Monday, May 18, 2009

This Week at the Library (18/5)

Books this Update:
  • The Robots of Dawn, Isaac Asimov
  • The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman
  • Familiar Poems, Annotated; Isaac Asimov
  • Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong
  • The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown

I will begin by saying that I still intend on giving Erich Fromm's The Sane Society and Timothy Keller's The Reason for God their respective dues, although the Fromm commentary will not be as thorough as I would like seeing as it belongs to my university library and my notes on it vanished when moving out of the residency hall for the summer.

This week's reading began with a return to Isaac Asimov's science fiction, and more specifically to his Robots series. The Robots books are different from the Foundation novels and his various short stories in that they are written as detective novels , each starring plainclothesman Elijah Baley and his android partner, Daneel Olivaw. Having earned an reputation for being a clever detective who can adapt himself to different cultures, Baley is asked to visit the Spacer world of Aurora to prevent a prominent politician's career from being smeared by accusations of robotocide. While robotocide is not a serious crime -- amounting to nothing more than property destruction -- the politician's particular views and those of his enemies make the case of the destroyed robot important. Baley meets Olivaw in transit to the planet, and once there they begin investigating a murder in which the only person who could have committed the crime swears he didn't do it. I found it to be as interesting and fun a read as ever.

I next switched to a more serious piece of work, Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, which focuses on the first month of the Great War: August 1914. The book is a rather highly-regarded work of military history, which I read more for its reputation than anything else -- although I do have a very strong interest in the Great War. Tuchman devotes the first sections of the book to the political breakdown that led to the war itself, tracking the motivations of the various European powers as they slid into their respective alliances. Once the war begins, the book becomes a more straightforward military account that ends with the Battle of the Marne and the development of trench warfare. I found the book to be quite readable and detailed, although military histories don't particularly interest me.

Next I read Familiar Poems, Annotated, a collection of thirty-seven well-known poems compiled and commented on by Isaac Asimov. Asimov's commentary explains the historical, scientific, and literary allusions made in the various poems as well as their broader context. The poems chosen, writes Asimov, are familiar -- not necessarily "good". I found this to be the case, although I did enjoy many of the poems. The poems are generally English or American in origin, although some (Ozimandias, for instance) deal with people outside the Anglo-American sphere. Asimov's comments were quite readable and detailed, typically adding a lot to my appreciation of the poems. Asimov is as enjoyable as ever.

I returned to history with Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History. I checked out the book in the interests of reading something by Armstrong and in reading something about Islam: the last time I read about it was the fall of 2006, and while I retain the basics, I'd like to refresh myself. The book is less about the beliefs and practices of Islam and more about the history of its political expressions -- although the early parts do concern the development of beliefs and practices. Armstrong places emphasis on the importance of political life in Islam, and so the histories of the various caliphates and empires that were maintained through Islamic law dominate most of the book. She ends the book by looking at how Islamic societies and Muslims are dealing with the modern world -- and in particular, with secularism. Quite readable and very detailed: I will be returning to Armstrong.

Lastly, I read a bit of fiction set in a quasi-religious context. Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code has a controversial reputation big enough for me to skip introducing it. The book is a mystery thriller, the mystery's clues being religious symbolism and some Christian history, mythological or otherwise. The clues lead symbolist Robert Langdon and Paris detective Sophie Neveu through France and England -- chasing ghosts of Templars while being chased themselves by French cops and Catholic fundamentalists who are not gun-shy. Although Brown's scholarship has been criticized or rebutted by various people, I read the book as a straight mystery novel -- not as an expose of the Catholic church. I enjoyed the book immensely on that basis: despite having watched the movie, Brown kept my attention -- although I did have a problem with the way his final revelation connected to the ideas being developed in the book. I think I will be reading his Angels and Demons whenever a copy of it becomes available.

Pick of the Week: I'm honestly torn. Frankly, I enjoyed all of the books this week to the point that I can't say I have a favorite.


Next Week:
  • Selected Essays, Michel de Montaigne
  • Magic: the Final Fantasy Collection, Isaac Asimov
  • Wisdom of the Ages, Wayne Dyer
  • The Power of Myth, Joseph Campell
  • American Mania: When More is Not Enough, Peter Whybrow

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