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Category Archives: History

From a Little House to a Big Farm

At the end of “Little House on the Prairie,” the second of the classic nine-book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Laura and her family were Farmer Boysetting out from their home for parts unknown. In “Farmer Boy,” the third book, we start out a long way from the prairie. We find ourselves in New York State at the very large farm of the Wilder family, home of Laura’s future husband, Almanzo. And again, as in the first two books, we are allowed an enthralling glimpse into American life in the late 19th century.

Instead of the adventurous wanderings of a pioneer family, this time we see the equally challenging existence of an American farm family. Trust me, it could be nearly as harrowing as life on the frontier. From cutting blocks of ice from the nearby “pond,” to hauling wood in sleds over treacherous, snowy roads, to a race to save a corn crop from freezing in the pre-dawn hours, farming was a physically taxing and emotionally stressful occupation which required a person’s complete commitment. Much like it is today, I would guess, except without all the technology.

Fortunately for Almanzo, and the reader, life on a large farm with a big family had many joys as well. For one thing, Mother’s cooking. That woman could cook! And could that Almanzo eat: “Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples’ n’ onions fried together. He ate roast beef and brown gravy, and mashed potatoes and creamed carrots and boiled turnips, and countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly.” Think he was done? After all that, Mother “put a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding on his bare plate, and handed him the pitcher of sweetened cream speckled with nutmeg . . . Almanzo took up his spoon and ate every bit.” Not a book to read while you’re hungry.

As in the previous books, there really isn’t a plot as such, more of an examination of life at that time and place in America. More important than a story line, though, are the virtues Laura Ingalls Wilder allows us to witness in these books. We see the love and loyalty of close families, the respect of children for their parents (though not always obedience!), as well as hard work, dedication, perseverance, courage, duty, honesty and kindness. These are the true building blocks of American civilization and we forget about them today at our nation’s peril.

That’s a pretty good reason to make sure today’s children are exposed to these books.

 

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in Book Review, Children's Books, History

 

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Big Classic on the American Prairie

Little House BooksOnce upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads.There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.

I love this opening. Ernest Hemingway would love this opening. Heck, Hemingway would love this book. For all I know he may have read it. If he did, I’m sure he smiled.

The above sentences introduce the reader to a series of true American classics, the “Little House” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That’s right, “Little House on the Prairie” was not a single book but the second in a series of nine books about growing up in the American pioneer days. More than just books for young people, these books are considered by many to be valuable records of an important time in our nation’s history.

I’ve wanted to read these books for many years but put off starting until I had all nine volumes. Then a couple of weeks or so back, while browsing around one of our favorite thrift stores, I came across the reason I frequent such places. Sitting on a shelf in the children’s book section was a brand new boxed set of all nine “Little House” books put out by Scholastic Inc. I mean the paperback spines weren’t even creased! The price: $3.99. After I put my eyes back in my skull, I grabbed the set and hugged it to my chest.

So far I’ve read the first two books: “Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little House on the Prairie.” In straightforward, efficient prose, Laura tells the story of what it was like growing up in the late 1800s with her Ma and Pa and sisters, Mary and Baby Carrie. These books aren’t about plotting and characterization but rather they are the treasured recollections of a young girl plainly told. The chapters are connected episodes explaining what living on the nation’s frontier was like, including descriptions of the many skills they possessed and the labors they performed to get through the seasons, especially the long winters.

And, yes, you do get to know the characters, but they are revealed by their actions and responses to the situations they find themselves in. Very much like the way one comes to know a person in everyday life. Pa is confident in his abilities, possesses a joy for life and a deep love of his family. And he’s pretty good with a fiddle too. Ma is more subdued, an excellent cook, gardener, seamstress, and calm as a rock in the face of trials and unexpected encounters with bears. Mary, the older sister, is the good little girl, never raising a fuss. Of course, Laura is the one who’s curious about everything and willing to challenge Ma and Pa’s boundaries to find out what’s going on. And Baby Carrie is . . . well, a baby.

Though the chapters are episodic, they aren’t disjointed. The thread of a frontier life remembered connects them to each other and to the reader in a way that mere fiction seldom accomplishes. As I read each chapter, the more I kept in mind that these were Laura’s actual memories the more affecting her descriptions became. Whether because of encounters with Indians, prairie fires racing toward the house, the dangers of digging a well or of dealing with wolves or bears, one comes to realize that each day was truly an adventure for these brave families who chose to move westward. Even something seemingly as simple as Pa going to town could be cause for anxiety:

Before dawn, Pa went away. When Laura and Mary woke, he was gone and everything was empty and lonely. It was not as though Pa had only gone hunting. He was going to town, and he would not be back for four long days.

