Tag Archives: history

Demolition Means Progress

Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (Historical Studies of Urban America)Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew R. Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The city is not a problem to be solved; it is a story to be told.

I used to dream about getting a fat grant years down the road and taking a leave of absence to start research toward a complete history of the city of Flint, Michigan. There would be so much to it, from the history of technology and the rise of the auto industry, to labor history and the creation of the middle class. I knew race would play a role in this theoretical history as well, though I hadn’t even begun mapping out the implications. It would have been an immense book, one that tapped into several important streams of the larger American drama. It would be in many ways a tragedy as well– a tale of controlled atrophy and downsizing, of a dying city, industrial decay, and the birth of the Rust Belt. That was my nebulous plan, but it was not to be: the book has already been written, and this past week I finished reading it.

Flint and its story fascinates me. I grew up on its nearly all-white suburban margins but with roots running into its history. I have memories of visiting AutoWorld as a child and of my grandparent’s home on Waldman Avenue. My mom and her parents often spoke with regret about what Flint had once been, of the prosperity of the post-War years and the sparkle of downtown before the sprawl of suburban shopping districts. Though I grew up in the suburbs of Flint Township and later Swartz Creek, my mom (and many of the parents of my friends and peers) had grown up in city. Her family came from Missouri looking for work in the factories, and my grandfather built a career on the Grand Trunk Railroad. My dad spent his career working for General Motors, much of it at Buick City before it was closed and he was relocated to Saginaw. I ventured downtown occasionally as a teenager (and it was always clearly a venture), specifically to the Cultural Center and the Longway Planetarium.

Flint’s story shaped me in obvious ways I’m only now realizing. Many of the photographs on this blog, for instance, were inspired by the rich background of texture and decay I grew up on the fringes of. I knew the city’s history in a cursory way and even saw some of it myself. For all these reasons, I wanted a book that dove into this history. In the absence of such a book (though Gordon Young’s memoir– reviewed here previously– was an excellent journalistic step in this direction) I was prepared (one day in the distant future) to attempt to write it myself.

But the book now exists.

I wrote earlier on this blog about Mark Quanstrom’s study on Nazarene theological history and the way it helped me understand the religious context in which I was raised. What Quanstrom’s book did for my theological heritage, Andrew Highsmith’s new study does for my social and urban context. (Note to self: a work exploring the intersection of these two themes, charting the growth and decline of the Nazarene church– which at one time could count at least half a dozen large congregations in the city– would be of interest.) I knew Flint was economically depressed and racially divided. But I never fully understood the depth, origins, and repercussions of “white flight,” a trajectory in which my family participated.

My sister and her husband live and work in downtown Flint. On multiple occasions I’ve biked with my brother-in-law from his restaurant on Saginaw Street, past the former site of Chevy-in-the-Hole, where it looks like giants literally gouged a cement valley along the river into the center of the city, to his house in Mott Park. He’s told me lately he feels most of his work in the city revolves around racial reconciliation and that if we can’t understand race we won’t understand anything about Flint’s story and where it is today.

I think Highsmith would agree. I first learned of his book just days after it was released from my brother-in-law, who passed it along to me with a sort of resignation: “Here’s another academic who thinks he’s figured Flint out.” I don’t know that Highsmith claims to have unravelled any riddles, but he’s begun plunging the depths of the issue, the tangle of politics– many on a national level– that made Flint what it was and is. It’s very much a story of place, rarely focusing long on any particular individual. Highsmith’s Flint is made up of institutions, organizations, politics, and changing demographics. Yet there are enough specific personal focuses, ranging from Michael Moore to the tragedy of the Beecher assistant principle driven to suicide by the intractable problem of de-segregating his high school, to keep it a poignant and human (though a consistently scholarly) read.

Highsmith offers an urban history of Flint from the early 1900s to the present. (Indeed, the epilogue brings the story up to the point of names, organizations, and developments I recognize from my frequent visits home.) In particular, Highsmith wants to understand and outline the institutional and administrative forms of segregation that kept Flint one of the most racially divided cities in America long after the era of Civil Rights. Under the aegis of strong neighborhood schools, for example, the Flint public school system remained effectively segregated until whites were in a clear minority throughout the city.

Highsmith examines the central issue of race and urban policy from several angles over the century. Much of the division began in housing policies at a national level in the inter- and post-War years, in which real estate redlining kept neighborhoods divided and set the foundation for much subsequent de facto segregation. In the era of urban renewal and the coming of the expressways, proponents of development argued for the clearing of predominately black slums like St. Johns, but administrative segregation largely prevented the relocation of these residents (who initially supported neighborhood clearings) from getting much value from their property and finding new homes in an integrated city.

In addition, a ring of largely white suburbs acted quickly to self-incorporate, preventing Flint’s spatial growth and through tough zoning laws blocking the construction of public housing complexes that would result in racial integration (and potentially lower property values). The background to all of this was of course the ebb and flow of the fortunes of General Motors and its complex relationship with the city. If the city of Flint was equated with Buick as the quintessential company town, what happens when Buick dies?

All of this tells a story. It doesn’t give any answers. At the risk of sounding trite though, that’s the point. Highsmith makes the case that America is the story of a thousand Flints, linking the racial and post-industrial challenges of Flint to the nation as a whole. That may be true, but Flint is also importantly unique, enough that its tragedy has a wholly specific resonance, especially to those who grew up in its shadow. This book should be required reading for anyone in or from the Vehicle City, especially anyone who cares about locality and knowing how the place that shaped you was itself shaped.

As T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first significant accomplishment of my “affirmative action” fiction reading plan for the year. I would have eventually gotten around to reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-fight in Heaven, but I probably would never have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had I not made a conscious effort this year to read fiction written by minorities. I poled several literary friends on suggestions via Facebook, and this one was at the top of multiple lists.

It was a difficult read, and part of that was probably the point. Ellison’s prose is vivid, almost too vivid, and at times I was overwhelmed with the shear volume of description. He makes you see everything with a cinematographic vision, focusing in on color, sound, texture, and description until the tableau snaps into focus in your mind as though you’re staring a screen. This is especially effective in his description of crowds in the city or of tumultuous scenes of action or disorder. Ellison can describe a march, a mass meeting, and a riot with an almost painful slow-motion exactitude.

It was this slow-motion exactitude that made the book an grueling read in places. Because the plot itself was rather slow and meandering, the places where it slowed down, heavy-laden with description, were sometimes a painfully vivid slog. The story on one level quite simple: a black man whose name is never given (similar somewhat to Swanwick’s bureaucrat in Stations of the Tide) trying to find his place in the world. Yet the point of the book, and Ellison’s genius in describing it, also contributed to making the book a difficult read. I kept trying to put the narrator into my own framework of a clear and upward narrative or personal progression. For an “effective novel,” my mind seemed to keep telling me– or at least my expectations kept waiting for– we’d see the hero conquer personal and exterior difficulties and arrive at a new position of status and success.

But this was frustrated over and over again throughout the novel. From the narrator’s original fall from grace at the southern black college where the book begins to his ultimate disillusionment with the socialist Brotherhood in which he has gained a position in Harlem in the novel’s second half, he– and my narrative sensibilities– are continually stymied. Throughout, I found myself frustrated more with the narrator himself than the situations in which he found himself: he was constantly second-guessing what people thought or expected of him, constantly trying to make himself the person he felt particular social groups or situations expected of him. And then it hit me that this was exactly Ellison’s point and the reason this novel was so significant: this was the story of so many black men in the decades after the Second World War.

It gets a bit at the concept of awkwardness Adam Kotsko discussed in his monograph by the same name. Ellison’s character is constantly awkward: he doesn’t know what is expected of him, he’s constantly stepping into situations– between different social classes in the south, between union and management in the north, between the people and those who represent them in Harlem, between white women and their sexual perceptions of black men– where there simply aren’t social rules for governing interactions. Or where, he keeps believing until his revelation at the novel’s conclusion, he simply doesn’t know them. But that’s the point: this is a world in which a black man has to completely invent himself or forever be at the mercy of other’s expectations. It’s a world in which he doesn’t have a place.

This is a novel about looking through the eyes of others. And it’s uncomfortable, because it makes me realize how my own assumptions about progress, about what works and what doesn’t both dramatically and socially, simply don’t map onto other situations, other experiences, other social and ethnic and cultural groups. The narrator’s experiences portray life for a black man in both the south and the north, portray its frustration, disjoint, and in some respects its sheer randomness.

The narrator first buys into the mode of progress and education represented by his southern black college and the inspired example of its president; when he realizes the futility of this, he attempts to make it in the industrialized north. Eventually he finds a place as an orator and community organizer, but even here he comes to realize that people are less interested in him than how they can use him. Maybe that’s a realization ultimately true for people everywhere, but in the awkwardness and social chaos the narrator has moved through– a constantly shifting landscape in which the default social relationship has been exploitation– it’s a shattering one. No one truly sees him. He is invisible.

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of GlobalizationScience and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization by Efthymios Nicolaidis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The complete history of science in the Christian East remains to be told. But it is certainly a narrative the broad strokes of which need to be outlined, if only because Orthodoxy remains a lacuna in most generalized histories of scientific thought. There are a lot of writings about Greek science, about its transmission, appropriation, and development in Arabic and Islamic contexts, and about its reintroduction to Western Europe. Yet about the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured more or less until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, very little has been said, even less in popular surveys for a non-specialized audience. (One popularization treating the topic, though not focusing specifically on science, is Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium.)

