Books Read in 2023
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

Books Read in 2023

a polished stone statue of Buddha seated cross-legged on the coils of a serpent whose hood expands to seven heads which cover his head
The naga serpent protects Buddha from the rain for seven days, from the exhibit Angkor: Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia (National Museum of Cambodia at the Royal BC Museum, 2 June 2023 to 14 January 2024). They say this is limestone but it seems awfully fine grained. Photo by Sean Manning, 4 January 2024.

Creating one of these lists is difficult, because scholars don’t read a lot of similar books end to end like novel readers, but dip into a variety of books looking for data. I reserve the right to skip some things I read and decide when a partial read ‘counts.’

Ancient World Studies (17)

Kilian-Dirlmeier, Imma. Die Schwerter in Griechenland (außerhalb der Peloponnes) (1993) Rating:+

Melanie Giles, A Forged Glamour: Landscape, Identity, and Material Culture in the Iron Age (WindGather Press: Oxford, 2012) {archaeology of the Pre-Roman Iron Age Arras Culture in Yorkshire! An enjoyable mix of technical material culture and the sort of things its fashionable to speculate about today} Rating:+

Raftery, Barry, Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age (Thames & Hudson, 1994) {in 1994, we knew very little about Iron Age Ireland before the coming of Christianity because the people were not rich in durable goods and did not have the custom of ceremonially sinking or burying those goods} Rating:+

Randsborg, Klaus (1995) Hjortspring: Warfare and Sacrifice in Early Europe (Aarhus University Press, Aarhus DK) {this book should be read by everyone interested in early Greek warfare} Rating:+

Reginelli, Gianna (1998) Le Mobilier en Bois du Site de La Tène. Mémoire de license, Université de Neuchâtel, Séminaire d’archéologie préhistorique, Octobre 1998 {technical information about the wood from La Tène the site (not the culture)} Rating:~

Ross Cowan, Roman Battle Tactics 109 BC-AD 313. Osprey Elite (Osprey Publishing: Botley, 2007) {a handy collection of descriptions of combat in Roman literature with practical analysis. Only skeptical about numbers, but sources like Caesar’s description of the battle of Philippi are elegant rhetorical confections meant to assassinate the character of one of the generals not disinterested technical analysis – and John Keegan already saw this in the 1970s, and there was a whole academic conference on the problem in 1996} Rating:~

Miller, Jared L. (2013) Royal Hittite Instructions and Related Administrative Texts. Writings from the Ancient World Book 31. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

David Whitehead, Aineas the Tactician, How to Survive Under Siege: A Historical Commentary with Translation and Introduction. Second edition (Bristol Classical Press: London, 2002)

David Whitehead and P. H. Blyth, Athenaeus Mechanicus, On machines (Περὶ μηχανημάτων). Historia Einzelschriften, Heft 182. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004

David Whitehead, Philo Mechanicus: On Sieges. Translated with Introduction and Commentary. Historia. Einzelschriften, 243. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016

David Whitehead, Apollodorus Mechanicus, Siege-matters (Πολιορκητικά). Historia Einzelschriften 216. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010.

Philip Rance and Nicholas Sekunda (eds.), Greek Taktika: Ancient Military Writing and its Heritage. Proceedings of the International Conference on
Greek Taktika held at the University of Toruń, 7-11 April 2005
. Gdańsk: Akanthina, 2017

Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (New York and London: Yale University Press, 2001) A short chatty book on libraries in the cuneiform and Greco-Roman worlds with an emphasis on the later Rating:~

Travis, Hilary; Travis, John (2015) Roman Shields (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Amberley Publishing) {a fair to good overview of the evidence for shields in the Roman world up to 400 CE, plus reconstructions and experiments. From a scholarly point of view the major contribution is a dissection of Paul Buckland’s interpretation of the Doncaster shield from 86/7 CE, and the handy collection of images scattered across different publications. I did not notice any major errors, but many small points would have benefited from just a bit more thinking or checking, such as typos in the classical citations or passages which suggest that the flat plank shields were typically heavier than curved plywood shields next to passages which suggest that they were generally lighter and suited for more mobile warriors} Rating:~ (but only because I have read most of the research which they summarize)

