Aug 27, 2014

Evaluation of Books of History

The American Historical Association provides a Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. It is worth reading some parts of the code. The thrust is that professional historians have an ethical responsibility to provide trustworthy, scholarly contributions to the ongoing dialog about the past. They must leave a record of their work, distinguishing between primary and secondary sources.

The Society of Professional Journalists also has a Code of Ethics. Its primary injunction is to "seek the truth and report it". (Note that the historians are more modest about the possibility of always reporting the truth, although they do believe that "that within certain limits we can indeed know and make sense of past worlds and former times".)

There are also Ethics for Writing Non Fiction. Those ethics requires of the writer of such works that he/she maintain "the highest standard that will ensure the content of your work is true and accurate." "Due diligence" is required of the author.

In the book club we have read works by professional historians, by journalists, and by authors of non-fiction books of history who are neither journalists nor professional historians.

It seems to me that we should consider whether any book provides a trustworthy account of the material it presents -- that the author has seriously sought to discover and report factual material, that when the ideas of others are described, they are described accurately, and when the authors own inferences and conclusions are presented they are identified as such.

We should also demand quality in the writing. Is the book well organized. Is its thesis clear and intelligible. Is the prose clear? Have the author and publisher provided the requisite maps, pictures, charts, timelines, and other materials to help the reader.

If we identify clear ethical misconduct, such as plagiarism or undisclosed financial interests, we should be very cautious in accepting the thesis of the author.

Aug 15, 2014

Where do all the colors come from?

Do you drink Cherry Coke? Did you realize that its color additive E120 is made from cochineal beetles grown on cactus plants?
Victoria Finlay 
Picture a young British woman who has read that the pigment Indian Yellow was made from the urine of cows fed with mango leaves in the town of Monghyr in Bahar. The information comes from a letter written in 1883 by a Mr. Mukharji in India to the Society of Arts in England -- apparently the only reference in English to this purported source of the pigment.  In her search for the mysterious origin of this storied pigment she has been sent to another even smaller village - Mirzapur - to seek out members of the cast of milkmen who were supposed to have made the pigment. Since she does not speak Hindi, she is trying to explain with drawings (worthy of a 6 year old) that she is seeking to learn how their ancestors fed their cows mango leaves and collected the cows' urine a hundred years before. In the heat and dust, a significant part of the town has gathered to watch the interchange, and their incredulity eventually turns to hilarity. Of course they were sure no one in that village had ever done anything so bizarre. (The story convinced one of our members never to travel to a developing country again for fear of being equally ridiculously naive.)
These were two anecdotes that enlivened the discussion Wednesday night of Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay. As usual we enjoyed the hospitality of the Kensington Row Bookshop, a warm and welcoming place filled with previously read books of all kinds. Fourteen members had a vigorous discussion, based on the very different views of the book held by different members of the group.

The most positive view of the book, shared by several members, was that it was a pleasant account of the travels of a reporter as she traced down information on the sources of many pigments. They saw the book as providing interesting anecdotes of her travels, interesting tidbits of history, local color from all over the world, stories about artists, and sometimes surprising details about the sources of pigments that we take for granted.

A member commented that the book led the reader to think about paintings in a different way, no longer taking for granted the pigments that give color to the subjects. Once one understands the long effort to get pigments to provide vibrant color and the difficulty of preserving those colors, one gains greater appreciation of the craft of the artist. Another member commented that before reading the book she had never realized that there is no pink in a rainbow. Black is probably not what you think it is!

A member mentioned that she had never understood that the development of modern oil paints in the 19th century made it possible to paint outdoors producing pictures with intense colors. That outdoor painting was in part responsible for the revolution approach to painting we call Impressionism, The recognition that the change in technology was necessary to the change in artistic approach was pleasing in itself, but it also added to her enjoyment of impressionist paintings.

One member made the point that this was a welcome change from the heavier stuff that the club had been reading lately, which included a book about death in the Civil War, a book about the northern campaigns of the War of 1812, and a book about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Color was an much lighter book and a much  easier and more pleasant read for this member.

Still another member saw the book as making a rather profound philosophical point. Art is regarded differently in different cultures. Thus, Australian Aboriginal painting was many things, but none of them were close to the modern American conception of "art".  In its pre-colonial form, the images made by Australia's indigenous people almost always had mythical meanings relating to their Dreamtime; the images related to a culturally unique way of viewing the world; they influenced the individuals view of himself/herself. (It was noted that some Aboriginal painters today are accomplished artists, painting for a modern, sophisticate art market, drawing on cultural precedents, but using them in a very different way than their ancestors had done.)

