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Bringing a History Book to Life

Every time it happens, it delights me: how a book becomes more interesting if it overlaps with some observation or experience in real life. For instance, I am nearing the end of David Irving's, "Hitler's War."  Although my interest in the book was waning, it perked up when I talked to a couple tourists in a huge German tourist tank, who had invaded our campground, and rejected it.

Consider Germany's debacle when they invaded Russia in 1941. How could one of the most "advanced" nations of the world fail to conquer a backward, third-world nation like the USSR? It's not that I disagree with the explanations offered by historians, but thinking of that type pulls you away from the reality of how personalities actually think.


Consider the German tourists today who drove in with one of those huge military-like, "Outdoor Expo" RVs that outweigh three Panzer tanks of World War II. I joked that he shouldn't have any trouble crossing the little mou…

The Historian, the Photographer, and the Babushka

I've read quite a bit of Russian history the last couple years. In part, it is a rebellion against the 'Boris & Natasha' silliness in the news -- not that an attempted soft coup d'etat is silly. And there were other reasons.

By now it is reasonable to ask whether all this history-reading is time well spent. Although the odds were against it, Google helped me find some Russian photographs to complement my reading.

Take a look at this photograph from Beyond Sochi: Photos Of Russia By Russians


Would you agree that this is not a trivial postcard of the type you have seen on the internet a million times?

Doesn't it make you feel like you are right there, in the babushka's shoes?

Now think of Tolstoy's essay, "What is Art?", wherein he argues against the common notion that Art is about beauty, and instead, claims that art is the transference of feelings to the observer, by means of pictures, sounds, and words.

The photograph is an excellent example of Art…

Achieving Lift-off in a New Organization

From time to time I revisit the metaphor in the original "Star Trek". The guest star was Joan Collins. The Enterprise boys encounter a "Time Portal", that showed images of the Past in quick succession. If they jumped through at just the right second, they would be transported back to the time and place of the images.

When fantasizing about that sort of transportation, it is easy to choose a time and place: I would go back to the very beginning of any significant mass-movement in history. They would all be fascinating. Imagine traveling with St. Paul, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, France in 1789, Lenin, or Hitler before they showed up on historians' radar screen. (I suppose Gandhi's early career is known best.)

What makes this timely enough to write about is my involvement with a couple new organizations. Real world experience may easily be more informative than a shelf of historical lumber. 

As an example consider the 1200 page book I am currently reading about the …

500 Years of History to Size Up

Recently there has been a timely opportunity to wrestle with the Big Picture: the Protestant Reformation had its 500th birthday. Secondly a quirky election (for a Senate seat in Alabama) makes you wonder how American culture looks from the perspective of a European post-Christian. Thus there are two timely examples to think about the last 500 years of the Decline and Fall of European Christianity.

I cannot answer these issues in a brief post. But I do want to advertise them as an opportunity. Many important questions are ignored even though we know that they are important. They are big, and take too much hard work. This is how the timeliness of the news, or our outrage at news coverage, can be used to spur us on to the Difficult. It's the best use I know of.

For my part I am reading Hilaire Belloc again, in part because the English-speaking world is already saturated with the Whig Interpretation of History. I need to hear history from the Catholic viewpoint to be 'awakened from …

My First Experience at Appreciating Metaphysics

"The great uncertainty I found in metaphysical reasonings disgusted me, and I quitted that kind of reading and study for others more satisfactory."Good old Ben Franklin.  Thus he dismissed metaphysics from his life, and went on to accomplish real things. I reached the same conclusion years ago. So it is ironic that, relatively late in life, I've actually enjoyed a book about metaphysics.

Hardly a day goes by when there isn't news about Islamist terrorism. I am actually sick of the whole topic. Consider how much of your short life can be wasted on following the news on this subject, and yet, you end up understanding nothing! But being buried under trivial and repetitive news makes a person suspicious that something fundamentally important has been overlooked.

