I Wish I Had Been A Librarian

by James Wallace Harris, 12/8/22

I almost became a librarian. This was a long time ago. What kept me from that career was having to move to another city to get an MLS degree. Susan and I had been married for a few years, and we didn’t want to move. I worked in the Periodicals Department at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). I was a Periodicals clerk, which was an hourly position. I was working on my English degree and taking some undergraduate courses in library science in a program designed to produce librarians for K-12 schools. I didn’t want to work in a school, but at a university, and most universities require a Master’s of Library Science. In fact, my university required an MLS to get the job, but a second master’s in a useful subject to aid in working in a library to keep the job. This was also true of the public library at the time. And even with two master’s degrees, the pay would never be much, but I’d work in the environment I loved best.

Instead, I took a job at the College of Education setting up their network and creating a student database system to track student teaching experience. I worked there for the rest of my life, but I’ve always wished I had gotten that MLS degree and spent my 9-to-5 life in a library. When I was young I worked at the Memphis Public Library for a few months, and later at the university library for six years. I love periodicals. And I love how magazines have become available on the internet as digital scans. I have quite a collection of them. I believe my compulsive acquisition of books and magazines is caused by a gene for librarianship.

Reading Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure From Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age by Dennis Duncan has brought back my desire to work in a library. I’m not sure I can recommend this book to everyone, but if you love books and libraries it might be for you. Its subject is somewhat esoteric. Did you know that the idea of alphabetizing had to be invented? That made me wonder who came up with the idea that letters of the alphabet should have an order? Duncan didn’t cover that.

Books haven’t always been like the books we read today. When books were scrolls they didn’t have covers or even titles. A book might be written over several scrolls of paper, so if you had a bunch of scrolls, finding the one you wanted, and the part you wanted to read, could be very difficult. So early librarians started tying the scrolls together and putting them in bins. Then they learned to glue little tags of paper to the end of scrolls to identify what was in the scroll. That’s the beginning of the index. As I said, this book won’t be for everyone, but if you have the library gene it might.

What most people think of as an index, that section of the book at the back with a list of keywords and page numbers wasn’t invented right away either. When books began to be printed people got the idea of helping people find specific places in them, and the index as we know it was born. At first, the index was published separately. Then when they started being published with the book they were put in the front. It took centuries before they standardized on placing the index in the back of the book.

David Duncan’s book is mostly an amusing look at all this. He was especially delighted by discovering what I call index wars. For example, Richard Bently satirized a 1695 book by Charles Boyle by publishing an index that ridiculed Boyle’s book by how he indexed the keywords. This led to all kinds of indexing shenanigans including dirty politics. Duncan found quite of bit of indexing history in the line, “Let no damned Tory index my History!” by Whig historian Laurence Echard whose three-volume History of England was indexed by Tory sympathizer John Oldmixon.

Another bit of off-the-road history Duncan discovered was that very scholarly accused the lesser scholarly that their poor thoughts were due to reading just the index rather than the whole book when composing their writing. That’s because indexers use to put more information into their indexes.

Duncan shows many photographs of the fine art of indexing satire but it’s hard to read them because they were being written at a time before standardized spelling. Luckily he translates historical English into modern English. And the historical humor has become very dry. You’ve got to enjoy a good three-hundred-year-old in-joke to really appreciate this book, but Duncan is good at explaining them. Sometimes the humor was as crude as the silliest of Saturday Night Live skits.

Duncan eventually works his history through the centuries up until the age of Google and online indexes. This is where I wished I had worked, using computers to organize information, periodicals, and libraries. In a way, our website Classics of Science Fiction is a kind of index. We index the popularity of science fiction short stories and novels. I’m all the time thinking of things I’d like to put into databases that deal with books and magazines. Reading Duncan’s book showed me there have been bookworms with the same kind of bibliographic urges for thousands of years.

But Index, A History of the also inspired two very specific librarian-type desires. The first was triggered by Duncan’s coverage of The Spectator, a very influential publication.