The essential difference between science in the Greek East as opposed to the Latin West is that whereas Europe lost linguist links to the corpus of classical Greek texts, these works were never lost to the eastern, Greek portions of the Roman Empire. The interplay between this knowledge and the rapidly Christianized culture of Byzantium has often been portrayed negatively with the assumption that Greek learning was neglected because it was seen as inconsequential or hostile to Christian theology. Greek culture, so the narrative goes, was decadent, and the scientific knowledge soon flourishing in the Arabic world was stagnant or forgotten in the empire of Constantinople.

As with anything else in history, the closer one looks the more complicated the true picture becomes. Even the high-altitude overview provided by Nicolaidis’s Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization has plenty of room for the wide range of reactions and reassessments of science taking place during this period. Indeed, the relationship between the state, Christianity, and science is the true theme of Nicolaidis’s survey. In this he is consciously following the footsteps of Numbers and Lindberg, and in some respects this volume could even be considered a companion to the two volumes that Lindberg and Numbers have co-edited outlining the relationship between science and Christianity in the West. However, whereas those are collections of essays treating the topic from a broad range of chronological and thematic angles, Nicolaidis’s work is a chronological survey.

The extent of this survey is quite impressive. Nicolaidis begins with the hexaemerons– commentaries on the six days of creation– by the early Christian fathers Basil and Gregory. He hits the familiar points of Byzantine history: the impact of the iconoclastic controversy, hesychasm, and the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204. This final event, Nicolaidis argues, actually had a positive effect on Orthodox science, illustrating the possibility of radical social and cultural change and ushering in the first Byzantine humanist revival as rulers in the new capital of Nicea built a cosmopolitan group of administrators who valued classical learning. The narrative continues all the way into the modern period, chronicling the Orthodox Church’s largely conservative stance toward modern science (Darwinism usually equated with materialism), primarily because it and the modern ideas accompanying were seen as potential threats to the privileged status Christian enjoyed in the Ottoman empire.

In some respects though, this detailed account simply proves the initial assumption that there wasn’t such a thing as Byzantine or Orthodox science. Instead there was a tradition of commentary and preservation of the classical body of Greek learning, at times appreciated and shared and at times viewed with suspicion, depending on the vicissitudes of church and state policy. Nicolaidis’s account is full of Greek scholars from all periods, explaining who they are and what they taught and how in many cases they were essential for transferring texts and knowledge to the West. But true “scientists” or natural philosophers are distinctly lacking. This doesn’t mean that they are not necessarily there, and this account gives lots of potential leads to pursue in a body of work that is remains largely unexplored. Unlike a popular account of Chinese or Arabic science though, which would be rife with examples of breakthroughs or technological developments, the story of science and Eastern Orthodoxy is largely that of continuity, preservation, and tension (albeit not always a negative tension) with the Church.

As an overview, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy is an invaluable introduction to the topic of Greek learning in Byzantium, the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire, and its successor Balkan states (with the focus on Greece) and the interaction between natural philosophy and Christian thought in these contexts. There are dozens of useful references and sources if one wants to dig deeper into any of the various topics, time periods, or individuals surveyed. For an English-language introduction to the history of science in the Christian East, this is the place to begin.

The First World War

The First World WarThe First World War by John Keegan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are not many books out there about the First World War, and there are even fewer good one-volume popularizations. This might be because the Great War lacks the pathos and the apparent aspects of heroism of its sequel European tragedy. There are no big names that stand out, neither are there many spectacular and critical battles. Nor are there retrospectively clear “good guys” and “bad guys”. The whole thing has the feeling of a mistake, a muddy, avoidable, immense waste of life in which millions of men were sacrificed along fronts that hardly budged, a pointless conflict which saw the dismemberment of three empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian.

I’ve mentioned before that the Great War seemed to be prowling in the background of several books I had read recently: The Remains of the Day, Wittgenstein’s biography, and Logicomix. The truth was that I had plenty of general knowledge about the War but very little specific information. It knew it as an event that set the groundwork for the Second World War, but the actual waging of the war, its antecedents and its outcomes, were pretty vague in my mind. If that’s the case for you as well, Keegan’s book is the antidote.

Keegan’s The First World War is a straightforward narrative of the conflict, beginning with a brief cultural and political survey of Europe at the outbreak of war and ending with an explanation of how the outcome and terms imposed on Germany as well as the way national boundaries were re-drawn in its wake from the ruins of empires set the stage for the Second World War, which Keegan understands as a natural progression of the First. Both these topics– the causes and the results of the war– merit books of their own (which have likely been written), but they show the comprehensive ease that Keegan brings to his topic: treating cultural, political, economic, and technological aspects with enough depth as to be meaningful but never moving beyond the scope of a single-volume treatment.

Between these two chronological bookends, the narrative is that of the progress of the Great War itself, as divided and shifting as the scope of the conflict itself. Most chapters deal with progress (or lack thereof) on the Western Front and the details of the trench warfare involved. Keegan puts in a bit of biography, so that the many commanders involved become at least a bit multidimensional, as well as frequent quotes from letters and accounts of troops on the front. This is one of his great accomplishments of the work: humanizing those who fought, on both sides.

The work is slightly Eurocentric because those are the conflicts for which we have the most detailed sources and accounts, and Keegan draws on them to paint each pointless back and forth with specific details. He is careful to show, however, that the conflict was indeed worldwide. There is plenty of discussion of what was happening on the Eastern front as well, including the ultimate collapse of the Russian armies, and around the world. For example, the conflict in the Middle East, the assault on Germany’s African colonial holdings, and the naval battles of the North Sea are all chronicled. One of the interesting points that Keegan makes and that shapes subsequent narratives of the war is the contrast between the education and background of soldiers on the Eastern versus the Western front: the Eastern front soldiers were often illiterate peasants, so besides a very few surviving accounts such as those by Wittgenstein, our knowledge of the conflicts in the East is much more tenuous, acerbated by the fact that the antagonists in those regions– Russia and the Hapsburg Empire– disintegrated by the war’s end. The conflict there did not “set” in the cultural and literary imagination like the war in the West.

There is history of technology in this treatment as well, though not in detail and not in abundance (which is just about right for a general treatment). Specifically, Keegan discusses the construction of the dreadnought class of warship and their role in the conflict, as well as the coming of tanks used alongside infantry. In his discussion of tactics on the battlefield, he highlights the dawning strategy of armies being considered moveable fortresses and the difficulty in the essential coordination of artillary assault with ground attack. Artillary and massed armies– these were the primary format of the conflict.

The entire treatment is accessible, and the narrative momentum does not bog even when the conflict itself does. Keegan captures both the drama and tragedy of the entire war without simplifying or villainizing either side. Indeed, it is the courtesy and camaraderie often showed across lines even in the face of unmitigated slaughter that seems to strike Keegan most about life in the trenches. Empires died in the Great War, and millions of soldiers, for no clear reason. Yet to treat the whole thing as senseless mistake and therefore ignore it would also be a tragedy. Keegan accomplishes the very difficult by telling the story of the Great War without glorifying or dismissing it.

Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints Boxed SetBoxers & Saints Boxed Set by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Yang’s American Born Chinese years ago. I don’t remember everything about it, but I do recall that I enjoyed it quite a bit and was especially impressed with the way Yang treated both traditional Chinese mythology and Christianity, managing it in a way that neither belittled nor cheapened either. I hadn’t realized it was still possible to treat Christianity seriously in modern literature (and I definitely include many graphic novels in the category of modern literature) without making it the whipping boy for clashing cultures or post-colonial guilt.

Whereas Christianity and Chinese culture can coexist and and make American Born Chinese successful, no one can accuse Yang of ignoring when this has not been the case. Indeed, Yang takes one of the most famous and tragic confrontations between Western Christianity and Chinese culture as the focus of his latest two-volume work, Boxers & Saints. Here Yang combines history with magical realism, excellent artwork and storytelling, and cultural tact to present a retelling of this conflict from two complimenting viewpoints that is as poignant as it is tragic, as haunting as it is visually effective.

I call Boxers & Saints a two-volume work, but it is not a chronological division. Boxers, the longer of the two, tell the story of a Chinese peasant boy who becomes the leader of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, known to Westerners as the Boxers, who rebelled against growing Western influence in China in the first years of the twentieth century. Saints tells the story of a Chinese peasant girl who becomes a Christian during this period and is a first-hand witness to the consequences of the Boxer Rebellion, particularly its targeting of Chinese Christians.

There are no good guys or bad guys in this book. Even the martyrs are simply people trying to do what they think is best. This is a huge strength of the work, something that Yang accomplishes by splitting the work into its two complementary pieces. We see the threat that Western influence represented to Chinese culture and the domineering presence of many Christian missionaries through the eyes of the hero of Boxers. And we see all the blood and death and ultimate personal tragedy that resulted because of it through the eyes of participants on both sides.

The shades of grey get even deeper in Saints, as we are given a glimpse of the mundanities that led many Chinese to embrace Christianity as well as the genuine piety that resulted. Even the saints are ambivalent though, and it’s a stroke of genius that it is Joan of Arc that appears to the heroine of this volume, making the parallels between her attempt to unify France and repel the English invaders and the Boxers’ attempts to do the same for China painfully obvious, even to the Christian protagonist. There are a lot of painful loyalties; there’s a lot of death and tragedy. That’s what makes it so real though: people living through things that really happened, making actual, complicated choices that are often wrong and never black and white.

