Uniting these disparate readings, besides their brevity and import, is Carney’s illuminating commentary. A lively history in their own right, his remarks set the stage for each selection, examining the circumstances that led to the penning of each text and then how each text in turn shaped the world. He considers issues of provenance, language, and textual accuracy, approaching each subject with welcome humility: “Scripture scholars will have had ample occasion in the preceding discussion to note where I have simplified, perhaps to a perilous degree, the details of the how the Bible came into Jacobean English,” he notes at the end of one engaging essay. Scriptural scholars might find nits to pick, but casual readers interested in the history will appreciate Carney’s spirited précis.
Carney’s generalist approach proves inviting as this miscellany finds him celebrating the achievements of Bach (introducing the composer's dedications to two works, including the Brandenburg Concertos) and, not many pages later, contemplating F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism. (“We have no comparable statement for our time,” Carney observes, adding, “And that may be a blessing.”) These short, surprising selections—each introduced with wit and warmth—accrete into a feast for readers of history and lovers of original documents.
Takeaway: This lively miscellany guides readers through many of the most significant (and shortest) documents in history.
Great for fans of: Lapham's Quarterly, Richard Panchyk’s The Keys to American History: Understanding Our Most Important Historic Documents.
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