Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bookage: from Kitchens to Big Karl

Of the books covered in this post, the most fun was Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, lent to me by a chef. I have been reading it in restaurants, a somewhat mixed experience, since it makes you look at restaurants and restaurant food rather differently. But people who work in the restaurant business comment about how true it is.

It is also extremely readable, and very funny. AB is not exactly an entirely admirable character, but he is an engaging and charming one. He is also extremely convincing that the restaurant trade is only for the truly committed (i.e. obsessed). To run a restaurant takes a mixture of dedication and ruthless realism that few can manage. No wonder so many fail. Highly recommended.

As for other reading ...

American Practicality
Charles Graybar’s Calm amid Chaos: An Executive Guide to Reducing Stress Through Meditation contains a step-by-step mode of meditation practice whose effectiveness I cannot testify about because I haven’t followed it. Nevertheless, even just as a book to read, it is a useful and practical how-too manual for mindfulness – that is, for applying principles of Buddhist psychology in approaching your own thoughts and mental states.

Dan Neurath’s If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World provides an excellent series of archetypes of controlling parents and some very practical steps to dealing with the past. I particularly liked the ‘this is what you can do’ element in the book. It provides the basis to understand the legacies you are carrying and practical help to dealing with it.

Classic medievalism
Re-read Henri Pirenne’s classic Medieval Cities: Their Origin and the Revival of Trade. Some elements have been superseded by subsequent discoveries (particularly the burgeoning field of medieval archaeology), but it is still a highly readable starting point.

While at BorderWar, a medieval recreation fighting event, I finished Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. Good easy read, nice insight into a view of Big Karl (Karl-lo-Magne) by someone who knew him personally and was personal secretary to his son and successor Louis the Pious. Particularly enjoyed coming across a reference to an ambush of Big Karl’s army by Gascons and the footnote saying it was the only reference in history to Roland, the Lancelot equivalent of the Carolingian romances (which, come to that, is more historical basis than Lancelot has). Einhard is not always reliable about events he didn’t witness but, within the limits of a court biography, he gives a very vivid picture of Big Karl, the convivial, engaging reformer, family man and ruthless conqueror.

As moderns, we tend to think of borders as peaceful places that shouldn’t be violated. In Big Karl’s time, borders were often ill-defined and what people raided across. Provided a ruler could impose order in his own domains – something Big Karl paid attention to and was good at – pushing borders further away was often a good thing for one’s own subjects. Providing strong, stable rule which pushed the raiding boundaries further and further away made one very much a good ruler. (One of the many ways we must be leary of imposing our presumptions on the past.)


  1. That's an interesting concept: "pushing the border" as an element of good government when order on the other side is weak. I wonder if this doesn't still obtain in some parts of the world. Israel, for example, has at times expanded its borders, and also the areas in which its military patrols, and domestically at least this was seen as a safety measure.

  2. There is certainly an element of that in Israeli policy. But the modern international system has a very strong norm of borders not being changed since everyone is fearful of where that would go (parrticularly regarding African states). It is a major reason why breaking up Iraq does not seem to have been seriously considered.

  3. Good post indeed! Thanks for sharing such nice information.