Monday, April 27, 2009

This Week at the Library (27/4)

Books this Update:
  • The Associate, John Grisham
  • A People's History of American Empire, Howard Zinn
  • Abounding Grace, M. Scott Peck
  • The House of the Vestals, Steven Saylor
  • Our Inner Ape, Frans De Waal
  • The Sane Society, Erich Fromm
  • The Reason for God, Timothy Keller
  • Out of my Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer

Please note that Out of my Life and Thought, The Sane Society and The Reason for God have not received individual comments yet, although they will. Two of the books require more thoughtful commentary than usual, and I've not finished ordering my thoughts yet. As for the third, I just forgot about it until now. I began the week with John Grisham's The Associate, his latest legal thriller and one that is in some ways a return to the style that made him popular. Although it has received mixed criticism, with an author as well-known as Grisham I don't know that it really matters: people with high expectations will be disappointed, while those who just expect to be entertained will probably be so. The book is pure entertainment, lacking the criticism of The King of Torts, The Street Lawyer, The Last Juror, The Rainmaker, and a few others. (There are those who don't like Grisham expressing his opinions about society in what they expect to be just a bit of amusement, but quite frankly you're going to get opinions even if you read the Sunday comics.). The book reminded me of The Firm: in both books, the young hero finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Although the book was a page-turner, it ended somewhat clumsily and if I didn't know Grisham better I'd think he was setting up a sequel.

Speaking of entertainment-as-criticism, I then read Howard Zinn's A People's History of American Empire, presenting a lecture by Zinn on the history of American imperialism in the form of a graphic novel, or comic book. Zinn begins with the last of the Indian Wars and ends with the invasion of Iraq. Had the book been published later, there's no telling how much Zinn could have found to write about. Most of the book serves to illustrate Zinn's lecture as a comic version of him gives it, although sometimes Zinn uses stories that seem outside of his lecture's narrative to push the book's overall story forward. The story itself is the growing power of American and corporate imperialism, their indifference to the sufffering they cause, and the people who fight against them. Although this isn't really a "comic book", it definitely has its heroes and villains. I knew most of what Zinn wrote about, and I think his interpretations are mostly fair. One of my friends voiced objection to Theodore Roosevelt's association with racists, but I don't know enough about his "Rough Riders" to comment intelligently. I enjoyed the book and thought it a pretty smart commentary.


Throughout the week I read from a book of quotations called Abounding Grace, compiled by M. Scott Peck, some of whose work I read a few weeks back. The quotations are organized into twelve themes -- Courage, Happiness, Love, Faith, and so on, most of which have subheadings. The only theme without a subheading, actually, is "Wisdom", the book's final chapter. Peck introduces each theme with a brief essay that delves into why he thinks the matter important and -- indeed, what he thinks it means. I have shared my favorite quotations from the book at my philosophy and humanities blog.

I also continued in Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series, although I deviated a little from the pattern and read one of his short-story collections instead of the actual novels. I want to read his books through chronologically, not in their publishing order. The House of the Vestals is set between Roman Blood and The Arms of Nemesis, tying them together well. The book consists of nine mystery stories, most of which are solved by Gordianus the Finder. (The remaining story is not actually a case of Gordianus': rather, it is a mystery story told to him by the woman would will become his wife.) I enjoyed all of the stories, and appreciate Saylor grounding them in historical accounts.

I finish Erich Fromm's The Sane Society this week, a sturdy book of social criticism published in the 1950s. While it is not "popular sociology", it isn't a stuffy academic tome, either. Fromm was a member of the Frankfurt school, which is sometimes labeled Neo-Marxist from its members' shared criticism of capitalism. Fromm begins by asking the question: can we criticize a society and make useful judgements about it? He believes we can, and then establishes criteria to that effect. A good portion of the book is devoted to "Man in Capitalistic Society", as Fromm believes we can only understand why people are the way they are by studying the culture that shaped them. In this, his biggest chapter, he analyzes the needs of capitalism and shows how they are met by trying to reshape the minds of men -- but since our minds are not infinitely moldable, and since the shape we are being pressed into is unnatural, misery develops. He then addresses attempts by people to reform the system through "Supercapitalism" and "Socialism" and delves into their problems. He finishes the book with "The Path to Sanity", in which he introduces the reader to "Humanistic Communitarian Socialism", which is a bit of a mouthful. The book reads well, given that it is being written for old Germans in the mid 1950s with very specialized vocabularies. Its scope is wide-ranging: Fromm discusses everything from religion to consumerism. I found the book interesting and engaging, to say the least, but I don't know how many readers it would actually appeal to.

