As I’ve noted in the past here at Stevereads, I take a peculiar interest in the slight but often fascinating book-coverage you can find in the “lad mags” like Esquire or Men’s Journal or GQ. It’s always strange to me, the efforts the editors of these magazines (arrogant SOBs almost to a man) to find some way, any way, to make books feel interesting or relevant to their target demographic of swaggering, over-monied, pea-brained 20-something business drones. Magazines like Esquire and GQ know that demographic’s stupidity and biddability to the last decimal place, which is why these are some of the only major magazines still in circulation in the West that feature both embarrassing objectification of women and page after page of adds for cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.
Books are always going to be a strange element to add to such a brainless bro-centric mess, so I girded myself when I recently encountered a short feature in Esquire called “The New Books for Men” by Benjamin Percy, an egregiously overpraised young writer who here comes up with a list of books that have spoken to him in various ways as he’s ripened into the wise old guy he is today (according to Wikipedia, Percy is well shy of his 40th birthday). I went in hoping for one person’s account of what reading has meant to him, but Percy takes hardly any time before he’s made things a good deal more ponderous than that:
The older I get, the more I read to upset and challenge the man I’ve actually become. Reading is now less aspirational and more instructional. I cracked open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at eactly the right time: the year my son almost died … The Road may take place in a postapocalyptic wasteland, but ultimately it’s a story about fathers and sons, about the terror of keeping your children safe from harm and teaching them to protect themselves in a world that sometimes seems bent on ruining them. The book helped me better understand and manage my own fears and sense of responsibility.
It should almost be needless to say that going to novels for “instructional” reasons is fundamentally wrong-headed. It reduces not only the novel but the novel’s readers. What, after all, according to Percy’s view here, happens to the readers who come to (sorry, “crack open,” like a brewski) The Road without having their young sons in the hospital? (Not even delving into the fact that The Road can somehow be enjoyed on a visceral level even by women – in the view Percy puts forward in this piece, women not only don’t read but can’t read) Percy goes through a list of books in a similar vein, each one named in conjunction with some nuts-and-bolts life lesson to which it can give operating instructions. Every work named (all popularly well-regarded; the list of titles alone pretty clearly hints that Percy doesn’t himself read books, ever, if he can help it) is given a narrow, one-topic point, a precise life-problem it can solve once its bro-reader picks it up, gropes it open, and begins mouthing its words to himself. And all of it is designed not as an end in itself but rather as one more notch on the money-clip of the World’s Most Interesting Man:
You look back on your life and the books you’ve read and you know you’re better off for having a large and varied and sometimes uncomfortable appetite for experience, for having lived widely, strenuously. Getting upset, leaving behind what’s familiar: That’s the point. The most interesting guy at the party isn’t the one who only surrounds himself with friends.
Whenever I come across a short piece like this in a lad-mag, I always feel a split reaction: on the one hand, I’m happy to see any mention of books in pages full of ads for $85,000 wrist watches and “recreational” products with a hundred-year record of causing lung cancer. But on the other hand, it’s irritating to see books and reading so smugly simplified – here’s how this Tolstoy guy helped me to play some catch with my dad – it’s the intellectual equivalent of strip-mining, and it’s depressing to think of all the young money-bros out there who’ll encounter Percy’s article and think reading William Styron or T. H. White is some kind of highbrow close equivalent to figuring out a sheet of IKEA instructions; “I’ve got a boss who’s absolutely obsessed with our quarterly reports … I better crack open this “Moby-Dick” book …”
But I’ll hold out a bit of stubborn hope anyway. Maybe next month’s issue of Outside …
I ventured into the comics shop recently, which is something I don’t do all that often anymore, for two main reasons: first, as I’ve lamented several times here at Stevereads, the bloom of most comics went off the rose for me a few years ago when DC Comics – the mainstay of my comics world for decades – conducted a company-wide reboot of its characters and continuity, taking a broad and colorful and most especially grand tapestry of superheroes and transforming them at a stroke into a batch of grim, flak-jacketed, hateful misanthropists. These beings didn’t stand for truth, justice, and anybody’s way but their own. They punched, growled, and screwed with equal petulance; they had the names as the great characters they replaced, but their natures were completely, almost sadistically reversed from anything I grew up reading and liking.
