Thursday, November 13, 2014

More Books

If you look to the right, down a little ways, you may notice that I added some new books to the Amazon widget. A couple of people have actually used this thing, I never stopped reading, and I hadn't updated it in over a year, so this seemed like a good time.

The first book I put on there was The Unintended Reformation, by Brad Gregory. Gregory is a historian teaching at Notre Dame and a genuine Catholic who wrote the book to explain how what we know of as the modern world, a haven of secularized consumerism, came to be due to the effects of the Protestant Reformation. As the title suggests, this wasn't the intent of those names we associate with rebellion at the time - Luther, Zwingli, and to a lesser extent, Calvin - but the effects of Reformation DID result in schisms, the disempowerment of Catholicism, and eventually, the disempowerment of Christianity altogether.

Lots of reviewers knock Gregory's effectiveness as a writer because despite his rather intense passion for the big Church and his flawless scholarship, he doesn't sell Catholicism very effectively. I think those people take Gregory to be more of a partisan than a quality academic. But he doesn't turn the book into a theology lesson: the strongest attacks are on principles of non-contradiction, the mutation of Catholic concepts like caritas, and the gaping holes in the modern world's understanding of itself. I couldn't agree more with that last point.

Even if it doesn't sell you on Catholicism - and it probably won't - the book's most intriguing implied statement is made in favor of having a strong formal institution to resolve debates and allow a culture to develop a sense of itself, a learned institution and not a democratic one. It is, in essence, an argument for hierarchy. Naturally, I'm smitten.

The second book is an odd thing called Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. Although technically a work of fiction, the book is basically a collection of intertwining narratives about the lives of people in the Soviet Union, written to clarify both how the Soviet economy worked (or didn't work) and how people's attitudes were. Spufford digested an awful lot of material writing this, and it shows. So it's both fictional and, for most people, an introduction to a subject with many details based on fact.

My strongest interest as a historian has been the economy of the Soviet Union. Early on, I wondered why it didn't work better than it did. Later, as I shed some delusions about people, I marveled that it worked at all. Spufford brings all this to life, and while he is occasionally unfair towards those he writes about and too triumphalist on America, excessively interested in examples of Soviet scientific oppression like the hysteria driven by Lysenko's genetics, he is still clearly well versed on the facts and details. I learned new things about uprisings and policy I didn't know before.

For example: most people associate the Soviet Union with bureaucracy, but in reality, there were distinctly anti-bureaucratic features to the culture. Those dealing with the government were explicitly trying to be treated "as human beings" instead of as dehumanized numbers in the bureaucracy's rule-based grist mill, so party members were theoretically given wide latitude to deal with problems and complaints presented by those who sought them out. Thus, people had to develop personal relationships with those in party positions, instead of going through a maze of impersonal regulations. The result of this was a lot of mini-fiefdoms within the machinery, tiny lords ruling over their tiny areas of responsibility; basically, a major reason for the worst examples of incompetence and disorganization was totally humanist in character. There's lots of that, actions with unintended consequences, throughout the book.

From the role-swap of buyers and sellers to the personality quirks of Khrushchev, Spufford humanizes all this admirably. The only serious flaw is how excessively Western some of his characters are; it was written by a Westerner, specifically a Westerner who has not known all that many Russians very well. It's missing the attitude those who study the country know, for the sake of making it more relatable to an American audience. Still, great book.

If you want that Russian attitude, a third book on the list has it in spades: Monumental Propaganda, by Vladimir Voinovich. Taking place in the Soviet Union for the most part (except for some parts later after it collapses), this couldn't have possibly been written by anyone who didn't have close understanding of the country's culture.

Written through the eyes of an unemotional partisan named Aglaya, the book moves through seventy years of history and seems to encapsulate everything important that happened during that time. Here, the attitude is sharper, more realist, less grounded in any sort of idealism. It's extremely funny at times, too, absurd and beautifully drawn.

It's filled with black humor and raw, unvarnished truth, including the non-stupidity of Stalin and the tendency of activist reformers to revise their own history. The last part of the book - when discussing "cages" - gives the best discussion I've ever read on how power works in society from the perspective of those who are weak and vulnerable. There is no bullshit, just reality; every review of this book seems to misunderstand the core of the thing as I read it, but it is not the work of a fantastical dreamer. If you've been drowning in saccharine American optimism for too long, buy this and come back to Earth for a while.

There are more books I added to the list, and more to add later. Take care.

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