Mildly Malevolent

"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

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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,

At the age of 12 she was sent to Wychwood, a boarding school in Oxford, where she found that, although she was far better educated than anyone else, she did not know how to socialise. Finding it difficult to make friends, she continued to write, completing her first full-length novel at the age of 16. At 18 she had her first short story accepted for publication: The Dreamers tells the story of a man who stews his wife in a pressure cooker.

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:

Distorting a candidate's religious views is not a new hobby. In 1800, supporters of John Adams campaigned against Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that he was an atheist. He wasn't. He was a deist, a believer in a God not involved in current human events, but his views were easily caricatured. In his 2003 book, "The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America," historian Frank Lambert documents the smears, including one campaign diatribe that ran: "God -- and a religious president . . . or Jefferson and no God."

Imagine the TV ads that would run today against Jefferson -- a man who actually edited the Bible to cut out the miracles:

(Cue video) Two hands extend out of ruffled 18th-century sleeves. One hand grips a pair of scissors, the other a Bible. The scissors start cutting.

Voiceover: Thomas Jefferson says the Old Testament is full of "dung." He says the Gospels are a pack of "fabrications" put together by "fanatics."He seems to think he knows what should be in the Bible and what shouldn't be. Whom do you trust: Thomas Jefferson or the Good Book?

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:

In his own research, Nagl focused on two modern insurgencies in Asia. In Malaya in the 1950's, the British successfully suppressed a Communist revolt (comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese) by generally steering clear of excessive force and instituting a ''hearts and minds'' campaign to strip the insurgents of public sympathy. In Vietnam in the 1960's and 1970's, the United States military took a different approach and failed. The Americans resorted to indiscriminate firepower and showed little concern for its effect on the civilian population. Comparing the two efforts, Nagl demonstrated that a key issue for a counterinsurgent army is to calibrate correctly the amount of lethal force necessary to do the job with the minimum amount of nasty, counterproductive side effects. Even if using force with restraint meant the mission would take more time or reduce the level of force protection, it was still an indispensable step: a successful counterinsurgency took care and patience. When Nagl's doctoral thesis, ''Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam,'' was published in 2002, it carried the subtitle ''Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife.''

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:

Literary study, he argues, has been a random, unsystematic affair. For any given period, scholars focus on a select group of a mere few hundred texts: the canon. As a result, they have allowed a narrow, distorting slice of literary history to pass for the total picture.

"What a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on," Mr. Moretti declares, tactfully including himself among the guilty. "A canon of 200 novels, for instance, sounds very large for 19th-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than 1 per cent of the novels that were actually published: 20,000, 30, more, no one really knows — and close reading won't help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so."


Where other scholars quote from "Pamela," "Moll Flanders" or "Tom Jones" — traditionally considered among the first modern novels — Mr. Moretti offers bar charts, maps and time lines instead. A vast synthesis of material (much of it gathered by other scholars working on a single period or genre), his is a history of literature as data points, one that looks as if it could have been lifted from an economics textbook.

Here the 18th-century British novel is represented by its publication rate: a single, undulating fever line. Likewise entire genres — including the epistolary, the gothic and the historical novel — as well the literary outputs of countries like Japan, Italy, Spain and Nigeria.

Viewed from this level of abstraction, Mr. Moretti argues, literary history looks significantly different from what is commonly supposed. For example, it is clear, he writes, that the novel did not experience a single "rise," as is frequently taught (following the title of a famous book by the critic Ian Watt), but went through repeated cycles of growth and retrenchment, with political crises corresponding to dips in publication rates. So, too, according to another graph, did the ratio of male to female authors.

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 Russians are removing "whole factories with all their machinery from Germany". Bread is adulterated with acorns and chestnuts; Victor suffers scabies. Meanwhile he makes a comeback as professor of romance literature, "a kind of little big shot", as he puts it with characteristic ruefulness. For a complex set of reasons, the liberal and democratic Klemperer becomes a communist, while simultaneously detecting the authoritarian mendacities of the Soviet regime. It is the lot of this assimilated Jew, who identified himself in Germany's most depraved epoch as a German and nothing but a German, eternally to "fall between stools".