And as evil chance would have it, my favorite DC character was one of the hardest hit. Superman has always been a source of insecurity for some comics creators – the less imaginative among those creators see his moral purity and vast array of superpowers and thought these things precluded interesting drama. The best Superman writers over the decades have seen the enormous opportunities offered by the very things that dismayed those other writers, but in “The New 52,” Superman became The Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan, only with hair. When he was talking to mere mortals, he floated a little above the ground with his arms folded across his chest. When is romantic soul was stirred, the woman in question wasn’t the thoroughly human, grounding Lois Lane but the battle-armored “New 52′ version of Wonder Woman.
In short, this version of Superman was exactly the kind of cool, monstrous alternate-reality version of the character that the old Superman, the one I read for decades, would have fought, outwitted, and then banished back to his own dimension.
But old habits die hard, and I was so accustomed to reading DC comics that I more or less limped along continuing to do it, despite only very seldom actually enjoying what I was reading. Eventually I started shifting my reading to graphic novels and away from the weekly issues that kept appearing at my comics shop. And even though I’ve recently noticed DC writers gradually drifting their concepts of the characters back to their pre-New 52 incarnations, I still stayed away from buying individual issues – for the second of my two reasons: DC recently announced that the summer of 2016 will see yet another company-wide reboot, this one dubbed “Rebirth” and featuring Gawd-knows-what further changes to these characters. Buying individual issues seemed doubly like a waste of time.
And yet, I missed going to my comics shop and buying individual issues! And recently, a storyline was announced spanning the whole family of Superman-related comics, a storyline said to be revolving around something called “The Super League.” It intrigued me, so I let it play out for a few installments, then I went to the comics shop and bought three or four of those installments, starting with Superman #51, which features a very dramatic cover by Mikel Janin with the legend “In the Heart of the Sun … the Super League is Forged!”
The issue opens equally dramatically: a full-page close-up of a Superman so young and pretty that the old Curt Swan/George Reeves Superman, my Superman, wouldn’t have recognized as any variation of himself. And this younger, prettier Superman says, “I’m dying.”
It turns out that several recent events in Superman’s life have combined to fatally weaken his body. He’s run every kind of test he knows, and he’s certain: he’s dying, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. He sets about telling his loved ones – in this issue, he first tells Lana Lang back in Smallville, then he goes to Lois Lane, who quite simply says she’s missed “talking to my best friend every day.”
In the next installment, in DC comic that used to be called World’s Finest and is now drably called Batman/Superman, Superman goes to the Batcave and tells Batman, who protests that they have to fight it, that there must be a way to save Superman’s life. Superman assures him that there’s no hope.
The next installment I bought was the latest issue of the drably-titled Superman/Wonder Woman, with great artwork by Ed Benes. In this issue, Superman breaks the bad news to Wonder Woman. And because this “New 52” version of Wonder Woman is a stupid, petty, brawling blockhead, her main concern is that Superman told Lana Lang, Lois Lang, Supergirl, and Batman before he told her. Fortunately, Superman is still healthy enough to shut her up by kissing her.
The thing that surprised me most about these three issues (I skipped an installment that mostly concentrated on Supergirl, whose New 52 incarnation is so tooth-grindingly boring that I can’t really stand reading her even in small doses) was how much I enjoyed them. The interactions between Superman and Batman, between Superman and Lois Lane, especially between Superman and Lana Lang, all felt immediately authentic, very little like the bulk of the New 52 run. And at one point there was splendid double-page spread of Superman simply going about his job, selflessly saving the day. The story had a great deal of heart.
Must have been a donor heart, of course, since the one thing completely missing from these issues was any plot involving a “Super League.” Indeed, the term “Super League” is never even mentioned in any of these issues, which are part of a story called “The Final Days of Superman.” No idea where this “Super League” business comes from, but I finished these issues feeling something DC’s New 52 lineup has virtually never made me feel: eager for the rest of the story.
I don’t miss the irony, of course, that I’m feeling this just as the New 52 itself is about to undergo a major disruption. Given the almost uniform series of bad decisions involved in the New 52, I’m going into “Rebirth” expecting the worst. But before that, at least I’ve got this neato story to enjoy.
