TAC Bookshelf for the Week of March 12
Daniel Larison, senior editor:
- Y Gododdin by Aneirin: This is one of the oldest Welsh poems, and it comes out of the tradition of early medieval literature that Wales inherited from the “Old North.” It recounts the names and deeds of the warriors of the Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin that fell at the battle of Catraeth sometime near the end of the sixth century. The Gododdin were the people that made up one of the three main kingdoms in what is now southern Scotland and northern England, and the court of its ruler was at Din Eidyn, the modern Edinburgh. Aneirin’s poem celebrates the valor of the men killed by a host of Angles in the calamitous defeat at Catraeth, a battle for which there is no other surviving evidence, and reflects the martial values that prevailed in early medieval Celtic kingdoms of the period. Perhaps even more interesting than this are the connections that the poem shows between the communities of northern Britain and Wales, which were in close contact until the close of the sixth century. Y Gododdin gives us a glimpse of one of the forgotten kingdoms of Europe. The poem is one of the classics of Welsh literature, and one of the earliest writings from early medieval Britain.
- A Concise History of Wales by Geraint H. Jenkins. The history of Wales is bound up closely with the history of England, but perhaps because of that it has tended to be overshadowed by the latter. I realized in the last few years that I knew remarkably little about the people whose language Tolkien called “the senior language of the men of Britain,” and I have been trying to remedy that with some study of the language and reading more about the country itself. Jenkins’ short volume is a useful introduction. The name of the country itself offers something of a lesson in its history and its relationship with England. The lands west of Offa’s Dyke were defined as the lands of foreigners (wealas in Anglo-Saxon), and that label has stuck. Wales was formally united to England in 1536 and had been under English rule for centuries before that, but it retained its native language and kept its literary and poetic traditions alive down to the present thanks in no small part to the translation of the Bible into Welsh and the development of the eisteddfod, the music and poetry festival that is celebrated at both local and national levels and serves as a vehicle for preserving and promoting the Welsh language. The history of Wales is a fascinating example of how a country can maintain its cultural inheritance for centuries after it ceased to have its own independent rulers and legal institutions.
Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor: I just finished Craeft—a book I mentioned in my last bookshelf—a couple weeks ago, and reviewed it last weekend for The University Bookman. If you are a fan of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, you will probably like this book. It follows many of the same philosophical themes, but offers more insights into ancient and medieval patterns of work and craftiness we’ve lost over the ages. Langland’s adventures in archaeology, farm life, and homesteading add a lot of color and character to the book.
As to this week’s reads: I’ve started my sourdough journey (you can read about the journey’s beginnings here, and see my most recent loaf here), and so my sister-in-law just sent me Robin Sloan’s Sourdough. The novel follows a San Francisco engineer who discovers the wonder (and deeply fascinating science) of sourdough, and begins her own bread-making venture. NPR describes it thus: “It’s like Fight Club meets The Great British Bake Off.” As you can imagine, I’m intrigued.
When my toddler isn’t asking for endlessly repeated readings of P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? and Go Dog Go, I’m also aiming to read through the spring issue of The Hedgehog Review—particularly Alan Jacobs on our digital commons, and Christine Rosen on the digitally revealed life.
Scott Beauchamp, contributor:
- The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig: Have you ever read Zweig? If not, put him on your wish list now, particularly his masterly The World of Yesterday, which is probably one of the best books about the Habsburg Empire ever written. Austrian by birth, Zweig was prolific during his lifetime, penning not only reams of journalism, but also novels and the most psychologically astute biographies you’ll lay your hands on. But what makes Zweig’s writing special isn’t just what he’s saying. It’s very much how he says it. As someone married to a German translator, I understand the difficulty of rendering long, symphonic sentences into a language which very much bends towards Anglo-Saxon simplicity, but it’s a true testament to Zweig and his translators that he doesn’t sound translated at all. He sounds like he’s singing breathlessly, his syntax cohering to the structure of each illuminating set of thoughts.
- The Complex by Nick Turse: Reading an older book (this one is about a decade old) about topical subjects is usually pretty chancy, unless you’re going for a time capsule read. Unfortunately, stellar journalist Nick Turse’s imminently approachable rendering of the intimate relationship between the Pentagon and the private corporations which make the products we use in our daily lives is still very much relevant. It’s not going to convert the skeptical, but it will certainly get the home crowd pumped up.