This put me in the mood to go back to the early days of Islamic thought. Where and when was the fork in the road for Islamic thinkers? Why did they take a different fork than Christian ones?

After reading Robert Rei…

How Someone Should Write History

I should probably offer an excuse for talking about a book about the French Revolution, lest somebody say, "Yea but how is that, like, relevant, man?"  The answer is that much of what we call political news and "current events" is really just fighting the French Revolution all over again.

Details. Do I ever hate details in history books. Consider a book on the causes of the French Revolution: the author could grind through the legal system, economic conditions, etc. All very important of course. But what a tedious bore!

Consider the rather different approach used by Simon Schama, in "Citizens," A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Old-regime France had been no stranger to public ceremonies and spectacles. But your place near the viewing stand was controlled by the aristocratic pecking order.

Then, in the 1780s, public spectacles saw a radical change. Balloons became the high-tech rage. Once they were in the air, it all viewers had the same view.
In other wor…

When a Significant Book Strikes You

Occasionally the lyrics of a song can make a great impression on the listener. They aren't just trying to rhyme. Nor are they wailing about their frustrated lusts and infatuations. The thoughts are important and fundamental, and they managed to make them so concise that they fit into a song. Incredible!

Books can be like that, too. The 'soul' of the reader is so weary of being insignificant flotsam, rushed along by the cultural effluvium of the times. If it manages to get even a glimpse of a truthful Big Picture, then life hasn't been wasted.

That is the effect that reading a book had on me, recently. The book was Pat Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War." You may enjoy the book even if you don't agree with every opinion of his.

Here we are, a century after the 'Great War,' and we are still suffering the consequences of World Wars I and II and the Cold War. None of the fundamental assumptions of the American Empire ever get tal…

Understanding the Driving Force of a Movement

For a traveler of the interior West, few books are more natural to choose than Wallace Stegner's "Mormon Country." Nevertheless I had never read it until recently, after a friend put it into my hands. Stegner did an admirable job of being unprejudiced about Mormonism per se. Clearly, he was more interested in the human story of the Mormons than theological doctrines, and rightly so, considering the drama of the Mormon story.

Somewhere in the book, Stegner said (more or less), "After the faith had subsided a bit, the driving force was still there." But then he didn't say what that driving force was! That is really the question that interests me. Although the non-Mormon reader today may have no interest in Mormon theology, it was important to the Mormons of the time. Their great efforts were predicated on a theology that convinced them...but of what?

Stegner can be forgiven for not really explaining what the Driving Force was. It is difficult to look back into…

Why Is It Easier to Appreciate Things, With Time?

Surely I am not the first person to notice that he can now appreciate things that he used to yawn at, or even positively dislike. Perhaps it really is true that 'it is a shame that Youth is wasted on young people..."

For example, the other day I came back from a tour of a historic ranch, in arid Arizona, and rewatched the movie, "Jean de Florette." I liked it the first time I saw it, 30 (!) years ago. But this time I was cooing with pleasure. How do you explain this?

The movie is easy to like -- despite being French: dry rural scenery in southern France, farms and old stone buildings, a musical score inspired by Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" a beautiful girl, and a depiction of a different way to live, about a century ago. Even the story was pretty good, which is the last thing you have a right to ask from a movie.

But such things were true 30 years ago when it was made, and when I first watched it. So what has changed? Earlier in the day, two RV friends…

Finally, a Success at Reading a Russian Novel

It is always a bit of a triumph when I survive a Russian novel, in this case a historical novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "August 1914". A worthy book.

I'd like to do something I haven't done before on this blog: show what I've been doing most of my adult life when I read a book. What good is a book if the words go into one eyeball and out the other? In order for the book to have any effect on your life, you must retain the best parts of it -- its juicy but condensed nuggets of goodness. And then you can digest and assimilate these nuggets into your own organism.