Our book today is a doozy from 2010: it’s the 75th Anniversary Poster Book of DC Comics, a lavishly oversized thing put out by the good folks at Quirk Books in honor, as its title hints, of the 75th anniversary of DC Comics and its venerable roster of comic book characters (the three most recognizably venerable – Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman – are represented on the books cover by their famous chest emblems, just as they were recently represented on the big screen by their BDSM leather body-suits and constipated scowls). With snarky and often quite insightful commentary written by Robert Schnakenberg, the book takes a grand-sized tour of some of the icon cover illustrations that have sold DC issues from newsstands for almost a century. Fans who were eagerly buying those issues for a goodly chunk of that time will find this poster book an irresistible browner’s paradise (although a slightly perilous one: Quirk Books decided to give readers the option to detach and use any one of these oversized cover reproductions as an actual poster, so every page is perforated).
Virtually every iconic DC cover image is represented here, from Superman hefting a car over his head on the front of 1938’s Action Comics #1 to the sight of two different Flashes running to the rescue on the cover of The Flash in 1961. And although Schnakenberg is too polite to crow about it, one fact becomes glaringly obvious as the pages of this book turn: DC covers tended to get better as time passed. Catchy became gripping, and the cover as an artistic statement started to come into its own. Certainly there’s very little in the company’s first forty years to match the visceral directness of the cover Neal Adams drew for Green Lantern #85 in 1971, about which our guide has this to say:
In this issue, the Emerald Archer has his mellow harshed when he finds out his squeaky-clean sidekick Roy “Speedy” Harper is secretly a heroin addict … Notable for its sympathetic portrayal of junkies as victims of addiction, Green Lantern #85 represented a high-water mark for [writer Denny] O’Neil and Adams’ two-year run on the title, and for “relevant comics” in general. It earned a letter of commendation from New York City Mayor John Lindsay, which was printed in the next issue.
More straightforward fan favorites get their moments in the spotlight as well, like George Perez’s enticingly cartoony cover for The New Teen Titans #1 in 1980, which comes with a helpful synopsis:
Teen superteams were nothing new in comics. Marvel had its X-Men. During World War II, Captain America’s sidekick Bucky and the Human Torch’s BFF Toro had formed a second-banana-led super-squad called the Young Allies, filled out with four adolescent schlemiels named Knuckles, Jeff, Tubby, and Whitewash. Even DC had tried and failed to get a successful “kid super hero” team off the ground. The 1966 version of Teen Titans, featuring Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, and Wondergirl, [sic] ended after forty-three issues. Some blamed its demise on the writers’ overreliance on dated “jive” dialogue (“Did this crazy teen scene!” blared one early cover burst). Less self-consciously “hip” and markedly more successful was the 1980s revival of the Teen Titans. As re-imagined by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez – a master of group dynamics on covers and interior art – the now seven-member team wasn’t a bunch of mere junior- varsity versions of established heroes anymore. They were fully-formed, well-rounded characters who lived with, fought with, and loved each other.
And of course there’s perhaps the single most memorable modern-era DC cover of them all, Frank Miller’s illustration for Batman: The Dark Knight #1 in 1986, which has been pastiched and parodied countless times but still retains its elemental power, according to Schnakenberg:
The era of “grim and gritty” comics began with the publication of Frank Miller’s landmark limited series Batman: The Dark Knight in1986 – a sea change for an industry in which super-hero adventures were typically bathed in garish primary colors. The simple, almost minimalist composition Miller chose for the cover of the first issue – perhaps the greatest application of the “less is more” principal [sic] in comics history – barely hinted at the cluttered complexity of the interior art and story.
Later greats such as Michael Golden, Brian Bolland, and Alex Ross are all represented in the book’s closing pages, and of course DC Comics has in the meantime enjoyed another anniversary, its 80th. And who knows what new gems will adorn the closing pages of the volume I’m hoping will appear in 2035?
Our book today is a little treasure from 1920, Cape Coddities by Dennis and Marion Chatham, dotted all throughout with charming little spot illustrations by Harold Cue. I’ve been pulling this little volume down off the shelf every year when Spring first begins to unfold in Boston; the song-birds come back to the lawns and hedges, the lilac blooms outside the window, and the middays grow warmer and warmer. It’s the time of year that first awakens thoughts of summer, and that turns those thoughts to Cape Cod, where I’ve spend many very happy summers.
