Tag Archives: history

Review 217: The Secret Life of Words

LL 217 - The Secret Life of WordsThe Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

There are many ways to write human history. Most writers of history books tend to go the traditional way – following kings and queens, wars, revolutions and invasions. The history of the world is almost always written in military or political terms, and while that’s certainly a valid way to do it, it’s a little overdone. A truly creative historian might try to look at the progress of humankind through a different lens – the history of art, perhaps, or literature or science.

Hitchings has decided to look at history through the rise and spread of the English language – once an agglomeration of angry noises from a few small tribes in what would eventually become Europe, now a tongue that dominates the world. The English language is used by billions, studied by millions more. It’s the language of business, commerce, politics, law, entertainment and news, and has spread like no other language before it.

Hmmm... What other advantages does English have? It'll come to me...

Hmmm… What other advantages does English have? It’ll come to me…

The big question then becomes, How did this happen? How did English become what it has become? What is the history that led it to span the globe, and what qualities does it have that other languages don’t? In this book, Hitchings looks at the history of English – and by extension the Western world – through the growth of its vocabulary. Where did our words come from, and what does their journey into English tell us about our own history?

A modern English speaker, equipped with a time machine, could probably go back about four or five hundred years and still be confident that she would be able to converse with people. Maybe not with perfect clarity, and it would be an entertaining thing to watch, but it would certainly be possible. Before that, the conventions and lexis that we are all so familiar with will start to be more and more scarce, and by the time of Chaucer, our time traveler would have a hard time indeed. So, as far as languages go, modern English is a fairly young tongue. Over the last half-millennium or so, the sheer number of words available to English speakers has exploded, mainly due to what some would call the language’s “whorish” qualities – English will take up with any other language that comes along, accepting its words and making them its own. By following the spread of English, and the changes that it has made, we can see how people and cultures intermingled in the last thousand years or so.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Hitchings begins at, more or less, the beginning, with the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and its almost immediate conflicts with Norman French and the languages of the invading and pillaging Norsemen. He follows the political swings of English, as the rulers of the British Isles alternatingly embrace and shun the language, until it finally becomes the tongue that defines that tiny island on the edge of the North Atlantic. He looks into Arabic and Latin, Japanese and the languages of the Native Americans. We see the wellsprings of the language of food and music, science, military and law. He introduces us to words that came into English through long and winding roads (one of my favorites is Alcatraz – from the Spanish word for “pelican,” which in turn comes from Arabic’s al-qadus for “machine for drawing water,” which is turn comes from Greek’s kados, meaning “jar” – quite a journey for such a miserable place.) The history of the English language is a fractal history, meaning that in order to understand it you also have to understand the histories of a dozen other languages and then the languages that came before them. To try and put it all down on paper is a monumental task indeed.

The study of English words is fascinating, though. I have recently become enamored of the “Way With Words” podcast, which dedicates itself to unraveling questions about English usage. The hosts are funny and engaging, and manage to give a brief history of words and phrases and all the little tics of English that make you annoyed enough to have to call a radio show about it. It’s a pleasure to listen to, which is probably why I listened to that show a whole lot more than I read this book.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Mr. Hitchings has done an admirable job with this book, trying to cover all the different avenues by which words came into English. The paths that they followed are fascinating, and the stories behind them are the stories of Western culture and civilization. The trouble is that Hitchings doesn’t do all that good a job in making it interesting to the lay reader, i.e. me.

By and large, each chapter deals with a different source of vocabulary or a different time in history, but the narrative that he sets up tends to… wander about. There’s no real narrative to focus on, and while I know this isn’t supposed to be one, Hitchings is trying to tell us a story. It’s a long and complicated one, but it’s still a story, and as such needs to flow in order to keep the reader’s attention.

I can’t fault him for his research or his dedication, but I think he could have given more thought to the organization of the book. Instead of trying to cover as many sources as possible, perhaps he could have narrowed his focus. Instead of throwing out a dozen or so words at a time, he could have given us an in-depth narrative on just a few. Each chapter could probably have been expanded into its own book on the Arabic/Spanish/Latin/German/Greek/African origins of words, and so in reading it you get the feeling that there’s so much more that he’s glossing over. By trying to follow all the twisted paths of the history of English, it’s very easy for the reader to get lost.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

All I kept thinking as I read this was that I had much more fun reading Bill Bryson’s book, Mother Tongue, which covers the same topic but is much more enjoyable to read, and perhaps that was my mistake. By the time I got to the end, and was more or less just scanning pages so that I could legitimately say I’d finished it, I realized that this is not the kind of book that you settle down with and read all the way through. It’s a piecemeal book – pick it up, read a chapter, put it down and leave it alone for a while. When you’re in the mood for more language history, pick it up again and read another chapter. Give yourself time to mull it over and digest, and finish it when you finish it.

However you decide to get through it, you will certainly have a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity of the English language, so regardless of how interesting it was narrative-wise, Hitchings has achieved his goal. English is an amazing language, and it behooves all its speakers to learn a little bit more about the amazing confluence of cultures that produced the sounds that you speak every day.