The simplicity and directness of Laura’s words convey a sense of vulnerability that’s hard to match.

I’ll be starting the third book, “Farmer Boy,” soon and I’ll do a review of that and a few more as I read them. But do yourself a favor and get these books and read them. Read them for yourself and to your children. They are true American classics and remind us of how the American character was formed and what it is that makes this country and its people something special. It is so important that we keep these memories alive, both for ourselves and, even more so, for our young.

 

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Book Hunting, Book Review, Children's Books, History

 

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A Disappointing Book That Will Hang on My Wall

The other day while my wife and I were shopping in one of our favorite thrift stores, I found what looked to be a Knights in Combatnifty little book. Titled “The Little Book of the Holy Grail,” (Barnes & Noble/The Book Laboratory, 2004), it purported to give some historical background to the grail legends and even “retells two of the most famous Grail stories.” It was also loaded with marvelous Medieval art related to the grail. Oh, yes. I bought it.

Sucker.

Disappointing could be taken as an understatement here. Let’s start with the writing. The author, whose name will not be mentioned as a courtesy, is supposedly an attorney with a Master’s degree in Theology. They should have taken a composition class or two.

The first section of the book, about the history of the grail legends, is pedestrian at best. It gets the facts across and that’s it. The recounting of the grail stories is where the eyes glaze over. Honestly, I’ve read better fifth grade book reports. I’d quote it but I want you to finish this post.

For the big finish, the final section of the book is called “Reclaiming the Feminine Aspect of Christianity.” Here the author tries to make Dan Brown look like a scholar by going over the same “was Jesus really married to Mary Magdalene?” road that’s been traveled to death. There’s even a chapter here titled “The Conspiracy Continues?” Honest.

The only saving grace for this book are the beautiful reproductions of grail-themed art. Yet even here, the book falls short. None of the artwork is identified by artist or title. The only thing the reader is given is a list of acknowledgements as to the sources of the paintings and drawings. Frustrating.

I was going to donate this book to another thrift store, but then I had an idea. I have purchased several nice wooden frames at another thrift store we frequent and I plan to use a very sharp utility knife to extricate my favorite pictures and place them in the frames. I’m still trying to decide where I will hang them, but I know they’ll look great wherever they wind up.

Nice save, if I say so myself.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Book Hunting, Book Review, History

 

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We Need An American Canon

Philadelphians celebrating Independence Day. 1819.

Philadelphians celebrating Independence Day. 1819. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once again Independence Day (or “The Fourth  of July” as many still call it) is upon us. It’s that most American of national holidays, a time for picnics, parades, fireworks and patriotic songs. We go camping, take in a movie, take advantage of the special sales at the malls, get together with friends and family, and make sure we eat such “American” food as hamburgers, hot dogs and apple pie. And maybe, just maybe, we give a thought to what it all means while we watch the fireworks dancing in the night sky. Something to do with the birth of our nation, right?

This year there is a heavier feel to this usually festive holiday. There is a division among the people of this Union. A very deep one. On a day that is supposed to remind us of our identity as a nation, the weight of political ideologies and cultural differences rend that identity like an old flag. Can anything be done?

Perhaps.

Being the Old Book Junkie, I was going through some of my books on American folklore this morning. One that I particularly like, “American Folklore and Legend,” (The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1978), has an introductory article by Horace Beck, who was Professor of American Literature at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. In his remarks, I think, we can find both a partial reason for the divide and a path to lead our nation back onto a common road again:

Americans, more than most other people, have always sought a sense of identity. Among nations whose origins go back thousands of years, the search for identity is not difficult, but to us it is, for we are a society composed of many national; backgrounds, many languages, many customs. . . Yet we all wish to be recognized as “Americans.”

In most countries tradition, based to a very large extent in folklore, history, and geography, has grown up over the centuries. Unfortunately, the U.S. is too young a country, and its inhabitants too diverse in character and too much on the move, for a folk tradition of the Old World type to have grown up.

Perhaps it’s time we started to re-tell America’s unique folktales and legends, both to ourselves and our children. Even more, maybe it’s time for our schools to require their students to read more of classic American writers such as Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry W. Longfellow, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Allen Poe, to name but a few.

I think it’s time for an American Canon of national literature. We need stories that can bring us together as a people rather than ideological narratives that divide us. Putting such a canon together could be a national project that itself might get us communicating and working together. Our country has a treasury of stories, poetry and essays hidden in libraries and schools, barely noticed or mentioned for years. It’s past time for them to see the light of our classrooms once more.