It’s still a slow process, this change of seasons; the mornings are still chilly, as are the nights. But little books like Cape Coddities hurry along the process in my mind, especially since the Chathams, like so many writers, can’t resist the lure of describing that hallowed Cape vacationer ritual, the opening of the summer house as soon as possible in the season:
The family reach the house after dark on a Saturday night. The lock readily responds to familiar fingers, the door creaks a friendly welcome as the family grope their way through the hall in good-humored rivalry to see which shall be the first to secure the box of matches always kept on the right-hand corner of the mantlepiece in the living-room for this emergency. Then, as the lamps are lighted, the old familiar objects appear precisely as they had been left, perhaps six months before, with a coating of dust, to be sure, but nothing which a few moments and a dustcloth could not remove; for dust in this region is little known. True, the chairs, or at least such of them as possess cushions, gathered from all hammocks and piazza furniture; but a few deft passes by the fairy godmother of this establishment, and presto, the cushions are distributed and the sofa offers a cozy retreat for the entire party. Otherwise the living-room is livable. A fire ready laid is only waiting for a match and a turn of the hand to open the flue. Such is a cottage by the sea if it has been planned and built as it should be, not alone for summer use, but also for spring and autumn holidays.
“There is no such word as hurry in the bright lexicon of Cape Cod,” our authors write, and they spend a good deal of their book’s 150 pages describing the various kinds of leisure the Cape has always encouraged in those lucky enough to enjoy it. Clamming, antiquing, amateur fishing, relaxed lunching … the Chathams have warm, sentimental words for all of it (and they lament the tyrannical motorcar, whose chugging and churning, they fear, is permanently altering the nature of the Cape). And for those of us who’ve spent a great deal of time inland on the Cape, it’s wonderful that the Chathams included a chapter on “A Fresh-Water Cape” full of rivers and ponds:
To the majority of people Cape Cod spells sea breezes, a tang of salt in the air, scrub oaks, tall pines, stretches of and a large appetite. To the few who know the Cape from more intimate acquaintance there is added to this picture a swelling country densely wooded in sections and spotted with ponds. It is a source of never-ending wonder how these ponds exist in a country where the soil is so porous that a few minutes after a shower there is no trace of the rain.
In recent years I’ve found myself thinking about the Cape all summer long, not just at the beginning and, as I’ve always done, at the end. Many of the quaint elements of the Cape the Chathams describe are long gone in 2016, but the amazing thing about the region is how many of them that remain. The Cape Cod in the pages of Cape Coddities is immediately recognizable even a century later. It fills the reading of the book with smiles.
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted before here at Stevereads, are genuinely impressive works of scholarship in their own right, and I recently came across one of those during a foray at the Brattle Bookshop: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, edited by David Norbook – in this case, the 2005 update to the 1992 original.
This plump volume – 900 pages – has everything you’d want from such a thing: micro-typed End Notes, a huge variety of authors from the English Renaissance (the title’s slight misleading in that way: it’s not exactly that Renaissance), and a long Introduction by Norbook that’s just brimming with fantastic insights delivered with almost staccato speed, including this great bit about the pragmatic side of the literary endeavor (a side it very much had in common with the Renaissance then bubbling in Italy):
The immediate response of an active life for an ambitious young writer lay not in dreaming of Roman antiquity but in serving the Crown. The prospect of an alliance with the Crown was an appealing one for many poets in the period. In adopting the demonstrative rhetoric of the court, writing panegyrics of the ruler and leading courtiers, they could think of themselves as in effect writing the script of the public world, fulfilling the humanist imperative of making their verbal skill serve the State. The resultant compromises with courtly discourse, however, were often uneasy.
The years covered by this book, from 1509 to 1659, encompass a roll-call of writers that can stand comparison with any similar time-frame in history. This was the era of John Skelton, Henry Howard, Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, John Harington, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Robert Herrick, Margaret Cavendish, and George Herbert. This was the time of Marlowe, Milton, and Shakespeare.
And Anonymous, whose work Norbook is a trifle too eager to include. Considering how many giants were writing during the period he examines, readers might perhaps have done without the limp doggerel of things like “On Sir Francis Drake”:
Sir Drake whom well the world’s end knew,
Which thou did’st compasse round,
And whom both Poles of heaven once saw
Which North and South do bound,
The stars above, would make thee known,
If men here silent were;
The Sun himself cannot forget
His fellow traveller.
But 99% of the book glows with a dozen different kinds of genius. You’ll find quite a few of your favorites in these pages, plus, if Norbook has done his job well, plenty of poets whose further acquaintance you’ll want to make, their strengths and their music brought into unexpected highlights by the company they’re keeping here. Thomas Campion’s exquisitely worldly lines on the various entertainments of winter, for example:
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their houres,
And clouds their stormes discharge
Upon the ayrie towers,
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o’erflow with wine:
Let well-tun’d words amaze
With harmonie divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall waite on hunny Love,
While youthfull Revels, Masks, and Courtly sights,
Sleepes leaden spels remove.
This time doth well dispence
With lovers long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All doe not all things well;
Some measures comely tread;
Some knotted Ridles tell;
Some Poems smoothly read.
The Summer hath his joyes,
And Winter his delights;
Though Love and all his pleasures are but toyes,
They shorten tedious nights.
God only knows what happened to the copy of The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse I originally bought back in 2005 at Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I came across this copy at the Brattle. I anticipate a few happy hours of browsing in it this weekend.
Our book today is The Lady with the Borzoi, a biographical tribute to Blanche Knopf that somehow feels both surprising and long overdue. The book, written with grace and a cheery volubility by Laura Claridge, is the story of Blanche Knopf, the so-called “soul” of the publishing house she created a century ago with her husband Alfred, and although Claridge does a sometimes painfully thorough job of fleshing out the intense frictions that were always a well-known part of the Knopf marriage (it’s a very sympathetic effort, in the end), she’s equally adept at painting the fullest portrait ever yet made of one of the most remarkable women in the history of the publishing industry.
She took to that industry with an avid enthusiasm, and for half a century she was virtually inexhaustible in searching out new and promising authors, keeping their spirits from flagging (and, less publicly, keep their rents from going past due), and keeping the talk and champagne flowing at the famous parties she and her husband threw, which drew all of New York’s literati to the Upper East Side to talk shop and dish dirt (quieter but no less invigorating evenings were often thrown together at the Knopf summer place in scenic Falmouth, Cape Cod).
The fact that Blanche Knopf was inexhaustible in all these literary endeavors is rendered all the more striking in light of how eminently exhaustible she was, not only prone to infections and blue funks but also one of the most spectacularly clumsy women ever to don a fashionable pair of Kerrybrookes pumps. Claridge’s book gives attentive readers some hint of positively vaudevillian number of pratfalls involved, but there’s no denying the results. Blanche Knopf discovered, debut, encouraged, nurtured, subsidized, or otherwise helped a roster of authors that included John Hersey, William Shirer, Muriel Spark, Andre Gide, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bowen, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and dozens of others. The web of her literary friendships was vast, and her sensitivity to the least plucking of that web was legendary. “Blanche knows everybody,” her friend Edna St. Vincent Millay once said. “And everyone thinks they know Blanche.”
In knowledgeable and bubbling prose (of exactly the type its subject most enjoyed), Claridge conveys the bright, tireless whirlwind of Blanche Knopf’s professional life. Let one brief snippet from 1938 stand as a good general example:
Later in the month, Blanche took off for Europe. She planned to spend several days at Elizabeth Bowen’s Irish country estate, Bowen’s Court in Kildorrey, in County Cork, where, Bowen teased her, she would be forced to unwind. Blanche and Bowen had lots to talk about, and it was surely hard for anyone to imagine Blanche relaxing, even at Bowen’s Court. Before she left port she was already busy organizing an onboard cocktail party for the evening, gathering guests that included the author and rare book collector Wilmarth Lewis; Walter Damrosch, an American conductor and composer; and Arthur Krock, a Washington journalist whom she knew slightly. She hoped to invite one of Krock’s frequent sources, Joseph P. Kennedy, as well, no doubt to suggest he write a book. But he ambassador was impossible to reach. Remembering Blanche after her death, Lewis would say that she “was very hospitable and a little overwhelming.” He remembered publishing his first book with her in 1922, Tutor’s Lane. “To become a Knopf author was already like being asked to join a club,” he said.
