Sunday, October 14, 2007


Andrew and I completed three of our current books this weekend.

Dorinda Outram’s “Panorama Of The Enlightenment” may be appreciated as a coffee-table book, but as a history publication it has little to offer. Only 340 pages long, it features 400 illustrations and it is a fairly handsome volume. Its discussion of the Enlightenment, however, is pretty basic and offers no new information and no new analysis. Is there even a market for this type of book? I don’t think so. This book was published in September 2006, and within thirty days it appeared in online equivalents of the remainder bin. Andrew and I picked up the book at nominal cost with bonus points from our History Book Club account. I am pleased we did not shell out its $40.00 list price.

John Keegan’s “An Illustrated History Of The First World War” is an even more handsome publication whose text is drawn, in part, from his “The First World War”. Old text and new text are supplemented with photographs, paintings, cartoons, posters and maps from the period, and the result is pleasing if not full of insight.

Keegan’s “The First World War” was not one of his finer efforts. That earlier volume was an account primarily of the Western Front seen through exclusively British eyes, and it largely ignored the Eastern and Italian and Mediterranean Fronts, as well as the naval campaigns, all of which were as pivotal in the progress and outcome of the war as the Western Front. “The First World War” also ignored the economic forces at work before, during and after the conflict.

Such omissions are repeated in the more recent publication. For a fuller account of the war, its causes and its aftermath, the reader must look elsewhere.

Paul Cartledge’s “Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed The World” is somewhat of a mess. A poor rehash of Herodotus, it does not add anything new to existing knowledge of the battle (which is given a scant eleven pages in all) and it does not add anything new to the standard histories of the war between the Persians and the Greeks. Almost half of the book is devoted to setting the scene for the battle, and almost a third of the book describes how the battle has come down to us in popular imagination. All of this has been told a hundred times before, and told to better effect.

Cartledge further weakens his story by attempting to draw parallels between 480 B.C. and the current world situation. These attempts are embarrassing if not cringe-inducing.

I doubt that Cartledge would find many parallels between The Battle Of The Alamo and the world of today, in which case it is odd of him to draw parallels between The Battle Of Thermopylae and the conflicts of the present. Both at Thermopylae and at the Alamo, a severely out-numbered body of men fought gallantly to their deaths, but in both cases the particular skirmishes at issue were not vital to the outcomes of the overall campaigns. Both Thermopylae and the Alamo involved men fighting to their deaths against overwhelming odds, leaving legends of heroism and bravery and sacrifice in their wakes. As a practical matter, however, both battles had little lasting significance. They are remembered today primarily for the myths they fostered.

Greece won its war against Persia by defeating the Persians at sea subsequent to the Battle Of Thermopylae. Greece, facing a vastly larger Persian army, knew it could not win a land battle against its more powerful foe and, from the beginning, placed its bet on a winning naval strategy. It is, accordingly, somewhat perverse for Cartledge to claim that the Greeks at Thermopylae, even though losers of the battle, staunched the onslaught of barbarian hordes and thereby launched the foundation of the West.

I think it is long past time to lay this claim to rest.


  1. Hey there, Josh...

    I can't, for the life of me, sit and read through a history book; it bores me to eternity!

    Again, you should review books seems to be in desperate need of critics who can actually compose a compelling criticism.

    I Hope your weekend with Andrew was divine!


  2. Hey, Chanteuse.

    History is one of those things that, like liver, people either like or they don't.

    Our weekend was a proliferation of disasters.

    First, Cheryl Studer hung up on me.

    Second, I jinxed Minnesota and caused the Golden Gophers to blow a 21-point lead and lose yet another game. Tomorrow the Minnesota legislature will debate whether to revoke my citizenship.

    Third, it has turned cold.

    Fourth, we are listening to some really, really gloomy Brahms organ music.

    Fifth, we may have liver for dinner tonight.

    Other than all that, I guess things are going OK.

    I hope your weekend was a swell one.


  3. ...and thanks for making me laugh's been a while.

    Take care, Chanteuse

  4. Thank you, Chanteuse.

    Whenever you need a laugh, just watch the Minnesota football team blow huge leads, over and over and over. The Golden Gophers are always worth a laugh or two.

    I hope you get lots of laughs for the rest of the week.

    I am truly sorry you are in need of a laugh. You deserve better.