On a previous website, I used to list, periodically, what I happened to have been reading.  I think it is worth reviving, but this time, I invite others to comment on the books listed and to share their own recent adventures in literacy. I am not including With Fire and Sword.

1. Two days ago my wife and I, who read aloud or listen to a book after breakfast, completed the last chapter of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.   This was my second complete reading of the work, but  I frequently take up one or another part of it.  I cannot say that there is any more enjoyable book in the English language, and the majesty and harmony of the prose could only have been written by someone well flogged in the classical languages.  As dessert, we have now started

2.  Gibbon's Autobiography, which I have not looked at in over 40 years but remember having thoroughly enjoyed.  I used to make a serious attempt at reading the English classics, but I no longer do anything with any degree of seriousness.  I was reminded of this work by a passage in a silly mystery novel written by a film composer writing under the name of Edmund Crispin.  In one of his books, the hero--an Oxford don--is working on a book about mid-2oth century English fiction, most of which he finds tedious--and when the publisher's bankruptcy liberates him, he immediately turns to the Autobiography. Good move.

3,  Yesterday afternoon, good cigar in hand, I began thinking about volume II of Properties of Blood, subtitled The Reign of Hate.  The early chapters have a lot about revenge, including a discussion of Seneca's essay on Anger.  It occurred to me that I have managed to avoid any serious reading of Seneca's tragedies, so I decided to start with the most infamous of them, Thyestes.  Yes, it has all of Seneca's faults--it is too obviously brilliant and sententious, extremely dark in its implications, but it is pretty thrilling, especially in its portrait of political power.  At one point King Atreus, who has been asked by a loyal retainer not to contemplate doing anything to his brother that is not consistent with justice, responds that justice and decency are private goods, but it is a king's right to do as he pleases.  The best guess is that the work was written while he was tutor or minister to Nero. His depiction of a political world dominated by lust, libido dominandi, and nastiness and pervaded by fear and anxiety would not appeal to an optimistic age, but to the Elizabethans--and to us--the  appeal is powerful.

4.  I'm reading a Nero Wolfe mystery I may have read before but don't have the book in front of me.  I recently finished Blindfold, a not very satisfactory Patricia Wentworth mystery in which her heroine Miss Silver does not appear.

5.  My old friend Jane Greer has a new book of verse out, and I hope to be reviewing it in a few days.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

18 Responses

  1. Gregory Fogg says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading history and good biographies. I have a pretty nice library wjth several works I’ve put off too long. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is in this category as is Spengler’s 2 volume Decline of the West and Steven Runciman’s 3 volume history of the crusades. Do you consider Spengler or Runciman worth the time? I’m also interested in Douglas Southall Freeman’s unabridged works on Washington, Lee, and Lee’s Lieutenants, as well as Dumas Malone’s unabridged Jefferson. Would you or Dr. Wilson consider the Freeman and Malone works worth the expense of purchase?

  2. Dom says:

    Mr. Fogg,
    A few years ago I read the Runcimen set and have always been glad that I did. He relied heavily on primary sources and his sober style was refreshing considering the subject matter is so often surrounded by, eh, hysteria. I came away with a view of the Crusades as a reflection of the geopolitics of the time and what an interesting period of time it was. At certain points the work almost seemed like some kind of political thriller, but I do not believe this was from any sensationalism on the part of the author.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Runciman was a fine if never brilliant historian. My own teacher Douglas Young, who knew him, once told me that when Runciman wanted to work with Bury on the Cambridge Medieval History, Bury asked him if he could read Bulgarian. With some months of Russian under his belt, he replied, “of course.” That’s the stuff that makes a scholar.

    Spengler is too theory-obsessed for me, so, since I don’t read him,. I don’t have a serious opinion. Freeman’s books are very good–the great man knew my wife’s family and we have a set of Lee’s Lieutenants signed by him. Dumas Malone was sound, intelligent, and hardworking, but also a bit too wordy for the purposes of biography. Still, no one knew Jefferson as well, and I am happy to have worked through it. Throw in Hume’s History of England, and Shelby Foote, and you’ll be busy for some time. (It was my friend Prof Wilson who put me on to Malone.)

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS Gregorovius’ History of Rome in the Middle Ages is also worth the effort.

  5. Gregory Fogg says:

    Thank you Dom and Dr. Fleming. I have the wonderful Shelby Foote books and will look for the Hume and Gregorovius works.

  6. Jacob Johnson says:

    I’ve had my grandfather’s Decline and Fall for years, but figured that because it is extensively detailed I would put off reading that until I’d read shorter things for background, but reading it in regular portions over time is a pretty good idea. I had hoped to try to tackle Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson starting in the new year but that didn’t happen, so maybe I’ll do it that way. On the subject of long works, I found all eleven volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization for about seventy-five dollars, read bits and pieces of the first four, but haven’t touched it in seven years because I thought I should wait to continue it. I believe I’ve read criticism of Durant as not a particularly good source on here before. If this is correct, would you say there is any justification for the time and shelf space required for going through that at some point?

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Boswell’s Life of Johnson is another book that should be read if only for its great entertainment value. As for the Durants, they are not the worst vulgarizers to have attempted such things, and, while no one could possibly know as much as is needed to write such a work, they make a stab at it, something good perhaps for students in teaching what most people thought they should believe a generation or two ago. I read a few volumes in my teens, but I cannot imagine ever looking at them again. As I recall, they cannot seem to distinguish between a Socrates and a Voltaire. Their lack of critical judgment and their conventional Liberal perspective makes them both useful for the New Deal regime (though not for the current regime) but useless for those who need to engage in a fundamental critique or even rejection of the Enlightenment.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    My booklog indicates that I read 77 books in 2020. I am off to a good start in 2021. In reading Oakeshott’s early writings I surmise that Dr. Fleming would agree with his ideas about rights and duties. Need to read more to see if he changes his views later.

