Monday, December 29, 2008

This Week at the Library (29/12)

Books this Update:
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible Volume I, Isaac Asimov
  • The Echo of Greece, Edith Hamilton
  • Science Frontiers, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser
  • Where Do We Go From Here?, ed. Isaac Asimov
  • The Pinball Effect, James Burke

Last week's ready was deliberately heavy on nonfiction, done to balance the growing amount of fiction I've been reading, particularly science fiction. Nevertheless, I began with science fiction: namely, Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, the first in his Robot series of books. I've been looking for this book since the beginning of November, and the anticipation heightened my enjoyment of it. The Caves of Steel takes place in 23rd century Earth in which cities have become Cities -- enclosed environments of steel, concrete, and technology. Their structures reach far into the sky and far down below, reminiscent of Asimov's Trantor. is a detective novel set in this environment, in which Elijah Baley must work with a robot partner to sort out who killed a sociologist. The book is written in Asimov's style: simple language focusing on the story. In his Buy Jupiter and Other Stories, Asimov comments that the strength of books is that they allow the reader to use his or her imagination to build a world for themselves -- unlike in television where users are restricted to the producer's imagination. Asimov's own "unadorned" style of writing may be a deliberate way of minimizing his own intrusion into the reader's imagination. This generally works very well, but there's one scene where the logistics of what was happening was lost to me. This is the one dark mark -- and it's not much of one -- against the book.

Next I continued in Asimov, reading the first volume in his Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Asimov maintains that he wrote the book to examine the secular side of the Judeo-Christian bible and its connection to other human thinking: to Sumerian and Babylonian culture, to history, to language, and so on. He does so by using his own strengths (knowledge of history, science, Hebrew, etc.) and by building on the works of others: translations of Assyrian and Egyptian documents, for instance. The book is close to seven hundred pages and so is quite the read. Asimov works through the books of what Christians call the "Old Testament" one by one. The books receive commentary proportional to their length in most cases. There are some exceptions (Joshua and the Psalms are two). To read this book is to become versed in the etymology of various words, to read about the history of the ancient and early classical world, to learn about the history of the early Jewish faith (which Asimov terms "Yahvism", after Yahveh), and to learn about Jewish mythology. Bible literalists would object to that description, but the Bible has giants, "unicorns", angels, and takes seriously astrological tales. I see no problem in dealing with Jewish religious instruction and Jewish mythology as two separate elements of the same culture that subsequently influence one another someway. There's much more to say about the book, and so I urge you to read the more-lengthy commentary I made when I first read the book. The book has evidently upset bible-literalists. I imagine one particular complaint they have with him is that his opinion is that Isaiah and Daniel's "prophecies" refer to events that have already happened and were of only localized concern to the Hebrews -- the rise and fall of various middle-east empires. His description of the prophets is sometimes romanticized, but that's my only real concern. He was careful to point out that his opinions were his own, and not necessarily those of those who make study of these ancient texts their livelihood.

Next I read Edith Hamilton's The Echo of Greece, in which she examines the history of Greece -- and more particularly, Athens -- in the fourth century BCE. Hamilton begins by examining Athens' role as the world's only free city and writes that freedom and moderation were the foundation of the Greek (Athenian) mind. She then writes of Athens' downfall, its promise corrupted by its growing power. Subsequent chapters examine the schools, literature, political life, and historical life to convey to the reader how the Greek mind changes from the fifth to the fourth century. The reader will learn about Plutarch and Demosthenes, about Stoics and Menander. She paints an eloquent picture of Athens, one that is very romanticized. She ends by detailing Greece's absorption into the Roman Empire, then compares the Greek mind and the Roman mind and laments that the Roman Catholic Church -- which eventually subjugates Greece and the Greek mind -- chose to pattern itself after the Roman mind instead of the Greek. Not all is lost, however: she points out that the Greek mind is still with us, echoing in various aspects of western civilization. The book is very readable, very eloquently written, and quite romanticized -- even to a Hellenophile like myself.

Next I turned to science -- to Scientific Frontiers, the last book in Spangenburg and Moser's updated-to-2004 History of Science series. The book tells the story of particle physics, DNA, and the space race. The authors' approach and style are identical to their previous books, and so there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said. I haven't found their latter books as interesting as their books on 18th and 19th century, but the same was true for their previous history of science series and for history-of-science books in general. The 17th an 18th centuries are not as familiar to me as the 20th and 21st century, and so I naturally enjoy reading about those forerunners more.

Next I returned to science fiction with a collection of short stories that Asimov edited: Where Do We Go From Here? Asimov chose the stories on two qualities: one, their value as interesting stories; and two, their value as science fiction that raises questions and interest in their subject matter. At the end of every story, Asimov comments on it, its scientific worth, and its historical context, looking at the assumptions and predictions it works on. He ends by asking questions of the reader to encourage thought about the subject. If the author makes a mistake, Asimov asks the reader to find out why why that mistake is a mistake: if the author makes an assumption, Asimov asks the reader to look up information to see if the assumption might be valid. His experience as a science professor shows through.

Lastly, I read a book called The Pinball Effect, which concerns itself with the "web of knowledge" and focuses on how knowledge tends to advance in random ways, often resulting in curious coincidences. There are eighteen chapters, ranging in subject matter from cathode rays to anthropology, and taken in full they cover just about every aspect of human thought from philosophy to science. The author writes well and presents a lot of interesting (if trivial) information, but the book doesn't seem as focused as it should be for presenting the ideas within. The author seemed to ramble. Beyond this, I don't know what else to add. There is one interesting anecdote in here I like, though. Burke writes about an abolitionist preacher who presented his audience with a book that looked like the Bible, and railed to them that if that their attempt to justify slavery was so contemptible of their Lord that they might as well stab him in the face, just as the preacher does to the book. Little does the audience know that the book is hollowed out, and in the hollow is a kidney filled with blood and tied. When the abolitionist stabs the book, it breaks the bag and splatters blood across the face of onlookers. I thought it very dramatic.

Pick of the Week: Ooh, toughie. There are three instant favorites in this list, but I think I have to go with Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Caves of Steel and The Echo of Greece are the runners-up.

Next Week:
  • The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordian
  • Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, Drew Karpyshyn
  • The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
  • Atom, Isaac Asimov
  • Great Books, David Denby

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