Posts Tagged With: history

“Library: An Unquiet History” by Matthew Battles

It’s getting close to finals time, and one of my projects this semester involved a Library Journal style book review on a book about libraries.  I chose Matthew Battles’ “Library:  An Unquiet History.”  Personally, I find the style of Library Journal reviews to be unnecessarily constraining, so I thought I’d take a moment here to ramble a bit about the book.

Battles, an eccentric Harvard Librarian, describes the history and evolution of libraries from the ancient world to the present.  While the book mentions the obvious stuff like the Library of Alexandria, I also learned a lot from it that I hadn’t read before in other places.  I didn’t know about book burnings of Aztec volumes; in fact, I hadn’t even realized that the Aztecs had so many written texts.  The author also mentioned a library found in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust, which shows the resilience of libraries even under some of the most hostile conditions.

While I found the information to be fascinating, I thought that Battles writing was unnecessarily verbose and disorganized.  He jumps around a lot in both time and space, and a few times I found myself caught off guard thinking “Hey wait, weren’t you just talking about something going on an a different continent?”  There was also a tangent on Jonathan Swift that lasted a bit too long for my taste (not that Jonathan Swift isn’t awesome–he is–but it felt excessive).  It’s not that the book isn’t good, but I’m the sort of person who prefers a clear form of organization that doesn’t jump around so much.

Battles very clearly cares about his subject matter, but this book didn’t really do it for me.  At the same time, I can see why some people would enjoy it.  One of Battles’ strengths is that he brings up a lot of interesting anecdotes and historical details that get glossed over or aren’t mentioned in other similar books, and those anecdotes do give readers a sense of perspective.  His use of intellectual history to illustrate the changing purpose of the library shows how the very concept of a library has changed over time.

The history of libraries is something that interests me, and I wish it were more widely known.  I often hear that e-books are killing libraries, but at the same time, books like this one show the way that people have thought that libraries were dying for hundreds upon hundreds of years now.  Instead of doing so, they evolved to confront the challenges of their eras.

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Categories: History, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 11 Comments

“Obasan” by Joy Kogawa

“Obasan” by Joy Kogawa tells the story of a part of modern history that is often overlooked–the internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during WWII.

The novel opens when Naomi, who is currently a schoolteacher in Canada in the 1970s, learns about the death of her uncle.  She rushes home for the funeral and to make sure that her Obasan (aunt) is okay.  When she sees Obasan, who appears frail and lost, Naomi has flashbacks to her childhood during WWII and begins to confront a past which she has tried to forget.

While she was growing up, Naomi lived with Obasan and her uncle because her mother had gone to Japan to care for a family member before the war began and had been stranded there.  Naomi never heard from her again, and only as an adult discovered her fate.  Meanwhile, Naomi’s father suffered from tuberculosis and spent a great deal of time in the hospital.  Naomi and her family were relocated twice as the war progressed and separated from members of their extended family, who had formerly provided a crucial support system.  They faced institutionalized racism while attempting to be patriotic, often repeating “But we are Canadians!”

One of the major themes that ran through the book was that even after the war ended, the people who were persecuted during WWII weren’t just able to pick back up their former lives.  Their homes had been occupied by other people and their careers were irreparably damaged, not to mention the emotional distress that they faced.  Many people who had frail health at the start of the war didn’t survive.  Others, such as Naomi’s brother Stephen, internalized the racism and became ashamed of their own culture.

This book also contains one of the more graphic accounts of the bombing of Nagasaki that I’ve read to this day.  It’s toward the end of the book, and is probably best read on an empty stomach.

As with most of the books that I read for my multicultural librarianship class, this was incredibly depressing, but at the same time it is important to remember history, lest we repeat it.  I think that I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read it when I was in high school, because at that point in my life I didn’t mind depressing books so much, and I read a lot of books about injustices throughout history.

Kogawa’s writing is quite poetic, and uses vivid imagery to portray complex themes of identity, loss, tolerance, and coping.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about an often-forgotten part of WWII.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday

I read this book as a part of a class I’m taking this semester on multiculturalism and librarianship.

The book is about Native American culture, specifically the Kiowa.  It tells the story of the author’s journey to visit his grandmother’s grave near Rainy Mountain.  Each page is split into three segments.  Momaday opens each section with a Kiowa myth, then follows up with a segment of historic fact.  He then ties everything together by relating those things to his own experiences and childhood memories, most of which are universal in nature.  He writes in a very straightforward poetic prose, which is easy to read but full of meaning.

There were always dogs about my grandmother’s house.  Some of them were nameless and lived a life of their own.  They belonged there in a sense that the word “ownership” does not include.  The old people paid them scarcely any attention, but they should have been sad, I think, to see them go.

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” is beautifully written and carries profound messages, despite its short length.  The stories of Tai-me, the Sun Dance, and buffalo hunts captivated my imagination, and were told with a great deal of reverence.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in Native American literature.

Categories: History, Nonfiction, Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A History of Modern Russia” by Robert Service

Since I’ve focused primarily on fiction thus far, I thought it might be nice to review one of my favorite nonfiction books.  Service does a fantastic job providing a recap of 20th century Russian/Soviet history that is both highly readable and well-researched.

One of the biggest problems with history books about the Soviet era is that almost all of them are heavily biased, either demonizing or glorifying the Soviet Union.  Service does neither, but instead takes a cynical view about everything.  He is able to provide a rather objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of various figures, while realizing that we’re all adults and don’t need to know that the evil commies are coming to get us.

As the book is only around 500 pages, there are of course a lot of things that are glossed over.  At the same time, Service did a good job at highlighting major events.  The book covers late imperial Russia through around 1994, but there isn’t much coverage of anything after the fall of the Soviet Union.  I would personally liked to see more of that, and how one ties the Russia of today to it’s historical roots.  However, that wasn’t the point of the book.  I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning more about Russian history.

Categories: Dead Russians, History, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Lenin’s Mistress: The Life of Inessa Armand” by Michael Pearson

Inessa Armand is a fascinating historical figure.  She is most famous for her role as Lenin’s mistress, but was quite remarkable in her own right.  She lived during the late 1800s-early 1900s, at a time when women had few rights and little social mobility.  However, instead of living with that role, Inessa had an open marriage with her husband, basically telling him from the start that she’d get bored of him and one day leave him.  She eventually did that, and focused her time on becoming a revolutionary.  She had her legendary affair with Lenin and became an influential Bolshevik in her own right.

Pearson did a great job of researching this book, but I have one major complaint.  He made it very clear in the second half of his book that he absolutely loathes Lenin.  This can be a problem when you’re writing a book on mistress of someone you despise.  Toward the end of the book, I kept finding myself saying, “Look dude, I know you hate Lenin, but I want to read Inessa’s story, not a tirade against Lenin.  Really?  Really?”

I’d love to see Inessa’s story explored as historical fiction.  I can understand why Pearson chose to write a biography rather than a novel, because certain elements of Inessa’s life are rather fantastic in their own right, to the point that in a fiction novel one might think that real details are embellishment.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, despite the anti-Lenin bias, mostly because it’s the only reliable biography of Inessa Armand, and I think that more people should know her story.

Categories: Biography, Dead Russians, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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