Books and Chain Letters

Pearsall’s Books has whacked me from afar with the book stick that seems to be flailing the blogosphere. So here are my answers.

1. How many books I’ve owned

No idea. A few thousand, I’m sure, in my five decades as a constant reader. Most of them I’ve read (or skimmed, or not) then passed on to family, friends, or the local Friends of the Library, where I have also bought many second-hand books.

2. The last book(s) I bought

Three second-hand books from Amazon partners: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo; Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth; and Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict

3. The last book I read

Gulag: A History (no surprise to my regular readers)

4. Five books that have meant a lot to me

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, reinforced by Endo Shusaku’s Silence, when I was in high school and questioning my (non-Catholic) religious heritage, but not yet my political faith. Oddly enough, the themes listed in the SparkNotes study guide outline some of what captured my imagination: the dangers of excessive idealism; the disparity between representation and reality; the interrelated nature of so-called opposites; the paradox of Christian humility (and that of other do-gooders). I might add another, the need for ritual, even without belief, to keep communities of ostensible believers from fracturing apart.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, Cancer Ward, August 1914. Solzhenitsyn, more than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Gogol or Turgenev or Chekhov, was my Russian writer. I must have read Ivan Denisovitch in high school, but the rest I very likely read during 1969-72 while I was in the Army (a fitting venue). Solzhenitsyn took some wind out of my political sails, and a dark year in Romania during 1983-84 further becalmed my youthful leftism, leaving considerable uncertainty in its wake. Bucharest was no Damascus. I discovered no new faith; I just became less convinced about my earlier verities, leaving me with “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” (Romain Rolland via Timothy Garton Ash).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, which was not so much an eye-opener as a confirmation that others were onto the question of how much of our history is contructed. In my final undergraduate year, long before I read this book, I wrote a paper for an anthropology class on American Indians in which I compared creative elements of the Meiji “Restoration” in Japan with Native American “revival” movements like the Ghost Dance and Peyote Cult. (My prof really liked it.) I’m fascinated by how things change, and used to subscribe to Natural History just to read Stephen Jay Gould’s columns about the history of evolutionary thought. Ernst Mayr’s One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought also helped stimulate my thinking about change, and so have various works by William H. McNeill. His succinct but stimulating Polyethnicity and National Unity in World History is worth tracking down, but see a depressing follow-up here.

John DeFrancis’ The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, plus his more broad-ranging successor, Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems. DeFrancis (plus a year in China) did a lot to counter my Japanese-influenced sense of Chinese characters as having very nearly arbitrary relations to spoken sounds. It’s amazing how few of the linguistics books I read in grad school have had a lasting impact. Of course, a lot of it was reading seminal article after seminal article, each brimming with the seeds of its own obsolescence.

David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East is a favorite in my most favorite subject area: history. But I’ve probably read more works by Barbara Tuchman than by any other historian, among which my favorite is Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945. I have a weakness for narrative history that highlights chance combinations of contingencies and personalities. Although I think intentional human agency counts for a lot, I believe unintended outcomes count for more.

5. Next victims

Okay, having exceeded my book count, I now flail in the general direction of only three new victims: Andrés Gentry, Fabian of Macam-macam, and Sean the White Peril.

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