Friday, October 16, 2009

This Week at the Library (16/10)

This Week at the Library:
  • I Sold My Soul on eBay, Hement Mehta
  • Last Seen in Masillia, Steven Saylor
  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  • Humanist Anthology, ed. Margaret Knight and James Herrick
  • Love and Death, F. Forrester Church

This week I learned that I am not always the ardent follower of wisdom that I would like to be. I was given a week to write a seven-page essay articulating my opinion on the Meiji Restoration and how it might be best described (coup or revolution). I committed the same folly that the unnamed character from Kokoro did when working on his thesis: I thought about it a good bit, but I didn't begin doing the work until it was almost too late. I finished a paper due at 5:00 at 4:45, making me feel rather foolish. Because the latter part of the week was occupied by my note-taking and writing, I didn't do a week-in-review as promptly as I usually do.

As far as books go, this was a gorgeous week. All five works I read would have been "pick of the weeks" in an ordinary week, and for that reason I'm not doing to do a "pick of the week" this week, which I usually do to spotlight a book that was particularly well-written or which made a powerful impact in my mind. I began with Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay, his account of visiting several dozen Christian churches of varying sizes and doctrines over the course of a few months. He did so partially out of desire to learn about Christian culture and as a consequence of auctioning off his own church attendance. A man interested in improving Christian outreach won the auction and asked Mehta to attend a variety of churches, take notes, and report back with his thoughts on what they did poorly and what they did well. I Sold my Soul on eBay is a result of this. While it seems to be aimed at Christians, the novelty of someone alien to Christian culture immersing himself in it and giving his objective reflections is enjoyable by anyone.

I next continued in Steven Saylor's series about Rome under the rose. The historical background of the books has becoming the plot's driving force, and in Last Seen in Masillia, the plot brings Gordianus and his son-in-law to a town that will be later known as Marseilles, to investigate a rumor about his son Meto's death. The town is under siege by Caesar's forces, making it difficult to get into and impossible to get out. Gordianus is soon stranded in the town and occupies himself by investigating a death he witnessed within hours of stepping foot inside Marseilles, when a young woman plunged off of "Suicide Rock" into the sea below. The young woman's father wants Gordianus to ascertain if her death was murder or suicide. There are plenty of plot twists here, as well as information for military history readers on ancient sieges.

Next, I was able to read Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he addresses the everyday concerns of six famous philosophers -- Socrates, Epicures, Seneca, de Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Rather discussing the whole of their philosophical output, de Botton labors to show how some of their thoughts can be applied to help everyone in responding to unpopularity, poverty, inadequacy, heartbreak, and hardship. Despite the book's title, these philosophical principles are not simply consoling band-aids: if taken to heart (or to one's mind, which a more proper expression), they are preventive measures. To use Socrates' section as an example: if you ground your beliefs in reason and do your utmost to ensure that they are in line with reality, when you should have no fear of faltering when people oppose your ideas. Even if your opinions are wrong, they were honestly come by and there is no shame in an honest mistake. (On a final note, this book was actually cited in last week's The Wisdom of Harry Potter.)

I then moved on to Humanist Anthology, although I commented on Love and Death first. Humanist Anthology is a collection of humanistic views throughout the ages, beginning with the ancients (Confucius and Epicurus) and ending with modern personalities like Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. Themes include ethics, god-belief, religion, wonder, idealism, and the primacy of reason. The thoughts collected are generally civil, although criticism of religion can be quite sharp (particularly in Mark Twain's case). The average length of collected material may be about a page, as there are longer essays and shorter quips both. I highly recommend it to all readers, especially humanists, but sadly it will not be easy for you to find as it is out of print. Perhaps in the future a revised edition will come out.

Lastly, I read cancer-stricken Unitarian minister Forrester Church's account of his relationship with death -- death as a concept, the death of his loved ones, and his own looming death. Church sees death not as a foe to be fought, but the punctuation point of a well-lived life. He believes death to be the cradle of religion, as he defines religion to be our response to the twin realities of being alive and having to die. The book acts as ministerial advice to those who have recently experienced the death of a loved one or are dying themselves: reading it was quite a thought-provoking and emotional experience, one I would recommend to others.

Quotation of the Week: Although Humanist Anthology had plenty of winners, it may merit its own full-length post on another blog, so I'd like to share this quotation from Love and Death:
"It is not in our words, but in our life that our religion must be read." - attributed to Thomas Jefferson's letters.


Potentials for Next Week:
  • Epictetus' Discourses, as translated and edited by the classics club. It's much more formal than The Art of Living, but I wanted to read a more conservative translation/interpretation of Epictetus for comparative reasons.
  • The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater. This is on the recommended reading list at the Humanist Contemplative.
  • A Mist of Prophecies, Steven Saylor. The last book saw Gordianus make a staggering decision, one promising interesting but tormenting character development.
  • The Darwin Awards, volume something or another. After reading two books on Stoic philosophy, I may want a little levity.
  • The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan. Not sure what this one is about, I just like the author.
  • Mystery Entry, Mystery Author

Hint: the mystery entry was released this month. Additional hint: it is obliquely related to another book on the list.

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