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Dawn and Decadence, Innovation, & The Face of Battle — top 3

[by J. Scott Shipman]

From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun

In a year where I’ve not been able to read as much as normal and with 89 days remaining in 2013, these three titles are the best so far. I’m not finished with Dawn, but it seems like the late Professor Barzun is an old friend (here is a video from 2010). Barzun’s opus was published when he was 93 and was almost ten years in the making. Dawn has been sitting on my shelves for four or five years and I’d started it two or three times only to get bogged down and lose interest. Well over half way finished and I’m pretty sure I’ll be rereading this title for years to come (co-blogger Lynn Rees reports he’s read it four times). Barzun’s scope covers the gamut: religion, literature, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, philosophy, and the aristocracy/life at court. Since many of these topics are interconnected he uses an ingenious method to assist the reader in keeping up. He uses this: (<page number)(page number>) to direct the reader to something previously discussed or something he will cover later. In the text, he will recommend “the book to read is” “the book to browse is” in brackets. I’ve found this method distracting as I’ve read three books he referenced since I started… Barzun also provides generous lift quotes in the margins to give the reader a flavor for a particular writer or idea/example. If the book had a traditional bibliography, I dare say it would cover a couple hundred pages–at least. Dawn has been a pleasure I’ve been taking in small doses and am in no hurry to finish. This is the best book of the genre that I’ve read.

Men, Machines and Modern Times, by Elting Morison

Elting Morison’s Men, Machines is reviewed at Amazon by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “purely and simply one of the best books ever written on the process of innovation and the interaction of technology, culture, systems, and individual personalities.” I could not agree more. Morison’s book is a collection of essays dealing with change and man’s inherit but paradoxical reaction to it:

Yet, if human beings are attached to the known, to the realm of things as they are, they also, regrettably for their peace of mind, are incessantly attracted to the unknown and things as they might be. As Ecclesiastes glumly pointed out, men persist in disordering their settled ways and beliefs by seeing out many inventions…Change has always been a constant in human affairs…

From gunnery at sea to 19th Century railroads, Morison provides illustration after illustration of man, his institutions, and the almost universal resistance of both to change. Morison observes of inventors (real “disruptive thinkers’) [this was written in the early 1950’s]:

I once collected evidence on the lives of about thirty of these men who flourished in the nineteenth century. A surprising number turned out to be people with little formal education, who drank a good deal, who were careless with money, and who had trouble with wives or other women.

Morison devotes one essay to the characteristics and ills of a “bureau.” He describes the difficulty of getting anything accomplished within an average bureaucracy—largely because bureaucrats live for process and harmony. He says:

Taken together, a set of regulations provides a pattern of behavior for the energies bureaus are set up to regulate….Regulations are a way of keeping a system of energies working in harmony and balance…First it is easier to make a regulation than to abolish it.

Morison’s eighth and concluding essay provide Some Proposals for dealing with change and newness—in a word, solutions to many of the problems identified earlier. That said, only the most dedicated reader will complete the seventh (and longest) chapter, according the Morison, originally intended to be a book about the history of 19th Century American railroad innovation. Overall, I concur with Speaker Gingrich and highly recommend this title.

The Face of Battle, by John Keegan

A title needing no introduction at Zenpundit, I’ll only offer this title as one of the best books of the genre I’ve read. Keegan covers three battles across 500 years of history, Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme. In each, he brings alive the battlefield and provides the conditions faced by combatants—often up close and personal. Keegan’s scholarship, insight, and importantly, his humility in addressing a topic he admittedly had no first hand experience make this a must read for anyone in the profession of arms, and recommended for anyone seeking more insight into how we fight.

That’s a wrap, be back soon! 

5 Responses to “Dawn and Decadence, Innovation, & The Face of Battle — top 3”

  1. joey Says:

    Never liked the face of battle,  or John Keegans writing in general.  In the face of battle I felt he had little understanding of the psychological impact of battle on the individual soldiers.  As a grunts view of the fighting I felt it was limited because of this.

  2. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi joey,
    Given Keegan’s introductory remarks, he recognized your point as a weakness (I got the sense he was apologizing in advance for no first hand knowledge). For me, his illustrations of weapons and their use, proximity of combatants, and the changing geography of battlefields—as seen by the soldiers made the book compelling. 

  3. morgan Says:

    I could be wrong, but wasn’t Keegan not physically qualified to serve in the armed forces? Seems I read that a long time ago. I don’t know if the term is still in use by us today, but when I was in the service many years ago such oersons had a Four F designation.

  4. joey Says:

    I wouldn’t condemn him for not having first hand experience,  just a lack of psychological insight into the experience and effect of combat on the troops,  and an over dense prose style.

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi morgan,
    According to the wiki link above, he was afflicted with orthopedic tuberculosis as a child (which affected his gait) and was rendered unfit for military service.
    In his Acknowledgements section, he dissects his unfamiliarity with the “real thing,” citing a provide his students insight into the experience of the rank-and-file soldier—without the psychological aspects, to be sure. As mentioned above, this section reads as an apology in my estimation.
    And joey, I’d agree on his prose style. The Price of Admiralty was a tough read—much more dense than FoB—and I’m a former sailor. In my experience, it is often good to read past style and this varies among individuals. I am a big admirer of Charles Hill, for instance, but have friends/acquaintances who find him tedious or overly verbose. Alfred Thayer Mahan is another example. As LCDR B.J. Armstrong quotes Geoffrey Till in his introduction to 21st Century Mahan (and excellent book, btw): “Mahan sometimes suffers from having written more than most people are prepared to read.” In my experience, “density” is part of the trade in military history, and we must study history. As Armstrong again quotes ATM: “the study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practices.” Getting there from here, is often a bit dry to be sure…

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