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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Meandering Path of an Eclectic Reader

I have been chided in the past for the diversity of topics on the Flophouse.  The most vocal critic died recently and I miss him.  He said that he saw potential (always gratifying to hear) and he gave me tips on how to improve this site - advice that I did not take.

My writing comes from experience married to my reading and if I were to restrict myself to one or two topics than I would feel obliged to see my experience through the prism of just a few topics and I would have to devote more of my reading specifically to them.  I suppose I do have some meta-topics in my head - some questions that I am always seeking to answer.  I do maintain two reading lists Citizenship and International Migration and the American Diaspora after all.

But I like having the liberty to discover new books, new authors and new topics, Reading widely means being able to make connections and no genre is out of bounds here.  Yes, I know that there are only so many hours in the day and I do occasionally consult lists of this or that prize-winning novel or non-fiction but I refuse to restrict myself to the opinions of the gatekeepers/critics, nor will I listen too much to those who say that a genre is "trash" and should be avoided lest one's intellectual credentials be forever tarnished.  I prefer to let one book lead me to another; I am an avid reader of bibliographies.

Just for fun today I'll tell you what I've read recently;  what led me to the book, what I thought of it, what I took away from it and where it's taking me next.

Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 by Kyle Harper. I watched a video of a conversation between Bill Maher and Dr. Michael Dyson and I found it so intriguing that I bought and read Dyson's latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.  At the end of that one Dyson had a list of further reading and I went looking for them but I was frustrated because they weren't available on Kindle and hard copies would have to be ordered from the US.  But as I was looking I stumbled on Harper's book about slavery in Rome and thought Why not?  It turned out to be a very good read.

Harper says there is a difference between a slave society and a society with slaves. The late Roman Empire was the former as was, it is argued, slavery in the US.  Harper is also very clear about the paucity of sources from that era and does a thorough job of listing what does exist and its relative merits and demerits.  If you, like me, had the impression that slaves were mostly agricultural workers, think again.  In Roman times, the evidence shows that slaves could be of almost any profession:  doctors, architects, teachers as well as skilled and unskilled labor.  Think on that for a moment.  In another time your skills or knowledge would have simply upped the price for your person in a slave market.

The big question at the end of this book is Why or how did slavery end? and there are theories but no definitive answers.  Having finished that one I then went in two directions:  one toward fiction and the other toward more history.

The Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor.  This is a mystery series set in Republican Rome. The protagonist is a plebeian citizen known as Gordianus the Finder. Rollicking good reads.  It's fiction but Saylor did his research and you learn quite a lot about such things as how the Romans in this era kept time.  It's also a world where slavery is taken for granted and even a poor citizen has a slave or two. Now that one requires quite a leap of imagination because of the cultural and temporal distance. But I think of it in the light of what Raymonde Carroll says about cultural analysis:

"a method of seeing as 'normal' something that I see in people of a different culture that I initially find 'bizarre' or 'strange'. To do this, I must imagine a universe where this act that shocks me is normal, has meaning and may not even be noticed. In other words, it means that I must try to penetrate for a brief moment the cultural imagination of the other."

If indeed the past is a foreign country (as the title of a book on my to-read list suggests) this is not a bad way to approach it. Keeping in mind, of course, that an attempt to understand the past should not lead to its misuse in the present. Slavery is not somehow better because it was practiced in times past by no less than the illustrious Empire of the Romans.  "History is all things to all men.  She is at the service of good and bad causes.  In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most." (The Whig Interpretation of History.)  

Butterfield also said that "all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history" and that led me to...

The History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy.  Some 30 years I was forced to read excerpts from Livy but never the full text. Easier to read than I remembered but the version I selected has a good translator.   The previous books on this list made reference to things I vaguely remembered and it's nice to get the full story of Romulus, Remus and the Wolf.  I am still reading this one and I'm at book two which is also something of a revelation  You can't read it and not reflect on the state of democracies in the world today.  Some things like the disagreements between plebeians and patricians are eerily familiar as is the blood shed in the service of one political cause or another.  It's almost too close for comfort and so from time to time I need a break (a palate cleanser, if you will) and last week I turned to....

The Pheonix Pack series by Suzanne Wright.  An excellent paranormal romance series featuring a pack of wolf shifters.  (Think of what Romulus might have been had he merged with the wolf instead of simply being suckled by it.  It might have made an ever better story , but perhaps that was a bridge too far for the Romans. )   I love the series for its dysfunctional Alpha males and its very strong female protagonists.  It's pure fun - great dialogue, interesting stories, a bit of romance and some truly lurid sex scenes.  There is, in fact, one in the first book of the series which is much admired and widely-known for its eroticism but I'll let you discover it for yourself.  :-)

And there you have it, folks. That's more or less how reading works for me.

 What's next?   Well, there are 20 books on my to-read list today and I will certainly drop some and add others.  But I'm thinking about some of the descriptions of Roman building material, volcanoes and earthquakes and so maybe back to geology with The Planet in a Pebble.   Or I could continue thinking about history and the past with The Past is a Foreign Country -Revisited.  Or I could circle back and try to find a local copy of  The Peculiar Institution (Amazon Japan would have to order it and they say delivery will take 1-3 months).  Or something just might pop up as I read something else that will send me off in yet another direction.  

If you feel inspired, let me know what you're reading.  Maybe you can send me down another path.  I'd be grateful for a signpost or two.

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