always been well-connected with their regions (after all the Eastern Mediterranean was still, during at least half of that period, the key axis of long-term trade for Europe), but Malta (which, by the way, the Order of St. John never wanted, and only accepted post-Rhodes as their wandering didn't found a better place) went from pretty much a poor rock into a pretty nice State and eventually even something of a stop in the Grand Tour. The book is too heterogeneous for me to recommend or dis-recommend (there are chapters in the numismatics of a small Hospitaller island during a pretty obscure period, a description of some minor castles, the relationship between the Hospitallers and Venice during the Second Ottoman-Venetian war, Papal diplomatic manouvers, water mills in Malta, and even that weird time when the Hospitallers bought a couple of islands in the Caribbean from the French, although they were forced to re-sell them at a pittance later), but you might find something of interest there.

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(These last few weeks my book reading has stalled precipitously. Not without reason, but it's still uncomfortable.)

Cosmopolitanism and Empire: Universal Rulers, Local Elites, and Cultural Integration in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean (ed. by Myles Lavan, Richard E. Payne, and John Weisweiler (Author), 2018/#79): A look at the interaction between local and imperial elites in formations from the Neo-Assyrian to the Late Roman empire, in particular, whether, to what degree, and with what goals in mind they thought of or tried to refashion themselves as non-local. The different chapters frame responses along a continuum between cultural and identity assimilation (the typical example being late Roman elites in the Western empire) and subordination, understood as highlighted and articulated differences (here a nice example is the Iranian empire, where its political and religious Zoroastrian framework described a world of essentially different peoples in hierarchical subordination). The sometimes very close reading of the (very heterogeneous) sources describe all sorts of strategies between local elites and imperial centers: sometimes local elites (e.g., Babylonian priests in the Seleucid empire, or some Greek cities under the Hellenic kingdoms) used their long histories to express their current situation in hopefully legitimizing ways (e.g., stressing a history of honor and/or service stretching back through multiple empires), and sometimes they stressed translocal intra-elite or ruler-elite relationships instead. The overall picture is one in which narratives of legitimacy were more often than not built collaboratively between local elites who wanted protection/survival/resources from the empire, and central rulers who wanted various degrees of control and taxation with as low a cost as possible (lots of parallels with, e.g., Spanish Naples). I don't mean to imply that massacres/total destruction/etc. didn't place — it did, and in fact this violence was the underlying foundation of control — but most premodern states were rather happy to outsource local governance to various degrees (even, say, the largest-footprint of the Chinese bureaucracies interacted directly with local gentry rather than most people, although cultural homogeneity took up some of the slack). As per War and the State in Early Modern Europe — a book with a very different chronological span but interestingly parallel analysis — this sort of central-local interaction continued to be part of forming and running empires until, I would say, maybe the early or mid 19th century in Europe, and later elsewhere (in places like Argentina we still have long-lived political dynasties in some small cities or states, although this is more about capture of voting dynamics rather than lack of State presence; the demographic boom, widespread literacy, and ubiquitous communication and transport technologies mean that even low-touch states nowadays are orders of magnitude more intrusive than previous empires).

Itself (Rae Armantrout, 2018/#80): Poetry. The use of contemporary science as a source of imagery is clever and non-gimmicky, although, overall, I didn't find the poems either linguistically or conceptually... I guess the term is extraordinary, which sounds like too high a bar to set, but maybe it's the right one for poetry.

The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It (Suraiya Faroqhim, 2018/#81): A look at how the Ottoman empire thought about and interacted with the rest of the world, based as much as the (patchy and limited) sources allow in their own words. The author remarks that they were far less isolationist than later (even, or specially, Turkish) historiography allowed for, and that their orientation to war, pace the religious justification of the Sultan's position, was ultimately more or less in line with that of contemporary European empires, adjusting for the influence of agricultural productivity and geographical constraints. (The author doesn't remark, but I found their model compatible with, a note I read elsewhere about how the limits of Ottoman expansion had much to do with the limits of how far and how big they could send an army, given their economy and the geography; this isn't to say that Vienna was intrinsically safe — it seems it was a darn close thing — but I doubt they'd been able to keep it, or move much faster). There was commerce, diplomatic information gathering, etc., although of course to an eventually lesser degree than in other polities (here, Venice is an absolute outlier, and I would say everybody else in Europe until that moment wasn't much different; my personal summation would be (1) the main Asian empires didn't set up to explore because they didn't need to, (2) Western Europe did because they needed to connect to the real markets in Asia (India and China, for a long bit of world history), (3) they were successful, to the degree to which they were, because of more effective (and savage) organized violence for commercial aims, together with the stroke of luck that was Potosí, and (4) I doubt this would have amounted to more than, perhaps, parity, if it hadn't been closely followed by (or, granted, in symbiotic co-development with) the scientific-engineering revolution).


