“Books Were Systematically Burned”

(p. 12) Vandalizing the Parthenon temple in Athens has been a tenacious tradition. Most famously, Lord Elgin appropriated the “Elgin marbles” in 1801-5. But that was hardly the first example. In the Byzantine era, when the temple had been turned into a church, two bishops — Marinos and Theodosios — carved their names on its monumental columns. The Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine, hence its pockmarked masonry — the result of an attack by Venetian forces in the 17th century. Now Catherine Nixey, a classics teacher turned writer and journalist, takes us back to earlier desecrations, the destruction of the premier artworks of antiquity by Christian zealots (from the Greek zelos — ardor, eager rivalry) in what she calls “The Darkening Age.”
. . .
Debate — philosophically and physiologically — makes us human, whereas dogma cauterizes our potential as a species. Through the sharing of new ideas the ancients identified the atom, measured the circumference of the earth, grasped the environmental benefits of vegetarianism.
To be sure, Christians would not have a monopoly on orthodoxy, or indeed on suppression: The history of the ancient world typically makes for stomach-churning reading. Pagan philosophers too who flew in the face of religious consensus risked persecution; Socrates, we must not forget, was condemned to death on a religious charge.
But Christians did fetishize dogma. In A.D. 386 a law was passed declaring that those “who contend about religion … shall pay with their lives and blood.” Books were systematically burned.
. . .
. . . she opens her book with a potent description of black-robed zealots from 16 centuries ago taking iron bars to the beautiful statue of Athena in the sanctuary of Palmyra, located in modern-day Syria. Intellectuals in Antioch (in ancient Syria) were tortured and beheaded, as were the statues around them.
. . .
Nixey closes her book with the description of another Athena, in the city of her name, being decapitated around A.D. 529, her defiled body used as a steppingstone into what was once a world-renowned school of philosophy. Athena was the deity of wisdom. The words “wisdom” and “historian” have a common ancestor, a proto-Indo-European word meaning to see things clearly. Nixey delivers this ballista-bolt of a book with her eyes wide open and in an attempt to bring light as well as heat to the sad story of intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance. Her sympathy, corruscatingly, compellingly, is with the Roman orator Symmachus: “We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?”

For the full review, see:
Bettany Hughes. “‘How the Ancient World Was Destroyed.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 10, 2018): 12.
(Note: ellipses between, and at the start of, paragraphs, added; ellipsis internal to paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 8, 2018, and has the title “How Christians Destroyed the Ancient World.”)

The book under review, is:
Nixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

How Precision Metalwork Was Required for Industrial Revolution

(p. 16) In “The Perfectionists,” Simon Winchester celebrates the unsung breed of engineers who through the ages have designed ever more creative and intricate machines. He takes us on a journey through the evolution of “precision,” which in his view is the major driver of what we experience as modern life.
. . .
This expert working of metal is traced back to James Watt and his development of the steam engine. The first prototypes leaked copious amounts of steam and weren’t very efficient. The problem was that the piston didn’t fit exactly in its cylinder — small imperfections in the surfaces of both allowed pockets of air to escape. Watt enlisted the help of John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, so called because of his expertise (even obsession) with metal. Wilkinson had previously patented a way to bore out precise cylinders for more accurate cannons, and he suggested the same method be applied to Watt’s ill-fitting system. It worked, and the improved engine allowed the conversion of energy to movement on an unprecedented scale. The Industrial Revolution, Winchester declares, could now begin.

For the full review, see:
Roma Agrawal. “Perfect Fit.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 17, 2018): 16.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May [sic] 14, 2018, and has the title “Under Modernity’s Hood: Precision Engineering.”)

The book under review, is:
Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2018.

Entrepreneur Mackay Deserved to Be Dealt Four Aces

(p. C9) One evening sometime in the 1850s, John Mackay, a prospector, was playing poker with his fellow silver miners in Virginia City, Nev. The wagering was furious, and Mackay was playing well. In one hand, he was dealt an improbable three aces. The man next to him was “betting like a cyclone,” when Mackay drew the astonishing fourth ace, whereupon he laid down his cards and walked away without picking up the pot. “Leave me out, boys,” he said. He didn’t need it. At this point in his life, he had more money than he could ever spend.
. . .
With not a cent to his name, Mackay began swinging a pick ax for subsistence wages on other peoples’ claims, eventually working his way up to mine supervisor. “Mackay tried to cast his imagination into the rock,” Mr. Crouch says, “looking for clues that would lead him to a greater understanding of what wealth lay underground.” By 1865 he had acquired enough cash to buy a stake in a promising mine called the Kentuck. At first the investment looked to be another bust, but it suddenly hit big, paying out $1.6 million of the “precious needful,” as miners called valuable ore, over the next two years.
. . .
The author saves for last an account of the delicious comeuppance Mackay delivered to the American businessman Jay Gould –“the most hated man of the age.” Gould had secured a monopoly on trans-Atlantic telegraphy. Without competition, he gouged users, prompting Mackay, a believer in private enterprise, to lay his own undersea cable, thus breaking Gould’s stranglehold and winning public admiration on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mr. Crouch clearly admires his protagonist, at times nearly to distraction. He portrays Mackay throughout this well-written and worthwhile book as a man of high principle–kind, charitable and fair, dependably doing the noble thing. Strong and silent, he is the Gary Cooper of the sagebrush set. It ever so lightly strains credulity, however, to believe that Mackay didn’t harbor a little larceny in his heart, like nearly everybody on the Comstock during the mad rush. But readers may well want to take the author’s word that a man of such humility and generosity was exactly that. Nowhere will you read John Mackay’s name among the robber barons of his era. Some men who are dealt four aces in life deserve them.

