Friday, July 15, 2011


It would be easy to dislike this book. The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe opens with vivid descriptions of pilgrims who have come to Lourdes to healed juxtaposed with memories of Tóibin's Irish Catholic upbringing, hinting at mysteries and beauties that the rest of the book will, one hopes, elaborate on. This is not that book, though.The purpose of this book isn't to illuminate the Church or a part of Europe. Its stories of finding bars and beers and lunches and flights and hotels and interviews with whatever English speakers he happened to run into, it feels at times like a look behind-the-scenes of the making of that book.

But gradually it becomes clear that the book is actually about Tóibin's failed struggle to understand what he is seeing, whether a pilgrimage site, an abandoned church in the former Soviet Union, or the mass appeal of Pope John Paul II, who makes frequent appearances.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I had to get this since I enjoyed Harl's other Teaching Company course (Rome and the Barbarians) so much. This lecture series is a bit shorter (24 lectures) and not as complex, nor as hard to follow. Harl's true expertise is in the Roman Empire and so in this series he is not quite as passionate or opinionated, and these lectures are generally less dense than those on Rome. Of course, Harl's lectures can get overly dense and his opinions often carry him on long digressions, so these aren't necessarily negatives. And where his thinking about Rome represents a highly distinctive view of history, these lectures stay pretty close to the typical presentation of Greek history. It is a relatively straightforward trip through the long struggle between Sparta and Athens, though Harl's perspective is, I think, colored by his Roman expertise. His views on the of nature of classical empire and the nature of Mediterranean power come from the Romans, making him more comfortable with the hard facts of empire, and causing him to emphasize the Spartan and Athenian relationships with allies more than their internal histories and cultures. He sees the war as a struggle between two ideas of how to manage the Greek world, treating Athenian democracy and Spartan traditionalism as something like two political positions that were present in varying degrees in all city-states throughout Greece.