Bishop, M.C. / Coulston, Jon C.N. (2006) Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome. Second edition (Oxbow Books: Oxford)

Nabbefeld, Ansgar (2008) Römische Schilde: Studien zu Funden und bildlichen Überlieferungen vom Ende der Republik bis in die späte Kaiserzeit. Kölner Studien zur Archäologie der römischen Provinzen, Bd. 10 (Rahden-im-Westfallen: Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2008) {a competent catalogue with lots of colour illustrations. A bit focused on the surviving metal parts of shields over shields themselves which are basically wood, hide, and gesso with some metal pieces, but it was based on a PhD thesis in archaeology and creating a typology gets you promoviert} Rating:~

Junkelmann, Marcus (1986) Die Legionen des Augustus: Der römische Soldat im archäologischen Experiment. Kulturgeschichte der antiken Welt, Band 33 (Philipp von Zabern: Mainz am Rhein) {did not read the whole thing but this is clear, well-illustrated and represented an immense amount of work. Some of that work made the same mistakes that everyone makes when they are getting started on reproducing ancient objects. Obtaining this was an adventure because the University of Victoria had lots its copy and could not order another until they confirmed it was really lost and not just one shelf over} Rating:+

Medieval Studies (1)

Ann Wroe, A Fool and His Money: Life in a Partitioned Town in Fourteenth-Century France (Hill & Wang: New York, NY, 1995) {a trade book in the style of The Merchant of Prato for the small, poor city of Rodez in highland Provence circa 1369/1370}

Armour Scholarship (5)

Toby Capwell, Armour of the English Knight, Volume 3 (2022) review of Capwell rating:~ (but only because I had very high expectations)

Ian Eaves, “On the Remains of a Jack of Plate Excavated from Beeston Castle in Cheshire,” Journal of the Arms and Armour Society 13: 2 (1989) pp. 81-154 {the definitive article on jacks of plates, with massive, hard-to-process lists of written sources in the footnotes and some information on brigandines} Rating:+

Jane Watkins, ed., Studies in European Arms and Armour: The C. Otto von Kienbusch Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Musuum of Art, 1992) Rating:+

Ralph Moffat, Medieval Arms and Armour, a Sourcebook. Volume I: The Fourteenth Century (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2022) {new editions and translations of many sources last printed before 1914 and some hitherto unknown texts. Does not show differences between his edition and earlier editions, and those differences are often significant, but still the first dedicated collection of medieval texts on arms and armour since Charles ffoulkes in 1913} Rating:+

R. Beuing und W. Augustyn (eds.), Schilde des Spätmittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit (Passau: Klinger Verlag, 2019) ISBN 978-3-86328-172-4 Rating:+

I have not yet finished and do not have energy to comment on Chris Dobson, Beaten Black and Blue: The Myth of the Medieval Knight in Shining Armour (self-published, 2023).

Modern History (4)

David M. Glantz, The Soviet-German War 1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay (2001) {when the Soviet archies were partially opened in the 1990s, it became clear that important parts of the Nazi-Soviet War had been erased from public memory because they made neither Stalin nor German generals look good. Speaking for a reactionary audience at the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government, Glantz sketches the story of the war and undermine the narrative that Stalin eventually learned to focus his efforts against one target at a time rather than always attacking everywhere. “Although it is a painstaking and difficult process, identifying the gaps in the historical record of the war is absolutely vital because those gaps encompasses upwards of 40 percent of the Red Army’s wartime operations. Therefore, historians cannot prepare any comprehensive accounts or assessments of the war or reach valid conclusions regarding its conduct until those gaps have been identified and filled.” He constantly focused on the number of men on the Eastern Front, whereas a Philips P. O’Brien would point out that the war in the air, at sea, and in North Africa consumed far more industrial production and steel mills and coal mines needed men too. Tries to tell a visual story in words with just a few crude maps} Rating:+

John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy (Penguin 1994) review Rating:+

Margaret Miller, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (Random House: New York, 2003) Rating:+ {my ‘airplane read’ for the trip to Austria in October!}

Wong, Leonard, and Gerras, Stephen J. “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession” US Army War College, Monographs, Books, and Publications, 466 (2015) https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/466 (shows how simple carelessness like demanding that people complete more training and fill out more paperwork than there are days in the year create a culture of dishonesty and self-delusion)

Painting and Sculpting (7)

Nash, Susie (ed.) (2011) Late Medieval Panel Paintings: Materials, Methods, Meanings. Sam Fogg: London. {a little technical analysis and a lot of art-historical commentary. The paintings are mostly from 1478 onwards and mostly conventional religious themes, some useful closeup photos where you can see the painting techniques. Mostly read for the technical analysis of what wood artists actually did use for panels as a comparison for Theophilius and Cennini’s statements about what wood you should use, but there is an interesting reference to cut flowers as decor: Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, 4 vols. (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Fathers Series), vol. ii, no. 47. For more on cut flowers in the middle ages see https://wh1350.at/de/rekonstruktionen/blumenvasen-am-tisch-ja-oder-nein/} Rating: ~

Nash, Susie (ed.) (2015) Late Medieval Panel Paintings II: Materials, Methods, Meanings. Sam Fogg: London. {similar to volume 1}

Erma Hermens and Joyce H. Townsend (eds.), Sources and Serendipity: Testimonies of Artists’ Practice (London: Archetype Publications, 2009)

Daniel Le Fur, La conservation des peintures murales des temples de Karnak (Editions Recherche sur les civilisations: Paris, 1994)

W.V. Davies (ed.), Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt (British Museum Press: London, 2001)

Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 1997)

Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw eds., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (Cambridge University Press, 2000) {chapters on Painting Materials, Papyrus, Wood, Adhesives and Binders}

Nonsense (2)

Dan Gardner, Future Babble (McClelland and Stewart Ltd.: Toronto, 2010) Review of Gardner Rating:+

Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957) {kind of journalistic, like a make-up from a series of blog posts or short magazine articles} Rating:~

Economics (4)

Dan Davies, Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of the World. US edition (Scribner: New York and London, 2018) Review of Davies Rating+

Marc Levinson, The Box: How The Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton University Press, 2006) Rating:+

Edward Niedermeyer, Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors (BenBella Books: Dallas, TX, 2019) {A lightweight, journalistic book about a very important topic: how Tesla Motors borrowed greater and greater sums of money while hiding defects and accidents, using diesel generators to claim a California tax credit for zero-emission vehicles, and promising features like battery swapping, full self-driving, and a $35,000 USD price point which never materialized. Carmaking is a business with high startup costs, structural overcapacity, and fearsome regulations where companies survive by discipline and system-building, and Niedermeyer was puzzled why Tesla Motors was nothing like that; he eventually concluded that its really a con game built around a cult of personality so would require a different reporter to unpick https://nitter.it/Tweetermeyer/status/1527658189784854528#m Good illustration of principles from Davies’ Lying for Money, parallels with John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood are obvious too. One thing I don’t understand: why did people talk about a luxury carmaker whose offerings cost $100-250k in the first place?}

NOTICE OF FILING FIRST INTERIM REPORT OF JOHN J. RAY III TO THE INDEPENDENT DIRECTORS ON CONTROL FAILURES AT THE FTX EXCHANGES (2023) Case 22-11068-JTD Doc 1242 {the lawyer who audited Enron and Nortel looks at Sam Bankman Fried’s cryptocurrency empire. FTX was run by three or four people who mainly deferred to one of their number, Sam Bankman-Fried. They used the American version of Quicken to run a multi-billion-dollar business. Expenses were approved by emoji like on a farm in Saskatchewan, and there were no consistent and up-to-date lists of assets, debts, organization structure, or even employees. Tens of millions of dollars of assets commonly went missing. Almost all of their cryptocurrency assets were kept in ‘hot wallets’ accessible from the Internet, and there was no system for tracking private keys, passwords, bank account numbers, and other essential information. The database system did not have version control, so changes were not recorded. The people who took over had to write software to scan the confiscated computers and cloud storage looking for things which looked like cryptocurrency wallets and passwords.}

If you want something less formal, I enjoy some essays by Patrick McKenzie at https://www.bitsaboutmoney.com/ but they are not really argued just asserted and when I have experience or training it sometimes contradicts his words (a typical bank branch in Canada or Austria has more than six employees visible at once, let alone in total- when he says about six is the average, does he mean in the USA where they have all these tiny banks with less than a billion dollars in assets?) So that makes it hard to trust him on the big claims like “raising interest rates lowers the value of all financial assets” (fixed-rate mortgages and bonds sure, but even stocks?)

