Friday, February 22, 2019

The Empire of the Steppes

Some years ago, friends gave me a copy of Rene Grousset's The Empire of the Steppes. Over the years, I looked at this or that bit of it, but didn't really read it. This month, I sat down with book and bookmark, and read through it.

The Empire of the Steppes is thoroughly informative on the peoples of the steppes: Scythians, Alans, Cumans, Huns,Turks, and Mongols, from pre-history through the 18th Century. Its weakness is maps. It does have maps, but for anyone not already acquainted with the geography of eastern Eurasia, it doesn't have enough at the right level of detail. There was hardly a chapter that did not refer to places that required checking a couple of the maps. By now I do know where the Black Irtysh, the Lob Nor, the Issyk Kul, the Koko Nor, and Kashgaria are; but learning all that took a good deal of flipping back and forth between maps. I suspect that that the maps in the book do not identify all of the sites of archaeological discoveries mentioned in the first chapter. And I noticed that the river is always called "Amu Darya", not "Oxus", but the region immediately to its east is always "Transoxiana".

If you are not sure how the Hungarians and Bulgars ended up where they are, or about the travels of the Torguts, the fortunes of the Jenghiz-Khanites or the Timurids, this book will tell you. But I recommend that you read it with a good, large-scale map of Asia at hand.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Certain Inattention

In Eothen, Kinglake gives some sentences on John Keate, in Kinglake's younger days the headmaster of Eton:
Anybody without the least notion of drawing could still draw a speaking, nay scolding, likeness of Keate. If you had no pencil, you could draw him well enough with a poker, or the leg of a chair, or the smoke of a candle. He was little more (if more at all) than five feet in height, and was not very great in girth, but in this space was concentrated the pluck of ten battalions. He had a really noble voice, which he could modulate with great skill, but he had also the power of quacking like an angry duck, and he almost always adopted this mode of communication in order to inspire respect. He was a capital scholar, but his ingenuous learning had not “softened his manners” and had “permitted them to be fierce”—tremendously fierce; he had the most complete command over his temper—I mean over his good temper, which he scarcely ever allowed to appear: you could not put him out of humour—that is, out of the ill-humour which he thought to be fitting for a head-master. His red shaggy eyebrows were so prominent, that he habitually used them as arms and hands for the purpose of pointing out any object towards which he wished to direct attention; the rest of his features were equally striking in their way, and were all and all his own; he wore a fancy dress partly resembling the costume of Napoleon, and partly that of a widow-woman. I could not by any possibility have named anybody more decidedly differing in appearance from the rest of the human race.
(A couple of assistants to a Cairo magician are about to try and fail to describe Keate's appearance.)

I was not, then, surprised to notice in Hugh Jenkins's biography of Gladstone a mention of "Keate, the famous flogging headmaster."

But the other day, looking into Centuries of Childhood, I noticed the passage
It is said that Keates , the headmaster of Eton at the beginning of the nineteenth century, mixed up his lists one flogging day, and whipped the boys who turned up for Holy Communion.
That argues a certain inattention, if true. Yet the "it is said" makes one wary:  clearly Keate was the sort to inspire legends.

Monday, February 18, 2019


In "A Painful Case", Mr James Duffy had one bookcase, with the books arranged in order of bulk, with a complete Wordsworth at one end of the bottom shelf and a Maynooth Catechism at one end of the top. Arranging by height of books could be a good way to optimize the use of space, assuming that one has some way to adjust and perhaps add shelves, as it seems he did. But Mr Duffy apparently used care in selecting his books, and so may have employed the arrangement more to satisfy his sense of order than to fit in more books.

I removed Dubliners from the shelves Saturday, wiped it down, and stacked with many other books so that we could pull the shelves out to clean behind them. In returning the books on Sunday, I aimed to keep books of the same sort more or less together, but height was a consideration. A Vulgate and a couple of New Testaments are much of a height, and can go on an upper shelf; but a Jerusalem Bible will not. It occurred to me only this afternoon that the height of the shelves is adjustable. With any luck, though, it will be a few years before we undertake this task again.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


Today on the Roman Catholic calendar, it is the Feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. A Tridentine Missal printed in the 1950s calls February 14 the Feast of St. Valentine; but at some intervening time Sts. Cyril and Methodius have been promoted ahead of him in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. At one time their feast fell on July 7, but it has, Wikipedia says, been moved to coincide with the date of St. Cyril's death. A calendar I saw described them as patron saints of Europe, which I had not heard; again, Wikipedia has something to say: namely, that John Paul II declared them co-patrons with St. Benedict of Nursia.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Willard, Walt, and Copyright

Last month, my copy of Word and Object split down the middle. This was not a surprise: according to the front matter, it was from a 1964 printing. Still it was an inconvenience, less for finishing the first reading than for proceeding on to a second.

The MIT Press website showed that the book is still in print; there is a newer edition with a foreword by one of Quine's students. The local bookstore said that it could order the book. I was a little surprised at the estimate of three to five business days, but also pleased. The store called within that time.

The volume surprised me by its colorful cover--the old printing had sober black and orange lettering on white--and by giving Willard Van Orman Quine only two of his initials. It surprised me yet more to open the book and find the 2013 copyright of Martino Publishing at the front of a copy of the MIT Press 1960 edition, apparently unaltered but for larger margins, and the omission of the MIT Press logo from a title page. However, last Wednesday was a very cold day here, and I did not wish to discuss this at length with the store and perhaps miss my bus.

In the tech world, long copyrights are much resented. Some of this I think is because tech companies regard copyrighted work as "content": revenue, in the world of YouTube, Facebook, etc., is for the content aggregator and presenter; the content producer (what one once called artist or writer) can live on kudos. Still, there are arguments to be made against very long copyrights.  In A Sinking Island, Hugh Kenner makes an argument that the extension of British copyright in 1912 tended to arrest English taste in the early Victorian era. 

In any case, one will hear grumbling about works that under earlier American laws--before 1998 and before 1976--would long since have been in the public domain. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon,  the "Steamboat Willie" of 1928, remains under copyright through 2024. Walt Disney died in 1966, Willard Van Orman Quine in 2000. How it happens that a 1960 work by Quine can be reproduced by a third party while Disney works from the 1920s cannot, I don't know. Yet the book seems to have come from a reputable distributor.