On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (Gershom Scholem, 2018/#82): A reread. I'm still enthralled by the Kabbalistic concept of the Torah not just predating creation, but being, essentially, a pile of consonants that's reshuffled according to the aeon/state of the universe/etc. Each world gets the permutation of the characters that it can read and makes sense to it — it's explicitly said by some Kabbalists that if a man (always a man, by the way) knew the right order of reading, they could raise the dead, or even create worlds. I think that's a natural asymptote of textual integrity as an absolute requirement: if not a single letter can be changed, erased, or added, but the surface meaning of the text becomes increasingly detached from your needs, then the only degree of freedom left to you is to develop esoteric readings, of which this idea is pretty much the Borgesian limit. As Scholem (who, by the way, is definitely engaged with the topic; he assigns, or tries to, truth values, or at least a graduation of theological or metaphysical soundness, to different theories) puts it, mysticism pours new meaning into holy texts, making them pregnant, frameworks. He emphasizes that Kabbalists where deliberately conservative, seeking to reinforce authority — Sabbatai Zevi being an obvious exception — but of course mystical access to the Divine is inherently dangerous to authority (cf. the Catholic Kerfuffles); I kept thinking of Dune, where the tension between the prophetic power and institutional control is at the core of the series' issues. Interestingly, and I guess naturally, when you add a mythical component, ritual becomes magic, that is, operative, either in the lower sephirots or even at the higher levels — for some Kabbalists, it's the performance of appropriate ritual what makes possible, or at least assists, the repair of the vessels that is either the redemption or the fulfillment of the cosmological Fall (here the Lurianic Kabbalah made the drastic move of elevating exile (this was after, and heavily motivated by, the trauma of 1492) from tragic punishment to a necessary component of fulfilling this mission). All in all, it's a fascinating topic, even for an atheist like me (cue Borges' comment — not at all disparaging — of metaphysics being a form of fiction).

News Networks in Seventeenth Century Britain and Europe (ed. Joad Raymond, 2018/#83): A collection of articles on some topics I love: news in Early Modern Europe, Paolo Sarpi (although the article on him I had already read in another book), early spies, etc. A lot of the complaints about the uncertainty of news, the dangers of seditious texts to the body politic, and the self-serving treachery of spies do ring a bell.

The Political Economy of Empire in the Early Modern World (ed. Sophus Reinert and Pernille Røge, 2018/#84): A handful of essays on the complex interactions between the nascent "science" of political economy and the practice of empire (the economics of the latter informing the former, and theories of political economics influencing how empires, going from a local concept of authority to far-away colonies under direct metropolitan control) were exploited, and what for. Besides global in practical nature, this was European in its intellectual development, with countries deliberately (if strategically and skeptically) copying or avoiding the practices of the economic leaders du jour (although it must be said that the history of economics as written today focuses more on who influences our current practices than on who "won" the discussion back then). Something that reinforces the narrative of the war against France being part of what helped develop the financial system in England (a financial system that made it possible in turn to win that war), trade disruptions caused by the war during the late 1690s diverted the capital of traders to the London stock market (a better investment, it was held, than dicey trading routes with vulnerable ships), and war-oriented companies. In a way this exemplifies what makes capitalist societies so flexible: resources self-reallocated much more efficiently than the state would've been able to tax and apply them (at least with late XVIIth century technology and organizations). In parallel, of course, it shows how the stock market isn't necessarily a good guide to a society's well-being.


Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion (Jörg Rüpke, 2018/#85): The main work of the book is to denaturalize the concept of religions understood as mutually exclusive well-structured groups with a specific, text-based, theology and set of rituals. It wasn't at all like that in the Roman world (and, from my understanding, in most of the other big contemporary and near-contemporary civilizations). The author uses the absolutely *fabulous* concept of "communicating with not indisputably plausible actors", which I think highlights brilliantly the nature, goals, and instabilities of the process. As in any other form of communication: it wasn't necessarily successful (so you kept trying strategies to increase your chances: ways to call the attention of those actors by what you did, how you did it, and where you did it), it wasn't meant solely for its intended recipient (communicating with those forces, if done in a public way and with some expectation of success, did increase your social standing — wouldn't you be impressed if you caught your co-worker on the phone with whoever's your boss' boss' boss' boss)?), and it was ultimately done with the goal of increasing the agency, practical and social — not separate spheres — of the individual. Romans and their contemporaries were remarkably sophisticated in their view of these not indisputably plausible actors (gods, the dead, spirits, forces, demons: precise classification came much later); the names, addresses, and places you used were entirely driven by what you wanted to achieve, not any strong concept of a pre-existing individual entity. It wasn't that they thought nothing like that existed (except a few skeptics, who anyway supported the use of these activities for their audience effects), it was just that they were never a priori sure that something would work, and, most interestingly, that something couldn't work. It was all very pragmatic in a James/Latour way. This also explains why Emperors could be prayed to even when alive (the death in general being plausibly spoken to constantly, dead emperors where just a higher-status example): the early empire reduced the strength of local elites, as well as increasing the resources of new groups like merchants — addressing the Emperor in your rituals, or at least mentioning him, was a safely non-controversial way to add some status to what you were saying. In a very intersting (and almost Borgesian) way, the increasingly structured and exclusionary religious texts that began to be written at this time did *not* reflect correspondingly structured and exclusionary groups, but rather described them as reputational strategies of their authors. It was only later, in a dynamic that reminded me of the Renaissance *forensic* use of Classic fiction about witches, that these were taken to be descriptions of religious groups — in the sense meant at those later times, that'd be an anachronism. Fun facts: Christians (as a group and identity) post-date the Gospels, which were written in part as a response to a merchant called Marcion who seemed to have had a central if superseded role in this "organized religion" thing, and followed common Hellenistic patterns of biographies as much as anything we'd call historical information (history, in that sense, was less important than myth, understood less as sacred history than as, dunno, a symbolic common ground or something). It was only in the interplay between Imperial variations of older Roman forms of communication with not indisputably etc and the competition between different actors for reputation and influence based on religious competences (something that before then was heterogeneous but diffused, part of the know-how of life even if people had different depths of expertise and resources) that we ended up with the sort of highly structured, exclusionary structures we call religions. From this historical point of view, the Christian churches are an awfully peculiar social and intellectual development, their monotheism contributing to but not fully explaining their unique characteristics. The very concept of a discrete religion becomes idiosincratic and path-dependent, a model that I think fits quite naturally the little I know of religious activities in the Indian subcontinent, China, etc (although a bit more the Sassanids, and, through a much different pattern, Islam — there a peculiarly centralized religion determined political structure, instead of being fused with existing ones). As always with this kind of book, I can't vouch for the details, and these sort of over-arching explanations are always suspect, but at the very least it's a fruitful possible framework to think about these things.

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War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States (Jan Glete, 2018/#77): The overall thesis of the book is that (a) the fiscal-military State works as a social container of skills, allowing the continuous build-up of non-ephemeral military and administrative skills, as well as organizational (instead of personal) loyalty, and that (b) this gave state-builders such an advantage as sellers of violence/protection that it made sense for local elites to cooperate with them (also: was possible due to local elites' cooperation), helping acquire and control local resources in exchange for improved patronage opportunities, and the rulers' support of their own position in local society. I think it's an interesting and well-argued position, and I like the self-supporting structure of the trick: like all equilibria, it works because it works, in a literal sense. I find the "state as container of competences" idea very interesting and fruitful; it's difficult to imagine the minutiae of administrative and logistic skills (never mind the specifically military ones) in the sort of locally-led forces that predated the larger states - it's not about military strategy per se, but rather the group-cognitive limits (interesting to think about in the contemporary context as well). The author describes the three earliest examples of this model: Spain (which did it quite well, less driven by ideology than by specific situational concerns, and perhaps stealing methods and tempos from their use of galleys in their Mediterranean empire, as well as from Roman models... and then stopped doing it quite well, and in fact devolved to locally-led forces, due, I think (the author doesn't take this approach, mostly) to the Hapsburg religious-political global commitments lacking support from their subjects, whose patience in paying for wars in th Far Elsewhere was long but not infinite), the Dutch Republic (an extremely efficient fiscal and fighting machine, the author posits, once you take into account its size, relative to enemies, despite later historiography — its bottom-up nature didn't make it inefficient, but actually helped it have the elite legitimacy to support high levels of taxation), and Sweden (a poor society that, paradoxically, offered a string of competent and ambitious rulers some facilites to build this sort of state, as nobles were poor enough that they were happier than most to ally themselves with the growing state). Highly recommended, if not unopinionated.

Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith, 2018/#78): Essentially a(n strongly) non-teleological history of some key technologies during the long (British) nineteenth century: steam engines, railways, steamships, and telegraphs. It emphasizes and describes the contested manner in which technological alternatives fought with each other not just through "objective comparisons" but through social, marketing, and institutional processes used to define the technologies, gather capital, build confidence, explain failures, refashion the technologists, and even generate and fight over the epistemological mechanisms. In itself very interesting and full of suggestive tidbits (e.g. uniform time was first "railway time", and followed, rather than preceded, the railways — that's a very Latour (or even Einstein) thing; Babbage was much more into cybernetics in the classical sense than I had known — he was an enthusiastic proponent of mechanical information loggers in machinery; the religious undertones in the genesis, or at least the defense, of engineering optimization practices), but also, I feel, relevant to our current tech environment, in both parallels and differences.

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Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 2018/#70): Something of an Art of the Fugue, but about semiotics rather than music (or, for that matter, cities). Perhaps mostly about fugues.

Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Marina Montesano, 2018/#71): Tracks the multiple, meandering paths of the idea of witchcraft from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — where humanistic high culture wasn't entirely opposed to, and in places cohabited enthusiastically, with witch trials and burnings. Some points of semantic and ontological instability: Poisoning was, for the Romans, not separate from magic as such. Child-eating lamias weren't women, or even human, until late in the day, and that through a misogynistic dance where it was first applied metaphorically to women, and then literally. The Renaissance debates, both theological and juridical, about whether witches could shape-shift and fly... or only thought they could, deceived by devils who then committed the actions they dreamed of, to keep up appearances (interesting virtual reality overtones...). The Circe story not just as metaphor and root, but as judicial proof — the classical world got less lost than heavily diluted, context lost, and even when texts were recovered from Muslim Spain and during the final exodus of Byzantine scholars, it was to be re-appropriated to the interests and assumptions of Renaissance, not Classical, culture. The result was, in short, a mess. (And, by the way, witch-burning could be seen as a side effect of the internal reformist battles in the Church, not due to an increase of ignorance, just as, say, astrology and other arts went under attack during the Roman Empire... the more you demand ideological homogeneity, the more side practices (folkloric and/or hermetic) become heretical and/or seditious... from tales and poems to witch-burning there was but a very short step). Implications for the present are left as an exercise to the sleepless writer.


The Demons of William James: Religious Pragmatism Explores Unusual Mental States (Tadd Ruetenik, 2018/#72): James' deep and complex involvement with psychic research is, well, not the least complex aspect of his life, but this book is peculiar even beyond that. It's not at *all* metaphorical: it's about demonology, and demons, and not just the possessions studied by James, but also those that might have happened to him (and his father Henry Sr., and his intellectual grandfather, Swedenborg)... and by him, talking about books written, some of them relatively recently, by people claiming to be channeling him. The author is a believer but in an extremely agnostic way — that is, he has very wide, rather uniform priors that assign high probability to multiple different supernatural views of the world — with, I would say, very idiosincratic theological suspicions. I would summarize his claims in the following way: (1) in a Jamesian Pragmatic way, whether demonic possession is real is irrelevant compared to what it does to people, (2) put it in a different way, it's sufficiently proved for each individual in their own case, which is what matters, (3) more metaphysically, it lends some support to James' view in which immortality is possible because the brain transmits and refracts external and immortal, as much as produces, consciousness, (4) rather interestingly, that demonic possession is most visible and most evil in cases of social and group pressure, particularly when it leads to sacrificial scapegoating — in other words, that Salem was a true (in a Pragmatic sense) case of possession, but the possessed were the accusers, and the community in general. It's a rather arresting metaphor, except that in the author's case it's not a metaphor; the whole book is like that, which makes its reading for an atheist with an aesthetic fondness for the supernatural a multi-layered, at times confusing experience. Some trigger warnings are warranted, but it's definitely an interesting book. (As an aside, my main logical quibble with the author — aside from our metaphysical differences — is that his claims about the pragmatic relevance of the ontological status of possession are too narrow — the existence and details of an afterlife are likely to have a tremendous impact on our daily decisions — reading this book so soon after Summerland was a happy coincidence — and are therefore of interest beyond the psychological impact on the afflicted.)


