Filed under: Book Reviews, FiftyFiftyMe Books | Tags: book reviews, fiftyfifty.me books, fiftyfifty.me challenge, history
It is becoming sadly obvious that I will not meet the 50 book goal without a big surge in the second half. I’m only about 1/5 of the way through the 50 books, but I’m over half way through the time frame. Hmm. The math isn’t in my favor, is it?
That said, my ninth book for the challenge was The Planting of New Virginia: Settlement & Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley by Warren Hofstra. Hofstra is a professor at Shenandoah University here in Winchester. He teaches history. I have been finished with this book for some time, so forgive the tardiness. The end of the academic year is hectic, expecially when you are the faculty advisor for the graduating class.
I was spurred to read this book by 3 factors. First – I was interested in reading somewhat localish history and this definitely qualifies. It’s probably really the only recent scholarly work on the Valley. Second – I attended the Virginia Forum in March at James Madison University. It was an excellent experience (thanks to my mentor, Dr. John E. Stealey for the invite). I had dinner with Dr. Hofstra, Dr. Stealey, and a few others. In talking with them in became evident that I did not have a solid enough knowledge base in Valley history. This was one step towards rectifying it. Three – I am strongly considering applying for a PhD program in history (or education, but probably history), and Virginia/West Virginia/Shenandoah Valley are all potential areas that I might be interested in pursuing, so this is a jump on the research if I go into one of those areas.
The book was interesting overall. Hofstra’s book is billed as a “geographical history” that examines “the early landscape history of the Shenandoah Valley in its regional and global context.” Hofstra does a very nice job of discussing Indian presence in the area before and during the initial colonization of the Valley. He places much of the initial agency for settlement with the British Royal powers who were seeking to create a buffer zone between Tidewater/Piedmont settlers and French Imperial power and the French Indian allies. He does an admirable job, as well, in showing the ways in which that agency transition from the Royal administration to the settlers themselves, as they forged ahead in ways that sometimes advanced, but often contradicted, British imperial ambitions. In doing this, Hofstra brings to life many of those characters who were settling the Valley and who, through their settlement, impacted Valley history for centuries.
I did, however, have some issues with the book. First, I admit that I was a bit confused by the idea of “landscape history.” Whether this was a deficit in my understanding/knowledge, or whether this was a problem with Hofstra’s book remains a mystery to me. Is landscape history a widely known term or approach towards studying a region? Or was this a new framework that Hofstra was trying to create? I’m not sure, and I don’t think he clearly defined his terms to offer any level of clarity. Second, I am not sure if Hofstra made a conscious decision to do this or not, but I felt like the framework used in studying frontier history in the West (the ‘new west,’ you might say) could have been useful in establishing some connections between the first pioneers of the Valley, and those frontiersmen who settled the west later on. Terms like hinterland, borderlands, etc. used by the likes of Stephen Aaron, Richard White, and others could, I think, have been applied to the Valley as well, and I was disappointed to see these things not included, or at least a footnote to explain why the decision was made to ignore them.
Still, Hofstra’s book represents a thorough discussion of the Valley’s early history and, undoubtedly, opens the doors for further research to be done.
Up Next: Depending on which I finish first, either William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, or Joel Rosenberg’s The Last Jihad.
Filed under: Book Reviews, FiftyFiftyMe Books | Tags: fiftyfifty.me, fiftyfiftybooks, g.k. chesterton, religion, the ball and the cross
For my eighth book I read G.K. Gesterton’s The Ball and the Cross. It’s a slim volume at only 178 pages. The basic story centers around two would-be dualists, one ardent Catholic and one stern Atheist, and according to the preface is based on Chesterton’s real life debate with an atheist. The story begins when the Catholic busts the glass out of the atheists shop after being offended by an article the Atheist has posted in the window. The two are arrested, but are shortly released. Not yet sufficiently satisfied that he has made his point, the Catholic challenges the Atheist to a duel. The rest of the book is basically the two searching for a peaceful place to duel uninterrupted by those who find their quarrel uncivilized. What is most objectionable isn’t that they want to fight it out, but rather that they are openly engaged in debate about topics of God, faith, the meaning of life, and the sort. There just isn’t a place for such nonsense in the civilized world. Indeed, one might have to be mentally unfit to do such a thing (an idea that plays a big part in the last few chapters of the book).
