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To Rule The Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

Posted by friendsofthenewarkfreelibrary on February 5, 2018 at 1:05 PM Comments comments (0)


By Arthur Herman (HarperCollins, 2004; 648 pp.)

Reviewed by Roy H. Lopata

Codfish, salt, wheat, rice or perhaps sugar and molasses, Irish medieval monks or Spanish conquistadors, the printing press or the paper used for printing, black coal or the Black Death, the Greeks or the Romans, Newton or Einstein, the automobile or Steve Jobs, Elvis or the Beatles, and how about gunpowder (of special relevance in little Delaware) – apparently the list of books about things, persons or events that make us what we are has become endless. Arthur Herman, seemingly without any fear of contradiction, has offered us two bites from this apple: in 2004 he published To Rule the Waves, his history of the British Navy and its role in shaping our world and in 2001 he offered How the Scots Invented the Modern World. This is cheating; especially since almost all of his Royal Navy heroes like Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Horatio Nelson, James Cook, and Jack Fisher – the godfather of World War One’s mighty dreadnoughts, all came either from England’s West Country or its northeast coast, or from her overseas possessions (Fisher was born in Ceylon – now Sri Lanka) and few if any were Scots. And I will not mention the importance of the apple to either Newton or western civilization!

Beyond that, while Herman provides a detailed and credible history of the Royal Navy, he does not make the case that “our world” was essentially shaped by the admirals, midshipmen and sailors that Great Britain put out to sea. One glaring example: Herman notes on several occasions that India -- the crown jewel of the British Empire -- was originally conquered and eventually maintained in English hands for over a century by the East India Company, which had its private own army and navy; in other words, without the help of the Royal Navy. If the Royal Navy did not shape India for Britain, how did it shape the modern world?

In other words, if you essentially ignore Herman’s somewhat exaggerated thesis and you are a military history buff (especially of the naval variety) or cannot read enough history of the British and their empire, than To Rule the Waves is for you. Herman takes us through a richly portrayed but not celebratory account of the founding of the Royal Navy under King Henry VIII, its Elizabethan era of plunder on the Spanish Main, the heroic weather-aided defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Royal Navy’s part in the 1688 Glorious Revolution, Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar over Napoleon, the role the Navy played in the spread of the empire around the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and traces the Royal Navy triumphs and tragedies during the 20th centuries two world wars. He also includes interesting details about the Royal Navy’s role in the development of the technology of seafaring, and its contribution to our understanding world geography and new scientific discoveries. Regarding the latter, Herman notes that Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, a Royal Navy vessel, resulted to a considerable extent in his theory of evolution. Herman concludes with a brief postscript regarding the Argentine-British 1982 Falkland Islands War, a depressing affair in many ways, that underscores Herman’s (and I suppose England’s) sense of loss as the sun final set on the Royal Navy of Drake, Nelson and Churchill.

Seinfeldia-How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything reviewed by Roy H. Lopata

Posted by friendsofthenewarkfreelibrary on February 5, 2018 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (0)

SEINFELDIA -How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything

By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (Simon & Schuster; 307 pp.)

Reviewed by Roy H. Lopata

“Yada, Yada, Yada;” “No soup for you;” and “Not that there is anything wrong with that.” Yes, these are lines from perhaps one of the most remarkable television situation comedies of all time – Seinfeld. But you knew that already, didn’t you? And that to a significant extent is the theme that Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wants to impart to us: Seinfeld, a show created by two New York Jews with a very East Coast sensibility that left the prime time airwaves nineteen years ago, has so permeated the nation’s culture that everyone, even those nearing adulthood and born after the show moved from network to syndicated television, smiles knowingly when they hear or read the now ubiquitous catch phrases made famous by Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. And, according to Armstrong, these names have become iconic as well, so much so that the actors who played these characters are still remembered by these TV labels rather than their own. The star and co-creator, Jerry Seinfeld, apparently had the amazing foresight to use his real name as a character in the show to avoid any confusion in the future!

Armstrong couples her detailed exploration of Seinfeld’s impact on American culture with an interesting history of the show’s beginnings as a Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld thirty minute script written in February, 1989; through its early struggles to find an audience; to its triumph as the nation’s number one hit that by 1996 contributed $200 million dollars to the billion-dollar profit made by General Electric – NBC’s parent company. Seinfeld had become the first regularly scheduled television show to earn $1 million per minute of advertising, something previously reserved for NFL Super Bowl telecasts. Jerry’s relatively inoffensive and observational comedy style, coupled with Larry David’s darker and much more caustic approach (the style that he later brought to his HBO hit – Curb Your Enthusiasm) produced the kind of magic that, according to Armstrong, has seldom had such a significant impact on the shows that followed and the culture within which they were broadcast.

Armstrong also provides considerable material about the numerous Seinfeld writers, who Jerry and Larry deliberately reshuffled every few years, that were encouraged to utilize the most insignificantly seeming details from their day to day lives to provide the framework for episodes. One of the obvious in retrospect attributes that made Seinfeld so successful was that even though the characters were not really likeable, their foibles (waiting for a seat at a restaurant; annoying telemarketing calls; running out of toilet paper; and finding a reserved rental car not “reserved”) were all clearly recognizable to everyone watching. Along the way, Armstrong also explores the onerous and extremely detailed rewrite process that produced, of course, a show that gave the indelible impression that the actors “were” the people they played and were not really acting at all.

So Seinfeld rolls on. According to Armstrong it is now by far the most successful syndicated television show in history. Hundreds of websites (none, of course, in existence when the show originally ran) and the on-gong Seinfeld based special events – Minor League Baseball games with Seinfeld promotions; the real “Kramer” offering New York City Seinfeld location guided tours, and the “Soup Nazi” making personal appearances across the country -- underscore the lasting impact of Jerry and Larry’s creation. And most interesting of all, the show has left so many quotable phrases for us that some seem particularly suited for 2017, like this one:

“Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.” – George Costanza.