"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell
"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde
Saturday, January 10, 2004
The Washington Monthly argues that a new book by Bruce Cumings (who's in the history department here at Chicago) is an insightful apologia for the North Korean regime.
When I was a kid, two of the things that irritated me most about certain children's books were the use of bizarre accents and the overuse of the present tense. For that matter, I still find both of these things irrationally frustrating: Dorothy Sayers's use of Scottish accents can be painful, and I wished that J.M. Coetzee hadn't written The Master of Petersburg in the present tense. Then again, I also wished that The Master of Petersburg had been a more interesting novel, but we can't have everything, I guess.
I was reminded of these pet peeves when I read The London Telegraph's obituary of Joan Aiken, which was far superior to the Guardian obituary I linked to earlier this week. Aiken was never my favorite children's author, but I enjoyed some of her books--despite her tendency, as The Telegraph put it, to create characters who "speak in British dialects, or parodies thereof (as in, 'Losh, to be sure, yon mountain's unco wampish.')" This obituary makes me want to read some Aiken again, if only to find out whether every use of dialect in her books was as amusing as this one. (Could I have been too quick to dismiss her use of accents as an irritating quirk?)
Aiken's books did have a more tragic consequence in my life, however. Many of them are set in an alternate universe featuring a pseudo-Victorian (and Stuart) King James III, and even though I knew about the accession of the German-born King George I, it wasn't until I was in junior high that I realized that the Hannoverians weren't unkempt German terrorists who threatened Merry Old England, but members of a real British dynasty. What can I say? The alternative history element of the books intrigues me even today.
I have no idea what I'd think of Aiken's work if I were to reread her novels, but I can't help but be charmed by her life story. As the obituary put it,
She also worked in the reference department of the UN, which sounds like a cool job. And how can you not be charmed by a writer whose characters included Miss Hooting, a "retired enchantress"; Assistant Principal Madame Legume; Captain Jabez Casket; and Casket's first mate, Dutiful Penitence?
In The Washington Post, Steven Waldman adds a historical perspective to the use of the religion issue in campaigns:
The article itself didn't strike me as anything special. I did enjoy the idea of what an eighteenth-century Bush campaign commercial would look like, however.
Germany's Communists were really interesting people, and The Wilson Quarterly has now reviewed a book on the subject.
Tomorrow's New York Times Magazine profiles John Nagl, a Rhodes scholar and West Point graduate who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on counter-insurgency and is now practicing counter-insurgency with a tank battalion in Iraq. From the article:
It would have been nice if Peter Maass, the author of this piece, had described in greater detail the relationship between Nagl's academic work and his activities in the military in Iraq. The article touches on these themes, of course, but spends more time on the nitty-gritty of the occupation--discussing, for example, how Nagl and his colleagues hunted down insurgents in a city with no formal street addresses.
I found the article especially interesting in light of the recent discussion of historical analogies on various history-related weblogs. In my own remarks, I focused on a discussion of quick and mostly context-free analogies ("Dean=McGovern") and on more useful (hypothetical) analogies that touch on the strengths of the field of history. (If you've thought enough about fascism to be skeptical of theories presenting it as a monolithic, static, and simplistically anti-modern movement and ideology, you're less likely to be convinced by poorly thought-out theories of "Islamo-fascism.") In writing my blog entry on the subject, however, I fell into an unfortunate trap: I wanted to describe how the sort of historical understanding that academic social and political historians strive to achieve can be useful in creating effective analogies, but left out a sub-field of history that isn't as popular in the academy these days--military history. (I also tended to focus more on how historians can write the most effective analogies based on their academic work, not based on how anyone can use analogies based on history more effectively, but that's a topic for another day. Or, it would be if Tim Burke hadn't already done a good job discussing that.)
Can military history offer policy-makers useful guidance in contemporary situations? I suspect that it can, and I wish that this article had gone into more detail on the subject.
The Economist describes the "world's most engimatic book," the 234-page Voynich manuscript. Once owned by Emperor Rudolph II, it's full of drawings of fantastic plants, zodiacal symbols, and naked ladies, and its script has so far been completely indecipherable. (via Bookslut)
Today's New York Times arts section has two fun articles. The first discusses whether U.S.-imposed economics reforms in Iraq--like a lifting of the ban on foreign investment--violate international law. The second discusses a Stanford literature professor's manifesto championing a more "rational," "text-free" approach to English literature based on abstract models from the sciences. "My little dream," says Franco Moretti, "is of a literary class that would look more like a lab than a Platonic academy." An excerpt from Emily Eakins's article:
Fun stuff. Silly, perhaps, but fun nonetheless.
