Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

September 20th, 2011:


Why would anyone read two histories of Byzantium? Well, if the first one is mainly useful in putting you to sleep on a bad night, you might need a second to actually understand Byzantium. I finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium about six weeks ago, and I suspect it didn’t satisfy because it was, well, short. (It’s an abbreviation of a much longer 3-volume work by the same author.) Norwich tells us all the things that happened in the eleven hundred years that the Byzantine empire existed, but he doesn’t have room in a mere 400 pages to analyze why things evolved as they did. By the time I was done, the Byzantine empire seemed to cook down to pseudocode:

UNTIL MuslimsKnockOverConstantinople;

So unless you’re an insomniac like me, I recommend A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory (Blackwell, 2005) which trades some of the repetitive detail for more and better analysis. It’s a much more readable book overall, and seems targeted at laypeople who don’t already know the broad outlines of the story. (I’m guessing it’s a 300-level textbook.) Recommended.

In other recent reading, I went back to Colin Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology (Taplinger, 1972) to locate his definition of a “self-actualizer,” which may help me in designing a character for an upcoming story. The book is an explication of Abraham Maslow‘s views on psychology, which Wilson admires and mentions in many of his other books. I ended up reading a lot more than I intended, and realize that I may have to buy another copy of the book. The one I have was cheap, sure, but it was previously owned by a person who underlined probably 50% of the book without more than a handful of marginal notes. How is it useful to have all that underlining, if the purpose of underlining is to call attention to especially brilliant or pertinent passages when you want to find them later? And when she (her name is on the flyleaf) decides to make a note, it only proves that she is stone deaf to Colin Wilson’s ironic sense of humor.

I’ll come back to Wilson’s books in a future entry on designing characters, but in the meantime, New Pathways in Psychology is useful, as is A Criminal History of Mankind (Mercury, 2005.) His 1956 breakout book, The Outsider, nails existentialism–right through the head. Not as engaging as his other work, but if you’re trying to design a disaffected young man (especially if you yourself are well-adjusted and generally happy) the blueprints are all right there.

Yesterday Amazon delivered the 32 GB MicroSD HC card I’d ordered for the Droid, and I had this insight: You know you’re old when the fact that a thing the size of your pinkie fingernail could swallow everything you’ve ever written without a burp (plus ebook editions of every book in the house, if they existed) still makes you boggle. I don’t know precisely how much stuff it could hold because I don’t have that much stuff. But I’ll do some math: At 3 MB per MP3, the card could hold 10,000 songs. At 3 minutes per song, that’s 30,000 minutes, or 500 hours of music. At 500 KB for an .epub novel, that’s 60,000 novels, which at a novel every single night is…165 years’ worth of novels.

I guess I’m old. My boggler is in excellent working order.