Many of the journals of the eighteenth century fall into this intermediary zone, and none more so than the Spectator. Founded in 1711 – and no direct relation of modern magazine of the same name – the Spectator was a cheap, daily, single-sheet paper that featured brief essays on literature, philosophy or whatever took its writers’ fancies. Its editors were Richard Steele and Joseph Addison (whom we met in the last chapter having his Italian travelogue mauled by ironic indexers), and, although it ran only for a couple of years, it was immensely popular. The Spectator started off in a print run of 555 copies; by its tenth issue, this had ballooned to 3,000. This, however, was only a fraction of the true readership. The editors claimed that there were twenty readers to every copy, and deemed that even this was a ‘modest Computation’. The Spectator was a paper designed for the emerging public sphere, a conversation piece to be read at ‘Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-tables, and in Coffee-Houses’.2 A paper to be read and passed on. 

What’s more, the Spectator was only the best known in a long list of similar sheets. The Tatler, the Free-Thinker, the Examiner, the Guardian, the Plain Dealer, the Flying Post – papers like these were able to capitalize on a perfect storm of rising literacy rates, the emergence of coffee-house culture, the relaxation of formerly strict printing laws, and a growing middle-class with enough leisure time to read. The eighteenth century was gearing up to be what scholars now call the age of print saturation.3 That term saturation has some interesting suggestions. Certainly, it implies excess – too much to read – but also something else: too much to keep hold of, a new disposability of printed matter. Our poor, abused quire of paper was born at the wrong time. Flicking through original copies of the Spectator preserved in the British Library, one certainly sees the signs of coffee-house use. You won’t find stains like this in a Gutenberg Bible. And yet the essays are among the finest in English: wryly elegant, impeccably learned. If you had bought the paper for self-improvement you might well want to come back to it. 

And so it was that the news-sheets found themselves being republished, almost immediately, in book form. These editions, appearing within months of their broadsheet originals, anticipated how the kind of reader who would want the full run of the Spectator would want to use it: not simply as a single sheet – a single thought – for a few minutes’ entertainment with one’s coffee, but as an archive of ideas that one might return to. Benjamin Franklin, for example, describes coming across a collected edition of the Spectator as a boy and reading it ‘over and over’, jotting down notes from it and trying to imitate its style in his own writing.4 The movement from coffee-table to bookshelf implies a different mode of reading, one of reference, reuse, of finding the thought, the phrase, the image, and bringing it into the light again. If the Spectator was to be a book it would need an index. 

The indexes to the early volumes of the Spectator, along with those of its older sister the Tatler, are a joy in themselves, full of the same ranging, generous wit as the essays they serve. Rifling through them, a century later, Leigh Hunt would compare them to ‘jolly fellows bringing burgundy out of a cellar’, giving us ‘a taste of the quintessence of [the papers’] humour’.5 Who, indeed, would not want to sample more after reading a tantalizing entry like ‘Gigglers in Church, reproved, 158’ or ‘Grinning: A Grinning Prize, 137’ or ‘Wine, not proper to be drunk by everyone that can swallow, 140’. The Tatler, meanwhile, offers us ‘Evergreen, Anthony, his collection of fig-leaves for the ladies, 100’, or ‘Love of enemies, not constitutional, 20’, or ‘Machines, modern free thinkers are such, 130’. Elsewhere, two entries run on together, oblivious to the strictures of alphabetical order: 

     Dull Fellows, who, 43 
     Naturally turn their Heads to Politics or Poetry, ibid. 

There is something at once both useless and compelling about these indexes. Is ‘Dull Fellows’, listed under the ds, really a helpful headword? Of course not. But it catches our attention, makes us want to find out more. This is as much about performance as about quick reference. Each entry is a little advertisement for the essay it points to, a sample of the wit we will find there. The Tatler and Spectator indexes belong to the same moment as the satirical indexes we saw in the last chapter, but unlike William King’s work there is nothing cruel or pointed about them. Instead, they are zany, absurd, light. ‘Let anyone read [them],’ declares Leigh Hunt, ‘and then call an index a dry thing if he can.’ The index has made itself at home in the journals of the early eighteenth century, adapting to suit their manners, their tone. Moreover, it signals the elevation of these essays produced at a gallop for the daily coffee-house sheet to something more durable, to a format that connotes value, perhaps even status. At the midpoint of the second decade of the eighteenth century, the index is primed to offer the same sheen to other genres, to epic poetry, to drama, to the emerging form of the novel. And yet, we know how this story ends. In the twenty-first century novels do not have indexes. Nor do plays. Poetry books are indexed by first line, not by subject. Why, then, was the index to fiction a short-lived phenomenon? Why did it not take? To shed some light on this question, let us turn briefly to two literary figures from the late nineteenth century, both still indexing novels long after the embers had died down on that particular experiment. What can these latecomers tell us about the problems of indexing when it comes to works of the imagination?