Update I tend to write this blog extremely quickly while spending most of my time on actual work, and a disadvantage of this approach is that it sometimes results in sloppy sentences that don't say precisely what I think. Consider, for instance, the final sentence of this entry, characterizing Moretti's work as "Silly, perhaps, but fun nonetheless." Timothy Burke correctly pounces on this statement, pointing out how this approach can be valuable while adding some useful caveats.
My intention wasn't to write off the work described by The New York Times in its entirety; I have major doubts as to whether this approach will transform the study of literature, but it certainly has its uses. (Unfortunately, I didn't make a link to the permanent, blog-friendly version of the NYT article, so I can't cite exactly what Moretti or like-minded scholars say that I would question.)
In any case, read Tim Burke's Cliopatria entry for more on the subject.
Michael Dirda reviews an intellectual history of 18th-century Edinburgh in tomorrow's Washington Post.
Victor Klemperer's post-war diaries, discussing life in Russian-occupied Germany and East Germany between 1945 and 1959, have now been published. An excerpt from a Guardian review:
The review is a little gushy for my tastes, but the book sounds interesting.
Friday, January 09, 2004
Sunday's Observer includes the really long--and really fascinating--story of Ceca Raznatovic--the biggest pop star in the Balkans and the widow of bank robber, gangster, politician, paramilitary leader and indicted war criminal Arkan. An excerpt:
American journalism needs more magazines willing to publish long articles like this one. It was one of the most fascinating articles I've read in a long time.
The Chicago Reader has published an entertaining review of Mona Lisa Smile that takes the movie to task for its portrayal of both history and art history. (For my view of the movie, click here.)
St. Petersburg's Lomonosov Porcelain Factory Museum has reopened, according to this Moscow Times article. Sounds like a neat place:
Mark Greif has written an interesting review of Virginia Postrel's new book for The American Prospect.
In recent months, I've been somewhat tempted to write a blog entry about the use of historical analogies. That's a popular subject these days--whether you're a politician likening Howard Dean to George McGovern or a historian likening 2003's U.S. occupation of Iraq to America's early twentieth-century occupation of the Philippines. I very nearly posted on this subject a while back when I read the following argument by Sanford Levinson on HNN (taken from a Chronicle of Higher Education article):
Does this claim really make sense to people? I'm willing to believe that studying Reconstruction can help people understand regime change better on a certain level, but there are presumably analogies to twenty-first-century Iraq that are far closer and more apt than examples taken from nineteenth-century American history. Are the lessons Levinson lists surprising or interesting? Would Don Rumsfeld be likely to change his plans if he realized that those who seek regime change "will still have to invest immense time, political energy, and money in changing the society that has ostensibly been defeated"? These conclusions seem trite and uninspired... Nevertheless, in a certain sense, I think that Levinson might be on the right track--a point I'll return to below.
I was reminded of the question of historical analogies again when Tim Burke (my first-year adviser back when I was a Swarthmore undergraduate) published a very nice blog entry on the subject at Cliopatria. This entry lists some guidelines for the use of analogies--guidelines that involve ideas like commonality, causation, and contingency. (If you're ever tempted to make a historical analogy involving the present-day world, you might want to look at Burke's post.) The discussion continues at Invisible Adjunct.
One of the challenges in discussing analogies is that they can be used in many different ways at different times--I tend to think that if you're making a serious argument, it's silly to liken Dean to McGovern without providing a lot of context to make your argument historically compelling. It's not necessarily bad if you're a politician trying to smear a rival, of course, but that's a different story. Things get more complicated if you're a historian trying to influence public policy, however, and this is where I think Tim's post could have gone a little further.
Ultimately, how a historian uses analogies depends on how he or she views the field of history--and on what he or she feels that historians have to offer the public. Being a lowly grad student, I don't have a clear idea of how history works (and I feel very cautious of making sweeping generalizations on topics like "how history works.") Historical causality is a fascinating subject, and I like to think that someday I'll write my own theory on the question (like E.H. Carr's fascinating-but-flawed What is History?). I do, however, have a strong sense that the way that academics view history isn't the way that the public at large (or the average college undergrad) views history, that historians' view of history touches on the concepts Burke describes (including my favorite historical concept, contingency), and that the best historical analogies will help bridge the gap between the public and the academic views of the subject.
