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Thoughts of A Certain Bibliophile

This review contains plot spoilers.


About ten years ago, not too long after graduating high school, a friend of mine recommended this novel to me. I had been chatting with him over the Internet for a long time. He was pursuing a Ph.D. in Spanish language literature in Florida, and I asked him for a list, as extensive as he wished, of literature that he thinks I should eventually read. I distinctly remember “Pedro Paramo” and “The Burning Plain and Other Stories,” both by Rulfo, being on that list. Without him, I would never have picked up Cortazar, Amado, or Eca de Queiros, all of whom I have appreciated greatly since.


I think this is one of those novels whose historical moment is of more import than its actual literary execution. This might be due either to a mediocre translation (I can’t judge since I don’t read Spanish) or Rulfo’s cautious literary experimentation that falls somewhere between the recognizable realism of his day and the innovative so-called magical realism that would be endlessly copied soon after the appearance of “Pedro Paramo.” My intuition is that it’s a little of both. 


With this story, Rulfo takes some considerable steps away from realism. While she’s on her deathbed, Juan Preciado’s mother beseeches him to pursue his father (Pedro Paramo) in the state of Comala. Soon after entering the state of Comala (thought to be based on the real Mexican state of Colima), he starts to realize that the few people that he encounters there are haunted, and haunting. He hears unbearably painful moaning and caterwauling from all corners of the city, and from the people he encounters. He soon realizes that almost everyone he meets there is actually already dead. Comala brings a whole new meaning to the words “ghost town.” 


Rulfo’s omniscient, roving narration is particularly interesting: the point of view switches from Juan Preciado to Pedro Paramo to the woman that Juan eventually realizes was the love of his father’s life, Susana San Juan, all of whom are also dead. Through these successive narrative shifts, Juan Preciado learns more about his father’s life: he was the impresario of Comala in its heyday, was a ruthless Lothario, and was madly in love with Susana even though she herself is haunted by the memory of her dead husband Florencio. After Susana’s death, Pedro Paramo breaks down and refuses to do anything, which causes Comala to fall into its current state. Halfway through the story, Juan Preciado himself dies. 


The style here wasn’t the only bit that seemed to taken up by other offers in the few years after “Pedro Paramo” first appeared in 1955. The themes seem oddly familiar, too. The dead, and the past they inhabited, are sometimes much more alive than those who just happen to have blood flowing through their veins; remembering that past isn’t something that we do in a linear, objective way but rather is tied up with passions, poignant memories, and anxiety; finally, this is a wonderful example of how places too, never die, even if no one is there to remember them. They have a pulse all their own, a kind of indelible biological imprint that they leave that may or may not ever be discovered. These ideas were inseparable from much of the work of Borges, Marquez, and Faulkner. It wasn’t for no reason that Borges called it the one of the greatest novels of all time. He had the great fortune of being able to read it in Spanish. I would certainly encourage anyone who this ability to do the same, and would give a nudge to everyone else, if just to see how far and wide Rulfo’s influence has really been.

When Vladimir Nabokov decided to write “Lolita,” he certainly didn’t make things easy on himself when he chose to make a sex offender his (anti)hero. (I wish there was a less clinical-sounding word, but pedophile doesn’t seem quite right, either.) With most novels that I read, I try to include a small plot and character synopsis, but I think that I can safely forego that here, and instead talk a bit about what I’d like most like to focus on: the reactions the novel often gets, and Nabokov’s idea of the novel as expressed in several interviews he gave.


Statistically speaking, the ratings (at least on Goodreads) aren’t anomalous. About 14% of the reviews, as of the composition of this review, that have bothered to assign a star rating to the book gave it either one or two stars. What I find most interesting is the vast majority of them have damned it for one reason: the moral character of Humbert Humbert. I find this odd, since no one says “Crime and Punishment” is a horrible book because Raskolnikov is a murderer or because Oliver Twist is an amateur pickpocket. What it is about Humbert that sets people off toward such a reaction by judging the book by the actions of the protagonist instead of the quality of the writing itself? And, since everyone already knows what “Lolita” is all about, who picks this up knowing that they’re already going to assign it such a low rating? 