—————————————————–
“A new word is a solution to a problem. It answers a need – intellectual, experiential. Often the need is obvious, but sometimes it is unseen or barely felt, and then it is only in finding something to plug the gap that we actually realize the gap was there in the first place.”
– Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words
—————————————————–

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under English, Henry Hitchings, history, language

Review 208: A Canticle for Liebowitz

LL 208 - A Canticle for LiebowitzA Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This has probably been noted by many better thinkers than I, but the way I see it is this: history takes a long time to happen.

I know, I know. Mind: blown.

We are lucky in this day and age that we have so much information available to us about history. Go to any of your better museums and you’ll see artifacts of a bygone age, books and clothes and various objects carefully displayed under glass. Through the meticulous work of historians and scholars throughout the ages, we have created an unbroken chain of knowledge through the centuries that is so thorough and so strong that we feel like the days of Shakespeare, of Charlemagne, of Pericles all happened just the other day.

But what if that chain were broken? What if something so big, so terrible were to happen that we had to rebuild history from scratch, using oral tradition and whatever pathetic scraps of memorabilia we could find? Whom could we trust to keep it and put it all together, and then what should we do with it in the end?

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

These are the questions that humanity is forced to confront after the Flame Deluge – a nuclear inferno that claimed the great nations of the world near the end of the twentieth century. All would have been lost if not for the work of Isaac Liebowitz, an engineer-turned-monk who dedicated his life and the lives of his brothers to the preservation of knowledge. Over the centuries, his part of the Albertan order would become the caretakers of a bygone age, guardians of history itself, and would play a key role in the future of humanity, for good or for ill.

A Canticle for Liebowitz is a novel in three parts, spanning over a thousand years of future history. It begins in the 26th century, where the inhabitants of what was once the United States are bound into roving tribes and insular city-states. There, the young monk Francis makes a startling discovery from the life of his patron, the soon-to-be-sainted Liebowitz, a discovery which changes his life and the lives of everyone in his order. Through chance, or perhaps divine intervention, Francis finds an underground bunker, a shelter from the Fallout demons of old. He rummages around the cluttered remains of whomever had sealed themselves inside, and happens upon a strongbox, within which are handwritten pieces of paper, including a blueprint for an electrical circuit designed by Leibowitz himself. Suddenly, Francis’ vocation was clear. Or at least clearer than it had been before.

Then the story jumps forward to the 29th century, an age of discovery and renaissance. The learned both inside and outside the Church are beginning to rediscover science, and apply it to rebuilding some of the technology that was thought to be lost so long ago. At the same time, local leaders are vying for power, and trying to ensnare the monks of St. Liebowitz in their plots. The world is changing, progressing, and not everyone is comfortable with this change.

36th Century - so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

36th Century – so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

The third part of the story propels us into the 36th century, an age undreamed-of by even those who lived before the world was cleansed by fire. Humanity is traveling between the stars and giving life to their machines, making full use of knowledge both new and old. Unfortunately, mankind may succumb to the same pride, the same flaws that nearly destroyed it a thousand years before. On the eve of self-annihilation, a desperate group of pilgrims is sent out to the stars to try and keep some spark of humanity alive in the cosmos, despite humanity’s nearly unstoppable urge to destroy itself. And at the center of all of this is the Order of Leibowitz, holding on to old works and memorabilia, waiting for either the right hands or the wrong ones.

The book sounds depressing in its nature, but it isn’t. Yes, mankind makes the same stupid mistakes over and over again, not remembering the horror that befell them the last time. But despite that, there are still good people and there is still hope. You turn the last page knowing that the world, and humanity, will go on in one form or another. Even with our propensity for self-destruction, we are equally capable of brilliance and discovery.

In a larger sense, too, this book is one long journey into philosophy, bringing up some questions that are truly fundamental to who we are as a species. For example, the book addresses the topic of euthanasia in one section, with the Abbot of the order violently opposed to the Mercy Camps that the government is building. Is it better to make the sick and injured live in their sickness, or should we give them a way out? Is suicide – assisted or otherwise – ever permissible? The characters that debate this topic each have a clear and rational reason for thinking the way they do, and yet they come to no agreement. The characters, for the short time we get to see them, are fascinating. You feel sorry for them, hopeful for them, and afraid for them, because Miller has written them as human beings. We don’t have Interchangeable Scientist A and Interchangeable Scientist B arguing opposite points. We instead have scholars and religious, each desperately trying to protect his point of view.

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Or what about the nature of technology itself? The monks are charged with being the memory of mankind, yet when people start trying to recover the lost sciences, the abbot feels uncomfortable with the whole idea. After all, their predecessors in civilization followed the path of science, and look where it got them. Might it not be better to just let things stay as they are? Hard, yes, and certainly not a perfect world, but when you don’t even have electricity, blowing up the world is hard to do.

