The fate of oratory

There was much hand-wringing over Donald Trump and the fate of oratory during the 2016 campaign, leading to the ever-present and ever-painful game “which ancient person does modern politician X best resemble?” There were a lot of Roman names being tossed about, but the debate usually wandered its way over into the Athenian Assembly. This makes sense. The Assembly was the stage for some of the greatest speech writers of all time and Athens a place where the study of rhetoric began. The orators who took that floor, men like Demosthenes, Aeschines and Hyperides, have been canonized for their skill, and we have only second-hand reports about the speeches of their predecessors such as Pericles and Alcibiades who dominated the Athenian body politic for decades, for better and for worse.

Modern commentators tend not to put Trump on such a pedestal, instead often making the comparison with Cleon, the up-jumped son of a leather tanner who Thucydides calls the bloodiest man in Athens. Cleon is mocked by Thucydides and others, including the comic poet Aristophanes, for his vulgarity, his brutality, and his authoritarian leanings. Cleon:Trump starts to sound like an apt parallel, but I hasten to add that it comes with several caveats: a) we know about Cleon almost exclusively from hostile sources; b) the built in assumption for the comparison is that Cleon was dramatically inferior to Pericles; and c) even for the orators whose speeches survive we don’t know what was said in the Assembly, how it was presented, or what people said in response.

Taken into the modern world, labelling Trump Cleon was part and parcel with lamenting the deplorable state of modern oratory, particularly during the last presidential election cycle. Like many, I was appalled by much of what was said and none of the speeches is going to go down as an example for the ages, let alone coin a term the way that Demosthenes’ Philippics (speeches against Philip) did. And yet, oratory, in the words of Sam Seaborn, should raise your heart rate, oratory should knock the doors off the place. By all accounts, Trump did this whatever you think of the actual message. The election demonstrated some of the worst features of demagoguery, and there were plenty of opinion pieces that dealt with that topic and other legacies of classical antiquity.

Along with perpetual side-eye and exclamations of disbelief (he said WHAT??) and the the explosive growth of fact-checking services, one of the developments in the past year or so has been a cottage industry dedicated to combing through speeches and social media to find a person saying the exact opposite of whatever it is they just said. Trump was obviously the main target of this practice, but it has also extended to other politicians and his political appointees, including, most recently, Anthony Scaramucci’s tweets. In turn, this has led some to scrub their social media profiles to eliminate contradictory, embarrassing, or politically disadvantageous comments, which brings me back to Ancient Greece.

The public speeches are one part of the presentation for Donald Trump (or anyone else), the social media persona is a second. Leaving aside that people are allowed to change their mind, it is absolutely reasonable to plumb both categories and hold politicians to account for inconsistencies and other problematic statements. At the same time, when reading the speeches of the Attic orators, the lack of internal consistency from speech to speech is striking. These are historical records in the modern sense, but rather works of persuasion that provide some insight into their contemporary times. One might still be tempted to denounce the speaker, berating him with a series of facts, and that may well have happened, but the speeches also serve as a microcosm of a broader ancient Greek relationship with truth, past of present.

This was particularly true in terms of foreign policy in ancient Greece. Launching a rhetorical assault on another city, praising the same city as a reliable ally, and inventing a mythological genealogy that links the two are not mutually exclusive depending on what context is needed for a given speech. The sheer amount of data that exists in the modern world dwarfs that of the ancient, making these blurred lines much clearer and allowing one to trace the lineage of a given statement, but the relationship to facts bears remarkable similarity.

Rhetoric, anyway, is alive and well.

Civilization and its antecedants

Before I ever considered the possibility that I could become a historian, I played games. This is a normal progression for a young person, and being someone who already loved history, I naturally gravitated to historically themed games, including fighting games like Dynasty Warriors (Three Kingdoms era China) and the Age of Empires series. I still enjoy both of those sets of games, but in more recent ages, I have particularly come to like civilization building games like Europa Universalis and, of course the Civilization series. Earlier this week I was looking through online forums and other resources to satisfy my curiosity about how the series portrays Greece—the topic of a future post, in all likelihood—and stumbled across an online emulator of the original Civ game. Naturally, I gave it go.