It’s really interesting the Chesterton was writing about the public’s fear of discussing religion in public in early 1900s Britain as it could easily have been a story about 2012 America, in my opinion. Read from a 21st Century American perspective, some interesting themes emerge. First, the face that so many people for so long had just ignored the Atheists writings, never giving him the satisfaction of an argument. This parallels what appears to be a general apathy towards religion that is developing in the United States. People now, as in the book, don’t seem to grasp the importance of debating words and thoughts. As Chesterton puts it:
What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.
Second, once the Atheist finds some one to engage in debate, the public is outraged, particularly governmental officials. It is, after all, impolite to discuss politics and religion, right?
Third, is Gesterton’s general mistrust and disapproval of the media, for all the same reasons the media is criticized today. Probably my favorite scene in the book is Chesterton’s discriptoin of the problem with major news outlets:
It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority. [emphasis added]
But the biggest parallel comes at the end, as the state, acting under the direction of a figure who appears to be either Lucifer himself or, perhaps, the Anti-Christ (in skimming a few sites about this book there appears to be some debate in the literary world as to which of these figures Chesterton was aiming to depict) stepping in to control every aspect of life. The government’s role in the end of the book is to decide whether you are mentally fit to live out in the world. Everyone is presumed crazy. The burden of proof is on the citizen to demonstrate sanity, not on the state to demonstrate mental unfitness. Naturally, engaging in such behavior as the Catholic and the Atheist is tantamount to being crazy as a loon.
The book is interesting, and it’s a quick read. Certainly I can’t pretend that I understand everything Chesterton said, or did not say, and I have not scratched the surface of the analysis a book like this is due, but there are lots of websites out there that do offer more analysis, so if this post has peaked your interested, I suggest you head to Google and do a little more reading.
But first, buy a copy of the book and read it. It’s worth the 3 or 4 hours it will take you. Good luck!
Up next, we’re back to history with Warren Hofstra’s The Planting of New Virginia.
Filed under: Book Reviews, FiftyFiftyMe Books | Tags: fiftyfifty.me, fiftyfiftybooks, georgewashington, history
Weighing in at a hefty 904 pages, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow falls squarely into the 2-book category under the fiftyfifty.me rules. In it, Chernow meticulously lays out what seems to be every facet of Washington’s life. From his troubled family medical history, to his strained relations with his (suspected) Tory mother, to what seems like every decision he made during the Revolutionary War, to his time in the White House, Chernow carefully documents the life of the Father of our nation.
Why a new biography of Washington, who is easily one of the most written about ‘characters’ in American history? As one review notes:
His thoroughness in “Washington: A Life” is prompted by the Papers of George Washington, a research project that has been under way at the University of Virginia since 1968, has passed the 60-volume mark and is nowhere near complete. Mr. Chernow argues that this project has unearthed enough new material to warrant “a large-scale, one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative” about Washington, despite the excellent work of biographers including Joseph J. Ellis and James T. Flexner and the reading public’s impression that the story of Washington’s life is already well known.
The sheer volume of new research easily validates Mr. Chernow’s effort. But “Washington” also has a simpler raison d’être. It means to dust off Washington’s image, penetrate the opacity that can most generously be called “sphinxlike” and replace readers’ “frosty respect” for Washington with “visceral appreciation.” In other words, Mr. Chernow, who made a similar effort to inject excitement into the Alexander Hamilton story, has taken on an even greater challenge this time.
In reading this, it seems to me that Chernow is really trying rescue Washington’s “Great Man” image and to show that he was the greatest of the Founding Fathers, that his ascendency was no dumb-luck or accidental rise, and that he is worthy of America’s undying love and respect. Given how new(er) treatments of some of the Founders has shown them to be a divided, bickering group of school girls (see anything discussing Jefferson v. Adams, Jefferson v. Washington, Jefferson v. Hamilton, etc.) as well as books that have shown the Founders as less than perfect (see The Hemingses of Monticello, for example), Chernow seems to want to avoid casting questions over Washington’s legacy. That isn’t, though, to say that he doesn’t point out areas of weakness or vulnerability for the American Cincinnatus. Still, when it comes right down to it, this is a Great Man history, no doubt about it.
