Wednesday, September 3, 2008

This Week at the Library (3/9)

Books this Update:
  • Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Ascent of Science, Brian Silver
  • Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov
  • It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac Asimov
  • For the Love of Life, Erich Fromm

I began this week by reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird, which I had not planned to read at first. I’ve read a little bit of Vonnegut before, although his fictional style is a unlike anything I’m used to. I picked up Jailbird and began to read through it: it seemed interesting, so I checked it out. The book is about a man named Walter F. Starbuck, a well-intentioned and little-appreciated bureaucrat in the Nixon White House, having earned a meaningless post by accidentally advancing Nixon’s career. Starbuck’s life is quite interesting, and the story of that life unfolds throughout the book as he or an author telling the story of his life recollects them -- think of the approach taken with Forrest Gump. In a very limited way, Gump and Starbuck’s stories are similar in that they are frequently and accidentally involved in the stories of history. The plot is much easier to understand than Slaughterhouse-5, although the latter is far more popular given that it’s a criticism of the Dresden firebombing. The story is quite interesting, as is the book. Oddly enough, even though it is a fiction book, it has an index. The book is described by Vonnegut through the voice of one of his characters as being about economics. Many of the characters’ lives are influenced by both the industrialists/capitalists and the socialist movement then present in the United States.

Last week I began reading Brian Silver’s The Ascent of Science, but didn’t finish it as it is rather lengthy and I was reading other books at the same time. Silver’s book is essentially a history of western science, but it is presented more as a history of scientific ideas -- the controversies they generated and the influence they had. The book, written for lay audiences, explains scientific concepts fairly well while maintaining an informal spirit. The author includes himself in the book, offering opinions and making comments. The book is written well, and Silver takes care to explain how scientific ideas influenced political and social history. Despite this, I would only recommend it over Ray Spangenburg and Kit Moser’s two series if you’re an adult who doesn’t want to be bothered with an entire series to start getting a handle on the wide world of science.

Last week I read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation and commented that it was set far enough apart from Foundation that there was probably a novel in between. There is -- Foundation and Empire. In Foundation and Empire, we see that the Foundation has grown into a large trading empire, and its elected “Mayors” have become autocrats -- which is resented by a sizeable group on the planet, who maintain a “democratic underground”. I wonder if that’s where that’s where the website of the same name gets it from. What’s left of the Galactic Empire vanishes in this book, but before the Foundation can capitalize on the opportunity, they are toppled by the Mule, a mutant who can his mind to inflict or induce strong emotions in people -- “hypercharismatic” is the way I described him last week. The book was an interesting read, although I think it’s the weakest of the trilogy.

Quotation of the Week:
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Go Wond’rous creature, mount where Science guides.”
- Alexander Pope, "Esssay on Man", quoted in The Ascent of Science.

This post is a little unusual because of my return to Montevallo. I read the aforementioned books two weeks ago. Last week I was unable to post about them because of computer problems, but now I am online again. This past week, I read Isaac Asimov’s posthumous autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life. The autobiography was published by his wife, Janet Asimov, from text he had written and from his letters to her. Despite of the fact that it is a loose compilation, the book is put together well. Asimov’s style is perfectly engaging and is quite conversational. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Lastly I read Erich Fromm’s For the Love of Life. Fromm was a German social critic, and I’m not quite sure how I found the book. The book is composed of essays by Fromm and interview transcripts, so the topic of the book drifts. The first part was about “Affluence and Ennui” and is essentially a critique of a society obsessed with consumerism. The book also contains a lot of psychoanalysis: Fromm maintains that various thought-systems -- the Judeo-Christian tradition, Zen Buddhism, Freudian psychology, and Marxism -- all inform his worldview. (Fromm is described as a humanistic philosopher, but I don’t think that refers to contemporary humanism: humanism means different things in different contexts, and the rational “life stance” of humanism would be a strange bedfellow to most of the systems he mentioned. I say most because I’m not that familiar with Zen Buddhism.)

My enjoyment of the book changed depending on which section I was reading. While I liked “Affluence and Ennui”, the bits on dream interpretation and the psychoanalysis of Adolf Hitler weren’t all that enjoyable. I’m very skeptical when it comes to dream interpretation and psychoanalysis. Given that our dreams are our thoughts, I’m sure they betray things about us. The level of analysis Fromm goes into is too much for me. One of the examples Fromm uses is one of Freud’s dreams. Freud dreamed about a white flower that was shriveled and behind a bell-jar. Freud wanted to give the flower to his wife, but he could not remove it from the bell-jar. This is supposed to mean that Freud had reduced sexuality -- the flower -- to a thing to be studied and so could not really enjoy it. I don’t follow the logic: is it supposed to be another instance of “unweaving the rainbow”? The analysis of Hitler was the same. Fromm’s conclusion was that Hitler was a necrophiliac and hated all living things, so he was possessed by this enormous urge to destroy.

Pick of the [Update]: It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac Asimov

Quotation of the Week: “To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life." - Isaac Asimov, It’s Been a Good Life.

Next Week:
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris. Sedaris is a comedian that I particularly enjoy. The title (for those of you whose curiosity has been piqued) comes from a translation error Sedaris observed while visiting Japan. I know this because he talked about it when promoting the book on The Late Show with David Letterman.
  • Me of Little Faith, Lewis Black. I like Lewis Black’s comedy, having become a fan of him via YouTube.
  • Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson. Carl Sagan is on my shortlist of “heroes”.
  • Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi. Required reading for one of my classes, but I'm reading it early as it looks interesting.

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