What makes Yang’s work especially powerful though, like American Born Chinese, is that he never reduces these complicated choices to materialism alone. Magic and spirituality are real here. The heroine from Saints interacts with Joan of Arc throughout the narrative. The hero from Boxers is transformed into a Chinese god who turns out to be the first Emperor of China, returned to save his country through the peasant boy whatever the cost. The Chinese gods are as real– as they were undoubtedly– to the Boxers as the Christian saints (and Jesus, who makes an appearance) were to the Christians. Yang shows us that people don’t put themselves in danger or make sacrifices on behalf of others for physical reasons alone; they do so because of the spiritual realities– the magic– that underlies the world that Yang creates.

The story is told through Yang’s simple, straightforward artwork– pleasingly flat and colorful without ever being two-dimensional or distractingly cartoonish. It is a comic of simple lines and drawings, lacking the depth of shading or detail of something like Joe the Barbarian. In Yang’s work though, this is a strength. The effective simplicity frames the story quite well.

The two volumes are not clearly indicated vol. 1 or vol. 2, but I would suggest reading Boxers first. The stories of the two heroes intersect only twice in their narratives, once in passing at the beginning and again near the climax, but having read Boxers first you can understand the epilogue of Saints better.

Yang does an admirable job navigating what might for anyone else be a minefield of cultural and religious stereotypes to tell a compelling story that underlines the tragedy of religious war by making both sides understandably human. But the paradox, as I mentioned above, is that it does this by treating the spiritual aspects seriously without cheapening or patronizing either East or West. This doesn’t mean it’s all random shades of grey with no white: the true answer, the real heroism comes, Yang seems to be saying, where true compassion is present. There, whether embodied in the crucified Christ or the Chinese goddess of compassion, Yang says, there is hope.

Logicomix

Logicomix: An Epic Search for TruthLogicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine a history book that examines the philosophical foundations of mathematics, specifically the quest that culminated in the years leading up to the First World War to establish all mathematical reasoning on a firm logical basis. That book would have a lot of ground to cover. It would have to disentangle some complex mathematics to present to the non-specialist in a meaningful way, as well as shed light on the manic, driven, fascinating characters behind this story, people like Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, David Hilbert, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Finally, it would need to give at least some light to the background historic scaffolding upon which this drama played out: the turn of the century, the First World War, the rise of Nazism, and interwar Vienna. At tall order for any book, let alone a comic book.

So now imagine that book as a graphic novel—moreover, as a graphic novel that succeeds at all these tasks. That’s what you’ve got with Logicomix, a complex, stirring, well-executed, multi-layer work that brings to life one of the most compelling chapters of mathematical and philosophical history. In a general sense, the graphic novel (which is hefty, weighing in at over 300 pages not counting the reference material at the end) could be considered a stylized biography of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), 3rd Earl Russell, the British logician and grandson of the Prime Minister, who began his career with an attempt to bring logical rigor to all mathematical reasoning.

Beyond Russell’s stylized biography (stylized because the historical interactions in the graphic novel are artfully fudged for better dramatic effect), the narrative of Logicomix plays out on three levels. Level one is the primary chronological narrative, but level two is the fact that this primary narrative is presented as a lecture delivered by the aging Russell in America near the end of his career. Hecklers in the audience want to know whether Russell, who was famous for his conscientious objections during the First World War, will join them in protesting America’s entry into the Second. Russell promises them their answer in the lecture, and these interactions, as Russell summarizes his career and offers insights on the role of logic in human affairs, bookend the first level narrative and interrupt it occasionally as audience members get rowdy or impatient.

This first narrative—the series of chronological flashbacks forming Russell’s lecture—is the main medium of the story telling in Logicomix. We see Russell as a young, troubled child in an authoritarian home finding the basis of truth and certainty in mathematics. As a student in Cambridge, Russell becomes obsessed with the logical foundations of mathematics, catalyzed by the 1900 challenge of David Hilbert and using the new logical formalism of Gottlob Frege to establish mathematics on completely rigorous, firm foundations. This is the work he spends the first decades of his career on, collaborating with Alfred North Whitehead to produce their Principia Mathematica, which—as Russell recounts wryly—took over 200 pages to prove that 1 plus 1 equals 2.

If this sounds like the stuff of esoteric mathematics, it is. But the success of Logicomix is making the story—which depends on the mathematics—both accessible and engaging. It provides enough of the technical details for the reader to get a conceptual notion of set theory, upon which Russell’s work rested, and the damning implications of Russell’s paradox, which undermined these very foundations. The narrative continues, always through Russell’s eyes though his own work leaves the center stage, to explore Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the rise and fall of the Vienna Circle on the eve of the Second World War.

