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Books I Finished in December
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Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age By: Bear F. Braumoeller
Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2) By: Anthony Ryan
Oath of Swords (War God #1) By: David Weber
The War God’s Own (War God #2) By: David Weber
The New Testament: A New Translation for Latter-day Saints (Religious) Translated By: Thomas A. Wayment
The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Religious) Annotated by: Grant Hardy
Utterly Dwarfed (The Order of the Stick #6) By: Rich Burlew
Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus By: Wizards RPG Team
A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul By: Leo Tolstoy
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 (The Last Lion #1) By: William Manchester
As part of my new focus (both on eschatology and on writing a book) I’m going to change things up on my reviews again. I’m going to begin my monthly round-up of books I’ve read with lengthier reviews of the books that might have something to say about the end of the world/nation/culture/long peace/good times, i.e. eschatology. After that I’ll wrap up with short reviews of all the other books I’ve read in the “Capsule Reviews” Section.
I know. I can sense your excitement even as I write this. It crosses space and time and I can hear it as a frenzied whisper, right at the edge of my consciousness, “Eschatological Book Reviews!?! Capsule Reviews?!? Everything I’ve ever dreamed of is coming to pass all in one blog post!”
I- Eschatological Reviews (it just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?)
By: Bear F. Braumoeller 344 pages
In both Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker complains that things are better now than ever, but that this news gets very little attention because people are naturally drawn to negative news. So that’s what media outlets focus on. (e.g. if it bleeds it leads.) I take issue with this complaint for a couple of reasons. First, as I’ve argued in the past, there might be some very good reasons for people to fixate on negative news. And second, while his assertion is probably true in general, in the specific case of Pinker, he, at least, seems to have no problem getting attention. While people making the opposite argument appear to have a much tougher road.
Only the Dead is a direct response to and refutation of Better Angels. The former has a single review on Amazon. (That will probably be at two by the time you read this because I intend to adapt this and post it on Amazon.) While the latter has 1,069 reviews. So at least on that metric I don’t think Pinker has anything to complain about. In fact, I’m having a hard time finding any book of modern pessimism that beats him on this metric of attention. To be fair, Taleb’s, The Black Swan has 1,793 reviews but it was published four years before Better Angels. Also, I don’t know if it should actually count as modern pessimism.
Of course, none of this speaks to the quality of Only the Dead. As to that, I would say that it’s definitely drier than Pinker’s work. Braumoeller is not as good a writer. But if we turn from style to substance, I would have to give the award to Braumoeller. It’s always hard to judge the evidentiary and methodological basis of a book without redoing the math, reading all (or many) of the sources, and knowing a lot about the subject already, but my sense, from the standpoint of evidence, is that Only the Dead is the equal of both of Pinker’s books, and may surpass them, and that from a methodological standpoint it’s definitely better. In particular Braumoeller’s definition of what constitutes war is more sophisticated than Pinker’s. Also, for me at least, Only the Dead does a much better at passing the smell test.
I imagine other people might feel differently. That’s certainly their right, but I think this is one of those books that’s particularly important to read before dismissing. Especially for people using Pinker’s books as their primary support for one or the other political platform or policy proposal.
What It Says About Eschatology
War, particularly in the age of nuclear weapons, has to take up a large amount of any eschatologist’s time and attention. Obviously everyone, myself and Braumoeller included, hope that war is no longer something we have to worry about. Unfortunately, despite his hopes, that is not the conclusion Braumoeller reaches when he actually looks at the data.
As I mentioned this book was written as a direct response to Better Angels and it might be easiest to look at some of the places Braumoeller disagrees with Pinker.
First off, Pinker argues that war has been declining for centuries. Braumoeller disagrees, and actually finds the opposite:
The story told...is pretty grim. [The data] shows a significant drop [in the use of force] around the end of the Cold War. The overall trend over the course of the past two centuries, however, has been an increase in the rate of conflict initiation between countries. In fact, if we leave out the two World Wars, we can see that the COld War was the most conflictual peacetime period to have occurred since the Napoleonic Wars, and the end of the Cold War was the first instance of a decrease in the rate of conflict initiation in nearly two centuries.
