It's hard to believe, but summer is here already. Thanks to COVID-19, this summer is likely to be a staycation for most folks — binge-watching television series from the 1960s (seriously, watch every episode of the camp 1965 "Batman" series with Adam West and see if you have a cerebellum afterward), mastering the art of Kiribati cooking and, of course, reading your way through the library.
So what does a small-business expert put in his bookbag when he goes on vacation?
Be forewarned: I'm a pretty avid reader. When I was 6 years old, my dad instructed me to read 50 pages of something — anything — a day. I took his advice seriously, and I'm still doing it years and years later (I'm not saying how many years ...).
Because I read so much about business and law during the year, I try to get as far away from that as possible when I go on a mental holiday: science fiction, fantasy, the comic novels of Jasper Fforde, Tim Dorsey, Tom Sharpe and Christopher Moore (if you've never heard of these folks, you are missing out on the joy of living).
But not entirely. There is a type of "fun" reading I enjoy that has helped me get a perspective on the business and political world in ways that reading The New York Times simply doesn't. When I'm not reading about business, legal and technological developments, I read history, especially ancient and medieval European history, and novels set in those periods. The further back you go in history, the easier it is to grasp the issues and personalities that defined that particular epoch, and because you are less emotionally attached to them (compared to, say, a history of Hitler's Germany), it is often easier to glimpse the parallels between those times and our own.
Even more fun (and enlightening) is to read at the same time a nonfiction account of a historical period and a novel set in that period.
Here are the history books and companion historical novels I am taking with me on vacation:
"Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician" by Anthony Everitt; "The Judgment of Caesar," "The Triumph of Caesar" and the "Roma Sub Rosa" series by Steven Saylor. For hundreds of years, Rome was a republic ruled by a Senate whose members were elected from Rome's most powerful and wealthy families. Along comes a populist politician (and military leader) named Julius Caesar, who battles income inequality among Rome's elite, broadens the political base by empowering the poor and sidesteps the Senate every chance he gets in order to do things his way with the army at his back. He is assassinated by a cabal of conservative senators, and in the civil war that follows, the Roman republic is destroyed and replaced by one of the most ruthless autocratic empires in history.
Cicero lived through all that. Watching him skillfully surf the political waters and repeatedly survive crisis after crisis where many other clever politicians fail is truly awe-inspiring, as is the tragedy of seeing Cicero finally lose his head by taking a rigid, principled stand rather than trimming his sails to the latest political wind shifts: a lesson for any wannabe politician.
Saylor's "Roma Sub Rosa" series of historical novels (12 so far) are set in this turbulent period. While these are primarily murder mysteries (Saylor's stories are told from the perspective of "Gordianus the Finder," a sort of Sherlock Holmes in a toga), Saylor is by trade a classical historian (at the University of Texas), and the books entwine Gordianus and his family with the wealthy and powerful including Cicero, Caesar and their respective households.
"Julian" by Gore Vidal; "The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason" by Charles Freeman. Both books deal with the same moment in history — the reign of the Roman emperor Theodosius I (379-395 A.D.), who not only dictated that Christianity would theretofore be the official religion of Rome but also dictated the form that religion would take, suppressing dissent and intellectual debate, and calcifying Christian doctrine into an orthodoxy that would rule Europe for the next 1,000-plus years.
Freeman's magisterial history gives you the facts; Vidal's brilliant historical novel views these developments from the perspective of the Roman emperor Julian II, known as "the Apostate" (360-363 A.D.), who, after first embracing Christianity, rejected it in favor of the "pagan" Greek philosophical tradition. As in Cicero's case, this is a moving account of what happens when a human being stands up for reason and principled debate in the face of overwhelming ideological forces.
"The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme" by John Keegan; "Agincourt" and "Sharpe's Waterloo" by Bernard Cornwell. Military historian John Keegan's classic describes the battles of Agincourt (1415) and Waterloo (1815) from the perspective of a "grunt" foot soldier in the English army. Historical novelist Cornwell has tackled the same battles from the same perspective, and the comparison with Keegan's accounts is fascinating. I am not generally a fan of Cornwell's novels set in medieval times (his characters are often too "modern" in their worldview and, therefore, unbelievable), but no one can take you inside a battle like Cornwell can.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.
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