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The title sequence starts in space, panning into the galaxy. Starting a new game picks up where the title leaves off, this time centering on the earth, which the player watches evolve. Over the top is narration:

In the beginning, the Earth was without form, and void.

But the Sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed.

The seas parted and great continents were formed. The continents shifted, mountains arose. Earthquakes spawned massive tidal waves. Volcanoes erupted and spewed forth fiery lava and charged the atmosphere with strange gases.

Into this swirling maelstrom of Fire and Air and Water the first stirrings of Life appeared: tiny organisms, cells, and amoeba, clinging to tiny sheltered habitats.

But the seeds of Life grew, and strengthened, and spread, and diversified, and prospered, and soon every continent and climate teemed with Life.

And with Life came instinct, and specialization, natural selection, Reptiles, Dinosaurs, and Mammals and finally there evolved a species known as Man and there appeared the first faint glimmers of Intelligence.

The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village, and the tribe. Now it required but one more ingredient: a great Leader to unite the quarreling tribes to harness the power of the land to build a legacy that would stand the test of time:

a CIVILIZATION!

Most of the conversations I’ve had about Civilization style games have revolved around their vision of history. In short, technology trees promote history as linear, progressive, teleological, despite also serving as a way for the designers to balance game-play. While acknowledging that game balance is a) difficult to attain, and b) critical to a game’s success, this presentation of history is open to criticism. Again, this is a topic for another time. Here I am taken by this opening conceit of Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

The sequence actually begins before the earth is formed. The game asserts that there is potential—seemingly for its exploitation by humans, the “intelligent” race. There is a slight concession to the improbabilities of evolution, but accepts humans as fait accompli. After all, this is a game about CIVILIZATION.

It is in the home stretch of the opening sequence that the assertions become more interesting. Society, it tells us, is not a civilization. The former involves people living together for survival, but the latter is something constructed in historical memory out of bricks of literature, written history, and monuments. (Civilization generally forces players to spend time creating technologies for farming and hunting, but never mind that.) This is yet another way that the games prioritize settled societies over nomadic ones, to go along with, for example, barbarians that spawn in territory that doesn’t belong to civilizations.

But then the kicker: none of this, not unity, not the legacy of civilization, not progress, is possible without the guiding hand of a great person (man, usually). Once again, this may be dismissed as a quirk of design in that the leader functionally has no role in game-play. And yet, Civilization sets an individual as the paragon who makes slight modifications of the rules and sets the character of the civilization. Famously, the original settings had passivity and aggression on a loop, so when Gandhi, who had the lowest starting level, became more peaceful he would become hyper-aggressive and India would start slinging nuclear warheads at all available targets. It is compelling game design, to put famous individuals as national characters, despite its manipulation of history just as much as does the equation of nations and “civilizations.” To pick up the Gandhi example again, he is a figure from the creation modern India, while the vast majority of “Indians” would no doubt be horrified to learn that their national character is pacifistic on account of him.

Civilization is a game. I am sure that some people are introduced to history through it and its ilk, but this does not necessarily mean that it need be scrutinized and held to task for historical accuracy. But it is also true that the series takes a rhetorical position with respect to the nature of civilization and the historical processes that create it, in this case before the game has even begun.

Thebes at War – Naguib Mahfouz

In Thebes at War, nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz transports the reader back to the waning years of the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt. The story opens at the court of Thebes c.1560 BCE where Seqenenra has made the momentous decision to revolt against Hyksos domination. The rebellion is short-lived. The Hyksos king Apophis raises his full army and kills the challenger, forcing the Theban royal family to flee to Nubia where, for ten years, Seqenenra’s son Kamose and grandson Ahmose make preparations to return. Most of Thebes at War is dedicated to Ahmose’s infiltration of the the kingdom and the subsequent, triumphal liberation of Egypt from the Hyksos.

It would be easy to be critical of Mahfouz’ liberties with Egyptian history in telling this tale, including that he manipulates the royal family tree of Thebes and inserts a Nubian exile where in there was common interest between Nubia and Egypt. But such dramatic license is almost always taken in historical fiction.

