Wednesday, November 19, 2008

This Week at the Library

Books this Update:
(Click titles for individual commentaries.)

This week is unusual in that I have more nonfiction in it than fiction: it hasn't been that way since the summer. Asimov and Turtledove's series have much to do with that. My intended reading was nonfiction-only, but I was able to read the two Asimov books while taking breaks from my papers. I think it's interesting that I managed to read five books in the same week that I worked on three papers.

The first book I read was Isaac Asimov's extended biography. I didn't mean to read it through, but Asimov has that effect on me: once I started reading it, I didn't like to stop. Asimov's biography is large and written in a personal style: it seems like an intimate conversation between the reader and the man. Asimov writes about his life, his work, and his views about death. One particular opinion he expressed was on the relationship between television and reading. Television, he said, was a passive activity: it supplies every aspect of the story, so the viewer need only to receieve. In reading, though, the information you are provided with is limited, so the reader's mind has to actively construct the world about which he or she is reading: he has to provide the scenery and sounds and so forth.

I also read a collection of twenty or so short stories by Asimov called Buy Jupiter and Other Stories. The title is a fun, which Asimov is fond of. The majority of the stories were new to me, and almost all were enjoyable. There were a few I didn't quite get, but it didn't help that I was reading with a headache.

Next I read Frances and Joseph Gies' Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. The Gies have written a series of books on life in the medieval era, and I have enjoyed all of them thus far. This latest has quickly become my second-favorite. The Gies are quite thorough: they begin by surveying the technology of the ancient era, establishing where it was when Rome began its decline. They show that there was no real "fall" of technology of knowledge: it slowly faded in the north, but lingered much longer in southern France and Italy. They write a narrative of the medieval era that depicts society slowly changing over time, arriving at new inventions as it does. As ever, the Gies force me to broaden my percetions.

After this I moved on to a history-of-science book. Hal Hellman presents ten feuds of science -- hence the name Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever. The stories begin with the beginning of science as we know it -- with Galileo. Galileo was important in that he taught his students to rely on observable evidence. He popularlized Kepler's notion of a heliocentric universe, bringing him in conflict with the Church. The feuds that follow track science's course: Newton and Lebniz fighting over who discovered calculus first, followed by the "evolution wars" and Kelvin's fight with the geologists over the age of the Earth. The book ends with social science, with a feud that epitomizes the nature versus nurture debate. All in all, interesting.

Lastly I read Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life, in which he attempted to use sheer rationale to construct ethical arguments about vegetarianism, abortion, euthenasia, infantacide, practical living, and political systems. He attacks both conservative and liberal positions, and if you read this I suggest you commit time to it: some chapters aren't light reading. I thought some of his arguments were too unemotional: people are emotional creatures, and any ethical system has to consider that.

Pick of the Week: I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov and Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by the Gies.

Quotation of the Week:

  1. "It always seems to me that it's not hard to be nice to people in small ways, and surely that must make them more willing to be nice in small ways in return."
  2. "There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity."

Next Week:
  • The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Arthur C. Clarke
  • Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Colonization: Second Contact, Harry Turtledove

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