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August 28, 2002

Paul Johnson

Friedrich --

What are you reading these days? I'm going through Paul Johnson's "History of Christianity." We're up to the 900s, more or less -- the Benedictines, the great medieval church estates and their impact on European wealth. I knew nothing about all this until the last couple of days. It's a robust (boy, can that man keep a narrative going), enlightening read, exactly what I was hoping for when I first cracked it open.


I confess -- and this is the minor-est, silliest possible quibble -- that I'm not finding it as entertaining as his "History of the Jews." Did you? And I can't figure out why.

I take these to be my options:
1) Being a Christian writing about Jews forced Johnson to leap up a level, and that additional perspective helped make the "Jews" book more striking.
2) Jews are more entertaining than Christians. Maybe being perpetual outsiders makes for more outsized personalities, a generally better, root-for-the-underdog yarn, and a clearer storyline.
3) Maybe it's me. Disputes over the meaning of the Trinity and Eucharist have always put me to sleep.
4) Maybe it's a matter of utility. For me "History of the Jews" was like a guidebook to living among them -- about 50% of NYC's white people are Jewish. I kept exclaiming, So that's why they're like that! Christians -- yawn, know 'em already.

I guess there's also possibility 5) which is that "Christians" simply isn't as good as "Jews." But I don't think that's true. It's a staggering work, and a great read -- history as the interested amateur, at least this one, wants it.

Have you read many of the other Johnson books? I'm semi-planning (if also expecting, knowing what happens to most of my plans, not to live up to this semi-plan) to finish up "History of Christianity," then take on "History of England," and then his "History of the U.S." What an educated boy I'll be!

I don't know of another historian quite as accessible, useful, and entertaining as Johnson is. But I only recently seem to have developed much of an interest in history at all.

Which writers of history do you recommend? I enjoyed an abridged Gibbon recently, but that's not the kind of swift modern historical reading I'm mostly in the mood for these days. Robert Darnton's terrif, but he writes about arty subjects, of which I often feel I've had more than my fill.

I go through many of these books on audiotape -- easier on the eyes, and a good way to make use of walking and exercise time. Blackstone Audio, here, offers a wonderful selection of unabridged (and often classic) audiobooks.



posted by Michael at August 28, 2002


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