What I also found interesting was how Miller placed the Catholic Church at the center of this story. In the world after the Deluge, the Church is the only organization left, and it fills the power vacuum nicely. Through its system of priesthoods and orders, it remains the last island of civilization in a world that’s turned to chaos. I’m not a big fan of the Catholic Church for many reasons, but he really made it into an establishment that I could appreciate. It represented continuity and caution, as well as taking up the guardianship of human history. For all its faults, if the Church could keep humanity from failing utterly, I would be grateful for it.

It’s intellectual science fiction at its best, really, exploring the kind of big ideas that science fiction is meant to do. Miller has sung a song – a canticle – not just for the fictional Liebowitz, but for humanity as a whole, and asks his readers to sing along with him.

——————-
“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”
– Thon Taddeo, A Canticle for Liebowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr. on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz at Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under apocalypse, history, religion, science fiction, technology, war

Review 169: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

One of the prettiest books I have on my shelves right now is Theodore Gray’s The Elements, a visual collection of all the elements that make up the physical universe. “Everything you can drop on your foot,” as he says. In it, he provides wonderful pictures and descriptions of the elements that we know, arranged as they would be in the periodic table. It’s a gorgeous book, one that everyone should have – especially if you have children. If you want your kids to become interested in science and investigating the world around them, you could do far worse than to have this book on your shelves.

Eventually, though, they’ll be old enough and canny enough to ask, “Well, how do we know all this? Where did we find these things, and how? And why are they in this order?” That’s the point where you hand them The Disappearing Spoon, sit back, and let Sam Kean take over.

Ytterby. By all accounts, a lovely place. Photo by Bertil Nelson on Flickr.

The story of the elements, and our understanding of them, is governed just as much by personality as by p-shells, as much by competition as by charge, as much by ego as by electrons. While the elements themselves don’t pay any attention to human affairs, the quest to understand the building blocks of matter have sent us to the hearts of stars, the depths of the earth and, for various reasons, Ytterby, Sweden. [1]

Kean starts with how he got into the elements, with a story that would horrify modern-day parents: mercury. When he was a kid, his mother would collect the mercury from broken thermometers and keep it in a little bottle on a high shelf. If they were lucky, she would let her children play with it for a while, swirling it around and watching while this shiny liquid metal split apart and fused back together perfectly, never leaving a bit of itself behind. It was a metal that flowed like water, and it was fascinating. If he had known at that age that ancient alchemists thought there were spirits living in mercury, he would not have been surprised.

Oh, mercury, How can anything so pretty be so dangerous? Photo by Len Gatey on Flickr.

Keeping an eye out for mercury, he learned that modern scientists are able to follow the expedition of Lewis and Clark using mercury. The explorers carried with them a good quantity of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Bilious Pills, a “cure” for any illness that mainly contained mercury chloride. It was vile stuff, poisoning everyone who took it, but without an FDA around to stop this kind of nonsense, Rush made plenty of money. It probably didn’t hurt his credibility that he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In any case, he gave samples to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their latrine sites can still be found today by the unusually high levels of mercury that were deposited there as the men’s bodies tried to get rid of the heavy metal as quickly as possible.

Mercury also taught Kean about mythology – the Roman god of communication, modeled on the Greek message-bearer. It taught him etymology – the chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, which is derived from the Latin hydragyrum, which means “silver water.” It informed him on literature, especially the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland, who was based on the poor crazies who used to breathe in the fumes of mercury while setting felt for their hats.

This one weird, eerie element was a door into so many other topics that he figured there must be others. And so he started work on this book, a collection of histories and tales, gossip and hearsay, all centered around the 118 physical elements that make up our universe. “As we know,” he writes, “90 percent of particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10 percent are helium. Everything else, including six million billion billion kilos of earth, is a cosmic rounding error.” Within that rounding error, though, some amazing things have been found.

One look from this bearded madman and the elements fell into place right quick.

In the 19th century, the Russian Dimitri Mendeleev examined the common properties of different elements and was able to sort the elements in such a way that took advantage of their similarities. The violent alkalies along the far left, which will explode if given half a chance, and their cousins, the halogens on the far right, some of the most reactive elements in nature. Separating them are the noble gasses, which don’t react with anything unless pushed to extremes. Without knowing about electron shells and the weird quantum things that happen on the atomic level, Mendeleev managed to put together a table so good that he was able to leave gaps in it that corresponded to elements that hadn’t yet been found. And by telling the world that these gaps existed, the race to isolate and discover the elements was on.

Kean’s book is a great look at the way science works on a human level. How the search for high-quality porcelain led to the discovery of an entire class of elements, how Marie Curie would get into trouble by dragging her (male) colleagues into dark closets to show them how radium glowed, how nitrogen kills with kindness and lithium quiets an unsettled mind. The competition to not only find these elements but to name them and find uses for them has driven science forward in all fields, from geology to neurology, for the last two hundred years. Those 118 squares on the periodic table have driven men to travel the world, to create economic and political empires, to love, to hate, and to murder.