If you’re interested in actually giving this novel the attention that it deserves and not just sanctimoniously trashing it to – what, I don’t know, convince us that you’re really, really not a fan of man-on-child sex? – I suggest some supplementary reading that will fill out Nabokov’s ideas of the novel. What I have in mind to this end is Nabokov’s collection called “Strong Opinions,” which I have also reviewed for this site. I especially recommend the first two-thirds of the book which contains all the interviews (the last third consists mostly of abstruse academic articles about chess and lepidoptery). In it, he clearly explains that he’s not interested in your or anyone else’s sense of moral propriety, “novels of ideas,” or social commentary parading as fiction. If you take Nabokov at his word, or most other modern novelists that have spoken about what they feel about writing fiction, just because someone writes about a character is not an endorsement of that character. If you are among the people who apparently can’t understand this and accuse Nabokov of writing about “a disgusting man using beautiful language,” heed what he has to say. Though my personal favorites are those readers – and I use that word loosely – who claim to be “disturbed” by the novel. Some of these low reviews really are great for comic relief. 


My own opinion? I think that the novel’s subject also resulted in its canonical status. Without the Humbert-Lolita dynamic at its center, this novel would have been just another Nabokov novel (that is, stylistically complex and linguistically playful), but I don’t think that it would have the popular reputation that it does. I liked the wordplay and Nabokov’s obvious logophilia and playfulness, but other than that, it’s not something I’m jumping to read again. Then again, I’m of a school that isn’t reactionary when it comes to novels of ideas; in fact, I’m rather fond of the idea, and enjoy reading fiction of this kind. The point here is that, before criticizing fiction (or rather, much more shallowly and uselessly, criticizing its protagonist for his actions), you should get to know what the writer thinks about the job of fiction itself. This isn’t to say that you must agree with it. But it’ll certainly save you posting something embarrassing on Goodreads in the future.


This review contains plot spoilers.


Ernst Junger is best-known for his “In Stahlgewittern” (“Storm of Steel”), a literary account of the time he spent serving in World War I. Almost four decades later in 1957, he published this novel, one of the dozens he wrote during his life, and one of the better pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve read. The translation by Louise Bogan deserves special praise for its effortlessness and attention to detail. So often translating pieces like this can produce something derivative, banal, and tasteless, but the opposite is true here. Her work as a poet (she was the Poet Laureate from 1945-1946) brought its subtlety to bear on this wonderful novel. 


“The Glass Bees” isn’t what you’d call action-packed: its entire plot consists of a down-and-out man named Richard trying to find a job, speaking with his friend who might have an inside lead, and the job interview that results, interspersed with quite a few flashbacks to Richard’s military days. The central character, however, is neither Richard nor his friend, but the magus-like Zapparoni who runs the factory where Richard goes for his interview. Zapparoni lives in seclusion and runs his operations, including the production of anthropomorphic robots that star in the films that he produces, and the titular glass bees of the title. Everything Zapparoni makes require such skill, attention to detail, and artisanship that he stocks his factory with hundreds of workers who are utterly devoted to him. He has a charismatic ability to manipulate the people who work for him and perhaps a demonic desire to change the world through the transformative power of technology.


While waiting for Zapparoni to conduct his interview, he waits in a garden outside the factory, and his senses are gradually overwhelmed by Zapparoni’s meticulously constructed glass bees, replete with hundreds of infinitely complex miniscule parts. They put him in a trance that renders him unable to tell anything about his surroundings. After this bizarre experience, Richard resolves to not take a job at Zapparoni’s factory, thinking that he might use his power for something other than good, but ends up changing his mind and taking a position as a sort of ombudsman, helping the often querulous workers get over their artistic differences. In the end, though, we are left hanging. We never find out whether Richard would live to regret his decision, or whether retains his personal integrity and freedom of conscience. 


