Rebellion: The history of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution – Peter Ackroyd

Rebellion: a beautifully written, compellingly organized tale of a century that would shape much of England’s history to come.

The 17th century laid the foundations for much of the English history that followed. Agricultural and Industrial revolutions were driven by Francis Bacon and Newton’s devotion to empirical science, as well as the study of greats like Christopher Wren, Halley, and Robert Hooke; religion was fundamentally shaped by the civil war in England as well as the release of the King James Bible; the seeds of empire were sown with the establishment of colonies in North America and the West Indies, while merchants visited ports in Africa, Asia, and America; Cromwell would score some of England’s greatest military victories, including conquering Scotland, which no English king had managed, as well as disabling Spain’s naval power and assuring English dominance of the high seas; and writers would shape English literature, including Milton (private secretary to Cromwell), John Bunyan, Pepys, and Hobbes. Even national holidays would be given a kickstart with Fawkes’ attempt to blow up parliament, odd as the English national fetish about that is.

It was a busy century. Peter Ackroyd tells its story, one focused around the civil and religious war that would end in the beheading of Charles I and the elevation of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration that would bring back Charles II as king. The book’s greatest strength is that Ackroyd truly does tell its story: he presents a narrative that is as interesting as any novel. Much of the book focuses on the lives of kings, but chapters do also examine things like the role of women in society, literature, and other topics, giving the book a breadth it would not otherwise have.

The book is the third of six planned volumes on English history. Its fault, perhaps, is that it ends not with a bang but a whimper: having covered the glories of Restoration, the book can drag a bit as it ends with the politicking of Charles II that would lead to the Glorious Revolution. That aside, Ackroyd is a fascinating writer of history, and for quality of writing as well as depth of knowledge, Rebellion appeals. Newcomers looking for an introduction to an important but under-known period of history and experts should be equally delighted.

Disclosure: I read Rebellion as an advance reader copy. It is released October 21st.

Lament for a Nation – George Grant

“Like most other human beings, Canadians want it both ways. We want through formal nationalism to escape the disadvantages of the American dream; yet we also want to the benefits of junior membership in the empire.”

In light of the recent Scottish referendum, Lament for a Nation seemed somewhat appropriate, a Canadian classic on fears about cultural hegemony. It’s written by one of the foremost Canadian political philosophers (confession: that isn’t a large comparison group, but he’s still very good), and in Lament George Grant worries about the future of Canada and its possible end as a sovereign state due to US cultural encroachment.

His thesis is that with technology, cultural differences are almost impossible to maintain: economies must modernize to participate in the world, but as you modernize education and culture, you lose what makes you distinct. Even worse, he argues, early capitalism had restraint because of cultural restrictions: a Protestant work ethic, a British sense of self-restraint. In the age of technology such restraints disappear, and capitalism goes unchecked. Modern conservatives are thus doomed because to be popular they must accept technology, but to do so, they are no longer conservatives.

It’s a classic of small-c conservatism. In some ways, it’s interesting because that voice is diminished in modern politics, where the choice can often be between social liberals and economic liberals (in the traditional sense of liberal, not the American left-wing sense). Though Canada has to some extent preserved its culture, current Middle Eastern politics are in some sense a response to the same feelings of insecurity against American cultural hegemony. There may, of course, be things we like about American culture, such as human rights or individual freedom, but the question of how to encourage their adoption without making cultures feel attacked is fundamental, at both an individual and social level.

The Greatest Empire: a life of Seneca – Emily Wilson

“The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself.” – Seneca

Depending on your perspective, Seneca is either heroically wise, a font of wisdom, or simply freakishly annoying, a hypocrite who could never live by his ideals. A Stoic philosopher who rejected the importance of the material world, from provincial origins he became one of the Roman Empire’s richest men (at one point, he ordered 500 identical tables made of citrus wood with ivory legs for his dinner parties, individually handmade), tutor then adviser to the emperor Nero, and one of the most powerful men in the world. Throughout his life, he would write books espousing noble ideals, and then be accused of failing to live up to them, by himself and by others. Seneca felt trapped and terrified by his power: unable to retire because Nero feared it would reflect badly on the legitimacy of the empire, Seneca would eventually be condemned to death. Like his life, Seneca would not even live up to his ideals of death: it would take him four attempts before he successfully committed suicide.

The Greatest Empire looks at Seneca’s philosophy in light of his life, and his life in light of his philosophy. This works well: much of Seneca’s work focuses on ideas of how to live in a world of rampant consumerism, how to achieve serenity in an uncertain world, what counted as success, and other themes epitomized by his life. As Wilson points out, one of the most charming parts of Seneca is that though he frequently fails to live up to his ideals, he is at least aware of these imperfections, and works consistently (though unsuccessfully) to overcome them. Each evening, he would reflect on his failures of the day in an effort to improve, and his reflective style would influence writers including Montaigne and Descartes.

