Dick's Picks is an occasional feature of the Memorial, offering book reviews and recommendations by Dick Fletcher. Richard “Dick” Fletcher, P.G.M., is the former Executive Secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America. He is a Past Grand Master of Vermont, 1983-85, and Past Grand Master (Hon.) of the District of Columbia.
It is a genuine pleasure for me to accept the opportunity to share my book reviews with the visitors to George Washington Masonic Memorial website. In a move away from the traditional way of doing book reviews, that is by having a book sent to you with the request that it be read and reviewed, my approach will be to choose the books that I wish to reveiw. Being an avid reader I welcome this opportunity to share my thoughts on books that it is my feeling would be of interest to other readers.
Dr. James Tresner - But I Digress: a collection of Masonic Musings and Writings)
When a friend writes a book it sometimes makes it difficult to review. However when that friend is Dr. Jim Tresner that problem goes away. In his “Musings” Jim Tresner brings together a collection of his writings over the years. The writings of Jim Tresner are never complete without his ever present humor and succinct opinions which abound in the book.
But, more importantly, the common sense approach it brings to our fraternity by relating its history through observation and rationalization clearly bringing it into today’s world is one of Dr. Jim’s greatest strengths. With titles ranging from The Starry Canopy, Great Aunt Effie, and The Ritual, Who Needs It? the importance and significance of the Masonic fraternity is very clearly defined and, of course, the relationship of the Mason to the fraternity and to the community as a whole is very carefully explained.
If you are a Freemason seeking more knowledge or an interested person wanting to know more about the fraternity—But I Digress—will be a tremendous help to you.
Tresner, James. But I Digress: a collection of Masonic Musings and Writings. Colorado Springs: Starr Publishing, 2012.
Diarmaid MacCulloch - The Reformation: A History
There were three great movements in Europe that gave rise to the world as we know it today. They were the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Reformation was that period of time when religious groups broke away from the Roman Catholic Church’s dominance of the Christian Faith. It also included the Counter-Reformation when the Church fought back to regain that dominance.
The author is a Professor of The History of the Church at Oxford University and has written extensively on the Reformation which happened in the 16th and 17th centuries. He begins by describing, as he refers to it, The Old Church 1490-1517 and then goes to other time frames through his final chapter ending with The Enlightenment and Beyond. A special note to Freemasons is a quote from the book on page 19: “The Faithful saw heaven as being as closely stratified as their own society. There were ranks of power among God’s heavenly servants, the angels; and among the Saints, too there were degrees of worshipfullness,” ( a phrase secular society equally employed for its worthies).
The author fully explains the upheaval that led to Freedom of Religion!
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: the Penguin Group, 2003.
Rebecca Stott - Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
History is full of authors and writers who were afraid to publish their works because they were so controversial. Charles Darwin was no exception. Whatever your feelings on the story of evolution, there is no doubt that those who felt this theory was true were always in great danger, sometimes mortal danger.
The irony is that the religious community attacking the Theory of Evolution were themselves the target of religious outrage when Christianity first started in Ancient Rome. Pagans were outraged at Christians; beliefs and it was not safe to hold those ideas until Christianity became the dominant religious force
Darwin’s Ghosts is the story of the predecessors of Charles Darwin, going back as far as Aristotle. There are many fascinating individuals involved in this story, all of them contributing in one way or another to the story of natural history.
One of the very interesting stories concerns sponges. Were they plants or animals? It one of the oldest mysteries in Natural History. For anyone with an interest in natural history this is your book.
Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2012.
Frank Oppel - True Tales of the West
This book is a collection of stories told by authors as varied as Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Frederick Remington, to name just a few.
One of the most fascinating stories is Across the Plains in the Donner Party 1846 by Virginia Reed Murphy. Mrs. Murphy was the daughter of John Reed one of the leaders of the Donner Party and tells the story of what they went through until the rescue parties finally arrived. It was published in 1985 but still available in hardcover.
Some really great stories about the early West!
Oppel, Frank. True Tales of the West. Secaucus: Castle Books, 1995.
Robin Lane Fox - The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian
As the subtitle suggests, the Classical World refers to the civilizations brought about by Greece and Rome. The Greeks were thinkers and the Romans were builders. The Romans always relied heavily on the Greek civilization and they took it with them wherever they conquered around the world.
Robin Lane Fox traces these early world civilizations through the Age of Homer, the time of Alexander the Great on through the creation of early Rome, and well into the Roman Empire.
A glimpse of what life was like in two of the world’s greatest early civilizations.