The wrong way to look at historical analogies, I believe, is to treat the study of history--for the purposes of public policy--as a simple search for quick and simple examples that can give us guidance in the present day. It's not necessarily bad for historians to point out that the designers of our Iraq policy should look at the situation in The Philippines and remember that occupations can be messy, but such a use of analogies seems rather limited. Historians can do more than that, I believe. They can help show us how history actually happened, on the ground, in somewhat analogous situations--and thereby show us how our present-day views of the world can become more nuanced.
How can they do this? I'm running out of time, unfortunately--in a few minutes I'll be heading to a European Civilization staff meeting--but I think that one key is to focus on the sorts of ideas that Burke discusses in his entry. I think it would be fantastic to take every writer and policy-maker who refers to the "Islamo-Fascist threat," to make them read Robert Paxton's essay "The Five Stages of Fascism," and to then lead them in an hour-long discussion of the essay and of fascism in general. Paxton does a very nice job showing the historical forces that shaped fascism as a movement and as a system of government (two distinct phases); I tend to believe that if you have a simplistic notion of fascism, and then you use that in formulating your view of Islamism, you'll end up with a very flawed idea of what the current threat to the United States is like. Similarly, I think that if historians can help correct simplistic popular views of Communism, they can help us come to a more realistic understanding of Islamic terrorism. Not that I'm saying that terrorism and Communism are the same--I'm not. I'm merely arguing that if you can begin to understand how complicated ideologies, movements, and governments actually functioned in history, you'll have a better sense of present-day realities as well.
Which brings me back to Burke's blog entry and to Levinson's essay. I agree with everything that Tim wrote about historical analogies, but I wonder how effective his guidelines will be in helping analogy-makers present effective arguments. Tim's post was an excellent beginning, but it may be more effective in helping people judge the effectiveness of existing analogies than in enabling them to produce powerful new arguments. Levinson's post, in itself, seems quite simplistic. I can't help but think, however, that if people actually read and considered the book he descibes--or another good book on the process of changing governments, in the post-Confederate South or most anywhere in the world--that they'd end up with a more nuanced understanding of what might go wrong in Iraq. Ideally, of course, they wouldn't stop with a book on Reconstruction, and would continue to other historical parallels to the contemporary situation (possibly more similar ones.) The most effective historical analogies, I believe, will take the sorts of insights that Levinson's book might offer and present them to the public in an accessible way. They'll be less concerned with presenting quick examples and lessons than with imparting a sense of how complicated reality can be and of how history develops. That's a tall order, unfortunately, but I think it's an achievable and realistic goal.
Update: Another way of phrasing what I tried to write above is that although historical analogies, in themselves, are somewhat useful, what's most important is that people have a sense of history and of how to analogize about the past. (The process of analogizing and analyzing, then, is as important as the final product.) Some analogies are especially good examples of "historical thinking" (for lack of a better phrase) and are potentially more useful in thinking about the present day than more limited analogies that take the form of simple examples or lessons.
Update 2: See this later entry for a few more thoughts on historical analogies, occasioned by a New York Times Sunday Magazine article on Iraq.
I don't know much about Asperger's syndrome, but does this BBC article on a new book on the link between autism and exceptional ability seem as shallow to you as it does to me? (via ArtsJournal) Sometimes it seems that the best way to get attention is to pick some personal or psychological trait and to claim that various historical figures exhibited it. Shakespeare was gay! Eamon de Valera and Lewis Carroll were autistic! What's next: Napoleon suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and Hitler had Tourette's?
Does Lynne Truss need a lesson in writing? A writer in The Spectator argues that she does.
Truss, for those of you who don't know, is the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a surprise British bestseller on punctuation. I'm inclined to agree with the author of the Spectator article--since I think the title should be Eats, Shoots, and Leaves or Eats Shoots and Leaves--but I'll reserve judgment until I've read the book. (Especially since I believe that Truss explicitly deals with the use of commas in her book, which might explain the title.)
