This month I read a lot of nonfiction that I’m not going to detail below. The first category is books about business and sales (Get Clients Now!, Ready Fire Aim etc.) to figure out how to turn part-time freelance work into full-time business. So far, so good, but nerve-racking. The second category is a series of books about the history of Christianity following up on Paul Johnson’s history (see below). Finally, I joined Twitter. I think it’s something I need to be knowledgeable about for Sealy Communications (marketing people love Twitter). I remain wary of it, but I have found it’s a good source for obtaining news, much like a compressed version of my RSS feed.
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
My wife and I watched Downton Abbey recently, which I enjoyed. It’s a bit soap opera-ish, but the time and place and the series’s presentation is wonderful. As a follow-up, and also on the heals of Franzen’s much-discussed New Yorker essay about Wharton, I reread The Age of Innocence. It’s subtle, ironic, and entertaining, well worth a read if you like period pieces. It did not inspire me to go on a Wharton binge the way I did with Henry James last summer.
Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity
One of my freelance clients puts out college lectures, so I’m writing catalog copy for a course on world religions. I realized I had a very limited understanding of the history of Christianity, so I’ve been reading up. I started with Johnson’s history, which is good but dense. I’m less interested in the Middle Ages and Renaissance forward, which I think I do have a handle on. But the early years, particularly the first century, are fascinating. In the first century, Judaism was fractured and there were political squabbles between various sects — Temple Jews, Palestinian Jews, Essenic monks, Gnostics, etc. The era was one of discontent, and there was a heavy messianic wave spreading through the region. In other words, not dissimilar from today’s soothsayers, 2012 apocalypse watchers, tea partiers, etc. It’s interesting to read about how the preachings of an illiterate Jew evolved into the theology of an organized mass religion.
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
This is a big, fun novel about baseball and growing up we do in college. I enjoyed reading it, but I’d say it’s one for the wide middle reader — Michael Chabon rather than Jonathan Franzen (who has been drifting toward the wide middle with each book). Harbach’s novel is sprawling, and the characters feel real and fully-developed, but I don’t think it has Franzen’s sense of larger stakes. Whereas the War on Terror and the Bush administrations appropriation of the word “freedom” underlies Franzen’s latest novel, the closest Harbach gets to cultural commentary is two players arguing in the locker room: “Israel!” “Palestine!” “Israel!” “Palestine!” Maybe that’s commentary in itself, but the book starts by promising something bigger. In short, good book (especially for a baseball fan or an English major) but maybe not the Great American Novel the reviewers would have you believe. (Whether the Great American Novel is still possible, that’s another discussion for another time.)
Piers Brendan, Ike
I’ve been watching the American Experience portrayals of U.S. presidents. So far, none on Eisenhower, so I picked up a biography. This one is good, I guess, though Ike’s story is not as interesting as some of our presidents’. What struck me most was how unprepared the U.S. was for World War I. We think of ourselves as this advanced military power, but in the 1910s, military exercises still focused on the cavalry system of the Civil War. This book portrays Eisenhower training troops with sticks, which is amazing given America’s role in 20th century military engagements.