Quiet – Susan Cain

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been on my radar for a while, but never rose to the level of my seeking it out. Then it came into my household and now in early 2018 I picked it up as part of my initiative to read more non-fiction.

The premise of Quiet is simple: US culture in business and school idealize and valorize extroverts, but somewhere between one third and one half of all people are introverts. People with introverted personality types are at risk for depression, anxiety, and neutered career prospects, Cain argues, but this is because the gifts that introverts can bring to the table are misapplied or overlooked at best, and smothered at worst.

“Different, not better,” could be the book’s motto. In tracking through studies about performance, she is careful to point out that intelligence is roughly evenly distributed between introverts and extroverts, but that the personality types a) function best in environments with different types of stimulation and b) at different types of tasks. Neither is “better” than the other, and, Cain argues, both function better in situations where there is a symbiosis of the two (she cites, for instance, Jobs and Wozniak and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as particularly effective partnerships). Thus the flaw in the modern corporate environment is a failure to appreciate the needs and skills of employees. In these moments, Cain’s background as a consultant shows through.

Cain works through three bodies of evidence to make her case. She first examines the evolution in American culture exemplified by Dale Carnegie as a way to explain where the extrovert ideal comes from and how it shapes American life. Second, Cain lays out in approachable terms the (relatively) recent scientific findings regarding personality and character types to explain how the traits develop and how they affect performance under various conditions. Finally, she offers a bevy of personal anecdotes and conversations with people she knows to demonstrate living examples of the psychology and of the suggestions for how to thrive as an introvert. The last category, particularly the successful ones, are seemed designed to be uplifting to potential introverts—their equivalent of the Tony Robbins seminar Cain attends and feels deeply uncomfortable at. These were usually the least interesting part of the book, in my opinion.

I am an introvert, usually. (Every once in a while a Myers-Briggs test spits back an “extrovert” result.) As such, much of what Cain wrote struck home and I found myself nodding along as she described the way novel and crowded locations can result in absolute sensory overload. I immediately jumped back to the sensation of being in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and any number of parties where I had to excuse myself. Quiet was interesting for this reason, but not life-changing for me because most of the suggestions it gives are things that I already do in my life. Where it was useful, however, was by forcing me to reevaluate my pedagogy in that I am unconsciously falling into habits that reinforce the extrovert ideal under the guise of class-participation. I don’t yet know what I am going to do about this, and most of the suggestions on this front are not particularly well-suited for a college classroom, but at least I came away more conscientious.

Quiet is absolutely a worthwhile read, even if it comes off as a book that could be thrust upon shy people everywhere so as to say “it is okay that you’re shy, there are ways to overcome that.” The book has some virtue in that regard and Cain frequently reiterates that, yes, it is okay–even natural–to be shy. But the more important audience for Quiet is not for introverts everywhere, but for managers, bosses, and teachers everywhere to make them realize that the quiet person who they keep overlooking for promotion or marking down for not speaking up in class can be just as valuable as the person strutting about in the front of the room with his or her bright plumage ready for inspection.

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I also finished reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King last week and intend to write up some thoughts about it, but things have been hectic around here, so we will see. I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I love it so far, but see the above comment about writing blog posts—I just hope that it is not a casualty of the conditions under which I am reading it.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process – John McPhee

If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?

What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.

Over the past year I have developed an interest in books on writing, academic and otherwise. This is part pretension, part aspiration, and part curiosity as to how books, objects that I have spent my entire life around, come into being. It was around the time this started in 2017 that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 came out, to general praise. McPhee is a longtime New Yorker staff writer and creative non-fiction teacher at Princeton, experiences which he distills into under two hundred pages of institutional and professional memoir and commentary on the writing process.

