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89 of 94 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2004
Something that I haven't seen in any of the reviews of Vollmann's book is this: "Am I going to want to read it?" After all, if you're spendng $120 or so on the thing, and you're interested in more that just looking at it on your bookshelf, it should be considered. Sure, Vollmann has written an important book by all accounts, but that doesn't mean I'm going to read it. Or even a quarter of it.
Well, good news: Rising Up Rising Down is very readable; moreso I think that his recent novel Argall, on which I remain stuck on around page 350. The book does get heavy of course in its theories and efforts to explore the connections it needs to make. But the chapters themselves are usually very short, and few examples in it last so long that you lose interest. A few more pages and he'll be talking about something else in a different country and different time. I raced through the first volume, and half of the second. At that point I got sidetracked with some other things, but I can't wait to get back into it.
In many cases you actually get nice short versions of difficult to understand historical events. For example, one hundred pages on what happened in the early Soviet Union when farms were turned into state owned collectives and the famine that resulted is actually much easir to read than a 500 page book on the topic, Frankly that's enough for me, and if I want to know more about it beyond that, Vollmann gives me a list of plenty of other books to check out on the topic as well.
I'll leave it to others to go into the strengths and shortcomings of this book. What I wanted to do here is just encourage people who are on the fence about buying this thing to not be discouraged by its length or topic or bewildering talk of Vollmann's "moral calculus." It is in fact a very interesting read, and the fact that you learn a lot at the same time hasn't hurt me a bit.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2006
The philosophy of war has always been unsatisfying. Abstract "moral calculus" -Vollman's label for the ethical analysis of violence - is clearly necessary, but the biological realities of violence always seem to render the sterile rationality of philosophers irrelevant. Determining when violence is and is not morally justified is such a difficult task that it is tempting to just dispose of the question, taking refuge in absolutist positions like pacifism or Kissingerian realism. As a result, worthwhile contributions to the practical ethics of war are few and far between.

This is the best attempt to reason through the moral problems of violence since Michael Walzer's "Just and Unjust Wars" and it improves on that flawed work in every way. Vollman's analysis is not limited to nation-states, he distinguishes between just and unjust regimes, he does not assume that there must be a binary moral value to every act of violence, and he knows when to conclude that a moral problem is insoluable.

Vollman passes judgment confidently when it is called for, but he has a healthy respect the lesser of two evils, the exigencies of war, and the pressures of decisionmaking in violent situations. He makes objective moral judgments, but they are clearly informed by his own subjective encounters with violence and death.

That said, this book has a lot of problems. First off, Vollman is clearly a thrill-seeker. When he talks about packing a handgun in Golden Gate Park or smoking crack cocaine, he reveals a very unusual attitude toward death. We should be suspicious of the moral handwringing of anyone who has deliberately seeks out violence. When he recounts the deaths of his colleagues while he was a reporter in the Balkans, I find myself wondering if this was not another "limit experience" that he actively chased. The experience of an aspiring novelist-DETERMINED to find abysses to gaze into-is just not comparable to that of the Somali and Sarajevan civilians who had no choice but to passively endure extreme violence.

The other big problem with this book is the lack of structure and logical rigor. If you have read any of his fiction, you know that this is just how Vollman's (brilliant) mind works, but this book suffers for it. It's a sustained meditation on violence, not a work to which the reader can refer for moral guidance in a specific situation. But it's still the best contemporary work in an otherwise empty field and very much worth reading.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2005
I have to admit that I felt daunted by the seven volumes of this book and bought the abridged edition. It is astounding! What I found most valuable is not the specific rules Vollmann lays out for deciding whether violence is justified or not, but the detailed and thoughtful examinations of specific historical events and people: the American Civil War, the Holocaust, the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia; Napoleon, Stalin, Gandhi, and, most importantly, ordinary people who were victims or perpetrators of violence. Vollmann's writing is precise and eloquent and carries you so seamlessly from one page to the next that you don't realize until it's too late that you've reached the end of this 700-page volume. (And then you feel compelled to get your hands on the unabridged edition.) This is an immensely useful and revelatory book.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2004
My experience reading RU&RD was more conventional; I read the volumes straight through. I have 2 hours of commuting on the subway each day so I get a lot of reading done. I started in May and finished volume seven in August with one month off while I was on vacation. I never found it tedious or repetitive. If one topic did not particularly excite me he would be on to another in 5 or 10 pages.

The binding and slipcase is gorgeous. When my copy first arrived the slipcase had been damaged, but McSweeney's shipped me a new case free of charge- and I didn't even buy it from them.

