Dec 15, 2011

December 2011 meeting: "The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome"

In December, 2011 the History Book Club discussed The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly. We had a lively and thoughtful meeting -- including a couple of new members. As we had read "Augustus" by Anthony Everitt a few months ago about the peak of the empire we connected with the Kelly when he describes the irony of the name of the last emperor of the destroyed empire, Romulus Augustulus, "his name a pathetic recollection of the legendary founder and its first emperor". Kelly goes on to say that "it was a measure of Romulus' unimportance that he was not even thought worthy of assassination" but was pensioned off in the country.  We all agreed, however, that the answer as to why the Roman empire "declined" and "failed" was "all of the above".  In other words too many reasons, external and internal, to enumerate.The discussion did range to what set the Huns on the move including speculation that it was military and "living space" pressures from the Mongols.

Here is the Barnes and Noble website description of the book:
History remembers Attila, the leader of the Huns, as the Romans perceived him: a savage barbarian brutally inflicting terror on whoever crossed his path. Christopher Kelly, a professor of ancient history at Cambridge University, presents quite a different portrait. Drawing on original texts, including the only eyewitness description of Attila and his court, Kelly reveals Attila to be both a master warrior and an astute strategist. His Attila brilliantly exploited the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman Empire, conspiring with a treacherous Roman general, avoiding the assassination plots of a powerful eunuch, and accepting a marriage proposal from the emperor's sister. A compelling and original exploration of the clash between empire and barbarity, The End of Empire challenges our own ideas about imperialism, civilization, terrorist, and superpowers.
Here are some posts by one of our members on the book.

Nov 10, 2011

November 2011 meeting: "American Slavery: 1619-1877"

We had a great meeting last week about a great book, "American Slavery: 1619-1877" by Peter Kolchin.  This is a book and certainly a topic that we could spend a lifetime discussing - indeed many people have.  We recognized that this was not a "pop" history page-turner of the same nature as some written by Philbrick and McCullough but it was a page-turner of a sort.  Its main contribution to the discourse is to point out the nuances of this period of American history and how stereotypes - except for the evil of slavery - have led to misunderstandings and misstatements of the entire picture, economics, history, politics, and individual behaviors.  There were always exceptions - and this author did a good job of providing them.  Although we met for almost 2 1/2 hours, I'm not sure everyone got to have his or her say. We try very hard to keep our meetings informal and conversational, not serial monologues.  The danger of such an informal format, however, is that sometimes not every voice is heard. Also, several of our more outspoken members were unable to be at the meeting and we certainly missed their voices.  I think we should keep an eye out for another book on the topic, especially as this one articulated a theory of the study of history (historiography?) - a topic we might want to discuss on its own merits.

Here is the description of the book from the Barnes and Noble website:

The single best short survey in America, now updated. 
In terms of accessibility and comprehensive coverage, Kolchin's American Slavery is a singularly important achievement. Now updated to address a decade of new scholarship, the book includes a new preface, afterword, and revised and expanded bibliographic essay. It remains the best book to introduce a subject of profound and lasting importance, one that lies at the center of American history. 
A striking new interpretation of the "peculiar institution" that deformed American history from colonial times to our own is to be found in this informed, modern history of slavery and development. Kolchin's exploration of the slave experience displays a subtlety missing from earlier accounts.
Here are comments on the book by one of our members:

Oct 13, 2011

October 2011 meeting: "Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World"

At the October 2011 meeting, the History Book Club read Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes.