After her death in 1966, Jason Epstein remarked that Blanche Knopf stood for “a
kind of publishing which we shall never see again.” It’s a kind of histrionic common at funerals, but there was a truth to it. The Knopf publishing “brand” was always distinctive, a connotation of care and excellence largely willed into being by Blanche Knopf (Claridge is too kind to say outright that Alfred Knopf was the far more ploddingly conventional of the two, but it was nevertheless true). And that brand came under direct fire when the publishing industry as a whole began to be gobbled up by the giant German multinational conglomerate Bertelsmann back in the 1990s. A small publisher in the early 21st century might possibly emulate the smarts, spirit, and discrimination that Knopf showed in the early 20th, but no large publisher any longer can strike the kinds of idiosyncratic and author-encouraging deals that were Blanche Knopf’s lifeblood. In fact, here’s hoping The Lady with the Borzoi earns out for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Our book today is Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyondby emeritus Oxford don Richard Jenkyns. The book is an alarmingly thin perambulation through the whole of the classics from the Homeric era through the Augustan Age and a little bit beyond, a hurried tour that’s saved from being a mere trot only by the wit and erudition of its author. When it was originally published in the UK, the book was part of the “Pelican Introduction” series, and even in its beautiful repackaging by Basic Books, something of the taste of basic instruction still lingers around these pages.
That isn’t fatal, of course, and Jenkyns regularly raises the tone of the proceedings in any case. He takes his readers through the broader outlines of classical literature at a clip that largely prevents any kind of in-depth analysis, but even when touching on extremely well-known scenes, he can invoke pleasing multiplicities:
When Achilles chases Hector round the walls of Troy, the poet compares the scene to a chariot race, ‘and all the gods looked on’. The comparison is telling: when we go to the big match, we believe ourselves to be passionately involved, bu we leave the stadium and our lives are unchanged. The gods too, of whom some support the Achaeans, others the Trojans, can seem passionately partisan, but in the end their emotions are superficial. One might compare the apocryphal Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times’. It is the gods’ blessing to be flat and simple, and the curse of man to be interesting. The last book contains two reconciliations or comings together. That between the gods is fairly brief and straightforward. That between two men, Achilles and Priam, is far more difficult, complex and profound.
And he’s especially enjoyable when he deviates from the massive masterworks of the canon in order to bustle around briefly in the less pieces:
Pliny’s other surviving work is his Panegyric, a long oration buttering Trajan up with lavish praise. After every allowance has been made for the conventions of the time, it remains impossible to like. Most of it is tedious, but it does contain one remarkable passage in which Trajan’s presence in his palace, a broad calm in the midst of Rome’s bustle, is contrasted with the bad emperor Domitian’s earlier existence there, skulking fearfully in the small back rooms. The atmospheric evocation of a spacious, almost numinous interior provides a moment of unexpected poetry.
Classical Literature easily manages to be entertaining, but it also provokes and enlightens and will please even readers who know Jenkyns’ subjects backwards and forwards, and newcomers will get a smoothly urbane and often sparkling introduction to a body of writing they’ll want to explore a great deal more. “The ancient Greeks and Romans are our parents,” Jenkyns writes, “and on the whole they have been good parents.” He does an excellent job making the appropriate introductions.
Our book today is the latest from the prolific Paul Strathern: The Medici, subtitled somewhat predictably “Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance.” And the subtitle is hardly the only thing in the book that’s predictable; after all, G. F. Young did this kind of tour d’horizon over a century ago, laying out the biographies and the rise and fall of the Medici family and making sure to detour for every colorful anecdote from Vasari & co.
It’s a formula that works, which is why there are five books like The Medici for every one that might be more fine-grained or intensely scholarly. It’s likewise effective of course in books about Venice, and Strathern’s 2013 book The Venetians had a lot in common with The Medici: both are galleries of charged, colorful personalities connected by short narrative hallways. And as even casual readers of history will know, the saga of the Medici family offers a great many such personalities, since this one bare-knuckled family of Florentine bankers managed to work its way into every aspect of the city’s society during the most glorious years of the Italian Renaissance. Among other things, the Medici were industrious art patrons, which gives Strathern ample opportunities for relating some of the more lurid peccadilloes of the painterly and sculptorly set, not always, it must be admitted, with complete felicity:
Donatello made no secret of his homosexuality; and his behaviour was tolerated by his friends; certainly Cosimo is known to have played his part in patching up at least one lovers’ quarrel between Donatello and one of his young assistants. Attitudes to homosexuality in Florence appear to have been ambiguous. The passionate young Italian male found himself in a difficult situation, with girls marrying much younger than men and a high premium being placed on their virginity. As a result, any young blood who attempted to interfere with this was liable to find himself in serious trouble, not to say mortal danger, from the offended family: deflowering a virgin meant devaluing a considerable asset, to say nothing of dishonouring the family and any prospective groom.
