Book Notes II

Master Book List

  • Confusion by Stefan Zweig (A)
    • A novella.  In it, a wayward young man, essentially banished to a provincial university, finds himself entranced by a brilliant teacher who conceals a dark secret.  The secret itself is pretty obvious to the modern reader, perhaps not so much to a reader in Zweig’s own time [spoiler: I recall William Manchester writing in his war memoirs that he had no idea what homosexuality was when he first encountered it], but the interplay of passion, obsession, hatred, love, the joys and discontents of the intellectual life and, of course, the titular confusion is masterfully sketched.  Knowing the secret from the outset lends it an air of dread and looming tragedy, but deprives the reveal of its punch.  Well worth your time, it lingers with you.
  • The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez (A)
    • The simplest description of Alvarez’s work is that it’s the best book ever written on poker, and that alone probably tells you if you’d enjoy reading it or not.  A thoroughly readable window into what was, at the time, a much smaller, obscure, and outlaw sort of world.  The charm of the gamblers within shines out from the pages, but you always retain a sense of the darkness lying beneath it all, the danger under the glitzy façade. 
  • The Presocratic Philosophers (C)
    • Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but this one was simply dull.  I was hoping for a solid introduction to the Pre-Socratics, with a bit of context from which I could get a general sense of their thought and context.  This was, by contrast, far more academic and dry, evaluating the plausibility of biographical scraps, sousing out spurious quotations and attributions, all diligently cross-referenced and often presented in the original Greek.  It’d likely be a good, though potentially outdated, resource for anyone doing serious work on the subject matter, but if you’re just hoping to get the basics, to actually explore the ideas, it’s rather dull and unappealingly presented. 
  • Channel One by Owen Cyclops (B)
    • A collection of comics by an artist whose work I discovered via Twitter.  It’s the sort of book that’s perfectly adequate if you’re a fan, with the caveat that if that’s the case you’ve likely seen the majority of the work here.  The comics themselves are all rather exploratory, with no real overarching through-line as Owen himself admits he was trying to find his voice and mode of expression through the creation of these comics.  Ultimately more of a purchase to support the author than a collection I’ll return to again and again.
  • The Faithful Executioner by Joel Harrington (B)
    • A readable enough micro-history.  At times you wondered where Harrington was getting the deeper psychological reads of Meister Frantz Schmidt, the titular executioner, particularly since he begins by noting the fragmentary and limited character of his surviving journal.  It may be a case where the academic becomes so immersed in the world of an author that they begin to think with them.  That’s likely a good and valuable, albeit occasionally dangerous thing, but often requires you to rely on mere “trust me” when it comes to your interpretations, and sometimes I just failed to actually do that trusting.  Some interesting remarks on our tendency to demonize the past while ignoring the demons in the present at the end, and plenty of detail about society, justice, and crime in the early modern period.  Worth a read if it’s a genre of history or a time period you’re interested in, but I wouldn’t put it in the upper tier of microhistories (admittedly, a pretty small tier).

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