Horace Beck, in concluding his introduction, writes about “uncovering the foundation of our shared sense of national unity.” It’s 35 years since he wrote those words and we’re rapidly running out of time to find it.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2013 in Education, History, Ideas, Uncategorized, Worries

 

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Don’t Get Too Close!

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film)

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry I’ve been away from the old keyboard for a bit. About two weeks ago I came down with something like a head cold on steroids. Headache, sinus pressure, a small cough and the usual “Yuck!” By the time my wife and I would get home from work in the afternoons the only thing I would be good for was the couch. It hurt to think much less actually put thoughts to paper (or screen, as the case may be!)

But even when I’m sick, there is one thing I still can do. Read. So here’s a brief recap of what I’ve been reading since the last time I put fingers to plastic.

I finished the fourth book in Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series, “Lost Souls,” in which we meet the third incarnation of Victor Frankenstein, Victor Immaculate. By far the worst of the three, he is even scarier because his views are the same as certain groups of very radical environmentalists today. You might think that there couldn’t be anything funny about this book, but you’d be wrong. Koontz’s pairing of characters and the situations he places them in bring forth some of the best dialog you’ll ever read. Trust me on this. The fifth and final book in the series, ” The Dead Town,” is ready and waiting for me to finish two other books I’m now reading.

One of which is Eugene Peterson”s “Eat This Book.” My Christian friends will recognize Peterson as the author of “The Message.” Some think “The Message” is another paraphrase of the Bible but it describes itself as a “contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages, crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language.” Now, in “Eat This Book,” Peterson discusses the best ways to read this amazing book called the Bible. He stresses that we should try to avoid “atomizing” it, chopping it down into little factoids or proof texts for our pet positions. He spends a lot of words exploring a type of spiritual reading called “lectio divina” which has come down to us from ancient Christians. It’s a wonderful, encouraging read.

Finally, I’m reading the second in Thomas Cahill’s “The Hinges of History” series, titled “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.” I read his first volume “How the Irish Saved Civilization” last year and was completely charmed by it. This volume is equally well-written and fascinating. Even if you’re not a person of faith, you owe much to this bunch of desert dwellers. Without their beliefs and ideas, the way we view ourselves and our world would not be possible.

Well, that’s it for now. There are plenty of other books lined up for this year as well. I need to put together some sort of reading plan, but since organization has never been one of my strong suits I won’t promise anything. But I will promise to try to be better about getting to the keyboard. Once I’m feeling better.

Better spray your screen with Lysol for now.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, History, What I'm Reading

 

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Good-Bye, Jacques

Good-Bye, Jacques

This weekend I read of the passing of Jacques Barzun. It made me more than a little sad. Not because I was his biggest fan or have read all of his books (I’ve read one.) What made me sad was that another great mind and insightful thinker has passed from our world at a time when we can ill afford the loss.

Jacques Barzun was a historian but his interests were broad ranging. Music, art, teaching, the intellectual life, even detective fiction were the subjects of his writing. However, his observations and commentary on Western culture was where, to me in my limited exposure, he truly shone. He strongly believed that ideas greatly influence civilization. Take this example from “Darwin, Marx, Wagner,” which I read several years ago:

The Evolution which triumphed with Darwin, Marx, and Wagner . . . was something that existed by itself. It was an absolute. Behind all changes and all actual things it operated as a cause. Darwinism yielded its basic law, and viewed historically, its name was Progress. All events had physical origins; physical origins were discoverable by science; and the method of science alone could, by revealing the nature of things, make the mechanical sequences of the universe beneficent to man. Fatalism and progress were as closely linked as the Heavenly Twins and like them invincible.

Their victory, however, implied the banishment of all anthropomorphic ideas, and since mind was the most anthropomorphic thing in man, it must be driven from the field, first in the form of God or Teleology, then in the form of consciousness or purpose. These were explained away as illusions; those were condemned as superstition or metaphysics.

There, in eight easily understandable sentences, was Barzun’s analysis of the idea of Darwinism. That he wrote so clearly was another of his talents. He was an intellectual who wrote so that everyone could understand. He was a public intellectual in the best sense of the word.

His magnum opus, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present,” was published when he was 93 years old. Amazing. I hope merely to be breathing by then.

Joseph Epstein shared his memories of Jacques Barzun in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I can do no better than to leave you with his closing sentences:

He lived to 104, and his death scarcely comes as a surprise. Chiefly it is a reminder that a great model of the life of the mind has departed the planet. Not many such models left, if any.

Amen.

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2012 in Authors, History, Ideas, In The News

 

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Were You Educated By A Loose Canon?

