My Excellent New Year’s Resolution

Since arriving at adulthood – it took me longer than most – I have made some kind of New Year’s resolution based on acquiring new knowledge or behavior. The only constraint was that it be at least slightly outside my comfort zone.

My first resolve was to learn to ice skate. I had grown up in the sub-tropical South; until I arrived in New England, I’d never met a snowflake in person. I remember being awed by watching my very first snow fall, and seeing the white stuff pile up in Christmas card- carved drifts. I stood at the front door for a long time, caught up in the wonder of it all. Eventually, my father-in-law and one of his sons came out into the hall where I stood in amazement, caught up in the marvel of the growing piles of snow.

The two men were dressed in heavy coats and hats and clumped into the hall in large rubber boots, pulling on thick gloves. Of course I shared with them my enthusiastic astonishment – in fact, I shared it at length, while they exchanged glances with one another. Finally, they’d had enough of my naïve chatter: moving quickly, they flung open the Victorian double doors…and then picked me up and put me down in the middle of all the loveliness. I sank down into an icy hole while they picked up shovels and began the arduous task of clearing the walks and stairs for the second time that evening.

Such was my introduction to the joys and sorrows of living in a cold climate. A few years later, we had moved to a house outside Boston and the kids quickly discovered a small pond nearby. A perfect, kid-sized pond for investigating in the summer and skating on in the winter. Watching them, I decided to learn to ice skate, too.

Easier said than done. After falling onto my gluteus maximus once too often, I retreated from the ice and considered my options. My inclination was to retire gracefully to the hearth and wait for Spring – if and when it arrived. Since my idea of heavy exercise is to haul the Oxford Dictionary across the room, this was an easy choice. I would limit my exertions to making hot chocolate for the skaters when they came home, red-nosed and c-c-coooold.

When January 1st rolled around someone asked if I’d made any resolutions for the coming year. The image of the pond came to mind and I found myself saying, “yes, I’ve decided to learn to ice skate.” Evidently this idea had been forming off-stage once I learned there was an indoor rink within walking distance and they offered lessons for adults on week-day mornings.

In the beginning, my lessons mainly consisted of me holding onto the railing – why didn’t that pond have a railing?- and carefully moving my feet while I held onto safety with one hand…
– – – – – – – –
…Eventually I got brave enough to let go and push off with one foot, gliding through that initial move. Getting my left foot to agree to push off was another matter entirely, though it gave in as I got braver and more assured of my footing. I finally understood: the idea was to leave a slight liquid groove with the push of each foot, which allowed me to stay upright and moving. It helped if I crouched a little…

In due time, I was out on the ice at the pond – but only when no one else was around. The pearled, pastel morning light of winter in New England made the effort worth it. I had indeed become an ice skater.

I had also become a resolution-maker. Each year I would rummage through my bag of ignorance till I came upon something that looked worth attempting.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

That first resolution took only a few months to accomplish. The one for 2008 will go on all year: I’m going to devise and work my way through a history-reading course.

I believe the idea was planted when I read Killing the Celt. I had no idea that Julius Caesar had attempted to annihilate the Gauls. He was so brutally murderous that back in Rome they considered prosecuting him for war crimes. Of course as the author, Tomas Runmhar, points out the Gauls were their own worst enemy. As has been true throughout their history, Celtic tribes don’t cooperate with one another. It’s more fun to fight than negotiate. Something in the Celtic blood appears to be addicted to adrenalin rushes.

Then I read my Christmas gift from the Baron: “Endgame: 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II” by David Stafford. Here’s a description by one reader:

This is as close to a perfect book as I have recently read on WWII history, particularly on the infrequently covered closing days of the European war.

Seldom do historians write about the immediate repercussions and events that ran concurrent with the disintegration of the Third Reich.

…David Stafford carefully chronicles these events through the eyes of various personalities involved. Their anecdotes complete an image of Europe in such disarray that paint a picture of near hopelessness.

