What I’ve been reading

1. Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars.  A very thorough, reasonable, and well-researched account and synthesis of what we know about the origins of the Roman empire.  By my standards it is insufficiently concerned with generalizations, but I do understand how many might consider that an advantage.

2. Michael E. Hobart, The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide.  I wanted to love this book, and I still think it is quite important and worthy, but I don’t love reading this book.  Yet here is the first and marvelous sentence of the preface: “This book uses the history of information technology — in particular, the shift from alphabetic literacy to modern numeracy — to narrate and explain the origins of the contemporary rift between science and religion.”  After that it is dense.

3. Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.  The most interesting material concerns Khaldun’s history as a Sufi.  Which brings me to Alexander Knysh’s Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism, which I enjoyed.  Overall I find this a fruitful area to study, and I benefited from some parts of Alexander Bevilacqua’s The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment.

4. David Hockney and Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures.  How artists have thought about space and light over the centuries, consistently interesting and insightful, wonderful color plates too.  I am not persuaded by all of Hockney’s claims about art history, but overall he is much underrated as a writer and thinker, including on the nature and import of photography.

5. Ran Abramitzky, The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World, covers the economics of the Kibbutz.

6. Jeffrey C. Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.  I don’t have the time to make my way through the details of this 900+pp. book, but upon browsing it appears to be a work of incredible quality, scope, and original research.

7. Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History.  A radical revision of the usual story, based on a careful reexamination of Spanish and Nahuatl stories.  Restall seems to be mostly correct, but I will add two points: a) I never took the older account very seriously anyway, and b) I am more interested in the new macro-story than the micro-revisions of the march and the encounter and surrender and so on.  One big difference seems to be there was more early resistance to Cortés than the common accounts would have you believe.  And outright slaughter and starvation were more important for the war in the short run than we used to think, relative to smallpox and other maladies.  In any case, this is an important book for anyone who follows this area.


#7 - it still remains that a handful of heavily armored soldiers (Cortez, which means 'to cut' in Spanish) and Pizzarro took on and beat the bloody and brutal Aztecs and Incas. The Spanish--which also founded the Philippines--kicked azz. And you can't tell me smallpox was the reason: how long before smallpox decimates the population? Probably a couple of months or even a year, not long enough for the population to become weak. No, it was the same principal your local kung-fu teacher teaches you: when it's one person against a mob, in fact, only 2 or 3 people from the mob can reach the one person, and if that one person is in formation, like the Spanish were, it's even less. That's why there's a YouTube video showing three expert swordsmen take on--Three Musketeer style--like 30 amateur fencers and they almost pull off bettering all the amateurs (at the end a couple of lucky strikes take out the third expert).

That's not actually how the Spanish fought. They formed alliances with tribes that didn't like the Aztecs and fought with them against the Aztecs.

I am aware of that Bob, but the stories on the Spanish are that in both instances they, the Spanish, led the charge, not the alliances, who were more like vital support staff.

The Spanish were armored cavalry leading the charge.

How many?

My intuition says most of the Spanish were unmounted, though I could be wrong. Also lots of times, even after the invention of the spur, mounted warriors basically fought from a higher platform but did not ram people through with their lance, as you see in medieval jousting competitions.

Ray, no.

It's Cortés, with an s and it means decent or respectable. It comes indeed from cortes which means either courts or cuts. In Spanish there's no confusion because the political institution is feminine while the cut is masculine.

@Axa - how is there no confusion? Cortes was a man (i.e,, masculine) so 'cut' would make the first cut in my mind (I speak Greek, not Spanish, except at one point I memorized 1000 words of Spanish without the endings).

Wait a min........in the book Tyler is reading is spelled as Cortés and in U.S. popular culture is Cortez. The name of the sea has a very interesting history, we can blame the French for the misspelling ;)

"The Gulf of California has been called many things, but collectively (with spelling variations aside) these boil down to four names: Mar Bermejo (Vermillion Sea), Mar de Cortés (Sea of Cortez, Sea of Cortés), Mar Rojo (Red Sea), Golfo de California (Gulf of California).

Mar de Cortés (Sea of Cortez, Sea of Cortés). The name adopted by the Spaniards shortly after Ulloa’s journey. The person who is primarily responsible for this name is unclear, but it was most likely Ulloa himself. The “z” spelling was first used by the French in the mid-1700s. It later became a U.S. anglicization (as early as 1870), at first largely restricted to the popular press. However, the popularity and use of the “z” spelling has been increasing in recent decades, and the change form “s” to “z” has been made in both popular and professional texts since the late 1800s (hence, on the basis of common usage it seems to be a valid anglicization). There seems to be no evidence that Hernán Cortés ever spelled his own name with a “z.”