Duncan, Dennis. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (pp. 173-177). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

Reading about The Spectator makes me wish I was sitting in a library compiling information from old magazines. Of course, this is partially what Duncan has done by writing his book. By the way, The Spectator can be read online at Project Gutenberg.

Another example of how Index, A History of inspires my bookish ways is when Duncan wrote about Sherlock Holmes, and how Holmes built a massive index to help him be a detective. Did Doyle/Holmes know about the zettlekasten method? Just reading this bit of Sherlock Holmes history makes me want to do an annotation of a Sherlock Holmes story to find all the hidden clues — not to solve the crime, but to see how Arthur Conan Doyle created his characters and stories. I don’t remember ever getting excited about Holmes keeping an index when I read some of the Sherlock Holmes short stories. I need to go reread them.

Some people define themselves by exotic travel, others by the gourmet meals they consume, but I find purpose in connecting words in books to words in other books. Just note the interesting details quoted from the story and what Duncan made of them.

‘Kindly look her up in my index, Doctor,’ murmured Holmes, without opening his eyes. For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information. In this case I found her biography sandwiched between that of a Hebrew Rabbi and a staff commander who had written a monograph upon the deep sea fishes. 

The year is 1891, the story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and the person Holmes is searching for, sandwiched between the rabbi and the amateur marine biologist, is Irene Adler, opera singer, adventuress and lover of the man now standing in Holmes’ drawing room, one Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and hereditary King of Bohemia. The tale will find Holmes outsmarted and chastened by Adler. ‘Beaten by a woman’s wit,’ as Watson puts it. It begins, however, with Holmes coolly in control, seated in his armchair and not deigning to open his eyes, not even for a grand duke. 

It is probably no surprise that Sherlock Holmes should be an indexer. His schtick, after all, his superpower, is his encyclopedic learning, the world’s arcana: a human Google, or a walking Notes and Queries. But that would be preposterous. Besides, from the very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, we have been informed that, in Watson’s appraisal, Holmes’ general knowledge is severely limited: ‘Knowledge of literature – nil; Philosophy – nil; Astronomy – nil; Politics – feeble . . .’ So occasionally Conan Doyle offers us a glimpse behind the curtain, a look at the system which allows Holmes his universal recall. Every now and again we see him pruning and tending his index, ‘arranging and indexing some of his recent materials’, or ‘sat moodily at one side of the fire, cross-indexing his records of crime’. It is, naturally, an alphabetical system, with a ‘great index volume’ for each letter of the alphabet. When he wants to check something on, say, vampires, he is, characteristically, too lazy to get up himself: ‘Make a long arm, Watson, and see what V has to say.’ As a line of dialogue, incidentally, isn’t this a minor masterpiece of characterization? The asymmetry of the pair’s relationship is smoothed over with chummy slang: make a long arm. Watson, the gopher, will take the book down from the shelf, but he will not be the one to see what V has to say; Holmes, of course, will do the reading, balancing the book on his knee and gazing ‘slowly and lovingly over the record of old cases, mixed with the accumulated information of a lifetime’: 

‘Voyage of the Gloria Scott’, he read. ‘That was a bad business. I have some recollection that you made a record of it, Watson, though I was unable to congratulate you upon the result. Victor Lynch, the forger. Venomous lizard or gila. Remarkable case, that! Vittoria, the circus belle. Vanderbilt and the Yeggman. Vipers. Vigor, the Hammersmith wonder.’ 

‘Good old index,’ he purrs. ‘You can’t beat it.’ The index – his index, with its smattering of everything – is the source of his mastery. 

