Category Archives: History

Adrian Goldsworthy – Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Adrian Goldsworthy – Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Julius Caesar’s story has been told a thousand times. What Goldsworthy brings to his telling is an attention to detail. For the larger-picture, go elsewhere; Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography is generally considered the definitive Caesar biography. But for hard-to-find details about Caesar’s personality, insights about what made him tick, and mostly-forgotten life events from flings to the demands he made of his captors while being held for ransom by pirates, Goldsworthy excels.

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Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Fender is the largest musical instrument company in the world. It was founded in the 1940s by Leo Fender, who got his start repairing radios and building PA systems and amplifiers. Despite not knowing how to play or even tune a guitar, he also invented the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitars. Both are still popular today. Fender also invented the electric fretted bass.

The author, Forrest White, was Leo Fender’s right-hand man, running the business while Fender and his team designed the products. White writes a blue-collar everyman prose, admiring Fender while acknowledging some of his faults—he had his quirks and was a bit of a nutty professor type. White also shares some fun stories and little-known facts, and shares tidbit about how some well-known quirks and features in Fender instruments came about.

The Jazzmaster guitar’s two-channel electronics, for example, were inspired by a design White himself tried in a home-built lap steel guitar he made before joining Fender. White also shares in-house patent applications, advertising copy, blueprints, and wiring diagrams for several Fender instruments, which readers can use for their own repairs, modifications, or even to build their own instruments.

Barbara Tuchman – The Guns of August

Barbara Tuchman – The Guns of August

A history of the first month of World War I, and the events leading up to it. Tuchman writes well and tells a good story, but more than anything this book re-taught me why I’m not much on military history.

War is what happens when something goes seriously wrong; it is the breakdown of society. Soldiers and generals are a bit like doctors in that they are trying to fix what’s wrong. But they’re more the type of doctor that treats a tuberculosis patient’s cough while leaving the root disease untouched. There is value in having some people study symptomatic relief, but treating the root problem does more good.

This is why I am more interested in culture and institutions than in pincer movements, multiple fronts, and the quarreling opinions of various generals. Why is often a much more useful and interesting question than what.

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America for a period of nine months around 1830 and published this two-volume work after returning home. Tocqueville is incredibly insightful, which is why his book is often cited and occasionally read today, nearly two centuries later. He has a mostly sunny disposition and a generally liberal outlook (in the correct, classical sense of the word), but this book is not quite the love letter to America many make it out to be.

Rosemary Sullivan – Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

Rosemary Sullivan – Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

Alliluyeva was Stalin’s daughter, born in 1926, two years before he consolidated his power. Her childhood was about as warm as one would expect. Stalin had occasional tender moments, but was a distant father, not to mention a dictator. When Svetlana was six and a half, her mother committed suicide. One of her teenage love interests ended up in the gulag. Friends kept a wise distance during the 1937-38 Terror, fearing that an adverse word from her to her father could have consequences.

In 1967, after three divorces, two children, and a stint in India, she defected to the United States. She wrote two books, was a media sensation for a time, and earned a large sum of money from the royalties. After several moves, she married Wesley Peters, an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright who spent his summers in Wisconsin and wintered in an Arizona compound with, among other people, Wright’s controlling widow, who was also a Russian. That marriage produced a daughter as well as another divorce, and Svetlana lost most of her money.

She moved back to the east coast, then the UK for a time, moving almost annually. She even defected back the USSR in the 1980s, considered it a mistake, and went back to America. She spent her final years in Wisconsin, of all places, a few hours’ drive from where I grew up.

She seems to have had a melancholy spirit. Circumstances made her lonely for obvious reasons, especially while her father still lived, and for her entire life she was unable to settle anywhere or with anyone for very long. Whatever she was looking for in life, she seems not to have found it. She was also prone to sudden emotional outbursts, and had occasional bouts of paranoia similar to her father’s. While she was certainly not her father, she was still his daughter. Sullivan has painted an interesting portrait of an interesting person.

James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

How did governments emerge? The usual answer is economist Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory. Scott describes this theory in the final chapter, but seems not to have heard of Olson. Scott instead emphasizes an anthropological, biological, and environmental history of government’s origin.

Lots of good material here on domestication, disease, war and slavery, and how sedentarism affected environmental quality. Many ruins became that way due to epidemics, lack of sanitation, and deteriorating soil quality.

As importantly, Scott doesn’t view states as a black-and-white concept. There are shades of gray on a spectrum, with difference facets of government such as organized militaries, monarchs, and written records emerging at different times in different places, and to varying degrees. This shows itself in how written versions of the Gilgamesh epic evolved over time.

The emergence of centralized states was, ironically, a spontaneous order, same as the non-state market processes that economists study—though again, Scott doesn’t stroll very far down that avenue. Scott’s story is incomplete, but well worth studying.

Selection Bias in Historical Sources?

A public choice-inspired point about the nature of historical sources from footnote 58 on p. 585 of Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition:

Nevertheless, no statement of any Roman jurist claiming that the emperor was bound by the laws has survived (or as Peter Banos has said, perhaps no jurist ever made such a statement and survived).