If this kind of thing were taught in high school chemistry class, there would probably be a lot more kids interested in science as a career.

A quantum jump is exactly like this, except in that it's nothing like this. Not even remotely. But otherwise, yes.

The book is very readable, even if it does drift from time to time into more technical areas. One of my colleagues, who doesn’t have an extensive background in science, said she was a little slowed down by talk of electron shells and quantum jumps, which I guess were not aided by Kean’s elevator similes. But it did get her asking the right questions – how do we know atoms exist if we can’t see them? How can we be sure that what is in this book is true?

Those are the questions that Kean tries to answer in the book, but it’s also the kind of book that may bring up more questions. It’s “gateway science,” one of those books that pulls away the cold, rational veneer of the scientist and his or her endeavors, and shows what an exciting, weird, messy and dramatic place science can be. What’s more, it shows how science is deeply ingrained not only into our technology, but our language, history and politics. An understanding of science, even at an amateur level, is a wonderful way to open your eyes to the great, complex and bizarre world in which we live.

———————————————————–
“We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.”
– Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon
————————————————————

[1] The town has the distinct honor of having four elements named after it: yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er). What has your hometown got?

Leave a comment

Filed under chemistry, history, nonfiction, Sam Kean, science, technology

Review 167: A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

History is, in its way, a fiction.

While it is made up of facts, things that are verifiable or at least reliably accepted as being what really happened, our understanding of history rests on a certain assumption that doesn’t always hold up – that what we are reading or hearing is The Truth. It’s how we learn about history when we’re kids – that this happened and that happened, and that’s all we really need to know.

The problem, however, is that what we got in our history books wasn’t the entire story. Oh, it was true, for a given value of “true,” but the historian who wrote the book did so with a specific narrative in mind, one that fit his or her perception of the past and which – more importantly – would sell textbooks to hundreds of schools across the country. The history that we get from those books is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a populace that is already inclined to think well of its nation, and rarely deviates from the theme. While they do try to note the excesses, injustices and impropriety of the past, they tend to bury it in the glorious achievements of governments and industry.

AMURRICUH!!

Unfortunately, doing so means that there’s a lot of history that gets left on the cutting room floor. Incidents, people, whole populations get brushed aside because either there’s not enough room for them or because telling their story in detail ruins the mood that the historian is trying to set – usually one of bright optimism for a good and just nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, either. An historian cannot practically include all of the historical viewpoints, good and bad, into a book meant to be used for only 180 days out of the year. So out of expedience, if not a conscious desire to tell an uplifting tale, they write books that look upon our past as favorably as possible, while including just enough criticism of our failures to fend off any serious accusations of bias.

As Zinn tells us, though, there’s no such thing as an historian without bias. Every historian has a story to tell, and Zinn has decided that he doesn’t want to tell the one we’re all used to hearing.

He starts in much the same place as most American history books – with the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Immediately he reminds us that Columbus’ mission was not one of exploration but of commerce, and that the first question he asked the natives of what he would label Hispanola was, “Where is your gold?”

It all went downhill from there.

Reading this book, it would be very easy to get depressed. I can see how those who were brought up with a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism (the idea that the United States obeys different rules from the rest of the world and, more importantly, cannot do wrong) would really dislike this book. It is page after page of lies, misdeeds, cruelty, greed and deception. It is the story of a nation built not on the principle that all men are created equal, but that all men must be leashed to the yoke of the capitalist overclass. It’s a tale of genocide and oppression, of revolts both peaceful and violent, and it never lets up for a moment.

To his credit, Zinn tells us right up front that he’s going to take the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the put-down, and there’s no way you can tell that story without it being really depressing. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly, though, where his sympathies lie:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Hey, even executioners got problems, buddy...

His portrayal of the underclass, rebellious or not, is one of suffering nobility, and the System as a deliberately malevolent entity. Any good that it does is simply whatever was necessary to maintain its power, and the above quote speaks to that. The parallel structure that he uses effectively groups all of the upper class into the “persecutor” role, and the lower class into the “victims.” And while there is some truth to that – human history, after all, is a long story of rich and powerful elites governing poor and powerless people – it is painting with too broad a brush, in my opinion. He seems to work from the premise that all those with power are bad, and so those without must therefore be good.

As much as I wish that admitting bias was an excuse for it, it isn’t. It does a disservice to all involved to flatten your view of the American class system into a two-dimensional shadow play. Not all of the populist agitators were good and noble people, nor were all politicians cunning manipulators. Just keep that in mind as you read.

It’s a sobering read, though, to say the least. The best simile I could come up with is that it’s like watching your parents have sex. It’s something that you always suspected went on, but you could have gone your whole life without being presented with the reality of it. So it is no surprise that, after reading this book, some people become absolutely insufferable, cynical and disillusioned.

If you’ve already gone through that stage of your political thinking, however, you find something else in this book – hope. It’s something you have to dig for, but it is there, buried in the larger narrative that Zinn is telling us.

