I haven’t used this blog in about two years. I am starting again.
I am not a person who likes to do things like this on the internet. I don’t have a Facebook, Twitter, Friendster, etc. I have spent about a year trying to convince my girlfriend to let me give up my phone. (My plan: we have only one phone between the two of us, and she takes all my calls.) This phone is an old Verizon flip-phone, I should say.
So why write things on the internet?
I started doing this in late 2010. I had graduated from college, and I was worried I was going to stop learning about books. I was still readings books, of course, but I no longer had anyone holding me accountable for them. I decided to hold myself accountable by writing a blog, posting and sometimes analyzing the best passages from whatever I was reading, and writing little summaries and reviews when I finished a book.
I was living in China at the time, and I kept the blog up more or less until I came back to the United States for graduate school. By that point, the blog didn’t have much of a purpose: graduate school was going to hold me accountable for learning about books.
Now graduate school is over, and I am back out in the real world. The blog will again keep me accountable.
As I’ve described it, this blog is mostly for my personal purposes. (I certainly don’t “reblog” things.) So why put it on the internet for people to see? Why not just write it in a little notebook and store it in my drawer at night?
1) If other people can see what I’m reading, sometimes they recommend me other good books. (Thanks, person who told me to read The Aspern Papers: James had been impenetrable to me before, but that book cracked him for me.)
2) If I imagine that people are actually reading—even if, as is likely, they are not—then I am more likely to write things down. It’s another way of holding myself accountable.
So that’s who I am and what I’m doing here. I hope that will be the last I talk about myself. Onto what really matters—books.
If you look back at some of my earlier posts, you’ll see that I read novels almost exclusively. But in my time away, I have developed an appreciation for certain kinds of nonfiction books. I had a revelatory experience reading Edward Gibbon, who showed me that historians can write like novelists.
Which does not mean “historical novels.” If you’ve read Gibbon, you know what I’m talking about: he is telling interesting stories, yes, but he can make pages of historical analysis read like a novel. In his hands, ideas become characters. For these kinds of writers, historical writing can be thrilling, penetrating, smooth, psychological—a good novel, in other words.
I am not well-read enough in contemporary history-writing to say that writers like Gibbon no longer exist. But if they do, I don’t know about them. (This is where recommendations are needed.) History seems to have gone to the history departments—to academia, where style goes to starve to death. The only vaguely comparable contemporary historian I know is Candice Millard. She writes at a potboiler pace (I tore though Destiny of the Republic in a single day), and most of the time her prose is sharp. But unfortunately, she has almost no interest in ideas or themes. For her, history is a well of interesting scenes and trivia, but unlike Gibbon, she never has anything to say. She has no interest but telling a good story, and to her credit, she does that well. But she is not Gibbon. She writes history as if it were a thriller; Gibbon writes it as if it were literature.
Unfortunately, finding historians like Gibbon means reading people who are already dead. But at least there are lots of good writers among them. One of these is Paul Hazard, whose Crisis of the European Mind I started reading a few days ago. But much more on Hazard in later posts (that is, after all, the point of this blog).