Klemperer's veneration of and sensitivity to language is his core ethic. As a philologist, he was committed to the ability and duty of language to articulate truth and expose public lies. In 1942 he had reminded himself: "No, I must always hold on to this: in lingua veritas." In this he stood with Erich Auerbach, whose Mimesis he venerated and envied. Propaganda was the hectic rash that denoted and enabled diagnosis of disease. During the war Klemperer had compiled, illegally, his Language of the Third Reich alongside the diary, activities that he regarded as complementary. The German-Jewish philologists have much to say to a postmodern age that has impudently driven asunder the word and its referent in the name of Saussurean "indeterminacy". Wait till the yellow star is sewn on to your coat, the area is declared "Jew-free" and you are required to sign yourself "Israel" before you make word-games the centre of pedagogy.

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:

Barely anyone in Western Europe has ever heard of Ceca. You can't buy her records in the shops and she's never been on tour - indeed, for a long time, she was forbidden from entering many countries in the European Union. But in Serbia, Svetlana Velickovic Raznatovic has been as famous as Madonna for much of the past 15 years. In that time, she rose from local to international celebrity in the Balkans, sold millions of records and became hugely wealthy. At the same time, the country she lives in was transformed from the most cosmopolitan and liberal state in Eastern Europe into a backward, bankrupt province - one which has become a byword for atrocity and corruption.

As Ceca shot to fame against the backdrop of war and genocide wrought by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, her life would provide captivating entertainment for the population of the unravelling nation. But by the time her husband died in her lap in the back of a car in Belgrade, she was much more than just a pop star with a curious taste in men: she had become the hood ornament of Milosevic's gangster-state machine. And when she was arrested earlier this year - in the company of Belgrade mobsters connected with the March assassination of reforming prime minister Zoran Djindjic - the rise and fall of Ceca Raznatovic had become emblematic of the forces of greed and anarchy that destroyed Yugoslavia.

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:

After the 1917 Revolution, the Imperial Porcelain Manufacturer was nationalized and dedicated to Soviet propaganda. In the tireless struggle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, no object was considered too insignificant. Factory workers made ink pots in the shape of a woman reading Stalin's historical works or embroidering a Soviet flag. Tea sets were stamped with heroic revolutionary leaders. Dishes were emblazoned with scenes from grand communist projects such as the Baikal-Amur Main Line railroad.

"These kind of propaganda techniques were particularly important during the first years of the Revolution," said art historian Irina Vazhinskaya, head of the arts department of the Museum of the Political History of Russia. "Propagandists had to transform the mentality of the people and make them accept new political ideas and a new lifestyle. The first Soviet propaganda porcelain was created by some of the most talented and acclaimed artists in the country."

Fun stuff!

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):

[What Book Most Richly Deserves Greater Attention?] For me this is an easy question. The answer is The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872, by Lou Falkner Williams. Published in 1996 by the University of Georgia Press, it is already out of print, perhaps because readers think it a narrow book interesting only to specialists. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is, in fact, essential reading, especially at the present time.

Its topic is the difficulties of Reconstruction in South Carolina and how, basically, the terrorist Ku Klux Klan was able to defeat the well-motivated efforts of state and federal officials to bring about a new day in that state. Given the U.S. Supreme Court's almost willful amnesia about the realities of Reconstruction, it would be helpful if all lawyers and judges brushed up on this facet of our history. But the reason I find it so important at this very instant is for the light it casts on what is involved if one is serious about "regime change." To put it mildly, such change is difficult and expensive. Even if one has defeated an enemy on the field of battle and attained unconditional surrender, one will still have to invest immense time, political energy, and money in changing the society that has ostensibly been defeated.

This doesn't mean that "regime change" should never be tried; the United States would have been far better off had Reconstruction worked (though it would have required far, far more than the North was ever willing to spend in order to achieve that victory). But one ought never undertake a process of regime change while being almost willfully ignorant of its likely costs. This 147-page book by a professor of history on an ostensibly narrow topic provides far more food for thought about both past and present than many far-longer tomes written by the most famous of professors. I do feel very strongly that -- in the words of 7th graders everywhere when delivering book reports -- "everyone should read this book!"