Junger was often accused of being a fascist, and it’s really no surprise reading this book, but not for the reasons one might think: other than his sweet, evocative remembrances of military life before Zapparoni, Junger never recommends authoritarianism, antiparliamentarianism, or the cult of the leader. But some fascists were known for their deep, agonistic mistrust of technology and innovation, so far that they idealized the pastoral, rustic idyll of life before industrialization. There are so such idylls here, but Junger does have a distinctly suspicious stance toward technology and the mesmeric power that it can exert over people. He probably would have seen the advent of people simultaneously attached to their Blackberry, iPhone, iPod, and Bluetooth as unfortunate but inevitable. For being over half a century old, Junger’s technological anxieties are brilliantly articulated. His bees and his robots are progenitors of the nanotechnology that is so inescapable today. “A happy century does not exist,” Junger write. As someone who saw World War I and almost the entire twentieth century - he died in 1998 about a month before his 103rd birthday. But, he adds with a humane caution, “But there are moments of happiness, and there is freedom in the moment.” Words to dulcify a looming Technopolis.

“Return to Reason” is a valiant effort in trying to hold down the fort for post-Enlightenment, rational belief in a God. For a short book, it covers a lot of territory, including an argument against natural theology, and a critique of foundationalist epistemology (for definitions of these terms, see the second and third paragraphs respectively). It’s a great undergraduate text for what philosophers call “reformed epistemology” (again, see below) and introduces some of the most popular names in this tradition. Unfortunately, I found this book to be tragically flawed in several respects, and in the end, a terrible failure, both of the imagination and of philosophy. 



Clark begins off on a solid footing with a thoroughgoing critique of natural theology – that is, the idea that a belief in God can be derived from logical propositions that all rational beings can agree upon. The most recognizable of these arguments are seen in Aquinas’ five proofs, including the argument from design and the cosmological argument. He rightly argues that different (rational) people can use different standards of evidence and only think these standards apply in certain situations. For example, regarding the argument from design, some people think that the argument from sufficient reason applies to all things within the universe, while others – namely the people who find the design argument convincing – think it can apply to the universe as a whole itself. Some astrophysicists have recently asserted that the Big Bang itself may not have had a cause (I’m thinking here of Lawrence Krauss), which would blow the entire lid off of the cosmological argument as we know it. Because of this, natural theology seems like a failure on all fronts: using only the tool of classical Enlightenment reason, it’s not the case that all people will agree on the positive truth value of God claims. 




Because this relentless need for evidence and reason, which Clark terms “evidentialism,” cannot prove the existence of God, he sees it fit to critique foundationalism, the belief that all inferential beliefs are based on more basic beliefs. Instead, thinking that he’s offering a detailed critique of foundationalist epistemology, he really just goes on to flatly state that when you want to believe in something, you can “just do it.” In fact, in “Faith and Rationality,” Nicholas Wolterstorff states this flatly and unashamedly. “A person is rationally justified in believing a certain proposition when he does believe unless he has adequate reason to cease from believing it. Our beliefs are rational unless we have reason for refraining; they are not non-rational unless we have reason for believing” (Clark, p. 147). I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t the way that rationality works, and it’s relatively easy to see why. Say I want to belief that an Invisible Giant Meatball Sandwich causes things to fall to the ground, not gravity. Try proving me wrong. 




