Getting Lost in a Book
July 31, 2011
OPINION By ROGER FREBERG
When I hear folks discuss the “joys of reading,” most talk about the latest novel involving a bunch of dysfunctional people eking out a miserable existence, and then they die tragically. If I wanted to experience this level of depression, I’d rather go to one of the offerings at the Palm Theater in San Luis Obispo and be miserable, because a “film” doesn’t last as long as a book.
However, I do find non-fiction enjoyable, everything from books on Egyptology by Wallis Budge to the current space time theories of Stephen Hawking. Although fiction can be interesting and diverting, outside of a select few titles, little interests me. I particularly enjoy reading historical accounts of events. What was the American Civil War (War of Rebellion) really like? What were they thinking about at the time? Today, too often, history is rewritten to fit a predetermined modern point of view. The best view of the past is often a book from the past.
The very old encyclopedias hold a great deal of charm as well. Many of the early volumes (prior to about 1923) were written by “experts” in their respective fields, and they were very free with sharing their insights. If you wanted to read what a leading explorer or scientist thought, pick up an old encyclopedia! I have even found complete blue prints for cars, buildings, trench warfare and even automatic weapons lost within the pages.
By starting slowly and building your own library, you can see for yourself what people thought about their times and the people in them. A culinary master knows how important their cookbook library can be. A good chef will often own hundreds of cookbooks (although there are those who won’t admit it!). The real question is how can you really know your field if you have not read their founding books?
Where have all the library books gone?
This brings me to a curious point. Quickly vanishing out of libraries and large private collections and into the hands of many everyday people are thousands and thousands of books. If you haven’t been to a library recently — and few have — there is one thing missing… classic books! Personally, I am not sad to see the library go the way of the dodo. Libraries are the clerics of an ancient technology. However, books are the keys to our past and our culture.
One videographer doing a story on psychologist William James came to us for copies of his work. It appeared that Cal Poly’s library was lacking.
Some of what you may have learned is wrong
The challenge we have today is sifting through the interpretations of others who may never have read the original sources. Too often, authors are only repeating the observations of others. If you don’t read the original books on which these opinions are based, you might believe that Abraham Lincoln’s overriding passion wasn’t to free the slaves. And you might not be aware that many believe he was influenced by an account of the capture and slavery of an American seaman in North Africa in the early 1800′s.
Contrary to some revisionist historians, many of the books before and during the Civil War depicted slavery as a central issue from which everything else sprang… so, how did the abolition of slavery become so central a theme to Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a new America? One book that is said to have had a big influence on Lincoln, published in 1817, was Riley’s “An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Amer Brig Commerce.” The story is captivating in more ways than one.
Here is how one reviewer capsulated Captain Riley’s adventures: “In 1815, a Connecticut merchant ship is run aground off the west coast of Africa. Captured by Arab nomads, Captain James Riley and his crew are sold into brutal slavery and marched across the Sahara Desert, where skin boils, lips blacken and men shrivel to less than 90 pounds.”
Along the way the Americans will encounter everything that could possibly test them, but Riley and his men will also discover ancient cities, secret oases and a culture largely unknown to the modern world.
I was able to obtain a well worn copy of Riley’s 1836 edition …. or what folks refer to as a ‘working copy’ (useful for study… but broken in some way). In any event, I was very, very grateful to obtain one. However, you can buy a recent printing on Amazon.com. Just for you, a page was set up with selected pictures from my copy along with a couple of memorable passages, including the author calling for the ending of slavery in the United States.
Interestingly enough, I also found several accounts that Abraham Lincoln had read Riley’s Narrative … and a reference stating that Lincoln held the book in high regard… listing Riley’s narrative among some of his favorites… Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible. As an aside, Captain Riley eventually entered the Ohio legislature and raised a family, but that is another story.
Here’s how I buy books:
There are many used books sites, but Abebooks.com is one of my favorite! Here is what I have enjoyed most recently:
Uncorking the past (NEW)
The first book looks into how and why alcoholic beverages developed around the world throughout history, and outlines the importance of various berries and grains as well as honey. The author, Patrick McGovern, travels the world to see exactly how various civilizations produced beers and wines… “Uncorking the Past” is an excellent buy for those interested in how all things alcoholic began.
Alexander Dumas’ “The Conscript: a Tale of War” (1863)
What do you give your spouse on your wedding anniversary? Well if you look on line for suggestions, they are all boring! I guess they think if you have been married as long as we have, you shouldn’t need any hints! To a degree, I do believe this to be true.
Laura and I have a fondness for historical novels, so what better gift is there than a first edition of Alexander Dumas ( Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Cristo and Man in the Iron Mask among many others). This is not one of his better known books. “The Conscript: a Tale of War” is not one you often see listed with Dumas’ other works, but the plot may seem very familiar to you as it has been heavily borrowed by Hollywood.
“The Dwellers of the Nile” (1885)
Book recommendations sometimes come from some fun places. In the 1999 movie “The Mummy,” our heroine was carrying a book by Sir Wallace Budge that I had thought was too elementary. I think it was an arrogant presumption on my part to think that the book was too light reading; but as a primer — I would learn – it was fantastic. “The Dwellers of the Nile” is not a particularly long or expensive book as rare books go, so it was fun to pick up a first edition (1885). In the movie “The Mummy,” Evelyn ‘Evy’ Carnahan can read and write hieratic, demonic and hieroglyphics, and this book is a bit out of place as it addresses none of this; however, the book does discuss how ancient Egyptian was finally deciphered. I think they chose this book for the movie because the cover was printed with gilded hieroglyphics. Part of the fun of this book was a statement by Sir Wallis that the reason it took so long to decipher the Egyptian language was because the would-be translators were approaching the analysis with so much bias and superstition.