Fox, Robin Lane. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
James Hannam - The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution
Referred to as the Dark Ages before becoming the Early Middle Ages, that time frame has long been referred to as a period in which nothing of importance happened. Fortunately that myth is now being challenged and in his book The Genesis of Science, James Hannam makes you realize that not only were there significant inventions such as the windmill, the blast furnace, and lenses and cameras, but the industrial revolution itself had its origins in the inventors of the Middle Ages.
In fact, what we today think of as Science had its origins in the Middle Ages. Of great interest to me was the section on Merton College, described as the oldest and grandest of the colleges of Oxford. Founded in 1264, Merton College is described as “the scene of some of the most important work and natural philosophy in mathematics in the Middle Ages.”
This book is just another example of a forgotten time period that was the forerunner of many of the thoughts, ideas and actual inventions still in use today.
Hannam, James. The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2011.
Paul Kriwaczek - Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation
From the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jewish people had no country of their own. Yet they became enormously productive and contributing citizens in many countries, literally, around the world. Refusing to give up or give in to the often cruel and inhumane treatment they received, the Jewish people persisted in maintaining their own separate identity.
This story is told very well in Yiddish Civilization and Paul Kriwaczek does an outstanding job weaving the history of many well known historical events with the effect those events had upon the Jewish people.
This book is really history at its very best.
Kriwaczek, Paul. Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Paul Kriwaczek - In Search of Zarathustra; The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World
Because words on the dust cover explain the book so well let me quote them:
“In Persia more than 3,000 years ago, Zarathustra spoke of a single universal god, the battle between good and evil, the devil, heaven and hell, and an eventual end to the world—foreshadowing the core beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Zarathustra, or Zoroaster “… helped to shape the European Enlightenment, the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, and the beginning of the Christian Era.”
Zarathustra lived more than 3,000 years ago but his thoughts remain part of our world today, even though we often don't know it.
Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
A. N. Wilson - The Elizabethans
The reign of Queen Elizabeth I covered the mid 1550's until her death in 1603. These tumultuous years saw many world changing events. It was the time of Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada; Sir Walter Raleigh and the beginning of the colonization of the America's; the Irish Rebellion under Tyrone and the world of the arts including Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser. The Elizabethans as they are now called provided the world with both an age of "the arts" and an age of adventure.
We owe much to the Elizabethans and A.N. Wilson has told their story well.
Wilson, A. N. The Elizabethans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Wade Rowland - Galileo's Mistake; A New Look at the Epic Confrontation Between Galileo and the Church
Galileo believed that the Earth revolved around the sun or the Copernican Theory and the Church taught that heavenly bodies moved around the Earth or the Ptolemaic Theory. Galileo made his views known, unfortunately for him in print, thus contradicting the Church's teachings.
Wade Rowland writes about this confrontation which led to Galileo being branded a heretic. It is an astounding story of one man's attempt to speak freely without fear of punishment and losing the battle. A most compelling story with an interesting Masonic connection.
Wade Rowland. Galileo's Mistake; A New Look at the Epic Confrontation Between Galileo and the Church. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012.
John Julius Norwich - The Middle Sea; A History of the Mediterranean
One of the most historical bodies of water in the world is the Mediterranean Sea. Early civilizations were formed either on its banks or very near to it. Just for example in Chapter 1 titled: Beginnings, the author speaks about Ancient Egypt; the Phoenicians; Crete and the Minoans; Mycenae and Troy; the Trojan War; and the Hebrews, all ancient civilizations on or about the Mediterranean.
For those having an interest in one of the most historical areas on earth this is just the book for you.
Norwich, John J. The Middle Sea; A History of the Mediterranean. New York: Doubleday, 2006.
William M. Fowler, Jr. - American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783
How many of us think the Revolutionary War ended with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to the Americans and the French on October 19, 1781? The real question we should ask is: How many of us realize the two most dangerous years of the war were 1781 to 1783?
The reasons for this are many but, primarily, because the British still held many coastal city areas in what was to become the United States; there was a near mutiny in the American Army; and Congress was stalemated. (Nothing new there!)
The war was formally concluded in November 1783, when the last British troops evacuated New York City. But the difference between the two dates of 1781 and 1783 make for a fascinating examination of our nations struggle to form a new Union and demonstrates, once again, the outstanding leadership of George Washington.
American History at its best!
Fowler, William M., Jr. American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783. New York: Walker & Company, 2011.
