Category: non-fiction

Dante: The Story of his Life

I like to style myself a literary omnivore, but one genre I’ll admit I seldom touch is biography. I’ve read one on Robert E. Lee, and back in high school and college I read some biographies of various rock bands, but I preferred those that focused primarily on their music and secondarily on the musicians’ personal lives. A recent review, of The Printed Homer, included some biographical speculation, but ultimately one can’t really write a biography of a man about whom we know so little for certain that we’re not even sure if he was one dude or multiple dudes.

Marco Santagata stands on firmer ground in his biography of Dante Alighieri (translated from Italian by Richard Dixon), titled simply Dante: The Story of His Life, though he did run into some difficulties of his own. Typically I like to start reviews on a positive note, but any biography of Dante will have two significant problems to deal with, and though Santagata’s book is quite good overall one does need to be aware of them.

First, Dante’s life is inextricably tied up with Florentine politics. Readers of his Divine Comedy will undoubtedly have noticed how many contemporary political figures appear, and multiple works after La Vita Nuova, such as Convivio and Monarchia, at least touch on political theory or practice in some way. This means that a huge portion of Santagata’s book is spent discussing the ins and outs of Florentine political theatre and that of Italy more broadly. For those keenly interested in Italian history or who are just political junkies this won’t be a problem at all, but anyone expecting a sort of “real life novel” style of biography will find themselves skimming pages at a time of explanations of shifting alliances, ideologies, and political manoeuvring.

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The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Philip H. Young’s The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey is an odd book to recommend to laymen because about half of it will be useful only to a very focused class of specialists. The other half, though, is of interest to any Classicist, professional or amateur, and is enough to justify buying the whole package.

The specialist half can be dealt with very briefly. Young has compiled a comprehensive list of every known printing of Homer’s works (including those spuriously attributed to him, such as the Hymns) from the first example in 1470 to 2000. It’s an impressive undertaking and I’m sure it’s very helpful for historians who specifically study historical interest in and treatment of the Homeric texts. For laymen such as myself, though, I find it hard to imagine a plausible scenario where this part of the book might be useful.

The rest of the book, though, discusses a range of material that I found fascinating and enlightening as an introduction to the Homeric Question, how the texts were created and transmitted, and how Homer was received, interpreted, and admired from ancient Greece to modernity, as well as Young’s own defense of why Homer is worth studying. I’ll just give a sample of each chapter.…

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John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors

For Christmas I was given a copy of John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. Apparently my family thinks I really like books or something, though I don’t know where they may have gotten that impression. In any case, it’s a popular reference work for collectors, so I thought it would be worth a brief discussion here.

First, I specifically have the ninth edition, revised by Nicolas Barker and Simran Thadani. Though ABC is essentially a dictionary of book collecting and could have included terms from related fields, Carter was careful to limit the book’s scope to collecting, so he excludes terms from bibliography, printing, and so on unless they’re relevant to collectors. What makes ABC useful not only as a reference work but also pleasant to thumb through is that besides giving straightforward definitions he also offers some advice and personal observations here-and-there. Not enough to get in the way of the book’s main purpose, but enough to give it some added value. This is also where later editors’ revisions to recent editions become interesting. Obviously, a book first published in 1952 requires some added entries and a few revisions to older ones. Carter’s commentary, though, is part of the book’s appeal, and so Barker and Thadani are careful to preserve that as much as possible. See, for example, the entry for “Issue-Mongers.”

The issue-monger is one of the worst pests of the collecting world, and the more dangerous because many humble and well-intentioned collectors think him a hero to whom they should be grateful. He may be a bibliographer (usually of the self-styled type), or a bookseller, or a collector, and his power for harm may be rated in that order. He is an honours graduate of what Lathrop Harper called ‘the fly-spot school of bibliography’. He is the man who, if he cannot construct a bogus point out of some minute variation he himself has discovered between two copies of a book, will pervert the observations of others to the same purpose. Show him a misprint or a dropped numeral, and he will whip you up an ‘issue-point’ in no time. Show him a difference of a month between two sets of inserted publisher’s catalogues and he will be good for a whole paragraph of dubious inferences. Show him a wrappered proof copy of a book which he happens not to have seen in that state before, and his cry of ‘trial issue’ or ‘pre-first edition’ will turn Pollard or McKerrow in the grave.

His natural and unlamented prey are the point-maniacs. But unfortunately his more numerous victims are those collectors credulous enough to accept anything they see in print or hear declaimed with sufficient assurance about priority. Every difference has its significance and, properly regarded, its place in the history of a book’s production and as such is worthy of a collector’s attention; but it does not have to prove a point.