Holmes’ alphabetical volumes represent the index unbound, not confined to a single work but looking outwards, docketing anything that might be noteworthy. It is by no means a new idea; Robert Grosseteste was practising something similar six-and-a-half centuries previously. In the Victorian period, however, it is taken up with a new intensity. Co-ordinated, resource heavy: the universal index is becoming industrialized. Looking closely at Holmes’ index, there is something charmingly, inescapably homespun about it. Victor Lynch, venomous lizard, Vittoria the circus belle: this is a rattlebag of headers: patchy, piecemeal. Like Grosseteste’s Tabula, Holmes’ index brings together the collected readings and experiences of a single, albeit extraordinary, figure – the index as personal history. But Holmes, in his way, represents the last of a kind. Not long after ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ first appeared in the Strand Magazine, Holmes would come to be indexed himself, a recurring entry in the annual Index to Periodicals, which trawled the year’s papers, magazines and journals, keeping a record of every article. The efforts of even a Holmes or a Grosseteste appear paltry alongside a venture of this scale, available to anyone with access to a subscribing library. But how to bring such a thing into existence? That will be a three-pipe problem.

Duncan, Dennis. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (pp. 203-205). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

JWH

Can Fiction Educate As Well As Nonfiction?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/2/22

I turn 71 this month, and getting older is getting harder. Being old is nothing like I imagined. That’s a problem for me because I like to be prepared, and being prepared requires anticipating the possibilities.

Last year I read The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler. It’s a useful handbook giving tips about healthcare for the elderly, plus Butler relates plenty of stories about people she met who were going through a variety of issues as they approached death. I learned a lot from her book. People tend to decide between two paths toward the end of life. Some want to take advantage of everything medicine has to offer, and others prefer to take a gentler path, choosing less aggressive medical procedures, or even refusing treatment. One of the best lessons of the book is doctors will go to extremes to keep you alive unless you learn to say no. And for me, the important part of The Art of Dying Well is learning when to say no, and how to decide what you want before you lose control of your situation.

When I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout this week, I was surprised by how it inadvertently taught many of the same lessons. Although it’s called a novel, it’s a collection of thirteen interrelated short stories, and often those fictional stories were like the case studies in Butler’s book. Olive is in her late sixties at the beginning of the book, and seventy-four at the end. I was particularly horrified by the final accounts of Olive’s husband, Henry.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that offers a series of intense emotional impacts. And most of them made me think about how I will deal with a particular issue if it should happen to me. Henry’s fate is the hardest to contemplate. One day he and Olive are going to the grocery store and when he steps out of the car, he falls to the ground. He’s had a sudden stroke that leaves him blind, unable to walk or talk, and probably has left him deaf. He’s put in a nursing home where he needs to be cared for like a small child. To me, that’s scarier than anything Stephen King ever imagined. And how do you prepare for something like that?

It would help to have all the proper legal paperwork ready. And it would help if others knew your wants. That’s covered in the Butler book, but it’s covered in more detail in Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson. Aronson is a doctor who eventually got into geriatric medicine. Her book is heavier than The Art of Dying Well, with more clinical details. It has a tremendous wealth of information, but I found Aronson’s structure for her book somewhat disappointing. Elderhood has a clearly laid out structure but Aronson doesn’t always stick to it.

Both nonfiction books are excellent handbooks for anticipating getting older, especially for the medical and legal details. But the novel, Olive Kitteridge, was also excellent for the same purpose, but in a different way. I guess it’s a handbook for philosophically preparing for our last years. Some of its most important lessons were about communication, or more precisely, the lack of communication.

Much of the novel is about waiting until it’s too late to express our true selves. One of the strongest reasons why people want an afterlife is so they can meet up with dead loved ones. Is that because we really want to tell them something? Or that we really want to ask them something? I know that’s true for me.

I loved reading Olive Kitteridge enough that I’m going to read more Elizabeth Strout books and have already started on Olive, Again – a sequel with additional short stories about Olive Kitteridge and the people she knew. I’m also keeping The Art of Dying Well and Elderhood to reread again and again as I get older.

JWH

Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

What Books Do You Speak?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/8/22

Most of our ideas are borrowed since few people have original thoughts. The other day I was wondering why conservatives and liberals think so differently. I decided one reason is that they read different books. Of course, not everyone reads books. Ideas are also passed around from person to person, or by newspapers, magazines, journals, advertisements, political rallies, television shows, the internet, etc. We dwell in a sea of ideas.

Ideas do originate with original thinkers, and often they are first published in books. Journalism and other forms of mass media then propagate those ideas, which in turn are spread by word of mouth. So, for now, let’s think of the basic unit for storing and spreading ideas are books.

