Long Term Guests

I didn’t get around to making a big library trip before everything shut down. I can’t complain; I still have more books than I can read and I don’t mind reading electronically. My library has fantastic free electronic material. So I’m more amused than anything else by the three unexpectedly long term boarders I’ve taken on from the BPL. (Alas, the Museum of Fine Arts doesn’t seem to be lending out paintings to be appreciated during this time of closures and distancing.)

The only one I’ve actually read is Hitler’s First Victims, by Timothy Ryback. I said I was amused, but as luck would have it, none of these books is anything you would call light! This is a quick, gripping read though, and might help one begin to understand the sorts of struggles that were actually involved in the Nazi takeover. It’s a nonfiction account of the investigation of four murders that took place in what was becoming Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria. In 1933, the SS had taken over an old factory being used as a camp for political prisoners, but the Bavarian state still exercised its authority to investigate deaths that took place there. Germany, and Bavaria in particular, had essentially undergone civil war after the first world war, and was still far from united. A prosecutor named Josef Hartinger came very close to indicting and arresting the Nazi officer in charge of the camp for the very thinly disguised murders of four Jews. However, at the same time that Hartinger was risking his neck to investigate Dachau, the president of Bavaria, Heinrich Held, was being forced from office, almost literally, by stormtroopers. Hartinger’s evidence would later reappear at Nuremberg.

I ran across Hitler’s First Victims in the law section (K in Library of Congress classification). It’s an interesting and sometimes neglected portion of the public library, I think. You find a weird mix of things that resemble big test prep books for people who might be divorcing or selling a house, and forlorn looking attempts to write popular accounts of particular points of constitutional theory and legal history. It deserves digging into. I believe that on the night of my last visit I was looking for, of all things, justice Antonin Scalia’s book Making Your Case, which is a little manual of writing and rhetoric I’d seen somewhere and gotten intrigued by.

Instead, the next book I ended up with was one I’d taken out before and still haven’t read: Must We Defend Nazis? by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. A while ago I got in a heated debate with a friend over the first amendment. Presumably this book is taking up a similar position to my friend, arguing against what Oliver Wendell Holmes famously described as “freedom for the thought that we hate”, at least in extreme cases like hate speech. I guess I think that attempting to completely clamp down on that kind of thing, to the point of, I imagine, breaking presses and confiscating books, is a terrifying prospect, both highly apt to abuse and fundamentally the wrong way to fight against wrong ideas. I still haven’t read this book, but if I’ve learned anything since this argument, it’s that first amendment law is broad and remedies for insidious thoughts more nuanced than one is likely to appreciate in a spur of the moment argument. Now that I think about it, the first book might make you wonder how it is that law matters at all.

The third book I’m keeping is Organized Money: How Progressives can Leverage the Financial System to Work for Them, not Against Them, by Keith Mestrich and Mark Pinsky. I don’t have much to say about it, but perhaps my long struggle to get through Piketty attests to a standing concern with big financial questions. All I can think of to say about this book is that my friends who look confused and skeptical when I talk about leaving Bank of America and joining a credit union are clearly missing out on some of the puzzle pieces. I found it in the new arrivals section. Its classification is HG, finance; H, social sciences, is another interesting section, where I find myself prone to skulking, particularly HV (social pathology, so called) and HX (communism).

I could probably write a post on what I like about every letter of the LOC system. Should that be next? Or maybe a post on the books I have actually managed to read lately?

Tolstoy’s Cossacks

When I think of Tolstoy, I think of War and Peace. There’s a lot to it, of course; for some reason my take has become colored by the notion of Tolstoy, born in 1828, writing in the 1850s and ’60s, attempting to understand the colossal struggle of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations against Napoleon. I was a little awestruck when it occurred to me that, if only chronologically, I stood in a similar position relative to World War II. What I tend to forget is that Tolstoy lived a very long life of his own. He served his own time in military, and there is a lot of writing dealing with his very different experiences in the Caucasus and elsewhere. I just read The Cossacks, and I’m looking forward to reading more.


Tolstoy lived long enough to be photographed in color, in 1908, by the incredible Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).  You have to check out this photographer.