Stafford captures the emotion of the allied race to Berlin, the ominous possibility of a Nazi Alpine Redoubt and the anticlimactic sigh the war weary world breathed before the loose ends were truly tied off.

Reading this book, one realizes how unfortunate it is that those lessons and tales of World War II so often go forgotten…

Not having read much history about the time between VE Day and the start of the Korean “Conflict,” I was enthralled. That was quickly followed by “Don’t Tread On Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, from Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting,” by H.W. Crocker.

Now I’ve turned to Paul Johnson’s “A History of the American People.” It’s been sitting on the bookshelf since 1998…better late than never.

When I told Fausta about my New Year’s resolution to delve into history, she recommended Winston Churchill’s three-volume “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.”

That ought to keep me busy through February. After that, I’m not sure where to go. Can any of our readers suggest some titles? I’d be interested in political, religious and cultural history from any period and any place. I emailed Wretchard to ask him to recommend a book on the Philippines. If there is an era or a place which you’ve studied and think others might find enlightening, please send the titles my way.

Needless to say, the books have to be in English. I can slowly make my way through some French, but it’s too laborious to be enjoyable. Like most Americans, I am limited to high school and college requirements for a foreign language but my Latin is by now far too rusty from disuse to be of any help except for etymologies.

2008 will be the Year of History-Reading. Much easier than ice-skating.

27 thoughts on “My Excellent New Year’s Resolution

  1. Happy New Year, Dymphna! Your resolutions are excellent. I have always wanted to be able to ice skate, but I don’t know how… Strangely enough, I actually am from up north.

    I have read Paul Johnson’s “A History of the American People.” It is an excellent read, if a bit long.

    Some interesting history-related books I read in 2007 were Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich”, Gitta Sereny’s “Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth”, and Anthony Read’s “The Devil’s Disciples” (which I haven’t finished yet). Albert Speer’s “Spandau: The Secret Diaries” was also very good, but it was less historical and more about his actual time in prison.

    Keep up the good work with regards to your blog. This past year was certainly very interesting in the blog world.

  2. Dymhna, I wish to study History too. Unfortunately, I am too young and I live in a country in which having a degree in History will eventually lead you to unemployment or, if you’re really good, to work in foreign lands – mainly UK – and as so, I have to worry about my future, making money and studying something “real”.
    Now, I learn History by myself and with the help of some former History teachers of mine.
    I would suggest you to read European History from the beggining of the Roman Empire to nowadays. It is very usefull, and it will eventually make you understand a lot of things that you may not catch if you don’t know certain things. It will help you to understand better America too.
    I will suggest you to read something about fascism/nazism wrote by a fascist/nazi. You may find out that to be a fascist is much, much better than to be a comunist. And that we equal fascist with bad, mainly because of propaganda, don’t we?
    Another thing is to read first information from a relatively imparcial encyclopedia (source) and then various different prespectives, in order to be able to formulate your own independent opinion.

    PS- The first time I saw snow was three years ago, it hadn’t snowed here for more than 50 years…

  3. Since the US is the uncontested Bull Moose Maritime Power, I should like to reccomend Norman Friedmans design histories of US warships. In particular, the Battleship anbd Destroyer ones, to see what the country felt was it’s primary threat at different times in the 20th century. SHATTERED SWORD: Thu Untold Story of The Battle of Midway [Parshall & Tulley] is an excellent read as well as a good balance to MIRACLE at MIDWAY, by Gordon Prange. Which era of the Phillipines are you interested in? If you are interested in our aquisition, The YELLOW KIDS: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism by Joyce Milton is a good one, as is THE SINKING of the BATTLESHIP MAINE, by Hiram Rickover. I shall look through by shelves, and see what else I can recommend

  4. Dymphna,

    I recommend “The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600” by Alfred W. Crosby. It helped me fill in some serious gaps in the story of Western Civilization.

