A couple of months’ worth:
DESCARTES’ BONES: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto chronicles the life and impact of René Descartes, showing that the scope of his once cutting-edge views has faded with time (like his belief reason could figure out the cause of age and disease and give us the lifespans of the Old Testament patriarchs) Shorto then goes on to show how Descartes’ rep as a founder of free thought, however exaggerated (“He didn’t see any conflict between the power of reason and believing in God.”) led to multiple efforts to preserve his bones, then to his becoming an exhibit in the debates over intelligence and skull size and increasing puzzlement when it turned out his skull wasn’t really his. Interesting, but Shorto’s blathering about the importance of balancing Faith and Reason gets old fast.
CLEOPATRA: Histories, Dreams Distortions by Lucy Hughes-Hallett does an excellent job chronicling how an intelligent, wonkish administrator who spoke nine languages was recast by Octavius Caesar as self-indulgent vamp, thereby making his civil war with Antony a battle between Noble Rome and the Decadent East. Hughes-Hallett does a good job putting much of the propaganda in prospective (much of Cleopatra’s supposedly reckless spending probably relates to her leadership of the cult of Isis), then discussing how Cleopatra has been reinvented across the centuries as wanton, Good Wife, a woman who’d die for love (and a lot about the snake iconography, including whether she was bitten at all), femme fatale (including the now obscure legend that any man who slept with her was killed the next day), political symbol (in some 18th-century dramas she and Antony were arrogant aristocrats opposed to Octavius’ rightful monarchy), avatar of the Inscrutable East and slightly campy bad girl. Very good, though I’d like to have seen more on the non-western versions HH mentions (like an Egyptian writer for whom Cleopatra is Independence against Western Colonialism).
THE MEANING OF TINGO and Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod is a fascinating, ir random collection of foreign words from Concepts We Don’t Have Words For (Saint Glinglin is French slang for a date that gets postponed over and over) to classifications we don’t make (Hawaiian has names for every night of the lunar cycle) and phrases (khali kukhweni is Zulu for “a noise in the pocket” or a cell phone). Amusing.
WASHINGTON: The Making of the Nation’s Capitol by Fergus Bordewich chronicles the variety of reasons for locating the American capital in the wilderness on the banks of the Potomac (the desire to keep it in slaveholding territory, Washington’s conviction the Potomac was the gateway to the west, political horse-trading over Hamilton’s Bank of America) and the long and sluggish efforts to actually build it and the clashes over what it should look like (Simple and Unpretentious or Rome Reborn?). Surprisingly timely in its portrayal of land speculators such as Robert Morris trying to successfully “flip” their investments, and grim, of course, in the on-going clash of slavery with freedom. Well done.
WORLDS OF SENSE: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures by Constance Classen looks at the concept of the five senses as a cultural artifact (“Aristotle decided the senses should number five to match the five forms of matter.”) to show, for example, how smell was accorded a much higher rank in medieval times (when roses were prized for scent more than appearance, and “odor of sanctity” was taken as reality) and how other cultures rank the senses very differently (one Central American tribe interprets the world in terms of its heat or coldness, while an Andaman Island tribe views all beings as solidified odors). Dry, but excellent in showing how something we take as bedrock is no more definite than shifting sands.
RAPTURE READY: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh does a fine job of capturing creators, consumers and marketers in the world of Christian music, TV, super-heroes, pro wrestling and sex manuals. Better than I expected in showing the problems for creative types in trying to do quality work (though Radosh and multiple interviewees agree there are plenty of people who don’t aspire to that) when they may be judged by how many Bible verses they work in, how many times they pray on stage or whether they can avoid offending any of the people who assume Chrisitan fiction must be completely inoffensive. Radosh concludes that it would be better for both quality and society if the evangelical world wasn’t walled off so much on the grounds that it would be no longer as easy for crap acts to rip off secular stars—though as one critic points out, plenty of people in the mainstream do that too.
FROM CHIVALRY TO TERRORISM: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity, by Leo Braudy, is a look at how manhood has shaped and redefined itself as war shifts from heroic single combat to massed infantry and back, and gradually become more and more mechanized (Braudy speculates one reason for Custer’s last stand becoming a legend is that it was two troops of cavarly—the classic image of the Noble Warrior—at a time the Gatling gun was making such “heroism” obsolete) along with dealing with women (“An effeminate man originally meant one who loved women too much.”), homosexuality and shifting standards of personal and national honor. This loses a lot of steam as it moves into the twentieth century, but overall very interesting.
A couple of months’ worth: