When I went to once-a-week (or whatever it’s eventually going to be) blogging, I said I hoped my less-frequent posts would contain meaty content — but that the posts would reflect whatever the week brought, for good or ill. Recent days have brought lots of reading, sparking thoughts too formless and unorganized yet to blog. So here’s a little tale about how I plunged down the Reading List Rabbit Hole.
NOTE: This piece has Amazon Associate links to the best or most eagerly awaited titles of my rabbit-hole adventure, but I’m not trying to sell you books. I’m just having fun finding, reading, and learning from them.
We’ve all been down the Internet rabbit hole. You start reading about, say, Brexit. Then click-click-click and suddenly hyperlinks have led you to a treatise on the use of the longbow at the battle of Agincourt. Begin with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and end up learning about abstract-expressionist painting via a stray link to artist Joan Mitchell. Follow an article on the Russian revolution — click-click-click-click — and end up with the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island.
Or watching a cute cat video. It is an observable fact that every website in existence will lead you to cute cat videos if you click on enough hyperlinks.
This week I’m discovering the same thing can happen — sans cats — when you’re mostly offline and reading good old low-tech books.
It all began with a writer named Jane Brox. Somebody told me about a new book she’s written on the “social history of silence.” Clearly a must-read for me. So off to the library catalog. Nope, no Brox book on silence — yet. But in putting in a purchase request, I notice … Oh hey, here’s this other book by Brox on the history of artificial light and how it’s affected society and individuals. Interesting …
So I’m reading Brilliant, and I see Brox refer to the theory that in Medieval times, and perhaps long before, people didn’t get our prescribed “eight uninterrupted hours of sleep,” but instead divided their nights into a “first sleep” and a quite different “second sleep” separated by hours of meditation or quiet activity. This notion is popular with people looking for routes to “natural” health and habits. I’ve heard it before, but I didn’t know the source. Brox credits a book by a historian I’ve never heard of, A. Roger Ekirch.
Off to request that title, I see … Oh, boy. That Ekirch guy has written some interesting stuff. I don’t yet have his “nighttime” book, but Here’s American Sanctuary subtitled “Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution.” It’s about how President John Adams turned a sanctuary-seeking mutineer over to the British navy to be hanged, setting off a political firestorm and helping (against his will) forge U.S. policy in several important areas. And what’s this? Birthright, the true story that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Kidnapped. Oh yeah, gotta read that.
And when Birthright landed on the library’s hold shelf yesterday, I dove right in despite already being in progress on four or five other books. Birthright hooked me from the first paragraph. Because this thing reads like a novel, and the aristocratic family involved in the kidnapping was crazier and more decadent than several soap operas, and because this book, too, gives a lot of insight into British and American history, like how indentured servitude worked, and how our Bill of Rights ended up being so heavily focused on attempting to ensure fairness to underdogs in the justice system.
And this wasn’t the first time I’ve fallen down the Reading List Rabbit Hole this month. Marooned, which I reviewed last week, took me to three other books about John Smith and Jamestown (and it’s interesting what different emphases or interpretations authors put on the identical subject).
Then I stumbled on an embarrassing book on the 1918 influenza pandemic, which I won’t name or link to because when an author (and university professor, of course) informs you that men and women of the time had different reactions to disease because of their “gender conditioning” you know you’re reading propaganda, not history. Nevertheless, there in that book were several songs of high praise for a seminal book, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. And that author’s name was familiar. Yep, he’s the historian who wrote the excellent bio of Roger Williams I read last year, calling Williams the true founder of religious liberty in the U.S.
The Great Influenza is the book I wanted to read on that strangely forgotten plague. I can highly recommend it to anybody interested in history, science, medicine, future pandemics, or how quickly social bonds can unravel when fear takes over. Barry tends to try to cover too much, but he’s wonderfully readable.
But more rabbit holes …
Oh! Look what else Barry has written. Rising Tide, about the horrific Mississippi flood of 1927 that, aside from its immediate and catastrophic impact, upturned both Southern culture and our relationship to the federal government. He goes into some fascinating history about rival nineteenth-century engineers and their theories for taming the river, too. (Hint, the best man doesn’t always win — especially not when the lesser man works for the Army Corps of Engineers.)
So today I’m at various points of progress in two books by Barry (Great Influenza and Rising Tide), Ekirch’s page-turning Birthright, a biography of the strange, mysterious, and deliciously morbid (and this is not an Amazon link) writer/illustrator Edward Gorey, which just happened to turn up this week after several months on hold, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I was already working on when this onslaught began. Oh yeah, and the new Selco, which I’m trying to get back to.
A copy of Montaigne’s Essays (another rabbit-hole find, related to explorations of the history of freedom) sits on my coffee table. But I admit that particular tome intimidates me to quivers and whimpers. I’m not eager to read it so much as I am to have read it, past tense. It should eventually, get sole attention. Barry and Ekirch both write like novelists — and modern novelists, at that. Old Montaigne, I think not.
Meanwhile, I’m taking in so much gripping, but unrelated, information I’m in danger of thinking Harry Potter was hanged for mutiny while John Adams designed the Mississippi levees and Edward Gorey died of Spanish flu while trying to rescue John Smith from indentured servitude.
But that will all shake out soon. And damn, this literary rabbit hole is filled with lots of chances to explore and grow. All the delightful chaos of the Internet without all the nastiness, irrelevancy, interruptions, and brain-numbing screen time.
Besides, as random as all this sounds, every book I’m reading or have in one of the stacks around the house has to do with freedom and individuality vs tyranny. Every book set in seventeenth or early eighteenth century England or America gives insight — even if only incidentally — into how our freedom traditions developed out of the upheaval and systemic abuses of the times. Books on historic American disasters show how the federal government finds excuses to grab power. Harry Potter has to grow as an individual to face his responsibility to destroy the tyrant Voldemort. Even eccentric, non-political old Edward Gorey reveals the joy of being a one-of-a-kind individual in a world that mostly goes along to get along.
The early twenty-first century seems a perilous time for freedom. But a lot of these books remind us that other times have been far less free for all but the rich and well-born, and downright hellacious for ordinary individuals. Yet out of those times, and because of those times, freedom grew. So there’s hope for us still.
Now off to plunge back into that rabbit hole …