  5. An EXCELLENT book is Michael Oren’s “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: US History in the Middle East 1776 – Present”

    It’s one of the few books that focus on American involvement in the Middle East in the era before WW-II. There are amazing things to be learned about us that I never knew:

    The heritage of this country is zionist.. In fact the Pilgrims and others like them viewed themselves as Spiritual Jews coming to a new Spiritual Zion. They saw themselves as a model for a future time when the real Jews would return to their real Promised land.

    The learning of Hebrew so that the OT could be read was a requirement at most universities.

    The very first conflict the US had after independce was jihadi aggression by Muslims

    This conflict exposed the weaknesses of the Confederation and led to the Constitution

    Christian missionaries backed the State Department flooded the Middle East to form a Jewish state, violent oppostion from Muslims and Jewish indifference led to the failure of this mission.

    Post Civil War, the US basically rebuilt the Egyptian armed forces from scratch, became trusted by the Porte and was viewed positively by the Muslims because we werent imperialistic like Europe.

    Christian Missionaries saved the life of some early Saud (this was probably a big mistake), which led to the Saud trusting America to look for oil in its state.

    So that’s some unknown history.. the US has ALWAYS been involved in the Middle East.. it’s nothing new.

    And we were Zionists before there was even a Zionist movement.

  6. Dymphna, I recommend “After the war was over”, by Mark Mazower (Princeton).

    You may find the subject a bit specific, since the subtitle is “Reconstructing the family, nation and state in Greece, 1943-1960”.

    However, besides being a brilliant piece of work academically speaking, it is very enlightening about the age-old motives and awful consequences of civil wars.

    It resonates surprisingly with contemporary issues of terrorism, nation-building and ethnic conflict.

  7. Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” is very good, although I have only made it to Volume IV: The Age of Faith. There are 11 volumes to it, and the whole thing together is monstrously huge. It ends with the Napoleonic Era.

    I found my copies over a three year period at used bookstores and Friends of the Library Bookstores and sales of discarded books. I imagine they can be found online, too.

    If you are looking for something more contemporary, I highly suggest reading George Nash’s “The Conservative Intellectual Movement In America (since 1945).
    The footnotes are very thorough, and go from page 344 to 433 in my copy.
    It has proven invaluable to me in my efforts to get a local conservative book club together, where some of us can get together and build a working knowledge about conservatism.
    We have agreed to start with Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”, which I have never read, and look forward to hearing people smarter than me discuss it.
    I hope you and the Baron have a Happy New Year!

  8. Dymphna, this is an interesting project that you have set for yourself. I have two suggestions for you:

    1. Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie

    2. The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester

    I found both of these to be very interesting and informative, tying much of European history together with the development of major weapons.

    Merry Christmass on this, the 8th day of Christmass, and a Happy New year to you and the Baron, and to all readers.

  9. I’d recommend THE KINGS DEPART by Richard Watt. This is a history of the World War One peace settlement with Germany, and of immediate postwar activities in Germany. It covers the Kiel mutiny, the Barvarian revolution, and the rise of the Freikorps.

    Also interesting is Barbara Tuchman’s A DISTANT MIRROR, a history of 14th-century Europe that gives a feel for the time.

    For Midway, I still find INCREDIBLE VICTORY by Walter Lord to be a more readable account than Prange’s. At the back of the book Lord spelled out those things which were disputed among the sources and why he chose certain possibilities over others in his account. Eyewitness accounts don’t agree, you see …

    … and Richard Frank’s GUADALCANAL makes that clear where it compares American and Japanese claims against their losses (generally, claims exceeded actual losses by at least 2 to 1 — fog of war, indeed!). These two together give you the turning point in the Pacific War.

