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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Western Civilization

So I've been dragging this textbook around with me for 10 years.  10 years ago in November I married Joanna.  Prior to that date I had a perfect record of getting As in college.  The day we got married I had to skip a class, the class as a childhood development class and that day I skipped was one of the pop quizzes that was 10 percent of our grade.  Because of this I fell one point short of an A grade and the professor who I guess didn't believe in pluses or minuses gave me a straight B.

The next semester was supposed to be my last and I had been working a temporary night job while I went to school.  In mid semester I was offered a permanent job, the downside was that training would be 7 weeks and it would be in the daytime.  I was enrolled for four classes during daytime, I was doing well but it was take a job that I knew I would love or pass it up hoping to finish school and get another offer in the same type of work.  Luckily I took it, I'm still at the same company and I've loved it as much as one can love a job and when I look around and see that everything I have was from working there I know I did the right thing.

Because of that choice though, I had to decide what to do about school.  I'm superman sometimes, but studying for a licensing exam and doing classwork and at the same time trying to learn how to do an actual job was something I couldn't take on all at once.  I got A grades in two of the classes and failed the other two.  One of the two I took a dive in was Modern Western Civilization.  At the end of the semester I went to sell my books but there was a new version of the textbook coming out so there I was, stuck with a book from a class I failed so I decided to do what every reasonable American does, I added it to the horde of stuff that I don't remotely need but somehow gives me comfort late a night when I wonder what I've done with my life.  Well look at this mountain of stuff, I say to myself.  I'm obviously a valuable person!

So after reading Common Sense I realized that my gap in Western History was costing me a bit in understanding the enlightenment era non-fiction that I've become a fan of.  I'm good on America so I was having a hard time reconciling how the Louisiana purchased was made from Napoleon after the French threw off the shackles of despotism for good by executing Louis XIV. I guess it wasn't smooth sailing into democracy and I guess it was Louis XVI that was executed.   That much I now know now thanks to this book.

What I love about Western Civilization is that it's a Civilization of ideas.  In spurts and fits we've come to hold the individual person as a sacred being.  It was very interesting to see how these ideas evolved and how Christianity intertwined with this evolution.  What was interesting is to see how they aren't necessarily parallel ideas, this is contradictory to the conventional wisdom that people seem to accept today but both the omnipresent western philosophy that defines our culture and the Christian religion that is an omnipresent feature of our culture as well have forced each other to evolve into what I think is a fairly tolerable place to be altogether.

So yes I now have most of my dates and places straight.  I can't give you the whole line of English succession or the dates of many battles, after all this was a large broad brushstroke but if you give me a year I can give you a broad overview of what happened in that century, and I guess that's worth 10 years of hauling a book around the country for no apparent reason.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

History of the World in 6 Glasses

When I wanted to start reading more I assumed I would be reading fiction.  When I was Jr. High and High School I read at a pace of about 2 novels a week, it was a good defense against boredom with school and a way to spend my time in isolation without feeling lonely.   When I moved to Las Vegas I resumed the 2 novels a week pace, it was a good defense against poverty and you can buy 2 books a week for the same price that cable TV would cost you, new books even!  All this and you didn't even have to front the price of a TV, a horribly large expense at the time and terrible impractical for someone who moved every 4 months or so and who didn't  have a car.

So now that I'm returning to my reading habit I'm surprised at how much great writing there is on the non-fiction side of the bookstore.  Or well since now I rely on online merchants to feed my habit the non fiction side of the best seller lists.

History of the world in 6 glasses is a review of how beverages have shaped human history.  The beverages are beer, wine, coffee, tea, coke, and distilled spirits.  Before going in I was familiar with what an empire the British forged with their lust for tea but the rest I was fairly unfamiliar with.

I especially loved the chapters on wine.  The book went into great detail as to the rituals surrounding wine drinking in Greek and Roman times, the places wine was grown and it's effect on trade.  Greek and Roman history is one of my favorite topics and this was a subject that was skipped over or lightly covered in history classes, but it was obviously a huge cultural influence, you can't tour any art museum without tripping over Renaissance paintings of a bacchanalia.

After reading the book I watched a documentary about the black sea, they were doing an underwater excavation of a boat and its cargo was a whole bunch of wine urns, just like the book described.  I also went back to the museum of art and in the Egyptian tomb exhibit I saw a display of hundreds of statues of men and women carrying beer and and the deceased even had a model brewery to help him through the afterlife.  I love when I learn new things that add context to future experiences.

So chalk another book up to the long list of valuable reading experiences.  Who needs fiction anyway?

Monday, November 9, 2009


Ah Chuck Palahniuk, best known as the writer of Fight Club.  Before this book I had never read any of his books, I'm always shy about jumping on bandwagons.  I decided to end the policy of self enforced snobbery and give this one a try.

Choke is not for the kids, let me get that out right now.  The first chapter is about the main character attending his sex addicts anonymous meeting and he tells the stories of all the attendees.  It's a chapter that would make Balzac blush but I laughed out loud the whole way through.

Honestly this was the funniest book I've read in a long time, the back of the book has a reviewer calling Chuck the new Vonnegut.  I disagree with that statement.  Both Palahniuk and Vonnegut use humor against a background of human tragedy, Vonnegut however seemed to be saying that we ourselves are ok, no matter how crazy we are.  Palahniuk makes us enjoy the aberrations of his characters but doesn't try to make a sick society the reason they're not ok, but the best reaction you can have is a little laughter at their expense.

I know this book has been made into a movie and I wanted to read it before I saw it.  I think I'll skip it for a while though, I was worried about the movie ruining the book because it would reveal the plot.  Now I'm worried the movie will ruin what was a good experience.