Books! The true story of the Congress of Vienna

Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski is not a book to approach lightly. It demands commitment and a willingness to wade through the numerous individuals involved in the Congress of Vienna. Ultimately though it is a great book and at times brings to life an exciting period in European history.

The book opens with the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall and his race back to France after the failed invasion of Russia. The Treaty of Paris helped to end the Napoleonic Empire and the wars, but Europe was left with many unsettled issues such as the status of Poland, who gets what territory and more. The Great Powers of Europe convened several committee meetings in Vienna that lasted for almost a year and discussed a variety of issues facing the continent. My favorite was the Statistical Committee. As Zamoyski explains, “In all the negotiations at the congress the political value of land was calculated not in acres or hectares, but in numbers of inhabitants, commonly referred to ‘souls'” (pg 386). The committee’s job was to verify the figures that the Great Powers were calculating thereby determining the value and the fair distribution of land.

The value of the book is in its retelling of the congress, especially its attention to detail. While this can become monotonous at times with dozens of unfamiliar names, Zamoyski brings out the flavor of the period by not only discussing the official proceedings but also describing the unofficial and at times debauched activities of the participants. Between balls, dalliances, hunts, and eating, it is a wonder they had any time to negotiate the future of Europe. It makes the politicians dealing with the fiscal cliff seem like a bunch of stodgy old monks.

The book also has a different take on the effects of the Congress of Vienna. In political science we tend to teach the Congress as resulting in the establishment of legitimacy of states in Europe and the beginning of stability on the continent. This is in part due to the writings of Henry Kissinger and Paul W. Schroeder. Zamoyski argues that the congress actually had negative effects because it left so many question unanswered, dreams unfulfilled, and completely ignored the rising tide of liberal thought in most of Europe. Although he doesn’t say this directly, in many ways the congress set the stage for the disasters of the next century.

While it is long and only for the determined, if you are interested in the Congress of Vienna and the late Napoleonic era, this is  a fantastic work. Very well-written and researched.

Books! A hawk and a dove walk into a bar … #cbr4

and the Cold War starts and ends and throughout they remain friends.

The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson is a fabulous double biography of two of the most influential thinkers during the Cold War. We see Kennan as he develops his strategy of containment as a young FSO in Moscow and then Nitze as he subverts it with NSC-68. We see Nitze becoming a forceful anti-Soviet crusader while Kennan becomes the more passive but eloquent anti-nuclear sage.

Thompson covers their lives from their early careers to their very last days while keeping the reader’s eye on the bigger story of the Cold War. Unlike Gaddis’ biography of Kennan, we aren’t immersed in the minutiae of the two men as much and Thompson does a great job setting the stage for readers who might be unfamiliar with details of the period. Even if you aren’t a Cold War history buff or a fan of these two men, the story of the Cold War is accessible as told by Thompson.

I have to mention my favorite line from Kennan, which Thompson quotes. You need to understand that Kennan was a fabulous and prolific writer in addition to being an authority on Russia. He wrote after the Cold War that “The suggestion that any Administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish.” (pg 331)

I so wish Kennan were still around today …

Books! The very long life of George F. Kennan #cbr4

Sadly it looks like I won’t make my goal of 52 books this year for Cannonball Read. I might still be able to read close to that number (maybe) but I don’t know that I can force out all of the reviews I have let slide. This book, in my opinion, should count for 3 or 4 books though!

As an ex-Political Scientists I’ve read Kennan’s X article in Foreign Affairs several times. The article argues for an approach to the Soviet Union that would contain its expansive tendencies. This later became “containment” and official policy of the United States, a slight distortion as he was arguing primarily for diplomatic containment and not military.  Kennan’s ideas and writings were complex and, as John Lewis Gaddis in George F. Kennan: An American Life shows, sometimes contradictory, which tended to lead to Kennan’s own frustration when his ideas were put into policy.

Gaddis succeeds at showing us the full picture of the man through this expansive biography. He had access to all of Kennan’s writing, letters, and diaries and even the family. At times I wished for more discussion of the events of the day, but this is again a biography and not a history.

