I’ve had a stack of books I want to write about sitting here for weeks—all right, months—glaring at me, peeking from behind my computer and making me feel guilty. Well, I’ve got excuses, what with the moving and the editing and what have you, but it’s time to move on and start whittling away the stack. With no further ado, let me introduce Substantific Marrow, by frequent LH commenter John Emerson, proprietor of the consistently interesting site Idiocentrism.

If you like Idiocentrism (go on over and check it out), you’ll like this book. It puts on display the extraordinarily wide range of John’s interests, from literature (“Madame Bovary as Train Wreck,” “Third-world Joyce,” “Square Ibsen,” Aucassin et Nicolette) to philosophy (Wittgenstein, Descartes, Parmenides, et al) to Americana (“The Muskogee / Waukesha / Bismarck Triangle,” “W. C. Fields and the American Family”) to probably his most enduring passion, the complex network of links between Northern Europe, the Silk Road, and the Far East, involving such things as the putative connection between Turkish qayiq and Inuit qayaq (see this LH post) and the wanderings of Edward Ætheling (who died, probably murdered, before he could take over the throne of England and avert the Norman Conquest).

Don’t be fooled by self-deprecating remarks like “At one time I hoped to work these concepts into a coherent argument, but increasingly it seems that my works will consist mostly of the interesting scraps of citations which I have succeeded in accumulating in the course of my wasted life” (from “Parmenides in Szechuan”). He does find wonderful quotes (“So protracted was [Darwin's] barnacle study that his children assumed it was the normal occupation of every father: When one of Darwin’s young sons visits a neighbor’s home, he asks his friend there, ‘Where does your father work on his barnacles?’”), but his arguments, conjoining tidbits of history you never knew about or never thought of relating to each other and suggesting contacts and influences standard history knows not of, take side roads that tend to be far more enlivening than the well-trodden highway that bored us in high school. If you’re going to read about Aristotle, would you rather it be in the context of analytics and the five elements or the sex life of molluscs? I thought so.

His credo is “To me studies of concrete particulars (history, geography, philology) are infinitely more interesting than their theoretical explanations, and the fully-theorized studies (marginalist economics, analytic philosophy, ‘literary studies’) are abominations,” and I happily subscribe to it. If you prefer shiny and unusual facts and suggestions to the dull coin of Standard Theories, this is the book for you. And he’s promised more, including one on Inner Eurasian history that I’m very eager to read.

In case you’re wondering about the title, it’s from Rabelais:

Following the dog’s example, you will have to be wise in sniffing, smelling, and estimating these fine and meaty books; swiftness in the chase and boldness in the attack are what is called for; after which, by careful reading and frequent meditation, you should break the bone and suck the substantific marrow.


  1. Yes, the book is amazing. One of the best I’ve read in the last couple of years.

  2. “Labour well”, says Blake in Jerusalem, “the Minute Particulars”; to which he adds (contra Reynolds), “He who would do any good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, & flatterer.”

  3. Thanks, David.

  4. Agreed. If most of my friends weren’t too tired to read anything most of the time, I’d be handing out copies for Christmas like confetti.

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