“All this meant,” Strathern somewhat unhelpfully summarizes, “that sodomy amongst young men was covertly tolerated, despite the frequency of edicts expressly forbidding this practice.”
If readers look at this digression on the etiology of Renaissance homosexuality and suspect that the actual day-to-day granular reality might have been more complicated, they’ll probably encounter that same feeling elsewhere in the book. For instance, when Strathern turns inevitably to the Medici lodestar of the Renaissance, Lorenzo the Magnificent, he doesn’t always give the impression of stern reliability:
Yet Lorenzo’s education had extended to more than intellectual learning. He enjoyed hunting – on horseback and with falcons – as well as the boisterous rough-house of that early ‘no rules’ ball game, played between packs of boys, that was the precursor of modern football. He was strong, intelligent, energetic: a natural leader. Out riding, he enjoyed leading the group in facetious bawdy songs, which he often wittily embellished on the spur of the moment. All this is more than just the understandable hyperbole that so often accrues to the youth of a great figure …
Fortunately, as with The Venetians, Strathern is far more skeptical and readable on the comparative lesser lights of his story, the cadet members of the Medici family especially in its waning decades. The end result is an addition to the ranks of nonfiction Medici melodramas that’s neither boring nor eloquent, neither groundbreaking nor quite derivative. It’s a starting place for its subject, as surely its author intended it to be.
Our book today is The Edge of Empire: A Journey to Britannia: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall, an utterly winning and somewhat old-fashioned work by Bronwen Riley in which she imagines a sprawling travel itinerary of Antonine Rome through a narrative device that was once familiar in popular histories of ancient Rome, books with titles like A Day in the Life of Rome or Daily Life in Pliny’s Rome: pick a focal-point character and tell the larger story through that character. It’s an inherently limiting device but also instantly effective – it personalizes the presentation of an otherwise enormous amount of information.
The focal-point character Bronwen Riley chooses is Sextus Julius Severus, a successful general who in AD 130 set out from Hadrian’s Rome to his far-distant posting as the new governor of Britannia. Severus had been governor of Moesia Inferior on the shore of the Black Sea, so he’s perfect for Riley’s purposes: he had to prepare for his trip across the breadth of the empire, organize, pack, trek, and then arrive and adapt to life on the very edge of the Roman world.
“In this period,” Riley writes, “Rome was still the radiant centre of imperial power, the city where both the emperor and the ruling class needed to have a base and the place from which many high-ranking officials would have set out at the start of their postings to the provinces.” And throughout The Edge of Empire, our author is keenly aware of the inherent wide-screen drama of her story, starting at the heart of it:
It is April, AD 130. Rome is the teeming capital of an empire that stretches from the blustery north-western shores of Britain to the fringes of Mesopotamia, 2,500 miles to the east, and as far south as Africa and the desert of Sahara. The Roman Empire’s boundaries extend from the ocean where the sun god rises to the ocean where he sinks. Publius Aelius Hadrianus, a most complex and compelling man, has been emperor for fourteen years.
Once Severus reaches Britannia, The Edge of Empire settles in to a harder sell: a province-by-province, road-by-road tour of Roman Britain. There have been many such books: Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock, A Guide to Roman Britain by Leonard Cottrell, The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bedoyere, Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins, and dozens of others, all of them more or less devolving into museum earpiece-guides for raincoated tourists trudging around ruins:
As the travellers draw near to Viroconium they find themselves in cattle country, the territory of the Cornovii (encompassing much of Cheshire and Shropshire). Sitting in a landscape of mixed arable and pastoral farms, Viroconium Cornoviorum is protected by the River Severn snaking around it to the west, and by the valleys of small streams to the north and south … Viroconium is built on the site of a legionary fortress established here in the late AD 30s as the base of the Legion XIV Gemina and the Legion XX Valeria Victrix. Here, on the higher east bank of the Severn at a place where there is a major ford, the army had control to the west and south and a convenient base for attacking Wales and for penetrating further north.