Instead of changing his worldview in the light of insufficient evidence, like most philosophers would do, Clark followed in the footsteps of an unfortunate yet storied philosophical tradition known as reformed epistemology (so named because of its roots in the Protestant Reformation, especially in the theology of John Calvin), but recently revived by the likes of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston. Reformed epistemology holds that belief in a God is both basic and proper, or what philosophers call “properly basic.” “Basic” here means without recourse to being explained by something else (it’s a primary belief which doesn’t need explanation itself), and “properly” means that a belief is justified. In other words, reform epistemologists believe that God is both something that is justified, but also doesn’t have to be explained. Well, isn’t that just precious – and convenient. It seems obvious to me that reformed epistemology is simply a way of trying to smuggle in the back door what you can’t get in if you actually follow the rules of the game of philosophy: you know, like evidence, reason, and logical methods. Does anyone know of a reformed epistemologist who also happens to be an atheist? 




Crickets. I hear crickets. 




I’m by no means uncritical of the Enlightenment, or the traditions that flow from it. But what I find most dishonest about this book is not that it feels that it can dismiss centuries of philosophical thought in 150 pages, but that it makes the tremendously intellectually dishonest move of trying assert (note that I didn’t say “prove” or “demonstrate”) totally ad hoc a belief that can be introduced by no rational means. I’m also not someone who thinks that philosophy should necessarily in any way resemble science in content or method, but one really is treading ground when you import the word “rationality” here, leading people on to believe that it’s anything like the rationality of science. Clark, Plantinga, Wolterstorff and other reformed epistemologists haven’t really critiqued anything. They’ve skirted the issue, and have thereby created a whole new welter of problems for themselves. I can understand when someone asserts that their belief in God is basic – that it is primary, and can’t be explained by anything else. But saying that it’s properly basic – that these kinds of beliefs are justified – is simply not reasonable or rational. There’s a reason why they call it Calvinism. And it should stay in the sixteenth century where it belongs.

If you thought that the Dreyfus Affair was the fons et origo of anti-Semitism in France, or that the Kulturkampf was just a phenomenon relegated to Bismarck’s imperial Germany, this book may just very well be the place to begin a solid education in late nineteenth-century French cultural history. Brown assumes a minimal knowledge of the politics of the time (First Empire, Second Republic, Third Empire, et cetera), but provides a useful chronology at the beginning of the book and adds just enough political background to keep the narrative both clear and engaging. The use of the words “culture war” in the subtitle is by no means a cynical ploy to attract readers, either. The words and the politics to which they give so theatrical a birth were just as relevant then as they ever have been.


The tug-of-war between Catholicism and the allied forces of modernity, science, and secularism sandwiched between the times of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III dominate the book. Any vignette to begin with would have admittedly been arbitrarily chosen, but Brown’s choice of the 1863 publication of Ernst Renan’s “La Vie de Jesus” (“The Life of Jesus”) serves as a terrific and illustrative point of departure for a book whose major themes include Renan’s strident anti-clericalism. 


Brown also includes a couple of stories that are unfortunately little-known in the United States, but that give hints of the growing violence and division that is to come. He tells of the Union Generale, an investment syndicate launched by aristocratic, pro-Catholic associates that went on to build railroads all over Europe. Due to rampant speculation and financial impropriety on the part of the man who ran the operation, it suffered a tremendous failure – also known as the Paris Bourse crash – in January, 1882. Perhaps not surprisingly considering the events to come, the first people to be blamed were the Jews. We get detailed chapters of the building of the Panama Canal and the 1897 fire at the Charity Bazaar as well, but the heart of the book is a 55-page long chapter on perhaps the one event – or rather a long, complex series of events – that is familiar to all Americans: the Dreyfus Affair. 


Woven together, these bits of history provide one of a few tapestries that really are essential for understanding the French history of this period. For someone unfamiliar with the major names and events, I recommend Robert Gildea’s “Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914,” which provides much of the political background that Brown can’t cover in a brief 265 pages. Brown has a tremendous grasp of the source material. I highly recommend this to readers looking for a great bridge between popular and more formal academic history regarding this period. Reading this makes me want to pick up the Brown’s Flaubert biography that I have on my shelves – or anything else that I can find by him.

