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Currently reading

The Origins of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt
Progress: 123/527 pages
William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England
David C. Douglas
Progress: 31/488 pages
Andrew Carnegie
Joseph Frazier Wall
Progress: 267/1150 pages

Whittling down Mount TBR

Yesterday I took another trip to my office in order to find shelf space for some of my recent acquisitions. The only problem is that my shelves there are as crammed with books as my ones at home, which is creating some real problems for me.

 

In the end, I decided that my only recourse was to take down some books and add them to the TBR stack that I've been working on. this isn't the first time that I've done this since I created it at the start of the pandemic, which is why a stack that started out as this:

 


Now looks like this:

 

 

Clearly I haven't put in the time needed to whittle it down as quickly as I've been adding to it, so I'm spending today working on some of the volumes awaiting reviews. After that I'm going to devote more reading time to some of the larger volumes, lest the stack tip over and crush me under its weight.

John Lewis, R.I.P.

March: Book Three - John   Lewis, Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin
I had planned last night to start reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism for my buddy read with T-A and BT, but news of John Lewis's death pushed me instead to finish reading his great March trilogy. I was broadly familiar with its outlines, but reading and re-reading the volumes gave me an opportunity to reflect on what his life meant.
 

John Robert Lewis was born in Alabama in 1940. His parents owned a farm, yet still struggled to make ends meet. Young Lewis grew up in a South still fully governed by Jim Crow laws; the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education did nothing to change the impoverished and segregated school he attended. Much, much more needed to be done.

 

And this is what Lewis did. While attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary he participated in the Nashville Student Movement, taking part in their sit-ins at local businesses to pressure them to desegregate their facilities. In 1961, Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders, and he and the others were attacked repeatedly for engaging in perfectly lawful activity. He was also arrested numerous times, and was even imprisoned at Parchman Farm for a month. Yet his sacrifice and the sacrifice of his fellow protestors had an effect. People everywhere were paying attention.

 

In 1963, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was one of the “Big Six” who organized the famous March on Washington. He spoke that day, though he toned down his speech under pressure from the others. The following year, he organized as well the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and in 1965 participated in the march at Selma, where he and hundreds of other protestors were attacked by state troopers. He carried the scars he received on his head from their beatings for the rest of his life.

 

When I consider everything he went through, I cannot helped but be moved by the enormous moral strength and personal courage that he demonstrated. It was a fight that he never gave up on waging personally, even after he won a seat in Congress. Just this year he shared his lessons with the BLM protestors, who have experienced much the same treatment he did six decades ago. Instead of despairing about the slow pace of change, he expressed his optimism for how others were exercising their moral power, saying to one interviewer, “It was so moving and so gratifying to see people from all over America and all over the world saying through their action, ‘I can do something. I can say something’. And they said something by marching and by speaking up and speaking out.” His words reminded me of the lesson contained in Dr. King’s famous quote about the the long arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. Fighting for change is a lifelong struggle and we may not enjoy its fruits, but we will leave our world a better place than it was when we were born into it. That is certainly what John Lewis showed us.

Podcast #190 is up!

Lord High Executioner: The Legendary Mafia Boss Albert Anastasia - Michael Benson, Frank DiMatteo

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Frank DiMatteo about his biography of the mob boss Antonio Anastasia. Enjoy!

A general's rise, sans analysis

George C. Marshall: Education of a General: 1880-1939 - Forrest C. Pogue

Ask most people to name the greatest American general of the Second World War and you’re likely to hear such famous names as Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, or Douglas MacArthur. Only occasionally might someone propose the name George Catlett Marshall, despite his outsized role in the conflict. From September 1939 until November 1945, Marshall served as the military head of the United States Army, in which role he built up and directed a massive ground and air force that waged war across the globe. Yet Marshall’s role has long been overshadowed by those of the commanders on the battlefield, whose achievements were only possible because of Marshall’s organizational abilities and strategic guidance.

 

How Marshall came to occupy such an important position at such a crucial time in history is the focus of the first volume of Forrest Pogue’s tetralogy about the general and statesman. A former member of the U.S. Army’s historical division and the author of the volume in their famous “green book” series on the supreme command in Europe during the war, Pogue was invited to write Marshall’s official biography and was granted unrestricted access to both the general and his papers. These he combined with additional archival research to provide a comprehensive look at his subject’s life and career.