This is obviously not the story that Pinker is telling. War has not been declining for centuries, though the fact that it declined after the Cold War has to count for something, right? Well to begin with, that time period is not really long enough for us to draw any conclusions. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t fit Pinker’s idea that the reduction of war is due to the long arc of progress which has been ongoing since at least the Enlightenment.
This takes us to another area of disagreement. Braumoeller found that in periods and areas where war did decrease that it had very little to do with the rise and spread of enlightened humanism, and almost everything to do with international orders, like the Concert of Europe, the Bismarckian System and, more recently, things like NATO and the United Nations. This is exactly the same conclusion put forward by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I talked about back in November. According to both Braumoeller and Morris, the decline of war which started at the end of the Cold War, was all about American hegemony, and unrelated to any surge in enlightened liberal values. As I pointed out in that post, there’s every reason to believe that international orders work in exactly the way Morris describes, but also several reasons to believe that we can’t create an international order bigger than what we already have.
All of this means that war is likely to continue, and it illustrates one final point of disagreement between Pinker and Braumoeller. Braumoeller points out that this has already been happening, wars have continued in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Pinker, on the other hand, prefers to limit his focus to wars between Great Powers. And while I agree that this is a useful distinction, it’s also a distinction that can easily be breached. As Braumoeller points out, every war no matter how small has a chance of exploding into something far larger.
If chance events are the main drivers of escalation, anyone who starts a war today is running a small but nontrivial risk that the war will snowball to nightmarish proportions.
The impression one gets from all of this is not that we are living through the Long Peace, a peace that is likely to continue forever, but that we were exceptionally lucky during the Cold War that none of the many conflicts ended up “snowball[ing] to nightmarish proportions.” And as much as I hope that our luck holds, the “small but nontrivial risk[s]” are going to continue to accumulate, and one of these days our luck is going to run out.
II- Capsule Reviews
By: Anthony Ryan 602 Pages
Yes, you heard that right! It’s book two in a series… I have finally moved deeper into a series I already started, rather than starting something new. I had heard that the first book was the best, and that the series got progressively worse as it continued. I can believe that, and depending on how much time you have to read, I might recommend just stopping at the first book. Still this book was pretty good. The action was great, and it all built to a satisfying climax where everything came together, somewhat along the lines of what Brandon Sanderson is always doing, though not as skillfully.
If there was a weakness it was the characters and the overall plot. There was a lot of character growth, but it seemed to happen off screen and without much drama. Also I think it’s hard to overstate how much it helps to set something in a school (just ask J.K. Rowling) an advantage the first book had and the second book lacked.
By: David Weber 576 Pages
A pulp fantasy novel, and a quick and enjoyable read, but not to be mistaken at any stretch for a great work of art. It was basically a novelization of what I would have considered the ideal D&D campaign, when I was 14.
Though I will say that his world creation was quite good, particularly with the Hradani, his version of the fantasy orc/ogre. Though I’m still not sure about his decision to make them Irish (but maybe if Dwarves are Scottish it all makes sense?)
By: David Weber 374 Pages
It’s a Christmas miracle, book two in yet another series! I have a couple of friends who are huge David Weber fans, and they both agree that even though there are five books in the series that I should stop at book two. Which I think I will. Also, everything I said about the first book applies here as well.
By: Aeschylus 178 Pages
My quest to read the great works of Western Literature in chronological order continues. This book contained The Oresteia a trilogy of plays about a very dysfunctional family. While the dysfunction is interesting, and perhaps the key point of the whole thing, I was struck by how it ended up being an origin story for Athens and a certain idea of justice. The climax of the third play takes place after Orestes shows up in Athens to throw himself at the mercy of the city. Which takes the form of the goddess Athena literally showing up to judge him for the murder of his mother Clytemestra. And rather than dispense divine justice, which would have been what you’d expect, she calls a jury and then casts a vote as just one more member of that jury!
