In the interest of cribbing off of Ryan Landry’s 5 Friday Reads, I’ve put together a short review of 5 books and my thoughts on them.
In past articles I’ve done full blown articles on books I’ve read, but honestly, that gets tedious. I’m not sure if it’s always helpful, either. For one, someone interested in a book may be dissuaded from actually reading the book after reading an in depth article on it. Not because the material is any less interesting than they thought, but rather that they feel the article is sufficient in condensing the material and they now think they have a decent grasp of it. Rarely does an article truly condense a book.
Secondly, information acquired from a screen is less permanent than if you waded into a book yourself. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains is an entire book dedicated to how learning and memory is hampered by constant internet addiction. Even when the information gleaned from an internet session is perfectly valid, interesting, and clearly understood, it’s not retained as well. Due to taking in enormous amounts of information via screens, our brains have become phenomenal at forgetting useless things. And unfortunately, a habit trained is a habit that’s strengthened. We get good at forgetting things we look at so we can be properly entertained and ready for the next internet session. The medium of a screen itself has been classically conditioned into creating a forgetful state of mind. After you mindlessly scroll for 20 minutes, tell me what you read in the first 5 minutes. Can you do it?
So without further ado and ad hoc rationalizations why these aren’t full fleshed reviews, here’s 5 books that fall outside of the category of right wing literature that may spark your interest.
This book was truly a diamond to come across. The book is about the history of the bear and its relationship to European people’s through basically all of known history. The first sentence of the book is sufficient in capturing the mood and the awesome history that follows:
“The oldest trace of the symbolic ties between man and bear seems to date from approximately 80,000 years ago in Périgord, in the cave of Regourdou, where a Neanderthal grave is connected to the grave of a brown bear under a single slab between two blocks of stone, thereby indicating the special status of the animal.”
The first third of the book was gripping. You will learn the bear’s role in early European mythological stories. The bear was the apex predator of Europe, so naturally, people’s stories and myth revolved around the animal in fascinating ways. The bear was a sexually powerful (if not deviant) animal, immortal, and viewed as humanlike by our ancestors.
The story of King Arthur is a story of a King with partial bear ancestry. The root word “art” is even ursine in nature. Traces of the bear run through Arthurian legends, and a lot of perplexing aspects of Arthurian stories are explained easily by the actions of a bear. Beowulf is similar in that Beowulf means wolf of the bees, which is a fancy way of saying “bear.”
Even plenty of Mediterranean myths have traces of bears. The entire saga of the Trojan war is perhaps owed to the mythos of the bear. The bear is considered a seducer of women in nearly every European culture. And in some cases, a rapist. But most importantly, it was thought that women couldn’t be trusted around bears without succumbing to them. So a small detail in the upbringing of Paris—that becomes extremely significant for the entire story of the Trojan War— is that Paris was raised by a she-bear. This explains why Paris was irresistible to Helen. He had the aura of a man-bear that women simply couldn’t resist. Because this detail is buried in the story, it is suggested that it is a more ancient interpretation.
Mythos aside, you will learn a lot about bears. You will learn that bears dominated the Roman Coliseum. Bears in single combat would always defeat a bull or even multiple bulls. Bears would also always defeat the lion in one-on-one combat as well as defeating multiple panthers at once. The one notable defeat of the great bear was from a rhinoceros. It defeated the bear by piercing its belly.
The bear should be, in any proper bestiary, the true king in Europe. The lion was put in place by Christianity looking to undermine pagan symbolism and myths by introducing another creature that could be molded with Christian attributes. The story of how the church replaced the bear is a bit difficult to read because there was plenty of cruelty involved, but I believe the religious aspect should be put aside. The bear IS the most powerful creature in Europe and it does have deep mythological roots for nearly (probably every) European culture.
And if the bear is the most powerful predator in Europe, that is equally true of the North American continent. I would argue the bear should be adopted as a right wing symbol for this reason as well as its fascinating story of being central to the ancient religions of Europe and remaining king of the beasts until the middle ages. The bears fall from grace is almost too relatable to pass up for people of European descent. If any animal deserves to be the king of the new bestiary in the culture we forge ahead, it absolutely needs to be the bear.