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.

The Washington Post discusses the rerelease of The Battle of Algiers.

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:

At one point, Egoyan briefly thought of travelling to Turkey, a country he admits he's never been to, to defend his film in a style similar to Noam Chomsky's famous visit there in 2002 in support of his Turkish publisher's right to publish an essay by Chomsky critical of Turkey's policies toward its Kurdish minority. "But then I realized it would be really foolish of one to do that."

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,

It seems odd, considering there are plenty of modern-day wars to choose from, including the unpleasantness in Iraq. But to the producers of the World War II games, there's no mystery. Like everybody else, gamers are attracted to the black-and-white clarity of the conflict.

"It was the last great war where there was a distinct good and evil side," said Steve Groll, senior publicist for the Battlefield game line at Electronic Arts. "There's no such thing as good Nazis." Even adults who'd never buy their kids a violent game like Grand Theft Auto will make an exception for make-believe assaults on Nazis or imperial Japanese suicide troops. "Parents don't mind buying a game where you're shooting them," said Matt Powers, senior producer for the upcoming EA game Medal of Honor Pacific Assault.

Besides, said Powers, it was a global conflict. That means World War II games can feature a variety of combat settings, from deserts to tundras, to keep the players interested. The games also sell well outside the United States, thanks to the planet-wide nature of the war. "It goes all across the world, which is very, very good for international sales," he said.

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:

Yet some of the developers of the Medal of Honor series weren't satisfied. They felt the game was too individualistic, where real-world warfare requires teamwork. These disgruntled programmers jumped ship and formed a new company called Infinity Ward. Their first game, the new World War II shooter Call of Duty, was published by Activision last year, premiering to rave reviews and strong sales.

"They got one of the most elemental parts of war right, which is it's a team environment," said John Hillen, a former US Army special operations soldier who acted as a technical adviser for Call of Duty. Hillen, a Gulf War vet with a master's degree in military history from the University of London, was awed by the developers' attention to detail, saying that some of them knew more about German military equipment than he did.

Not everybody wants to shoot Nazis all night. One group of avid Battlefield 1942 players created their own custom modification of the game set in modern-day Iraq, then published it as a free Internet download. And the Battlefield team is gearing up for the release later this year of Battlefield Vietnam, which will feature jungle warfare and background music from the Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, and other '60s-era rock bands. The game's producer, Reid Schneider, said the idea came from Battlefield 1942 players clamoring for a Vietnam-based game.

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:

So comprehensively had he answered questions at his first press conference that the White House reporters applauded. According to The Boston Globe, "the veterans, and there are correspondents here who have seen presidents come and go for a quarter of a century, declare that thus far President Coolidge is more communicative than any man, with the possible exception of Theodore Roosevelt, who ever sat in the White House." That was before. After, Coolidge earned the sobriquet "Silent Cal."

The Tortured President tortured his wife and surviving son, John, who reminded him of the better-loved Calvin Jr. He behaved sadistically toward the White House staff and the Secret Service. On one occasion he tried to catch a bodyguard's finger with a fishhook; on another, after being bitten by a mosquito, he asked an agent, "Why didn't you kill it?" When leaving his office for a walk, he would sometimes press the buzzer signaling White House employees that he was returning, throwing them into a panic of activity. He acted bizarrely. During a private dinner with Herbert Hoover, his Secretary of Commerce, he pointed to a nearby portrait of John Quincy Adams and asked, "Mr. Hoover, don't you think the light has been too shiny on Mr. Adams' head?" He had a servant get a stepladder, then "rubbed a rag with fireplace ashes and proceeded to blacken Mr. Adams' head."

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):

He had two wives, which he loved dearly and treated badly. He hired grand houses, and bought fine horses for which he could never pay. He was often religious, but more often drunk.

The last sentence, in particular, is priceless. Another fun passage (which, like the one quoted above, improves as it goes along):

I told Thackeray once that [Henry Esmond] was not only his best work, but so much the best that there was none second to it. "That was what I intended," he said, "but I have failed. Nobody reads it. After all, what does it matter?" he went on after awhile. "If they like anything, one ought to be satsfied. After all, Edmond was a prig." Then he laughed and changed the subject, not caring to dwell on thoughts painful to him. The elbow-grease of thinking was always distasteful to him, and had no doubt been so when he conceived and carried out this work.

