Filed under dewey decimal project

Dewey Decimal Project 998 S South!

At long last, I’ve come to the end of the projectDoctored image of Shackleton leaving his crew at Elephant Island on his quest for rescue, a bit more than seven years since I started. 999 in the Dewey Decimal system is “Extraterrestrial Worlds” but at my library, the end was in Antarctica instead. The last book, it turns out, has an incorrect call number labeled on its spine and is identified as 999 S instead of 998 S. However, even if it were correctly labeled it would still be the last book so I picked it up to read.

Shackleton’s expedition was a failure with the expedition’s boat The Endurance crushed in the sea ice before they even reached Antarctica itself. When it became obvious that the ship was lost, the crew salvaged what they could and made their way across the ice rather laboriously until they were able to get off the ice and ended up sailing to a deserted and inhospitable island on the coast of Antarctica before a small crew navigated to South Georgia Island and made their first contact with civilization. Everyone from The Endurance survived the disaster.

The crew who were assigned to lay down supply depots on the opposite side of the Antarctic continent were less fortunate, with three members of that group lost in the snow.

The whole thing reads like an adventure story, the first part more vivid than the second. It had the kind of tone that I can imagine appealing to the young Tom Sawyer who might lead Huck Finn into snowbound wastelands after reading it. At the same time, there’s the specter of the first world war hanging over the expedition with the men being largely cut off from civilization and not really learning of the war and its horrors until after their rescue and the unspoken imperialist attitudes of the explorers that, of course, it was their right to “conquer” the frozen terrain of Antarctica. 


Having reached the end of this project, a few notes in retrospect.

I had originally planned this to be the basis of a gonzo experiential memoir, akin to A. J. Jacobs’s The Know-it-all or The Year of Living Biblically, but I realized early on that it was going to end up being deadly dull as such a project. I’m not especially thrilled even with the blog posts that did end up being the sole output.

But along the way, I did find myself reading and learning things I might not have otherwise encountered and it was a good exercise in controlled serendipity exemplified most dramatically in the letter I wrote that turned into the post for The Useful Book. I think with this project over, I’m going to let my reading go largely unfettered. I’ve been flooded a bit with books I’ve not gotten around to reading and the piles threaten bodily harm, so it’s time to read more of those books.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 980 GAL Vol. 1 Memory of Fire: Genesis

I’m drawing to a close on this project anNewImaged for the 980s—South America—I saw this book which one of the back cover blurbs describes as “taking vital parts out of everything that has been written on the discovery and settlement of America … arranging them in a kind of verbal collage … something that defies classification into a genre.” 

This was enough to catch my attention and the book delivered on its promise. Beginning with pieces of pre-Columbian myth, legend and memory and building from there, Galeano created a vital accounting of the history of the Americas from the dawn of time until the late twentieth century. Officially, I only read the first volume of the trilogy for the Dewey Decimal project, but I was so captivated, I read the last two volumes as well. There was a great deal that was unknown to me—my history classes in school focused pretty much exclusively on Europe (mostly Western Europe) and the United States. And even with a broader knowledge of Latin American history, there would still be much to catch my attention because Galeano is as likely to have his attention caught by the tale of an Argentine socialite who absconded with a young Jesuit priest and became pregnant with his baby only to end up executed by firing squad at her lover’s side, as he is to consider the history of Christopher Columbus, Simon Bolivar or Fidel Castro.

I feel like this is the book that A People’s History of the United States could have been, something that manages to tell its story through both the “great” men and the commoners, that doesn’t elide the unpleasant aspects of the hemisphere’s history while also giving due to the incidents that most historians would ignore.

Of all the books I’ve read in the course of this project, this is the only one that I’m planning to buy my own copy of, although when I re-read it, I’ll read the original Spanish text.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 973 ZIN A people’s history of the United States

For the last two decades, I’ve Cover of A People's History of the United Sttesheard many people waxing rhapsodic about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so when I got to the 970s—History of North America—I decided that this was my chance to finally read it.