Thursday, January 08, 2004
Here's a Christian Science Monitor article about the politicization of science policy under George W. Bush. (via Chris Mooney)
This is a really important story that hasn't gotten enough attention--just like the right wing's efforts to politicize area studies. Was any other president since World War II even remotely remotely comparable to Bush in his anti-academia attitude?
The Globe and Mail reports on the controversy over whether Atom Egoyan's film Ararat can be screened in Turkey. The opening of the film has been postponed due to threats by the nationalist group Ulku Ocaklari, which objects to the film's treatment of the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923. An excerpt:
I felt guilty smiling at the final sentence, since this if--of course--a very serious issue.
A fact I learned form the article: Turkish law bans the film portrayal of Turks committing war crimes in official military uniforms.
David Shribman discusses the Wesley Clark candidacy in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
There are days when I think that Henry Wallace was one of the coolest American political figures of the twentieth century. There are days when I think that he was one of the silliest and most naive. I was very interested, then, when I saw a Slate article on the present-day agricultural company founded by Wallace many years ago.
As many readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I'm a big fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm a much bigger fan, however, of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yesterday, when I was looking through some of the other historians' blogs listed on Crooked Timber, I came across a really fascinating critique of Jackson's Return of the King.
One of these days--most likely after I see the movie a third time later this month--I'll write in more detail on my opinion of the third movie and of the trilogy as a whole. (I still think that The Return of the King is the weakest of the three movies; I'm not sure which of the others I prefer. The Fellowship of the Ring did a lot of small things I disliked, while The Two Towers did several big things I detested but in many ways seemed closer to the feel of the books. Then again, in some ways I felt that the latter movies made up for some of my criticisms of the first film.) The critique I've linked to above seems dead-on in many respects--the point about honor is a good one (though I want to think about it a little more), and it touched on a point that I'd forgotten to raise in my own critique: several characters--most notably Gandalf, but also Theoden at times, seem far pettier and small-minded in the movie than they did in the book. (Gandalf's bludgeoning of Denethor with his staff is the perfect example. It just seemed wrong each time.)
I have a different reason for writing this blog entry, however. Even though I agree with most of the points raised by Baraita's critique, I think I still like the movie much better than she did. It's hard to explain exactly why. Part of the answer, I think, is that I think that the movie and the book are good in different--and complementary--ways. (It's hard to explain this idea without sounding like a wishy-washy undergrad, but I think it's true. I'll develop this point in a future post.) Very few reviewers of the movie describe why it's good--they seem almost unwilling to say anything bad about it, and instead just gush on about how much they like it. I think the movies have to be seen as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and not as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and that if you make this concession, the trilogy is quite an achievement.
At the same time, the movies do a fantastic job of capturing one of the key elements of Tolkien's book--its sense of conviction. Some fans of the book believe that it's successful as the quintessential story of a quest. Others love it because of its detailed--and well-developed--sense of history and mythology, because it creates a fully conceived alternate universe. Both of these theories, I think, capture part of what's intriguing about Tolkien's work. Beyond that, however, I've always felt that Tolkien believed in his creation and his work to an extent that few other writers can achieve. This was undoubtedly related to the fact that he spent years developing Middle Earth's linguistic systems and history, but I think this sense of conviction manifested itself in less tangible ways. (It's no coincidence that many people--including me--spent our childhoods convinced that it was the most fantastic book ever, a belief that was enabled by Tolkien's passion for his work.) Peter Jackson isn't nearly as successful in presenting the true depth of Middle Earth--the world in which the movies take place seems smaller and less significant than the world of Tolkien--but he still, at his best, captures the sense of passion present in the books. That, I believe, was his greatest triumph.
Ideas are thriving again in an Iraqi book market, according to this Newsday report. The article includes some fascinating background material on Baghdad's intellectual life (past and present), as well as some more sobering details about both the Saddam Hussein regime and the present.
The Christian Science Monitor reviews The Paradox of Choice, a book on American consumer culture by a Swarthmore psychology professor. (via Arts and Letters Daily)
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
In The Boston Globe, Hiawatha Bray discusses the large number of computer games based on World War II. Why are they so popular? According to Bray,
These explanations can help us understand why World War II games are more popular than other war games, but they don't tell us why war games--as opposed to some other type of computer game--are experiencing such a boom; I don't think that these two questions can be completely separated. It's easy to claim that the current political climate had something to do with it, but there's more to it than that: Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers showed that World War II could be a driving force in entertainment long before September 11.