Stoicism, Seneca’s philosophy, is interesting; based in similar precepts to Buddhism, it too argues that only virtue can lead to a happy life, and that all other things are indifferent. Unlike Buddhism, though, it argues that engagement with the world is essential. Seneca, as a flawed adherent, helps humanize it all: his struggle with how responsible he is for Nero’s appalling behaviour given that he was Nero’s tutor helps show how Stoicism can be used to moderate experience in the real world.

The Greatest Empire is not perfect. Due to the paucity of sources, it can sometimes feel like the links between Seneca’s life and his philosophy are being driven by what information is available, rather than flowing naturally. That said, it provides an accessible, interesting introduction to Seneca, to Stoicism, and to the Roman Empire under Nero. I personally find Stoicism appealing anyway, but whether you’re familiar with it already or reading it for the first time, understanding how it is exemplified – or not – by Seneca’s life is enlightening and insightful.

Disclosure: I read The Greatest Empire as an Advance Reader Copy. It is released October 21st.

In Our Hands – Charles Murray

“The real problem advanced societies face has nothing to do with poverty, retirement, health care, or the underclass. The real problem is how to live meaningful lives in an age of plenty and security.”

The idea of a negative income tax is one of the few public policies that seems to appeal to both left and right, though admittedly the left prefers the name basic income or guaranteed minimum income. In brief, the idea is that people making less than a given amount get money from the state until they are making that amount: those that make more than that get a reduced subsidy or nothing. In principle, it can then replace a diverse set of loophole-rich, easily abused welfare programs, appealing to the right; and ensures that no one in society is without a certain basic wage, appealing to the left.

Tax reform is not exactly an issue with wide appeal. In Our Hands makes the case for a negative income tax by talking not just of the cost savings but also of the social and political implications, making the book of wider interest than just to economists. Murray lays out the possibly savings from eliminated welfare programs, and argues that though a negative income tax isn’t economical yet, it will be in the next few years as costs and populations increase. By ensuring everyone has a stake in society and some source of income, he argues, it also encourages responsible citizenship and participation in the world.

He neglects some questions that seem of interest, however. Long run, some might worry that pseudo-classes defined by whether someone receives the benefit could form. The policy is also vulnerable to politics: as soon as it is created it will be subject to massive political fights which, based on the current disputes about minimum wage, will have little to no relationship to reality on either side, and keeping it to the optimal level might be difficult.

The book is unabashedly an argument from the right, and in some ways that’s the book’s greatest weakness; many on the left might also support the policy, but I’m not sure In Our Hands is the book to sell them on it. That said, for a left wing reader willing to make the effort, the book does have information and arguments for both sides. Murray’s design also has some odd parts, such as giving $5,000 to all citizens, rather than eliminating it over a certain income bracket to reduce costs. Still, an important policy, and a good way for someone without a background in tax to start thinking about some of the issues, though much more needs reading (and writing!) to reach conclusions.

 

Vipassana Meditation Retreat – Dhamma Dipa

I’ve just gotten back from a 10 day silent meditation retreat, and thought I’d provide some initial thoughts for those considering it. In brief, it was 10 days on the Welsh-English border learning Vipassana meditation – the organization that runs it has centers all over the world. Discipline is strict: no communication of any kind with other meditators or the outside world, no reading or writing, no killing of anything, no intoxicants, about 11 hours a day of meditation. The idea is to work as if you were in isolation.

In essence, the philosophy behind Vipassana is that unhappiness is caused by craving things. Unfortunately, that’s an unconscious reaction; when we feel something, we either want more of it or less of it depending on the sensation. The only way to break the cycle, it argues, is to use meditation to train your unconscious mind and build a habit of not responding with craving when you feel something.

The bad first.

  • It was unbelievably tough. Just brutal. I wasn’t too worried about not talking for 10 days: I’m pretty happy staying in my head. What I didn’t anticipate was how tough it would be not to hear others talking. For 10 days, I had almost no external input: no new things to see or do, no conversations, no books. Everything I thought about had to come from within me. My mind started spading over the weirdest memories – books and events from decades ago – just in search of something to think about!
  • It could feel vaguely cultish at times. In justice, I don’t think it is at all; it’s just hard to make anything that involves a bunch of people sitting quietly in a room feel totally normal, particularly with a guy chanting in the background. It’s just so far outside our normal experience.

The good: Despite how tough it was, it was definitely worth it, for several reasons.

