BOOK REVIEW: “The Storm Before the Storm” and the seduction of history

We have a tendency to look at the past as a mirror, yearning to see ourselves reflected in it rather than to see the past as a foreign country — even when, indeed, it’s both.

So there’s a form of historical divination that tries to read the past closely and thoroughly enough that the present is entirely recognizable because that means the future foreseeable.

Sometimes this is presented merely in aphorism (“history repeats”, “it rhymes”, “people repeat history”); sometimes pseudo-scientifically (“these are the six economic indicators that will predict the next president”). Previous societies would sacrifice animals on an altar and from their entrails suss out messages they already wanted to find. We’re much more advanced, so we substitute cherry-picked data in place of viscera.

Roman history, though, is especially at risk for this sort of confirmation bias because there is so very much of it and it influenced so many successor states, all of whom could reasonably claim to have inherited part of its legacy, whether that’s the Catholic Church, the Byzantines, or Franks to the Russian czars, Ottoman sultans, or Spanish kings.

As much as anyone, though, the United States has intentionally drawn those same parallels since our very founding. Rejecting absolutism, we were a republic with the highest ideals of personal liberty and equality under the law. Yet, like the Romans, we only cared to extend this to some. The Roman Republican was not above extending its own state power into nascent empire via genocidal warfare, building a society and economy with the slave labor intrinsic to its continued functioning.

When hobbyist podcaster turned professional popular historian Mike Duncan set out to write his 2017 book The Storm Before the Storm, he admits he went into it with an eye toward resonant parallels between Rome and the United States.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Bone and Sinew of the Land’ recovers some American history that actually has been erased

When it so happens—more regularly now than before but never yet regular enough—that a cheap zinc or bronze cast of some semi-famous slaver is yanked from its pedestal in the middle of a city night, or when a suburban school board in broad daylight votes to no longer compel students to adorn their bodies with the name and imagery of a particular child trafficker, invariably there rises the cry:

“You’re erasing history! You’re censoring our Confederate past! You’re rewriting collective memory to sanitize it!”

This, of course, is worse than nonsense and akin to defending the maintenance of NAMBLA-installed plaques to Jerry Sandusky. It should be regarded as such whether it’s an argument being made by angry, open bigots in Facebook comment sections or under the auspices of the National Review.

But some worthy portions of our history have indeed been buried, erased, and minimized. Harvard’s Anna-Lisa Cox’s latest book The Bone and Sinew of the Land is an example of what it actually looks like when that sort of history is excavated for a popular audience, and what a positive effect that can have.

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BOOK REVIEW: The real “Good News About Bad Behavior” is that the kids are already alright

Journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis’s inaugural book, The Good News About Behavior grew out of a 2015 article for Mother Jones called “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?“. The promotional material claims it was the most read story the magazine had ever published; The Seattle TimesClaudia Rowe relates that it got more than 4 million hits.

That’s a good clue you ought to get to work writing a book for someone to sell.

Which Lewis did. This book, subtitled “Why Kids Are Less Disclipined Than Ever—And What To Do About It” or in some editions, “Am I So Out of Touch? No, It’s The Children Who Are Wrong” might be the most important book ever written considering what we’re up against with Kids These Days.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘No Ashes in the Fire’ by Darnell L. Moore burns bright and goes out too soon

It’s a rare thing for a book to conclude and your biggest complaint be that there quite wasn’t enough of it. Yet, that’s what Darnell L. Moore accomplished with his memoir No Ashes in the Fire.

It’s an impressive work of introspection, family heritage, and the intersectionality of race, sexuality, gender, and even faith, all the more so because it’s done in beautiful prose.

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BOOK REVIEW: Barbara Ehrenreich is old enough to die, but still has plenty to say

In Gulliver’s Travels, the titular character visits many strange, foreign lands in the service of satirist Jonathan Swift’s desire to poke fun at the flaws of the culture of his time and to talk regularly about human excretions.

Adaptations, especially those aimed at children, tend to only reproduce the book’s evocative imagery of being a giant among the tiny Lilliputians and being doll-sized among the towering Brobdingnagians. They leave out the scenes of defecating enough to fill a miniature church or being forced to watch colossal serving girls urinate. Laputa, the floating island of scientific wonder, sometimes appears in other contexts such as Japanese animated film, but without the associations of trying to turn digested food back into something edible. The humanoid primitives, Yahoos, survived into common parlance better than the rational, equine Houyhnhnms, but without the association of feces-flinging.

One brief, excreta-free section from Gulliver’s Travels is not among those often reproduced whatsoever: Gulliver meeting the immortal struldbrug. These are a special breed of human who are able to live essentially forever but without eternal youth. Their teeth fall out, their eyesight and hearing fail, their memories dull, they aren’t allowed autonomy or property ownership, and eventually can’t communicate even with each other because their dialects grow indistinguishable. The people of the land of Luggnagg are thankful for death because they’re constantly reminded of what the real alternative is.

I’m not the first to point out the similarity of modern medicine in creating cursed immortality as a reality for us, but our appreciation for the inevitability and even relief of death continues to lag behind for most.

Barbara Ehrenreich is definitely not counted among such people, and her latest book Natural Causes is a short, solid piece of prose about what it means to suffer from age, accepting the reality of death, and the sorts of things a person ought to consider when weighing both.

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BOOK REVIEW: This is your brain on ‘Collusion’

I didn’t think it would be possible to write a book that would make me feel sympathetic to central bankers around the world, but by the end of Nomi Prin’s “Collusion”—stylized, naturally, “COLLU$ION“—I admit, she’d done it.

This was not her intention. Prin’s main charge is an attractive one: that central bankers around the world, led by the United States Federal Reserve, colluded with one another in order to enrich those who were already the very wealthiest in society. To do this, they fabricated money to be pumped into the global economy through zero or near-zero interest rates, never bothering to address the fundamental, underlying problems. Because banks have been using all of their temporary, emergency measures consistently throughout the past decade, Prin says, they’ll have no other tools available when the next crisis hits, so it will be an even larger calamity.

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BOOK REVIEW: The past is a foreign country, but youth is a different species

Getting older is a bizarre experience.

When we’re young, we are, understandably, not very good at anticipating the sort of person we’ll one day become; only in hindsight do we realize that. More surprising, or at least challenging to our sense of continuity, is that once through the veil of maturity, we’re just as poor at retrospection. It’s as if we’re reincarnated with mostly vague recollections of our previous life—we retain something of before, but we’re no longer the same person.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s book Inventing Ourselves is a fascinating examination of what recent decades of technological progress and investigation have shown us about the teenage brain.

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