It is fair to say that issue-mongers are now not as numerous, as confident, or as influential as they were in 1952 when the preceding salvo was fired; which suggests that collectors and booksellers are more sensible – or perhaps that books once common enough to demand differentiation are now too rare to need it.

For comparison, here’s the more typical entry for “Grooves.”

The space between the boards and the spine must be pressed well in to make good hinges. These depressions are called grooves, French if the spine is flush with the boards, English if it protrudes from them.

The ninth edition is the first to be illustrated. Though the lack of illustrations isn’t a major problem if you have an older edition, I think they do justify getting the Ninth, especially since it’s not an expensive book to begin with. Though the text explanations of each entry are clear, it’s still a little easier to understand what, say, gauffred edges or volvelles are with an accompanying photo or drawing.

One final point worth mentioning is that there are a number of small touches that add a little charm to the book, even if they aren’t strictly necessary. For instance, certain entries are illustrated by the way the entry itself is written, so the definition for “Guide Letters” begins with a guide letter, and the entry on “Misprints” includes a few intentional misprints. Also, there are small tags here-and-there, like on the free endpaper noting that “[This is the free endpaper],” a hand pointing to the fore-edge labelled “[FORE-EDGE],” etc.

So, who should buy a copy of ABC for Book Collectors? It certainly fulfils its purpose for the target audience of beginning collectors and it will likely come in handy for experienced collectors, as well. For people like me who buy a lot of books but don’t seriously collect them, it’s not necessary but can be helpful. When buying used books I occasionally see some of the technical terms defined here, so it is occasionally useful. Also, it’s just fun to flip through occasionally to learn a new term or get an H.S.O. on the heroes and pests of the book-collecting world.…

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Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Over the past year, I’ve read through a lot of academic analyses of anime and anime fandom, some on my own out of curiosity and others for academic purposes (yes, really). The overall state of academia in the anime studies field is pretty similar to what you’d find elsewhere, that is, abysmal and embarrassing. I’d say that Bl. John Henry Newman wouldn’t be impressed, but then, neither would anyone who isn’t fully embedded in the university system. Most readers probably don’t need a lot of examples, but I’ll provide a couple selections anyway just because they’re so bad they’re actually pretty funny. This is from Steven Brown, in Tokyo Cyberpunk, discussing Ghost in the Shell.

One might wonder whether such transnational hybridity and geographic indeterminacy reinforces rather than resists the dreams of the techno-orientalists by offering an illusion of Asia or Japan, such as is critiqued by Ueno Toshiya in his influential essay “Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism.” According to Ueno, Japanese animation functions “as a cultural and ideological apparatus to cover and disavow the reality of global capitalism,” which he sees as inextricably linked to the exploitation of labor forces in Asia in a post-Fordist economy. In response, [GITS director] Oshii has suggested that he is not interested in representing real nations such as Japan so much as he is in exploring the liminality of borderlines.

Here’s Samantha Close, from an article called “Fannish Masculinities in Transition in Anime Music Video Fandom.”

Politically engaged scholarship often interrogates the experiences of groups without privilege. But in order for social change to happen, privileged identities must also be reworked. An analysis of anime fandom in the early 2000s shows that fan works, such as fan video and cosplay performances, concretize masculinities that are both transgressive and desperately seeking normative confirmation. By means of queer and masculinity theory, I argue that fandom is a uniquely generative space for reworking masculinity. This will only remain true, however, if it can hold onto its subversive practices in a time of increasing mainstream attention.

Fortunately, the field isn’t a total loss. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi, isn’t bad. It’s a collection of essays by various authors and so the quality certainly varies from one piece to the next, but some of the entries are legitimately interesting, about anime but also Japanese science fiction generally since the book also includes SF works in film and literature. If you have any interest in Japanese SF, I can give it a genuine recommendation, especially if you can get it used or at a library. The Anime Machine, by Thomas Lamarre, also has some good material for those interested in animation as animation, and Anime: A History, by Jonathan Clements, is often recommended and looks promising, though I haven’t had a chance to read it myself.

Another legitimately good book, and the one I want to focus on today, is Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, by Azuma Hiroki, originally published in 2001 and translated for the English edition in 2009.…

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“A City for Sale” – Sallust’s Histories

Note: I’m continuing to repost my old Thermidor articles; this one was originally published on February 19, 2018. As usual, I’ve done only minimal editing.


