What Have I Been Reading?

It has been a couple of years since I updated my reading list, so I thought I would jot down the titles of some of the books I have read this year (2017). I’m not much of a reader of modern history; but for some reason, this year I got into this groove of reading about the 19th century and early 20th century.

Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504
Laurence Bergreen

I’ve read a few histories of Columbus’ voyages. This was an insightful look into the significance of his later voyages which were more responsible for global change than the one everyone usually talks about.

The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy
Laura Amy Schlitz

Discoverer of Troy, and otherwise much of a wastrel. That was Heinrich Schliemann.

Victorian Britain
Patrick N. Allitt

This was an eye-opener. I was familiar with some of the history; but Prof. Allitt really got into the nitty-gritty of theis history.

The Heir Apparent: A life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince
Jane Ridley

Edward VII was a massive disappointment to his mother, choosing his wife’s Danish family over his own German family; and yet, when he became king, he surprised everyone with his skill and handling of the empire.

The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners
David Fromkin

One of those fascinating historical trivialities. The two men both lived life to the fullest, but they could not have been more different. 

Leonardo da Vinci
Walter Isaacson

Isaacson is one of the preeminent biographers at work today, and his history of Leonardo looks at both the man and the artist.

The Vanderbilts
Jerry E. Patterson

Rich, powerful and ultimately ruined. A great look into the world of the gilded age.

Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age
Greg King and Penny Wilson

Bringing the world of Victorian England and gilded America to an end, the sinking of the Lusitania was far more significant than just “the reason the US entered World War I.”

Washington: A Life
Ron Chernow

A great, balanced biography of Washington from his early life to the end. A fascinating work.

Washington’s Immortals
Patrick K. O’Donnell

This was one of those “wow!” books. I did not know anything about the Immortal 400, a group of elite troops that stalled the British while Washington’s Continental Army escaped New York. 

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
John Meacham

Oh, Andrew Jackson and your federalist presidency. 

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America
Walter R. Borneman

It was interesting how the careers of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk intertwined to make what was essentially a solid block of federal presidencies.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
Stephen Ambrose

A classic. Worth your time.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
Rinker Buck

This was my dark horse book. It was a modern adventure along a 19th century trail.

The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company: A History of Enterprise on the Merrimack River
Aurore Eaton

Manchester, New Hampshire, is what I consider my “hometown” so this was a piece of my own history. 

@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex
Shane Harris

YIKES! This book will scare you, especially when you read about technology that allows drones to fire missiles down your cellphone signal.

On Language: Chomsky’s Classic Works Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language
Noam Chomsky

Chomsky – confusing, philosophical and illuminating all at once.


Praying in God’s Theater

What roles do the Scriptures play in your prayer life?

This is a question that I am not sure many Christians, especially those of the evangelical traditions, consider very carefully. We read our Bibles. We pray. But do these things intersect?

Most prayer that I encountered as a pastor’s kid was what I call laundry list prayer. We would get a nice long list of people’s booboos and then present the list to God, usually accompanied with a lot of “Oh God” and “Please, Lord”. Sometimes there was event fervent mumbling and occasionally tears. These times of prayer would go on for quite awhile.

Since I am not much of an emotional person and I cannot keep my eyes closed for more than about five minutes without falling asleep, my mind would wander and my imagination would kick in. Before we got caught, a friend of mine and I used to play a game of keeping track of the sanctified stutters – those things people say when they are trying to think of the next thing to say.

During my adult experience of the Christian faith, I have gravitated toward a more careful form of prayer than I was used to hearing from people. It was not that the folks I grew up around were insincere or that they were somehow unspiritual. But at the same time, there was something that I felt like I should be doing that I wasn’t.

For the past decade or so, my pattern of prayer has shifted more and more to a conformity with Scriptural prayers and Scripture as prayer. In our congregation, we often do corporate Scripture reading as prayer – with the pronouns changed to reflect a personal cry to the Lord. In my personal discipline of prayer, I prefer to recite the Scriptures as petitions to the Lord.

So, the opportunity to review Joel L. Watts new book Praying in God’s Theater was too good to pass up. The book is written as a series of prayers and meditations drawn from the Book of Revelation. And if there is one book of the Scriptures that is neglected in the worship of the western church, Revelation is it.

I will be reading the book in the coming weeks, and I will post the review once I am done.

Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

While our congregation is reading through Exous, Leviticus and Numbers, I thought I would add some daily notes of things that caught my imagination.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:17)

What is so important about a name?

In the Egyptian worldview, your name was not just a label. It was a significant part of who you were. This is a difficult concept for us to embrace because names do not have nearly the same significance to us.

In 1323 BCE, the young pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amon died, possibly bludgeoned to death by assassins. His successors, Ay and Horemheb, spent their years of rule eradicating both his name and his father’s name from every monument and inscription in Egypt. Tut-Ankh-Amon’s father had been the great heretic pharaoh Ankh-Aten, who had abandoned the millennia old religion of Egypt in favor of the worship of the sun disk, Aten.

In the Egyptian view, the best way to destroy this heresy was to remove any mention of the names of those who followed it. Their names were struck from the king lists. Their monuments were either torn down or edited. Everything about their names was destroyed.