My theory is conservatives and liberals think differently because the foundation of their beliefs comes from different books. I’m not suggesting that all conservatives and liberals read the same set of books, but the ideas for their thoughts and speech originated in a subset of books.

I was thinking along these lines because I wondered if conservatives and liberals each had a core set of twenty books, what would happen if the conservatives read the liberal’s books, and the liberals read the conservative’s books? Would our polarized political opinions begin to homogenize?

Then I wondered about fundamentalist religious people who put their faith in one book. What would happen if all the fundamentalists around the world all read each other’s holy book?

Thinking about that brought up an obvious stumbling block. Most people’s beliefs are based on what they first learned as children. If you are raised Christian and conservative you’re most likely to stay Christian and conservative. That suggests ideas acquired in youth are stickier than ideas acquired later in life. For my test, we’d have to raise children with The Bible, The Quran, The Tanakh, The Talmud, The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Tipitaka, The Tao Te Ching, The Yasna, etc.

We know minds are open and plastic at birth. If you took a child from a Christian family and gave it to a Muslim family to raise, it will grow up Muslim. But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.

On the other hand, fads arise and spread ideas/memes all the time. Adults will embrace new ideas. Fox News, the Internet, to Tik-Tok can spread new ideas like a California forest fire. This suggests that people can acquire new ideas that they put on top of the foundational ideas that were programmed in their youth.

And ideas don’t have to come from nonfiction books. If all you read are romance novels and watch romance TV shows and movies, your ideas about relationships will be different than if you only consumed mysteries.

I’m in a book club that was reading Developmental Politics by Steve McIntosh, a book about our polarized politics. McIntosh hoped his insights would help solve that problem but most of the readers in the book club doubted it. One of our members did believe in McIntosh’s ideas and thought they could work. I felt McIntosh’s ideas were insightful but figured for them to be persuasive, would require everyone to read many other books first. McIntosh’s book was complex enough to require reading dozens of other books to fully understand it.

That’s when I realized we speak in books. When we express ourselves, we pass on fragments of books, but we don’t pass on enough information to let other people fully understand the foundation of the original ideas. Generally, we pass on tiny fragments of the original idea that are barely impressions. And we seldom communicate ideas but express ourselves emotionally.

If you want to understand a person, you have to consume the same books they did, or at least the same secondary sources. If a friend is passionate about a belief you’ll never understand your friend until you understand the foundations of their beliefs.

Few people understand the sources of their beliefs. Few people can point to a set of books and say here’s where my ideas originated. The origin of a classical education came from the study of foundational books, but that idea broke down in modern times when we were overwhelmed with significant books.

Yet, even when there was only one book for most people, The Bible, Christianity spent centuries arguing over its meaning. If you study all the people who claim to be Christian today you’d find very little commonality. The Bible is too big and too diverse. If we took The U. S. Constitution instead, which is tiny in comparison, we still get endless disagreement.

Ideas are slippery and inexact. Even if we read the same books and speak about the same ideas we don’t interpret them in the same way. Humans aren’t computers. We filter ideas through our emotions. Books might sow ideas but they don’t plant them evenly, and they grow inconsistently.

It appears that humans latch onto vague concepts and use them for ammunition to get what they emotionally want. Even if we read the same books we’ll still be a long way from finding agreements.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we need is a better approach to understanding each other’s wants. It might start with reading the same books, but it would only be a start. We’d also need to start studying each other’s emotions, and emotions are even harder to communicate than ideas. That’s what McIntosh was getting into with Developmental Politics, building on developmental psychology.

JWH

How Game of Thrones Reflects History Like Two Opposing Mirrors

by James Wallace Harris, 6/15/22

My friends Linda, Connell, and I are rewatching HBO’s Game of Thrones, and this time around I can’t help but compare it to current politics and the books on ancient history I’m reading. When I saw the series years ago I only thought of it as an epic fantasy. This time I feel George R. R. Martin distilled millennia of human history into one fictional story.