My own view of Washington has been, I’ll admit, impacted by Chernow’s biography. I had a solid working knowledge of Washington despite having never read a biography of him. The thing that stuck with me, though, was just how fine a line Washington walked between being a republican (notice the small ‘r’, please) and an aristocratic near monarchist. Washington is seen frequently as worried over keeping up appearances that John Adams or Thomas Jefferson would not have been concerned about. I also think, though this is not an area that I am particularly well versed in, that Chernow tries awfully hard to continually remind his readers that Washington was not Hamilton’s dupe. Jeffersonians at that time, and some historians ever since, have portrayed Washington, especially during his presidency, as always having one ear attached to the whisperings of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s common refrain disputing this would suggest, to me anyway, that perhaps there is something to this claim. If Washington’s independence from Hamilton is self-evident, as Chernow claims, why should he have to point it out again and again?
At any rate, the book is long, tedious at times, and sometimes a bit dry. I thought we’d never reach the end of the American Revolution or see a conclusion to Mary Washington’s, George’s mother, squalling about how abusive her son was towards her. Still, it is worth the read. It certainly gives a fuller picture (though honestly, considering his collected papers now encompass 60 volumes and counting, how full can anyone really be?) of Washington than probably any other widely read biography to date. It also shows Martha Washington, I think perhaps even more than George, as being a true pillar of republican ideology.
Filed under: Book Reviews, FiftyFiftyMe Books, Politics, Uncategorized | Tags: absolute obedience, Ameritopia, communist rulers, conservative manifesto, fiftyfiftybooks, fiftyfiftyme, Mark Levin, Politics, Utopia
Although I had three other books going (Ron Chernow’s Washington: A life, Joel Rosenberg’s The Last Jihad, and a book on the protestant reformation) I stopped everything to read Ameritopia when it was release a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been finished for a while, but haven’t had a chance to do a review; that said, here’s my take.
Mark Levin’s Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America is the follow-up to Levin’s best-selling Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto. In his latest work, Levin takes what might be described as a long duree approach to modern America’s political problems, finding the root of modern Utopian ideology in the same camp as Plato, Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, and of course Karl Marx. Levin does an excellent job of both letting the sources speak for themselves–that is, Levin quotes each source extensively–and providing apt analysis.
In analyzing each of these sources, Levin convincingly argues that Utopias both old and new require the dehumanization of the “subjects” of the government. Whether Plato’s mastermind “philosopher king,” or Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” or the Communist rulers ala-Marx, the individual’s ability to think for himself, to act for himself, must be stripped away. As Levin puts it, “absolute obedience is the highest virtue. After all, only an army of drones is capable of building a rainbow to paradise” (16). Individuality and God-given rights are replaced by State-given rights to be managed for the greater good.
These ideas run contrary to the intent of our Founding Fathers, and Levin does a great job of analyzing those men who influenced the Founders as well. Looking at Locke and Montesquieu in particular, Levin helps remind students of American history and/or government of the thought process that went into developing our Constitutional Federal system. By contrasting the views of the Utopians with those like Locke and Montesquieu Levin refutes totally the idea that a Utopia is possible or desirable. Levin notes:
Whereas the utopians start from the premise that the individual must be managed and suppressed by masterminds for the greater good, Locke opposed authoritarianism and sought to uncover the true nature of man and the environment most conducive to his fulfillment and happiness. Having experienced the wrath of monarchy , in Locke the Founders discovered a patron saint.
There it is! The difference between the Utopian and the realist. The difference between big-government and conservatism. The difference between Barrack Obama’s vision and the vision of Tea Partiers (I can’t say the difference between Democrats and Republicans because I, for one, do not believe for a minute that Romney –or to a lesser extent Gingrich– represent Conservatism). In that short paragraph, quoted above, Levin has captured the essence of the current political struggle just as he did in Liberty and Tyranny when he quoted C.S. Lewis:
Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies, The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
For those who have studied history or political thought, Levin’s book represents an incredible short, simple overview of much of the political thought and philosophy that has influenced man kind of hundreds (thousands in the case of Plato) of years. His book is readable, highly educational, and at times terrifyingly honest about what America faces if we do not right the ship.