I do think that people often exaggerate how ancient the roots of Western Civilization are, or whether things are actually distinctly Western, or part of some universal culture of things which have out competed everything else. But neither of those criticisms apply to trial by jury, which is both something very ancient (the play was written in ~458 BC) and distinctly Western. (In as much as Greece is considered the beginning of Western Civ, which is another discussion.)
Also, it’s not just that they had stumbled upon juries as some sort of eccentric local custom. In the play Athena gives a whole speech about how Athens will forevermore be defined by the idea of impartial justice, laying out a whole ideology, even if ends up being a relatively narrow one.
Oh, and as far as whether the jury acquits or convicts Orestes? You’ll have to read it to find out (or use wikipedia, or countless other sources).
Translated by: Thomas A. Wayment 512 Pages
Last year I had four books which I started at the beginning of the year with the plan to read a few pages each day, and finish them over the course of the entire year. This was one of those books, and it seemed particularly appropriate, since within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) last year we were studying the New Testament. And four years from now when we are once again studying it, I would definitely recommend this book, though less for the translation than for the footnotes.
I could imagine that for someone who has difficulty with the English of the King James Version that this translation might be useful, but there were only a few spots where I think I discovered a deeper meaning in the text because of this translation. That was not the case with the footnotes, there was all sorts of valuable insight there. And for that alone I would recommend it, even for people who aren’t LDS.
Annotated by: Grant Hardy 600 Pages
The second of the four all-year books. This one was also all about the footnotes, and given that the LDS course of study for this year is the Book of Mormon I would definitely recommend this edition, particularly for people who’ve read the Book of Mormon many times already.
By: David Cole 320 Pages
Well, first off, as I was pulling the link for this book, I discovered that, since it’s out of print, it’s going for $100 online. (And there’s only one copy at that price. The next lowest price is $950..) Guess I should take better care of my copy… (Hmm… when I went back it was down to $10, Amazon is weird.)
Beyond it being apparently a rare and very valuable book, this is also a book that acts as a test of rationality and objectivity. Are there some things that are off limits for rational discussion? Are there things which are so awful, that to question whether their awfulness might have been exaggerated (while still being unimaginably awful) should entirely keep people out of polite society? If there is such a thing, then the Holocaust would certainly qualify. And that’s what David Cole is, a Holocaust Revisionist. An idea so toxic to polite society that I’m even a little nervous reviewing the book.
To be clear that is not the primary focus of the book. It’s an autobiography, describing Cole’s long strange journey, a journey I can’t possibly do justice to, but which involved him faking his death more than once, a lot of strange and damaged people, and the inner secrets of conservative Hollywood. But, since the whole thing started with Holocaust revision, it ends up providing the backdrop to everything else in the book. And… in fact it’s what makes the book great.
The story of his girlfriend’s betrayal, and his absolute shunning by conservatives is interesting (though, if I had one complaint, it might be that he described it with too much detail). But having a real life example of the limits of discourse seems very timely even if a lot of it happened decades ago. And to be clear (this is where the nervousness comes from) he includes his thoughts on what’s wrong about the standard Holocaust story, and they don’t appear to be crazy, and would seem to me to be well within the limits of what can be discussed calmly, without death threats (another recurring feature of the book).
By: Rich Burlew 352 Pages
This is the latest collection of Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick webcomic. Which follows a party of D&D adventurers on their quest to save the world. I’ve felt for a long time that Burlew is one of the best fantasy writers currently working, and although there’s only the tiniest amount of additional material in this book beyond what you get for free on his website, I’m more than happy to support things by buying a copy. It’s great stuff.
Also, it’s a series I’m completely current on!
By: Wizards RPG Team 256 Pages
This book is the latest D&D adventure from Wizards of the Coast. If that means anything to you, you’ve probably already heard of the book, and there’s not a lot for me to add. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you should skip ahead to the next review.
For those in the former category I will say that the adventure gets off to a good start, and overall the setting and plot is great, but it feels a little rushed and somewhat thin the closer it gets to the end. Also it’s a lot of travelling from one location to another, with each location having a single encounter before the party moves on. I would have liked at least one more big dungeon style location near or at the end. Still the adventure has a lot of potential for someone who wants to customize it as they run it, which may include me.