The Cossacks begins in Moscow, where the young nobleman Dmitry Andreich Olenin takes leave of a couple of friends and sets out in the wee hours of the morning for the Caucasus, having obtained a post as a cadet officer. This initial scene has so little to do with the main part of the story that you might forget it entirely. Olenin, who has gambled, been introduced at court, and toyed with women’s affections while never falling in love, reflects constantly on the triviality of his life up until this point. Heightening the effect of dislocation, before Olenin reaches his destination, the scene changes abruptly to the frontier outpost where we are introduced to the other protagonist, the young Cossack brave Lukashka.

“Cossack” is a challenging term in Russian literature, at least for the dilettante. It falls somewhere between an ethnicity and a job description. For many purposes one probably just needs to imagine a taciturn cavalryman of lower class than the usual aristocratic protagonist. What I gather is that Russian authorities permitted frontier settlements under special law, essentially exchanging land for military service. The Cossacks in the novel speak Russian; this seems to be the general rule, if one allows that the demarcation between Russian and other East Slavic languages like Ukrainian is fluid, and that a Cossack could be expected to pick up a local lingua franca like Tatar. Tatar is a Turkic language, and thus quite unrelated, not only to Russian, but to the Indo-European languages generally. For a final twist, consider that the word Cossack, in Russian, is nearly the same as Kazakh, as in Kazakhstan. It appears to be the same root, but the Kazakh language is Turkic. As usual, the linguistic classification seems to give a secure handhold in a difficult case, while also casting doubt on the notion of ethnicity generally.*

At any rate, the Cossacks were instrumental in a long drawn out conflict known to Wikipedia as the Caucasian War. Between this war and the Cossacks, one could speculate endlessly on comparisons between the Russian Empire, the American, and what we think of as quintessentially imperial Britain or Spain. That Russia seems so bad to us now must have something to do with our unacknowledged similarities. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until the latter part of the century, the Russians pushed into the mountainous land between the Black Sea and the Caspian. (The Cossacks takes place in 1852).  The territory of the U.S.S.R. extended well southwards of the highest range of the Caucasus, when it included the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Today the border of the Russian Federation appears to follow that highest range along a nearly straight line from sea to sea; among the southernmost federal subjects are North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Russia has been at war in the Caucasus since Tolstoy was a kid.


The Caucasus (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Cossacks were famed for horsemanship, but Lukashka, in the beginning, hasn’t got a horse. He serves in an outpost on the banks of the Terek river, between the steppe and the mountainous heart of Chechnya. He’s never very far from the village where his mother, sisters, and sweetheart live. It’s depicted as a bucolic, sleepy place, and Lukashka’s fellow soldiers are mostly interested in drinking and hunting. Shortly before Olenin is billeted in the village, Lukashka wins glory by shooting a Chechen who swam across the river at night. Olenin, who seems to have little real military work to do, is shocked by the Cossacks’ bluff indifference to the killing. Overall, though, it fits with Olenin’s idea of the Cossacks as an uncomplicated people living a life as pure and natural as the stags he hunts with the garrulous old Cossack Eroshka and even the mosquitoes that plague them.


Another of Prokudin-Gorsky’s portraits, from Dagestan (between 1905 and 1915?)

So Olenin experiences a spiritual conversion. He rhapsodizes about the landscape and the people, rails against Moscow society, and tries to keep himself apart from the other officers. He is generous towards Lukashka and Eroshka, who drop in at all hours to sponge his liquor, food, and weapons. This might come off as ironic, but Tolstoy has a very gentle touch. What’s more, one of the people Olenin idealizes is Maryanka, his landlady’s daughter and Lukashka’s betrothed. The love triangle is so obvious that I don’t know how I could stand it. But again, Tolstoy handles it skillfully. I guess the reason is that it’s hard to tell what Olenin really likes more: his new philosophy or the lusty Maryanka.

* I was reading the Maude translation that is free for Kindle. Somewhat unusually, I encountered three words that sorely tried my immediate lexicographical resources, including the OED and a small Russian dictionary. Presumably the Maudes left these untranslated because they are not standard Russian: abrek, chikhir, and kunak. Searching online can be tricky too. An abrek is a mountain man or rustler, the connotation depending on whose side you are on. Chikhir was obviously a drink, often served by the bucket, probably from grapes, but it’s still not clear to me whether it might be distilled and whether it is interchangeable with vodka. Finally, kunak refers to a friendship with serious obligations, perhaps guest friendship, as for example, “This abrek invited me to his house for chikhir and said I could take anything I wanted, so I took this great sword; we’re kunaks.”

