The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)

This is a hard work to capture succinctly. A collection of re-worked essays that address the concerns of those working for civil rights in the early 20th century, looking at the failure of Reconstruction and unable to see the currents that would lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and its limited successes.

There are some things that place the writing in its particular time. There’s an acceptance of race, of racial differences and distinct, widely shared racial characteristics that is jarring to the modern ear. There’s also a casual anti-Semitism that’s perhaps even more shocking when deployed in the cause of emancipation by such a deep thinker who mainly overflows (at least in the main part of the book) with inclusivity towards white Americans.

The essays range in tone from the high idealisation of education in “Of the training of Black men” to the howl of anguish in “Of the passing of the first-born”. And then – in this edition, anyway – there’s the sudden volte face of Du Bois’s later thought in “The souls of White folk”, where he interprets the First World War as the start of an anti-colonial struggle that’s redolent of much recent writing in the same vein.

It’s only having read Du Bois that I (as a non-American) really come to appreciate his influence and hear the echoes of his thought. Certainly he is being channelled directly in Between the World and Me, and his ideas and even his speech patterns come through clearly in the voices of the modern civil rights movement.

5/5. Finished Monday 1 November, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

Julia Boyd (2017)

Subtitled “The rise of Fascism through the eyes of everyday people” is perhaps disingenuous, unless by “everyday” one means ambassadors’ wives, countesses, academics, and the Mitfords. Perhaps it’s inevitable that it’s such people who leave the raw material of diaries and reports from which to draw this view of Nazism’s rise. It’s fascinating nonetheless, notable again because of the casual anti-Semitism that blights so many utterances and otherwise insightful observations.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 26 October, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness

Carlo Rovelli (2018)

A collection of essays that showcases the author’s quite breathtaking range of interests and erudition, beautifully written – perhaps especially the last essay on the outbreak of covid-19 in Italy. Although I think my favourite is the essay “Ideas don’t fall from the sky,” where an early-career Rovelli is given unexpected advice from a Nobel prize-winner, that hard work and an immersion in contemporary ideas and their origins is more important that raw talent in achieving success. Spotting contradictions or gaps in the corpus of work in an area often shows where there is new knowledge to be found, and this requires one to be an expert, not necessarily to have superior insights. It’s a gratifyingly modest view of science.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 19 October, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

David Grann (2009)

A retelling of a story that was once front-page news across the world: the disappearance of probably the last of the “gentleman explorers”, Percy Harrison Fawcett, his son, and his friend in the Xingu river basin in 1925.

Grann mixes the history – both of Fawcett and of some of the Fawcett-hunters who’ve emerged over the decades – with his own archival research and explorations around the Xingu. He shows how Fawcett’s obsession within finding the lost city of Z (as he called it) led him to falsify the information he gave to others about his intended route. He also traces the growth of the obsession, setting Fawcett’s undoubted skills in the jungle with his demanding and unforgiving manner and his gradual eclipse by other, more professional, anthropologists and archaeologists, who decided his ideas about the Amazon being able to support a large civilisation were fatally flawed.

And yet the professionals may have been wrong in their criticisms. A new generation now argues that there might have been exactly such a civilisation, building cities in wood and cultivating large tracts of jungle. Disease wiped them out leaving only subtle traces, such as the earthworks now being re-discovered.

The story trails-off a little at the end, which is perhaps inevitable given that there’s been no proper resolution of the disappearance. It’s still a great story, of a time not long past when there remained significant gaps on the map.

5/5. Finished Tuesday 5 October, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Collected Fictions

Jorge Luis Borges (1998)

A dazzling collection of short stories, intellectual without pretension, that weave and re-enter each other in fascinating ways. It’s impossible to read this collection without being reminded of other writers’ works, and equally hard to decide exactly who influenced whom. Certainly many of the works resemble those of HP Lovecraft in presenting themselves as contemporary or eye-witness accounts of fictional happenings, or as reviews of non-existent books. I was also strongly reminded of one of my favourite Robert Heinlein short stories “The man who travelled in elephants”: that same magical realism appearing in a framework that’s almost, but not quite, science fiction.

5/5. Finished Sunday 26 September, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)