More interesting are the ways in which the past and the present are collapsed in Thebes at War. For instance, in terms of Egyptian geography where many of the locations (e.g. Ptolemais) that Mahfouz refers to in upper and central Egypt were Hellenistic Greek foundations. The more telling example, though, is the oft-repeated detail that the noble Egyptians are of dark skin and the evil Hyksos are white-skinned invaders who brutalize and oppress the Egyptians. Restoring Egypt for Egyptians is, for Mahfouz, the greatest moment in Egyptian history, and he conspicuously avoids mention of the founding of an empire under the New Kingdom. It is impossible to read Thebes at War (published 1944) as anything other than a parable about Egypt under the British Mandate.

I like Mahfouz’ style and am sympathetic to the position he takes in Thebes at War, but this is a book that I did not love. The style is formal and authoritative that seems designed to convey the gravity of the subject and therefore feeling more appropriate of a historical drama than a novel. There are some concessions, including a love story involving the Hyksos princess that challenges Prince Ahmose’s commitment to his Egyptian wife and people, but these had only so much emotional resonance in the book’s formal register.

I understand why Thebes at War won accolades when it came out. Its themes were directly relevant to its contemporary circumstances and Mahfouz’ design of a 40-book series of novels on Egyptian history helps construct the vision of an Egyptian national identity that has remained constant through millennia. This is obvious nonsense, but national illusions (often, delusions) are pervasive and powerful. Historiographically bankrupt a these stories may be, this should not diminish their political utility in galvanizing a population against exploitative colonial infrastructures and corrupt regimes. Nothing in this paragraph should indicate that I particularly liked Thebes at War, but looking at the novel at the intersection of literature, history, and contemporary politics at least makes the resulting conversation more complex and nuanced—even in a book that unfolds as straightforwardly as this one does..

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I’ve fallen a bit behind here because I haven’t been at my computer for the last few days and so have also finished reading Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. This morning I started reading China Miéville’s Embassytown.

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.

Thucydides on Public Outcry

Lately I have been thinking about about “The Four Hundred,” an oligarchic coup in Athens in the year 411 BCE when the Assembly voted away their rights. Here is how Thucydides describes the scene:

“Thus by the actions of these (intelligent) men even unnatural deeds of such enormity came to pass; to have their freedom curtailed nearly a century after the tyrants were cast down was bitter for the Athenian demos, not only having not been ruled, but for half that time being accustomed to ruling over others. Since no one spoke in opposition, the assembly ratified the proposal and was dissolved.”

ὥστε ἀπ᾽ἀνδρῶν πολλῶν καὶ ξυνετῶν πραχθὲν τὸ ἔργον οὐκ ἀπεικότως καίπερ μέγα ὂν προυχώρησεν, χαλεπὸν γὰρ ἦν τὸν Ἀθηναίον δῆμον ἐπ᾽ ἔτει ἑκατοστῷ μάλιστα ἐπειδὴ οἱ τύραννοι κατελύθησαν ἐλευθερίας παῦσαι, καὶ οὐ μόνον μὴ ὑπήκοον ὄντα, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὑπὲρ ἥμισυ τοῦ χρόνου τούτου αὐτὸν ἄλλων ἄρχειν εἰωυόντα. ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἡ ἐκκλησία οὐδενὸς ἀντειπόντος, ἀλλὰ κυρώσασα ταῦτα διελύθη…

Thuc. 8.68-9

“…and the rest of the citizens did not resist, but kept quiet.”

…καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι πολῖται οὐδὲν ἐνεωτέριζον, ἀλλ᾽ ἡσύχαζον.

Thuc. 8.70

Did the assembly passively and silently vote away their liberty with nary a dissenting voice? I have my doubts. Thucydides emphasizes bloody revolution and counter-revolution on Samos in a nearby passage, not to mention elsewhere in his work, so he was clearly aware of what could happen in these situations. The episode is crafted to emphasize the gravity of the situation after the fiasco in Sicily and the privileges that the Athenians were giving up, with nods to the uncanny ability of the conspirators. All the while, the Athenians were still at war with Sparta.