Literature comes to the Carolinas

John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina is the earliest book I could find on the Carolinas, where I have old family ties.  In December of 1700, Lawson set out from Charleston on an expedition to the interior.  In two months he travelled to the middle of modern day North Carolina and returned northeast to Pamlico Sound, where he started the town of Bath.  I’m not finished with the book, and at any rate I’m scarcely able to comment on its real significance.  Fortunately, Lawson’s style of narration is extremely eccentric and diverting.  It is interesting to consider that Lawson lamented that most of the English traveling to the Americas were “of the meaner sort” and held himself a gentleman and a scholar.  I’m not saying otherwise, but what companions he must have had!


Lawson encounter’d many Tygers, the dismall’st and most hideous Noise of their frightful Ditties causing great Surprizal

Lawson’s party meets with an accident on the way:

one of our Company being top-heavy, and there being nothing but a small Pole for a Bridge, over a Creek, fell into the Water up to the Chin; my self laughing at the Accident, and not taking good Heed to my Steps, came to the same Misfortune: All our Bedding was wet.  The Wind being at N. W. it froze very hard, which prepar’d such a Night’s Lodging for me, that I never desire to have the like again; the wet Bedding and freezing Air had so qualify’d our Bodies,  that in the Morning when we awak’d, we were nigh frozen to Death, until we had recruited ourselves before a large Fire of the Indians.

I will say this as I get up in the morning: “Recruit yourself!”  On his way from Charleston, Lawson travelled among the scattered plantations of refugee protestant French, and the odd Scot living on marshy islands tending livestock.  He was evidently preceded by other European traders, and he travelled with Indian guides from village to village, where he was generally well received.  Still, it was usual to encounter abandoned fields and (perhaps temporarily) deserted camps where one could make oneself at home.

We found great Store of Indian Peas, (a very good Pulse) Beans, Oyl, Thinkapin Nuts, Corn, barbacu’d Peaches, and Peach-Bread; which Peaches being made into a Quiddony, and so made up into Loves like Barley-Cakes, these cut into thin Slices, and dissolv’d in Water, makes a very grateful Acid, and extraordinary beneficial in Fevers, as hath often been try’d, and approv’d on by our English Practitioners.  The Wind being at N. W. with cold Weather, made us make a large Fire in the Indian’s Cabin; being very intent upon our Cookery, we set the Dwelling on Fire, and with much ado, put it out, tho’ with the Loss of Part of the Roof.

And I get mad when I have to wait too long in line at Dunkin Donuts on the Garden State Parkway!

Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum was the first person to sail around the world alone. It took him three years, ending in 1898. Though the record seems strangely late to me, the book is a classic belonging to another time.

Slocum was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, ran away to sea as a boy, and though he became an American citizen, never settled down. Master of several ships, he raised a family with his first wife largely at sea. He held prestigious commands, but was beset by legal and financial setbacks; his first wife died, and he was nearly destitute by the time he undertook the voyage round the world, leaving a second wife behind him.

Spray was a 36 foot sloop, meaning a single masted rig with roughly triangular fore and aft sails. Spray was no fancy yacht, but the hulk of an oyster boat Slocum rebuilt so completely that it might have been another ship entirely. Crucially, he hit on a design that was able to keep a straight course with the wheel lashed in place. The feat does not seem to admit of easy explanation outside of its having a long keel and being “well balanced”, whatever that means. Anyhow, Slocum didn’t have to steer twenty four hours a day. The longest stretch of the voyage was 72 days, from Juan Fernandez off of Chile, to Samoa. In another stretch, from Christmas Island to the Cocos, he sailed twenty three days and claims to have steered for only three hours in that time. He spent his free time reading.



Slocum’s navigational methods were of a piece with his journey: at once crazily negligent and highly accomplished. He purchased his chronometer at a discount because it had a broken face; at some point it also lost its minute hand. He had a special mechanical log to measure distances travelled, but one day he reeled it in to find it had been chewed to pieces, probably by a shark. In practice, he navigated by dead reckoning. Once, to confirm his calculations, and also for the pure mathematical pleasure of it, he took his longitude by the long obsolete lunar distance method. I should have suspected that all the Longitude lone genius greatest problem business was a little hyperbolic. On the other hand, perhaps Slocum blundered through the Pacific and simply acted like he hit every mark.