In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples (Jordan Lancaster, 2018/#73): A second-rate history of Naples, both as historical analysis and as urban panegyric, but nonetheless serviceable. The main meta-point of interest is the gap between the relative lack of visibility of Naples today, even in historical works, and the importance it had as (often) the most populous city in Italy and even Europe, a key transfer point of the Greek lifestyle to the Romans (I would argue that in many senses its takeover by Rome was more important than the conquest of mainland Greece; after all, Naples is where everybody built their villas and went to do Greek stuff like reading poetry and having pleasant little affairs), and for reasons having to do both with migration patterns and the vagaries of WWII strategy, pretty much the template of how the US, and the world outside Europe in general, came to think of Italy — the stereotypical Italian in 20th century world culture looks and behaves like a Neapolitan, not a Milanese or a Roman, regardless of where he or she lives (e.g. international Italian music was, generally speaking, Neapolitan music, and Sofia Loren and Enrico Caruso, two of the best-known artists of the era, were Neapolitan). Another point of interest is the huge impact of the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum had on European culture. At the same time, Naples represents some sort of limit case of the rural-bureaucratic high-density urban model; even with the best possible natural resources for an agrarian society, plus a great harbor, it basically spent centuries pushing against the Malthusian limit of extreme inequality and regular crisis. Italian unification, by removing its political centrality rents, naturally hurt the city enormously. All in all: there's interesting material in the book if you knew very little about Naples (as I did), but not a great triumph of analysis or style.


Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China (Craig Clunas, 2018/#74): The thesis of the book is that our systematic depiction of Ming aristocracy outside the main Imperial line (and, due to polygamy and time, we're well in the range of a hundred thousands people) as "princes" (and irrelevant, idle, and unimportant ones at that) is due to taking too much at face value the word of the Ming scholar elite; they right translation of wang is king, and, linguistic nuances aside, they had symbolic power and influence, and fluid connections with both the throne and the scholar elite, to a larger degree that we consider now. In fact, their roles in the creation and dissemination of art — from calligraphy and jewelry to paintings and poetry — was both perhaps systematically underplayed by later generations (not just Quin-era scholars still resentful of their poor showing during the fall of the Ming, but also later Republican and Marxist historians), and misunderstood through shifting value frameworks. The author makes a good point about how our understanding of power isn't necessarily universal; Royal courts played a minor but active role in the Emperor's critical role as a source of wen (civilization, art, manners, a well-ordered polity, a well-functioning ecosystem, etc — not a lot of difference, plenty of cause-and-effect), so, say, a King collating a catalog of historical calligraphic rubbings, or participating in exchanges of poetry or painting isn't puttering around outside the boundaries of "real power", but rather playing a (yes, subordinate, but still real) role in the whole ritual thing. An aesthetic realm as separate from the political, and the political from the ritual maintenance of cosmic order, is a modern concept that doesn't apply to most of Chinese history. (In a way, it reminds me of the Egyptian concept of ma'at, the way in some eras they thought the gods had up and gone and it fell to human civilization, ritual, and, most importantly, memory (hence the tombs) to keep the universe going.) Without really being very familiar with Chinese history, I buy the overall argument. Note that the book is quite clear on what is known versus what's inferred, and makes a point of looking for hidden voices and agencies, including those of women.


Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550 (Jonathan Green, 2018/#75): For all of the (deserved) fame of the Gutenberg Bible, that was still the kind of text that was already being produced and read at the scale manuscript technology allowed. This book focuses on a different sort of material, the prophetic prognostications that were some of the earliest popular printed booklets — lying a the intersection of astrology (at the time considered a rational, natural science) and divinely inspired prophecy, they were a surprisingly popular genre, with specific linguistic patterns — the book focuses on the German-speaking lands, which had a much different marked than, say, Italy — their own textual conventions, etc. I would remark two argumental lines from the author: a "McLuhanic" noting the parallels between the prophetic endeavor and the printing press (being a prophet wasn't just knowing the future, but rather being a medium between the divine word and the people) and a socio-epistemic one exploring how the economics of the printing press, the wider availability (thanks to the printing press!) of astronomical ephemerides, and the overall social instability of the age, conspired to both open up and destabilize the genre of prognostic texts, a commercially-driven one that nonetheless had to respond to secular and ecclesiastic constraints as much as it did to popular demand, and did it in part through well-defined self-developed conventions about the use of images, disclaimers, chapter structures, etc. Interesting and detailed.

Mr. Campion's Lucky Day and Other Stories (Margery Allingham, 2018/#76): (cf. my post earlier today).

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Aug. 5th, 2018

The first line of the first story in Allingham Margery's Mr. Campion's Lucky Day and Other Stories:

Dornford killed Fellowes somewhere in Australia. Apart from the fact that it was a reprehensible sort of thing to do anyway, it was particularly unpleasant because they were friends and it was done for gain.


The rest of the book goes pretty much like that. I enjoyed reading the stories; no masterpieces there, I think, and perhaps closer to the third than to the first rank of detective/ghost/etc short fiction, but well-crafted and pleasant.

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