The Great Books of the Western World is an att...

The Great Books of the Western World is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I asked “What kind of reader are you?” Now I want to know, “What books did you read when you were in school?” I’m not talking about elementary school here. More like middle or high school. What books did your teachers expose you to?

I’m curious about this because I’ve been perusing Harold Bloom’s wonderfully eye-opening book, “The Western Canon,” (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994). Most of us these days think of the Bible when we hear the word canon, but it does have a broader application. A canon is basically an authoritative list. Thus Bloom:

Originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon’s true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?

What Bloom is getting at here is that there are far too many books for people to read, even in several lifetimes. Choices need to be made. There are certain books that are definitive of our Western culture, the core if you will. We’re talking about such authors as Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, Goethe, Milton and, Lord, I’m barely scratching the surface here. Are we, or our teachers, choosing the books we really need to truly understand our culture?

How many of these seminal writers were you exposed to during your high school years? Or even college? The odds of today’s students having the opportunity to read these great minds grows ever slimmer due to what Bloom describes as “the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”

I’ll attempt to grapple with more of the details later, but for now please ruminate on this: Can a person understand Western civilization, or even be a part of it, without some minimum knowledge of its greatest writers and thinkers? How would one choose the Canon?

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Authors, Education, History, Ideas, Old Books, Worries

 

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Monday Musings

I’ve been having pretty good luck with the book hunting lately, but I was exceptionally fortunate this past Saturday at my local library’s ongoing book sale. I found a beautiful copy, in excellent condition, of “Ivanhoe,” by  Sir Walter Scott. This hardbound edition put out by the The Heritage Club (The Heritage Press, 1950) includes the original slipcase and a copy of the Heritage Club newsletter, “Sandglass,” which goes over some of the more interesting historical notes about the novel.

“Ivanhoe” was published in 1819 and became Scott’s crowning success. I haven’t read it before, but according to the “Sandglass” insert, it’s a true swashbuckler and includes two of my all-time favorite characters: Locksley (AKA Robin Hood) and Friar Tuck. How they got in there I have no idea, but I’ll let you know when I find out. I don’t remember any Ivanhoe being in “The Adventures of Robin Hood!”

Also interesting is the fact that Scott raised some eyebrows by including Jews as prominent characters in his novel, which at that time was considered “startling, exotic.” The character of Rebecca was based on a real Jewish American Tory named Rebecca Franks who lived in Philadelphia during the Revolution. Being a Tory, after the rebels won America’s independence, Rebecca and her family were evacuated to England where she eventually met Scott. The rest, as they say.

__________

The Wall Street Journal had an excellent Books section this past weekend. I was particularly interested in two reviews.

First off, the Library of America has just published a two-volume set, “The Little House Books” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The set puts together all nine of the Little House books plus special supplemental texts for a total of 1,490 pages. The timing on this review was perfect, considering I had just done a brief spotlight post on Wilder’s “Writings to Young Women” about a week back. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a wonderful writer and a real American icon, who wrote these books for children so that they would understand “what it is that made America as they know it.”

Something that all too many people today seem to have forgotten.

The other review of interest was about Jonathan Sacks’ new book, “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning,” (Schocken, 370 pages, $28.95). Sacks, the chief rabbi of the Untied Kingdom, has a go at the currently flaring battle between science and religion. I find this topic fascinating, though I expect neither side will win a final victory. I know where I stand, and I’m sure that Richard Dawkins knows where he stands, but I don’t see either of us changing our minds any time soon. But it is fun to watch the volleys each side lofts at the other. Ah, the bombs bursting in air!

__________

Finally, I received the advance copy of “The Core of Johnny Appleseed” a few days back. This is the book I wrote the Foreword to. It’s beautiful, if I say so myself.

It’s scheduled to be released on November 1st. Here’s the link to the Amazon listing for those who are interested.

Thanks and have a great week all!

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Book Hunting, History, Old Books, Uncategorized

 

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, Advice Columnist?

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder used her experienc...

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder used her experiences growing up near De Smet as the basis for four of her novels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the pleasures of book hunting at yard sales, thrift stores and library sales is finding that unknown book or author. Or even, as in this case, an unknown book by a well-known author.

I came across “Writings to Young Women From Laura Ingalls Wilder, Volume One: On Wisdom and Virtues,” at a Salvation Army Thrift Store a few weeks back. Everyone who’s been near a television in the past several decades has heard of the series, “Little House on the Prairie,” based on her books of the same name.She and her family were true pioneers and her accounts of her years on the American frontier are not just great stories for young people but are also considered valuable historical records of that time. So I admit to be being more than a little surprised by this title from her.