Contemporary usage today is split between, Mar de Cortés (Sea of Cortez, Sea of Cortés) and Golfo de California (Gulf of California). Modern Mexican government maps use both names (in the Spanish version, of course), whereas modern U.S. maps use Gulf of California (although maps in the popular press often use Sea of Cortez)".

The best spelling would be "Cortês" as in the Portuguese word for "polite" and "relating to he court".

Smallpox had already had a serious effect on the population structure in the years before Cortez's arrival having arrived with earlier European voyagers elsewhere in the continent.

Cortez was able to ally with several major ethnic groups who were already been subjects or enemies of the empires.

But a variant of syphilis comes from Pre-Columbian South America, so are we to blame syphilis among the Spanish as coming from the Indians? Admittedly, you can function for years with syphilis but not with smallpox.

It's far more than the duration of the disease. Compare the methods of transmission between smallpox and syphilis. The later requires rather specific forms of intimate physical contact, the former can be transferred face-to-face, via bodily fluids, or carried by objects, resulting in a much (orders of magnitude) wider and rapid spread of the infection. As a weapon of conquest, smallpox is clearly the more effective weapon.

As to blaming Native Americans for the spread of syphilis among Europeans, this is a commonplace notion. See, for example, Voltaire's Candide.

Actually, this is exactly the version of events that Restall challenges, in my view with considerable evidence on his side.

Restall argues (to be overbrief) that the Spaniards were initially held captive, probably in the Aztec zoo, very possibly for future sacrifice during spring rituals when enemy soldiers were publicly slain. As the execution day approached, they rebelled and escaped with terrific loss of life--that was the Noche Triste. Cortes's role in all this was much less than historians have traditionally believed (including, for what it's worth, journalists like me). Instead there were several mostly independent bands of Spaniards, who fought Cortes at every step (this didn't stop with the conquest, as Cortes's later history suggests).

Subsequently the Spaniards managed to create alliances with several enemies of the Aztecs (Tlaxcala most important, IIRC) and take advantage of internal Aztec divisions. The Aztecs, one recalls, were an uneasy alliance of three groups dominated by the Mexica. The attack by the Spaniards represented a chance by resentful parties in the coalition, especially the junior partner Tetzcoco, to do something about long-standing grievances. The joint Tlaxcala/Tetzcoco/Spanish forces attacked Tenochtitlan and won after a horrific battle and a smallpox epidemic ravaged the city. Contrary to Ray Lopez's argument, records pretty clearly indicate that the epidemic was able to incapacitate much of the city in just a few weeks. After the victory the allies divided Aztec territory amongst themselves, creating a hybrid regime that lasted for a surprisingly long time. The Tetzcoco dynasty continued rule over their territory for decades before losing control of their throne in a political struggle, though they continued as very wealthy landed aristocracy for centuries.

This is a quick, broad account from memory from reading Restall's galleys, but the point is that Restall is using deep knowledge of the Nahua sources to create a radically different account of this important event -- different in every way from the traditional great-man account of Cortes, different in subtle but important ways from later accounts that focus on disease. One of his major points is that the kung-fu-type story Ray Lopez describes is attractive but nearly irrelevant. The battle charges and so forth did take place, but what was more important is that dissatisfied native elites successfully used the incursion to carve up the empire for themselves, creating fiefdoms that lasted for many decades. I would argue (Restall doesn't go this far) that the main reason for the actual Spanish consolidation of power that began in the 1570s or thereabouts was the devastating run of epidemics later in the century.

Whoops--I had thought I was responding to Ray Lopez at 12:36am.

7. Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History.

One of the great things about getting older is that you just don't care about so many things any more. Two of the things I don't care about are books with subtitles that include "The True Story" or "The X that Changed the World". I think they are a sure sign of publisher hype for a book that is likely not to be worth anyone's time.

I wonder if this is true in this case? Since William McNeill at least people have been stressing the importance of disease. I don't think the Spanish did. I think they were more focused on the bloodshed and the starvation.

Yes, this book seems, from Tyler's description, like a reversion from the recent revisionist views to an older view, which stressed the deliberate and intentional brutality of the Spanish, rather than the effects of disease or the unhappiness of the Aztec subjects.

I read Restall’s previous book — on the seven myths of the conquest.

I bought it at the same time as Matthew White’s Atrocitology, and didn’t get around to it immediately but I’m glad I did.

Restall’s works are not “the Truth of x” kinds of writing. They are worthwhile.

What about Negroid?

African Americans can say it, not whiteys.

Can you say Congoid instead?

4. overall he is much underrated as a writer and thinker

And very much overrated as an artist.

Damn the LSAT and the Alain Locke passage they had on the February 2018 test!!!!!

#1 - without generalization, there is no broader application. If you use sufficiently esoteric equations and descriptions, nothing defies classification. But to gain insight you have to be able to generalize.

7. When a group is called Conquistadors, I don't need much in the way of evidence to figure out their methods, motives, or reasons for success.