An American Childhood - Annie Dillard

It’s not often that I read memoirs; they seem, as a genre, somewhat too self-indulgent for me to spending several hundred pages mulling over at a time. I think I remember mentioning this to a friend of mine shortly after I graduated high school, a friend whose passion for books mirrored my own and who genuinely appreciated my interest in nineteenth-century German philosophy. In response to what I told him of the memoir, he mentioned the name of Annie Dillard, and said that I might like “An American Childhood” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I shelved these suggestions, so to speak, not thinking of them too much in the intervening ten years. And then, a few months ago, I saw a pristine copy of “An American Childhood” resting all by itself on a table during an annual library book sale, for only a dollar. The John Kane painting on the cover, “Panther Hollow, Pittsburgh,” seemed quaint, reassuring, and spoke to me. I immediately thought of Will and our long talks, and somehow all of a sudden, this memoir in particular struck me as something I would enjoy.

Some of Dillard’s childhood is eerily close to home for me. Her open and universal sense of curiosity – for all kinds of books – those on rocks and minerals, history, science, and her childlike need to understand, classify, and organize. Others aspects of her early life may very well have taken place on another planet, at least for me: she grew up in an upper middle-class neighborhood, attended a private school, often frequented country clubs with her parents, and, as she says “grew up in a house full of comedians.” 

Dillard’s writing brings out the full sense of what it may have felt like to grow up in the United States in the 1950s. It’s full of nostalgia, but not the mealy-mouthed, saccharine kind. She loves the order of life, or at least she did when she was a child: her mother stayed at home while her eccentric father both brought home the bacon, but also planned, and actually set out on, a Mark Twain-inspired, jazz-infused journey from Pittsburgh all the way down to New Orleans. (He soon returned, well before he reached his destination, from sheer loneliness.) She was largely left to her own devices to read, look at diatoms and euglena through her beloved microscope, and attend school dances. But Dillard also catches with touching beauty how crushingly small this all was, and how insular. She didn’t know this as a child, surely, but she knows as a writer looking back that this smallness, the smallness of 1950s America, can have whole worlds constructed out of it. And that’s precisely what she set out to build, both in her childhood and in this book. The way she combines her wide open curiosity with what is in some respects its opposite, the feeling of suburban provincialism of Protestant Pittsburgh, is still one more thing that makes this writing special. 

I always found Dillard a good storyteller in “An American Childhood,” but sometimes she mixes in short, insightful, quasi-philosophical asides, like this one on page 157 on personality, after recalling her two friends Ellin and Judy and her little sister Molly: “People’s being themselves, year after year, so powerfully and so obliviously – what was it? Why was it so appealing? Personality, like beauty, was a mystery; like beauty, it was useless. These useless things were not, however, flourishes and embellishments to our life here, but that life’s center; they were its truest note, the heart of its form, which drew back our thoughts repeatedly.” 

In a few spots, Dillard mentions her interest in lepidoptery. Just a few pages later, she paints one of the most memorable images in the entire book: that of a large butterfly on her schoolteacher’s desk. On the day it emerges from its chrysalis, she sees that the jar is too small for the butterfly – an especially large Polyphemus butterfly – to spread its wings. The birth fluids dried in place, it couldn’t spread its wings, and blood was not able to spread throughout the blood vessels. Because of the size of its jar, it was left with permanently deformed, crumpled wings. Her and her classmates released it outside, even though she knew that it would inevitable end up eaten by a bird or batted to death by a cat paw. “Nevertheless,” Dillard writes, “it was scrawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born.” 

There’s something about this dual sense of both wonderment mixed with human weakness, frailty, and anxiety that wonderfully frames “An American Childhood.” Maybe one day soon, I will find “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” More likely, it will find me. I will think of Will again, and our long conversations. And so it goes, and so it goes.