Next, at the behest of a friend, I read Timothy Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Apparently, it's all the rage in evangelical circles these days and is touted as an answer to all the various atheist books released in recent years. Keller addresses the "Four Horsemen" -- Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens -- by name at various points in the book and cites from some of their work, although he displays a decided preference for quoting Dawkins and Hitchens. I suspect this is because their style is more aggressive. After introducing his worldview -- a fundamentalist perspective that includes a desire for social justice -- Keller addresses various "attacks" on Christianity. Although some of what he says is true, he rarely seemed to address the claims themselves. He seemed to dance around, attacking questions rather than answering them, and he lost my respect a hundred pages in. It took me two weeks or so to read through this book, mostly because I would pause to avoid getting trapped in a argumentative mindset. In the second part of the book, Keller presents arguments for Christianity, including an argument from beauty and an argument from "well-why-would-they-have-written-it-down-if-it-weren't-true?", in which he expresses his belief that it's more likely that Jesus did rise from the dead than that people would make it up. He asks "Why else would they have said this?". Why do Catholics canonize saints who "perform miracles" in their life? Why do people share testimonies about being abducted by aliens? Given that all these people are expressing the same basic story -- "I was abducted by bobble-head aliens who gave me an anal probe!" -- isn't it more likely that this is True rather than they just made it up? I mean, what is the likelihood of people just believing things because it feels good?

The book is in my view a poor example of apologetics, and I am amazed that so many Christians are raving about it. It seems to me a matter of "preaching to the choir". I will be posting more formal responses at my philosophy and humanities blog on Fridays. Also, I was disappointed by another matter. When I placed this next to The God Delusion, nothing happened. I was hoping that they would be repelled by one another like oil and water, or attracted like the opposite ends of magnetic poles, but nothing happened.

Next I read Albert Schweitzer's Out of my Life and Thought, a biography of sorts that I found through reading The Book that Changed my Life. Having read it, I'm certain why it changed that essayist's life. It's certaintly about a very interesting man who expresses engaging thoughts, but much of the book consists on theological musings and a history of the organ. Schweitzer -- who I had never heard of before -- grew up in Alsace, a German-French region that officially belonged to the German Empire, although its citizens spoke both German and French. Schweitzer details some of his life -- mostly his experiences at seminary, his writing career, and his position as a doctor in Africa -- while musing on various topics. He writes about the decay and need-for-revitalization of western civilization, which he sees as having lost an ethical impulse that drives society forward. He comments on various religions and philosophies, giving Stoicism in particular high marks. I will be looking more into this man, who I had never heard of before.

Lastly, and a very enjoyable reprieve from the heavy criticism and philosophy, I read Our Inner Ape by Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist who uses the book to compare chimpanzee, bonobo, and human societies against one another to see what our biological heritage can teach us about power, violence, sex, and kindness. De Waal believes that our nature is Janus-like, in that it has two faces. The same heritage gives we and the other apes a propensity for violence as well as empathy. In a very casually written and enjoyable narrative, De Waal goes into great detail about his and other's experiences observing chimpanzee and bonobo tribes. I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

Pick of the Week: Our Inner Ape, Frans De Waal. To be fair, there's something of a three-way tie this week, and I probably went with this one because its impression is so fresh on my mind.

Quotation of the Week: "There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumblings of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, [and] kindness. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently -- this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live in defiance of the worst of everything around us is a marvelous victory." - Howard Zinn, The People's History of American Empire

Next Week:
  • Comments on Out of my Life and Thought by Albert Schweitzer, The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, and The Sane Society by Erich Fromm
  • A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn
  • The Great Journey: Peopling the Americas, Brian Fagan
  • Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao, Wayne Dyer
  • Maybe more, because most of my classes are winding down and my computer is broken so my main source of entertainment is reading. (This is the reason my list is longer this week.)

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