This passivity did not last, and the democracy was restored after a brief civil war. I am nevertheless intrigued by how Thucydides describes recalcitrant, argumentative, and litigious people passively handing over their freedoms.

2017 has been a year of protests, but what this actually looks like varies by news outlet. How one views the world depends a great deal on which version of events is being consumed. Then there ongoing processes of the legislative bodies acquiescing to handing power to another branch of government. What will this year look like in ten years, let alone several thousand? Will the reports focus on the protests or the legislature? Will the reports be sanitized to quash even the possibility of dissent in the model of 1984? Or could these protests be signs of a crisis to restore the democratic system after the start of a silent coup that dates back more than fifteen years?

Thucydides offer no answers, but, then, history is often best used to think with rather than looked to for a solution.

Alexander, Ephesus, and Plutarch

One category of the legends about Alexander the Great were the omens surrounding his birth. The most calamitous of these was that on the very day the future conqueror was born, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus went up in flames, supposedly the victim of arson. Despite a mundane explanation, the connection to Alexander caused this story to take on a life of its own, and people soon began to say that the reason that the goddess was not home to protect her temple was that she was busy watching over Alexander’s birth.

(Despite Plutarch’s implication that Artemis was there to watch over the newborn, one of her duties was to protect women during childbirth. Our male correspondents say nothing about whether Olympias’ labor when birthing Alexander was particularly difficult, but one wonders.)

According to Plutarch, the magi (sic) in Ephesus rent their clothes, convinced that this was an omen of one destined to conquer Asia was born. More likely, the lamentations were caused by panic at seeing the temple go up in flames and I suspect Plutarch’s mention of “magi” here isn’t connected to actual Persians though there were indubitably those, but rather that he using the term to refer generally to the sacred staff at the sanctuary where at least one of the priests bore the Persian title Megabyxus. Framing the episode this way pushes the vision of Ephesus as Asian and has a way of further magnifying Alexander’s importance.

From Arrian we hear that Alexander exploited the story linking the conflagration with his birth by offering to pay for repairs. The offer was not spurious and would demonstrate his wealth, magnanimity, and piety while binding Ephesus to him. Why the Ephesians rejected the donation is a matter of some debate, but, needless to say, served as fodder for even more fanciful stories.

Here’s the catch: Plutarch, our main source for the story about Artemis and Alexander’s birth, never mentions Alexander’s offer to pay for the repairs at the temple. The absence of any given episode in Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not itself notable. Early on in the work, perhaps by way of preemptive explanation, Plutarch makes a point of saying that he will focus on small events and gestures that have moral value. Nor is it necessarily surprising when an ancient author doesn’t follow up on a topic, but it is somewhat curious for Plutarch to establish the connection between Alexander and Ephesus only to gloss over the period when Alexander was actually there.

I don’t want to speculate as to Plutarch’s purpose in leaving out any mention of Alexander in Ephesus, though there are certainly plausible rhetorical explanations. What interests me in this instance is that the only source among the surviving accounts to mention Ephesus in conjunction with the birth is Plutarch and the only one to mention what he did there is Arrian. Aside from giving me a historiographical headache at the moment, this ought to be a reminder just how constructed are our histories of Alexander’s reign, particularly when it comes to imputing his motivations.

Finis

Content note: what follows is a sincere reflection of my feeling dispirited at my current situation and how I am grappling with ways to move forward. This has been building now for months and I have been hesitant to write about it openly. Everything adds up to a sense of despair that bleeds into this post, but I also recognize that many of my issues are coming from a place of privilege.

More than a week in the making, this post has proven–and continues to prove–almost impossible to write, which, in turn means that most of what I had originally intended to write has been jettisoned, perhaps to be picked up from the cutting floor sometime down the road. However, the starting point remains precisely where it would have a week ago, so perhaps I ought to begin there.