Modernity, broadly understood as a “realm of individualism, of representation of subjectivity, of exploration and discovery, of freedom, rights, toleration, liberalism, and the nation state,” is often assumed to be rooted in a growing hostility toward, or at least indifference to, theological ideas. Michael Allen Gillespie, a professor of political science and philosophy at Duke University, uses this book to argue against this point. Rather than a disengagement from theological discourse, he suggests modernity has actually been a completely different set of answers to questions that we would recognize as explicitly theological.


He begins his discussion by going all the way back to medieval Scholasticism, and in particular looking at the rift between Scholastic realism (or universalism) and nominalism. Scholasticism was dominated by realist thought, which said that everything in the world was merely a kind of Platonic simulacra of the only thing that was real – the perfectly rational, divine mind of God. During the early fourteenth century, William of Ockham became one of the most outspoken opponents against realism and for a position known as nominalism. Nominalism rejected the central position of realism, and suggested that such a divine reason which human beings could access and understand didn’t even exist in the first place. (Ockham was not, for clarity’s sake, proposing atheism. He was instead saying that the mind of God was something so distant from the frailties of the human intellect that we will never understand it – i.e., the deus absconditus of Martin Luther.) This got him into a lot of trouble with Pope John XXII, who eventually excommunicated him. The important thing to take away from Gillespie’s discussion of Ockham is that Scholasticism’s marriage of the human and divine intellect is ruptured by nominalism, which “replaced it with a chaos of radically different beings” and focused on a God of extreme will and omnipotence instead of one whose rational mind was reflected in the perfection of nature.


The rest of the book is taken up with how these ideas have been taken up in subsequent thinkers. The first person Gillespie understands as being in conversation with Ockhamite nominalism is Petrarch, Ockham’s contemporary. Petrarch’s idea of the moral life is one, starkly in contrast with Aristotle’s conception of the zoon politikon, pursued mostly in private conflicts drastically with the Roman authors, especially Cicero, whose lives and works he so cherished and revived. His several books, including “Rerum Memorandum” (“Memorable Things”) and “Africa,” an epic poem presenting the parallel lives of Scipio, Caesar, and Hannibal, serve to detail his ideas in these respects.


Next, Gillespie moves on to give a rather conventional account of Renaissance humanism and some of its major figures, including Machiavelli, Salutati, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Erasmus. He argues, very much in line with mainstream historical understanding, that these humanists placed an emphasis (or, as Gillespie phrases it, “ontic priority”) on human reason and cognitive faculties, rather than a divine being, even though almost none of the memorable humanists concluded anything like atheism. 


Much of the rest of the book discusses two pairs of thinkers, and uses each pair to compare and contrast the influences of nominalism and humanism that each offered. The first of these pairs is Luther and Erasmus. Gillespie never assumes too much of the reader, and therefore spends quite a bit of time giving introductory information about each of these. He suggests that both, but especially Luther, were influenced by nominalism and therefore God’s radical separation from man. He sums up the differences and similarities between the two thus: “…modernity proper was born out of and in reaction to this conflict [the debate between Luther and Erasmus], as an effort to find a new approach to the world that was not entangled in the contradictions of humanism and the Reformation. To this end, thinkers such as Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes sought a new beginning that gave priority not to man or to God but to nature, that sought to understand the world not as a product of a Promethean human freedom or of a radically omnipotent divine will but of the mechanical motion of matter. Modernity in this sense was the result of an ontic revolution within metaphysics that accepted the ontological ground that nominalism established but that saw the other realms of being through this new naturalistic lens” (p. 132). Gillespie then goes on to discuss the second pair, Descartes and Hobbes, and their relative understanding of physics, human psychology, and epistemology. He gives a heavily historical account of their thought refracted through personal and biographical experiences. 


Gillespie’s last chapter discusses some more ideas of modernity, including those of Kant (“Sapere aude!”), Hegel, and the German Romantics. One of the most interesting ideas he talks about here is how Heidegger formulated this problem, namely not one as a de-theologizing or secularization, but as God becoming increasing “concealed” or “withdrawn” from public discourse. I’ve always found Heidegger an enigmatic, but fully rigorous thinker and thought that this was an interesting way to resituate an extraordinarily complex historical question.