Francis Fukuyama - The Origins of Political Order: from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
Since this is an election year, can you imagine a time when there was no such thing as recognized political parties? Francis Fukuyama takes us on a journey, beginning with his first chapter titled, “The Necessity of Politics,” through such intriguing times as chapter 4 titled “Tribal Societies; Property, Justice, War,” and shows us how people first began governing themselves up to the beginnings of modern times.
There will be a second volume talking about political organization through our current times.
For anyone interested in how the art of government came about this is a great read.
Fukuyama, Francis. The Origins of Political Order: from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Pauline Maier - Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788
We Americans take the Constitution for granted. It has been with us all our lives and long before that. But how did it come about? The Constitutional Convention of 1787 left Philadelphia with the issue of approval of the new Constitution very much in doubt. In fact, one group utterly opposed to the Constitution even burned a copy of it at a 4th of July celebration. So, it was clearly no done deal.
Pauline Maier takes us, state by new state, through the process of ratification of the United States Constitution as it happened in each of the former colonies, now states. It is almost unbelievable today to imagine what this precious document went through before it became enshrined, not only in our law but in our minds and hearts.
Maier, Pauline. Ratification: the People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Steven R. Bown - 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half
Ever wonder why in all of the countries in South America except one the language spoken is Spanish, and in the largest country in South America – Brazil – the language spoken is Portuguese?
Steven Bown in his book, 1494, takes us on a fascinating journey into Medieval Spain shortly before and during Columbus's voyages to America.
He explains how and why the world was divided between Spain and Portugal for, primarily, trading purposes. It answers a lot of questions about how the world we know today came into being. A really good read!
Bown, Stephen R.. 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2012.
Norman Davies - The Rise and Fall of States and Nations
If you are fortunate enough to have travelled to Europe did you enjoy your visit to Upper Burgundy or Burgundia? In the year 1000 A.D., much of the region which now comprises the countries of France. Germany and Switzerland was known by that name.
Norman Davies in his book, Vanished Kingdoms, takes us on a journey through Europe before it was even known by that name. He talks about such areas as Tolosa and Sabaudia. It is a fascinating journey through the early history of Europe as peoples were settling in areas that became countries that we know and recognize today.
There is a great deal of detail in the book but it is well worth reading.
Davies, Norman. The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. New York: Penguin Press 2012.
Ron Chernow - Washington: A Life
This is without doubt the finest biography of George Washington that I have ever read. Ron Chernow has done an amazing job of bringing Washington to life. Too often, Washington is portrayed as the “Man in Marble” - the Father of our Country - the First President.
It is rarely that a book brings Washington to life as a person. Ron Chernow has done that by examining Washington's childhood, life at Mount Vernon, his political ambitions, his military exploits, and his time of service as the leader of the new nation.
Mr. Chernow also talks about Washington the Mason. A really good read.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Daniel Yergin - The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World
If ever a book deserved the phrase - “a must read” - this is the book.
Mr. Yergin traces the history of energy, particularly in this country, from its very earliest beginnings through modern times. It is a fascinating read and I can't begin to tell you how interesting you will find how energy use in this country was developed.
We are today talking about an electric car and yet how many of us realize that the first cars were powered by both steam and electricity. The internal combustion engine came along at a later date and so as Mr. Yergin writes, “America caught the Horseless Carriage fever.”
If you want a much clearer picture and understanding of the complexities of the search for energy this book is indeed a must read.
Yergin, Daniel. The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
Gordon, S. Wood - The Radicalism of the American Revolution
As Gordon Wood noted in his preface, “Americans were not born free and Democratic in any modern sense. They became so—and largely as a consequence of the American Revolution.” Gordon Wood is perhaps the country's leading historian specializing in American History. Radicalism of the American Revolution discusses how the American Revolution came about from relatively prosperous and not severely oppressed people who still wanted greater freedom.
Radicalism of the American Revolution also marks the first time an historian took note of the role Freemasonry played in the American Revolution. In fact one of the statements made by Wood on page 223 was, “It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Masonry for the American Revolution.”
A great read for anyone interested in how this great country we call the United States really came to be.
Wood, Gordon, S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Lisa Jardine - On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life of Sir Christopher Wren
Ms. Jardine has brought to life one of history's towering figures—Sir Christopher Wren. Wren is best known as the architect who rebuilt London after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Saint Paul's Cathedral is perhaps his best known structure. Wren was a man of many talents and the book shares his life with us in a way that pays tribute to his greatness.
On page 469, Jardine notes Wren's Masonic membership in the Lodge of Antiquity in a positive way.
Jardine, Lisa. On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life of Sir Christopher Wren. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.