It’s not quite history (as the authors admit they’ve altered the timeline a bit to make Russell have meetings with characters that he likely never met), but it is a sweeping and effective story of people and their ideas. It’s not quite philosophy or mathematics either, but there’s enough of both to make Logicomix intellectually rich and rewarding—from the logical puzzles themselves (boiled down to their conceptual themes) to exploration of philosophical approaches to mathematics, contrasting Gödel’s Platonic to Poincare’s inductive to Wittgenstein’s linguistic approach to the true meaning of mathematics and its relation to the physical world or the human mind. It’s a story with meat on its bones, executed in bright, clean, understated art that brings the characters and the locales to life without overshadowing the concepts it explores.

As with history of thought done well, the book is as much about the people as the ideas with which they wrestled. One of the primary themes in is the question of the sort of mind or personality it takes to devote a life to wrestling with the basics of logic. We see this most with Russell and the background of madness he worked and fought against, as well as in the periphery characters of Cantor, Frege, Gödel, and Hilbert. The close relationship between madness and logic—as well as questions of the place of logic in life—are explored by Russell himself in the course of his lecture and by the authors and artists of the book as they make their appearance (and interact with the reader) throughout in the third “meta” level of the narrative.

It is this third level of narrative—and the balance it takes to run an additional narrative overtop of Russell’s lecture and his chronological flashbacks—that pushes Logicomix in some of its most interesting directions. This meta narrative represents the self-referential nature of the book itself (nicely complimenting the theme of paradox in logic arising through self-reference, as in the case of Russell’s set theory paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem): the authors and artists are characters in their own book, working in modern Athens to write about Russell and the logical foundations of mathematics. We are invited into their studio to witness the discussions between them as they work. In this way, we simultaneously receive additional background to what happens before and after the events of the novel, the rational behind their specific approaches, and what we as readers are supposed to take from the story. As a bonus, we learn a lot about ancient Greek tragedy as well, which, tied elegantly to the discussion of logic and madness at the book’s conclusion, brings the work to its poignant conclusion.

Self-reference does not work well in logic and mathematical proof, but it does quite nicely in literature (The Neverending Story, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, and The Princess Bride immediately spring to mind). There are other parallels to draw between the axiomatic formalism of mathematics and the rules and consistency that govern storytelling, but that is a post for another time. Suffice it to say, Logicomix is incredibly rewarding and opens to door to a host of further readings in history, mathematics, philosophy, and logic, aided and abetted by the helpful reference section at the end. Not many books I read merit the creation of an entire new shelf of “to read” books on Goodreads, but this one did.

Possession

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was embarrassed when this book came for me through inter-library loan. The problem is that it’s been made into a movie (which I have not yet seen) and I got the movie-cover version. So I have Gwyneth Paltrow looking moody in one corner while some unshaven guy stares at her, and down in the other corner I have two fuzzy Victorian lovers doing fuzzy Victorian love stuff. Plus, it doesn’t help that Byatt subtitled the work “A Romance.”

So much for subtlety.

This is a romance. It is about people falling in love, both in modern times and in the mid-eighteen hundreds. But for me, it was also (and maybe mainly) about scholars, about the people who spend their careers trying to get inside the minds of individuals from the past through their writings. Anyone who has done historical research will resonate with this on some level.

The book’s two main characters are modern day literary scholars who stumble upon previously unknown correspondence between their relative scholarly subjects, two Victorian poets. What follows quickly becomes an absorbing story of these two scholars trying to put together clues through these letters as well as hints in journals and the published poems of both (and of course ultimately falling in love themselves). One of the strengths of this work is that it shows both the appeal and power as well as the pitfalls of literary analysis: the meanings of the poems throughout the book change as the scholars discover new information and connections between their two poets.

Possession does a great job illustrating what historical or literary scholarship can look like, how people would find it compelling to try to piece together past lives through a person’s published and unpublished writings. The excitement they feel in finding something previously unknown about the poets and the ramifications it will have on their fields of scholarship is spot on. This is action and drama for historians. This is what we find exciting. The burgeoning relationship between the two protagonists is nice as well, but it’s almost secondary. This is a story about the letters, about the chase, about finding out what happened and who people really were. Why did they write these poems? What were their influences? What shaped their thoughts and language? I suppose on some level this is similar to The Da Vinci Code though done with more skill, knowledge, and a great deal more believability and style.

Another aspect that Byatt lays out nicely is the characters themselves and the academic realities that accrue around specific research programs or schools of thought. The secondary characters are almost livelier than the two main characters: the acquisitive, flamboyant collector, the careful, ponderous researcher—even some of the caricatures about British versus American scholarship—these all ring true. I know people like this. I know how letter collections work and what can happen when the ins and outs of copyright and possession (one possible meaning for the title) come into play. Again, spot on.