There are a couple of critical things I have to offer about the book. I find it perhaps not flatly wrong, but at least odd, to suggest that much of the above thought is explicitly answering theological questions. To say that “The Enlightenment was all about theology, because many of its thinkers disavowed theism” seems to be self-consciously defining a movement negatively, instead of taking its real, central concerns to heart. Could one not just as easily write a book called “The Platonic Origins of Modernity,” arguing how all of modernity was a response to the Platonic forms? 


This shouldn’t detract someone from the book, though, especially if they’re interested in a great synthetic treatment of all these thinkers backed up by solid historical and philosophical understanding. I may not have agreed with all of Gillespie’s conclusions, but this book offers up a lot of questions for anyone with a soft spot for intellectual history.

This could have been a truly impressive book. I have a deep, abiding interest in intellectual history, and the subjects set forth in the title provide a fertile field of interdisciplinary study. The ideas themselves are interesting, if only Kern could have synthesized them in a new way or said something about them that hadn’t been said before, or more intelligently – but he simply doesn’t. In fact, the book is a little list-y, and what he chooses to write about becomes fairly predictable. 


To begin with, Kern presents a clumsy methodology in his forward, in which he tries to explain what originally piqued his interest in the topic, and how he has organized the book. He states that he got his organizing principle and some of his themes from the realm of philosophical phenomenology (that is, the philosophy of perception). He breaks up the chapters thus: 1) The Nature of Time, 2) The Past, 3) The Present, 4) The Future, 5) Speed, 6) The Nature of Space, 7) Form, 8) Distance, 9) Direction, 10) Temporality of the July Crisis, and 11) The Cubist War. The only problem is that the topics discussed in the book make these categories much less useful or intelligible than you would otherwise think. He never discusses why “Temporality of the July Crisis” (the events directly following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in July, 1914) couldn’t go into chapter two, three, or four, or why “The Cubist War,” which mostly discusses changing perspectives of time in Cubism, couldn’t be presented in chapter six. 


Kern’s interdisciplinarity is impressive, though, but this is countered by his unfortunate inability to rally the history into anything cohesive or compelling. He draws from the visual arts, philosophy, psychology, music, literature, the natural sciences, geographical and international relations theory, cinematography, communications and communications theory, and diplomacy, but leaves the threads all dangling at the end of the text. 


The book does have its moments. The chapter on distance discusses how changing perceptions of this quantity shaped the bourgeoning field of geographic theory and international relations. The chapter on the outbreak of the First World War looks at how time greatly contracted after the invention of the telephone and radio, and how this affected diplomacy (or attempts at it) leading up to the declaration of war. Both of these are topics which you rarely see dealt with in detail in intellectual history of this type, so I especially appreciated these parts.


If you’re familiar with the generation of cultural and intellectual history leading up to the end of the WWI, this book isn’t the kind of revisionist history that would enable you to re-conceptualize the way you think about these ideas. You get all the standard questions: Is time continuous or atomized? How do Proust and Joyce create a sense of private time (as opposed to a public time) in their novels? How did inventions like the telephone and bicycle change the public’s view of time and speed? These are fascinating questions, but ultimately nothing new to someone who is moderately familiar with the better books in the genre.


Readers looking for a quick-and-dirty intellectual and cultural history of the time could certainly do worse than Kern’s book, however they could also do better. Some of the better attempts that I’ve read recently are George L. Mosse’s absolutely stunning “Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars,” Modris Eksteins’ dependable but conservative “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age,” and William M. Johnston’s hay-as-hay but necessary “An Intellectual and Social History, 1848-1938,” all of which I have reviewed on this site. None of share Kern’s methodology or cover the same territory, but parts of them discuss some of the material much better than Kern does.