Monday, January 5, 2009

This Week at the Library (5/1)

Books this Update:

I began this week with a recommended book by Rick Riordian, called The Lightning Thief. The book is a work of fantasy, set in a world where the Greek gods and all of the mythology that surrounds them are real. The book is part of a series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the title character is named after Perseus, a Greek hero of old who rescued the Golden Fleece. Young Percy Jackson, like Perseus and Heracles, is a Hero: a demi-god, a half-blood. His mother was a human and his father a god -- although which god is in question for the first part of the book. Jackson discovers that he belongs to a different world -- a world of magic and ideals. The Greek gods, nurturers of western civilization, are being challenged by the old Titans, who -- if you remember your Greek mythology -- were deposed by the gods and stashed into pits and under volcanoes and so on. Percy, owing to his father's identity, is caught up in this epic battle between evil and...not-evil. Aside from some odd quirks (virgin gods having children with mortals, the odd Roman name for a god thrown in here and there), I found the book to be enjoyable. It's a frivolous narrative that doesn't take itself too seriously, and is quite imaginative besides. I will be reading the rest of the series.

Next I delved into a little philosophy. The Four Agreements is a "Toltec wisdom book". The author purports to be descended a long line of Toltec philosopher-priest-kings who once had to conceal their wisdom for fear of it being improperly used. Fortunately for us, there was also a prophecy that one that the world would be ready for such wisdom, and that day is now. The result is The Four Agreements, which is a little philosophy saturated with New Age talk. His ideas, if rescued from all of the "Woo" and rhetoric, aren't actually too bad. I found some aspects of them similar to Buddhist ideas. His four agreements, by the way, are:
  • Be impeccable with your word.
  • Don't take anything personally.
  • Don't make assumptions.
  • Do your best.
It was an interesting book. Sometimes amusing (for the wrong reasons), sometimes thought-provoking. All in all, though, I'd recommend The Art of Living over this, though.

Next I read Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. It is, as you might imagine, a Star Wars book, set in the days of the Old Republic. (That would be the one whose downfall is depicted in the prequel Star Wars trilogy. ) This book is not set during the prequel period, though. According to a Star Wars wiki, it is set a thousand years before A New Hope. Here, the Sith and the Jedi are fighting for control of the Galaxy. The Sith want to destroy the Republic and set up their own government, while the Jedi defend the republic. The story is told from the eyes of Des, a young miner ("Miners, not minors!") who feels abandoned by all of the ideals of the Republic and the Jedi. The author does make Des -- who will later become Darth Bane -- sympathetic. While Star Wars fans are used to the idea of the Sith numbering two ("Always two there are. A master and apprentice."), here they number in the thousands -- to the point where an army of them can be assembled. I found the story to be very interesting. The author has a talented for characterization and for story-telling in general.

Lastly, I read Great Books by David Denby. It's the lone serious work this week, but there was a lot to it. Author David Denby, a film critic for New York magazine, returns to Columbia University to sample its Great Books courses, which examine the so-called western "canon": books like Homer's epic poems, Virgil's plays, Aristotle's philosophy, Hobbes and Locke's ideas on government, and so on. There are many threads woven into the book: he book consists of several interwoven narratives. In the primary narrative, we experience school through Denby's eyes. He writes on the teachers' approaches, the attitudes of his classmates, the stress of exams. He compares his experience in the mid-90s (which is when this book was written) to his experience in the sixties. Connected to this narrative, but distinct from it, is another story: the way these "great books" shaped him as a freshman, and how they shape him now as a member of the "bourgeoisie". (He applies the label to himself.) He recalls moments from his life and connects them to the themes of the books. The theme-based narrative is another major one. His teachers focus more on the meanings of the story, derived from the culture they were set in. They also concentrate on how the various great books shape the others: Virgil reading Homer, Marx reading Hegel, etc. Yet another story that Denby tells is a critical one: he examines western culture, looks at the way it has changed from the times of the various authors and how it has changed from his beginnings. He weaves all of the above together while at the same time examining claims that the western canon is exclusionary and doesn't represent the modern western mind or doesn't take women and marginalized political/ethnic groups into consideration. It's a meaty book, and will interest anyone that takes books and literature seriously.

Pick of the Week: Hard to say. Darth Bane: the Path of Destruction was the most fun to read, but Great Books was the most intellectually stimulating.

Next Week:
  • The Sea of Monsters, Rick Riordian
  • Darth Bane: The Rule of Two, Drew Karpyshyn
  • Atom, Isaac Asimov

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