When sorting through works from the Classical world, we can divide them into three broad categories of history, philosophy, and literature. The value of the latter two are plain enough; early philosophers raised questions of eternal relevance and laid the foundation for those who came later, and for the poets and dramatists, true beauty is timeless. What, though, of history? After all, history’s primary purpose is to tell us “what happened,” and we can usually get this more easily from modern historians, who can review not only the ancient historians’ works, but data from other historical documents, archaeology, etc. Obviously, if you are a historian you’ll need these early sources, but what about the lay reader?

There are, I think, three things that make ancient historians worth reading for an educated layman. First, they do cover the basic, surface-level “what happened” aspect of history. Their work is often criticised for inaccuracy, and sometimes with reason, but despite their shortcomings, biases, and lack of modern methodology, it’s worth remembering that these were intelligent men and in some cases were well aware of their own difficulties. Herodotus, for example, emphasises several times that he can only relate to the audience what he has heard, and sometimes expresses doubt about the version of events he’s been given. Plutarch says at the beginning of his biography of Theseus that, “after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables.” Similarly, Livy, in the preface to Ab Urbe Condita, refers to “The traditions which have come down to us of what happened before the building of the city [of Rome], or before its building was contemplated,” which are “suitable rather to the fictions of poetry than to the genuine records of history.” Both Plutarch and Livy, then, are well aware that the events they describe of ancient history are dubious in many places and alert their readers to the fact, but ultimately decide that giving a highly uncertain account is better than no account at all.

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The Everlasting Empire

Note: This is another repost from Thermidor Magazine, originally published on December 20, 2017. As usual, it is republished here with minimal editing.


When looking at an outline of Chinese history, one of the most striking things is the longevity of China’s imperial structure, lasting from the unification of China in 221 B.C. all the way to A.D. 1912. As far as I’m aware, the only Western state to even approach this record is the Roman Empire, beginning (to use one common starting date) in 27 B.C. and not fully collapsing until 1453. Now, China was obviously not a serene empire, as dynasties certainly did rise and fall, sometimes with anarchic periods in between these the collapse of one and rise of the next. Nonetheless, each succeeding dynasty adopted the basic structure and governing ideology of its predecessor. Not until the Twentieth Century was the imperial structure  fully destroyed and left behind. How was this possible?

That’s the question Yuri Pines seeks to answer in The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy. To start, he argues that China could  easily have broken into many smaller states, as happened in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He points out that during the Warring States period, which lasted 453-221 B.C., the various Chinese states were not only politically disunited but had shifted away from each other culturally, as well. At this stage China resembled post-Roman Europe, where political divisions solidified into permanent cultural division and eventually into nation states. One easy, and at one time common, answer to why this worked out differently in China is geographic, but Pines rejects this explanation. “The Chinese terrain,” he says, “crisscrossed by mountain ranges […] and huge rivers, was as conducive to the emergence of small independent polities as any other part of the world, with many regions […] easily defensible against outsiders’ attacks.”

Demographics also fail to provide a satisfactory answer to Chinese unity. Pines explains, “[N]ot only did ethnic minorities continuously occupy important pockets within so-called China proper, but also the core ‘Han’ population remained highly diverse in terms of spoken language, customs, modes of life, and even religious beliefs and pantheon.” He concludes that the answer, then, is largely ideological.

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A Confucian View of History: The Book of Documents

Note: This is another old Thermidor article, originally published on October 6, 2017. As with the other reposts I’ve only done some light editing.


When beginning a study of Confucianism, the most common starting-point is the Analects of Confucius, a reasonable choice since it’s the most easily available book of the Confucian canon as well as the book most that gives us the most material from Confucius himself. When reading it, though, one quickly realises that Confucius draws a great deal of his teaching from prior sources. “A transmitter and not a maker,” he describes himself in Book VII, Chapter I of that work, “believing in and loving the ancients.” Who, then, were the ancients whose teaching he transmitted?

The sage draws from a few sources; among the most prominent is the Book of Odes, which I’ve previously discussed, a collection of poems and folk songs that fits with the emphasis the Confucians place on literature and music. The Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals, respectively covering divination and history, also come up often. Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work. Despite having the most generic title of any book besides Aristotle’s Topics, the Documents is invaluable because it collects imperial speeches, decrees, and charges to ministers, as well as counsels given by advisers to their sovereign, many of which do appear to be contemporaneous with the reigns they describe. Exactly how many are contemporaneous is uncertain, and the ancient editors themselves indicate that the first few were later compositions by beginning them with the formula “Inquiring into antiquity, we find that…” Traditionally, much as with the other classics previously mentioned, this editorial role has been attributed to Confucius himself, and though there’s little evidence for that besides this much later tradition, his endorsement of the collection has given it a prestigious place in Chinese scholarship ever since.