    You should take a look at Vilfredo Pareto’s THE RISE AND FALL OF ELITES. This one is sociology, rather than history, and controversial as Pareto was embraced by the Italian fascists as they came to power … though as the fascists began to clamp down Pareto protested against them. Pareto’s Law (or power-law distribution) remains an important tool in economics. Circulation of the elites may be of interest to you in reflecting on the political scene in Europe today.

    I’d also recommend finding a good overview history of China (my apologies for not having a good one at hand). The general shape of US-China relations and trade over the last 20 years have been void of surprises if you understand something of Chinese history and society. For 150 years, American businesses have dreamed of the Great Chinese Market … and failed to understand the reasons why they were not going to make any significant penetration into it. As a result the trade results have been uneven. The recent recalls involving Chinese-made goods were also eminently predictable if you look at the commercial and bureaucratic cultures in China.

  10. There’s one out there called The Isles, which deals with the entire rather unique history of the British Isles from the first moment they were separated from mainland europe up to the modern era. Rather ambitious, so it’s obviously more an overview than a detailed history, but it demonstrates some of the interesting connections between the past and the present, and how geography can shape a national character. In fact I think I’ll go and dig it out again.

  11. As someone who was born and raised in NYC I have always had an attraction to the history of my island before it was completely transformed. One of the more interesting and entertaining topics was that of the debauchery of 19th century New York City, especially the section known as “the five points”. There are 3 books I would recommend.

    Five Points – by Tyler Anbinder
    Low Life – by Luc Sante (a danish ex-pat I believe)
    Gangs of New York – by Herbert Asbury (the film has nothing to do with the book expect for references to certain individuals)

    Unfortunately little remains of what was around in those days. But I was fortunate enough to visit a building that housed “McGurks suicide hall” before it was torn down for yet another high rise. Anyway, as a daughter of the emerald isle I am sure you will appreciate the many Irish characters. My Irish relatives actually lived in “the points” and I am sure they frequented many of the dives.

  12. Dymphna:

    I recommend “Scotch Irish: A Social History” by James Leyburn. Since you are interested in Ireland, this will give you a perspective on Irish protestants and the role they played in forming the USA.

  13. Dymphna

    Happy New Year.

    Brian Mcallister Linn. The Philippine War.
    A forgotten Chapter in US history. The US Army fighting an insurgency may be a little to close home given current events, but it will also make the current events much clearer.

    “” ,Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War. I’m reading this now. I think it will be a required reading for years. Also relevant to understanding the US response to current events..

    Wallace Breem. Eagle in the Snow
    A novel. Rome’s last stand against the Barbarians. My review

    Glen F Williams: The Year of the Hangman
    My Review
    Another forgotten chapter. George Washington’s expedition against the Iroquoi in the Revolutionary war.

    My book review Topic with some other suggestions.

    “The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester”, Barbara Tuchman’s “A DISTANT MIRROR” noted above I have read and recommend.

  14. Dymphna: “I had no idea that Julius Caesar had attempted to annihilate the Gauls.”

    Don’t believe in this junk! I do not know where you find this leftist style hate propaganda. But you should have learned by now not to believe in it.

    “He was so brutally murderous that back in Rome they considered prosecuting him for war crimes.”

    Compare it to how the chattering classes considered impeachment of President Bush, or prosecuting him for war crimes (crimes against “International law”). Leftist style hate propaganda of the chattering classes is not exactly a new phenomenon. Since when did you consider their “prosecutions” proof of anything? Charles Johnson uses the Belgian chattering elites banning of Vlaams Blok as “proof” that they were evil. You are here applying the same kind of standard to Julius Caesar.

    Scrap that propaganda and read some real historical books about the Romans and Julius Caesar instead. May I suggest “The fall of the Roman Empire” by Peter Heather and “Caesar: The life of a Colussus” by Adrian Goldsworthy.

    What you have written makes me so upset and I do not know where to start in order to reach your mind, since what you have written is so soaked with cultural leftism, as in “brutally murderous” and “attempted to annihilate”. Poisonous lies!