What I found was not the life-changing book that many people consider it to be. I imagine a big part of that is that I’ve become familiar with so much of what seemed revolutionary about the book’s retelling of the country’s history. And because I’ve also found myself reading some deeper dives into some of these topics, like Kerry Greenidge’s Black Radical about Charles Monroe Trotter, or Nelson Peery’s memoir about his life during the depression and his time in the army during World War II, at times some of this felt a bit thin. Perhaps if I had little more than the standard-fare American History curriculum, I might have been more impressed.

And then there’s the problem that I often find with thinkers on the left who often get into a self-defeating obsession over ideological purity. The lesson I took from the 2000 election was clear: as uninspiring as the Democratic candidate might be to me, it’s far better to have even the most centrist Democrats in office than the vast majority of what the Republican party has to offer. And yet, I know people who have lived through 2000 and 2016 and yet still seem to think that if only enough of us clap our hands and believe that Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders will come to save us. And then we get President Trump.

In this book, I was willing to accept Zinn’s critique of Roosevelt. There was a lot he could have done that he didn’t (although at the same time, his remaking of American society and government was absolutely miraculous and it’s unlikely the socialist movements of the first half of the twentieth century could have gotten there even without their vigorous suppression). But Jimmy Carter? I’m sorry, but his critiques of Carter ring hollow to me and strike me as the sort of idealism of the left that leads to its downfall. 

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Dewey Decimal Project: 960.3 WES Divide and rule: the partition of Africa, 1880–1914

The 960s bring me to Africa.Cover of Divide and Rule Another part of the world that I know very little of the history of. The selection of options was somewhat uninspiring, and I decided to take a look at this book.

I knew very little about colonialism in Africa. I was most familiar with the history of colonialism in the Americas and India, but almost nothing about Africa, so I decided this might be a good way to introduce myself to the subject.

Certainly, it’s a bit maddening that the book has little to say about the people and cultures that existed before the Europeans’ arrival, but there was some good information about how the curious institutions of South Africa arose, and the transfer of that country from Dutch to British rule (I also discovered that I had been misplacing Rhodesia in my mental map of Africa).

Germany’s meager attempt at colonialism is discussed at least some (it had always surprised me that of all the great powers of Western Europe, Germany had no real colonial legacy), as is the partition of Western Africa between the British and French. 

In retrospect, I think a different book would have been a better introduction to African history, but for what this was, it was not a bad book.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 954 DAN A brief history of India

At some pointNewImage in the late ’90s I decided that I wanted to read a history of India. I think it might have been a result of reading the themed issue of Granta on the country. Whatever my motivation, it never went beyond putting “some history of India” on the long list of books that I planned to read someday.

But with the Dewey Decimal project, I found myself having to pick something from the 950s, History of Asia, and I could finally fulfill that goal.

I suppose picking a book by a non-Indian might have been a mistake, but perhaps one that made it easier to see the flaws than if I had read a book by an Indian author. Danielou, it seems, was a convert to Hinduism and had, of course, chosen as his caste, the Brahmin caste.

Danielou has all the convert’s zealotry and jingoism. The contributions of non-Hindus to the development of India are at best denigrated. Gandhi—Gandhi!—is dismissed as a member of the merchant caste who was out of his element.

But even with these flaws, some insight into the rich tapestry that is Indian history was evident from the book. I’ll likely have to read more books to really understand India, but I have, at least, a bit more knowledge of the country’s background than I did before I read the book.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 940.5318 LEB Memories, miracles & meaning: insights of a Holocaust survivor

The 940s are the hNewImageistory of Europe and I decided to pick up something that might be useful for the novel. One of the things that I’ve learned in the course of researching the novel is that women’s accounts of the Holocaust have been largely marginalized. There is an explicitly stated claim that to treat women’s experiences as something special somehow diminishes the male experience during the Holocaust. As a result, not only was there a movement to normalize the male experience, but to diminish if not completely hide the female experience. So many of the books about women’s experiences of the Holocaust have had to battle this. 