One gets the sense that in these remote islands the sway of foreign missionaries and governments was still quite limited. I don’t really have a sense of the history at all. I believe Hawaii, in comparison, was basically conquered by American agribusiness around the same time. Some of Slocum’s accounts are Edenic, though with more than a touch of anarchic menace. The Cocos, he relates, were settled by two parties, a Scottish family accompanied by several sailors, and a lone adventurer with some sort of harem. The two groups did not get along, the sailors wooed the women away, and finally prevailed. Slocum remarks on how crowded with children this island was.

The first nonstop solo circumnavigation was not completed until 1969, during a race marked by bizarre and tragic turns. Slocum made many stops and devotes much of his book to them. In Tierra del Fuego he collected a cargo of shipwrecked tallow which he was able to sell on Juan Fernandez (of Robinson Crusoe fame) after teaching the inhabitants to make doughnuts. He was paid in “ancient and curious” coins from a wrecked galleon. In Samoa he met Robert Louis Stevenson’s widow. He took long enough that by the time he reached Australia and South Africa, his fame had preceded him and he was able to earn his way with public lectures.

The problem with this book is that he makes it seem too easy. A severe bout of food poisoning in the midst of a storm is an occasion for a long running joke about hallucinatory visits from the navigator of the Santa Maria. He talks to fish and and mentions breaking down in tears at the sight of land. Mostly, though, he doesn’t talk about why he wants to sail around the world or what it feels like. Perhaps it was obvious. Sailing Alone Around the World was a financial success. Slocum kept sailing. He and the Spray disappeared at sea in 1909.

Arranging the Imaginary Library

I picked out Behind the Urals at the Boston Athenaeum.  The library of the Athenaeum is, broadly speaking, divided into an old and a new collection.  The old books are those acquired while the library used a classification created by its own librarian, Charles Cutter.  Maybe forty years ago, they switched to the Library of Congress system.  As far as I know, reconciling the Cutter with the LOC would be extremely time consuming and not very helpful, since both are digitized.  The separation is interesting in itself.  For one thing, the old books look spectacular.  I’m not supposed to take photos, but it’s worth a search.  One of my favorite sections is what I think of as the travel section.  It’s located on a glass balcony above the main hall.  It’s where I found The Empty Quarter, about early twentieth century exploration in Arabia.  I had noticed Behind the Urals some time before, and I stopped putting it off and grabbed it a couple of weeks ago in keeping with my “see it, do it” resolution. (Just as I was writing this I put it aside and double checked the affiliation rules for Massachusetts primary elections.)

At school, we were enjoined when reading difficult books to assume good faith and interpret charitably.  I’ll admit that I found this easier for Marx than for some of the others, like Aquinas.  In my last post on Behind the Urals, I was trying to convey what was interesting in John Scott’s report, vis a vis idealism, women’s liberation, and educational reform (not to mention whupping Nazis) without supporting Stalinism, to put it bluntly.  Even that’s dubious if there’s reason to think that an author might not be writing in good faith.

So that brings me to the subject of my post: How do we know what we are reading?  I suppose most readers spend almost as much time thinking about the books they have not read as about the ones they have.  Accordingly, most of us carry with us a sort of vast imaginary library, and where a given book fits in that library tells us something distinct from what we get from actually reading it.  (Among others, Pierre Bayard writes about something like this, but I don’t feel like digging it out, and he of all people is not in a position to complain.)  Lately I’ve been troubled by the problem of arranging the imaginary library.  So while I don’t have any answer as to how we can trust what we are reading, hopefully I can illustrate this feeling.

I might never have run across Behind the Urals or The Empty Quarter outside the Athenaeum, and not solely because the collection runs to older books.  It’s also because the Library of Congress Classification appears to weaken the subject of travel writing (Cutter’s class A is listed as “Description and Travel, Eastern Hemisphere”) in favor of history.  On the LOC website, Behind the Urals is listed under DK, history of Russia, the former USSR, and Poland.  I realize that classification is difficult, and the historical themes of revolution and the buildup to WWII were part of the pleasure of Scott’s story.  More surprisingly, The Empty Quarter, which focuses narrowly on desert exploration, is also listed in world history, subclass DS (Asia).  Finally it turned out that a book about the arctic, Shackleton and the Endurance is in fact listed under class G (Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation).  From a certain point of view it is strange that a book like Behind the Urals could be found near, for example, works based on macroeconomic analyses written decades or more after the fact.  What connections have been made or missed based on the arrangement of a library?  William Goldbloom Bloch does well to push his investigation of the mathematics of the Library of Babel to include not only all possible books but all possible arrangements of the books.