 

Pogue begins with Marshall’s upbringing in western Pennsylvania. The son of a businessman, Marshall enjoyed a comfortable childhood until a poor investment on his father’s part left his family in straitened financial circumstances. While drawn to soldiering, the challenges of gaining an appointment to West Point led young Marshall instead to enroll at the Virginia Military Institute. Upon graduation, Marshall was commissioned into an army recently engorged by the Spanish American War with new officers, making for an extremely competitive contest for promotion.

 

Nevertheless, Marshall rose gradually through the ranks. As Pogue makes clear, this was due to Marshall’s hard work and diligent application to his tasks. The young lieutenant soon demonstrated capabilities far beyond his rank, impressing both his peers and his superiors. After service in the Philippines Marshall returned to the United States, where he distinguished himself as both a student and an instructor in the Army’s emerging professional educational system. For Marshall, however, this proved a double-edged sword for his career prospects, as his gifts as a staff officer denied him the opportunities to serve in the line that were invaluable for an officer’s promotion prospects. As a result, Marshall found himself still a captain after the First World War, while many of his peers sported eagles or even stars on their shoulders.

 

Yet Marshall benefited enormously from the support of his former commander, General John Pershing. Chosen as Pershing’s aide during the general’s postwar service as chief of staff, Marshall enjoyed Pershing’s patronage and connections as he rose steadily in rank through a shrunken military establishment. During the 1930s Marshall’s service both as a regional commander within the Civilian Conservation Corps and as Deputy Chief of Staff commended him in the eyes of President Franklin Roosevelt, resulting in his appointment as chief of staff on the eve of the momentous outbreak of war in Europe.

 

Thanks to his access to both Marshall and his documentary legacy, Pogue provides his readers with a thorough account of his pre-Second World War military career. Though rich in detail, the text never drags thanks to Pogue’s deft writing and his ability to supply the exact right amount of explanatory context. Yet while Pogue provides an invaluable of Marshall’s activities, he falls short in terms of analysis, as he refrains from analyzing Marshall’s ideas about tactics or doctrine or strategic thinking. While this reflects in part a paucity of writing on Marshall’s part, his failure to supplement this with his interviews with Marshall represents a missed opportunity, one that Pogue himself never compensates for by offering his own suppositions based on the historical record. It’s an unfortunate omission in what will likely be the most detailed study of Marshall’s development, and limits the achievement of what is otherwise a valuable study of an underappreciated American military leader.

Reading progress update: I've read 91 out of 261 pages.

Sleeping Beauty - Ross Macdonald

My reading has been more biography-heavy than usual, and after finishing the first volume of Bullock's life of Ernest Bevin I wanted something different. Fortunately I had a Ross Macdonald novel handy and it's proving the perfect alternative. It's one of his later ones, so all of the rhythms are there; though he's taking longer to move past the preliminaries, the first body (there's always a couple) has turned up and I'm sure the next one will be showing up in another hundred pages or so.

The ceaseless labors of a trade union leader

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

When he died in 1951 Ernest Bevin was eulogized by many for his decade-long service as a cabinet minister. As Minister of Labour in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, he presided over the mobilization of the British workforce for the war effort, while as Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government he worked for the reconstruction of Europe and shaped the West’s response to the challenge posed by the newly-dominant Soviet Union. Yet this remarkable period came after a long career as a labor organizer, during which he played a pivotal role in the growth of British unions during the first half of the 20th century.

 

It is this period of Bevin’s life that is the focus of the first book in Alan Bullock’s three-volume account of his life and achievements. An academic best known for writing the first complete biography of Adolf Hitler, Bullock was invited by Arthur Deakin, Bevin’s successor as the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGUW), to chronicle Bevin’s multifarious achievements. Bullock rose to this challenge by authoring one of the great works of modern political biography, one that details Bevin’s lifelong efforts on behalf of the workers and the nation he held so dear.

 

As Bullock details, Bevin’s life of labor began at an early age. Growing up in rural Somerset, Bevin was forced at a young age to quit school and seek work as an agricultural laborer. After moving to Bristol, Bevin was employed in a number of different jobs before finding his calling as a labor organizer for the Dockers’ Union. Bullock shows how Bevin’s work as a labor leader was not just a career but a passion, one in which he invested an enormous amount of his time and energy, often to the point of exhaustion.

 

Such commitment was necessary given the challenges facing the labor movement in Britain at that time. One of the many strengths of Bullock’s book is in how he sets Bevin’s life in the context of an era, one in which unions struggled against numerous challenges to their existence. He credits Bevin with much of their success during their period, thanks to such achievements as his contributions to the postwar Shaw Inquiry and his key role in the formation in 1922 of the TGWU, his position in which cemented Bevin’s place at the forefront of Britain’s labor leadership.