Not sure he saw this coming...

Given the amount of detail he goes into, it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger picture at work. Zinn details slave rebellions, gives stories of workers pushed to the extremes of human existence, soldiers thrown away for nothing, and entire segments of the population ignored or actively persecuted. But alongside these horror stories come tales of resistance. Whether it’s the quiet contemplation by a poor white farmer over whether he might have more in common with his black neighbors than his white landlords, riots of prisoners and guards against a corrupt prison system, or the militant, city-wide shutdowns organized by the Wobblies, the people can only be pushed so far. And while the Powers That Be are very good at figuring out how to distract, scare or defy the people, they eventually do make changes for the better, and everyone benefits a little bit.

Inasmuch as this book is a chronicle of America’s misdeeds over the last few centuries, it is also a tale of Americans’ triumphs. It is a tribute to the will of the people who, no matter how difficult it may have been, decided to stand up and demand respect from the men who held the reins of power. It is a testament to the women who wanted equality, the socialists who wanted a better world, the workers who wanted safe jobs at living wages, the blacks who wanted to be full citizens, and the Indians who wanted the wrongs of the past redressed.

Not everybody has gotten what they wanted – America is still very much a work in progress, and there is bound to be some backsliding as we go. What Zinn shows in this book is that no matter how bad the American government can be or how greedy American business might become, the American people want what’s best for themselves and, when the time comes, will stand up and shout for it. Given enough time, and enough courage, The United States will continue to be a better and better nation, and perhaps someday – someday – it will finally fulfill our expectations for it.

——————————————-
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….”
– Frederick Douglass, 1857
——————————————-

1 Comment

Filed under american history, criticism, culture, history, Howard Zinn, nonfiction, revolution, society, The United States

Review 165: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is awesome. At first glance, you might not think so – she’s a short, squeaky-voiced New Yorker who has a driving phobia, gets motion sickness and is allergic to damn near everything. She fits into the category of “nerd” with remarkable appropriateness. So if you’re the kind of person who dismisses the Nerd as someone without consequence or someone you should just disregard, then, well, you’re missing out.

Vowell used to write rock music reviews, loves Abe Lincoln, and thinks that it’s the height of fun to go to Places of Historical Interest on her vacations. She’s an unapologetic nerd, deeply cynical and not afraid to assume that other people are as interested in esoteric matters of history as she is. She’s a self-confessed history nerd, and she makes you want to become one with her.

There's nothing about this man that doesn't say, "I'm nuts enough to shoot a President."

I read another of her works a while ago, Assassination Vacation, about her journey to learn more about our assassinated Presidents and the men who’d done them in. It was a fascinating trip through three out of the four major assassinations that happened in this country, and far more interesting than one would think. Especially with regards to the lesser-cared about presidents Garfield and McKinley.

This book is a little different – it’s a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. It starts, of course, with Lincoln, but goes off in all kinds of directions from there. For example, she talks about her time working for one of the world’s foremost antique map collectors, Graham Arader, and the persistent myth, up until about the middle of the 18th century, that California was an island. As part of this job, she was able to look at how the way we saw the world changed over time, and how maps become a part of the historical record of a civilization.

In the essay, “Pop-A-Shot,” she talks about her uncanny ability to shoot baskets in the Pop-A-Shot arcade game. While most of us would scoff at someone taking pride in a game where all you have to do is shoot balls into a hoop for forty seconds, Vowell shows us why this peculiar talent means something important to her, ties her to a sense of greater meaning and accomplishment and, more importantly, gives her something to lord over her male friends.

She talks about why she thinks she’s secretly a Canadian, given how generally polite and non-confrontational she is. And then there’s how much she and her sister have in common with Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twins who were the child leaders of God’s Army in Thailand. She talks about the incredibly painful feeling in her gut while she attended the inauguration of George W. Bush and the irritation she feels whenever someone compares someone else to Rosa Parks. And then there’s the advice to Bill Clinton on how to handle his Presidential library.

"Look, I'm not being a nerd here, it's just that there is NO way Han didn't shoot first. None. Seriously."

It’s a rather covert style of writing. She is funny enough and light enough that you don’t really think you’re in it for any useful information or heavy thought. But before you know it, you’re wondering to yourself, “Yeah, what is the media’s responsibility to the truth, and why do we let them charactature our leaders?” Not something you would normally think about, but the longer essay “The Nerd Voice” takes a look at the way Gore was misquoted and misrepresented during the 2000 campaign because the media had decided that he was the arrogant nerd and Bush was the homespun dummy. What’s more, she suggests that Gore might have had more success had he embraced his inner nerd and, like Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made the jokes about himself before anyone else could.

Vowell is a thinker, and most definitely a nerd, and she lets her thoughts go off into strange and interesting places. She has a kind of temporal persistence of vision, where she looks at how the past and the present intersect. “I can’t even use a cotton ball,” she says, “without spacing out about slavery’s favorite cash crop.” And, above all, she’s funny, which is a rarity in those who write about history. Check her out.