This book was an ideas book. An ideas book that felt a bit schizophrenic at times.
I remember a comedy skit from Human Giant years ago where the skit was a group of joggers who were filming a show called “Let’s Go!” Or something like that anyways. The gag was that the group of guys would run to a random destination in full jogger regalia, mention where they were at, and say “Let’s go!” Then they would run somewhere else.
Eventually some guy comes up to the small group of joggers, and says “Hey, love they show!” To which the guys thank him. Then the guy who approached the joggers hesitantly asks if maybe next time they get to a place they can talk about where they’re at a little bit more. Give some more information essentially. The question is devastating to the group of runners. They rethink their whole career and television show, and if I remember correctly they jump off a cliff together.
Anyways, that skit perfectly summed up how I felt about this book. It was packed with an extraordinary amount of information, but it hardly lingered on anything longer than a page or two.
I would say I recommend this book for someone who has been training for a few years. If you want new training ideas, are unsure of why you’re training, or want to be made aware of new training goals, I would say this book would be perfect for you. I think as someone who has been training awhile, I was due for a reevaluation of training goals. I wrote an article recently about how to gain 15 lbs of muscle, and I’m still enjoying those gains today. But, as far as body building goes, where does it end? There needs to be a reasonable stopping point. Otherwise an enormous amount of energy will be dumped into training to gain a few more pounds. Why not switch your goals up? Why not pursue certain skills? Natural body builders will hit a plateau. And I think it’s a great thing to overcome that plateau with better sleep, nutrition, habits, and training. But unfortunately, you will hit another plateau after you fix these things. Such is life. At that point you will either slowly grind away at the gym for years to make less gains than you did the first year of lifting or say “screw it” and take steroids to keep progressing at a reasonable pace.
But what if there’s another option? This book helped me make the transition from being a simple lifter with no specific end goal in mind besides acquiring more mass and to lift heavier things to someone happy to pursue different skills for the sake of it. For me personally, this book sold me on the idea of bear crawls (maybe slightly because of the previous book I reviewed) and learning handstands.
The author did a good job of explaining how training can help brain gains as long as you consistently incorporate new skills and movement patterns. Part of what causes brain fog he argues is routine, predictability, and the lack of adaptation to new skills or demands. In the latter half of the book he makes an interesting case that the plasticity of children’s to adolescent’s brains is likely due to the fact that everything they do is new and requires new movement patterns and new ways of thinking. Learning new skills primes you for learning new skills. Not learning new skills for long periods makes you less adaptive to learning new skills.
If you take someone who does an office job, drives home, does a similar exercise routine, sees the same people routinely, and hasn’t bothered to pursue any new skills or hobbies, and you multiply this experience by 5,10 or 20 years, you will get brain fog. You will misplace keys. You will forget names. You will struggle with new ideas. The brain will trim unnecessary information and become extremely adapted to this lifestyle. The specific adaptation to imposed demands, or SAID principles, would predict that this person would be an efficient office worker, but anything that falls outside of that domain might pose a problem. The author of the book makes the case that routinely learning new skills, even simple movement patterns with different exercises, will prime your brain for learning. Even things like brushing your teeth with your left hand can be beneficial.
This is where bear crawls come in. A contralateral movement where the timing and pace of movement is completely different than walking can pose a unique challenge as well as give you a decent work out. If the bear crawl is easy, then drop lower and do a slow lizard crawl. For me, this is a lot of fun to do with the kids.
Another idea I was sold on is the handstand. Take every proprioceptive sense in your body and flip it upside down. This will be disorienting and create a massive logistical problem for your brain to solve. The world is suddenly alien from its view, it’s gravity, and the way your body is expected to stabilize itself in space. In a way, this is the closest you can approximate the experience of a toddler learning how to move in the world. And in a way, it’s like learning a new language.
My main criticism with this book is there is no clear guideline or way to incorporate any of its ideas. There’s hardly any suggestions on how to progress on any exercise you might take an interest in. It leaves it up to you to pick and choose what you like and how to progress with it. Perhaps you like the idea of kettlebells, squatting with sandbags, lizard crawls, and trying to bend unbendable pieces of metal like old strongmen used to train. How do you incorporate that in a balanced program? Who knows. But I’m sure with enough time and thought, a program could be developed on your own.