 

While Bullock spends the bulk of the book describing Bevin’s many activities, he also draws from them a deeper understanding of his views and motivations. Though Bevin was a committed socialist from an early age, Bullock notes his longstanding ambivalence towards the Labour Party and particularly towards the intellectuals who shaped much of its ideology. In his view, their ideas all too often lacked a grounding in the realities facing the British working class. These Bevin was all too familiar with, as his duties as general secretary often took him across the length and breadth of the country and brought him into direct contact with the circumstances workers faced. Informed by such experiences, Bevin often found the political party claiming to be working on their behalf to be far too detached from problems they sought to address.

 

Nevertheless, Bevin became more invested in political solutions to these problems over the course of his career. As Bullock shows, this was a consequence of the setbacks facing the labor movement in the interwar era. With Britain’s global economic dominance eroding, workers often experienced the effects of this in the form of reduced wages and high unemployment. Despite his success in organizing workers, Bevin emerged from the famous General Strike of 1926 with a painfully-earned lesson in the limits of direct action. In its aftermath, he increased his involvement in politics, participating in Labour’s victory in the 1929 general election and helping to rebuild the party after their setbacks two years later. Though Bevin was periodically offered opportunities to stand for Parliament during the interwar era, he preferred to work from outside as a union leader, and it was only the demands of war in 1940 that compelled him to abandon his longstanding reluctance to serve in government and accept Winston Churchill’s offer to become Minister of Labour.

 

By the end of the book, Bullock has left his readers with a thorough grasp of Bevin’s accomplishments as a labor leader. Had he retired as general secretary in 1941 as he intended Bevin still would have lived a life deserving to be written about. As a prelude to his even more noteworthy achievements, though, it is even more worthy of study. Though clearly an admirer of Bevin’s, Bullock is critical enough to draw out key insights that provide a better appreciation of his subject’s views and motivations. His immersion in it results in a text that is often dense with details, but no less readable for it. It’s a book that is absolutely indispensable for anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of one of the greatest figures in modern British history, and it stands as a monument to his lifetime of ceaseless effort.

Where to find the space and the time?

Yesterday my latest indulgence arrived in the mail:

 

 

Even now that I have them I still have somewhat mixed feelings about having purchased them. They're mine now, though, so once I do the catalog updating with them that I want to do I'll find a place for them on my already-groaning shelves.

Reading progress update: I've read 504 out of 672 pages.

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

I'm so glad that I took the time to reread this. I could very easily have taken it "as read" (even if it was ages ago) and moved on to volume 2. Had I done that, though, I would have missed Bullock's careful tracking of the development of Bevin's views over his long career as a labor leader. It's more than worth the slog through the descriptions of the various labor disputes and union politics.

 

That being said, I'm probably going to take a break before moving on to the next volume.

Podcast #189 is up!

Seeing by Electricity: The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939 - Doron Galili

With the slow site performance of the past few days, I forgot until now to post my latest New Books Network interview! It's with Doron Galili about his pre-history of television, which examines both its development and how visionaries conceptualized its role. Please enjoy with my compliments.

My Just One Book post on Harold II is up!

My Just One Book post on Harold II is up on my website! Please enjoy with my compliments

Reading progress update: I've read 180 out of 672 pages.

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

Though it's been years since I last read this book, all my memories of my experience reading it are coming back to me. It's incredibly detailed, yet as I read it it's difficult to imagine how you could forego it and yet still convey the extent of Bevin's impact on the British labor movement. I can't help but wonder if Adonis's book gives this period of Bevin's life its due, or whether it skims over it to get to the political career that's more within his wheelhouse.

Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 672 pages.

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

After I posted about my plan to read a book on the battle of Jutland this week, my ex-roommate from grad school emailed me about a couple of reviews of new biographies. One of them was about a biography of Ernest Bevin, and given that the author is a Labour pol (albeit one with solid academic credentials) I expect it will get its fair share of publicity.

 

While the book isn't uninteresting, it reminded me that I have a superb three-volume biography of Bevin already on my shelf. I read the first volume when i was in graduate school, but the other two have sat unread in the face of more pressing commitments. Since I read the reviews, though, I can't stop thinking about how much I've wanted to read about Bevin — to the point where plowing through those three volumes is more appealing than reading about Jutland. So instead of following through on my original intention I'm going to satisfy my desire to read what I want at the moment and then go from there.