Most importantly, their tombs were buried under tons of rubble. This was fortunate for Howard Carter, the archaeologist who ultimately discovered Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in the early 20th century, but unfortunate for poor Tut-Ankh-Amon who, as far as the Egyptians were concerned, was left floating in the nether without completing his journey to the afterlife.

You see, in the Egyptian worldview, the final stage of passing through the afterlife requires your name. People in the world of the living must know your name. If they do not, you will not move on. You will be lost forever. The world of the living and the afterlife are inextricably connected.

When Moses asked God for his name, he was not making an excuse. An unnamed God had no power to the Egyptians.

And what a name God gives to Moses – I AM. This is a name of absolutes. It implies that he exists whether you know his name or not. God gives the ultimate name.

This was not lost on the Egyptians or the Sons of Israel. It had a weight and power that we cannot imagine. That is why Pharaoh laughs. It is a laughter of fear. God puts his existence up against all the Egyptians know and believe.

God wins.

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

Last weekend, our family watched the film version of Life of PiI was intrigued by the story, and I knew there had to be far more to it, so I requested the book through our library’s e-book system.

What a fascinating book. It is not that I agree with the philosophy of the book or that it was somehow life-changing. The book is just fascinating.

It is an exploration of the human experience, written in extremes and conflations. Whether it is the basic desires of safety or food, or the complex interaction with nature in all its terrifying beauty – Yan Martel gives them all the same treatment.

Martel’s narrative style is both vibrant and varied. When his protagonist is on (and possibly over) the edge of sanity, the frenzied sentences are much different than the voice of his anonymous, but obviously first person notations of the author meeting Pi.

The novel has a very straightforward style which partially obscures the very complicated story it is trying to tell; and Martel leaves so much of the “real” story to the reader’s imagination.

The Life of Thomas Linacre

The full title of this book is The Life of Thomas Linacre, Doctor in Medicine, Physician to King Henry VIII, the Tutor and Friend of Sir Thomas More, and the Founder of the College of Physicians in London with Memoirs of His Contemporaries, and of the Rise and Progress of Learning, More Particularly from the Ninth to the Sixteenth Century Inclusive.

(And people wonder why it is no longer in print!)

I highlighted Thomas Linacre yesterday, and I have to say that he led a wildly interesting life for the son of relatively unknown parents from Derbyshire.

This book, the only biography of Linacre I have been able to find, was written by John Noble Johnson, M.D., who was himself a member of the Royal College of Physicians which Linacre had founded. Pretty much the only thing we know about Dr. Johnson is that he wrote a biography of Linacre, so this is a matter of the unknown writing about the slightly less unknown.

I can’t say Johnson’s prose is anything approaching elegant, but at least it is succinct. He did live in an age when flowery, overwrought language was fairly typical.

This is just one of my most recent finds on Google Books. Google has footed the bill for scanning millions of out-of-print volumes to make them available to people online. It is estimated that by 2016, Google Books and other similar programs (such as the French Gallica project) will succeed in scanning all volumes available from both universities and major museums throughout the world – both printed and manuscript.

Social Media in the Ancient World

Social Media in the Ancient World

I am currently reading an advanced copy of Tom Standage’s Writing on the WallIt is an interesting look into the way human beings have communicated in groups over the years. We often think of social media as an innovation of recent years, but when you look at human history, it becomes obvious that we have used social media for a long time. Social media is not the anomaly. Unidirectional media (books, newspapers) that allow no dialectic or conversation are actually the anomaly in human history, and the internet has allowed us to reassert a latent part of human experience.

Thus far, a great book!

I love my Kindle.


A Fascinating Look into Medieval England

I love medieval history. I know that makes me weird. It’s ok.

Once, my father brought one of his friends up to New Hampshire to visit me. While sitting in a diner, my dad says, “Joe, ask him what he does with his free time.” His friend looked at me. I told him, “I study medieval and Byzantine history.” The two of them exchanged a look and my dad just laughed.

It is not that my father thinks I am weird. He gets it. History is the fabric of our own existence, and the medieval world is our most neglected and possibly also most influential thread of our history.

Given an opportunity to read a book that explores the Plantagenet kings who defined what it meant to be English in the Middle Ages, of course someone interested in such history would want to read it. 

It should come as no surprise that when the opportunity came up to review The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (Penguin Group – Viking), I leapt at it. 

What can I say? Dan Jones was a great job of surveying the period from Henry II’s ascension in 1154 until Henry VII’s ascension in 1485. Being three hundred years makes the job of creating a readable single volume history hard enough; but when those three centuries are filled with Plantagenet intrigue, corruption, marriage, warfare, plague, and any number of other elements, the job’s complexity is multiplied.

Dan Jones’ prose is direct and to the point, but he takes the time to occasionally pause for a brief humanizing anecdote that helps us understand specifics a little better. He balances his views of all of the Plantagenet kings and avoids the generalized caricatures you find in many works on the period.

Most importantly, Jones does not gloss over significant events. He does not simply note, as many histories do, that the Hundred Years’ War was a catalyst for the rising use of English as England pulled away from France. He takes the time to note the progress of this change, particularly focusing on Edward III’s Pleading in English Act of 1362 which changed the official language of the courts of England. I have read a lot of popular histories of the Middle Ages, and Jones is the first to note this seminal event.

In brief, I found Dan Jones’ book to be well worth the investment of money and time to explore it. So much of the book illuminates the seed ideas of our modern English-speaking culture.