About Time I Read It: Lost to the West by Lars Brownworth

Back in May I reviewed Jenny White’s The Abyssinian Proof, a novel that takes place during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. This time I’d like feature something on the Byzantine Empire’s predecessor. One Saturday at the public library I came across a copy of Lars Brownworth’s 2009 book  Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization. Over the years I’ve had a minor fascination with the Byzantine Empire, inspiring me to read books like Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World.  Giving in to that fascination I grabbed the library’s copy of Lost to the West and went to work reading it.

Some will say the central message Lost to the West is how the Byzantine Empire kept alive Greek-infused Roman culture and civilization for well over a thousand years before succumbing to the Ottoman onslaught in 1453. During this time Byzantium served as a treasure house and beacon of enlightenment to the rest of Europe. After falling to the Turks its scholars became refuges, fanning out across the Continent and passing on the intellectual heritage of the Classical world. This transmission of lost knowledge helped jump-start the Renaissance, putting Europe on a path eventually leading to the modern world.

While it’s hard to argue with some or even all that, to me Lost to the West hammered home several what I might call universal truths. One, even the mightiest kingdoms wax and wane. Also, when authoritarian leaders act out of selfish self-interest, be that greed, jealousy or vindictiveness frequently the results are disastrous. Lastly, battles are sometimes won or lost not due to skill or strength but stupidity.

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20 Books of Summer: The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

I’m a huge fan of the website The Reading Lists. Every few days or so the site’s producer, Phil, a self-identifying book nerd in the United Kingdom, interviews a successful academic, business leader, writer or artist and gets that notable person talking about books. An interviewee might share a list of his/her favorite books, or a particular book that was inspiring or even life-changing. Some will mention books they’re forever recommending or what they’re currently reading. If you’re the kind of person who loves book recommendations I highly recommend The Reading Lists.

Back in March Phil interviewed theoretical physicist and bestselling author Lawrence Krauss. When asked what Krauss was currently reading and what made him want to read it he said the book was Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. It was recommended to him by his friend Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, social critic and political theorist because “we were discussing the evils of modern religion. It describes in harrowing detail how Christianity in the first few centuries AD makes ISIS look like a kindergarten bully.” Well, with a provocative statement like that how could I not take a chance on The Darkening Age? I immediately borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading it. I was not disappointed.

In The Darkening Age, Nixey clearly and vividly makes a compelling case the early Christians mercilessly and at times violently worked to suppress classical civilization. According to Nixey, it was a centuries long all out assault on pagan art, literature, philosophy and religion. So successful was this zealous crusade only a fraction, perhaps estimated between 5 to 10 per cent of the ancient world’s body of knowledge exists today.

Once Christianity went from being a offbeat cult practiced by small number of unlettered, uncultured lower class believers to the dominant religion of Rome’s high and mighty the war on pre-Christian classical heritage began. Church leaders encouraged their flock to rat out their nonbeliever or backslidden neighbors and relatives suspected of exhibiting pagan tendencies. One Egyptian abbot ordered his goons to break into the homes of those he deemed insufficiently Christian and destroy any offending works of art or written texts. Temples were invaded and desecrated, beautiful statues smashed or wrecked and entire libraries were put to the torch. Great luminaries like Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most brilliant women in ancient history (a world-class expert in philosophy, mathematics and astronomy) was brutally murdered in 415 at the hands of a mob acting on behalf of the local Bishop.

According to Nixey, attacks like these and countless others throughout the old Roman Empire arrested intellectual and cultural growth and thus changed the course of history. Gone, suppressed or ignored were works of brilliant satirists who poked fun at the established order and the foibles of the rich and powerful. So also was a cacophony of philosophical writings from a diverse multitude of deep thinkers, some critical of religion, and some who couldn’t care one way or another about it. Last but not least so were the works of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius whose views on atomic theory and the physical universe were long before their time. One wonders what the world would look like today had the early Christians not been so inimical to classical culture.

The Darkening Age is a great book to read alongside Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Mary Beard’s SPQR and Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against the Gods. Consider it highly recommended.

2018 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.

