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Thoughts of A Certain Bibliophile

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.