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May 11, 2006

Mini-book reviews.

All on books I paid for myself, too! This free books in the mail gig is getting pretty nice, I admit.

The Romans paid homage to democracy, the rights of the common citizen and, for a time, republicanism. But they rarely lived up to many of these ideals. Roman history is the chronic struggle between the privileged patricians and the disenfranchised plebians. Plebians fought to have a voice, and patricians endeavored to keep them excluded. The Roman patrician often tried to keep his privileges by offering lesser rights to plebians. In this spirit, patricians insisted that every man had a right to salt. "Common salt," as it has come to be known, was a Roman concept.

That's the opening to Chapter Four, Salt's Salad Days, of Salt, A World History, by Mark Kurlanksy.

I couldn't help but be struck by how both the Right and the Left would point to the other and say - See! That's Just Like You! Whereas those of us in the muddle would just look at all the elites on both sides, and shake our heads resignedly. Dos Passos' Curse.

I love books like this, that take common things and make them, in a sense, uncommon, give them a sense of drama beyond what we'd imagine. If only textbook writers could master the telling of history like this. Books like The Map That Changed the World, by Simon Winchester, an immensely readable book on what amounts to the invention of geology, oddly enough via geography. Were I teaching those subjects in high school or college these days, my students would be reading that book. It wouldn't reach all of them, certainly, but the ripples of interest would spread wider.

The same is also true were I still teaching English, as I did for the Army, to college graduates no less. Yep, you paid a field grade officer to teach basic written communications skills to college graduates. Sigh. Anyway, upon those pedagogically ill-served and articulacy-benighted company grade officers, I would impose another fascinating Winchester tome, The Meaning of Everything : The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester illustrates the drama of the soap opera that was the compilation and publishing of the Oxford English Dictionary. What a debt we owe the people, especially James Murray, that managed to "get 'r done!". It's also a very enlightening peek into how other languages and cultures view the issues of... language and culture. You might be surprised to find out who is *rather* xenophobic about such things. But more importantly, it illustrates the search for *clarity* in writing.

Anyway, enough. I recommend all three. Back on my head - you too.