  • My meditation practice got a lot better. Anyone who has tried meditation knows how tough it is to focus your mind for long. I’m a lot better at it, I felt like I was really progressing and learning every day, and my understanding of how it works has dramatically increased.
  • It was interesting to try the monastic lifestyle. Centuries ago it wasn’t uncommon, but today it’s rare to try such a low-stimulus environment. I think you learn a lot about yourself, and learn to appreciate more subtle things in the world around you. Only by trying very different things, really pushing the envelope, can you find what you yourself enjoy.
  • It was a chance to think about profound issues like what an enlightened person would look like and what makes us happy. There are lectures in the evening on the philosophy behind it all, and it’s a great opportunity to really reflect on the deep issues we don’t have time for in our everyday lives. The lectures are fairly Buddhist, but you can ignore that part if you want.

Bottom Line: Worth it, but not for the faint of heart! I’m not sure they have Truth, but I think there’s definitely some worthy truths in it.

Addendum: it’s a system based on Buddhism, but for what it’s worth, I’m not Buddhist, nor do I have any plans to become so. The retreat center didn’t mind at all, and actively emphasizes they don’t expect conversion or even willingness to consider conversion.

The Seagull – Anton Chekhov

I’m going to be away for the next two weeks, and so won’t be blogging: take it as a chance to work on that stack of books you’ve got lying around!

“You can’t have too many English Seagulls: at the intersection of all of them, the Russian one will be forever elusive.” – Tom Stoppard

The best known Russian works tend to be long, philosophical novels, in which characters  represent whole philosophies. War and Peace, Brothers K, Crime and Punishment, and many others are all justly famous. As a result, though, other works, including Chekhov’s The Seagull, are often under-known.

The Seagull focuses on the romantic entanglements of four characters, each of whom also has an artistic and dramatic history: a middlebrow author, an actress past her prime, a rising star of an actress, and an abstract playwright. Conversations revolve around the nature of theatre and artistic expression, with perspectives sometimes in striking contrast to the nature of the play itself. Dialogue is also rich in subtext, with characters frequently skirting around what they mean or discussing one thing while meaning another.

Most broadly, Chekhov aims to capture various approaches to being an artist, and even more to being an artist in love. No one character is right or wrong, but each struggles in their own fashion: the Seagull borrows heavily from Hamlet, even quoting lines from it directly, and elements of the Shakespearean tragic flaw are present in the Seagull as well.

It’s a quick read, as plays often are: I haven’t seen it performed, but I suspect it’s a play worth reading before you see it, simply due to the complexity of the dialogue. Well worth a read.

“A work of art should invariably embody some lofty idea. Only that which is seriously meant can ever be beautiful.”

“Wine and tobacco destroy the individuality. After a cigar or a glass of vodka you are no longer Peter Sorin, but Peter Sorin plus somebody else. Your ego breaks in two: you begin to think of yourself in the third person.”

“He used to laugh at my dreams, so that little by little I became down-hearted and ceased to believe in it too.”

“It is not the honour and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure. One must know how to bear one’s cross, and one must have faith.”

Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians, and Other Persons of Interest – Curtis Wilkie

“In the Klan structure, where Code One called for a crossburning, Code Two a whipping, and Code Three an arson attack, the extreme penalty was Code Four — death.”

In 1963, the civil rights activist Medgar Evans was killed by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council. De La Beckwith was tried twice in 1964 by all-white juries, both of which result in hung juries; not until 1994 was he found guilty, less than two decades ago. In Bill Clinton’s run for office, coming as he did from Alabama, he placed an overt emphasis on racial reconciliation, and his decisions affect politics today. In a way that many of us not from the American South may struggle to appreciate, taking civil rights for granted, the strife of the 1960s continues to leave scars on the region.

Assassins opens with the story of De La Beckwith’s third trial. Curtis Wilkie was one of the original Boys on the Bus, the group of journalists following the 1972 election between Nixon and McGovern. Since then, he has become known as one of the best journalists covering the American South, particularly his home state of Mississippi. In Assassins, he takes a selection of his articles from various years and subjects and uses them to paint a broader picture: of the American South, of Israel/Palestine (where he lived for a time), of Carter and (Bill) Clinton, both of whom he knew personally, and even of a gubernatorial race between a playboy and a Ku Klux Klan leader in Lousiana and a lesbian colony in Mississippi.

Wilkie has spent his life covering these issues, and it shows. The book is insightful and entertaining. For those of us who didn’t grow up in the American South, it’s also enlightening. Readers may know about Freedom Summer, when college students from across the US came to Mississippi to help register African-Americans to vote, but reading of the multiple murders of activists and the trials paints a striking picture of the South that seems almost unthinkable now, only two generations later. For readers with little knowledge of the subject, but an interest in understanding what the South was like at the time, well worth a read.

Disclosure: I read Assassins as an advance reader copy.

The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley

“PISA revealed what should have been obvious but was not: that spending on education did not make kids smarter. Everything — everything — depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments.”