Draft No. 4 was born from eight previously published essays on the writing process, though one of its lessons is that there is a difference between articles that appear abridged in pages of a magazine and chapters that appear in a book. Piece by piece, McPhee works through the stages of writing from developing a topic to relationships with editors and publishers, and from the victories of publication to the weeks and months of painful gestation before the first draft is completed. The eponymous “Draft No. 4,” which McPhee describes as the fun part, is final pass where he plays with the choice of words and phrases. Along the way, he offers reflection on the characters at the New Yorker and Time magazine. Writing might be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.

Each chapter is well-crafted, with a subtle humor and ample examples pulled from McPhee’s career, but the advice was not particularly novel. Writing is hard, copy-editors are your friend, it is better to use a common, concrete word rather than using a thesaurus to sound smart. This last is the sort of advice one would get from Orwell or Hemingway on writing, for instance, but McPhee makes his points not only as a long-time writer, but as someone who teaches writing. The result is masterful, a clever combination of direct explanation, artful example, and epideictic display piece.

My personal favorite chapter was the final chapter “Omission.” The primary lesson here is that while writing is fundamentally a generative process, it is more appropriately one of omission. Writing involves choice: of words most basically, but also subject, point of view, structure. Writing is not a universal medium designed to capture everything, and any attempt to do so will result in fetid muck.

Draft No. 4 is not for everyone, but anyone interested in writing or in some small insight into how the New Yorker works could do worse with this book.

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I read Draft No. 4 as a break from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I am about 60% of the way through. I’m hoping to finish it soon because I’m excited about a lot of the other books currently sitting on my shelf.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.

In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. to awaken them is to reveal that they are en empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

I do not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.

The first book I completed this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letters to his son, a memoir examining issues of race in America. Coates recounts his experiences growing up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, his awakening at “the Mecca” (Howard University), his years of writing about racial issues, and the losses he suffered along the way.

Between the World and Me is an angry book, but also a fearful one, and fear is the source of much of the anger. Coates appropriately focuses on black bodies and how, whether through slavery, limitation, incarceration or, particularly recently, police brutality, those bodies are destroyed. If, as he argues, the government is the “legitimate” authority of white America, the police represent the force, the killing edge of that authority, a blade that is often wielded against black bodies. This violence is often racial, but it is not exclusive to white people. It deputizes members of minority communities, making them complicit in the ongoing racial violence.

I read most of Between the World and Me in Washington DC, including a brief stint outdoors sitting between the Capitol and the Library of Congress—one building built by slaves and another that uncritically commemorates Thomas Jefferson. The overall appearance of the Capitol and its accompanying monuments would likewise be much different were it not for other racially constructed legacies such as the white-washing of the polychromic appearance of classical antiquity. Reflecting on these issues is not sanitizing history, but the first steps in grappling with it in search of a better future.

There are points at which it is possible to disagree with Coates and he admits but does not address how many of the same things he talks about apply to other minority groups. But this is a memoir, not a history of race in America, and Between the World and Me is all the more powerful for it. This should be mandatory inclusion for any civics reading list and my only regret is how long it took me to get around to finally reading it.

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Earlier this week I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book that is as immersive in its dystopic vision as any of Atwood’s other work I have read and yet fell short of her best in its achievement. I am now reading (and am somewhat baffled by, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

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Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

But What if We’re Wrong – Chuck Klosterman

In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.

What’s interesting is our communal willingness to assume most old stories may as well be true, based on the logic that (a) the story is already ancient, and (b) there isn’t any way to confirm an alternative version, despite the fact that we can’t categorically confirm the original version, either.

Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years: How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

In this not-essay collection (as he asserts several times in the forward material), Chuck Klosterman tackles the topic of how we think about the past and how we think about the future, arguing that a) there are some seriously problematic thing about how we think about the former and b) we nevertheless need to think about the latter more like we think about the former. Klosterman’s operating principles are that there is too much information (and too many variables) for a person to grapple with all of them, that certainty as a way of stifling progress and inquiry, and that we are more likely to be wrong than we are to be right.