———————————————-
“I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People,’ Johnny Cash’s ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ and ‘You Got the Silver’ by the Rolling Stones.”
– Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot
———————————————–

Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under american history, autobiography, culture, history, humor, memoir, nonfiction, Sarah Vowell

Review 158: Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents AND Hail to the Chiefs

Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents by Cormac O’Brien

Yes, a double-header today, mainly because it’s what makes the most sense with these books.

As we come up to another Presidential election, we’re being asked to make a very important choice. We’re electing someone to join a very powerful and elite group of men who have shaped the history of the world in the last 200-odd years. It’s an important decision, to be sure, and not one to be taken lightly. Will our next President be a political powerhouse, a man who is able to take the reins of the country and lead it into a better and more just future? Will he be inept or corrupt, allowing his cronies and his pals to use the nation for their own personal gain? Or perhaps he’ll simply be a cipher, one of those Presidents who is forgotten by everyone except for over-achieving elementary school kids who think that everyone will be impressed that they know who Zachary Taylor was.

We don’t know, and we can’t know, and that’s one of the most interesting lessons of this book. Every President, from Washington to Obama, was elected by the people in the hopes that he was the right man to lead the country. Every President was praised and damned. Every President was, before the election, sold as the one man who could save the nation from ruin and despair. If not all of those Presidents lived up to their hype, well, therein lies the lesson….

This is the kind of history I like... (image by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

For people who like their history to be amusing and bite-sized, this is the book for you. It’s a “gateway book” for Presidential history – you read this and then go on to read more serious treatments of the Presidents, hopefully becoming more appreciative of the vast spectrum of personalities that have guided our nation. And what an interesting group it’s been.

There are, of course, the heavy-hitters that everyone knows. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew), all men who made their marks on America. Washington, of course, set the entire tone of the Presidency. He demanded formality, and the acknowledgment that the office of President was one that should be treated with respect. At the same time, he didn’t want to be revered, or treated like American royalty. His decision to serve only two terms of office became unbreakable tradition, at least until FDR, and then law with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. While the stories that are attributed to him are mostly apocryphal – chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock, wooden teeth – the real stories are even better. He spent vast sums of money on alcohol, had a terrible temper, and probably wouldn’t even have been the President if he hadn’t married Martha Custis. In short, Washington was human, just like the other forty-two who followed him.

Then there are the infamous – the Presidents who are excoriated for their misdeeds and who are the ones we all wish never actually happened. Nixon, Hoover, Buchannan, Harding, Pierce…. These are the ones you tell your children about when they turn 18 and they’re wondering who to vote for. Warren G. Harding, for example, was only President for two years before his death, but manages to make the bottom of the “Best Presidents” list nearly every time. For one thing, he never wanted to be the President – it was all his wife’s idea. But Warren didn’t like to say no, didn’t like to stand up to people, so he let her railroad him into running for and winning the office. Once he was in the White House, he was perfectly happy to let Congress govern while he had sex with his mistresses and lost vast sums of money – and the occasional priceless White House tea set – to his poker buddies. It’s said that his father told him he was lucky not to have been born a girl, “because you’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no.” While he amused himself, his cabinet and his friends did their best to rob the government blind. He was lucky that his ineptitude wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1923.

There are, of course, the ciphers. These are the Presidents that no one really remembers much about. The middle-of-the-pack Presidents, neither good enough nor bad enough to be really memorable. James Polk, for example. Ever dress up as him for a history class skit? No, I didn’t think so. This is because he was a boring, humorless workaholic who had about as much personality as a table lamp. Still, he did get us into a war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of what we now know as the American Southwest, so there is that. How about Chester Arthur? He became President when Garfield was shot, and was most renowned for the fact that he was a very snappy dresser. He restricted Chinese immigration, so there’s a point against, but supported the Pendleton Act, which made it harder to appoint unqualified drinking buddies to important civil service posts. Other than that, he had parties, drank a lot and was kicked out after finishing his term.

Forty-three different men, forty-three different stories. It’s very easy to forget that these were Real People, complex human beings with incredible merits and flaws. Franklin Pierce was so despised that his own party came up with the slogan, “Anybody But Pierce.” John Tyler was so hated that he was burned in effigy and was the first President to receive a full-time bodyguard. On the other hand, Lincoln had a soft spot for pardoning soldiers who were to be shot for unmeritorious conduct, and Theodore Roosevelt once opened a speech with: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” Now THAT is hard-core….

It’s also hard to remember that, for all the mistakes made by Presidents in our lifetimes, they’re hardly new ones. Clinton was not the first guy to be unfaithful to his wife while President – in fact, compared to what some others got up to, a little hummer under the desk is practically innocent. And Bush is not the first dim bulb with delusions of grandeur either.