To mix metaphors, let's look for the book's classic quotes, its pemmican of wisdom, and turn them into building blocks for our own mental skyscrapers in the future. 

p. 107/622:  He had not expected to find much to hearten him at Second Army Headquarters...Vorotyntsev was still depressed whenever experience confirmed the invariable rule that every headquarters was staffed by people who were selfish…

Immortality in a Threatening Wind

What a nice morning it had been: moderately cool, calm, and sunny. Coffee Girl and I had just finished a mountain bike ride up an arroyo where, at the beginning of my travel career, I had stumbled onto a "cliff dwelling." Not an official one, of course. But it was possible to imagine turning it into a cliff dwelling or emergency shelter. Back then I took a chance in dragging my trailer upstream in the gravel arroyo, with only my rear wheel drive van. And I camped there that night, and made a fire in the little cliff dwelling, and amused myself with making shadows on the ceiling. (Plato would have been impressed.)

Alas, the cliff dwelling seemed less romantic today than it did way-back-when. This stung. Did it mean that my travel lifestyle had become too predictable and tame?

We laid down for the usual post-ride siesta, relaxing to a movie with a good musical score. But it became difficult to hear the movie because of the howling wind. What the hell was going on, out there!? Si…

The Flag Controversy and the Meaning of Travel

Somehow I have gotten sucked into the thankless and unpopular task of shaming reforming the travel blogosphere. After a thousand-and-one microscopic how-to details, somebody needs to ask What is the Point of travel? What does it mean? What are the fundamental benefits?

In fact it has long been recognized that 'travel broadens your perspective.' That's an interesting word, perspective.

So let's light one candle rather than curse the darkness when it comes to the Confederate flag controversy that has been raging the last couple weeks. As a young man I spent some time in the South. My background was that of a typical, smug, brainwashed yankee -- from the Land of Lincoln, no less.

I had a part-time job at a Holiday Inn as a bus boy. Many of the cooks and waitresses were negroes, the first negroes that I had ever been around. One night, a pretty young negro waitress pulled me over with "...kaBLOOnie, I have a friend who would be just perfect for you..."  Actually she…

Historical Picture for the Modern Fourth of July?

Will internet search engines ever get better? They are supposed to be so good now, but I don't believe it. All they do is match keywords, buzzwords.  And then use your search as the input to an advertising algorithm. They don't respond to thoughts or ideas.

For instance, we are on the eve of  "our" most obscene national holiday. A more optimistic person would have merely said "most ludicrous and hypocritical" holiday. I have trained myself to tune it out, rather than dwell on it with sourness, and then lash out at what America has become.

But it would be better to find something more constructive. What if internet search engines were actually good, and I came to them with a thought instead of a keyword? What history books or novels could I read that would inform on the situation an American finds them-self in, today? 

Who else has experienced pride in their country when they were young, and then grew to despise their country? Was it only grouchy old men who di…

Hitting a Home Run in the Book Department

Bertrand Russell, in his eighties, was killing time in an airport, reading a novel that pleased him. He told somebody, "I've dedicated the first 80 years of my life to philosophy. The next eighty go to fiction." He lived to 98. With that inspiration, it is certainly worth tooting my horn over a rare success in the book department, especially because it resulted from deliberate flexibility.

A reader's life has not been wasted if they end up with a good understanding of the Great War and the French Revolution. Although I've yet to find a book on the Great War that really blew me away, I have bumbled onto a great book on the French Revolution. Once, when reading a Tolstoy novel, one of his characters was said to be reading Taine, a popular French writer of that era. I had never heard of him, nor have many modern readers, I suppose. What a shame.

Actually he wrote a series of seven books about the ancien regime, the Revolution proper, and then the Napoleonic sequel.  H…

The Second-best Sensual Pleasure Outdoors

Sometimes you just have to slow down and soak it up.  My campsite was broadside to the west wind, coming off a large sagebrush flat near Cuba, NM. It was the hottest time indoors, 4 o'clock. But soon the shade from one large ponderosa pine would cool off my trailer. This was proof of how few trees a summer camper really needs.