What ensues is a lengthy, frequently speculative thought experiment that runs the gamut from asking what musical artist will be passed down as the exemplar of Rock and Roll when there is only one Rock artist who is widely remembered, to asking famous scientists whether we have hit a point of diminishing returns in the field because universal constants like gravity have already been solved, to talking about historical conspiracies such as the Phantom Time Hypothesis. (This last one is the theory that certain epochs in human history are no more than agreed upon fictions, which make for fun discussion and better Onion articles. Klosterman includes lengthy quotations from conversations he had with cultural and scientific luminaries (some of whom would be counted as more expert than others), all building on the theme in question.

But What if we’re Wrong is not about answers, but rather questions, a book meant to be good to think with. In this regard, Klosterman is successful, even though the very nature of the book, combined with the conversational and journalistic tone, make some of the specifics of the argument rest lightly in my memory. I enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly influenced me in terms of how I think, but some chapters were stronger than others. I particularly liked the chapter “The World That Is Not There” that explores false certitude about historical events, while others at times wandered down rabbit holes that were relevant, but less successful.

Similarly, the cultural commentary in But What if We’re Wrong runs the risk of becoming rapidly dated, even if that ironically proves the core conceit worth considering. Perhaps the clearest example of this I noticed was the discussion of Rock and Roll that considers at length (and the dismisses) the possibility that the “true exemplar” is Bob Dylan. Nothing Klosterman writes is yet invalid, but his hypothetical future did not consider the possibility that Dylan would go down as a Nobel Laureate. Ultimately, though, this is a quirk of the topic that ought not discredit a book that deliberately avoids most polemical topics in order to make its own case that how we think about these issues ought to be considered in its own right—and Klosterman can therefore be forgiven for not necessarily following leads in a comprehensive way because to do so would simply be missing the point.

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I am currently reading Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a book that was intended to be part of a forty-part retelling of the whole of Egyptian history. Thus far I am not finding it a particularly successful novel, but what it reveals about conceptions of Egyptian nationalism is fascinating.

The Caped Crusade – Glen Weldon

So there you have Batman: a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art.

It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amok on the mean streaks of New York. Where he brutally mauled Piglet. And ate Christopher Robin’s face off.

Because that would be real. That would be badass.

Surprisingly for someone whose early life was largely sheltered from T.V. my Batman is the one from Batman the Animated Series that debuted in 1992. It probably only happened in reruns on a couple of occasions, but I have distinct memories of watching it in a car dealership on the Barre-Montpelier road in Berlin, Vermont. I mostly remember being enthralled, but, then, memory can be a tricky thing.

The reason I started with my Batman is that the concept of an affinity for a particular type of Batman, whether light or dark, is one of the core conceits of Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade. Weldon traces the cultural history of Batman through its various iterations from 1939 roughly through the current version, laying out three principal claims along the way.

First, Weldon situates the evolution of the Batman character within the cultural zeitgeist. In addition to Batman mirroring cultural developments such as 1980s macho culture, Weldon argues that he goes through a three-phrase cycle from lone avenger, to father-cum-partner of Robin, to pater familias to an extended Bat-family and then back again. Within this cycle, there is also the revolving dimmer-switch on Batman’s morality, between the campy, civic-minded Batman, sometimes embracing his billionaire alter-ego, sometimes not, and a grimmer, brutal dark knight.

These two cycles feed into Weldon’s second hypothesis, that everyone has their own personal Batman. Often the personal batman is the one experienced when young, with some allowance for variation in cases of backlash. Weldon makes a compelling case for these wild swings in Batman fandom, even though it ultimately can’t be substantiated and although he does not not totally follow through with the ramifications of this idea given gradual confluence of interested in Batman between nerd culture and “normals.”

Third, much of The Caped Crusade is dedicated to trying to understand the enduring popularity of Batman, which has resulted in his appearance in ten live-action feature films since 1989. Weldon debunks the putative notion of Batman’s “relateability”—the irrepressible idea that ordinary people are more able to identify with Batman because he lacks superpowers. As Weldon points out, though, Batman is supposed to be the world’s wealthiest person, with almost no responsibilities with his company, is a peak athlete who spent years honing his martial arts skills, and, in recent iterations, is a brilliant tactician who is (almost) never wrong. But, beyond that, Batman is totally just like you and me.