Bush has said, many times, that history will be the final judge of his administration, and I think he’s right about that. Very few people in President Monroe’s time would have known the horrors that would eventually emerge from the Missouri Compromise, and there were countless people who thought that FDR’s New Deal would spell the end of American capitalism. It’s hard to objectively judge the Presidents we still remember so vividly, but we can compare them to the ones who have gone before them.

I'm sure this really happened. It must have. (art by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

If you’re new to Presidential history, or if you want an easily accessible refresher, this is an excellent text to have. Mind you, it’s slightly incomplete – it was published prior to Bush’s second term, so there’s a little bit missing at the end, but I think we can all remember four years back. And maybe, just maybe, our next President will be so special that Mr. O’Brien will be moved to update and re-publish in, say, four to eight years.

————————————————
“As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
– Martin Van Buren
————————————————

Hail to the Chiefs by Barbara Holland

What was true for Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents is just as true for this one: we’ve had 43 incredibly interesting and varied men in the White House in our 221 years as a nation. We’ve had men of passion and energy, men who were weak-willed and lazy, men who preferred golf to governance and men who worked themselves to death. Good men, bad men, tall men, short men – this book reminds us of something we need to recall from time to time:

The President is a human being, with all that goes with being one.

Being the President inevitably means becoming a larger-than-life figure. People despised Bush, people adore Obama, venerate Reagan, abhor Clinton, all for what they see as virtues or flaws that only they possess. As if being the President not only means you have to be better than everyone else, but that your failings must be that much deeper.

The point of this book, and of any book on the Presidents, is that they were human beings just like the rest of us. Being President doesn’t make you immune to the fundamental flaws of being human – greed, apathy, short-sightedness – nor does it bless you with any trans-human virtues. Learning about and humanizing these 43 men is a grounding and humbling experience, and can keep you from both setting your expectations too high and allowing your disappointments to overwhelm you when your President doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Having said all that – if you want to read a book on the Presidents, this is a very funny one to read. The style is more narrative than O’Brien’s, and exceptionally snarky. Holland wields her pen like a dagger, stabbing and poking as she goes. She’s not really mean, but she has no problem making fun of these men when it can get a good laugh. And I certainly laughed a lot while reading this, much to the dismay of my co-workers. They come in short shots: “[Clinton] was a big affable fellow who hugged total strangers and felt their pain, like some ancient Norse bear-god, probably named Potus, good-natured but with a weakness for milkmaids.” And they come in longer passages, i.e. the Spanish-American War and the rather clever means by which we got the Panama Canal.

"The Great Communicator" indeed...

It’s a hilarious, irreverent read… until she gets to Reagan, which is where either she’s being so sarcastic that it’s impossible to be sure what’s serious and what isn’t, or she’s absolutely gushing over the Great Communicator. She imbues him with the same invulnerability that he seemed to have while he was President – showing the complaints of his critics, but then deftly removing the sting. George W. Bush gets much the same treatment, which disturbs me a bit, although since the book was published in 2004, I might be willing to chalk that up to post 9/11 fervor. But it does seem that, from 1981 to the present, she’s not being quite as fair and balanced as she was to the other Commanders in Chief. Perhaps it’s harder to be objective when you actually had to decide whether to vote for the guy in office….

Anyway, the final four Presidents aside, it’s a fun book to read and another way to bone up on your Presidential history. They really all were interesting people, in their own ways. Even William Henry Harrison, who may have been too sick to be in interesting President, but still made for a fascinating person.

————————————————
“Many people consider James Buchanan the very worst President ever. I suppose they think they would have done better. I suppose they wouldn’t have let Dred Scott happen, or John Brown, or secession, and there wouldn’t have been any Civil War and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Too many Monday-morning quarterbacks, that’s what we’ve got.”
– Barbara Holland, Hail to the Chiefs
————————————————

Leave a comment

Filed under american history, Barbara Holland, biography, Cormac O'Brien, history, nonfiction, politics, presidential history

Review 118: Secret Lives of the First Ladies

Secret Lives of the First Ladies by Cormac O’Brien

This is a follow-up to O’Brien’s previous book, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents, which, while a fascinating book, is a topic that has been covered many times. I have, in fact, two books on this topic, and they both illuminate the hidden idiosyncrasies, character flaws, shining moments of virtue and petty humanity of the 43 Commanders-in-Chief.

The "non-Dowdy" version of Abigail Adams

It was Abagail Adams who exhorted her husband to, “Remember the ladies,” and it seems that O’Brien has done just that. He’s given us a nice concise look at the women of the White House, and it’s a hell of a read.

It’s very easy to forget the First Ladies, and kind of pigeonhole them into the space that reads “President’s wife,” but to do so would be a great disservice to an amazing group of women.

A lot of people remember Hillary Clinton as being a political powerhouse, a kind of “co-President.” But she wasn’t the first, by any means. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, all access to him was controlled by his wife, Edith. She would let no-one in to see him, on the grounds that he was very ill and needed absolute peace and quiet. So, when someone needed something signed by the President, Edith would take it, close the door, and come back a few minutes later with the signed document. The question very quickly arose: who’s really the President?