I suspect that as well as being dispersed physically, the reputation of Cutter’s section A has suffered.  Such works are likely to be colonialist, Orientalist, or just plain too out of date for some people.  When are such generalizations really helpful?  I don’t really want to complain about this so much as about the fact that I simply don’t have much idea what is there.  There is no Oxford Companion to Travel Writing.  In a largish reference collection, the closest thing I found was A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701 to 1800.  There is the Cambridge Companion to Travel Literature, but my slight experience of of the Cambridge Companions involves long, theoretically motivated essays completely inimical to browsing.  This wing of my mental library remains dark.

The more I think about it, the more I am sure that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, published last spring, is a major event in science fiction.  Together with The Martian it represents a turn to hard science fiction engaged with contemporary issues.  At any rate, I’ve been returning to it again and again, and I usually find something interesting.  Right now I want to know why Rufus MacQuarie, faced with the end of the world, obtained an out of date version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for his underground fastness.  Sonar Taxlaw may be all the justification that exists for this decision, and she is probably sufficient, but it’s provoking nonetheless.  The library for the end of the world is an important sub department of the imaginary library, and you wouldn’t want to go into it with sub par reference works.  The ninth Britannica was famous for its scholarly articles, the eleventh for Americanizing and popularizing the same.  Who knows but that there might be shades of difference regarding the usefulness and accessibility of the technical articles even in the latest editions?  I hope someone out there knows.

Upcoming: my reading of the latest from Umberto Eco, Numero Zero. Lately I’ve picked up Bill Bryson’s favorite travel book and a book about botanizing in Tibet.

Magnitogorsk, or the Romance of Soviet Industry


Behind the Urals was published in the United States in 1942.  The author was John Scott, an American who spent about ten years working and studying in the Soviet Union.  Scott says that when he left college in 1931, he was pessimistic about his opportunities in America and interested in socialism.  He seems to have liked what he found in the USSR, but it was not propaganda work, which he was offered when his Russian was up to speed, or membership in the Communist Party.  It was building.  Scott arrived in Moscow equipped with a certificate in basic welding; ten days later he was on a train to the new city of Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, on the western edge of Siberia. 

Magnitogorsk was named for a geological anomaly: a mountain of iron ore so concentrated that it attracted the compass needles of early prospectors.  It had been worked before, but Scott arrived at the same time as an unprecedented push to exploit the region’s resources.  He was put to work in subzero temperatures welding structural iron and piping for one of four enormous new blast furnaces.  At the same time, in addition to blast furnaces to extract iron from ore, the Magnitogorsk combinat was developing coking facilities to feed the furnaces, open hearths to convert iron into steel, and rolling mills to shape it.  With the assistance of German and American engineers, the Soviets intended to build a copy of the giant steel mills of Gary, Indiana.  The only things lacking were coal and anything above the barest means to feed and support the thousands of workers. 


The Ural River basin, by SaphronovAB (?) and Materialscientist, CC attribution share alike, via Wikimedia Commons

When Scott began, he shared a room in a barracks with his supervisor.  They burned stolen railroad ties to keep warm and their meals were rationed.  Scott saw a rigger fall off the scaffolding and helped to take him to the unheated hospital.  He saw another worker frozen to death, and mentions many burns and cases of frostbite.  He himself was burned severely enough to require two weeks of convalescence.  Scott emphasizes that one of the reasons that people worked so hard despite atrocious conditions and frightening politics was that certain things really were getting better.  Scott, at least, had a choice as to whether to stay or leave.  From the very beginning, he attended school at night, along with most of his fellow workers.  His first course of study covered Russian, mathematics, and a lot of history and dialectical materialism.  They were serious about political indoctrination.  Later he was able to enroll in a metallurgy program.