Later in the discussion it was suggested that part of the meaning of art in our current American culture relates to the history of development of art. We value a Leonardo, a Michelangelo of a Van Gogh in part for the changes that they exemplified in the way painting and sculpture were done and understood.

On the other hand, several members of the group were quite negative about the book. A couple of members mentioned that they had hoped for a book that would explain things like the development of markets and trade routes for pigments, and some more serious and systematic treatment of how the changes in pigments and other components of paint affected the way artists painted. Victoria Finlay had not written that book. One member compared the experience to expecting to bite into something with a lemon flavor and discovering it was pineapple -- the experience is not pleasant, even though he likes pineapple generally.

Finley briefly describes her understanding of color in terms of the diffraction of light and prisms and the absorption of light by atoms. Her presentation of the physics of color was challenged as partial and flawed. Moreover, she did not describe color perception as the result of the human visual system -- thus, we can perceive the same color differently in different settings, or different colors as the same. It was suggested by her defenders that the author is just a reporter and that it is not a problem if she poorly understood and conveyed what scientists told her about color. The response was, if we doubted her reporting of a subject that we understood reasonably well, how were we to accept the accuracy of her reporting on such things as the meaning of Australian Aboriginal paintings that seem both hard to understand and hard to write about.

Quality in Art

There was quite a vibrant discussion on whether there was really quality in art. One side defended relativism while the other side held out for more general standards of quality in the visual arts. It was argued that art prices vary so much over time that they can not really represent a measure of the quality in what is being sold, and indeed their variability argues against experts having real standards for artistic quality.

One extreme position was that the only thing that mattered in art is whether the individual likes the work -- that there is no fundamental difference in quality between the pictures on the wall of  the member's how and those on the wall of the National Gallery. (A member mentioned having had the pleasure as a teenager of occasionally visiting a home that had works of art by Renoir, Matisse and other Impressionists that sold for more than $80 million in the 1980s; that was a house that he felt really did have paintings of quality comparable to those found in an well endowed art museum.)

In contrast, it was argued that while people have every right to their own taste in art, there are real gradients in talent. Some artists draw more beautiful lines, some have more expertise and skill in the use of color, some have the ability to better compose their works. The member described a session watching an art curator inspect a large number of African paintings selecting those to purchase; the process was quite rapid, and was not focusing on the relation of the works to the culture from to which the artist belonged. Rather, the purchase seemed to be based on metrics of quality such as composition and skill of the artist.

It was agreed that different schools of art at different times had different objectives. Leonardo da Vinci was not trying to do what Picasso was trying to do, and might not have liked Picasso's mature work at all. Yet one member maintained that a metric of quality still applied. Leonardo stood out as great among his contemporaries - as those trying to do the same things that he was trying to do. So too, Picasso stands out as great among the modern artists of the early 20th century.

The thought was expressed that innovation is highly valued in our modern society, and that as a result we judge the quality of modern artist's work in part by the degree to which the artist has pioneered taking art in new directions. Some galleries specialize in seeking out the most talented and innovative artists, and some collectors too seek to buy works of those artists and from those galleries. The artistic works that appreciate in price most rapidly seems to be of that sort.

A Local Issue and The Art Market

One of the members present had coordinated a regional program for art students, based in the Albert Einstein High School Visual Arts Center. This is a nationally recognized facility in which artists provide schooling for artistically gifted students from public and private schools in Montgomery County. He shared some of his experience with us.

Entry into the program of the Visual Arts Center is competitive, and prospective students are not only interviewed but are required to submit portfolios of their work. Only the talented are accepted. Once accepted the student transfers to Einstein full time.  Our member told us that talented and well trained young artists are recruited for higher education, and may find substantial scholarship aid ($100,000 was mentioned) that even exceeds that of star athletes.

By chance, the daughter of another member present had some time ago attended Einstein High School, and had been sure she wanted a career as a artist. At that time the regional arts center had been in another school, and she had been required to transfer. In one of her course, the daughter had learned how to price her work; the naive young artist too often undervalues her work.

Still another member regularly attends the student art shows at one of the Historically Black Colleges and mentioned that while once it had been possible to purchase works by students for $25 or $50, the princes now were in the hundreds. Serious art collectors and dealers have discovered the shows as a place where they can meet young artists of great talent and promise, and see even the higher prices are real bargains for the works of such artists.

So too a member mentioned programs for the mentally ill or intellectually challenged to learn to make art; some of these people turn out to be highly talented artists, and will have successful careers in art. And indeed, the shows of works from such programs also provide a means of purchasing fine works at affordable prices.