A great sampling of Silverberg's early work

The Cube Root of Uncertainty - Robert Silverberg

When I was younger, Robert Silverberg was among my favorite science fiction authors. While an extraordinarily prolific author of novels, I appreciated him most for his short stories, which remain some of my all-time favorite reads. Every summer when the latest edition of the Year’s Best Science Fiction came out, his would be the first name I would look for in the table of contents, and if one of his stories were included it would invariably prove to be among the best in the collection.

 

This was why, when I saw a copy of this collection of his short stories in a used bookstore I eagerly snapped them up. The dozen stories inside are all from the first decade and a half of his writing career, and represent some of the best from his output during the era. Some of them I had read before, while others were new to me. The stories are:

 

“Passengers” – This was one of the stories I had read before. In it, a man living in a world where noncorporeal beings possess humans tries to connect with the woman he had spent the night with during his last possession. It’s one of Silverberg’s most famous stories, and it still holds up pretty well so long as you don’t think too hard about the premise

 

“Double Dare” – Two engineers participating in a contest with an alien species find out that there is a price to winning. This was the oldest story in the collection and one of Silverberg’s earliest works; while a fun tale it felt insubstantial compared to some of its weightier counterparts.

 

“The Sixth Palace” – Two men submit to the tests of a mysterious robot guarding an incalculable treasure. One of the stories that was new to me, I enjoyed it enormously for both its premise and its resolution.

 

“Translation Error” – An alien agent sent to hold back humanity’s development finds himself in his worst nightmare. It was only when I was part-way through this that I realized that I had read this story before, which gave me a rare opportunity to appreciate something anew which I had enjoyed before.

 

“The Shadow of Wings” – A xenolinguist is forced to overcome his fears when confronted with a unique opportunity. This was another story which I had read before that proved an enjoyable revisit for me, even if it doesn’t rank among Silverberg’s finest.

 

“Absolutely Inflexible” – Tasked with dealing with the threat posed by time travelers, a government bureaucrat finds himself caught in a unique trap. One of those paradox tales that seem to have been a staple of the short stories about time travel during that era, it was fun if perhaps a little predictable.

 

“The Iron Chancellor” – The robot chef programmed to help a family lose weight takes his task to extremes. This is perhaps the most famous of the stories in the collection, and it’s one of my all-time favorites of his.

 

“Mugwump Four” – A wrong number leads an ordinary man on an extraordinary adventure. I had read this story ages ago and did so again when I reread it. It’s impressive how much Silverberg can compact into a single tale.

 

“To the Dark Star” – Three very different scientists – a human, a modified human, and an alien – cope with interpersonal tensions while observing an astronomical phenomenon. Tense and disturbing, this was one of the stories from later in Silverberg’s career, and its differences make for a contrast with the older stories in this collection.

 

“Neighbor” – A powerful landowner receives an unusual request from his despised neighbor. There is something in this story that I just find so incredibly true about human nature, even if it isn’t something about which we should be proud.

 

“Halfway House” – Suffering from cancer, an industrialist seeks a cure from a unique place. Though the premise in this story is interesting, it doesn’t prove as effective as the other tales in this collection.

 

“Sundance” – A member of a team of humans on an alien world questions his mission to eradicate a native species. This was the story I liked the least, both because of Silverberg’s often abrupt shifts within it and for the cultural expropriation in which he engages with his central character.

 

While the book offers a set of stories as mixed in quality as other collection of its type, in this one the average quality is much higher than the norm. Together they offer a great representative sampling of Silverberg’s earlier work, and make for highly enjoyable reading for any fan of the genre.

Podcast #188 is up!

Horace Greeley: Print, Politics, and the Failure of American Nationhood - James M. Lundberg

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jake Lundberg about his biography of the American newspaper editor and presidential candidate Horace Greeley. Enjoy!

My review of Piers Compton's "Harold the King" is up!

Harold the King - Piers Compton

My review of Piers Compton's biography of Harold II is up on my website! Please enjoy with my compliments.

Reading progress update: I've read 168 out of 1150 pages.

Andrew Carnegie - Joseph Frazier Wall

I knew that Andrew Carnegie lived through the American Civil War, but I don't think I ever appreciated how important of a role in it. He was involved in organizing the Army of the Potomac's initial advance on Richmond, and he had a role in the War Department which resulted in frequent encounters with Abraham Lincoln. Not bad for a Scottish lad still in his mid-20s!