Peter Hopkirk’s book describes the back-and-forth intrigue between Russia and Great Britain in the cold war for Central Asia. The parallels between this 19th century power struggle and the 20th century battle between the Soviet Union and the US are uncanny. In both cases, Afghanistan functions as the “roundabout” of Asia, gating the flow of goods and peoples from Europe and the Middle East to India and China. In both cases, proud superpowers, in their fixation on each other, step on and generally infuriate the natives and nobody seems to win. In both cases, against expectation, the small country of Afghanistan brings down the mighty and sows the seeds of decades of misery.
We hear often of the great adventures but not the flawed ones. We know of Shackleton’s astonishing second voyage to the Antarctic but not his fatal, aimless third. The French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted to build two great canals. He succeeded wildly with Suez and failed utterly with Panama. In this excellent book, David McCullough tells the story of the spanning of the isthmus, starting with de Lesseps. The book is a wonderful characterization of big idea men. Lesseps thought big all the time. His grandiose vision served him well in Suez and ruined him in Panama, where he insisted, against a growing mountain of evidence, that the canal must be cut straight across at sea level. Panama was ultimately conquered by the industrious Teddy Roosevelt and his swarms of well-organized industrious yankees. One interesting observation that comes out in this book: the Panama canal could not be built any faster today than it was back in 1914.
How could James Joyce have such penetrating insight into the nature of mankind and still be such an insufferable bore? Did his muse require him to throw away money as fast as he got it, keeping his family impoverished, or was that merely an unfortunate coincidence? We always forgive our geniuses, and he was the great genius of the age. But it must have worn thin at times to those around him. A friend in Paris said of him “He had not taste, only genius.” Ellmann tells the often bleak story of Joyce’s Ulysses-like wanderings around Europe, picking fights and drinking away his funds. I was constantly veering between feeling bad for Joyce and wanting to throttle him. Also, I hadn’t realized how important Ezra Pound was in taking him from anonymity to great fame.
The amount of activity undertaken by the U.S. military in World War II is truly staggering to contemplate. Germany had to fight on both eastern and western fronts, but America fought on eastern and western fronts each separated by thousands of miles of ocean from the homeland. This meant mastery of the seas was imperative. Morison managed to talk President Roosevelt into giving him, as a working historian, a naval officer’s commission and assignment to various warships throughout the conflict. His book does a thorough job sketching out the scope and drama of U.S. naval operations in the war, and since he was literally on the scene at the time, he adds a welcome journalistic touch from time to time. For instance, he tells us that nobody in the service called Admiral William Halsey “Bull” Halsey. It was just Bill. Now you know.
One of the better books on alchemy. It contains one of my favorite quotes of all time. The eighteenth century Dutch chemist Boerhaave, who on being asked his opinion of alchemy replied:
Wherever I understand the alchemists, I find they describe the truth in the most simple and naked terms, without deceiving us, or being deceived themselves. When therefore I come to places, where I do not comprehend the meaning; why should I charge them with falsehood, who have shown themselves so much better skill’d in the art than myself? I therefore rather lay the blame on my own ignorance than on their vanity. Thus much I have long ago had a mind to say, concerning the knowledge of the true alchemists in physics; lest such skilful artists should be condemn’d by incompetent judges…. Credulity is hurtful, so is incredulity: the business therefore of a wise man is to try all things, hold fast what is approv’d, never limit the power of God, nor assign bounds to nature.
The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), though critical of alchemy, compared alchemists to the father who, on his deathbed, told his lazy sons of a sum of money hidden underground in his garden. After his death they began digging in hopes of finding the treasure. They found none, because (as the father knew) there was none, yet they enriched themselves with a large crop that their inadvertant plowing made possible. A cute little story, but this book is the story of Bacon’s anecdote come true. In trying to create gold alchemically, a brilliant proto-chemist invents porcelain. Or rather, re-invents it, since the Chinese had been doing just fine making porcelain for hundreds of years before.
Who was Isaac Newton? In his own age, Newton was a god of reason who created a perfect and perfectly rational universe. To a later and more romantic age, he became a monster, a bizarre unsociable creature who stripped the world of its rich mystery. More recently he has been outed as a closeted mystic who delved deeply into religious prophecy and alchemy. As John Maynard Keynes famously pronounced, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Which Newton do you see? James Gleick does a fine job in this book of telling the story not only of the man, but of how he was perceived. After all, where exactly are the lines that separate magic, religion, and science? They are foggy enough even now, and in the 17th century they were indiscernible. Newton, in pursuing occult matters, wasn’t engaged in a childish sideshow. He was doing the same thing that led him to his law of universal gravitation. He could not know that his investigations into the biblical prophecies of Daniel would not lead him to results as fundamental as his physics. He was simply doing what he did better than anyone before or since: observing, theorizing, experimenting, and systematizing. In so doing he sharpened the lines between what we now think of as the clear and separate domains of science, magic, and religion, though this was certainly not his intent. It’s just that his science succeeded where his theology did not. But who can blame him for thinking that his vision could penetrate any topic? Gleick’s book is very good, a sympathetic and rounded portrait of a strange and extraordinary man.