Riley’s book is bright, sunny company during these tours, but a reader in Baton Rouge (and with no plans to leave Baton Rouge) is going to find it occasional rough hoeing to keep the various legion encampments straight. Riley is a writer for the English Heritage organization, so it’s entirely likely that she gave neither a thought nor a care for whether or not her book would play well in the colonies. But she has a real flair for you-are-there writing about ancient Rome, so even armchair travelers will finish The Edge of Empire hoping she turns to the subject again. Perhaps a nice long look at Hadrian’s Rome?
Our book today is the latest from Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, bestselling author of such books as Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. His new book is called Jesus Before the Gospels and has the opus-length subtitle, How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior.
As the book’s title right away makes clear, this is familiar territory for Ehrman, who has made a bestselling career out of explicating the historical and literary phenomenon of Jesus Christ. He’s also made a career out of repeating himself, and this latest book makes that fact clearer than usual, almost to an embarrassing degree. Ehrman has been pointing out for a long time now that despite the presence of the Gospels and the Acts, we have far, far fewer reliable even quasi-contemporary records of the life and ministry of Jesus – most of what we have are, as Ehrman frequently writes, copies of copies of copies of copies of anything resembling eyewitness testimony. The derivative nature of the tradition is never far from Ehrman’s concerns:
All of the people who told stories about Jesus – eyewitnesses, people who heard from eyewitnesses, and people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from eyewitnesses – remembered what they saw and heard. And their own stories were based on those memories.
The slow transformation of memories into oral tradition is the main subject of Jesus Before the Gospels, and Ehrman does his familiar best to stress the wider importance of the topic. “Remembering Jesus is not simply an antiquarian exercise. It is about today,” he writes. “Not only does the past impose itself on us when we remember; but also our memories of the past are always affected by our views of the present.”
It’s a bit roundabout, a bit tiresome, and Ehrman doesn’t help matters any by delving both into cognition studies and the Christian Apocrypha. No amount of horizon-widening, for instance, can paper over the logical leap in that earlier quote, that all the people who told stories about Jesus were working at some remove or other from things actually seen and heard, and that “their own stories were based on those memories.”
To put it mildly, Ehrman has no evidence to support such a claim – other than conclusions read backwards into non-contemporary sources in search of the claim itself. We have no writings about Jesus dating prior to half a century after the traditionally given date of his death, and the records that we do have aren’t exactly known for their internal consistency or agreement with each other. Looking at those records and saying, “Yes, these are a hodge-podge, but at least they all ultimately derive from a kernel of eyewitness observation” regarding Jesus is about as legitimate as saying the same thing about Hercules or Orpheus.
Ehrman sometimes comes close to acknowledging this himself, although perhaps not as close as some of his readers would like. He knows perfectly well that time and memory can fundamentally alter a story:
The gist of a message can change. Storytellers not only came up with their own ways of expressing traditions they passed on, they not only made up and altered details, and they not only embellished their accounts and added entire episodes. Sometimes their inventiveness went to the very heart of the matter so that what later became the gist of the tradition was not in fact an accurate memory, but one that had been generated as the stories were told and retold, hundreds of times, by hundreds of people, in hundreds of situations.
But in the case of Jesus, there’s no actual, textual reason to stop at the wholesale invention of “details” or “episodes,” and Ehrman’s methodology mostly refuses to countenance that fact. In a very real sense, there was no “Jesus before the Gospels,” hence the catchy, provocative nature of the book’s title. Ehrman does a very entertaining, very readable job of theorizing about the many ways memory and oral tradition could have warped the history of Jesus from what actual eyewitnesses saw – but he doesn’t really doubt that there were eyewitnesses, and that they saw something. It’s only details and episodes that are invented whole-cloth, not Jesus himself. It’s a curious self-imposed limitation: Ehrman very skillfully uses the tools of textual analysis and anthropology to peel back the layers of that have accreted over the story of Jesus … all layers but one. Maybe next time.