Friday, March 31, 2006

What I've been reading

I’ve been doing a lot of reading since Christmas. These are, as far as I can recall, the non-academic books that have occupied me. As you can tell, a lot of them have to with the Civil War. Justin and I finally bought the DVD set of the Ken Burns documentary, since we watch it every time we visit his grandparents in Chapel Hill anyway. The CD of music from the documentary is also worth owning. I list the books more or less in the order I read them, although I don’t remember exactly.

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson. I had been getting an itch to read a comprehensive history of the United States, since I had filled my brain with everything I needed to know about American history my junior year of high school and then dumped it all out after I took the AP test. The more I’ve traveled around the country, though, the more I felt I should have a good general sense of this country’s history, a sort of scaffolding to hang everything on, which is why I look back so fondly on my high school and college world history courses. So I read this, which took like a month, because it’s about a thousand pages long. This is the cranky reactionary version of U.S. history – Johnson, an English Catholic, is exuberantly fond of American resourcefulness and religious enthusiasm, but expresses definite opinions, for instance his utter lack of swooniness about JFK. I owe American history to read Howard Zinn’s version, I guess, but this was a good start.

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, and
Lincoln by Gore Vidal.

Yes, two Lincolns. The first is a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the second a novelization of Lincoln’s presidency (I love historical fiction, and Justin has also recommended to me Creation and Julian, which are also really well done, even if, in the latter case, you don’t want to blame the downfall of Rome on Christianity). I love Abraham Lincoln. I know a lot of people do. I love his bizarre appearance, his quirky and anecdotal sense of humor, his humility, and in a lot of respects his utter unsuitability for the presidency – a one-term Congressman from Illinois whose main qualification for the Republican nomination in 1860 was that he was not any one of his opponents. And I love that he was not perfect – that he suspended civil rights, chose inept, indecisive generals, alienated pretty much everyone at one time or another, had a crazy wife and little hellion children – and yet lived up to the demands of a difficult age.

Sons of Mississippi by Paul Hendrickson. We both read this right before our Southern road trip, which meant we got a little more freaked out than was probably strictly necessary when we couldn’t find the highway out of Greenwood, Mississippi. The author takes a photograph from Life magazine of seven Mississippi sheriffs preparing to enforce the law (!) by blocking James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss (one is holding a billy club) and finds out where those sheriffs and their sons and grandsons are now, what their attitude is toward race, and so on. Like Mississippi Burning, it provokes sadness as well as anger, but it has the advantage of being somewhat redemptive at the end when you get to the younger generations. Sort of. And now that I’ve been to Mississippi…I think, at least on the surface, things aren’t as frightening as you’d think from this book. On the other hand, I have never seen such an obvious divide between the white side of the tracks and the black side as I did in Greenwood.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. This was a fun book. Much of it is about Civil War reenactors, but in the broader context of modern fascination with and attitudes toward the Civil War/The War Between the States/The War of Northern Aggression (one bookstore in Charlottesville categorizes Civil War books based on what they call the war).

The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault. Novels about Theseus that offer plausible historical explanations for the most fantastic elements of the myth. Renault wrote a bunch of these novels about the ancient world. Now that I know they exist, I am finding them in used bookstores all over the place. She is one of those independent, well-traveled women of the early to mid 20th century whom reviewers tend to find surprisingly learned and “masculine” in tone.

Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout. I haven’t finished this book yet, because I find it somehow dissatisfying – and it’s long, although that’s not normally a deterrent. I don’t know if it’s because 1. I suspect he has an agenda, even if it’s not explicit and he denies it, 2. it is not the most elegantly written book and could probably say what it needs to say in much less space, 3. I already know the Civil War cost far more lives than necessary even if it was unavoidable and that there were a few who opposed it at the time (either because they were pacifist or they weren’t that bothered about slavery), so reading a discussion of both those propositions is not very interesting, or 4. I’m not convinced that a “moral history” is really achievable, because it will inevitably presuppose a moral perspective that itself has to be defended before it can be used as a framework for viewing the war, and anyway a chronological discussion of moral issues relating to the war might not be the best approach. I do believe it’s important to know that the Civil War was brutal, quite contrary to the romantic ideas people had about it at the time and have had since, that most casualties served no purpose, and that few people gave adequate thought to why they were fighting or whether their goals could be accomplished without so much human tragedy. But picking through every single extant sermon and church newspaper on both sides of the war, month by month, just isn’t doing it for me.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. As long as Stout’s book, but far more interesting – it took me about three days to read – is this sort of literary polybiography of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor, American Catholic writers in the post-WWII era. They never met, except for a brief meeting between O’Connor and Percy, but shared a common perspective, associated with a common community of fellow writers and publishers, and corresponded with one another. America took a while to develop its own literary tradition--there aren’t really any great American novels before the mid-19th century--and a Catholic literary tradition took even longer, because Catholics came to America in large numbers relatively late and initially distinguished themselves by nationality. (It is notable in this context that O’Connor was the only one of the quartet who was not a convert, though of course that warms my heart in a way.) And of course all mid-century writers had to grapple with postwar existentialism and general sense of malaise. Without being explicitly sectarian, Elie lets the unfolding life stories and words of these four writers demonstrate how they conceived what modern American Catholic literature would be. I want to go back and re-read O’Connor and Percy, whose Wise Blood and Love in the Ruins respectively baffled me when I first read them ten years ago. After this I read Percy’s The Moviegoer and found his style more engaging than I had before.

Still working on Q by Luther Blissett (a pseudonym) which is one of those books whose book jackets claim it’s “a novel of ideas” like The Name of the Rose but which I don’t like quite as much, and The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, which as I noted I’m reading again. Also the letter to the Hebrews.

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