I should have had more patience with the poetry, journal entries, and letters that Byatt uses to form the mosaic of this tale. For the most part, this is how we get a window into the unknown Victorian romance our heroes are putting together. But I admit I did a lot of skimming through this, trying to—perhaps as the fictional scholars were themselves—get out the nuggets of real information and hurrying to where the plot got going again. And I was truly disappointed when Byatt reverted to actual flashbacks to give us all the exact details of the culmination of the Victorian love affair, so we would know that it did not indeed remain unrequited. To me, that felt like cheating. I wanted to be constrained to what the heroes themselves knew. I didn’t want the benefits of an omniscient narrator here.

Byatt’s Victorian characters are fictional, as far as I know, but they inhabit a real Victorian world and rub shoulders with actual historical characters. They lived in a real world. This allowed Byatt in the course of the story to offer real insights into the minds of historical actors. One highlight of this work, an illustration of the power of this form of writing for making the period come to life, is in the spiritualism episode. The Victorian couple has been parted for years, but our scholar heroes unearth evidence that they met again at a séance at the home of a Victorian medium much later. Byatt uses this episode to show why spiritualism—table-knockings, séances, attempts to contact the spirits of the dead, etc.—had such a resonance for a period paradoxically known for its scientific outlook. People like the astronomer William Huggins, the chemist William Crookes, and the physicist Oliver Lodge gave these activities serious consideration.

Byatt first shows the account of a skeptic who interrupted the happening of a séance and felt he had confirmed that it was all charlatanism. But then she also reproduces the account of the medium herself, explaining the events in materialistic terms (recall that this age of auras and emanations was the same period seeing the first detailed studies of electricity and magnetism). For her, there was a completely logical and consistent explanation for why only those acclimated or prepared could observe spiritual effects. The observer himself altered the state of the experiment. It’s a relatively minor part of the plot, but it’s powerful in that it removes the reader– at least momentarily– from the privileged position of viewing a “discounted” science in hindsight.

Possession is intellectual, exciting, and rewarding. It gives a glimpse into two rich worlds: that of scholarly pursuit and the Victorian literary age. And it’s about people falling in love in different periods and cultures. This alone—and I’m only realizing this now—provided one of the book’s most poignant messages: the past is indeed a foreign country. Men and women are going to have affairs, but pairs of affairs separated by one hundred and fifty years can be as different as, well, the face of Gwyneth Paltrow and the fuzzy form of a half-glimpsed Victorian poetess.

A Crooked Line

A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of SocietyA Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society by Geoff Eley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be a professional historian today? What does the landscape of the profession look like? What are the big ideas or transformations over the past half-century or so that have shaped how historians work and think? In A Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, a European historian at the University of Michigan, provides a personal answer to these questions from the perspective of a historian who has lived and worked through the shaping of the profession during this period. A Crooked Line is not quite a memoir, not quite a historiography, and not quite a manifesto for political and social engagement among historians. It is a little bit of all of these things, blending and transcending them to become something quite unique: a historian’s reflective survey of what the field looked like from the vantage point of a young historian just beginning a career in the sixties to what the field looks like today.

As a historian of science—and one who came to the field from outside history—I sometimes feel cut off or at least rather uninformed about the broader debates and transformations that have shaped the historical profession as a whole. I felt a bit out of my depth—or at least out of my fit—at a recent workshop at Bielefeld University rubbing shoulders with historians pursuing a very theory-laden sociological approach to history while I presented a talk on John Herschel’s stellar spectroscopy (or lack thereof). I had only a dim inkling of the importance of the Bielefeld School in the history of history. (On the other hand, the history students I interacted with there only asked whether Herschel’s hesitation toward spectroscopy was evidence of his resistance to a Kuhnian paradigm shift.) Clearly, we did not share a great deal of historiographical ground. I asked my roommate, a Latin American historian, for a good book that would give me a broad overview of historical theory and provide some touch-points for connecting that theory with practice. He recommended Eley’s book.

I’m sure A Crooked Line didn’t go all the way toward addressing my ignorance, but it certainly helped. Eley tells the story from his own perspective as a historian coming of age at the eve of history’s first large shift from building traditional narratives to using the tools of sociology to address large-scale questions of the development of society and class relations. This is the portion of the book he titles “Optimism,” chronicling his own excitement as a historian realizing the possibilities of the social sciences to help answer big questions in history, primarily from a Marxist, materialist perspective. Here, the work that he cites as indicative and exemplary of this approach is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). British Marxist historians led the way with utilizing the empirical tools of social science to provide an explanatory framework for the evolution and the conflicts in society at large. For a historian, this held the promise of understanding, engaging, and perhaps even shaping social change.