  1. The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
  2. The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
  3. The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
  4. Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
  5. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
  6. In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
  7. The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
  8. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
  9. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
  10. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
  11. The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
  12. The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
  13. The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
  14. The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
  15. A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Old Books Reading Project: Shepherd of Mankind by Willam E. Barrett

Like I mentioned in my previous post, when it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill. Lucky for me, I happen to possess in my personal library a biography of Pope Paul VI. For good, bad or otherwise it’s been gathering dust for years. Not long ago I decided to finally crack it open and give it a read.

Published in 1964, William E. Barrett’s Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI is definitely a product of its time. Written by a devout Catholic, Barrett’s biography is adorned with an official Vatican imprimatur. While I’m hesitant to deem it a hagiography, nevertheless I was hard pressed to find anything critical or highly unflattering in this book about Pope Paul VI or, before his election Giovanni Montini. But hey, I knew that going in so no big deal.

What I did like about Shepherd of Mankind, when compared to the two above-mentioned papal biographies is the portion of the biography that focuses on the workings of the Vatican. (This is of course to be expected, before he became Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli spent much of his career outside the Vatican, serving in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and France.) For years Montini was Pope Pius XII’s right hand man in charge of Vatican domestic affairs. In 1954, Pius appointed Montini Archbishop of Milan, in a move Barrett hints was to get him out of the Pope’s hair. (According to Barrett, Pius, plagued with escalating health issues and growing cranky with age began seeing Montini’s interruptions as bothersome. Employing the age-old tactic of Promoveatur ut amoveatur or promote him to remove him, he exiled him to Milan.)

But to Montini’s credit, during his four years in Milan he flourished. While serving as Archbishop he raised funds to build new churches, and actively engaged in dialog with artists, intellectuals and non-catholics like atheists, Protestants, Muslims and ex-Catholics. Despite seeing Communism as a false god and enemy of the Church, Montini was strongly pro-labor, regularly visiting the city’s factories and chatting with workers. He strove hard to bring dispirited ex-Catholics back to the fold and narrowly survived an attempt on his life when a would be assassin threw a bomb into his residence. (He had left the room only moments before it went off.)

Since it was published in 1964 the book pretty much ends when Montini becomes Pope. Sadly, much to my disappointment Barrett spends little time discussing the Second Vatican Council. Who knows, perhaps a book solely devoted to that episode of Church history I could end up read ing for the European Reading Challenge.

About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.

Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.

As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

About Time I Read It: Seminary Boy by John Cornwell

A million years ago (OK, maybe not THAT long ago although it kinda feels like it) I read a memoir entitled Seminary: A Search in which the author Paul Hendrickson recalled the years his spent as a seminarian, following with a short stint as a Catholic priest and eventually his departure from the priesthood. Perhaps because I was an impressionable young man when I read Seminary: A Search it remains one of my favorite memoirs to this day. With that in mind, I found it hard to resist John Cornwell’s 2006 memoir Seminary Boy when I spotted a copy at my public library. As I took it to the check-out desk I wondered if I’d enjoy  Cornwell’s memoir as much as I did Hendrickson’s.

Growing up in England in the 1950s John Cornwell had a pretty rough childhood. Raised Catholic, his family was poor, his mom was abusive and ne’er-do-well father was never around. After being sexually abused by a random stranger, young John retreated inwardly to the religion of his upbringing. At the tender age of 13 he entered Cotton College, a junior seminary for teen boys desiring to enter the priesthood. Overwhelmed and struggling to keep up academically Cornwell chafed under the College’s strict monastic regimen. Making all of this worse, he and his fellow young seminarians had to navigate the potential relationship risks and pitfalls that frequently materialize when groups of young males and their elders are sequestered together while being told to avoid any “special friendships” with each other. Fortunately, one of the more avuncular and intellectual of the priests took Cornwell under his wing, exposing him to a wider world of high culture and sophisticated ideas. Unfortunately though in the end, as Norah Vincent wrote in her 2006 New York Times review of Seminary Boy “[t]here is nothing surprising or enlightening here — just run-of-the-mill Catholic misery.”

Looking back, I thought Seminary Boy was OK, but nothing exceptional. Because so much time has elapsed it seems unfair to measure it against Hendrickson’s Seminary: A Search so I won’t. And it certainly won’t stop me from reading other seminary memoirs in the future.