And one last final thought for those who might take interest in this book. The author suffers from a mild case of capeshit brain. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but you do have to step over a plenty of super hero references.
If the last author had capeshit brain. Wim Hoff has 60’s hippy brain. Reading his hippy ramblings on love and light and yaddy yada really wore me down. Basically every chapter has a bunch of hippy filler that you have to wade through. His personal story is certainly more fascinating than his philosophical out look on life. His accomplishments are also incredible. They are peppered throughout the book and are used to highlight the power of the breathing method and cold exposure.
But, I read the book for the method of course, so perhaps I should give my impressions on it. I have taken cold showers for the past 4 months. First a warm normal shower, then a cold shower. It’s an easy way to do it. I have to this day not done a cold shower right off the bat. It’s not even recommended in the book to do that, so I was certainly relieved it didn’t ask me to.
There are enormous benefits to taking a cold shower. One of the best arguments in the book is that your circulatory system, when stretched out, could wrap around the Earth two and a half times. There’s roughly 60,000 miles of blood vessels in your body. Cold showers or cold training gives the opportunity for an enormous amount of these blood vessels to dilate or contract (depending on where the vessels are) and shunt blood to your core. The basic premise being that you’re asking your body to do something it effectively never gets the chance to do. Training your circulatory system, which the blood vessels themselves have tiny muscles that either contract or relax, can help reduce stress. If your circulatory system is better at opening and closing its vessels because it gets the opportunity with cold exposure, then your heart won’t have to work as hard pumping blood through constricted vessels the rest of the day. So if you expose your body to a hermetic stress like cold, your body will be less stressed and more relaxed the rest of the day. This may go a long way in explaining why cold showers reduce your susceptibility to illness.
There are dozens of arguments for cold showers ranging from fat loss to boosting testosterone. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of good that it offers. And, I’m not the first to note this, the building of your will power to take that cold shower is POWERFUL. If you force yourself every day to do it, you can more easily tackle other uncomfortable tasks in your day to day life. I really truly do believe there is carryover. Your will power is trained every day and grows in capacity. I’ve noticed my ability to tackle things I’d rather not mess with has significantly increased over the past year. I owe this in part to buckling down and just turning that shower dial to cold every single day. The cold gets easy to handle. But the apprehension of turning the dial doesn’t seem to go away. Truly the hardest part is just turning the handle. You will find that your body can handle the cold with ease over time.
The book suggests starting with 30 seconds and increase 30 seconds every week. In 4 weeks you will be taking a cold shower for two minutes straight. Personally I do three minutes to be an over achiever. If two minutes is good, surely an extra minute is better.
And just to add an unexpected delightful thing with cold showers. When you take a warm shower before a cold shower, the steam and warmth still pervades the bathroom when you’re done. So when you finally get out of the cold shower, you’re greeted by warm air that feels phenomenal after the cold. I used to take long hot showers because I dreaded the cold air of the bathroom by comparison. Even if it was steamy, it still felt cold. Now it’s the opposite. Because the last temperature sensation I feel is cold, that warm bathroom air feels amazing.
Cold exposure is only half of the book though. The other half is the Wim Hof breathing method. Its effects are discussed in detail. There are many incredible claims for the breathing method combined with cold exposure that helped many people deal with a variety of diseases. I’ll be blunt though. While doing the Wim Hof breathing exercise is relaxing, and it does produce a near psychedelic experience, I just can’t be arsed to do it. It takes about 20 minutes to do properly, and I honestly just do not have the patience for it. I find it boring. I’m sure I’m passing up some health and cognitive benefits, but I really just can’t dedicate 20 minutes to lying on the floor. Perhaps in a slower stage of life I could integrate it but not now.