In Korea, one big test at the end of school decides everything: an extreme meritocracy in school creates what is almost a caste system for adults with your entire future decided by how you did on the exam. In Finland, the stress is lower for students but higher for teachers, with only 8 universities giving degrees in teaching, and all of them as competitive as MIT to get into. Both countries, however, are top performers on the international PISA tests, a method of comparing educational achievement across countries, dramatically outscoring the US and others.

The Smartest Kids in the World takes the PISA test as a way of finding out which countries are doing well, and then tries to understand what has led to their success. It’s a whirlwind tour of the high school experience in Korea, Finland, and Poland, three top achievers, and the reforms that got them that way.

Ripley’s bottom line, though she doesn’t say it quite this way, is that reforming education isn’t magic or even surprising. It means agreeing on common goals for the system, training teachers well, making the subject matter rigorous and not being afraid to fail students if they don’t learn it, and above all keeping expectations for students and teachers high. Not rocket science, but it’s amazing how hard the special interest groups in the US can make it.

Lots of things go into a great educational system, but Ripley makes some profound criticisms of the American model. It’s harder to retain varsity athlete status in the US, for example, than to get into teacher’s college, and the average SAT score of teachers is lower than the national average. Somehow, she argues, America has convinced itself that teachers don’t need to be smart, comfortable with their subject, or even have studied their subject. Based on international comparisons, that isn’t true.

It’s a great book. It’s well written, it’s engaging, it strikes a nice balance between storytelling and analysis that makes it an easy read, and it says something important. It’s a little short on data or real evidence, but because tests making international comparisons possible are relatively new, and so that’s not really a surprise. For anyone wanting to think about education and how the system should work, it’s a quick and interesting read.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

“Human life – that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating. Compared to it there was nothing else of any value.”

“The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town now I never tell my people where I am going.”

As a third steam age science fiction, we turn to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Dorian Gray is a young man with everything going for him; he is young, handsome, charismatic, in the flower of manhood. He is also convinced that beauty and pleasure are the highest goods, that “the true nature of the senses had never been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality.”

As is pointed out early in the novel, however, all that will fade with time: as he ages he will lose his beauty, and with it his social prestige and his status. So Dorian makes a Faustian bargain: his portrait will age and wither while he remains fresh and young, unblemished by a life of sordid activities.

The book is in some ways a classic tale of a deal with the devil, in which the protagonist goes from bad to worse. It is different, however, in the way that many of Wilde’s tales are different: it is not always obvious what Wilde himself believes. Unlike in Faust, where we can generally assume that Goethe is anti-devil though sympathetic to Faust, Wilde sounds at times actively supportive of Dorian’s ideas, giving the tale a very different slant.

At root, the story itself is perhaps not the most compelling: it can feel long where it should have been short. It is saved though by Wilde’s ability to turn a phrase: it is full of memorable quotes and lines, many of which persist today in comments like the world knowing ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’ or that ‘it is the feet of clay that make the gold of the image precious.’

 

“All sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, are sins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.”

“There was romance in every place. But Venice, like Oxford, had kept the background for romance, and, to the true romantic, background was everything, or almost everything.”

Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne

“What had he brought back from this long and weary journey? Nothing, say you? Perhaps so; nothing but a charming woman, who, strange as it may appear, made him the happiest of men! Truly, would you not for less than that make the tour around the world?”

Now, despite suggesting in my last post that I was doing steam age science fiction, it must be admitted that Around the World in 80 Days isn’t actually science fiction: the whole point was that it was a journey that was at least theoretically possible at the time. If anything, it is a study of the British Empire at the time, with memorable comments on all the colonies and areas they pass through as well as on British attitudes about each. My favourite, I think, occurs when they are about to be attacked by bandits while on the train across America, where the comment is made that ‘it may be taken for granted that, rash as the Americans usually are, when they are prudent there is a good reason for it.’

Science fiction is often portrayed as boys’ novels, targeted to those who don’t read real fiction. This, I think, is unfair. Science fiction often neglects the sort of character development found in Dickens, true. But in return it allows for a clear focus on a single aspect of society, distilled by its removal from impurities and complicating elements that pervade our own societies. As a result, it often has profound things to say about the world we live in, as well as the worlds we might aspire to see happen, whether that’s about the future of robotics and by extension lesser beings in Asimov, or the nature of globalization in Verne. They can also inspire, as 80 Days does, by evoking a passion for adventure and a desire to see new things.

The classic picture of Phineas Fogg in a balloon is, unfortunately, false: they don’t use a balloon at all in the story. Often ignored is also the fact that he finds love on the adventure: rather than being a celebration of the modern world and consumption, in the end, Fogg is left with the classic reward of all such tales: true love, and happiness ever after.

PS – Interesting fact for West Wing (and Nellie Bly) fans: Nellie Bly did the trip herself as a homage for her newspaper, meeting up with Verne in Amiens after 72 days. Michael Palin of Monty Python fame refused to use aircraft, and managed it in 79 days and 7 hours, slightly longer than Fogg.