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Down the Reading List Rabbit Hole

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 …


  1. Pat
    Pat March 14, 2019 5:36 am

    Oh, no! “At Day’s Close”, “Rising Tide”, Roger Williams (whom I knew generally about from Rhode Island history, but not in depth) – all just as I’m about to embark on Gardening 2019.

    I may not get to the books until fall, but thanks for the links.

  2. Owl
    Owl March 14, 2019 6:11 am

    Re: Brilliant
    I remember reading something about this, that during Colonial times, folks would go to bed at nightfall, sleep a few hours, get up and do something (like go to the tavern for a brew), then go back to bed for a few more hours until dawn.
    And a great big “Gee, Thanks!” for making my “to read” list even longer . . .

  3. brew
    brew March 14, 2019 8:37 am

    re: Brilliant

    I’d read about the concept of First and Second sleep and have thought about trying it. But I think I’ll wait until retirement or when I no longer have any daily obligations of consequences – it could take a while to get used to.

    It seems my natural clock is be awake 11am to 3am, which doesn’t always blend well with the ebb and flow of society’s activities. A First/Second sleep cycle might do that, especially if the time between the two is devoted to quiet activities like reading and writing, just like they did back then.

  4. David M. Gross
    David M. Gross March 14, 2019 11:11 am

    Don’t be afraid of Montaigne. His writing is not intimidating, and he’s totally charming. I really enjoyed Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer” as well, and you might like it as a companion to or introduction to the Essays.

  5. jordanms2015
    jordanms2015 March 14, 2019 1:35 pm

    More for your list Claire
    RE: Jane Brox if you like Brilliant – Check out:
    – Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm
    – Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History
    – and her new book – Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives 1/15/2019 – this is a goody
    Peter Hollins – 3 books covering self-learning and rapid skill learning
    Josh Waitzkin – The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
    Jonas Salzgeber – The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness
    Timothy Gallwey – The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance
    Lastly check out TH Breen – 6 books I know of

  6. Claire
    Claire March 14, 2019 3:09 pm

    Oh my. The Reading List Rabbit Hole goes deeper and deeper.

    Just reserved the Bakewell book on Montaigne at the library. Will hold off on jordanms’s suggestions until I recuperate and return some of the present heaps and stacks o’ reading matter. But Brox’s book on silence should be on its way soon.

  7. crunchycon1
    crunchycon1 March 15, 2019 12:32 am

    Oh my goodness, Montaigne. I read him in college for a French Lit class I took to fill a hole in my schedule and to round out the dreaded Liberal Arts Triad requirement. I was enchanted and this is an reminder to go back for a re-read. Been meaning to do this for years.

  8. Claire
    Claire March 16, 2019 3:19 pm

    OMG, that was absolutely my favorite (in a really bad way) Twilight Zone episode ever. I saw it when I was a little kid and it never left my mind after that. Since I grew up, I’ve always kept my old glasses as spares, just in case.

  9. Claire
    Claire March 16, 2019 3:48 pm

    And now we have two v*tes for Montaigne being either charming or enchanting. That’s pretty high praise for a philosopher.

    Alas, the edition the library found me is a 1952 “Great Books” volume (Mortimer Adler, Mark Van Doren, veddy, veddy stuffy) with dense print and a dense layout. I did start reading it, but I think a more modern translation with a friendlier layout and fewer terrifying names attached to it would be welcome.

    Meanwhile, I got Ekirch’s At Day’s End, so I’ll meld that one into the mix instead.

  10. Antibubba
    Antibubba March 16, 2019 7:51 pm

    I’m going to add just one, Claire: Win Bigly, by Scott Adams. His blog during the election was fascinating, but this fills that out, and explains Trump (and our irrational selves) better than anything I’ve ever read. It’s humbling, actually.

  11. Claire
    Claire March 17, 2019 11:17 am

    I remember Scott Adams’ predictions and coverage during the 2016 election. He was uncanny — not only in being so right when nearly all the “experts” were so wrong, but in the reasons he gave for his certainty about what was happening. Added to the reading list…

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