In the second portion of the book, Eley focuses on the particular challenges of German historiography and the ways in which it illustrated the limits of a materialist approach. In particular—and here the section of the book is called “Disappointment”—the historiographical puzzle of Nazi Germany, the failure to explain the atrocities of World War II using the materialist, structuralist tool bag of social history, tempered early optimism regarding this approach. Tim Mason’s studies of Nazism in the 1970s, according to Eley, illustrated the difficulty of building up a complete history of the Third Reich from the foundation of class relations.

In “Reflectiveness,” the third portion of the work, Eley discusses the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” in history that took place in the 1980s as the field of history became influenced (or infiltrated, depending on your point of view) by anthropology, literary and art studies, oral histories, and the prioritizing of the unique, local, or small-scale, resulting in a historical approach much more open to cultural studies. This was tied to the realization that categories such as gender, race, and colonialism could be used in new and important ways for understanding history. Eley touches on the culture wars that resulted, as traditional historians cleaved to more social historical approaches and resisted what they saw as a “dissent into discourse.” Here the keystone text is Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1987). Eley takes a bright view of the efflorescence of such cultural approaches, asking why such tools and methods should not be used to compliment the historian’s work. Cultural studies, he convincingly argues, bring new questions and methods to the table and moreover make heard historic voices that have been silenced in the past.

Throughout the book, in his survey of the two great turns in history of the course of the second half of the twentieth century—first the turn toward the social sciences and then toward cultural studies—Eley wants to map these changes to outside influences, particularly political. One of his primary claims is that history should be politically engaged. Perhaps though because of my own hazy grasp on the political history of the 1960s-80s it wasn’t always clear to me how this was the case, either proscriptively or descriptively. History as an explanatory tool for society, a critical self-remembrance, and as a counterpoint to flawed and potentially destructive global narratives, yes, but Eley seems to claim that the influence was often the other way—the political situation influenced the sorts of questions and methods the historical field itself pursued. I needed these dots connected more clearly for me.

The big omission (for me) in this historiography was the history of science. Where does Eley see the history of science as playing a role (if any) in the turns he’s outlined? Historians of science certainly played a role in the culture wars, and cultural studies of science abound today, as in an earlier generation did social studies of scientists and their research schools. I would love to find a similar survey of the field written from the perspective of a historian of science. The closest thing I know of is Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, which, while helpful, lacks the personal flavor and the evident passion that made Eley’s book such a pleasure.

Teardown

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing CityTeardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did not grow up in Flint, so I’m pretty sure I cannot call Young’s memoir a book about my hometown. But many of my relatives lived and still live in Flint, and I grew up just outside it and spent quite a bit of time in and around it. I remember going to Autoworld as a child. My father worked for GM. My mother worked for Hurley. Though I definitely lack cred as a true “Flintoid,” I consider myself among this book’s intended audience. I must have been, because I couldn’t put it down.

Young’s memoir is not perfect. I would have liked to hear less about Gordon Young and more about Flint’s history and the neighborhoods Young rediscovers. Young’s account of his own home-purchasing odyssey in San Francisco– though it helped illustrate the poor choices that led to the housing crisis and paint a sharp contrast between Flint and the West Coast– was tedious, as was the narrative thread of Young going back and forth about whether he should help the city out by buying and refurbishing a house in Flint. To his credit, Young finds another meaningful way to contribute to his hometown.

Yet the book itself might be his most important contribution. Young’s accomplishment in this work is letting us see Flint through both his past memories and his present journalistic eyes and communicating its history and today’s reality. A comprehensive story of Flint would be a considerable contribution to American history, involving histories of labor, industry, race, capitalism, technology, and urban construction and de-construction. That work remains to be written, but Young makes a powerful case for why it should– and his helpful bibliography points to many additional resources. More than this though, Young’s book gives a compelling picture of the city– of both the harsh economic realities on the ground and the spirit of those who remain to face them.

I have a personal interest in this story. My sister and her husband moved back to Flint after he completed his graduate degree, bought a house in the city, and are at the epicenter of many of the changes and challenges Young describes in this book. Flint’s story is one that needs to be told, and Young’s work is an effective and compelling first chapter. He doesn’t offer many (or any) solutions, but he introduces some of the characters, fills in the background, and gets you rooting for the underdog.

Honestly, I don’t know if this book would appeal to those who don’t already have a place for Flint in their hearts. But if you’re from Flint, or especially if you’re from one of those Flint satellites like Burton, Flushing, Fenton, Swartz Creek, Grand Blanc, or Gaines and grew up hearing of Flint’s glory days alongside ominous accounts of how bad it had become– read this book. It’s your story too, whether you realize it or not.

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