I’ve lost count of the times a real game of thrones has played out in my study of history. By now I’ve read dozens and dozens of accounts of power plays for a throne. One example from ancient Egypt deals with an assassination attempt on Rameses III from The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Baurer:

THE FAULT LINE running through Egypt, temporarily plastered over by victory reliefs and building projects, was still liable to crack open at any point. Rameses III held the throne by right of his father’s coup, and he was not immune to power plays.

Towards the end of his reign, one of his lesser wives hatched a plot to assassinate the king by mob violence. Scribes who recorded the affair during the reign of Rameses’s successor say that she began a campaign to “stir up the people and incite enmity, in order to make rebellion against their lord.”10 Apparently she hoped that the mob would not only remove Rameses III, but also his appointed successor—his son by another wife—so that her own son would become king.

A harem plot to kill the pharaoh was hardly unknown, but this one was remarkable for the number of people involved. The court recorder lists, among others, the two royal standard-bearers, the butler, and the chief scribe. The overseer of the herds was accused of making wax figures of the king, apparently for use in an Egyptian form of voodoo;11 the chief steward was convicted of spreading dissension. The conspiracy apparently stretched all the way down into Nubia: “Benemwese, formerly captain of archers in Nubia…was brought in because of the letter which his sister, who was in the harem, had written to him, saying, ‘Incite the people to hostility!’”12

The records of the conspiratorial accusations end, in monotonous regularity, with either “He took his own life” or “The punishments of death were executed upon him.” The exceptions were three conspirators who merely had their noses and ears cut off, and a single acquittal: a standard-bearer named Hori, who undoubtedly lived the rest of his years in disbelief that he alone had survived the purge.13

By the time the trials dragged to a close, the intended victim was offstage. Rameses III himself had died of old age.

That trial reminds me of the current Jan 6th hearings. I wonder how people will study January 6th in future history books?

Donald Trump’s campaigns to stay in political power remind me of Game of Thrones too. Trump wants the 2024 presidency like the Game of Throne characters wants the Iron Throne. I imagine Trump pictures himself as Tywin Lannister, rich and powerful, but he’s actually more like Robert Baratheon, a leader in name only who shirks his kingly duties to wench and hunt. All of Trump’s would-be advisors remind me of the treacherous advisors in King’s Landing. People like Steve Bannon obviously want to be a puppetmaster to the powerful in the same way Littlefinger and Varys pulled the strings on those who would rule Westeros.

This year I’m on my fourth book about ancient history and there is one obvious lesson that stands out above all others: Beware of rulers. There are always people, usually men, who believe they should rule, and they think nothing of getting thousands or even millions of innocent people killed to fulfill their ambitions.

The alpha humans always want more. The betas connive to be alphas. And the rest of humanity, the omegas, are the pawns in the game of thrones. To the ruthless, the 99.99% of humanity are the Star Trek red shirts in their personal fantasies. We see that with Putin in Ukraine right now. I’ve started another book, Bloodlands by Timothy Synder, that focuses on Hitler and Stalin’s roles in killing 14 million people from 1933 to 1945. Why do we let our rulers have so much power?

Until humanity can rule itself without ambitious psychopaths we’re going to repeat the same loop forever. In the history books, there have only been a couple of minor incidents where the ordinary citizens protested their role as cannon fodder. Most of history is about one ruler after another waging war. When will this infinitely repeated story horrify us enough to break free of the cycle? Since Game of Thrones was such a huge hit, maybe we love things just the way they are?

Eight seasons of Game of Thrones is about endless warring and the remembrances of wars. The story ends and we think there will be peace, but history tells us that won’t be true. Why don’t we get other stories in history and literature? Why not the stories of those people who built the beautiful cities we see in Westeros and Essos? Why is it always conflict and destruction?

Why do we mainly remember the monsters of history and literature? None of the major characters in Game of Thrones are good people. Is this why Trump and Putin are so well-loved in their respective countries? Are the rest of us just fans, taking sides while watching the game play out? Is that our only role, to pick a team to follow? Go Starks! Go Lannisters! Go Trump! Go Putin!

Below is one of my favorite and telling passages in The History of the Ancient World. In chapter 52, history intersects with the Old Testament and 19th-century literature. It’s not that I endorse what’s being reported, but I think it reveals something deeply psychological in the human race, especially when you compare these events of almost three thousand years ago to today. This passage reminds me of the destruction of cities in Ukraine and King’s Landing in season eight.

JWH

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