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:

In Caligula (Sceptre, 279 pages, $34.95), Massie has given us a portrait that is nuanced and a character at once terrifying in his whimsical cruelty and pitiful in his neediness. The Caligula we think we know may have slept with one sister, turned another into a prostitute, murdered senators for using words he didn't like and made his horse, Incitatus, a consul. That Caligula is certainly present here, but he is far from the whole story.


This Caligula is certainly insecure, erratic (to put it mildly) and capable of viciousness, but he is also very popular with the masses, has a wicked sense of humour (Massie calls it "quilpish") and though he has a taste for rent boys and prostitutes (making him no different from other noble Romans), does seem to have a real, if perverted, love for Drusilla. He begins his reign with good intentions, whose quick loss he several times laments. Massie also invests him with a kind of philosophical bent. He enjoys debating with the Jewish philosopher Philo and even emerges as a proto-Nietzschean. One young poet proclaims to Lucius Caligula's superiority "to all that has hitherto been thought and done. He has gone beyond good and evil. In his world there are no moral facts. . . . Moral judgements are so easy, the refuge of weak men. I find Gaius the first Free Spirit in the history of the world."

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:

THE DEMOCRATS see a hobgoblin under the bed, and his name is George McGovern. Low-grade panic is beginning to set in as pundits forecast a repeat of 1972: "As Massachusetts goes, so goes the District of Columbia." The prospect of "another McGovern" whets the appetite of Bush partisans while generating gloom and shame among Democrats. Howard Dean, for one, flees the association, while other candidates tar him with it.

Here's the problem: In 1972, McGovern was right. If there is shame attached to that election, it is America's for having so dramatically elected the wrong man. Apart from the rank dishonesty of Richard Nixon and his administration (a pattern of lies that would be exposed in Watergate), there were two world-historic issues that defined that election, and on both Nixon was wrong. 1972 was a fork in the road, and history shows that the United States made a turn into a moral wilderness from which it has yet to emerge.

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:

Then in 1960, William F. Buckley Jr. tried to persuade Evelyn Waugh to contribute to National Review, and sent him ''McCarthy and His Enemies,'' the apologia he had written with L. Brent Bozell. But Buckley got an elegant flea in his ear. Most Englishmen regarded McCarthy as a regrettable figure, Waugh replied, and the book ''will not go far to clear his reputation.'' Plainly there had been need for an investigation into Soviet espionage, but it was just as clear that McCarthy was not a suitable man to undertake it, Waugh said, and those who sympathized with the anti-Communist cause ''must deplore his championship of it.'' Despite all the bitterness of the McCarthy era and its residue, that remains something like the last word.

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:

  • With just a little tweaking, Gothika could have been a masterpiece of campy brilliance--how can any self-respecting man, woman, or child completely abhor a movie that features the line "I'm not deluded, Pete. I'm possessed!"? There's a part of me, in fact, that hopes that the director will someday present DVD-owners with a new director's cut--deleting the the boring dialogue, some of the more pointless prison scenes, and about thirty minutes of unnecessary nonsense to produce a true cinematic masterpiece. (Who says that director's cuts need to be longer than the original?) As it is, the movie's hilarious--I especially enjoyed the the overly portentous music and the scene in which Halle Berry was chased around a prison cell by an invisible Darth Vader--but it's also often dull and pointless. I wouldn't recommend Gothika unless, like me, you have the chance to see it for free, but I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie.
  • When I first got back from Russia this summer, I saw a movie listing in the newspaper and was shocked that someone had actually attempted a film adaptation of one of Don Delillo's best-known novels. Alas, the movie Underworld was actually the over-wrought and boring story of a war between vampires and werewolves--or, as the script writers insisted on phrasing it, between vampires and "lycans." (Wouldn't it have been charming if the lycans had been replaced by lichens? The movie would have made just as much sense!) Susan and I laughed our way through this movie, thoroughly annoying our fellow theater-goers. (Some people, apparently, take their vampire movies very seriously!) The movie featured a delightful fight scene involving a vampire and a vampire-werewolf hybrid (if you ask really nicely--and you know us--Susan and I might show you our version sometime), and even included the immortal line "Bite him!!!!" According to the movie's logic, I'm told, werewolves should face a high risk of cancer; such speculations are more fun than the movie itself, charming as it sometimes was.
  • Neither Susan nor I really wanted to see Mona Lisa Smile, but see it we did. The movie itself is a hollow and predictable attempt at a sentimental feel-good flick, but it's so shallow, so self-satisfied, and so desperate to score points with a contemporary audience that it comes across as laughable. Once again, Susan and I drove our fellow movie-goers crazy by snickering our way through this movie, especially during the sappy closing scene. (The movie as a whole was so sickly sweet and saccharine that I thought we'd get diabetes just by watching it...) I hope that Mike Newell, the director, figures out that "laughable" and "amusing" aren't synonyms before he directs the fourth Harry Potter movie.