Filed under: Book Reviews, FiftyFiftyMe Books, Religion, Uncategorized | Tags: book reviews, catholicism, fiftyfiftybooks, fiftyfiftyme, religion
A colleague at the high school where I teach challenged the staff to get involved with the 50-50 Challenge. The basic goal is to read 50 books and watch 50 movies in 2012. You can start at any time, but you have to finish by December 31, 2012 to have your participation count. There are no awards or rewards (excellent self satisfaction and bragging rights). Here are the official rules.
When I was in grad-school (seems like years ago, just finished last month…) reading 50 books in 16 weeks was not a-typical. (Well 50 might be hyperbolic, but probably 35 or 40 plus journal articles). One thing I did not want to happen after graduation was for me to stop reading as frequently. So this challenge, then, represents an opportunity to keep myself honest when it comes to reading. And since we are encouraged to share our reading material with our students and colleagues–many of us are posting what we are reading and what we recently watched on our doors — it will also hopefully inspire me to read educational, mind enhancing rather than numbing material (and the same with movies).
I have not watched a single movie yet since January 1, 2012, so my movie list is short. I figure I’ll use this year to watch movies that I’ve never seen, but should. You know, movies like The Godfather or The Last of the Mohicans.
I have several books that I have started, but I’ve only finished one so far since Christmas. So here is my brief review:
FiftyFifty Book 1/50: Peter J. Kreeft, Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefes based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ignatius Press, 2001. pp. 425.
I bought this book a few years ago. I have been interested in Catholicism since I was college. Having been raised a Protestant in a non-denominational church, I’ve always been a bit perplexed by Catholicism, mostly out of ignorance I think. This book, I hoped, would clear up much of my ignorance, and for the most part the book did just that.
Kreeft organizes his book into three parts. Part I: Theology explores “What Catholics Believe,” going in depth into basic Catholic ideas about Faith, creation, mankind, Christ, the Holy Trinity, forgiveness, and heaven. Part II: Morality offers insight into “how Catholics live.” It discusses the basis for morality, the central role of religion in understanding and defending/defining morality, and walks the reader through the Catholic Church’s official position on many of the most important social issues including abortion, contraception, capital punishment, and others. Finally, it examines how the Church interprets and seeks to follow the Ten Commandments. The final portion looks at Sacraments and Prayer, or “how Catholics Worship.” It offers a step-by-step look at what I believe is often most intimidating and difficult for Protestants to understand, things like Catholic liturgy, the Eucharist/ the idea of Transubstantiation, and penance/confession.
When looking at a book like this, I think it is also important to point out what the book “doesn’t do.” This book does not provide a history of the Catholic Church. This is not a relentless list of popes and church councils. It is also not a defense of Catholicism against Protestantism, nor is it an attack on Protestantism. It is wholly and completely a simple, topic-by-topic of explanation of what Catholics believe and why the believe it. In many, but not all, passages Kreeft offers in-text references to applicable passages in the Bible. From a Protestant viewpoint, this is important given Sola Scriptura as what is usually given as an explanation for the major difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. (Kreeft does get a bit preachy in discussing sola scriptura, noting that it is, after all, the Catholic Church that provided leadership in terms of writing the Bible. He basically contends–and I think from the way he wrote it that this is the Catholic position–that if one questions the Church one must therefore also question the Bible, since–in his view–without the Church there would be no Bible.)
This book is incredibly readable and useful for people who are curious about the tenants of the Catholic faith or, I suspect, folks who are considering converting or have recently converted. It was easy to understand and logically organized. It does a great job of explaining some of the tougher issues for Protestants like me to understand. What I found as I was reading this is that many of these tougher issues to understand–issues of Faith like transubstantiation or Papal Supremacy, and social issues like Catholic views on contraception–are often misunderstood. It is this misunderstanding that, I think, scares people more than anything else. (I won’t divulge my own views on this, mostly because I still struggle to understand and to come to terms with these kinds of issues.) Kreeft’s book goes a long way to clearing up these misunderstandings and taking away the sense of Catholicism as some sort of “foreign other” from Protestant viewpoints.
Next up on my 50-50 reading list (I’m already half way through): Mark Levin’s Ameritopia.