Essays & Articles
Home About the Author About the Book Blog - Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche Events Recent Writing Recent Reading

What I Have Been Reading

Even in the relatively short course of a single life-time, my own, there have been revolutionary changes in the shape of primary education. Nonetheless, certain fundamentals remain essentially what they have been since their classical and medieval foundations. The idea of the Liberal Arts, for example, was already hoary when in the fifth century Martianus Capella celebrated it in his on "On the marriage of Mercury and Philology," about the union of wisdom and eloquence. The medieval doctors divided the seven arts into two grouping of three and four--the trivium and the quadrivium.

The Latin phrases reflected in these terms meant respectively the "three roads" and the "four roads". The three roads (< tres vias) were the fundamental skills of literacy: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. So elementary were they that they eventually gave us the English word trivial. Modern theoretical and experimental science was hardly even adumbrated in the quadrivium, but reading and writing, the skills of the trivium, are anything but trivial pursuits. One of the ironies of academic life was that I sometimes found myself so busy--doing what, exactly, would be difficult to say--that I had insufficient time for the fundamentals. In retirement I have re-established a routine whereby each day I do at least a little reading and at least a little writing. This section of the site will be an occasional diary of my reading.


21 June 2009

Two Brief Book Reviews
  which the reviewer takes the baby-step from shameless self-promotion to shameless nepotism...

Among the most enjoyable books of the past year have been two that have given me a special satisfaction.  One is a travel book: Walking to Guantanamo (New York: Commons Books).   The other deals with a large historical topic, as its title would suggest: Greece: a Jewish History (Princeton University Press).  These books share some things in common.  For example, Commons Books in an imprint of the newish publishing house Greek Works, so that there is an Hellenic connection of sorts.  But more impressively, the surname of the authors is the same.  Most impressive of all, from my parochial point of view, is that the identical surname is Fleming—both authors being my offspring!  This observation, as I write it on Fathers’ Day, seems legitimate.

Richard FlemingRichard A. Fleming’s Walking to Guantanamo, which is an account of a trip all the way across Cuba begun on foot and continued on foot-sores, has already received a healthy portion of high praise.  I can hardly do better than to cite, with a few emendations, the following from among the most perceptive of the early reviews.  “Now and again there appears a so-called travel book that is destined to claim a place among such masterworks as the Odyssey, the Book of Exodus, the Travels of Marco Polo, Two Years Before the Mast, or Kerouac's On the Road. Walking to Guantanamo--Richard Fleming's wise, penetrating, tolerant and remarkably illuminating account of a slow trip through Cuba--is precisely such a work. Fleming set off to walk, yes walk on foot, from one end of the revolutionary island to the other. Though he eventually surrendered to the importunities of reality by getting a one-speed bicycle--the account of the acquisition of which provides one of several mini-epics within the larger work--he can claim to have seen Cuba in a depth unmatched in the numerous memoirs of political pilgrims, sex tourists, and French travel agents whose superficial essays appear now and again in our popular journals. As a general rule, a travel writer's authority grows in direct proportion to the amount of labor invested in the project. It would be hard to find a foreign commentator, in the literal terms of "street creds," likely to have more authority than Fleming. Naturally his contacts with ordinary Cuban people were so numerous and so varied that we shall search the book in vain for any simple judgment of the Cuban Revolution. We do see a noble and oppressed people courageously making do in a country in which practically nothing works except the police and a political regime now drained of nearly all credible idealism yet staunchly if ironically supported by the stupidity of American foreign policy.  [Even since this review was written, we might note parenthetically, there seems to be a current possibility of rationalizing our relations with the island]. The writing is of an unusually high quality: engaging, elegant without pretension. The narrator is a very fun man, and like many fine humorists, he often finds himself the first object of laughter.  The reader will not merely learn from this traveler, but actually like him--as it is obvious so many of the ordinary Cubans he encountered did. The title for the book was chosen before ‘Guantanamo’ became a dirty word. But let's hope that the recently gained infamy of the place-name “Guantanamo” will not be detrimental to sales.  On that score, incidentally, it would be a smart investment to buy a copy while there are still some left from the first edition. A first edition of On the Road now commands many hundreds, while there is hardly an original scroll of the Book of Exodus to be found on all of eBay. So, act quickly.”

Katherine FlemingWalking to Guantanamo is the work of a gifted travel writer. Greece: a Jewish History is the work of a professional historian, Professor K. E. Fleming (i.e., Katherine Elizabeth Fleming) of New York University.  The excellence of this book begins with its title, which has a clarity and accuracy that obviates any wordy elaboration.  The Jewish community in Greece dated from classical Antiquity.  It was powerfully augmented by refugee Sephardim at the end of the fifteen century.  The city of Salonika was a notable center of Jewish erudition.  Greek Jewish life, which had survived for nearly two millennia, was all but wiped out by the Nazi invaders in World War II. Greece: a Jewish History is garnering prizes on both sides of the Atlantic.  Most recently (last month) it received the prestigious Runciman Award offered annually by the Anglo-Hellenic League for the best book on any Greek topic. More knowledgeable judges than I have praised the book,  including Mr. Martin Hammond , chairman of the panel of Runciman judges, who posted the judges’ citation on the website of the Runciman Award. “In just 213 pages Professor Fleming defines and illuminates with a compellingly clear light a distinctive field of historical and social enquiry which ranges from the sixteenth century to the present day,” his citation began.

“The book begins in the Lower East Side of New York, and the author observes that ‘Greek Jews in the USA more easily inhabit both ‘halves’ of their identity than they did in Greece’. The rest of the book is an exploration of that divided identity, the various reasons for it and the various reactions to it, and of the paradox that only exile from the physical territory of Greece – deportation or diaspora – allowed the fusion of those two halves into a recognized identity which was unquestionably and uncomplicatedly Greek. This exploration is skillfully set in the broader sweep of political, military, and social history. The many factors and circumstances which prohibited the growth of any unified and unitary notion of Greek Jewry within Greece itself are very clearly explained. For the most part Greek Jews were regarded as Jews in Greece, and as Greeks outside Greece. In sites of mass heterogeneous Jewish habitation outside Greece – in Palestine/Israel and in the USA – no ‘hyphenated identities’ existed, and the Greek Jews were and are simply Greeks. The first of these sites, and the first fusion of identity, was Auschwitz.

The epigraph to the book is a quotation, given in Greek, from St Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’. This book is a beautifully written and cumulatively moving account of how, and why, there is both Jew and Greek.”

According to Hammond this year’s short list was particularly distinguished and included books dealing with all periods of Greek history, art, and culture.
About thirty books, on subjects ranging from Classical to Modern Greece, were submitted for the £9000 prize, administered by the Anglo-Hellenic League and sponsored by the National Bank of Greece.