Weldon makes the case that the ability for many people to relate to Batman, particularly among people who were for years not in the mainstream, stems from the oath he swears after the death of his parents that he will wage a crusade against all criminals so that no one suffers the way he suffered. This oath, and the single-minded obsession that follows from it, Weldon says, makes Batman the original nerd.

The main difference now is that, somewhere along the way, nerd culture went mainstream.

I have never been much of a comic book person, truth be told. It isn’t so much antipathy as I never made the investment of time or money to get into the stories and I was somewhat turned off by never really knowing where to start reading. As such, some of Weldon’s detailing the ins and outs of the writers and inkers did not mean much to me, but the broad sweeps of the Batman tradition in Weldon’s hands (and lively prose) aptly reflect many of the fissures in American culture for the past seventy five years. The same may well be true of other superheroes (Weldon intimates as much when he talks about larger trends in comic book publishing), but Batman’s stature as among the oldest, most popular, and, importantly, most relate-able (such that he is) heroes makes Batman an apt study for American culture writ-large.

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Next up, I am currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in Mind. It is too soon to tell if I will like the story, but so far I am quite taken with both the structure and the characters.

Odessa – Charles King

Situated on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the site of Odessa was a backwater Turkish fort overlooking a small fishing village. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) the fort fell to Russian forces and Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a Neapolitan man born to a Spanish father and Italian mother, then in Catherine’s service, saw potential for the site to become Russia’s southern port. With the empress’ blessing, de Ribas laid out the new city along a European pattern.

Despite problems with sanitation and clean water (the city is not set on a river), outbreaks of plague from Ottoman ships, and intermittent crises over Ottoman control of the Bosporus, Odessa flourished. Hard by three major rivers agricultural goods from the Russian interior converged on the city, while liberal trade policies made it an attractive destination for merchants, its mild climate and European accouterments made it attractive to ex-patriots, and Russian reticence to move south led to economic privileges to Jews that were not common elsewhere in the empire. Odesssa’s newness made it exceptional compared to other cities, with fewer regulations and a wilder population that fostered creativity and crime, particularly in the years before the revolution.

According to Charles King, the popular conception of Odessa (such that one exists) is a fiction made from nostalgia and propaganda that is perpetually being redrawn. After 1918, for instance, Odessa came to be regarded as one of the original cities for the Russian revolution, but this reputation was the product of the movie Battleship Potemkin that valorized a mutiny aboard an imperial naval vessel of that name. Likewise, Odessa changed fundamentally when it was occupied by Romanian forces during World War 2, both because a limited number of episodes added it to the list of Soviet hero cities resisting occupation and because the occupation irreversibly changed the demographics of the city. The Jewish population of Odessa was gone.

There is obviously a good deal more to Odessa than the briefest sketch laid out above, and King wanders into the realm of biography to flesh out the picture of the literary and political luminaries, as well as a number of the criminals, that left their mark on Odessa or had Odessa leave its mark on them. There were time that my attention flagged—I picked Odessa out of the library stacks for no other reason than that members of my family lived there before coming to the United States, though none of them rose to the level of inclusion—but that is going to happen. From a historical perspective, King’s greatest feat and perhaps the most fascinating part of Odessa the city is the extent to which the character of a community is constructed through both stories and monuments. To give one notable example, Odessa’s most famous monument is the Potemkin Steps, a set of staircases that connect the harbor to the city atop which sits a statue of Richelieu, a French expat and early governor of the city. One might assume that the steps were named for Grigory Potemkin, whose military campaign captured the town for Russia or at least for the Battleship Potemkin mutineers, but, in fact, it was neither. Naturally, the steps were named for the movie Battleship Potemkin. King brings this type of layered memorializations to the front of his narrative time and again, building the cultural legacy of Odessa into the series of political and economic decisions that shaped the population that inhabited this comparatively young city.

