Monday, January 20, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 4-6

4) Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, by Richard A. Billows.

It's no longer the fashion in history to talk about one person or event changing the fate of the world--most of the time that's determined by larger, less personal forces. But Billows makes a good case that the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE is an exception. If Athens is defeated at Marathon, most likely the Persians sack the city and carry away its leadership into anonymous exile--and ultimately conquer all of Greece, because the victories of 480 BCE required the Spartan army and the Athenian navy. Break Athens, and its democracy becomes a short-lived failure, and any number of the great accomplishments in architecture, philosophy, theater, etc. that took place there over the next century or so may never have a chance to happen.

Billows doesn't idealize Athens--it was a terrible place to be a woman, much of its wealth was based on slave labor in its silver mines, and in its heyday it was as ruthless a colonial power as any. He also doesn't demonize Persia. As conquering empires go, it was one of the better ones to live under, since it allowed its subject peoples considerable local autonomy in governance, religious observance, etc. But he portrays Athens as innovative and important (correctly, in my view), and I'm always happy to see Athens get its due relative to Sparta.

5) Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, by Knute Berger.

This is a collection of Seattle journalist Knute Berger's columns about various local topics. The earliest was from 1992, I think, and the most recent from 2007 and '08, when the book was published. I moved here in 1999 and took awhile to get oriented and feel at home, so only the most recent ones recalled personal experience for me. And while some parts of the book made me laugh with rueful recognition at the foibles of my adopted city, others caused me to realize that I'm STILL a newcomer even though I'll have been here 15 years as of next month.

6) The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas.

One of my favorite reads in 2013 was The Black Count, Tom Reiss's biography of Alexandre Dumas's father. It left me curious enough to seek out Dumas's work, and I started with the most famous one. I didn't come into the book with strong expectations or anything beyond the vaguest notion of what the story was about, and I found it fun, readable, and full of sly wit.

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