People-Watching (1)

Ariel Anderssen, Playing to Lose (Unbound: London, 2023) {memoir by someone who seems very famous for a different kind of dressing up and getting hit by her friends. Its always interesting to hear how life works out for some people with unusual minds whose early attempts to explore the human world don’t go like they expect} Rating:+

Fiction (10)

Travis Baldree, Legends & Lattes: A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes (Tor, 2022) {A light novel about an orc barbarian’s attempts to retire and set up a coffee shop. Its interesting how fantasyland now has the material traits of the world in the late 19th century with bedsprings and livery stables. Pleasant entertainment like Murdoch Mysteries but I have no idea how this could be a Hugo finalist, it does not have interesting ideas or techniques just a kind heart and serviceable prose!} Rating:~

L. Sprague de Camp, The Tritonian Ring (1953, reprinted Paperback Library 1971) {in the days before the oceans drank Atlantis, Prince Vakar of Lorsk receives a command from the gods! de Camp was more careful about his geology, linguistics, archaeology, and classics than older or younger scribes} Rating:+

Vi Corva, The Beautiful Decay (self-published, 2023) {what could scare necromancers worse than paladins? fungus!}

Louis L’Amour, The Quick and the Dead (Bantam, 1973) {at a vague date, a nuclear family with an overloaded wagon leave a wagon train and fall in with some desperados – this has been turned into at least one movie} Rating:+

Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (2019) {a weird piece of weird fiction about necromancers and mixed-up queer thoughts. The author seems to like the culture of corporate social media. Probably the most notable feature is the astonishing and unique language: if I faint or go funny halfway there it will mean my timely death (the speaker is terminally ill); listening to her as silently as a microphone might listen to its speaker; a one-way trip to No Town; it was like Harrow had tied a rope to all her pain receptors and was rappelling down a very long drop (all ch. 20 / pp. 221-225)} Rating:+ (but I don’t plan to read the sequels, unreliable narrators are too much like work)

Roger Zelazny, A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) {the Hammer Horror menagerie get together to do or prevent … something} Rating:+

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch (2002) {Sam Vimes gets tangled up with a murderer while his wife Sibyl is in labour. Not a great book for me right now since this Vimes is both effortlessly competent at areas of life I have never had a clue what to do about, and locked in a depressive cycle that the bad guys always win and nothing can be improved like he reads American social media or something. Pratchett was wise, so he cheats: Vimes has special sources of information which let him understand the situation first} Rating:+

Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay (1996) {Sibyl wants Sam Vimes to get a coat of arms, Lord Vetinari is being poisoned, and the mute golems who do Ankh-Morpork’s dirtiest jobs have something to do with a series of murders.} Rating:+

George Macdonald Fraser, Flashman at the Charge (1973) {Flashman is sent to the Crimean War, captured by the Russians, and becomes entangled with Yakub Beg and the Khanate of Kokand. I am torn about these books. Fraser was a keen observer of human behaviour and loved finding absurd details in the history of the 19th century. He dares his readers to check his facts and see if they can tell what he made up and what is mad but true. As a veteran of the Burmese Campaign he can envision the squalor of a 19th century campaign with no medical or sanitation services beyond a few surgeons and untrained orderlies. But Flashman is a depraved rapist who once sold a lover into slavery for petty cash, and the authorial voice which you are supposed to sympathize with blurs the distinction between Fraser and Flashman} Rating:~

L. Sprague de Camp, The Purple Pterodactyls {a short story collection, in the mid-20th century you could get paid more than once for the same piece of writing!} Rating:~

Speaking of controversial veterans-turned-novelists, I learned that David Drake, who survived the Vietnam War with a copy of Horace in his rucksack, died this December. Sit tibi terra levis, eque niger!

Do you enjoy this blog? Why not tell one friend about it.

(scheduled no time in particular, the early Romans had it right to treat the days after December as intercalary!)

Edit 2024-01-10: Added Wroe, not sure how I forgot that one!

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