Final Comment

It was interesting that so many of the members of the club could discuss art from their personal experience. For example, several had visited the Sistine Chapel and could compare the status of Michelangelo's ceiling before and after its restoration. Several had visited Florence in Italy, and a couple could discuss Leonardo's Last Supper which they had seen during visits to Milan.

This meeting provided one of our most active discussions. Friends can disagree and discuss their differences with courtesy and profit from discussing those differences. Some ideas were changed, some were not. At the least, ideas were clarified.

Here is a post by a member on his own blog stimulated by the discussion.

A member following up the discussion identified this video relating to an advertising ploy by an Ad. Assn.  Fifty-eight pieces of the best art in this country will be on billboards and bus stops around the country this August. Kelly thinks it will lead more people into the museums.

Aug 12, 2014

Books to consider on the Civil Rights Act of 1964

It had also been suggested that we might read a book on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 since this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of that landmark legislation. There are two recent books that might be considered for our October meeting. Both are by journalists with great credentials.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Todd S. Purdum (4.6 stars, 340 pages of text, 2014) The book will not be published in paperback until March of next year, but is available in hardback ($22.23) and used online. Here is a review of the book from The Daily Beast.
A top Washington journalist recounts the dramatic political battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that created modern America, on the fiftieth anniversary of its passage
It was a turbulent time in America—a time of sit-ins, freedom rides, a March on Washington and a governor standing in the schoolhouse door—when John F. Kennedy sent Congress a bill to bar racial discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. Countless civil rights measures had died on Capitol Hill in the past. But this one was different because, as one influential senator put it, it was “an idea whose time has come.”
In a powerful narrative layered with revealing detail, Todd S. Purdum tells the story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recreating the legislative maneuvering and the larger-than-life characters who made its passage possible. From the Kennedy brothers to Lyndon Johnson, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen, Purdum shows how these all-too-human figures managed, in just over a year, to create a bill that prompted the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate yet was ultimately adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support. He evokes the high purpose and low dealings that marked the creation of this monumental law, drawing on extensive archival research and dozens of new interviews that bring to life this signal achievement in American history.
Often hailed as the most important law of the past century, the Civil Rights Act stands as a lesson for our own troubled times about what is possible when patience, bipartisanship, and decency rule the day.
The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen (4.6 stars, 320 pages, 2014) The book will not be published in paperback until April of next year, but is available in hardback ($20.20) and used online. Here is a review of the book from the Washington Post.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the single most important piece of legislation passed by Congress in American history. This one law so dramatically altered American society that, looking back, it seems preordained—as Everett Dirksen, the GOP leader in the Senate and a key supporter of the bill, said, “no force is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” But there was nothing predestined about the victory: a phalanx of powerful senators, pledging to “fight to the death” for segregation, launched the longest filibuster in American history to defeat it.
The bill's passage has often been credited to the political leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, or the moral force of Martin Luther King. Yet as Clay Risen shows, the battle for the Civil Rights Act was a story much bigger than those two men. It was a broad, epic struggle, a sweeping tale of unceasing grassroots activism, ringing speeches, backroom deal-making and finally, hand-to-hand legislative combat. The larger-than-life cast of characters ranges from Senate lions like Mike Mansfield and Strom Thurmond to NAACP lobbyist Charles Mitchell, called “the 101st senator” for his Capitol Hill clout, and industrialist J. Irwin Miller, who helped mobilize a powerful religious coalition for the bill. The "idea whose time had come" would never have arrived without pressure from the streets and shrewd leadership in Congress--all captured in Risen's vivid narrative.
This critical turning point in American history has never been thoroughly explored in a full-length account. Now, New York Times editor and acclaimed author Clay Risen delivers the full story, in all its complexity and drama.

Aug 11, 2014

More Possible Books for October 2014

Following a suggestion in the club meeting last month I have posted several books that we might read that deal with the end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles that was negotiated at the end of the war. Here are some more, reflecting still more suggestions from members.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (4.7 stars, 384 pages, 2014) This book is available in Kindle, Hardback ($17.08) and large print paperback ($20.15). Here is the review of the book in the New York Times.
Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history, a brilliant and charming man who rose to head Britain’s counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War—while he was secretly working for the enemy. And nobody thought he knew Philby like Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s best friend and fellow officer in MI6. The two men had gone to the same schools, belonged to the same exclusive clubs, grown close through the crucible of wartime intelligence work and long nights of drink and revelry. It was madness for one to think the other might be a communist spy, bent on subverting Western values and the power of the free world.