For the full review, see:
Patrick Cooke. “‘The Man Who Hit the Mother Lode.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 7, 2018): C9.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 5, 2018, and has the title “‘The Bonanza King’ Review: The Man Who Hit the Mother Lode.”)

The book under review, is:
Crouch, Gregory. The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West. New York: Scribner, 2018.

Lenin “Sought to Destroy” Russian Peasants

(p. B14) A forceful, stylish writer with a sweeping view of history, Professor Pipes covered nearly 600 years of the Russian past in “Russia Under the Old Regime,” abandoning chronology and treating his subject by themes, such as the peasantry, the church, the machinery of state and the intelligentsia.
One of his most original contributions was to locate many of Russia’s woes in its failure to evolve beyond its status as a patrimonial state, a term he borrowed from the German sociologist Max Weber to characterize Russian absolutism, in which the czar not only ruled but also owned his domain and its inhabitants, nullifying the concepts of private property and individual freedom.
With “The Russian Revolution” (1990), Professor Pipes mounted a frontal assault on many of the premises and long-held convictions of mainstream Western specialists on the Bolshevik seizure of power. That book, which began with the simple Russian epigraph “To the victims,” took a prosecutorial stance toward the Bolsheviks and their leader, Vladimir Lenin, who still commanded a certain respect and sympathy among Western historians.
Professor Pipes, a moralist shaped by his experiences as a Jew who had fled the Nazi occupation of Poland, would have none of it. He presented the Bolshevik Party as a conspiratorial, deeply unpopular clique rather than the spearhead of a mass movement. He shed new and harsh light on the Bolshevik campaign against the peasantry, which, he argued, Lenin had sought to destroy as a reactionary class. He also accused Lenin of laying the foundation of the terrorist state that his successor, Joseph Stalin, perfected.
“I felt and feel to this day that I have been spared not to waste my life on self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement but to spread a moral message by showing, using examples from history, how evil ideas lead to evil consequences,” Professor Pipes wrote in a memoir. “Since scholars have written enough on the Holocaust, I thought it my mission to demonstrate this truth using the example of communism.”
. . .
In “The Russian Revolution,” he wrote:
“The Russian Revolution was made neither by the forces of nature nor by anonymous masses but by identifiable men pursuing their own advantages. Although it has spontaneous aspects, in the main it was the result of deliberate action. As such it is very properly subject to value judgment.”

For the full obituary, see:
William Grimes. “Richard Pipes, Historian Of Russia and Adviser To Reagan, Dies at 94.” The New York Times (Friday, May 18, 2018): B14.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 17, 2018, and has the title “Richard Pipes, Historian of Russia and Reagan Aide, Dies at 94.”)

The early Pipes book, mentioned above, is:
Pipes, Richard. Russia under the Old Regime. revised 2nd ed. London, England: Penguin Books, 1997 [1st ed. 1974].

The later Pipes book, mentioned above, is:
Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. revised 2nd ed. New York: Knopf, 1990.

We Underestimate How Entrepreneurial the Americans Were in the 1800s

(p. C6) Jim DeFelice’s “West Like Lightning,” a history of the Pony Express, begins with an anxious young rider waiting to take the news to California that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. The delivery service lasted only about 18 months, but its revolutionary speed left an indelible mark on the country. Many, including Mark Twain, marveled at riders’ courage and the spectacle of their switching horses every 10 miles or so for a fresh burst of speed.
. . .
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
Historians, God bless them, they do a lot of debunking of legends. They can sometimes come off as schoolmarms. The reality is, those legends are fun. They’re the exciting part. I separate fact and fiction, but I love those stories — and underneath them, there’s a much deeper truth. There’s a reason we value these 19- and 20-year-old kids pushing themselves against the elements.
I knew there would be some debunking involved. What I didn’t know was how true a lot of those stories turned out to be. If I were a Pony Express rider, I’d be bragging about how fast I made it. These guys didn’t brag about that — they bragged about how far they went. They were bragging about endurance and dealing with the elements. That impressed me, the resilience.
I also think sometimes we underestimate — and I’m guilty of this — just how entrepreneurial and into technology people were in the past. We think we’re cool because we can fly somewhere and be there tomorrow. But for these guys, 10 days was huge. If you gave them something in downtown New York, it would be in San Francisco two weeks later. At the time, that would be like going from dial-up to the fastest speeds we have today.