Here is the description of the book from the Barnes and Noble website:
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, three brilliant and visionary titans of America’s Gilded Age—Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse—battled bitterly as each vied to create a vast and powerful electrical empire. In Empires of Light, historian Jill Jonnes portrays this extraordinary trio and their riveting and ruthless world of cutting-edge science, invention, intrigue, money, death, and hard-eyed Wall Street millionaires. At the heart of the story are Thomas Alva Edison, the nation’s most famous and folksy inventor, creator of the incandescent light bulb and mastermind of the world’s first direct current electrical light networks; the Serbian wizard of invention Nikola Tesla, elegant, highly eccentric, a dreamer who revolutionized the generation and delivery of electricity; and the charismatic George Westinghouse, Pittsburgh inventor and tough corporate entrepreneur, an industrial idealist who in the era of gaslight imagined a world powered by cheap and plentiful electricity and worked heart and soul to create it. 
Edison struggled to introduce his radical new direct current (DC) technology into the hurly-burly of New York City as Tesla and Westinghouse challenged his dominance with their alternating current (AC), thus setting the stage for one of the eeriest feuds in American corporate history, the War of the Electric Currents. The battlegrounds: Wall Street, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Niagara Falls, and, finally, the death chamber—Jonnes takes us on the tense walk down a prison hallway and into the sunlit room where William Kemmler, convicted ax murderer, became the first man to die in the electric chair. 
Empires of Light is the gripping history of electricity, the “mysterious fluid,” and how the fateful collision of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse left the world utterly transformed.
Here are a few blog posts on the book by one of our members:

Sep 15, 2011

September 2011 meeting: "Augustus"

We discussed Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt (author of Cicero, one of our favorite readings).  The club had been meeting at Borders book store in White Flint, but the store closed. This September 2011 meeting was the first hosted by the Barnes and Noble book store on Rockville Pike.

Here is the Barnes and Noble website description of the book:

He found Rome made of clay and left it made of marble. As Rome’s first emperor, Augustus transformed the unruly Republic into the greatest empire the world had ever seen. His consolidation and expansion of Roman power two thousand years ago laid the foundations, for all of Western history to follow. Yet, despite Augustus’s accomplishments, very few biographers have concentrated on the man himself, instead choosing to chronicle the age in which he lived. Here, Anthony Everitt, the bestselling author of Cicero, gives a spellbinding and intimate account of his illustrious subject.
Augustus began his career as an inexperienced teenager plucked from his studies to take center stage in the drama of Roman politics, assisted by two school friends, Agrippa and Maecenas. Augustus’s rise to power began with the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and culminated in the titanic duel with Mark Antony and Cleopatra. 
The world that made Augustus–and that he himself later remade–was driven by intrigue, sex, ceremony, violence, scandal, and naked ambition. Everitt has taken some of the household names of history–Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Cleopatra–whom few know the full truth about, and turned them into flesh-and-blood human beings. 
At a time when many consider America an empire, this stunning portrait of the greatest emperor who ever lived makes for enlightening and engrossing reading. Everitt brings to life the world of a giant, rendered faithfully and sympathetically in human scale. A study of power and political genius, Augustus is a vivid, compelling biography of one of the most important rulers in history.
Click here for an account of the discussion of the book by one of our members.

Click here for a blog post reviewing the book by the same member. 

Aug 11, 2011

August 2011 meeting: "1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country"

The History Book Club met in August 2011 to discuss 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country by James Chace. This was the last meeting of the club at Borders before it closed.

Here is the description of the book from the Barnes and Noble website:
Beginning with former president Theodore Roosevelt's return in 1910 from his African safari, Chace brilliantly unfolds a dazzling political circus that featured four extraordinary candidates. When Roosevelt failed to defeat his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, for the Republican nomination, he ran as a radical reformer on the Bull Moose ticket. Meanwhile, Woodrow Wilson, the ex-president of Princeton, astonished everyone by seizing the Democratic nomination from the bosses who had made him New Jersey's governor. Most revealing of the reformist spirit sweeping the land was the charismatic socialist Eugene Debs, who polled an unprecedented one million votes. 
Wilson's "accidental" election had lasting impact on America and the world. The broken friendship between Taft and TR inflicted wounds on the Republican Party that have never healed, and the party passed into the hands of a conservative ascendancy that reached its fullness under Reagan and George W. Bush. Wilson's victory imbued the Democratic Party with a progressive idealism later incarnated in FDR, Truman, and LBJ. 
1912 changed America.