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I also recently finished reading Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, a psychological novel that I found simultaneously insightful and problematic, and the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms. Next up is going to be something non-fiction, either Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade or Chuck Klostermann’s What if we’re wrong.

Dream Team – Jack McCallum

There have been US Olympic basketball teams composed of NBA players since, but, according to Jack McCallum, there has only one Dream Team. That team—Larry, Michael, Magic, Scottie, Charles, Stockton, Malone, Ewing, Robinson, Mullin, Clyde the Glide, and Christian Laettner—represented the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the first time that NBA players were allowed to participate. The outcome of the tournament was never in question since the average margin of victory was more than forty points and they never called time out, but how the team came together and what their legacy was were stories unto themselves.

The NBA underwent a massive growth in popularity in the 1980s. Despite some racially-motivated fears about it being “too black,” the uptick was fueled by better play and stars such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Borislav Stankovic, a former Serbian basketball player and then administrator in FIBA, wanted to tap into this newfound popularity in order to grow basketball into a global game that could challenge soccer. For this he needed NBA players in international competition, but, in order to do this, he needed to change the rules governing amateurism in FIBA. In some ways, though, this was the easy part, because he then needed to get NBA buy-in and, after that, to wrangle NBA superstars into effectively volunteering their time and likenesses for the Olympics.

In the “Dream Team,” Stankovic was more successful than he ever could have hoped. What had been originally proposed as a team with half the roster composed of college players coached by person from the college roster turned into a team with single token college player (Laettner) and coached by a man with two NBA championships. Its roster didn’t have some very good NBA players so much as all the top stars excluding only Isiah Thomas, whose exclusion despite his coach guiding the team provides a significant amount of the drama in the book.

The Dream Team took the 1992 Olympics by storm, with the most competitive game they played being an intra-squad scrimmage in Monaco, but the combination of the personalities involved and the drama of the Lithuanian basketball team that famously received financial support from the Grateful Dead, made for plenty of drama. The Dream Team, in particular, was composed of larger-than-life characters, gods of the basketball universe, but this was no mere collection of the best players in the world. It was also a uniquely mature and experienced team where Magic Johnson had already retired once because of his HIV announcement and Larry Bird had just finished playing his final NBA season.

But what of McCallum’s contention that this was the one and only Dream Team? It is hard to imagine a team with a greater level of star-power on it, though later USA basketball teams have come close without quite the same dominant results. The differences in part come from the divergent legacies of 1992. International basketball players saw the Dream Team as not just particularly athletic, but also impossibly skilled in all facets of the game and worked to emulate them, demonstrating fulfillment of Stankovic’s vision; in contrast, US basketball players saw their on-court dominance and took it to indicate American invincibility in basketball, without recognizing either the unselfishness or determination that manifested in legitimate practice and Jordan and Pippen deciding that they were going to utterly annihilate their future teammate Tony Kukoc because of an imagined slight that really had nothing to do with the Croat. The United States still had a preponderance of basketball talent, but it was not talent alone that drove the Dream Team to such dominance.

McCallum covered the NBA in the 1980s and therefore was also one of the journalists covering the team in Barcelona; Dream Team weaves these recollections together with interviews he conducted in later years and reads like an extended feature article. The book is immensely readable, though, and the NBA players come alive on the pages, so much so that I found myself going back and watching old highlights of Larry Bird while reading. This is probably not a book for someone who is not at least a causal basketball fan, but for anyone who is, Dream Team needs to be necessary reading for a glimpse at the seed for the modern, globalized NBA.

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I have once again fallen behind on posts here, or, perhaps, I have had a little more time than usual for reading since, in addition to Dream Team, I have also finished Mo Yan’s strange novel The Republic of Wine and N.K. Jemisin’s excellent The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms since my last post. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next, but I am nonetheless looking forward to it.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.

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Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.