The only thing I can add which has not been covered by other reviewers is the photography. Vollman includes a couple dozen photos in each volume- i believe all of which he shot himself. They include shots of a friend of his who had just been killed by a sniper, a woman in columbia pointing to a bloodstain where her daughter was slain, child soldiers in Burma. I found the photos helped reinforced the reality of the exotic and often novelistically rendered personal experiences he offers in the second half of the book. I really enjoyed them.

The other thing I find amazing is that Vollman is working on another seven volume book about the 'symbolic history of north america.' I would have thought this would be considered a lifes work.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2004
I've been working on RU&RD for some time now. After reading the excerpt in McSweeney's 7 a few years ago, then reading a few hundred pages of manuscript on the advance disc I recieved, then a little more when I actually bought my copy...and now a few hundred more pages over the last week or so. This is a long winded way of conveying that there is a richness that is present in this set of volumes by William T. Vollman that is unbelievable to behold & exciting to own.
I am so happy that I own a copy of this monumental book, and plan to keep it in a prominent position in my library to refer to as I desire. At first, I was thinking I would try to work through the book like any other, length be damned. But as time has worn on, I have taken Vollman's own advice to go to it when I want and read portions that I want...which has proven to be good advice. The book has so many layers, covers so broad a subject, it seems almost a crime to try & read it like a "normal" book from Vol. 1 through 6 (as well as the Moral Calculus). These books compliment any reading schedule that includes historical & other non-fiction works. As I float from book to book in my collection, I refer back to RU&RD for Vollmans experience or thoughts on some figure or idea. What makes the book so much more interesting than other historical studies is Vollman's fearless rendering of his feelings towards what he is writing about. This could be seen as dangerous, but one suspects that anyone buying this set of books has the ability to decide their position in relation to what they are reading. It is this relationship, between the reader's views and Vollman's in RU&RD, that makes reading this mammoth book so rewarding. I am so thankful to WTV for writing this, and to McSweeney's for publishing it when no one else would without compromise.
If you are just contemplating this purchase, stop. Buy the book now before it is no longer available...I think the abridged version that comes out this year will be a sad shadow of this full version.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2005
THis book was receommended in a blog that was debating the morality of force when collateral damage to non-combatants was a real possibility. To my shocked surprise, I found an intense, serious study of violence, freedom and "urgent means" (a euphemism for 'when nothing but force will do'). This is a single volume abridgement of a huge set of books and tends to be wordy and academic in places but well worth the time invested in reading. Examining the use of force in situations ranging from Napoleon to Stalin to the US War Between the States, the author explores the question of under what circumstances the use of violence may be justifiable. Even the advocates of non-violence such as Gandhi are not neglected in the discourse. There are no easy answers here and some of the discussion is frankly disturbing (as it should be, given the subject) but it is a masterful examination of why humans kill and the "moral calculus" they use to justify their actions.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2013
"Rising Up and Rising Down" is a colossally ambitious study of violence in many of its different manifestations. William Vollmann, author and violence connoisseur, takes the reader across the globe and history to study, digest, and dissect death and violence in many of its iterations and forms. This was one of those books that while you're reading it, you keep bringing it up to people around you. It's so strange, so bizarre, with such lofty expectations. And yet, for all it's ambition, "Rising Up and Rising Down" is quite flawed and the book continually gets in its own way.

The first thing you need to know is that William Vollmann is a talker. You probably already know this, since this 733 page book is chopped down from the original 3,300 (!) page original. The subtitle of this book is "Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means." Saying this is "some thoughts" on violence is like saying the USA dropped "some" napalm on Vietnam. Vollmann looks in-depth at a number of historical figures including Trotsky, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Hernan Cortes as he grapples with who was right and who was wrong - and then summarizes their behavior in a concise maxim. However, the conclusions Vollmann draws usually takes up one sentence in a 55 page chapter.

Secondly, a lot of the book is Vollmann looking at historical case studies and examining the choices of the participants and their rationale. I found this to be the most interesting part of the book, but I am a fan of history. I could see some readers feeling like they are back in a first semester college World Cultures course, but like I said, I enjoyed it. However, I do wish Vollmann discussed a few more historical cases, with each one getting less depth, but showing similarities in justifications across the board.

Unfortunately, the book careens off into a series of travel journalism which, I'm afraid, doesn't even have that much to do with violence. Tangentially it does, sure, but mostly why different cultural groups dislike each other. The essays involve Vollmann's trips to different dangerous area and talking to different people in the area. The extended trip to Jamaica, for example, explores the murderous rivalry between gangs in a Kingston neighborhood. The only thing that this section teaches us is that no one knows why the gang war started, that everybody thinks it was the other guys that are the bad guys, that most Jamaicans are fatalistically good natured, and that you really want the book to be done at this point. Really thought he would be spending more time talking to murderers. Only some parts on the section of the Yugoslavian Civil War are worth the read, and even in that section Vollmann seemed to be frustratingly literary.