The final paragraph of the book and it’s ultimate conclusion:
“It might seem that much of the argument of this book has been negative. There was no pagan revival in the west, no pagan party, no pagan literary circles, no pagan patronage of the classics, no pagan propaganda in art or literature, no pagans editing classical texts, above all, no last pagan stand. But all these apparent negatives actually add up to a resounding positive. So many of the activities, artifacts, and enthusiasms that have been identified as hallmarks of an elaborate, concerted campaign to combat Christianity turn out to have been central elements in the life of cultivated Christians. This is the one area in which paganism (defined as the Roman tradition, Rome’s glorious past) continued to exercise real power and influence on men’s minds. Despite the best attempts of Augustine and other rigorists, the Roman literary tradition played a vital and continuing role in shaping the thought-world of Christians, both at the time and in the centuries to come.”
If this conclusion piques your interest, be aware that it took 800 pages of tedious historical analysis to reach this point. Some parts of this tome were fascinating. Other parts numbed my brain sufficiently to where I comprehended little of what I read.
I sought out this book because the question of why Christianity spread so rapidly in the Roman world has tugged at me for a long time. This books purpose isn’t to answer that question at all though. Despite that, I am closer to understanding why Christianity overtook paganism in Rome after reading it.
The real purpose of this book seems obvious in relation to its title. The Last Pagans of Rome is concerned with mostly the last pagan aristocrats of Rome. What were they doing in the late 4th century? What was Symmachus (for example) doing? What was the content of his letters to friends and colleagues? What was his relationship with promoting paganism? Many different figures, books, speeches, a war, political controversies, etc were analyzed with their relationship to paganism kept in mind.
Turns out, there wasn’t a lot of conscious “paganism.” In fact, the beginning of the book outlines how the term “pagan” or “paganus” is basically just an antonym. If I were to discuss military men, I would refer to pagans as people not in the military. If I were to be talking about senators, pagans would be people not in the senate. So Christianity itself, referring to non-Christians, created the category of pagans that we think of today. So it turns out people who weren’t Christian didn’t think of themselves as pagan. Only Christians considered them pagans in relation to themselves. With this in mind, there was no conscious pagan counterpart to Christianity.
What Roman paganism was was its state religion; its public sacrifices, public offerings and rituals. When the state religion was effectively outlawed in the late 4th century through the efforts of the emperors Gratian and then Theodosius, paganism disappeared with it rather quickly. There wasn’t really “private paganism.” There was just people who weren’t Christian. The author of the book does a lot of heavy lifting to disprove the claim that everybody promoting classical literature and culture were secret pagans. In fact, many of the biggest advocates for classical culture were Christians. Classical culture and literature is almost better to be thought of as secular rather than specifically pagan.
This book is for the true scholar looking to wade through historical nuances you never thought possible. Certainly not for the faint of heart. And the book isn’t cheap either. You’ll have to drop around 60 bucks to get it.
Ah, wood working. The rich man’s hobby!
I love Christopher Schwarz’s writing. He’s got an everyman touch that makes reading what ought to be extremely dry material interesting. I wrote about two other books from Schwarz, and I have no problems writing briefly about another one.
If you’re in any way interested in woodworking, especially traditional wood working (and even if you have plenty of power tools in the shop, as he explains), I would recommend diving into this book. What makes a useful workbench? What features enhances wood holding? What makes it harder? These are the type of questions answered in the book. The book is designed to work with your needs. Do you need a tail vise or a wagon vise? Or better yet, should you not even bother with either and just stick to a face vise? It depends on what you think you’ll be doing later on.
And of course, the most important question of all: how do you construct a proper work bench? There’s a couple different workbench plans in this book. I followed the plans for a laminated Roubo workbench. I built it from reclaimed oak and pine, so luckily I didn’t go broke doing it. It was a challenging project, and in the end I’m happy with what I built—a thing to help me build other things. Don’t expect the project to be quick and easy, although anybody half competent should be able to do it faster than I did. I took a ridiculous 4 months because I insisted on using reclaimed wood because I’m an absolute cheapskate. The book suggests using southern yellow pine to build with for its attributes and cost effectiveness. Unfortunately today you’d be a fool to go to the hardware store to pick up all the wood needed for this project. But, when prices come down, and you want to tackle a fun project that will help you tremendously in later projects, this book is a great place to start.
Knowing that this is kind of a niche interest, I’ll cut this review short. Cheers.