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Western Civilization

I'm traveling in Europe this spring and summer. I'm very fortunate to be doing this, and I want to make the most of the opportunity. By this I mean that I'd like to understand, to some degree, the sights I'm taking in - to have a sense of the significance of these grand old buildings and priceless works of art. Europe, as we all know, is the place of history and culture, and while here I want to understand why one palace was built in the fashion it was built in, why a sculpture was sculpted in one manner instead of another. In every country, I want to know who lived here and what they were like. I don't want to come back to the United States, as so many kids do, feeling that the only European experiences that meant something to me were the ones that took place in bars.

It's really embarrassing for me to admit to myself how little I know about the Western world that I inhabit. I've reached the point where, occasionally, I actively avoid learning about it so as not to call my attention to the paltriness of the information I already possess. But before leaving for Europe, I felt I had to admit to unworldliness and start educating myself. It was a big step for me. I hadn't read a nonfiction book in quite a while.

It was unfortunate, however, that I didn't begin my quest for understanding until about a week before the trip. Here are the books that I read in preparation for my voyage:

1. "The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Postmodern" by Carol Strickland: I read this book over a span of two days, and it seemed quite illuminating at the time. I found out not only which movements various artists belonged to but, in the book's better sections, why those movements sprung up in the first place. Sometimes, Strickland's descriptions of the painters are banal - everyone was a pioneer and a rule-breaker, but the author doesn't devote enough time to the (presumably) banal art whose rules were being broken to understand why. A few days after reading this, I felt I'd forgotten most of the facts I'd learned, but I'm hoping that, as I visit some art museums, they'll return to me and inform my impressions of the paintings.

2. "Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century" by Patrik Ou?edník: I felt I didn't know enough about WWI or WWII, but really this is more a work of literature than of straight nonfiction. That's not to say that its contents are untruthful; I mean that it uses a poetic style - a kind of reverberant deadpan, humorously clinical and yet very affecting - to induce an emotional understanding of a century marked not only by incredible horrors but also by a lot of other stuff, and it's less interested in communicating facts designed to be memorized. Ou?edník is a Czech novelist. He's really good.

3. "A Short History of Europe: From Charlemagne to the Treaty of Lisbon" by Gordon Kerr: The sad truth is that I read this book simply because it covered the longest stretch of European history (1250 years) in the fewest pages (150). Much of it reads as though it was copied and pasted from Wikipedia. You learn about a million wars (when they started, when they ended), but you learn about the causes of only a few of them. (The fact is that Europe simply had way too many.) Some of the stuff about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation was educational for me, but I'd forgotten almost everything in this book by the time I'd turned the final page, and I'm fairly certain that it's gone for good.

4. "A Very Short Introduction to Economics" by Partha Dasgupta: Economics doesn't have anything more to do with Europe than it does with anywhere else, but I felt that in attempting to bolster my understanding of the world in general it would be useful to pick up a book on the subject. Writing for the Oxford University Press's extensive "Very Short Introductions" series, Dasgupta does a good job of explaining how economic analysis is applied to explain why life is the way it is in various parts of the world, and this - to have a totally logical explanation for why Africa is different from India, which is different from the United States, and so on - seemed kind of awesome to me, although I was lost whenever he employed any math. His worldview also seemed kind of depressing, though, in that he seemed to reduce the entire human destiny to producing and consuming, as though every source of happiness and every impediment to it were a result of economics. In any case, I think I have a general sense now of what economists do, so I guess the book was successful.

5. "Experiencing Architecture" by Steen Eiler Rasmussen: There's very little architectural history in this book (fortunately, "The Annotated Mona Lisa" contained some), and it won't help you classify a building you see into any particular school or movement. Rather, it deals with ways of looking at buildings and of understanding them. It describes philosophies of architecture and tries to convey what architects are thinking about when they design structures. The idea that architecture is not so much the art of constructing solid forms but of creating spaces - that is, the idea that the most significant shapes in a building are not the ones you can see but the shapes comprised of air, within the solid structures - was novel to me, yet I feel right now that I won't experience great architecture much differently than I did before reading this (i.e., with a kind of awed indifference). Written in 1959 and translated from the Danish, Rasmussen's book manages to be both quite lucid and, somehow, quite beyond me.

Tagged: generation y