A bit more than a week ago I cleared the last remaining academic hurdle for my doctorate, defending my dissertation first thing Monday morning. This means that I am no longer ABD (all but dissertation) and now just ABB (all but bureaucracy). The dissertation defense should be–and was–something to be celebrated and I am more than a little relieved to have finished this process. Another post would and will go into reflections on the dissertation process because I believe that such introspection is not only good for me, but might be valuable to others going through the same process. And yet, without the immediate demands of the dissertation, the specter of the future has cast a pall over my sense of achievement.

I entered and progressed through graduate school clear-eyed to the brutal employment statistics in higher education. I can see in my mind the trend lines for full-time employment, the rise of contingent faculty, and costs of higher education and in some ways this shaped my experience in graduate school; for instance, I came to University of Missouri precisely because my department offered funding for the MA. I also maintained that I was willing to work outside higher ed, should I not get a job teaching. At the same time, I thought “why not me?,” and so set about doing the sorts of things one does in graduate school in order to be competitive on the academic job market. I am not here to boast of my accomplishments and I made mistakes along the way, but I also think, inasmuch as I was able, I put together a competitive resume with a body of work that continues to grow.

Then I started applying for jobs. Suffice to say that it has not gone well.

I am under a month from graduation, once again facing an uncertain future and feeling stuck in neutral. On the one hand, I am still applying for teaching positions at colleges because this is still something I want to do with my life; on the other, though, it is a lot easier to be cavalier about resiliency on the job market when you’re not worried about how you’re going to eat next month.

I could lash out, casting blame for my current predicament. I could throw in the towel, abandon the dream of teaching at the college level. I could dig deep for resolve to keep on with the types of activities that would be attractive to a future academic employer.

I am closest to the last option, with a hearty dose of current responsibilities thrown in. At a time when I see other recent PhDs getting at least something of a respite from the grueling schedule that got them through, I gave myself just the rest of the day after my defense. The next day, I went to interview to teach one course next semester. The day after that I had a guest lecture, and the two after that were my usual teaching days. Between these obligations, I have been marking student papers (I received 80-ish) so I can get them back in a timely fashion, started revising my dissertation for submission, and continued applying for jobs. I have barely had a chance to read fiction, which has been main concession to relaxation in the past few years.

This is terrible self-care on my part. I should rest. I need to rest if I am going to do the quality of work that might lead to future success. I know this, and yet I can’t help but feel that I can’t afford to take the time off.

My dissertation defense is in the past, but uncertainty is simultaneously putting a damper on my mood and contributing to the feeling that I am being pulled in multiple directions, which itself is making it difficult to move in any one of them.

Privilege and Deportation

A headline caught my attention today: Germany Deports Native-Born Terrorism Suspects. The article explains there were two men born in Germany, but of African descent, who were alleged radicalized and suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. (A raid on their apartment turned up, among other things replica flint-lock pistols.) German authorities decided to deport the two men and a judge rejected their appeal.

I have a few very incomplete thoughts about the specifics of this case, including an American bias native born citizenship, and therefore do not want to talk about the particulars. Instead, I will work through why the headline caught my attention. The kernel of this thought is this: deportation in the modern world is a privilege derived from European imperialism.

Sovereignty, defined in part by the right to govern domestic affairs, is one of the principles of the Westphalian nation-state system. By extension, sovereignty necessarily includes the right to protect and regulate the country’s borders and control the bodies of people who pose a threat to its security. It is possible to construe these terms broadly and I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiments. At the same time, though, the process of deportation amounts to labeling the people being deported undesirable, dangerous, or both and pushing that responsibility for those people onto another country. In this case, the matter is further complicated because the men do not have clear personal relationships to the countries where they are being deported and their indefinite ban on a return to Germany indicates an indifference to where they go, just so long as they are no longer in Germany.

The thousand-foot view reveals much the same relationship with other deportations. There is a general tendency to send the people back to their country of origin, but the point is actually just to put them somewhere other than the country doing the deporting. One assumes that here is a modicum of international cooperation, but, nonetheless, this is where I was struck by the unique privilege European countries (and the United States) get in dictating the movement of peoples, a legacy of an imperial age and histories of immigration controls. The fact that other countries occasionally get to follow the same processes is merely incidental.

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

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Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

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.