Daniel Larison, senior editor: I’m reading The Conquest of Ainu Lands by Brett Walker. Walker recounts the history of the gradual Japanese conquest of the modern island of Hokkaido, known as Ezo prior to the Meiji era, and explores the roles of trade, culture, and disease in weakening Ainu resistance and incorporating their lands into the Japanese realm. One of the more interesting observations that Walker makes is that the history of the conquest of Ainu complicates the standard interpretation of Japanese isolation from the early seventeenth century on: “In the weary eyes of Ainu leaders such as Shakushain [the leader of an Ainu war against the Japanese in 1669], who died in defense of his sacred land a vanishing way of life among his people, neither Edo shogunate nor domains acting under its authority appears to be governments run by isolationists.” Ezo was not formally absorbed into the Japanese state until the Meiji period, but as Walker shows in his valuable study it had been gradually colonized by Japan for centuries before that.
I’m also reading The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is one of Tolkien’s lesser-known poetic works. Set in Brittany (“Britain’s land beyond the seas”), the Lay tells the story of a lord and lady who suffer because of the curse of acorrigan, a malevolent fairy enchantress. The republished version of the poem is accompanied by two other similar poems about corrigans that Tolkien worked on during what Verlyn Flieger refers to as “a comparatively short but intense period in Tolkien’s life when he was deeply engaged with Celtic languages and mythologies.” It is a quick rewarding read and represents a different side of Tolkien’s literary work that many people may not know.
Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor: I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite books of the year. Solnit is a poetic writer, and her meandering style is perfect for a book about the history of walking. Wanderlust isn’t just a volume of lovely prose, though: it is a very deep and thoughtful book, one that touches on everything from urban planning to conservation to ancient philosophy. It’s a book a lot of New Urbs fans would enjoy, I believe.
In addition to Wanderlust, I’m re-working my way through Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture (I wrote a bit about it for Intercollegiate Review this past week). In our distracted and entertainment-focused era, Pieper’s work is vital. He reminds us of the contemplative life’s basic components, of the virtues it cultivates, and of the environment requires. Leisure stands as a massive rebuttal to the idea that Netflix-binging serves as true rest—or, indeed, that most of the ways we Americans try to “chill” or spend our vacation time constitute true leisure, in the full and classical meaning of the word. But throughout the book, Pieper also offers some thoughtful critiques of our modern attitude toward work and diligence—and those have been just as convicting and important to me, I think, as his considerations of leisure itself.
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: My supplementary reading in preparation for Peter Greens’ recent translation of The Odyssey (which I’ll be reading and discussing regularly with a few neighbors of mine in the hopes of eventually giving public performances/chants of the epic) has brought me into contact with Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. Even though the book itself is over 600 pages long, I was skeptical that Fox would be able to breezily move from the Greek Dark Ages to the collapse of the Roman Empire in a way that would render the history anything but perfunctory. I was wrong. While it’s true that the book is suitable for high school and college students, it also offers more than a typical introductory text might. The greatest hits of the Classical world are there of course, but so are a few deeper cuts, such as a social and political analysis of post-Periclean Athens, an age often unfairly written off by historians as one of democratic decline.
Fox wears his learning lightly and gives an almost conversational air to what might otherwise be stuffy academic points of distinction. And he isn’t afraid to get swept up himself in the grandeur of the story he’s telling. It’s as if your friend Robin, the Classics scholar, is half a bottle of Vieux Chateau Certan in, and excitedly telling you about when Alexander the Great scaled a fortress wall in India and singlehandedly defeated a cadre of archers in hand to hand combat. In other words, it’s quite fun.
“Fun”, oddly enough, also describes Geoff Dyer’s book Zona: A Book about a Journey to a Room. The appropriately heralded prose-craftsman of his generation, Dyer is known for writing extended love letters to the arts. His book But Beautiful is possible the best appreciation of jazz I’ve ever encountered, and The Ongoing Moment a charmingly moving paean to photography. Zona, being an almost shot by shot description and rumination on Tarkovsky’s epic (and epically slow and epically strange and epically brooding) film based on a Russian science fiction novel about a strange zone which contains a room where, unfortunately, you’re given exactly what you most desire, might sound impossibly dense. It’s not. Anyone who has read Dyer knows that his greatest and strength, and greatest weakness, is his own affable and charmingly erudite persona breaking in on the action. Every story is Dyer trying to tell a story. What results isn’t so much dense analysis of Tarkovsky’s disorienting mystical movie, but an extended rumination on Dyer’s relationship to the film – to all film, really. Dyer reads like a modern Montaigne, putting the essayer in the essay, and caring a lot less about convincing us of his opinions than in provoking deep human sympathy.