Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Book I Have Read but Not A Book I Have Read Myself

I briefly mentioned this before, but a favorite distinction of mine is: a book that I have read but not a book I have read myself. The idea is that there are books that we know the substance of without having to read them, and then there are books that one has actually read. In the former category, at least for me, are often books that I know are, well, bad or wrong, so I don't waste my time reading them.

In this category for quite sometime was Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, which defined many people's views of the region in the early 1990s. Basically, it argues that the people of the Balkans have always hated each other and always will, so there is little that you can do about it. Indeed, it could have been written by the guys who wrote the classic Star Trek episode of the ethnic conflict between the white/black people and black/white people "You mono-chromes just don't understand!" I knew it was a bad book, creating stereotypes that had little to do with reality and would be the bad basis for policy, such as all Romanians are theives. So, I didn't read it. That is, until just before I joined the Joint Staff for a year. It was on their reading list for newcomers, and so I reluctantly read the book, and it confirmed two things--that I was right about how bad the book was, and that reading it was a waste of time. The good news: as the intellectual in that branch of the Joint Staff, I got to revise the reading list. And Balkan Ghosts, at least temporarily, was no longer required reading.

Anyhow, this is lots of explanation for a short post--Salon has an interesting review of a really cool book that examines a key Native American city that was huge by pre-Columbian standards, just outside of where St. Louis is today: Cahokia (which is the name of the book as well).

As Pauketat puts it, even at the time the diggers understood they had found something momentous. "There, in the middle of North America, more than five centuries before European armies and diseases would arrive to take their own murderous toll, was evidence of large-scale acts of premeditated violence." In retrospect, Pauketat sees an even more important conclusion emerging from Mound 72 and other Cahokia excavations: evidence of a metropolitan Native American society "characterized by inequality, power struggles and social complexity." These people were neither half-feral savages nor eco-Edenic villagers; they had lived and died in a violent and sophisticated society with its own well-defined view of the universe.

Nice to know that there is still interesting archaelogy being done today with or without a fedora and whip.

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