The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List

Around the world, the spread of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has caused remarkable disruptions to travel, sport, and society in general. Many people have been subjected to quarantines, but a great many more have been advised to work from home and otherwise keep their “social distance.” Whether the response has been unconscionably slow or dramatically overblown, time will tell. Those considerations are beyond my ken.

Whether you are in a full-on quarantine, are keeping your social distance, or are simply looking for something to do now that the NCAA basketball tournaments have been cancelled, I’ve got you covered. I have compiled The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List ™.  

The qualifications:
– It must be public domain and readily available online; quarantine means no trips to the library.
– It must deal with an epidemic; otherwise, it would just be a reading list.
– It must be long; if you are going to be cooped up for a fortnight, a short story or a single poem won’t chew up enough hours.

I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni. Milan, 1629. The plague is about to hit, hard. Although the main plot of this novel is a love story, the book is full of historical details about the plague and society’s response to it. Indispensable quarantine reading.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Florence, 1348. The Black Death has all but depopulated the city, and ten men and women retreat to a country villa. To pass the time, they take turns telling stories on various topics. The tales are generally witty and urbane, and one can see how a small group in quarantine would find them very diverting.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. London, 1665. It is rumored that the plague resurfaced in the Middle East, or Turkey, or Cyprus. “It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.” And soon it would cross the Channel. It is not clear how much of Defoe’s account is fiction and how much is just compiled firsthand accounts.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Athens, 430 BC. As if being at war were not bad enough, Athens faces a devastating epidemic that throws their polity into tumult. Yet, a mere 15 years later, the Athenians and their allies sent an expedition of 10,000 men to Sicily. Imagine surviving a plague just to die of starvation in a make-shift POW camp in a rock quarry.

That should keep you busy until this all blows over or we all die, whichever comes first. Stay safe. Cheers!

Beer of the week: Cerveza Cantina – Corona would have been too predictable. (Besides, I’ve already reviewed Corona Extra, Corona Light, and Corona Familiar. I thought about finding some Corona Premier, but paying $10 for ultra-light Mexican lager did not appeal to me.) Instead I went with a beer from El Salvador, a country under a national quarantine but (so far) zero confirmed COVID-19 cases. Cantina reminds me vividly of Cafri, Korea’s answer to Corona. It is crystal clear and refreshing. It is a bit too sticky, but not bad overall.

Reading of the week: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe – As a short story, The Masque of the Red Death did not meet the criteria for The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List ™. But it is an excellent length for a reading of the week. The story shows the importance of “social distancing”. Throwing an elaborate ball in the middle of an epidemic was just a bad move. But you almost have to admire that dedication to partying. Literally half the population had recently died of a horrifying illness, and the prince said, “Screw it! Let’s rage!”

Question for the week: What would you put on your reading list if you were quarantined for two weeks?


My Kingdom for a King

As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:

  1. A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
  2. A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
  3. A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.

These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?

Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.

Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”

Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?


Alcibiades and Churchill

This weekend is ANZAC weekend. That means that it has been 101 years since some nine-hundred thousand young men from around the globe engaged in bloody battle in rocky terrain of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The Turks successfully defended their homeland against the foreign invaders, but only after 9 months of brutal trench warfare. Winston Churchill, the mastermind of the Campaign, resigned in disgrace even before the final retreat. (Of course, he found his way back into power later on in life.)

The Battle of Gallipoli is particularly interesting because of the way that it encapsulated the notion of a “World War”. From the point of view of Western Europeans and Americans, this campaign was fought in an obscure theater, between obscure nations. Little enough attention is paid to WWI in schools as it is, but American students certainly learn next to nothing about the Turkish defense of the Dardanelles against Australians and New Zealanders. (To say nothing of the English colonials from Canada and India.) Only the fighting in Africa or Asia seems more remote to the traditional narrative of World War I.

Of course, the Gallipoli Campaign also inspired one of the great anti-war folk songs of all time, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle. One of the scenes presented in the lyrics is the trooper ships departing Circular Quay in Sydney. “And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli.” This is echoed in a later verse when “the crippled, the wounded, [and] the maimed” soldiers are shipped home, only to find that “nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away.” The imagery calls to mind the beginning and the end of the Sicilian Expedition as described by Thucydides:

“Early in the morning of the day appointed for their departure, the Athenian forces and such of their allies as had already joined them went down to the Piraeus and began to man the ships. Almost the entire population of Athens accompanied them, citizens and strangers alike. The citizens came to take farewell, one of an acquaintance, another of a kinsman, another of a son, and as they passed along were full of hope and full of tears; hope of conquering Sicily, tears because they doubted whether they would ever see their friends again, when they thought of the long voyage on which they were going away. At the last moment of parting the danger was nearer; and terrors which had never occurred to them when they were voting the expedition now entered into their souls. Nevertheless their spirits revived at the sight of the armament in all its strength and of the abundant provision which they had made. The strangers and the rest of the multitude came out of curiosity, desiring to witness an enterprise of which the greatness exceeded belief.”

Like the ANZACs some 2,330 years later, the Athenians met with disaster when they decided to wage war across the sea. In the end, nearly the entire Athenian force was captured. The vast majority died in the wretched conditions of a make-shift prison camp in a rock quarry.  It is cliche to say that history repeats itself, but somebody has to say it if we are ever to break the cycle.

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Beer of the week: Ledenika Special – Bulgaria did not enter World War I until after the Gallipoli Campaign was well underway. As it turns out, Bulgaria ended up joining the wrong side. The Turks won the Battle of Gallipoli, but they and their allies lost the war. Ledenika is my first ever Bulgarian beer. The brew is very clear, very pale, and smells of crackers. The flavor is also reminiscent of crackers. Ledenika is very average, but it is always nice to try a brew from another country.

Reading of the week: History of the Peloponnesian War by  Thucydides, Book VI, Chapters 8-15 – Not everybody was waving flags and cheering at the Piraeus as the Athenians boarded their ships. Nicias, one of the generals, had tried in vain to convince the people that the Sicilian Expedition was a bad idea. This reading is one of his speeches, which, prophetic as it was, failed to dissuade the population once the war drums had been beat.

Question of the week: What is different about the Sicilian Expedition and the Gallipoli Campaign?