I have no doubt disease played a role in the conquest, but I've yet to see persuasive evidence that they intentionally used disease as a weapon.

While the military advantages of firearms, armor and war horses cannot be understated, those advantages could never overcome swarms of hundreds of thousands of enemies who were not unsophisticated in warfare. The Aztecs could have overcome the Spaniards in time merely with lucky shots from missile weapons. The reason for the Conquistador success was their alliances with Aztec hating tribes.

What amazes me is how quickly they overcame the language gap.

By the way, pigs and horses had become extinct on the continent long before arrival of Spaniards. When they were reintroduced, they actually spread throughout the Americas faster than Europeans themselves. By the time Europeans made it to the Central Plains of North America, the Indians had already become a horse culture, and their escaped piglets had reverted to feral boars thousands of miles away. Life moves swiftly through the world.

Good post.

“The Aztecs could have overcome the Spaniards in time merely with lucky shots from missile weapons. The reason for the Conquistador success was their alliances with Aztec hating tribes.”

Yes, and add to that a complete failure to appreciate the danger the Conquistadors posed. Which was fed by cultural arrogance on the part of the Aztecs, though it helped the Spanish that they were a small group, not big enough to be seen as an invading force.

7. Yes, Spain. Four episodes in our nation's (and pre-nation's) history. First, in 1742, the British, lead by James Oglethorpe, defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island, Georgia, in part of the larger War of Jenkin's Ear. The British and Spanish troops (the Spanish troops far outnumbered the British troops but the Spanish troops didn't know it) skirmished between Fort St. Simons and Fort Frederica on what was then known as, and is still known as, Military Road, the road connecting the two forts. My dear friend resides on Military Road, so I remember the battle every time I visit her. The community outside Fort Frederica included a church, that still exists, and was at one time the parish of John Wesley. Yes, that John Wesley. It's now an Episcopal Church, which I attend when I visit St. Simons. Second, Spain had an enormous role in the years leading up to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Indeed, Spain's role almost caused a rebellion that likely would have destroyed the new nation before it could adopt the constitution we revere. It had to do with the control of the Mississippi River (by Spain), and John Jay's "betrayal" of the northern states by agreeing to cede control of the river to Spain. North and South have been at loggerheads since, well, the beginning. Three, my grandfather was an army surgeon in the Philippines during the Spanish American War, a relatively short war with a decisive American victory. So decisive that America decided to make the Philippines an American colony, which so upset the Filipinos that they revolted against the American colonists, resulting a long and brutal war, the Philippine-American War, that even though had almost 1 million casualties (look up the definition of casualties before protesting), few Americans have ever heard of it. My grandfather hung around for that war too. Fourth, my best friend is Spanish, his parents having emigrated to America from Spain. Not really historical, but important in my Spanish history. Yes, Spain.

MR Commenters: Whats the best way to select the next book to read? Especially for someone who does not process books as quickly as Cowen, but wants to get a well rounded sampling of the best of everything. Where to start?

There's no secret method as far as I can tell. Choose something that interests you, and yes, hopefully that's a number of things. Read it as long as it holds your interest and move on to the next book.

Consider the publisher.

Look for readable, smart books blurbed by writers who can both think and write.

Some University presses are way way better than others. Some have gone quite PC (Hopkins, California) while others are good still (Princeton, Harvard, and especially Chicago).

Tyler’s lists are not a bad start. Almost none of the suggestions are bad. And if they are , he will let you know. They are not always my interest but sometimes I am surprised. Books reviewed in major publications say the Economist, WSJ, NYT, are usually worthwhile( especially the Economist).

You have to follow your interests, of course it helps if your interests are not too narrow. Avoid self help books , management how to books. They’re worthless.

#2. In his historical account how close does Hobart get to our contemporary era? --and does he account for historical rates of literacy/illiteracy, numeracy/innumeracy using reliable sources even across the interim?

Bryan Caplan in his new book apparently does not treat current US rates of adult literacy, adult semi-literacy, adult sub-literacy, and adult illiteracy any more closely than the dated (2002-2003) data from the NAAL survey that today hardly merits characterization as "contemporary".

When do our academic elites BEGIN to address the comparatively simple problem created by our education bureaucracies, viz., higher and higher rates of adult illiteracy (since, let's say, c. 1960 [before the advent of public school integration, or since 1946 if that would help])?

Would Hobart's thesis be mightily challenged if it turned out that the Science and Applied Technology Establishment created over the past three centuries itself helped engineer American public education bureaucracies that to this day succeed in LOWERING rates of adult literacy and numeracy in the US?

Which is the best book history book to read?

The primitivist John Zerzan also believes that numbers led to massive social changes, from when we were hunter-gatherers. For him they seem to be at the foundation of alienation. http://www.primitivism.com/number.htm

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