Scott married a woman he met at school.  Masha was one of fourteen children born to an illiterate peasant couple back west.  A passage concerning the couple’s trip to see her parents and the warm welcome Scott received despite his broken Russian and strange life choices is, to use a cliche, humanizing.  In Magnitogorsk, Masha was working as a secretary and studying math; eventually she became a high school teacher.  Phrases like “expanded opportunities” don’t seem to do it justice.  In an astonishing passage, Scott describes meeting the operator of a blooming mill: “She sat in a white cabin with large double glass windows directly over the rolls of the mill, and operated a score of control buttons and a dozen foot pedals.  One set in motion the rolls which brought the ingots to the mill; another regulated their speed; several more controlled the large mechanical fingers which turned the ingot over…”  She was another peasant, who took the course in operation because she was sick.  Her nervous concentration is jealously guarded by the other workers, who are hoping to set a record by rolling out one of the eight ton ingots in under a minute. 

By the time his child is born Scott has gone from practically camping in the freezing construction site to living in his own apartment in a city with street cars, theaters, and stores that are almost passable.  He and Masha even have a maid.  In the summer of 1933, Scott took a trip around the Urals.  The Soviets were scrupulous about things like vacation and overtime pay.  (Scott connects the purge of the late thirties with administration in a general sense, suggesting that they were too advanced in it for their own good.)  On his way, he witnessed the aftermath of a train wreck in which the rails were rerouted around the fallen engine, which was too heavy to move.  In Sverdlovsk, he saw the basement where the Romanovs were killed, and in Chelyabinsk he saw the giant tractor works that was presumably a major customer of Magnitogorsk steel. 

In a short time the tractor factory would be redubbed “Tankograd”.  Heavy industry is never so romantic as when it stands as the great bastion of a battered empire, as it did by 1942.  By then the Nazis had taken Kiev and Kharkov, they were within sight of the Kremlin in Moscow, and Leningrad was heavily besieged.  That the Soviets were able to keep fighting must be partly down to the efforts of Scott and his comrades, and the country’s ability to relocate workers, machines, and whole industries to the railroad and power grids behind the Urals. 


T-34s roll off the assembly line, image from RIA Novosti, CC attribution share alike via Wikimedia Commons

Scott published his book at a time when attitudes towards the Soviet Union had not yet hardened in this country, because of our alliance against fascism and our own struggle with the Great Depression.  Now, for equally obvious reasons, they have hardened, though I don’t know if this is a good thing.  I doubt most Americans keep in mind the scale of the fighting that the Soviets endured in what we think of as our good war, not to mention the catastrophe of WWI and the ignorance under the Tsardom that left some of Scott’s coworkers studying their letters and numbers into their forties. 

It’s a bad problem and this book is a one sided look at it.  Scott knew about the starvation of millions in Ukraine, but doesn’t ask whether the food that supported him and his comrades in the Urals in the winter of 1932 and 1933 might actually have been stolen from those starving millions.  He instead refers to them as casualties in some vague kind of economic warfare.  Similarly, it’s a shock to find out that by some accounts, thousands of American workers just like Scott were unable to escape the great purge of 1938. 

Scott was actually able to take a vacation in the United States around 1937, and he writes compellingly of the disorientation of returning to an economy suffering from a surplus of production and the comparatively trivial concerns of well off people facing unemployment.  When he returned to Magnitogorsk he found he was out of a job, but he continued to live there for some time, before moving to Moscow to work in translation and journalism.  He was separated from his wife and children for some time, but all of them got to the United States before the war.  He seems to attribute this and the marked deterioration in conditions for Magnitogorsk workers entirely to the exigencies of war.  Background information on Scott is spotty, but I have to wonder if he got out only because he was a spy (not that I’d venture to guess for which side), and accordingly, how much of this gripping story is just made up.

To follow: Where I found Behind the Urals, and how do we know what we are reading?

The Life of Johnson, Cont.

It’s often bothered me that history books become more thorough as they progress through time, so that if one were to bookmark off each decade or century, one would observe a kind of exponential growth.  Almost everything works this way, so I guess there’s little fighting it.  I am less than fifty pages into the second of six volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and already Johnson is fifty eight.  Their first meeting is recorded, with charming precision, at the end of the first volume, May 16, 1763.  Boswell panicked: “I do come from Scotland but I cannot help it.”  He was twenty three, and Johnson fifty four.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it’s surprising to me just how much that is famous appears in this first volume: There is the dictionary, and the definition of oats, “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” to which Boswell records the reply, “And where else will you see such horses, and such men?”  Johnson gets involved with a hoax, the Cock Lane ghost, and Boswell is at pains to explain that Johnson wasn’t as credulous as some claimed.  So too to make clear that he wasn’t really sadistic in conversation; the insults are just too memorable.  And of course there is his refutation of Berkeley, which is better in the full telling than I remembered.  He does not merely kick the stone, but struck “with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it.”

