Thursday, March 13, 2008

What I'm reading these days

I am presently working my way through 6 books.
  1. Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics by George Reisman. I have tried a couple of times in the past to get through this gigantic book. I'm now about a quarter in and am hopeful I will finish it this time. All the other books are second priority to this one.
  2. The History of the Middle Ages by Victor Duruy. A nineteenth century history of the period. I started it last year but have gotten interested in other things. I will probably pick it up again when I finish one of the others.
  3. Essays on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead by Robert Mayhew (Ed.). Mostly done with it. Especially liked the essay by Onkar Ghate. I think I have only one or two more essays to read.
  4. Standrechtlich Gekreuzigt, by Weddig Fricke. German book that tries to determine the truth about Jesus and his trial. Interesting read so far.
  5. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand. Rereading this and almost done. Amazing how relevant even the more political essays are, even though they were written mostly in the 1960s.
  6. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff. I formed a local study group that meets weekly to work through the book, in conjunction with Gary Hull's excellent Study Guide. We're still on the first chapter.


Burgess Laughlin said...

The History of the Middle Ages by Victor Duruy. A nineteenth century history ...

I have a fascination for the "Middle Ages" (which would more aptly be called the Latin-Christian Period).

Would you explain why you chose Duruy's quite old account rather than any of the newer ones?

Gideon said...

I don't have a particularly profound reason. I remember various Objectivists stating that earlier histories lack some of the drawbacks of the more modern histories (e.g., political correctness, Marxism). I have read one newer acccount: William Manchester's A world lit only by fire (actually I listened to that one on tape). I picked up Duruy's book in a used book store more out of curiosity than anything else. Also, I have a few more books at home about the middle ages (a Penguin history and a book about daily life) which are more recent and I hope to read those as well some day.
The Latin-Christian period, as you put it, is one I was not particularly familiar with so I see this reading as filling gaps in my historical knowledge and also as part of gaining greater understanding of what a period dominated by religion would be like.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I have been a conscious student of history for more than 50 years. I love it.

I have a suggestion for anyone trying to build a better educational background through systematic reading: Don't read general, period-spanning histories. They are usually very boring because they don't get into the particulars that bring history to life.

In historical accounts, as elsewhere, objectivity requires abstractions and particulars (which in this case are the concretes as well).

Here is my suggestion for much more interesting and ultimately more rewarding reading about any long period, such as the thousand-years of the Latin-Christian period:

1. Pick a strand of culture that fascinates you: math, painting, architecture, accounting, physics, agriculture, machine technology, or whatever.

2. Find a history of that element, a history that includes the period you are interested in.

3. When you read about the history of accounting, for example, in the Latin-Christian period, pay very close attention to all the references to what is going on around that element. For example, the people of the Late Middle Ages were amazingly innovative. They invented double-entry bookkeeping, one of the most profound inventions of Western Civilization because it totals up profit and loss here in this world. It was a symbol of the rampant commercialism that burst forth in the 1200s in W. Europe. That in turn was connected to the vast networks of trade that some W. European governments encouraged. You can follow these leads if you want to, by looking at the footnotes and bibliography.

Here is another possible approach that is far more interesting than most general histories: Pick one particular place and follow its history through the whole period. For example, I highly recommend Frederic C. Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic.

It covers the whole period, with great illustrations and maps, from the founding of the republic by refugees fleeing the barbarian invaders after the collapse of the Roman Empire all the way up to Napoleon's conquest.

While you are "merely" following the history of that one city-state, you will see all the wider changes roll by:
- Commericial expansion to as far as China.
- Fights with Islamic states--and cooperation with them against other Christians.
- Inquisitions coming and going.
- Development of government with deliberate checks and balances of power.
- The horrors of plagues.
- Scientific discoveries (Galileo taught at the nearby university of Padua, and had he stayed there he might have been safe because the Venetian authorties often stiff-armed the papacy, which they considered an enemy).

All of this great parade passes by as you read this history of one city. And Lane's writing style is a pleasure to read. It is also fully documented. The maps and illustrations bring it to life, too. You can feel that you are actually there walking along the streets among the warehouses where spices are stored--with the fragrance so strong that some passersby felt faint.

Lane's book is a sample of the fascinating works that exist and that are very helpful for understanding a period through cumulative special (interesting) perspectives rather than works that are so broad they are "floating."