Tag Archives: history

“The Dawn Watch – Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff, published 2017


This book surprised me. I expected it to be “heavy”. The scholarly notes run to 43 pages.

It was totally the opposite – brisk and entertaining. I had no problem at all reading 320 pages, even allowing for the fact that (woe is me) I haven’t actually read much of Conrad. When I dipped into Heart of Darkness and saw a movie version of Lord Jim years ago, I responded more to “atmosphere” than to plot. Jasansoff discusses only a few of Conrad’s many works, and she provides enough comprehensive information that my scanty exposure didn’t matter. I’m now planning to read Nostromo, Conrad’s only novel set in the western hemisphere.

To digest Conrad’s books and short stories, written roughly from 1886 to 1924, you have to ponder various “-isms”, like

  • racism,
  • imperialism,
  • colonialism and
  • militarism

Charges of racism have led some scholars to agitate against using Conrad in the classroom. I lean towards the argument that Conrad helps drag racism out into the open, for conversation and analysis, to everyone’s benefit. It’s good to know the history of the attitudes you want to change.

Conrad’s life was adventurous. Raised in landlocked, Russian-occupied Poland, he decided on a career in the merchant marine and left home at age 16 to pursue that goal. He sailed to Australia, many Asian ports and eventually to Africa, when Congo was first being explored and exploited by Europeans. Some critics consider Heart of Darkness, about Congo, to be his greatest work. He eventually settled in England and wrote in English.

Conrad was a “global thinker” well before that concept emerged. The college where I work has established “global awareness” as one of its four guiding principles. So… I will suggest The Dawn Watch as a common reading. One book is selected each year with the intention that

  • incoming students will read it before arriving on campus and
  • faculty will be encouraged (but not required) to incorporate it into a class in some fashion, especially in courses oriented towards Freshmen.

The author must be accessible for a guest lecture (in other words, not dead). Anyone can nominate a book. I’ve pitched several, with no luck so far. The Dawn Watch is probably too long and (cringe) “too academic”. But I would love to have Maya Jasanoff on campus for a visit!

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty

I mentioned Piketty in my review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, blog post dated April 5.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century falls into several interesting categories:

  • I didn’t read it. I made substantial use of an informant (to use journalistic jargon) who happens to be a member of my household. I have never taken an economics course. I’ve probably read half a dozen popular books about economics.
  • The edition in hand was translated from French. I always assume that something could be lost (or gained) in translation. This book was published in French in 2013 and in English translation by Arthur Goldhammer in 2014, by Harvard University Press.
  • It’s been reviewed positively in venues I respect, like The New Yorker and The Guardian.

What have we got here?

  • Genre – nonfiction (academic research)
  • Text 578 pages
  • Notes 79 pages
  • 18 tables
  • 7 illustrations
  • About 100 figures

This heavy academic tome is a best seller! Amazon.com lists it as #1 in Comparative Economics. It has 1,761 customer reviews! Reviewers praise it as the most important economics book of the decade.

Piketty’s area of specialization is (the history of) wealth and income inequality. I’ll bet he saw OCCUPY WALL STREET coming, and many of our current political controversies.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a (surprisingly?) readable book. Piketty and Goldhammer have avoided most economics jargon. The exception? You must understand the term “rentier”. Perhaps it could also be translated as “owner”. A “rentier” makes money from money or land or assets, not from work. Got it? If you have any investments, you are a rentier (fem. “rentiere”, I think). If you read Robinson’s New York 2140, you remember that the RENT STRIKE was a tool of political activism.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century deals with questions that feel very real and immediate – how should capitalism be regulated? How should wealth be distributed? Who is helped/harmed by globalization?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is based on data, and written so that trends can be compared between countries. Piketty points out that some of our economic assumptions are based on “deviant” circumstances that no longer apply. This is important, since economists often seem to argue from opinion, rather than data.

In addition to analyzing reams of data, Piketty occasionally refers to the literature of the times he studies, offering examples of how the distribution of wealth impacts human lives. Two authors he cites are Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac. Jane Austen is familiar territory for me, but Balzac? I borrowed two of his short novels from the library. We started listening to Pere Goriot on a recent car trip.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is not Piketty’s last word. He published another book in 2015 and two more in 2016. He makes use of other forums, like TED.com.

My goal is to read the introduction (39 pages) and the eight page conclusion. Then I’ll decide about making a serious assault on the whole volume…

Good books about Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s Melancholy – How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk, 2005.

The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plat to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower.

Lincoln’s Little Girl by Cecelia Colleen Brown.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowel.

I saw the movie Lincoln and realized how little I know about the Civil War. It takes an effort of imagination for me to realize that Americans didn’t know what a grim cataclysm they were facing, or what the outcome would be. It all sounds so “inevitable” in a high school history class. These four (totally different) books gave me a little more perspective.

Schenk wants to raise “fundamental questions about the nature of illness and health”. He does an excellent job of this. Possibly because of his own suffering, Abraham Lincoln was a profoundly compassionate person. If his “melancholy” had been treated the way we now treat “depression”, if it had been medicated away, would he have been a different man? a different leader? It’s well worth reading Schenk’s discussion of Lincoln’s state of mind.

Stashower’s Hour of Peril provides a brisk look at what happened between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration. It also highlights Allan Pinkerton, America’s first professional detective.

Lincoln’s Little Girl is the transcribed diary of Julie Taft, a friend of the Lincoln family during the year before the Civil War. At the age of 16, she had free run of the White House, kept a diary and saved mementos! And by very good fortune, this has come down to us.

What can I say about Sarah Vowel?! She’s a young, breezy writer who often contributed to National Public Radio’s “This American Life” series. Assassination Vacation is an account of a road trip she took with her long suffering sister and precocious nephew to visit every possible site associated with assassinated American presidents, starting of course with Lincoln. She ferrets out obscure historic sites, find statues and plaques, drives by vacant lots…I was interested in how she followed the trail of Lincoln’s murderers, and her discussion of the attempts by descendants of John Wilkes Booth to clear his name. I didn’t read this book – I listened to it (read by Ms Vowel herself) while on a road trip of my own (to Vermont). Very entertaining!

Book source – the new arrivals shelf

The “new arrivals shelf” reaches out to me each time I enter a library, whether I’m at the College where I work or my local public library. Most of the non-fiction that I read comes from the new arrivals shelf. I suppose I should plan my reading, look things up, go back into the shelves, but somehow that doesn’t happen. I stumble onto books on topics I would never think to investigate. Biographies of John Lennon, Art Williams (master counterfeiter) and Elizabeth Hughes (first child saved from diabetes by insulin). Memoirs by the wife of a reckless but astute field ecologist and by a man who trained to be an umpire in major league baseball. Odd bits of history from the New Deal and World War II. 

I do try to keep lists of books I intend to read, recommendations from friends, authors worth a second or third look, etc. But so often I find myself at the new arrivals shelf, entranced, distracted, and delighted!