Right now I’m reading a very good book by David Shi called The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. It was in the stack of books I tracked down and bought for a study on the voluntary simplicity movement, most of which are still waiting on the shelf. But I happened to pick this one up, and am savoring it, so much so that it may be awhile before I’m done and ready to review it.
As the subtitle implies, it is a history of how Americans have approached the idea of simple living. That is one reason I am enjoying it so much; I know enough American history now that I get a lot of satisfaction from a book that attempts to trace a single thread through it. Good examples would be Summer For the Gods by Edward Larson, or The New Agrarian Mind by Allan Carlson, or the recently mentioned Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg.
So far I’ve read through Shi’s first chapter on the Puritans, and half of his second chapter on the Quakers. Although the book is not written from a Christian viewpoint, Shi does not shy away from extensively quoting Puritan and Quaker writers, and I don’t imagine an explicitly Christian writer would have been any more perceptive. I’m reading with pencil in hand, and find myself marking three or four passages per page, a pretty high percentage for me.
Also, it’s time to take back books to the UK library this weekend, and pick up a few more. Here are the books that I will be reading on this next go-round.
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson
“In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container’s creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.
“Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.
“But the container didn’t just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean’s success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container’s potential.
“Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world’s workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.”
The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by Joyce Appleby
“The unlikely development of a potent historical force, told with grace, insight, and authority by one of our best historians.
“With its deep roots and global scope, the capitalist system provides the framework for our lives. It is a framework of constant change, sometimes measured and predictable, sometimes drastic and out of control. Yet what is now ubiquitous was not always so. Capitalism took shape centuries ago, starting with a handful of isolated changes in farming, trade, and manufacturing, clustered in early-modern England. Astute observers began to notice these changes and consider their effects. Those in power began to harness these new practices to the state, enhancing both. A system generating wealth, power, and new ideas arose to reshape societies in a constant surge of change.
“The centuries-long history of capitalism is rich and eventful. Approaching capitalism as a culture, as important for its ideas and values as for its inventions and systems, Joyce Appleby gives us a fascinating introduction to this most potent creation of mankind from its origins to now.”
A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor
“What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that we–in the West, at least–largely do. And clearly the place of religion in our societies has changed profoundly in the last few centuries. In what will be a defining book for our time, Charles Taylor takes up the question of what these changes mean–of what, precisely, happens when a society in which it is virtually impossible not to believe in God becomes one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is only one human possibility among others.
“Taylor, long one of our most insightful thinkers on such questions, offers a historical perspective. He examines the development in "Western Christendom" of those aspects of modernity which we call secular. What he describes is in fact not a single, continuous transformation, but a series of new departures, in which earlier forms of religious life have been dissolved or destabilized and new ones have been created. As we see here, today’s secular world is characterized not by an absence of religion–although in some societies religious belief and practice have markedly declined–but rather by the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals and groups seize on in order to make sense of their lives and give shape to their spiritual aspirations.
“What this means for the world–including the new forms of collective religious life it encourages, with their tendency to a mass mobilization that breeds violence–is what Charles Taylor grapples with, in a book as timely as it is timeless.”
(And here’s a fourth book that I want to read but has just barely arrived at the library, and likely won’t be available to check out.)
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, by Sarah Ruden
“It is a common—and fundamental—misconception that Paul told people how to live. Apart from forbidding certain abusive practices, he never gives any precise instructions for living. It would have violated his two main social principles: human freedom and dignity, and the need for people to love one another.
“Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, originally named Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, who made a living from tent making or leatherworking. He called himself the “Apostle to the Gentiles” and was the most important of the early Christian evangelists.
“Paul is not easy to understand. The Greeks and Romans themselves probably misunderstood him or skimmed the surface of his arguments when he used terms such as “law” (referring to the complex system of Jewish religious law in which he himself was trained). But they did share a language—Greek—and a cosmopolitan urban culture, that of the Roman Empire. Paul considered evangelizing the Greeks and Romans to be his special mission.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“The idea of love as the only rule was current among Jewish thinkers of his time, but the idea of freedom being available to anyone was revolutionary.
“Paul, regarded by Christians as the greatest interpreter of Jesus’ mission, was the first person to explain how Christ’s life and death fit into the larger scheme of salvation, from the creation of Adam to the end of time. Preaching spiritual equality and God’s infinite love, he crusaded for the Jewish Messiah to be accepted as the friend and deliverer of all humankind.
“In Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden explores the meanings of his words and shows how they might have affected readers in his own time and culture. She describes as well how his writings represented the new church as an alternative to old ways of thinking, feeling, and living.
“Ruden translates passages from ancient Greek and Roman literature, from Aristophanes to Seneca, setting them beside famous and controversial passages of Paul and their key modern interpretations. She writes about Augustine; about George Bernard Shaw’s misguided notion of Paul as “the eternal enemy of Women”; and about the misuse of Paul in the English Puritan Richard Baxter’s strictures against “flesh-pleasing.” Ruden makes clear that Paul’s ethics, in contrast to later distortions, were humane, open, and responsible.”