It turns out that Laura Ingalls Wilder was also a newspaper columnist for The Missouri Ruralist, a small publication reportedly still in business. She didn’t start her career in journalism until she was in her forties, according to the book’s introduction. She wrote for the Ruralist for about fifteen years before beginning her Little House stories. So take heart, late bloomers: Laura began her career as a book author in her sixties!

Edited by Stephen W. Hines, this book is a compilation of some of her columns from the Ruralist about the use of wisdom in this life. Her writing here is clear, direct and somehow touching. As editor Hines puts it in his introduction, ” . . . nothing of real importance ever changes. Her concerns are not so different from the ones we have today, though they take different form.” Here are a few samples,

The habit of saying disagreeable things or of being careless about how what we say affects others grows on us so easily and so surely if we indulge it.

__________

I am sure we will all agree that these laws of ours should be as wise and as few as possible.

__________

Our hearts are mostly in the right place, but we seem weak in the head.

The book is a delight to read, filled with stories and anecdotes and lessons learned from years of living. It is, indeed, a book of wisdom of which there are way too few in these days. Our children and grandchildren should be exposed to these types of books at every opportunity. We should read them and talk about them together.

One last observation. Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957. Born in 1867, she lived nearly a century. It gives me a chill and a deep sense of our connected history to think that I was three years old when she passed.

Thank you and God bless you, Laura.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2012 in Authors, Book Hunting, History

 

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“A World Lit Only By Fire” : Part 1

I find as I get older, I enjoy history more and more. I don’t know if that’s the age-wisdom thing kicking-in or if it’s just because I’m getting close to being history myself. Whatever the case, I can see more clearly the importance of understanding history in today’s world.

I recently finished reading William Manchester‘s “A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance; Portrait of an Age,” (Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 1993). I’ve referenced it in previous posts, one on Robin Hood in particular. I believe I wrote at one point that I wasn’t sure I was going to attempt a review of this book because of the sheer density of information and illustration that Manchester packs into it.

Yet here I am.

William Manchester was a renaissance man in his own way. His medium was words. He was journalist, a biographer, an essayist, an historian and a novelist. He is probably best remembered for his book, “The Death of a President: November 20 – November 25, 1963,” in which he recounts and analyzes the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Manchester’s writing is straightforward, but with a clarity and immediacy which puts the reader into whatever situation he describes. This talent serves him well in the telling of history.

“A World Lit Only by Fire” is divided into three sections, or essays, rather than chapters. The first and shortest concerns The Medieval Mind, the second and longest recounts The Shattering, and the final essay, One Man Alone, is his vivid telling of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.

In The Medieval Mind, Manchester gives an idea of what the common person’s mind and worldview were like in the earliest days of the Middle Ages (between about 400 A.D. and 1000 A.D.), also known as the Dark Ages. (Interestingly, Manchester tweaks the politically correct historians who dislike the term “Dark Ages” because of the perceived value judgement implied, noting that “there are no survivors to be offended.” Good man!)

Try to imagine living in this world, people.

The collapse of the Roman Empire had plunged Europe into darkness indeed. It was a time of “incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.” The common person usually lived in a nameless village or hamlet, with no sense of location save some landmark such as a large tree or a stream. There were no maps available for them. If someone went off to a war or wandered away, they would likely not find their way back home.

There were no watches or clocks or what we would recognize as a calendar, so there was no real sense of time save the passing of the day and the seasons. There was no news media to keep the people informed and aware of what was happening in the world around them. The “mindlessness” Manchester writes of is an almost total absence of a sense of “self.” People for the most part harbored no personal hopes and dreams. The ego which we today are so familiar with was minimal then.

Before Rome fell, it spread Christianity over much of Europe but few people really understood the new faith. Consequently, during the Dark Ages paganism remained dominant and actually influenced the Christianity of the day. Some churches were even built where pagan temples once stood. But the Church was not without its power and purpose. Despite their lack of understanding, many people looked to the Church for a sense of stability and order during chaotic times.

Thus the stage is set for The Shattering, the onslaught of change carried by the Renaissance and the Reformation. This is the longest section of Manchester’s book and because I don’t want anyone’s eyes to permanently cross or have anyone fall asleep, I’ll continue this review in Part 2. Because it is so long, I’ll try to draw more of sketch rather than present a detailed photograph of the events that follow.

These events which we often forget or ignore in these high-tech times are still shaping who we are now and will continue to influence us in the decades ahead. It is important for all of us to understand them and I hope you will join me again in Part 2.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2012 in Book Review, History

 

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