Helen Taft is another forgotten First Lady firebrand. Without her motivation, William Howard Taft might have been perfectly happy to be a judge, but that wasn’t good enough for Helen. From her teenage years, she knew that she wanted to live in the White House, and she pushed her husband to make damn sure that she did. Once there, even her husband called her the “co-Presidentress” for the amount of involvement she had in the day-to-day decision making that went on. She was a woman of boundless energy, who was never willing to sit still. Oh, and if you like the cherry trees that bloom in DC every spring, you can thank Helen Taft for that. Women like these – Eleanor Roosevelt and Jocelyn Carter are part of their ranks as well – left indelible impressions on the country.

No-one messed with Anna Harrison. No one.

Not every First Lady was so ambitious, though. Some were more populist idols, adored by the public not for their works but for their personality. The most recent example would probably be Jacqueline Kennedy, who became a media icon almost as soon as her husband was elected. But there were others before her.

Dolley Madison threw the best parties in Washington, and was vastly more beloved than her dour and stolid husband, James. It was said that she had no enemies, and even the people who loathed her husband adored her. She stayed in the White House right up until the British showed up at its doorstep and managed to save a few precious items. It’s even said that the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, was more interested in capturing her than the executive mansion, and took her seat cushion from the dining room so that he could come away with something to remember her. Before he had the building torched, of course. After she left the White House and her husband passed away, it was customary for each new President to pay her a visit, gaining a kind of approval from the most loved woman in America.

Ida McKinley's hypnotic powers were well-known in Washington D.C. Only Theodore Roosevelt was able to break her spell....

Or take Frances Cleveland, wife of Grover. Her relationship with her husband would be considered scandalous in this day, and certainly was in hers – she was twenty-seven years younger than her husband, who had been her legal guardian when she was a child. Much to the nation’s surprise, he went from being “Uncle Cleve” to “Beloved Husband.” But that bit of creepiness didn’t stop the nation from loving her. Once in the White House, she became an early proponent of women’s accomplishments, willing to meet and talk to anyone, rich or poor. When Grover ran for re-election in 1892, Frances’ image was the one campaigners used, not his. And why shouldn’t they? In an age before byzantine copyright law, her name and image were already being used to sell all kinds of household goods. Ever eaten a Baby Ruth candy bar? It was named after the Clevelands’ daughter, who was, for her short life, the most popular baby in America.

And then there were the sad stories, the women whose lives in and out of the White House were full of misfortune. Jane Pierce is probably the saddest of these. She never wanted her husband to be President. Every step that he took forward seemed to result in pain for his family. Their first child died after a few days. When Franklin finally got out of national politics and opened up his own law firm, their second child died of typhus. With only one child left to them, Jane held on to him with a manic grip. His death – the only one in a train derailment a short time before Franklin’s inauguration, was the last straw. Jane became convinced that God had killed their children so that Franklin could have more time to devote to his Presidency, and spent her days writing letters to the dead boy, asking his forgiveness. She became known as the “shadow of the White House.”

Julia Dent Grant, who was the only person capable of keeping Ulysses from drinking himself to death.

No less tragic, of course, was the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, who is best known for being the wife of our first assassinated President. Even before that bad night at the theater, however, she had her share of sorrow. The animosity and hatred that was heaped upon her husband, the terrible strife of a civil war, and the untimely death of one of her sons turned a once vibrant, energetic woman into hysterical, morbid harridan. She held séances to try and talk to her deceased boy, harangued the White House staff, and almost had to be forcibly ejected once Andrew Johnson became the President. What’s worse, her own son, Robert, had her declared insane and had her committed. She won her freedom, but the animosity between mother and son after that was white-hot.

There’s so much more. The relationships these amazing women had with their husbands are also well-detailed, and also somewhat surprising. For all that Bill Clinton was a lecher, he was hardly the first.

Pat Nixon, who really must have loved Richard, though none of us knows why....

Hillary joined a group of long-suffering women who put up with blatant and repeated infidelities in and out of the White House. Some relationships were partnerships, like the Carters, the Hoovers and the Tafts. And some couples were just quietly devoted to each other, like the McKinleys and the Clevelands.

The First Lady is not an elected position. There’s nothing in the Constitution about her, what she can and cannot do, so the job, such as it is, is one that each wife makes for herself when her husband takes office. The effects that these women have had on this nation is immense, and should not be overlooked. So, if you’re interested in knowing more about our Presidents, you could do worse than to give a good look at the women who stood by them.

————————————————
“Well, Warren Harding, I have got you the Presidency. What are you going to do with it?”
-Florence Kling Harding

Cormac O’Brien on Wikipedia
Secret Lives of the First Ladies on Amazon.com
First Ladies on Wikipedia

Leave a comment

Filed under american history, biography, Cormac O'Brien, family, history, nonfiction, presidential history, wives, women