However to be accurate, if ‘Evy’ (our heroine) was indeed joining the many British travelers of the time, she might actually have brought with her ‘The Nile,” also by Sir Wallis Budge. This book was destined for those taking “the Cook’s Tour” (hence the expression) with Thomas Cook and Company. “The Nile” is a wonderful and virtually complete little book that reminds even the most steadfast travelers to bring their “block and tackle” before venturing to some of the more remote locations!
One can find history, travel and adventure …. in a book!
“Atlantis: the Antediluvian World”
The time when the theory of Atlantis was considered real was a time of achievement and optimism. Kings and scholars read “Atlantis: the Antediluvian World” with a captivation seldom seen even today outside of the Harry Potter phenomenon. The book was considered factual when it was released in 1882. Readers followed with awe the tale of Atlantis, and with the recent discovery of Troy and the continued exploration of Egyptian antiquity, who could blame anyone for being captivated? We often don’t admit to being hoodwinked, which is why you seldom hear about this book, but it is fun to read! However, before we sound too cruel to “Atlantis,” allow me to present the last paragraph of the book to help you better understand the enthusiasm:
“We are but beginning to understand the past: one hundred years ago the world knew nothing of Pompeii or Herculaneum; nothing of the lingual tie that binds together the Indo-European nations; nothing of the significance of the vast volumes of inscriptions upon the tombs and temples of Egypt; nothing of the meaning of the arrow-headed inscriptions of Babylon; nothing of the marvelous civilizations revealed in the remains of Yucatan, Mexico and Peru. We are on the threshold. Scientific investigation is making great strides. Who shall say that in one hundred years from now the great museums of the world may not be adorned with gems, statues, arms, and the implements of Atlantis, while the libraries of the world shall contain translations of its inscriptions, throwing new light upon all the past history of the human race, and all the great problems which now perplex the thinkers of our day?”– Ignatius Donnelly (1882)
Interestingly enough, some recent theories postulate a rather sudden flood of the Mediterranean or earthquakes and tsunamis off the coast of Spain, which may be associated with the legend. In any event, it is from our discarded theories that we learn something of value…. Or we will at least be entertained. This reminds me that it is not the theories that we embrace that cause us to falter, but our unwillingness to give them up that continues to haunt us.
“It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.” — Konrad Lorenz
We can look all around us today and see “scientific theories” in the free marketplace of ideas; they should be allowed to be debated and not censored, for only in this way can we eventually discover the truth. “Atlantis” should humble us all who hold fast to unshakeable scientific beliefs.
I have found that few things transform you in time quite like an old cookbook. We get wonderful hints as to what it was like to live and dine in another era. Recently, I came across a fascinating little book. “The Virginia Housewife or, Methodical Cook” was first published in 1831. The author wrote: “from the want of books sufficiently clear and concise… to reduce every thing in the culinary line, to proper weights and measures… for, when the ingredients employed were given in just proportions, the article made was equally good.”
This was in an era when the culinary skills were truly a “learn by doing” activity, and normally little was ever written down. Instead, everything was committed to memory. It appears that this cookbook was a widely reprinted reference well into the era of the Civil War.
We all wonder what recipes might be popular enough with ingredients commonplace enough to be placed in a cookbook of that time. Many of the recipes are very basic: how to clean and dress various animals, make sauces, puddings,desserts, preserves, how to pickle and make beer and cordials. But what it does include that might surprise you is a nice recipe for “Curried Chicken.” As you know, curry powder is a blend of spices that seems more typical in India than 1830s Virginia. Who knew?
“TO MAKE A DISH OF CURRY AFTER THE EAST INDIAN MANNER: Cut two chickens as for fricassee, wash them clean, and put them in a stew pan with as much water as will cover them; sprinkle them with a large spoonful of salt, and let them boil until tender, cover close all the time, and skim them well; when boiled enough, take up the chickens, and put the liquor of them into a pan, then put half a pound of fresh butter in the pan, and brown it a little; put into it two cloves of garlic, and a large onion sliced, and let these all fry till brown, often shaking the pan; then put in the chickens, and sprinkle over them two or three spoonfuls of curry powder; then cover the pan close, and let the chickens do till brown, often shaking the pan; then put in the liquor the chickens were boiled in, and all stew together until tender; if acid is agreeable squeeze the juice of a lemon or orange in it.
CURRY POWDER RECIPE: One ounce turmeric, one do. Coriander seed, one do. Cumin seed, one do. white ginger, one cayenne pepper; pound all together, and pass them through a fine sieve; bottle and cork it well — one tea-spoon is sufficient to season any made dish.”
Sound Familiar? YUM!
Own a book and preserve a bit of culture
With so many interpretations of history and the world, building your own library allows you the ability to pass down a cultural perspective that could be easily lost with the touch of a computer button. So whether your passion is building and repairing, cooking or even history, we can learn from the past and it can help us better understand our future.
Roger Freberg is a San Luis Obispo resident who is using his retirement to write a culinary-inspired blog, comment on important local events and occasionally enjoy getting sued for his journalistic excellence.