    Yes, there were massacres of Celtic and Germanic tribes by the Romans, but these were the exceptions, and always applied as retaliation. In general the Romans treated their subjects well and always fairly, and it was very common that Celtic and Germanic tribes joined Rome out of free will. There was no attempt to annihilate any people. That’s utter rubbish! Caesar and the Romans were the most constructive forces of history ever seen on this continent, and this was acknowledged by the Celtic and Germanic tribes who with few exceptions willingly adapted the Roman way of life. But you’ve got all the wrong idea and describe Caesar and the Romans and forces of the worst sort of destruction as indicated by your usage of words “brutally murderous” and “annihilation”.

    I’m sorry for the harsh words, but what you have written is highly upsetting. I do not expect you to know all the ins and outs of the history of the Romans, but you should really be able by now to easily identify the rotten smell of leftist style hate propaganda. It always comes in this very format:

    Yada, yada… genocide committed by the Serbs in Kosovo… prosecuted for war crimes … genocide committed by Israel against the “Palestinians”… sanctions by the UN… war crimes by the murderous United States…

    Always the very same format. So don’t pass it on!

    OK. Now I’m finished being upset. It’s good that you intend to read a lot of history this year. Consider also the books I suggested.

    Enjoy your reading!

  15. I would refer Conservative Swede to Plutarch. He recorded that a million Gauls were killed during Caesar’s invasion and that a further million were enslaved. Caesar used his plunder to finance his power bid in Rome.

    I can assure Conservative Swede that I’m not a leftist of any sort. I am of Celtic ancestry.

    In any case, Dymphna, I’m glad that reading Killing the Celt has inspired your history reading project.

  16. Conservative Swede might also check with the descendants of Carthage, 146 BC, or Jerusalem, AD 70 … if he can find any. Or perhaps look up what a Tacitean peace is.

    That said, I’m sure that any prosecution back in Rome would have been motivated by Julius Caesar’s political ambitions, not by the way he prosecuted the conquest of transalpine Gaul.

  17. Dymphna:

    A worthy resolution, the more so as history is more gripping than fiction, if well written.

    Some of my favorites:

    Middle East

    The Siege of Mecca, by Yaroslav Trofimov
    The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, by Bat Ye’or
    One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, by Tom Segev
    Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, by Benny Morris
    Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh
    The History of the Armenian Genocide, by Vahakn Dadrian
    Warrant for Genocide: Key Elements of Turko-Armenian Conflict, by Vahakn Dadrian


    Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer
    Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
    The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, by Callum McDonald
    A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, by William Manchester
    Marlborough: His Life and Times, by Winston Churchill

    United States

    Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson
    For Cause and Comrades: Why Men fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson
    The Minutemen: The First Fight – Myths and Realities of the American Revolution, by John R. Galvin
    Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, by David M. Kennedy
    With the Old Breed on Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B. Sledge
    The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro
    Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, by H.R. McMaster
    Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI, by Richard Gid Powers


    Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico, by T.R. Fehrenbach
    Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos Among Mexican-Americans, by Ignacio Garcia


    The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, by Daniel Yergin
    Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, by Robert Irwin
    The Mask of Command, by John Keegan


  18. I offer a 3rd recommendation for ‘A Distant Mirror’, and also for two books by Prof. Norman Cohn:
    ‘The Pursuit of the Millennium’ and ‘Europe’s Inner Demons’.

  19. “Europe: A History” by Norman Davies is an excellent overview. A bit light on Britain, and possibly a bit heavy on Poland, but otherwise very good.

    I think he wrote “The Isles” as mentioned above.

  20. The Sienkiewicz triology, Fire & Sword, Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe. They’re fiction, historical novels about 17th century Poland. The Poles consider these books their national epic (King Sobieski, God bless his memory, makes a brief appearance on the last page of Vol III) But that’s not why you should read them. The similarities between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth then and the USA today are striking and very disquieting. To take one example, the danger posed by the Cossack population inhabiting the Southern border region will very likely remind you of another minority in the American Southwest.

