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.


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