One consequence of this is that I’ve made a point of seeking out women’s Holocaust memoirs, looking for the useful or interesting details of life before, during and after the Holocaust. There is a tendency in survivor memoirs (I can’t say whether this is unique to women’s stories or not—it’s been a long time since I’ve read Primo Levi or Eli Wiesel) to make an effort to put some sort of positive spin on their experiences after their liberation, to make certain that the reader knows that they’re grateful to have survived. I kind of wish that some of the writers would exhibit some trace of the bitterness to which they’re entitled. Whether this is, in fact, a consequence of their character or their environment, I cannot say.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 933 JOS Flavius Josephus: selections from his works

The 930s are the history of the ancient world (not surprisingly, Cover of Flavius Josephus ith the majority of the numbers reserved for the ancient world that was under the rule of the Greeks and Romans). Looking over the options, I spotted this collection of the works of Josephus. 

Josephus is best-known as being one of the earliest non-Biblical attestations to the existence of Jesus,¹ but it provides a good overview of the status of the Jews in the Roman era in the first century AD. One of the more dramatic incidents that Jospehus describes is the siege at Masada (which, like a lot of the history I learned in my youth, I learned about through an “event” mini-series on network TV. Overall, it was an interesting account of personages that I knew primarily from Biblical sources along with other context that I might not have otherwise known.


  1. I remember knowing only that he was mentioned in Josephus and finding it absurd that the people who would deny the historicity of Jesus (i.e., that there never was such a person executed by the Romans around 33CE), would discount this as a witness—although looking at the actual text, it’s a bit more understandable. But having investigated it a bit, it seems likely that the surviving testimony is a modified version of what Josephus originally wrote with later Christian emendations.
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Dewey Decimal Project: 920.72 DIN Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women

The 920s are biography. My library, like Cover of Alone Alone any others, shelves most biographies separately, alphabetically by author (this is one of the things that I like about the Library of Congress system—there, literature, for example, is shelved by country/language and grouped by era and biographies and critical work are shelved alongside the authors’ work. Similarly, biographies of notable people in other fields are shelved with other books in that field). As a result, there aren’t a large number of books in this part of the shelves. I decided that this might make for some interesting reading, but alas, it turns out that here Dinnage is largely repurposing reviews that she had written elsewhere rather than approaching her subjects for their own sake. 

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Dewey Decimal Project: 910.45 DUN Pirate women : the princesses, prostitutes, and privateers who ruled the Seven Seas

Looking for a different change of pace, for thCover of Pirate Womene 910s—Geography and Travel—I decided to give this book about women pirates a look. Of course, as Duncombe is quick to acknowledge, there is little information about her subject available. In some cases the “pirate” women (Duncombe is a bit expansive in her definition of pirate) may have existed only in legend, and for those who did exist, the documentary evidence is slim.

Still, it’s nice to see reminders that piracy extends beyond the “golden age” of pirates—the Pirates of the Caribbean–style buccaneers that dominate the American imagination, and that there were pirates in other places and times. There are times when the tone gets a bit didactic and Duncombe spends more time than is necessary belaboring the lack of information about her subjects, but it was an entertaining enough read.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 901 JAC Dark Age Ahead

This was my first read for this project after the NewImage ibrary reopened after the first Covid shutdown. In the apocalyptic summer of 2020, this seemed an appropriate introduction to the final 100 of the Dewey Decimal System—history.

Written in 2004, Jacobs was warning of an impending “dark age” where we wiykd see a collapse of society through cultural amnesia.

The future is notoriously difficult to predict, and Jacobs, has her flaws as a futurist. Certainly, she failed to see the danger of the rise of Trumpism and anti-democratic movements both in the U.S. and across the world, but while her specifics were often off, she did accurately assess broad issues with the culture that persist with or without Trumpism and even with the anti-democratic forces still a threat, other issues continue to be problematic. Certainly, in the midst of the pandemic, seeing many in power insist that economic continuity trumped all was a shining example of what Jacobs called bad science.

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