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Aristotle’s Poetics

Note: This is another post originally published at Thermidor Magazine, in this case on March 21, 2017. Again, I’m posting this with only minimal editing.


Much of the process of moving politically Rightward consists in correcting the inadequacies of ones education. This process is most obvious in things like history or human biodiversity, but is certainly present in the arts, as well. Though a handful of books from the Western canon are still commonly covered in school, like Beowulf or The Odyssey, most curricula, even at the university level, fall far short of a comprehensive treatment. I majored in literature in college, and even aside from the cultural problem of being one of the few students truly passionate about this stuff, my formal education covered very little written prior to about 1800 aside from Shakespeare, and almost nothing not originally in English.

How does one go about correcting this? The simplest is just to start reading. Beginning with the Classics is a solid option, and I’ve offered my own suggestions elsewhere, but almost anything is better than nothing, so, as long as one builds a habit of reading, most works above the level of young adult literature will do as a start. SWPLs are deservedly mocked for their obsession with the Harry Potter series, not because they started their reading “careers” there but because they stopped there. So even relatively light material will work as a starting point, as long as one progresses towards the Classics.

Now, though selecting one’s reading according to whim is good enough for many, some of us do prefer a more structured approach and appreciate some guidance. One often recommended resource is Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, which focuses on non-fiction but much of their advice is broadly applicable. They also include a handy list of recommended reading. Henry Dampier’s review from a couple years ago offers a solid overview. For something more specific to poetry, there’s Ezra Pound’s idiosyncratic but helpful ABC of Reading, which is especially valuable for anyone interested in Pound’s own work. Those who feel a little braver, though, and really want to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how fiction is put together, may want to take a look at Aristotle’s straightforwardly-titled Poetics.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Menexenus

If you’re wondering how I managed to write up another post on Plato’s dialogues so quickly after the last one, the answer is that this is Menexenus, which is both very short (twelve pages in the Bollingen Series edition), and because it’s not quite like Plato’s other work. It begins with Socrates meeting an acquaintance, Menexenus, who is on his way back from the Agora. There is to be a public funeral soon, so a speaker must be chosen for the occasion. Menexenus mentions the short amount of time speakers have to prepare for these things, but Socrates points out that such speeches are often ready-made and easy for a decent orator to compose quickly. It’s also not difficult to win the audience’s approval, since this genre of speech typically involves praising the deceased and the city he came from. As Socrates puts it:

SOCRATES: The speakers praise [the deceased] for what he has done and for what he has not done—that is the beauty of them—and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. […]

MENEXENUS: You are always making fun of the rhetoricians, Socrates; this time, however, I am inclined to think that the speaker who is chosen will not have much to say, for he has been called upon to speak at a moment’s notice, and he will be compelled almost to improvise.

SOCRATES: But why, my friend, should he not have plenty to say? Every rhetorician has speeches ready made; nor is there any difficulty in improvising that sort of stuff. Had the orator to praise Athenians among Peloponnesians, or Peloponnesians among Athenians, he must be a good rhetorician who could succeed and gain credit. But there is no difficulty in a man’s winning applause when he is contending for fame among the persons whom he is praising.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthydemus

I’ve been ignoring our friend Socrates lately, offering the excuse that I’m just too busy. That’s no way to treat a friend, though, so I’ve made some time to catch up with him and Plato, this time with the dialogue Euthydemus. It may not be Plato’s most insightful dialogue, but I do think it’s his most entertaining. Translator Benjamin Jowett even says that it’s “apt to be regarded by us only as an elaborate jest.” If you’re a fan of rhetorical gymnastics and watching people get verbally dunked on, then this is the dialogue for you.

Euthydemus is another work with a framing device, this time beginning with our old friend Crito asking Socrates who he’d been speaking with earlier that day; there’d been such a crowd gathered around that Crito couldn’t even get close enough to hear the conversation. Socrates had, it seems, met with the Sophists Euthydemus and his older brother Dionysodorus. After hearing them brag of their own wisdom, he, not quite seriously, I’m sure, asks them to teach his young friends Cleinias and Ctesippus, who were there with him. As Euthydemus begins to question Cleinias, though, Dionysodorus whispers to Socrates, “Whichever he answers, I prophesy that he will be refuted, Socrates.”

Say it with me, everyone:

It’s a trap!

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