Friday, February 6, 2009

This Week at the Library (9/2)

Books this Update:

  • Homeward Bound, Harry Turtledove
  • Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Thomas Cahill
  • The Book of Ecclesiastes, Tremper Longman III

I started with Harry Turtledove's conclusion to the Worldwar-Colonization series, Homeward Bound. While being the final book in this setting, it is set apart from the two series that came before it. A few principle viewpoint characters from the two series journey to the capital world of the Empire. While some of them take in the sights and experience Lizard culture, Ambassador Sam Yeager dickers with the Emperor and his staff over Earth's face. Sam wants the United States and humanity to be taken seriously. Humorously, the Lizards do take humanity seriously -- but not in the way Yeager wants them to. They see humanity as arrogant upstarts who are nevertheless very dangerous. The Lizards wrestle with the question of whether or not to extinguish humanity and Earth before they grow so powerful that they can completely destroy the Empire. It is a credit to Turtledove's characterization that the reader can sympathize with the Lizards even as they contemplate genocide. I found the book enjoyable, although the diplomatic scenes did grow a bit tiresome.

Next I read a gorgeous piece of work by Thomas Cahill, titled Mysteries of the Middle Ages. Cahill is using an archaic sense of "mystery" in that he uses it to refer to religious rites. He attempts to establish the Church and its traditions as a source of distinctly western art, feminism, and science. The value of this book isn't that he proves this (at least in regard to feminism and science) but that he does give the medieval era more depth than it usually is seen as having. Sourcing feminism from the cult of the virgin Mary is...something of a stretch, at least for me, as is positing that scientific questions were born of the mystery of the Eucharist. (Alchemy and attempts to understand the "Great Chain of Being" are far more likely sources for me.) You don't need to be convinced of Cahill's point to enjoy this book, though. Reading it introduces the reader to a wealth of interesting characters of history. Some are more interesting than others, but they existed. They were real people, not two-dimensional archetypes on a deck of playing cards. The narrative flows well, and adding to the readers' enjoyment is the fact that this is a beautiful book: the font, the way pictures and foot notes are set directly into the text and somehow not breaking the flow of everything, and margin art all add enormously to the value of the book. It's not just fun to read: it's fun to look at. The book itself is artwork. I enjoyed the book immensely.

Lastly, I read a commentary on the Hebrew text Ecclesiastes. I'm interested in philosophy, including religious philosophy, and came interested in learning more about Ecclesiastes after I read Asimov's Guide to the Bible. The book of Ecclesiastes is highly interesting, given that its author's entire theme runs opposed to the themes of the Christian New Testament. The author of Ecclesiastes writes (repeatedly) that life is pointless and arbitrary. Wealth, romance, the pursuit of knowledge -- none of these things saves you from death, or even being mistreated in lif. God seems to wreak havoc on the lives of the just and grant to the wicked favors: there seems, to the author of the original text, no rhyme or reason to life. He concludes that we might as well as just enjoyed ourselves as best we can while obeying the king and God.

I wanted to fit this into a broader context, which is why I checked out The Book of Ecclesiastes by Tremper Longman III. His commentary accomplished this somewhat, but as I learned from the inside cover, his point is to fit this into the general Christian scheme of things. How do you reconcile the original author's resigned attitude toward life and the unknown quality of the "afterlife" with the promise of eternal life in the New Testament? For most of the book, Longman examines the original Hebrew phrases and shows how particular translations have tried to bring about the same meaning. He explains allusions and so on. He keeps his personal opinions largely to himself, and does not try to reinterpret anything until the last paragraph, where he concludes that Jesus is the answer to meaningless.

I never got that particular memo, but I enjoyed the book -- for the most part.Ecclesiastes isn't as depressing as my description of it here might have led an unfamiliar reader to think it is: the author concedes the value of wisdom, and he promotes a simple life free from trying to live up to other people's arbitrary expectations. That's what attracts me, I think.

Pick of the Week: Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Thomas Cahill
Quotation of the Week: "Take that, bitch." - Abbess Hildegard's response to an unknown fellow abbess who chided Hildegard for allowing her nuns to wear their hair and clothes in comfortable ways and after Hildegard issued a theological and poetic defense -- as rendered by Thomas Cahill, who seemed to delight in joking with his readers.

Next Week:
  • Shatterpoint, Matthew Stover
  • How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
  • A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, M. Scott Peck
  • Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant

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