Although the work isn’t for the casual Cold War era reader, it is worth the effort if you want to know more about Kennan’s development as a public intellectual and his influence on the events of the 20th century.  Gaddis has created a biography of which Kennan could be proud.

Atoms atoms everywhere #CBR4

My seventh book in the CBR4 read was The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. I picked this up on the recommendation of a friend who figured that a librarian would want to read about a guy searching for ancient texts (they are sweet, aren’t they). I have to admit the central story didn’t grab me (I’m not big on bibliomania), but I was pulled in by Greenblatt’s attempt to connect an ancient text, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, to the marvels of the Renaissance.

Greenblatt follows the travels of Poggio Bracciolini, a Florentine book hunter, in the early 15th century as he searches the monasteries of Europe for copies of ancient Roman texts. He finds the poem On the Nature of Things written by Lucretius who had been a follower of Epicurus. Epicurean philosophy focuses on the pursuit of pleasure rather pain, a philosophy that latter is subverted to mean hedonistic partying, but had meant a focus on the simple pleasures of living life as it is. The poem discusses the existence of atoms as the basis of life and the delusions and cruelty of organized religion. The swerve is the idea that life as it is exists because of the random movement of those atoms not because of the intentional act of a distant creator. Puggio copies the book and sends it on its journey back into the world of Renaissance Italy, in a sense creating the poem’s own swerve, where, in Greenblatt’s reading, it becomes a touchstone for many great thinkers (Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Jefferson among them).

While some of his connections may be tenuous, his prose is beautiful. It is difficult for a mere librarian like me to convey the gracefulness of his writing, so let’s let Greenblatt speak for himself:

“Of course, all Poggio could hope to find were pieces of parchment, and not even very ancient ones. But for him these were not manuscripts but human voices. What emerged from the obscurity of the library was not a link in a long chain of texts, one copied from the other, but rather the thing itself, wearing borrowed garments, or even the author himself, wrapped in gravecloths and stumbling into the light” (pg 180).

How could you not love a writer that not only describes the link between text and thought so perfectly, but also can then give a slight nod to zombies? I mean really people?!

I predict this will be one of my favorite books this year. It may not be perfect in its scholarship or history, but the basic story holds well and the language is captivating. On a side note, I was introduced to Greenblatt (the actual man) at some point in the 00’s (don’t remember the exact year as I had no idea who he was). He was giving a lecture to our English Department on Shakespeare and someone thought to say “Oh, and this is our secretary.” I don’t remember who the introducer was, but that person created their own swerve as I may not have bothered to note the name when my friend mentioned the book and may have never read it. I thank them wholeheartedly for their condescension. It has introduced me to a wonderful book!

CBR4 6: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

I read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman in February and needed to take some time to digest. My first encounter with Massie was Nicholas and Alexandra and I think that is true for most people.  Nicholas and Alexandra doesn’t have much new to add, but the story is told so well that it is hard to put down. You know the tragic end way before it comes and that intensity makes the story more engaging.

Catherine has the readability of N&A. Massie uses mostly secondary sources, even translations of her memoirs, and aims for a popular audience. Though it ranges over 600 pages, it doesn’t feel like you are reading a tome. Catherine becomes a real person in Massie’s writing especially in her early years which are accounted for in her memoir (apparently she didn’t get too far in her writing, probably too busy dividing Poland).

But the book lacks in not having the forward momentum that N&A has. With N&A you know the inevitable is coming, there is no escape, but Catherine just lives. And lives for a long long time. By her twelfth lover (or so) in her 60s, I have to admit I got a bit bored. I wish Massie had spent more time discussing Catherine’s foreign affairs and less attention on her lovers, but he is aiming to give a complete overview of her life. And complete it is.

I also should say that the timeline can get a bit difficult to follow. Massie doesn’t give a straight chronology based on Catherine’s life. It is more based on periods and people in her life. It can get confusing at times. Every so often I looked up random dates just to check but that may just be my issue.

Catherine the Great is a great book and well worth the read for anyone interested in this person, the time period, or how one of the greatest rulers of the 18th century came to power.