For the full interview, see:
John Williams, interviewer, ” Making Good Time and Even Better Tales.” The New York Times (Monday, May 21, 2018): C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date May 20, 2018, and has the title “Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Making Good Time With the Pony Express.” The first paragraph and the bold question are John Williams. The paragraphs following the bold question, are Jim DeFelice’s answer.)

The book discussed in the interview quoted above, is:
DeFelice, Jim. West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. New York: William Morrow, 2018.

“Wilson’s Betrayal of Black Americans”

(p. C6) Instead of “The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made,” Patricia O’Toole could have titled her new book “The Hypocrite.”
After all, as she herself points out, to lay claim to the moral high ground as often and as fervently as President Wilson did during his eight years in the White House was to court charges that he failed to live up to his own principles. He called for an end to secret treaties while negotiating secretly with the Allies in World War I. He declared himself unwilling to compromise with belligerents abroad while showing himself very willing to compromise with segregationists at home. He pursued a progressive economic agenda while approving a regressive racial one. He spoke of national self-determination in the loftiest terms while initiating the American occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
. . .
“The Moralist” suggests that Wilson’s betrayal of black Americans was born from simple expedience — that he allowed the segregation of the Civil Service because he desperately needed the votes of Southern congressmen in order to pass his progressive economic agenda, including the introduction of a federal income tax.
“He knew the segregation was morally indefensible, but ending it would have cost him the votes of every Southerner in Congress,” O’Toole writes.
The second part of her sentence is largely correct, but how can she be so sure about the first? As evidence she cites Wilson’s own pleas to his critics. “I am in a cruel position,” he told the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., insisting he was “at heart working for these people.” The testy exchange apparently left Wilson so rattled he took to his bed for a week.
But as O’Toole herself shows, his cries of political constraints were later followed by his claims that politics were irrelevant to racism anyway. In 1914, Wilson told the African-American editor William Monroe Trotter that eliminating segregation wouldn’t do anything for racial animus, which he called “a human problem, not a political problem.” (Wilson took to his bed after that “bruising quarrel” with Trotter, too.).

For the full review, see:
Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Woodrow Wilson’s Flawed Idealism.” The New York Times (Wednesday, May 2, 2018): C6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 1, 2018, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; In ‘The Moralist,’ Woodrow Wilson and the Hazards of Idealism.”)

The book under review, is:
O’Toole, Patricia. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

“Puttin’ On the Ritz”

(p. C9) The Savoy, which opened in 1889, was glamorous and cosmopolitan, an antidote to Victorian stuffiness. Its owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte, the backer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, had a theater next door, and his ambition was to create a modern luxury hotel the likes of which had never been seen. To fulfill his vision, in 1890 he turned to Escoffier and the Swiss hotelier Ritz, a man known for his impeccable taste, and in short order the two men, who’d had a previous success at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, made the Savoy into the most famous and profitable hotel and restaurant in the world.
“Ritz & Escoffier,” Luke Barr’s entertaining narrative history, reads like a novel (complete with cliff hangers and descriptions of the characters’ private thoughts). Both of its subjects had grown up poor, but were opposites temperamentally.
. . .
Neither man had to use the stairs at the Savoy, since the hotel had six elevators, the largest ever seen in Europe, which D’Oyly Carte called “ascending rooms.” There were 400 guestrooms and an unheard-of number of bathrooms–67 all told, many en suite and at no extra charge. (The recently opened Hotel Victoria provided just four for 500 guests.) The Savoy also had electric light that you could switch on or off in your room without getting out of bed, also at no extra charge.
. . .
. . ., D’Oyly Carte gave Escoffier and Ritz free rein from the start. The restaurant became enormously popular, a gathering place open to all who could afford it: aristocrats, the nouveau riche, royalty, Jewish bankers and fur traders (Jews weren’t freely accepted in society at the time), and stars of the theater and opera. Formal evening dress was de rigueur in the dining room and women were admitted–except those of “doubtful reputation and uncertain revenue,” who arrived unaccompanied, wearing makeup and large hats. Mr. Barr writes, “An extravagant hat worn in the evening, Ritz had discovered, was a sign of trouble.” But Ritz not only gave ladies’ banquets, he also successfully campaigned to change the laws against eating out on Sundays. Soon those formerly grim at-home evenings of “cold joint and gloom” became the most fashionable times of the week to dine at the Savoy.
. . .
Ritz had opened the hotel’s doors to anyone with money wearing the right clothes. The old social rules were broken. Mr. Barr comments, “Indeed, there was an element of decadence in the Savoy’s brand of luxury–it was this decadence that made it modern, the sense that pleasure was to be celebrated.”

For the full review, see:
Moira Hodgson. “‘Modern Hospitality.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 31, 2018): C9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 30, 2018, and has the title “‘Ritz & Escoffier’ Review: Modern Hospitality.”)

The book under review, is:
Barr, Luke. Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2018.