    Besides it’s one hell of a read. I’ve never seen a distant time and place brought to life so vividly. You are there.

  21. I have always found it difficult to get through surveys and overviews. But a smaller, more concentrated, view can provide the mental hooks to make a larger view more comprehensible.

    Jim Jinkins is Jungle Patrol a history of the U.S. campaigns against the Moros is Swish of the Kris, a history of the Moros.
    Skinner’s Horse by Philip Mason is a biography of James Skinner, an Anglo-Indian soldier of fortune during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
    Bugles and a Tiger by John Masters is a memoir of his service with a Gurkha regiment on the Northwest Frontier before WW II and in Burma during the war.

    Wide as the Waters by Benson Bobrick is the story of the English bible and the revolution it inspired.

    E. B. Sledge mentioned in an earlier comment.

    Local history of your area, but not a formal history of the state. Look for histories of a river valley, a trade route through the mountains, a local industry, etc.

  22. Another set of books I’d like to add is the Time-Life series “Great Ages Of Man” (if you can find them…they seem rare now, and don’t have ISBNs))

    They were published in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and were intended for “the common man”, but had a remarkable clarity of prose, and a very definite “Western Civ” view point.

    I particularly liked two books:

    “Age of Faith” by Anne Fremantle about medieval Europe, concentrating on Western Europe in the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire, to the fall of Constantinople, from a viewpoint of religion and society, and how different it was from today.

    The other was “The Birth of Europe” by Gerald Simmons, which covered (once again) fall of the Western Roman Empire up to about the start of the Crusades, but with emphasis on how the post-Roman “barbarian” kingdoms astablished the (Western) Europe we know today (but not, perhaps, tommorrow…)

    I note that my copies (here in Oz) are called “Great Ages of Man: A History of the World’s Cultures”, published by “Time-Life International (Nederland) N.V”

    They are excellently written, but perhaps too general for your requirements???
    Hard to find now days, too…

    After some brief Googling, it seems the series was reprinted at least until the late ’70s, so maybe they’re not so hard to find.

    I also like the book on Islam, which implied (quite academically and un-controversially) that “Allah” was simply another god in the pantheon of pre-Islamci pagan Arabic deities, and was the Moon god…

  23. Tomas Runmhar: “I would refer Conservative Swede to Plutarch. He recorded that a million Gauls were killed during Caesar’s invasion and that a further million were enslaved. Caesar used his plunder to finance his power bid in Rome.”

    Yes, and?

    Caesar did exactly what was needed to conquer Gaul, nothing more. The Gauls provided very strong resistance. Many died. That’s war.

    If you cannot distinguish between imperialistic expansion and “attempted annihilation” then you are more fit to write leftist pamphlets than books on history. Annihilation would have been completely pointless for the Romans. That was not what they were about. I suggest you to read the books I recommend above to learn more about the nature of the Romans, so that you can better be able to interpret their actions.

    I haven’t read your book, but I assume for the sake of Celtic “nationalism” that Caesar has to be made into a monster to make up or the Celts own flaws.

    Who Struck John,

    Yes, the Romans destroyed Carthage. Once again in the context of war. An intensive warfare between two arch enemies that had lasted over a hundred years and killed hundreds of thousand soldiers on both sides. The destruction of Carthage put a definitive end to this and laid the ground for the most long-lasting peace the region has ever seen.

    Only the city of Carthage was destroyed. The rest of the Carthaginian Empire was left untouched. The people of the Carthaginian Empire would have been easy to find today too, if it hadn’t been for their eradication by Islamic imperialism. And the descendants of Jerusalem AD 70 are found all over the world. I have no idea why you even bring up that example. It was only the temple that was destroyed and sacked. Once again, not more done, by the Romans, than necessary to achieve their goals.

Comments are closed.