Empires of the Word

Closing out 2011, I just finished an incredible book – Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. Just to give you a taste of his fine writing …

“But despite the myth of the Tower of Babel, and its vulgar interpretation as a cautionary tale, language diversity is not a liability for the human race. Most people in the world are multilingual, and everyone could be … Different languages protect and nourish the growth of different cultures, where different pathways of human knowledge can be discovered. They certainly make life richer for those who know more than one of them.” (pg. 558)

Ostler surveys the varied histories of the major languages of the world and how they developed within and between societies.  He counters the argument that language spreads through power or economic necessity only, but instead through “the creation of a larger human community.” In incredible detail he describes the historical developments within a dozen or so language communities, from Sumerian, Akkadian, Arabic, Chinese (the languages that spread by land) to Spanish, Portuguese, and English (the languages that spread by sea).

He closes with a discussion of the future for the top modern languages, especially English. While he avoids prognosticating any bright or bleak futures for our current lingua franca, he argues that the evidence is not solely in favor of English’s continued dominance.  After reading 400 or so pages detailing the histories of languages that once had been the ‘global’ powerhouses of their times, you would probably be inclined to nod your head at Oslter’s statement “For languages, as for any human institution, when you are on top, sooner or later there is only one way to go.”

I started reading this book because of my past interest in language, identity construction, and the former Yugoslavia. Benedict Anderson fans will definitely find a kindred spirit in Ostler. But it is worth reading for anyone interested in the role of language, communication and literacy in societies (i.e., librarians!). He addresses briefly the impact of modern media on English, but as he is taking a broader historical view it isn’t the real purpose of the book.

That broader historical view of language is exactly what I like about the book. He isn’t looking at languages as rigid creations that emerge intact and never evolve. This is what I hate about lists like a post that showed up on Facebook recently, 10 words you mispronounce that make people think you’re an idiot. Granted Bush’s pronunciation of the word nuclear made him sound a wee bit ‘cuntry’, but some of these words have acceptable alternate pronunciations (sherbet and often) based on their evolution in our society. While I understand the drive to promote a more perfect English, especially in written form, at the same time I can’t sympathize with anyone who ignores the dynamic and evolving nature of any language (Never mind the post’s latent point that people who speak with regional accents, primarily rural, are idiotic). But I digress.

Through this fabulous work, Ostler describes the ebbs and flows, the evolutions, and sometimes deaths of our many languages. It is a long book, but well worth the trouble.

The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

Finished: Feb 17
Rating: A

Don’t do like I did and pick this up thinking it is fiction. First, the language will turn you off–“Wow! This guy writes fiction like nonfiction!” And second, the scare impact is much stronger when you figure out you are reading work of nonfiction. Admittedly, I knew nothing about the Eradication or smallpox or the fact that we may all die of a smallpox-laced weapon and, dear lord, I wish I still didn’t know. But, besides the fact that I am now scared to breathe, it is a well-written documentary of the efforts to eradicate smallpox (in nature) as well as the current efforts to figure out what to do if smallpox should be used as a biological weapon (because the US and the Soviet Union decided to keep some hanging around for a dull day). He relates the smallpox efforts to the 2001 Anthrax scare primarily because many of the scientists involved in various smallpox experiments were also related to the anthrax investigation. It is curious that he does not mention Ivins who was accused by the FBI of creating the anthrax, but does discuss Hatfill, another person of interest who also had his life crushed by the investigations. This is partly a problem with publishing a work so soon after the events (2002).

It is interesting to compare this work with Ghost Map and their arguments for and against cities. Preston writes,

With the growth of agriculture, the human population of the earth swelled and became more tightly packed. Villages grew into towns, and towns grew into cities, and people began to live in crowds in river valleys where the land was fertile. At that point, the human species became an accident with a poxvirus waiting to happen. (p 66)

Johnson has a more Utopian view of large cities, even when that view does not seem to jive with his discussions of cholera, whereas Preston points out that urban dwellings have led to these problems with the spread of infectious diseases. As these two books aren’t works I would normally read, it is interesting to see how the come to such different conclusions about urban life when they are both looking at epidemiological history.

Overall a solid (if scary) investigation into one of the biggest threats to humanity. Read this when you are in a good place in life.