Oddly Useful Books

There are a few books I keep turning to that I never thought I’d use more than once or twice. One is a technical guide, while the other is a book I bought for a history of the US South (or was it US religion? 19th century US?) class and thought I was done with. Wrong-o!

Osprey Publishing specializes in military books. The ones that show up in the local book stores are about soldiers in WWII, mostly German. Since the only German history books are also about WWII or the NAZIs in general, it makes sense. But Osprey covers a lot broader range of topics and time periods.


The one on my desk, that I end up looking at more often than planned, is Medieval Russian Fortresses, AD 862-1480. I don’t remember where I learned about it . . . oh, yes, now I do. It was in the “read more” box at the end of an article in Medieval Warfare magazine. That periodical is bad for my budget in so many ways, but back to the main topic. For some reason, it sounded useful, and I found a used copy for a buck plus shipping. One of the best dollars I’ve spent.

The fortifications in Blackbird came from the book. Other things came from that slim little book with beautiful illustrations and descriptions. I was trying to remember the lay-out of one of the cities in medieval Russia for another project, flipped some pages, and there’s a detailed color painting of a different city but that incorporated similar defenses. Some of those frontier forts, by the way, would be perfect for fantasy novel settings: wooden castles built into isolated crags.

I realize that most people don’t enjoy spending hours pouring over books of historic fortifications. Nor do most people drive along looking at the terrain and imagining how they would defend this or attack that bit over there, with what kind of troopers, or how would you do X if all you had were light cavalry . . . And in the age of satellite guided munitions and Abrams tanks, some kinds of fortifications are at best pointless and at worst death traps for the defenders. A network of tunnels and caves? There’s a MOAB or JDAM for that.

The other book is about as different as it can be. It is Nathan O. Hatch’s Democritization of American Christianity. Sounds duller than that butter knife you use to undo standard screws, doesn’t it? My friend, you have not met the sheer craziness that was religion in the US between 1776 and 1850. What Hatch describes is how the average believer took control of their religion, nudging (or booting) bishops and seminary trained ministers out of the way and establishing a hundred and one at least different churches, denominations, and ways of worshipping G-d. And Americans did it with gusto, inventing the revival service, awaiting the Second Coming, dragging the church onto the frontier, spreading the Good News around the world, establishing charitable groups that took care of the sick and needy, plotting how to free the slaves and banish demon rum (or improve people by serving them whole grains. Graham cracker, anyone?) Church music changed, how people worshipped changed, who led the congregations changed, and left Europeans scratching their heads and wondering what in G-d’s name happened to G-d’s church?

It is not a light read. Hatch assumes you know some basics about Christianity and US history. But it is fascinating, and turns on end some of the common attacks against Christians in the 19th century. And the characters he turns up, from Lorenzo Dow to Joseph Smith to women preachers and exhorters to the men who compiled the Sacred Harp hymnal are intriguing. Hatch writes very well.

I made notes in the book when I read it in college and then thought I’d never use it again. No. I keep turning back to it for US history, for church history, for music history, for the history of reform, for church vs. state arguments . . . it is probably the best one volume overall history I’ve found of about Protestant religion in the US in the US between the Revolution and Civil War.


2 thoughts on “Oddly Useful Books

    • It really is. That period in US Protestant history had so many wild things and unusual characters that all he had to do was organize the stories, find some pictures, and sit back.

Comments are closed.