I also have no idea how he chose the journalism sections that he did. For instance the Africa section is taken out of the abridged version completely and Southeast Asia is covered by one confusing section on a (kind of boring) provincial rebellion. This is even though it seems like Vollmann has spent a lot of time there and he once kidnapped a child prostitute from her pimp and put her up in a boarding school, which pretty much seems like the coolest thing ever. Vollmann also didn't include what appears to be an extended trip to Cambodia's killing fields, which is unfortunate since it dealt with the type of pre-mediated violence with flawed justifications on a huge scale that he discusses in the historical case study. It would have been infinitely more interesting than Vollman riding around Mogadishu with some Marines where nothing happens, or any other journalism section for that matter (Note: Vollman has included a table of contents of the unabridged version, and repeatedly mentions his travels to Cambodia throughout the book. He irritatingly name drops all of the dangerous places he has mentioned).

I fear, as I often do, that I will come off harshly, like a frustrated step-dad who can't connect except through shouts and yells. Vollmann's book is interesting. His goal, as stated in the introduction, was to be helpful. Which it could have been - but unfortunately the profound discoveries are as covered up in prose as an unlucky Swiss skiing village snowed under by an avalanche. If you are looking for a whole mess of discussion on violence, a cornucopia of reflection on killing, then pick this book up. You won't find a more eager guide to parse through the bloodshed. Imagine it like getting lost in the woods for a week. You won't know where you are going and the wilderness might seem endless, but you might see something pretty cool along the way. Or picture a graduate level "Historical Philosophy of Violence" class at Harvard where every student has been given amphetamines before class started.

Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr once said "...detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife." Unfortunately I will say that in the presence of an uplifted knife, William Vollmann will not be in my head. I'd probably be stabbed before I reached Vollman's first maxim.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2009
Originally I was going to buy the seven volume version but then I became intimidated by the thought of spending that much time and energy on one book. Then when I discovered the abridged version I quickly bought it - but again became intimidated, not sure why - maybe by the seriousness of the subject matter. This book sat on my "too be read" shelf for a long time.

What took me so long to start?

This is a terrific book and it deals with a subject we all should be thinking about - violence. When is it justified? etc.

Vollman raises some terrific points and his desultory but in depth approach is a joy to read (although the style and format lends easily to skipping about).

After finally reading this book I am now planning on trying to find a couple more used copies to give to friends (because I know that if I give it to anybody they will hold off on starting it just like I did).

Also - I am keeping my eye out for a used copy of the seven volume version (now out of print) which has regrettably become very expensive (it was $75 new - now it is a couple of hundred used!)

It's not as if I'm now going to read the gigantic version cover to cover - but I *would* like to skip around in it. There are several sections that are not in the abridged version that I'd like to read - and the author made sure to put an annotated table of contents of the seven volume version at the end of the abridged version with the goal of tempting people like me to move on to the full version - Mission Accomplished!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I started with the one-volume abridgement and was so impressed I bought copies for several friends and family members and then bought the original seven-volume edition which I am now reading. The author's writing skills are impressive and engaging and his scholarship is formidable. Unlike Kant who started with a theoretical ethical calculus based on reason alone and then reasoned top-down to his deontological ethical imperatives, Vollmann starts with concrete historical actors (and their victims) and reasons bottom-up to a series of highly contextual (but not merely relativistic) moral calculi. He occasionally does a Plutarch-like "parallel lives" presentation of two historical actors. The one on Lenin and Lycurgus is excellent but the one on Trotsky and Lincoln is a jewel. I have been teaching Ethics to graduate students for years and present some of the same situations this author does but without his rich historical context and finesse. Reading this book will greatly enhance my teaching not only of Ethics to graduate students but also Classical Literature, and Western Civilization to undergraduates. I did my doctorate in Germany and must compliment the author not only for his outstanding "anmarken Wissenschaft" but also for his "Sitzfleisch;" that is, his erudition, intellectual focus, and time-investment for gifting his readers with this magisterial seven-volume work.
Keep up the good work, William.
Prof Peter C. Patton
Oklahoma Christian University
Edmond, Oklahoma
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2007
I have the revised edition (which is availble remaindered at the Barnes and Nobles in my areas for ten bucks), and I can see from the progress I have made in it that it is an extremely important work and might unlock some of Vollman's other work. However, I have some reservations; the abridgement does not seem like it was what Vollman wanted, and some of the cuts leave a disjointed feeling. I have found that I can skip around in the book without losing the meaning, and the arguments do not seem to develop from the first page to the last, but gradually throughout the book. I am reluctant to invest in the seven volume set, but I would like to see an abridgement that is more considered and smooth. Vollman states that he abridged "for money"...when he does it for love of or respect for his readers I think this will be his masterpiece. As is, it is very very good but somehow lack cohesion.
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