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:

In 2001 Ms. Bortfeld and others reported in the journal Language and Speech that speakers taking a more active role in tasks said uh and um, repeated words and restarted sentences more frequently than those in a passive role. Men say uh and um more than women, though their overall disfluency rate was the same. One piece of conventional wisdom fell by the wayside: whether or not the speaker and listener knew each other had no effect on uh or um rates.

But it may be Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and other researchers who have come up with the most appealing findings. He counted uhs among professors giving lectures and found that the humanities professors say you know and uh 4.85 times per minute, social scientists 3.84 and natural science professors 1.39 times, which, he said, suggests that humanists have more expressive options from which to choose.

And for those trying to minimize their verbal tics, Mr. Christenfeld also found that drinking alcohol reduces ums.

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:

One might have expected the advertisements to be more literary and erudite than the norm, but no one was quite prepared for the first ad, which read: "67-year-old disaffiliated flaneur, jacked-up on Viagra and looking for a contortionist trumpeter." A cult phenomenon was born.

Today, the back page of this learned journal is a compulsive read, a bizarre and often hilarious competition in wit and intellect and flat-out perversity. For some, it is the main - indeed only - reason to read the LRB. Recent offerings include: "Tap-dancing Classics lecturer. Chilling isn't it? (M, 38)." And: "Some chances are once in a lifetime. Not this one, I've been in the last 12 issues. Either I strike gold this time or I become a lesbian. Man, 43."

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:

So if Shakespeare is not a Puritan--he certainly does not think, because there is such a thing as virtue, that there shall be no more cakes and ale--he is not a complete latitudinarian in moral matters either. On the one hand, Angelo’s utopian scheme to "extirp it quite" must founder on the rock of human nature, not least the human nature of the would-be extirpers themselves (as history attests); on the other, complete surrender to instinct leads to beastliness and therefore to a shallowing of the human personality. Shakespeare thus places himself between utopian totalitarians and libertarian fundamentalists. He provides us with no easy answers to the questions that confront us now and that will always confront us. His is a call neither to draconian severity and repression, nor to utter leniency and permissiveness, the two temptations of those who like to argue from first principles. He calls us to proportion, that is to say to humanity. We must both recognize the limitations imposed upon us by our natures and at the same time not give up striving to control ourselves. If we fail to do either, we shall succumb to ideological or instinctual beastliness--or (the curious achievement of our own age) to both.

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):

After Guy Fawkes, the most burned-in-effigy man in British history was without any doubt Tom Paine. The number and distribution of the officially-inspired "Church and King" Paine-burnings, especially in 1790-93, has never been counted. But it was immense, taking in almost every township and many villages in England. Undoubtedly many of these affairs drew upon the rituals of rough music. In Heckmondwike (Yorkshire) a man impersonating Tom Paine was "discovered" among some coal-pits, reading Rights of Man. He was seized, his face was covered with a frightful mask, and he was led by a rope through the market place. The mask was then deftly transferred to a straw effigy, which was placed upon a lam-post and shot at, to the accompaniement of tremendous hootings and cries of "Church and King."

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.