I hardly ever sit outside in a chair, therefore I was paying Mother Nature a genuine honor to move a chair into the shade of that lone ponderosa, and do absolutely nothing. Normally it is more comfortable and useful to be inside my little igloo on wheels. Usually people don't use 'windy' as a compliment, but they should: not only does it cool you, but it keeps the bugs off.

But this afternoon I just sat there, indolently and contentedly, in the shade of that lone ponderosa, and took a wind-bath in la brisa fresca from the west. Since I dislike heat, and this was the hottest day since February in Yuma, it was easy to appreciate the cool breeze almo…

Admiring Ascetics as Athletes of the Will

It is so easy to poke fun at ascetics -- or moral posturers of any type -- that I usually give in to the temptation. Their philosophy does not agree with the Prime Directive of this blog: living at the point of diminishing returns.

I have no interest in renouncing the Prime Directive since I am thoroughly convinced that it is sane, prudent, rational, and adult. If I were acting as if I were going to renounce it, the readers should be suspicious of an April Fool's joke. That sort of thing does not appeal to me.

Rather than renounce a good principle, it is better to think of 'exceptions that prove the rule.'  Any essay on asceticism fits in with the tradition of New Year's resolutions. It also coincides with the biography I have just finished, "Gandhi Before India," by Ramachandra Guha.

Before talking about asceticism I would like to praise biographies of a certain type. This biography was about a man, not a "Mahatma." Those of you who have seen the well…

Admiration

One of the uses of old age is to develop the "muscles" that can actually improve with age. By that I mean developing the capabilities and habits of Appreciation, Gratitude, and Admiration. Today's focus is on Admiration.

I once used an inspiring speech by an anti-hero, "The Hustler," in the 1962 black-and-white film noir movie starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason. But before re-quoting it, let's first ask why it inspired at all. Art, according to Tolstoy's "What is Art", is not really about "beauty," as most people mistakenly suppose; rather, Art is the infecting of the viewer/reader with the emotional experience of the artist, by words, pictures, or sounds. And the makers of "The Hustler" certainly did that to me. 

Maybe their trick was to exploit the inherent advantages of an anti-hero. (Does that trick also apply in the blogosphere?) If a goodie-two-shoes, follow-the-rules, smiley-face had made the sam…

Wanted: More "David Lean Style" Novels

It might be fair to describe the David Lean style movies (e.g., Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago) as consisting of a close-up drama of the main characters, usually during wars or revolutions, and with a huge landscape in the background. (Doctor Zhivago was the only one in the list that was pulled down by love triangles, adultery, and all the rest of that puke. And that wasn't really Lean's fault.)

To be a happier novel-reader I need to find books that remind me of Lean's movies. By luck I did. Tolstoy's "Hadji Murat" was written late in Tolstoy's life. The short novel took place in the same setting where young Tolstoy served in the Czar's army, the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Reading this short novel will probably make you feel like the ideal traveler, who learns about radically different ways of life, and not just silly scenery tourism. Of course there is plenty of scenery in the neighborhood, includ…

The Sun Winds Down

It was better than a colorful sunset. Surprisingly I had never done this before: drive out of my way to a spot where the mountains didn't block the last hour of the sun. Then I made a cup of tea and sat on the front step of the RV and watched the sun set. What did I think? That if I sipped the tea slowly the sun would slow in its descent, and I could suck out another five minutes of daylight?

But the leisurely sipping seemed to honor the sun and season. It is that time of year again, when I always getting a funny feeling in the stomach and a lump in the throat. It is time to retreat from the highest altitudes. No matter how many times I have done this, it still seems significant and dramatic.

But why does this funny feeling only come at the beginning of autumn? It never feels this way in the spring. Shouldn't it be symmetric?

My best guess is that we gringo/palefaces have a tribal memory of winter: winter is dangerous, winter is suffering. To escape winter by heading downhill and…