    Meanwhile, I just realized there is a shortage of ammo (in addition to chicken wings). Fortunately, I have always purchased ammo periodically so have a pretty good supply. I will need to replace what I shoot at the range though so am starting to look. First I have to review my inventory and then check Gun Tests recommendations for the calibers I need. Gun Tests has an extensive list of gun and ammo sellers to check at that point. A couple of online sources and a local shop I checked are out of handgun ammo. Local guy said he expects shortage to extend into next year.

  9. Harry Colin says:

    I have just finished Dana Gioia’s “The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays” alongside his book of poetry – “Interrogations at Noon.” In the book he states that if Hell has a hymnal it would be comprised of those Jesuit –written songs that infest so many Catholic hymnals these past few decades. He captured my interest right there.

    I will resume Scott’s “Heart of Midlothian” now that I’ve finished Sienkiewicz and I will be joining in on an online discussion of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John LeCarre.

    As aside on Douglas Southall Freeman… as a young officer in West Germany I had a cavalry troop commander who assigned “Lee’s Lieutenants” to all of his lieutenants. I procured a nice three volume set and can recommend it highly. Still a prized possession in my library for both its intrinsic value and the fond memories of reading it, often while tucked away in a corner of a favorite cafe staffed by gorgeous young Hessian frauleins.

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Colin – speaking of things German, I have been reading some Roepke. In Crises and Cycles, he mentioned an essay that he wrote. I managed to purchase a used copy of essays by various economists in which his essay appeared only to discover that it was written in German.

  11. George Bagby says:

    I picked up an anthology from ISI entitled The Superfluous Men this morning and read an essay from Albert Jay Nock about education. I am reading the Iliad aloud to my students. I have also been reading Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History, which must be my favorite book of historiography.

  12. Raymond Olson says:

    I’m abashed that I’ve yet to complete reading of Gibbon’s great history, and that I’ve not even cracked Gibbon’s Autobiography. But I shall, God willing.

    At present, I have four books on my reading table. A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik was recommended by a member of my Friends meeting. It is an apology for liberalism against the right and the left that fully acknowledges both right and left criticisms of liberalism and their good points, as well. Drawing on essayists, orators, and philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle through Smith and Hume and Johnson, and,later, Disraeli and Gladstone, Lincoln and Douglass, Goldman and Chesterton, it’s enthralling and, for the likes of me, extraordinarily cogent.

    Resuming my project to read through the classics from a hiatus during December and January to read Pirandello and Lagerlof intensively–both are local colorists or patriots of the highest order–I’ve embarked on Plautus–the first Roman I’ve encountered in my chronological march–as translated by Paul Roche. I also have the recently acquired Library of Greek Mythology by the elusive first-or-second century AD Apollodorus at hand to consult as needed or the spirit moves. Last, there is Aelita by Alexei N. Tolstoy, the basis of an extraordinary science-fiction silent movie that I mean to review (actually, brush up my review of) in my history 0f cinema series for FF.

  13. Raymond Olson says:

    Mr. Colin–Heart of Midlothian is my favorite of Scott’s novels that I’ve read. I mean to tackle Sienkiewicz, especially With Fire and Sword. It has two sequels. Have you read them?

  14. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Speaking of movies Mr. Olson, I recently watched The Strange One based on Calder Willingham’s End as a Man. I have yet to read the book, but enjoyed the movie. What is your opinion?

    Curious to see if the homosexual angle is less subtle in the book than in the movie. One of my Naval Academy classmates died of aids when he was very young.

  15. Harry Colin says:

    Mr. Olson… I seem to often read backwards with regard to trilogies! I have read “Fire in the Steppe” and I own a copy of the Deluge but it remains unread – buried in the queue I suppose. I have also read his “Teutonic Knights.”

    An aside on Scott…a few years ago a local used bookstore was closing and as their “get out of the building” date approached, they dropped prices almost by the day; I purchased a nearly complete Scott collection of handsomely-bound hardbacks dating to 1908. As I began to go through them, it was clear that many of them had never been read as the pages had not been separated. I found it a telling commentary on the virtue of physical books – that over a century later, a book could still provide full value to its owner. They just sat patiently waiting on a person eager to explore them. (I also found the same thing with a complete Thackeray set bought at the same time).

  16. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It’s an interesting discussion, one that complements Gibbon’s endless accounts of his studies. There are many different approaches to selecting things to read. This comment ended up going so long, I am going to post it, instead, as a blogpost.

  17. Raymond Olson says:

    Mr. Colin–Your bookstore experience thrills me! I’ve got all of Scott’s novels and poems, obtained piece-meal, however. I’d sure welcome finding Thackeray complete in such circumstances as you enjoyed.

    Mr. Van Sant–I assure you that the novel The Strange One is based on, End as a Man, is much more satisfying. The homosexual element is more obvious but never portrayed. One indicator of the difference between novel and film is that, whereas the movie’s protagonist is Jocko de Paris, its villain, the novel’s focal character is Robert Marquales, who is quite tangential in the movie. The movie is OK, whereas the novel is a minor classic.

  18. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you for your response Mr. Olson. I will read the book next after I finish the Anthony Powell that I am reading now.

    Speaking of Powell, are all of his books written as four or five chapters?