But Philby was secretly betraying his friend. Every word Elliott breathed to Philby was transmitted back to Moscow—and not just Elliott’s words, for in America, Philby had made another powerful friend: James Jesus Angleton, the crafty, paranoid head of CIA counterintelligence. Angleton's and Elliott’s unwitting disclosures helped Philby sink almost every important Anglo-American spy operation for twenty years, leading countless operatives to their doom. Even as the web of suspicion closed around him, and Philby was driven to greater lies to protect his cover, his two friends never abandoned him—until it was too late. The stunning truth of his betrayal would have devastating consequences on the two men who thought they knew him best, and on the intelligence services he left crippled in his wake.
The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order by Ben Steil (4.4 stars, 370 pages of text, 2014, $15.75) Here is a review of the book in F&D, the magazine of the IMF.
When turmoil strikes world monetary and financial markets, leaders invariably call for 'a new Bretton Woods' to prevent catastrophic economic disorder and defuse political conflict. The name of the remote New Hampshire town where representatives of forty-four nations gathered in July 1944, in the midst of the century's second great war, has become shorthand for enlightened globalization. The actual story surrounding the historic Bretton Woods accords, however, is full of startling drama, intrigue, and rivalry, which are vividly brought to life in Benn Steil's epic account. 
Upending the conventional wisdom that Bretton Woods was the product of an amiable Anglo-American collaboration, Steil shows that it was in reality part of a much more ambitious geopolitical agenda hatched within President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Treasury and aimed at eliminating Britain as an economic and political rival. At the heart of the drama were the antipodal characters of John Maynard Keynes, the renowned and revolutionary British economist, and Harry Dexter White, the dogged, self-made American technocrat. Bringing to bear new and striking archival evidence, Steil offers the most compelling portrait yet of the complex and controversial figure of White--the architect of the dollar's privileged place in the Bretton Woods monetary system, who also, very privately, admired Soviet economic planning and engaged in clandestine communications with Soviet intelligence officials and agents over many years. 
Winner of the 2013 Spear's Book Award in Financial History
Co-Winner of the 2014 Bronze Medal in Economics, Axiom Business Book Awards
From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 by Pauline Maier (4 stars, 368 pages, 1992, $12.63) Here is the Kirkus review of the book.
"An intellectual interpretation of the American revolution that raises it to a new height of comprehensiveness and significance. A superbly detailed account of the ideological escalation . . . that brought Americans to revolution." —Gordon S. Wood, New York Times Book Review
In this classic account of the American revolution, Pauline Maier traces the step-by-step process through which the extra-legal institutions of the colonial resistance movement assumed authority from the British. She follows the American Whigs as they moved by stages from the organized resistance of the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 through the non-importation associations of the late 1760s to the collapse of royal government after 1773, the implication of the king in a conspiracy against American liberties, and the consequent Declaration of Independence. Professor Maier's great achievement is to explain how Americans came to contemplate and establish their independence, guided by principle, reason, and experience.
 The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865 by Leander Stillwell (4.4 stars, 174 pages, 1920) This book is also available free as a Project Gutenberg eBook. Here are some short reviews from Goodreads.
The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865 is presented here in a high quality paperback edition.
 The Great Ulcer War by William S. Hughes M.D. (5 stars but only 3 reviews, 298 pages, 2014) The book seems not to be available new from Amazon, but some copies are available used. Here is the Kirkus review of the book.
In 1983, in Australia, a medical resident, Dr. Barry Marshall, and a hospital pathologist, Dr. Robin Warren, reported in two letters to The Lancet finding a bacterium associated with gastritis or inflammation of the stomach. The publication stimulated little reaction. However, a year later when they reported that the bacterium was also associated with ulcer disease and declared that bacteria caused ulcer disease, it had the effect of an assassination of an archduke. Most prominent clinical investigators in the United States and England argued that hyper secretion of acid was the cause of ulcer disease, and they collaborated with the pharmaceutical companies that made the new drugs that blocked acid secretion to attack the new bacterial theory. The Great Ulcer War tells how the war was fought, the weapons used, and the alliances made, and why the war in spite of overwhelming evidence in favor of the bacterial theory, lasted for ten years. The Great Ulcer War introduces a novel theory, the Pandora Hypothesis, to explain the length of the war. It proposes that the general medical establishment especially in the United States simply did not like the bacterial theories of major chronic diseases. These thought leaders—"the big guys"—facilitated and prolonged the opposition to the bacterial theory of ulcers largely by doing nothing to support the theory until the very end of the war. They were afraid that if a germ theory was accepted for ulcers, a Pandora's Box of germ theories developed within university departments of microbiology for other chronic diseases would be opened and released into the medical world. This revelation would diminish the reputation and profit of the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry by threatening their favored explanations of the causes of these diseases: genomic errors and dysfunctional biochemistry and physiology.