I also found the following passages interesting:
I find this notion interesting--the idea that teamwork (and not individualism) should have an important role in computer games, as in war. (Now if only an "attractively cynical, wary attitude to authority" played a bigger role in popular entertainment about World War II, as Tim Burke discussed in a recent Cliopatria post.) I was also struck by the final paragraph--which suggests that interest in war games goes beyond World War II in more ways than the article's intro suggests. (Could it be that World War II games are popular in part because it's easier to find ways to include fun stuff like zombies in them than it is to add the undead to Vietnam War games?) Finally, I always find relationships between popular history and academia really intriguing. Maybe if the history thing doesn't work out, I can become a video game consultant... Or maybe not.
Tangent The article's references to the occult in World War II video games got me thinking. If I'm not mistaken, there have often been links to the undead in popular views of war--I believe that people often used to write about the dead coming back to fight in World War I, for example. (I've seen rumors that Peter Jackson wants to make a zombie movie about World War I, though I have no idea if they're true; I believe the movie Gods and Monsters dealt, in part, with how one man's World War I experiences helped shape his life, which included directing several Frankenstein movies.) This is something I'm curious about...
Like most historians (and history grad students), I'm always wary of efforts at psychohistory. There's one psychiatric theory about a past president that I've always found convincing, however--the idea that Calvin Coolidge fell into a state of depression after the 1924 death of his son, irreparably damaging his presidency. (I'm not as convinced by the claim that the deaths of Coolidge's mother and sister, when he was still a kid, helped shape his depression--an idea which may well be true, but is often thrown around as if it were self-evident. It's easier to look at Coolidge's career, to find acts that are consistent with depression, to show that these acts became extremely common after the death of his son, and to argue that they show evidence of depression than it is to figure out what was going on inside Coolidge's head, after all.)
Now, an Atlantic Unbound article by Jack Beatty describes a new biography of Coolidge that advances this theory. (I believe that Robert Gilbert, the author of the biography, was the man who first developed the theory about Coolidge's depression; I'll be interested in reading about how he treats the deaths of other Coolidge family members.) An excerpt from Beatty's article:
Details like those in the first paragraph are especially important to Gilbert's theory. From what I understand, Coolidge had a reputation as an extremely articulate, intelligent, and vigorous politician when he served as governor of Massachusetts and in the first year of his presidency; now he's known to history as the inactive Silent Cal, a man so fond of naps and so inactive physically that when he died, Dorothy Parker supposedly asked "How can they tell?" (Coolidge was also more progressive than he's usually given credit for--his famous quotation that "the business of America is business" has been taken completely out of context, for example.) From what I've read before, I think that Gilbert makes a convincing case that Coolidge's interest in the job (and in life more generally) dropped off dramatically after the death of Calvin Jr., and that his presidency would have been far more successful if not for the untimely death of the president's son.
I don't think much of John Derbyshire's writing, but I was intrigued by his Washington Times review of a book on the Kazakh sport of hunting with eagles. Derbyshire's writing style irritates me, and it's weirdly interesting to read that "carry-on luggage on MIAT, the Mongolian state airline, extends to frozen sheep and five-gallon containers of gasoline," but I wish the review had dealt with the Kazakhs themselves in more detail. I guess I'll just have to read the book if I want to find out more.
The world's most famous Saddam Hussein impersonator, who retired last year, is now making a comeback, The National Post reports.
Will the "Arabist tradition" at Britain's Foreign Office threaten the reconstruction of Iraq? David Pryce-Jones asks this question in The Spectator. (I'm not sure how much of America and Britain's attitude toward Shi'a Muslims in Iraq is determined by the Arabist past of the foreign policy establishment, and how much it's shaped by fears of Iran, but the article is worth reading.)
The writer Scott McLemee now has a blog. There's some interesting stuff there. McLemee's website also includes an archive of his past work, including this fascinating profile of the historian Anthony Grafton.
The children's author Joan Aiken has died at 79.
Another Guardian article describes the legend of the Indian rope trick. Fun stuff.