By: Leo Tolstoy 384 Pages
This is the third book I read over the course of the entire year, and the first of two “page a day” books. I have read Tolstoy’s novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, or rather I should say I have listened to both as an audiobook, which for my money is the only way to tackle really huge old novels. I thoroughly enjoyed both. This book, however, is something different. I’m no expert on Tolstoy, but as I understand it, later in life he had a spiritual awakening and became what could best be described as a Christian anarchist, advocating for radical non-violence, and inspiring people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Indeed his name came up quite often in the Gandhi book I just read. This book, unlike his famous novels, is from this later period of his life.
Obviously I’m not bothered by the Christianity, or the non-violence, and there were some great quotes on both of those subjects. But I was somewhat dismayed by the utopianism, which seemed at least as important to Tolstoy as the other two ideas. Tolstoy really felt that progress equaled Christianity and that both would spread inexorably until violence and other sins had been eradicated. I’ve gone into this before but I think that this version of Christianity seriously diminishes the role of Jesus’ Atonement. To the point where one might actually call it a heresy.
Speaking of Gandhi, while his non-violence gets most of the press, I think his embrace of Tolstoy’s Christian utopianism (which he converted to Hindu utopianism) was at least as important, and shows up in his fixation on the spinning wheel and building communes.
In summary, the book was interesting as a snapshot of a certain ideology and moment in history, but I don’t think I got much useful advice out of it.
By: Ryan Holiday 416 Pages
The last of the four books I read over the entire year, and the second of the “page a day” books. If you’re into stoicism, then this book is a nice daily reminder of those principles, with a quote from one of the ancient stoics for every day of the year. That said, I’m not sure I’m the intended audience. I think I know the principles of stoicism well enough that nothing was surprising, or particularly inspiring. Which is to say, I don’t think I acted any differently in 2019, in the presence of this book than I would have acted in its absence. On the other hand, I think this book would have been enormously helpful the year I got sued and had to rebuild my business from scratch. Also I think if my identity were more tied up in stoicism, I would definitely appreciate the book more.
It was a good book. I’m just not sure how much nuance you can really add to stoic philosophy. It’s pretty straightforward, and like most philosophies the difficulty is in doing it, not understanding it. And a daily reminder probably helps a lot of people, it just didn’t do much for me in 2019.
By: William Manchester 992 Pages
The last book I finished in 2019. I mentioned previously that I thought I already knew quite a bit about Churchill, but there’s always more to learn. And this 3000 page, three volume biography is certainly the place for that. Least there be any confusion, I have only finished the first volume, but at 992 pages there’s still lots of things I could say, so I’ll just pick out a few:
I understand that it’s unwise to compare levels of suffering between someone growing up in the top ranks of the most powerful nation in the world, with anyone growing up anywhere else. But Churchill did have a pretty lousy childhood. I’d known it was rough, but it was rougher than I thought.
Churchill reminds me of Alexander Hamilton. (I read Ron Chernow’s biography a while ago.) Hamilton’s superpower was his ability to write enormous quantities of very polished content. Churchill was similarly gifted as a writer, though politically, his strength was more his speeches, while Hamilton was more of an essayist.
Churchill is attacked these days for his policies towards India, in particular the 1943 Bengal Famine. I’m not in a position to defend his policy. (For one thing, I haven’t reached that part of the biography). But the feeling I got from this, and other books I’ve read about him, but particularly this one, is that Churchill really did pay attention to the suffering of people at the bottom of the heap. That he possessed a large amount of empathy.
Beyond that Churchill is a very impressive individual, full of flaws just like everyone, but something special for all that. I’d be happy for just a fraction of that in my own life.
Well 2019 is over and things continue much the same as they always have, if perhaps a little more chaotic. It would be nice if things calmed down a bit in 2020, but given that it’s an election year, I doubt it. As for me, I’ll definitely still be around, commenting in the same idiosyncratic fashion I always do, if you’d like to help with that, consider donating.