Boswell’s lengthy descriptions of Johnson’s unusual person and mannerism, as well as his depressive turn of mind, make for a vivid account, both of Johnson himself and of Boswell trying to reconcile his partiality for his friend with biographical truth.  For example, in the course of describing nights in the public houses with Johnson, Boswell reports that he affected not to be troubled by cold and rain but adds, “The effects of weather upon him were very visible.”  Boswell takes mild issue with the melancholy of Johnson’s novel Rasselas, quoting Voltaire “Apres tout c’est un monde passable” but he admits that “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” is, “in many respects, more than poetically just.”  What marvelous circumlocution.

It’s hard to imagine what we’d have if Johnson had been “entirely preserved” as Boswell speculated.  From the many years before Boswell met him, we might have learned more about Johnson the parliamentary reporter.  In his time, magazines carried highly idiosyncratic accounts, sometimes inventing speeches like Thucydides and sometimes hiding the identities of the speakers and even the real subject of debate.  There would be more about the nights when Johnson (despite being married, and to a much older woman) was so poor he spent all night walking around London with the disreputable poet Richard Savage.  Perhaps we would have more of the Johnson who knocked down the “impertinent” bookseller Osborne with a heavy book and throttled him. 

I have a long way to go in The Life of Samuel Johnson, and I’m rather looking forward to it, chronologically biased as it may be.  The Club, which at various times included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon, is only just getting started.  Then there is their trip to the Hebrides to look forward to.  I’m also looking forward to learning more about Boswell, who, at least in age, at this point in the narrative, I have more in common with.  If I am still curious about him afterwards, I could always read his journals.  These were only published in the twentieth century, and perhaps constitute one of the great recoveries of literary history.

Arch-pirates choose the Loeb Classical Library

I started off reading Livy in Penguin editions, but the last volume of their set is apparently abridged, so when I recently started back up on the history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, I started borrowing the Loebs.  The Loeb Classical Library is well known for its red and green volumes of Latin and Greek text with facing translations.  It’s sometimes criticized for prosy or out of date translations, and it would be a bit of a stretch for me to claim that the original texts are really any use to me.  But here are some wonderful words and phrases I would have completely missed out on if it weren’t for the Loebs:

“superos inferosque deos”


“magistro elephantorum”

“sed rerum natura”

“Quid autem, si vox libera non sit, liberum esse?”

“cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”


“Superos inferosque deos” means “gods above and below”, “inferosque” being cognate to “infernal”, I imagine.  The -que is a suffix meaning “and”, which often adds a poetic ring, as in “arma virumque cano”.

“Archipirata” should be obvious: pirate captain.  This turns up in an interesting and nasty conflict between two Rhodian captains during the war with King Antiochus of Asia.  The Greek island of Rhodes had an excellent navy; they were allied to the Romans but one of their exiled nobles was admiral for Antiochus.  This exiled captain pretended that he wished to defect, and promised the leader of the Rhodian allies, whom he hated, that he would let the fleet under his command grow slack and give them up.  Livy reports how the allied captain became every bit as slack and unwary as the man he hoped to bring in.  In an action involving the “archipirata” as well as the Rhodian exile, the Roman fleet was badly mauled and the credulous admiral killed.

“Magistro elephantorum” is another obvious one, the master of elephants.  War elephants, in this context.  Livy pulls out the stops describing the Battle of Magnesia, where Antiochus’ power was broken.  Some fifty elephants are said to have worn head armor and carried towers holding four men each.  They didn’t save the king, however, and the treaty he made with the Romans specified that he would give up all of his elephants, which must have made him very sad.

“Sed rerum natura” echoes the title of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, meaning On the Nature of Things.  Here it means something like “but that’s the way things are”, but it obviously sounds much better.  If I remember correctly, this was uttered by the more democratic Greek allies of Rome who began to make awkward demands with regard to another Roman ally, King Eumenes.  Democrats and autocrats can never really get along, it’s the nature of things.

“What, pray, was free, if there was no free speech?”  In a similar situation, Greek cities complained that Philip of Macedon, once defeated and now a Roman ally, was infringing on the freedoms guaranteed by the Romans themselves.  It sounds great but in other places Livy is rather contemptuous of this kind of thing.  Somewhere else he describes Athenian ships so laden down with decrees praising the Romans and attacking their enemies that they could hardly move.

“Cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”  “And remember how long winter lasts.”  This last is from Cato the Elder’s work on farming, giving advice on storing fodder for animals.  Elm leaves were good, apparently.  I’m reading Cato because he shows up in Livy around this time, 200 b.c., as an all around formidable guy, and his one surviving book is one of the oldest Latin prose texts in existence.  He would definitely have gotten along with the Starks.

And if you’ve read along this far, I’ll tell you that on page 329 of volume eleven, the Romans held a council “at Clitoris in Arcadia”.  This is not how the place name is rendered in other translations.

What do you think, should the Loeb Classical Library give me a sponsorship?

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker for the New Ten

I’m a little surprised at how excited I am for the new ten dollar bill.  I guess I like money? A brief stir around this issue about a year ago nearly got me writing about it then, and now I get a second chance.

American money

The front is great but who are those guys? They’re Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse. Steamboat and telegraph, I think? Thanks Wikimedia!

A look at Twitter confirms that there are a lot of issues on the table with this; some of them I want to deal with briefly and others I am going to stick my neck out on.  It should be the twenty, but I don’t have a lot to say about that.  I’m excited either way.  I also think it’s ridiculous to argue that Hamilton should stay because of his historic significance.  Seven portraits aren’t supposed to constitute an education in American history.  Banknotes used to change all the time.  If you can name every single person who was ever on one, maybe I’ll hear you out on this.

I also think that it’s wrong that there are no people of color on the money and I respect the arguments for Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and, a tangent for the moment, Martin Luther King.  I’m ashamed that there must be other obvious choices I’m not thinking of. 

This, however, is complicated by my feeling that the people on our money should be public servants: elected officials, that is, and people who actually work for the government.  There are people out there who seem to think that the government should scarecely exist and I would hate to give them a shred of satisfaction in this regard.  The Swiss put a famous myrmecologist, or ant scientist, on a thousand franc note, and Jane Austen is to be on a ten pound note in England, though that effort is not without its critics.  I’d love to see Mark Twain on a bill; it’s a great tradition, but it’s not our tradition.  Our tradition is old fashioned looking money with statesmen on it, and it’s a good tradition.

So who can we put on the ten?  My nomination is Sara Josephine Baker. She was born in 1873 to a Quaker family in New York.  She became a doctor and went to the New York Department of Public Health.  Working in infamous slums she saved thousands of babies from blindness and death.  Twice she was involved in catching the pitiable but no less terrifying Typhoid Mary, a cook who by a quirk of the immune system remained healthy while spreading typhoid fever and was ultimately imprisoned for life.  Baker broke down sexist barriers to teach at New York University.  It’s not entirely clear, and I don’t know much about it, but if chosen she might be the first lesbian on our money.  Her autobiography, Fighting for Life, was reissued by New York Review Books not long ago.

What do you think?  Am I being too conservative on this?  Am I crazy to think that it’s worth celebrating people who work for the government?  Maybe we should have a series of blacklisted and harassed artists on the currency.  Amazingly, Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers died last week or so; hers is a voice that takes me way back.  Sara Josephine Baker just strikes me like no other name I’ve seen out there.  Who do you think is the perfect woman for the ten dollar bill?

Fantastic Maps of American History

I think I need to start blogging more regularly about my finds in Boston area used bookstores.  Yesterday afternoon it was Atlas of American History, edited by James Truslow Adams and published by Scribners in 1943.  I paid five bucks for this book, which, following a beautifully simple plan, consists of 147 full page maps.  There are no paragraphs of text aside from the briefest notes where they can be fit into the maps themselves, and (a somewhat strange claim) there are no “nonexact pictorial interpretations”.  It works, though, and some of the maps are incredible.


I guess I’m always thinking about maps, but this book fits particularly well with some other things I’ve seen lately.  A little while ago the London Review of Books casually upended the world when they published a remark to the effect that the names of Tolkien’s hobbits were derived from American sources, in Appalachia to be specific.  The Boston Public Library is putting on an exhibit of maps of imaginary worlds.  They had Narnia, Middle Earth, and Westeros, but also Redwall; it was nothing revelatory, perhaps, but still cool to see them large and in one place.  Look at some of the place names on the map below.  What’s so fantastical, so outlandish, about fantasy?