A Turkish film distributor has decided against showing Atom Egoyan's movie Ararat, a film about Turkey's Armenian genocide. Screenings of the movie in Turkey had been subject to "terrorist-style threats." (via ArtsJournal)
The writer John Toland, best known for his biography of Hitler and for several books on World War II in the Pacific, has died at 91.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
Anthony Trollope is my new hero. I spent some time this evening browsing through his biography of William Makepeace Thackeray, an extremely charming book. Here's an excerpt, from Trollope's description of Richard Steele (a part of his discussion of Thackeray's lectures on various authors):
The last sentence, in particular, is priceless. Another fun passage (which, like the one quoted above, improves as it goes along):
That last sentence is wonderful: I look forward to the day when I can write of someone who annoys me, "As Trollope once wrote of Thackeray, the elbow-grease of thinking was always distasteful to him!"
The best part, as the person who lent me the book pointed out, is that Thackeray described the same encounter in his own memoirs--but merely wrote that some annoying writer had bothered him by coming up to him and praising Henry Esmond.
Now I feel a strong urge to go read Trollope's autobiography...
The Guardian asks whether the Iraqi brain drain.of the 1980s and 1990s is being reversed--and how Iraqi academics who stayed in the country will react to the return of their former colleagues from abroad.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has profiled the feminist scholar Judith Butler, describing her Jewish background and her current critique of Zionism.
The Globe and Mail reviews Alan Massie's new novel about Caligula:
Is this a good portrait of Caligula? Does it matter? I don't know enough to answer the first question, and I'm not completely confident of my answer to the second (though I basically think the novel's historical accuracy does matter), but I find these questions intriguing.
James Carroll has written a much-needed column in today's Boston Globe:
Democrats are correct to seek to avoid nominating "another McGovern" if, by that phrase, they mean "a candidate who was right, but lost anyway," and if they try to nominate a candidate who's right and can win. They're wrong if they forget that McGovern was right on the most important issues of the day, and seek merely to nominate a winning candidate--whatever his views.
Can babies be taught to communicate through signs and gestures before they learn to talk? (The article is discussed on Language Log.)
An In These Times article by Ana Marie Cox looks at the first season of HBO's "Depression-era caricature," Carnivale.
The current issue of History Today profiles Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman instrumental in the creation of the modern state of Iraq.
History Today's website also includes reviews of two new Soviet history books and of Robert Darnton's newest volume.
Fun fact of the day: did you know that Ivan the Terrible is believed to have proposed marriage to Elizabeth I of England? That fact is widely reported in textbooks, though the proposal--if it actually occurred--was a secret. A new collection of Elizabethan letters includes a boorish and rude note from Ivan to Elizabeth, however. Ivan complains about English merchants and the queen's advisers--and may even allude to his earlier wedding proposal. (via HNN)
Here's a shameful secret about me: I've never been to Chicago's Oriental Institute, even though it's located a few blocks from my apartment. One of these days, though, I plan to go to its exhibit on Mesopotamian treasures, which was reviewed in today's New York Times.
Monday, January 05, 2004
A New York City literature professor has launched a quirky crusade: down with the colon! (The punctuation mark, that is--not the organ.) The colon, Brenda Wineapple believes, should lose its hallowed place in book titles--but will the publishing industry listen?
It sounds like fun to read about bilingual writers.
What's the plural of the word dwarf? Language Log discusses this question.
Today I found still more proof that Evelyn Waugh was cool.
Those of you who know about my literary tastes could predict that I'd enjoy reading Geoffrey Wheatcroft's New York Times review of Ted Morgan's new book on McCarthyism: it begins by quoting Nabokov and ends by quoting Waugh. The conclusion:
We need a good history of Communism and anti-Communism in the early post-war years, I think. Wheatcroft makes a good case that Morgan's book doesn't fit the bill.
I usually like Louis Menand's New Yorker articles, but I found his latest offering a little too trite and a little too cute. I can stand a hint of triteness in a good but prolific writer, after all, and cuteness can be effective in small doses, but the combination of those flaws in this article irritated me. Do people who disagree with what Menand writes in his other articles find his writing similarly annoying? (Menand's essay, for those of you too lazy or too busy to click on the link, deals with movie top-ten lists.)
I found Menand's article via Slate's end-of-year movie club, in A.O. Scott's entry. (I tend to prefer Scott's magazine writing to his movie reviews, and so--not surprisingly--I really enjoyed this piece.) Metacritic, meanwhile, has a list of top-ten lists (scroll down), telling what films different reviewers put in their top ten.
