Monday, September 24, 2012

Christopher I. Beckwith

Christopher I. Beckwith is Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages; Koguryo, Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives; Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present; and several other books.

His new book is Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World.

Recently I asked Beckwith what he was reading.  His reply:
My reading mostly falls into two categories: non-fiction connected with my research, which I often check or use rather than actually “read,” though my first two are exceptions to that rule, and fiction that is usually related in some way to my own fiction writing.

In non-fiction, I read two books by Frans de Waal: Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are (2005), and Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (revised ed., 1998). The author shows how chimps and bonobos, and sometimes other primates, deal with each other in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways that reveal how amazingly close to humans they are. They are among the most insightful books I have ever read about ‘people’ in general.

A week or so ago I got a large new tome from the library, The World of Achaemenid Persia: History, Art and Society in Iran and the Ancient Near East (2010), and have been reading through it. The most pleasant discovery so far is Richard Frye’s short article, “Cyrus the Mede and Darius the Achaemenid?” It has not a single footnote and is only three pages long, but it is very thoughtful and impressive. Another short article on the same topic, “Cyrus and the Medes” by Matt Waters, brings up some challenging problems, especially his defense of the recent consensus view of Zoroaster’s date (“the turn of the millennium [1000 bce] or even earlier”), which I think is too early, and which has recently been challenged, as he notes.

I also just received a copy of Sue Hamilton’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach (2000), which I have barely started to read. Its attraction for me in the bits I read on Amazon was in the author’s detailed analysis of some of the basic tenets of Buddhism, including the earliest actually attested ones, the Trilakṣana or ‘Three Characteristics’, an important topic in my book in progress. In what I have read so far, she accepts some of the usual doubtful beliefs held by most Indologists regarding the religious milieu of India before Buddha, so I see that I will need to pay attention as I go through it.

My recent fiction reading was largely determined by what I had brought with me to Germany (where I just spent somewhat over a year) and what I could find in the local bookstore.

I read one of my favorite books of all time, the YA fantasy novel Dragonsong (1976) by Anne McCaffrey, which I brought with me. The story is about a musically talented teenage girl whose parents deny her music and punish her for the slightest infraction, mainly because she is a girl: they say music is something only boys are allowed to do. She runs away and lives in a cave by the sea with some of the local semi-sentient flying creatures, survives there, and is eventually found and taken to the Harper Hall, where she can finally perfect her skills and become a great musician. The story is continued in the next volume in the trilogy, Dragonsinger, which is almost as good as Dragonsong. McCaffrey as usual tells a good tale, even though the song lyrics in the two volumes are mostly disappointing as poetry. This novel in particular has had a powerful hold on me for a long time and I think speaks to the heart of the creative spirit.

The local bookstores in Germany are of course filled almost exclusively with books in German, and I actually did buy and read some of a local best-selling fantasy novel, Das Labyrinth der Träumenden Bücher, by Walter Moers (2011), because the humor came through despite my weak German.

Among the small selection of English language books I found Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), a Whitbread Prize-winning book. It is a mystery told by a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who is determined to find the murderer of the neighbor’s dog. What apparently appealed to me was the child’s point of view and how his determination to solve the mystery, no matter what, led to major life changes for him and his parents.

During another visit to the bookstore, I found a copy of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize-winning novel The Old Man and the Sea (1952). The beginning still grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me into old Santiago’s fishing boat, but somehow this time either I was not in the right mood or I have changed, so that I found the struggle with the great marlin and the sharks somewhat tedious, even though it is a very short book.

I also bought a copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and read it again on the first half of the flight from Düsseldorf to Atlanta. It is as charming and attractive a book as ever, and its English as beautiful, though I have read it and The Lord of the Rings well over a dozen times by now. It competes with Dragonsong as my favorite novel.

Another book I bought in Germany, on the strength of my own “first page test” (which usually works very well), is John Connolly’s novel The Book of Lost Things (2006). It looked like it would be a good read, and I started it on the second half of the long flight to Atlanta, but the more I read the more gruesome and depressing it got. I put it aside with some relief when we arrived in Atlanta.

I see that Moers’ book has recently been published in English translation as The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books (2012), so I am looking forward to getting a copy and reading it as soon as I can.
Learn more about Christopher I. Beckwith's Warriors of the Cloisters at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Empires of the Silk Road.

--Marshal Zeringue