I'm too lazy to offer my own top ten movies of the year, especially since I haven't seen enough films recently to make such a list even vaguely meaningful. (Suffice it to say that I loved The Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean.) I will, however, make a list of the three most unintentionally hilarious movies of 2003:
Would I recommend that you go see any of these movies? Of course not! But if you have to go to a bad movie sometime, these films should at least amuse you.
Tangential update A fun, random factoid I learned today: A. O. Scott (the NYT film critic mentioned above) is the son of the well-known historian Joan Wallach Scott. No wonder his reviews seem historically better-informed than those of many of his colleagues...
The word "um": more interesting than you think? The New York Times looks at the study of "disfluencies." An excerpt:
Found via Butterflies and Wheels.
Update Language Log discusses this article in more detail.
On the History News Network, Jonathan Dresner examines the history behind the recent Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai, pointing out the many inaccuracies in the film.
I'm never sure exactly what I think of historical analyses of movies--a subject for another day!--but Dresner's critique is both damning and amusing. It's worth reading for what it says about Japanese history even if you aren't interested in its critique of the movie.
An article in The Sydney Morning-Herald looks at personals ads from The London Review of Books and other high-brow publications:
I found this article via a recent Cliopatria post by Ralph Luker. Personally, I think these ads seem like the perfect subject for one of Slate's "human guinea pig" columns.
In City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple discusses how critical opinion of Shakespeare has changed with time--and how Measure for Measure, once seen as one of the bard's lesser plays, is now highly regarded.
I'm not sure exactly what I think of Dalrymple's argument. I know a lot of people who really like his writing, but this article struck me as a bit disappointing: it kind of grabbed me early on, but I kept expecting the piece to come to some startling or satisfying conclusion. Instead, the best it could come up with was this:
I tend to be wary of arguments that describe, with certainty, how historical figures would view contemporary life: everyone, it seems, believes that their views match exactly what William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and George Orwell would think if they were alive today! I'm also inclined to be unenthusiastic about articles which reveal such stunning insights as "[Shakespeare] provides us with no easy answers to the questions that confront us." Nevertheless, there are just enough fun details in this article to make it worth reading. No essay on Shakespeare that discusses an obscure prison doctor's criticism of Italian positivist criminology should be lightly brushed aside, after all!
Last night I returned home from Moline, a town on the Mississippi River about three hours from Chicago, in the midst of a winter storm. (Reminder to self: only take Greyhound when absolutely necessary.) I'm now ready for the quarter to begin, and this blog will be returning to a more normal schedule. I may even add commentary to some of the links I've posted below...
I spent a lot of time this weekend reading E.P. Thompson (for fun) and Erving Goffmann (as preparation for writing my dissertation proposal.) I always plan to begin writing about the books I read--and not just about the articles I read or skim--on this blog, but it remains to be seen if I'll ever succeed in finding the time to do so. We'll just have to wait and see...
Random fun fact of the day (in a passage taken from E. P. Thompson):
Another fun chapter in Thompson's Customs in Common describes the practice of wife-selling in the eighteenth century (and thereabouts). If I hadn't decided to study Soviet history, I might well have looked at the history of England, and I always enjoy reading Thompson in particular (his weird rants about Methodists notwithstanding.)
In Newsday, Carl Zimmer reviews Nathaniel Philbrick's new book on Charles Wilkes. Zimmer also comments on his blog about the difficulties of reviewing. Check both out.
(Another Newsday review discusses "Tolkien in the trenches.")
How much of London's architectural history isn't true? The Guardian reports.
Also in The Guardian: an article on (and a review of) the new play based on Philip Pullman's fantasy series and a review of a new series of books on ancient Egypt.
Update While looking at the Philip Pullman articles linked to above, I came across this November Guardian article on the books and their stage adaptation. I don't think I've already linked to it, and if you like Pullman, you'll find it interesting.
A group of Russian monks is seeking the return of a series of bells, now owned by Harvard University, that used to belong to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow.
Daniel Mendelson discusses the Peloponnesian War in the latest New Yorker, commenting on the war itself, Thucydides's history of it, and how the war has been viewed during the Cold War and the war on terrorism.
Counter-insurgency: did it work in Vietnam? Will it work in Iraq? Jeet Heer looks at these questions in The Boston Globe.