Monday, March 23, 2009

This Week at the Library 22/3

Books this Update:
  • The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell
  • An Open Heart, Tenzin Gyatso
  • Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup
  • Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  • The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov
  • Real-Life X-Files, Joe Nickell
  • Ten Discoveries that Rewrote History, Patrick Hunt
  • Frontiers II, Isaac and Janet Asimov
  • Ethics for the New Millennium, Tenzin Gyatso
  • Archangel, Robert Harris

The week of spring break was busy for me. Although I was able to spend time with my extended family and watch a host of movies, I also managed to read a little bit. I began with Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, a curious book that is hard to describe. Vowell's subject is John Winthrop, leader-ruler of the Massachusetts Bay colony of Puritans. While telling us of the Puritans' commitment to build a shining city on a hill, their struggles settling, Winthrop's numerous personal conflicts with fellow Puritans, and the Pequot War, she comments on the contemporary United States. It's not a history book, a biography, or a work of political commentary -- but it is a little of each.

Next I read An Open Heart by Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. This book builds somewhat on his The Art of Happiness while explaining some tenets of Buddhism and providing some specific meditative techniques for cultivating compassion. The explanation of religious principles was somewhat informative, but I prefer a more natural approach to dealing with other people: rather than engaging in mental exercises where I "take on" someone else's pain and give them mine. The book didn't seem to have the life that The Art of Happiness did.

In a similar vein, I read Here If You Need Me, a book by Unitarian Universalist minister and chaplain Kate Braustrup. She entered that service after the accidental death of her husband, a Maine state trooper who had planned to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Reverend Braustrup mixes stories of her current service with stories from her past. Some of the stories are happy and some tragic, but they all have a point to them -- or Braeustrup has found meaning in them. She shares the meaning of those stories with the reader, all the while reflecting on ideas of life, compassion, and religion. I found the book to be very enjoyable as well as intensely moving. I definitely recommend it.

Staying in the general neighborhood of religion, I read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. I've heard much of these book and began reading it with the anticipation that I would find much to grapple with. This was not the case. The first thirty pages did give me something to think about -- here Lewis claims that human beings are aware of a Natural Law of Morality that they are supposed to be following, but don't -- but I realized in writing in my journal that I've dealt with that topic before in my own essays on philosophy. Past this, Lewis makes no arguments: he makes no case for Christianity, even though part of the book is labeled The Case for Christianity. He never explains why he believes that the originator of his supposed natural law is the god of the Hebrews -- never tries to justify his faith in the divinity of Yeshua of Nazareth, a character around whom a legend has been cobbled based on second-hand information. If I put myself into the role of a Christian believer, I can see how Lewis' explanations might give me some rational basis for bothering with the "mystery of the Trinity". Lewis seems wholly credulous. If this book is the height of Christian apologetics...I don't know what to say.

Getting away from religion, I enjoyed another novel by Isaac Asimov, this time The Naked Sun. It is second in his Robots series, and is again a detective novel starring Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw. Baley, who has never been exposed to the open sky of Earth, living in the enclosed domes and boxes of Earth's "Cities", leaves Earth to solve a mystery on one of the "Spacer" worlds. The Spacers are humans who settled fifty planets in systems ringing Earth many hundreds of years ago, who do their utmost to keep Earth from expanding any more into space. Their cultures are quite different from Earth's, and have no history of crime. Thus, when a citizen of Solaria is murdered, they call Baley and Olivaw in to deal with the crime. The book is completely enjoyable.

Next I read Joe Nickell's Real-Life X-Files, forty-seven accounts of his attempting to find reasonable explanations for supposedly supernatural phenomena like weeping statues and crop circles. I found Nickell through Point of Inquiry, a skeptical podcast I catch on a weekly basis, and enjoyed the book. Nickell writes well, explaining the problem, his approach, and the history and science behind matters.

Moving from skepticism to history, I read Patrick Hunt's Ten Discoveries that Rewrote History. AHunt takes us on a tour of the world, visiting ten sites important to archeology and history -- ten places that changed the ideas people had about the cultures or time to which they belonged. The ten are: the Rosetta Stone, Troy, Nivenah’s Assyrian Library, King Tut’s Tomb, Machu Picchu, Pompeii, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Thera, Olduvai Gorge, and the Tomb of 10,000 Warriors. After giving an account of how these various sites were discovered, Hunt then dives into their importance and the background of the subject they influenced. Such is his attention to detail that my appreciation for sites that I was familiar with -- like Troy and Olduvai -- was increased. This was a very enjoyable book.

I next read Frontiers II, a collection of science essays by Isaac and Janet Asimov, collected and published after his death. I'm sure Asimov would be amused to know his bookcount (over five hundred) continued to grow even after his passing, thanks to his wife Janet. There are a hundred and twenty-five essays in here covering a range of topics -- from robots to atomic physics to dinosaurs. Regardless of specialized interest, a student of science will find something to enjoy reading in here. The essays are not long, are are written to the general public. Quite enjoyable.

I returned to philosophy with the Dalai Lama's Ethics for the new Millennium, written and published in 1999. Gyatso believes the modern world to be in trouble, stricken by diseases born of our societies -- stress, loneliness, self-hatred, and psychological misery. Despite this, he believes all human beings can achieve happiness, that it is ours for the having. All we need be is serious about cultivating it. He sees the cause of happiness as compassion, as wrapped up within that is tolerance, empathy, patience, forgiveness, reason, and other virtues. Some of the book treats the same material as The Art of Happiness, but here is focus is on the natural life of human beings -- with no religious doctrines or practices present. It is authentically and purely human. It is difficult to compare this to The Art of Happiness, but I am almost tempted to say I enjoyed this one more. I would enjoy returning to both.

I finished the week with a spot of fiction in Robert Harris' Archangel, a mystery thriller set in Yeltsin-era Russia: a time of declining standards of living and growing levels of crime and misery. It is a nation in want of a leader, and some of the western historians visiting Moscow for a symposium on Soviet history fear that Russia's plight may be an echo of the Weimar's republic -- with the same disastrous results if the leader Russia rallies behind is sufficiently intent on reviving his empire with no regard to anyone else. Our main character is "Fluke" Kelso, a British historian who arrives intending to give a speech on Stalin, but who quickly finds himself involved in a mystery involving the supposed last testament of Joseph Stalin -- his private papers, written in his declining years and which vanished shortly after his death. Kelso's curiosity and financial circumstances compel him to risk his life at the hands of old Soviets and devotees of the new Russia, both of whom do not want a westerner involved unveiling their secrets. Kelso's hunt for the the journal quickly turns bloody and climaxes in the frozen and economically devastated city of Archangel, where Kelso faces a madman who is the answer to the riddle of what Stalin's testament contains.

Quotation of the Week:
There is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter what or who they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practiced these in our daily lives, [...] there is no doubt we will be happy.
- Tenzin Gyatso

Pick of the Week:
Ethics for the New Millennium, Tenzin Gyatso

Next Week:
  • Transforming the Mind, Tenzin Gyatso
  • Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  • Rubicon: the Last Years of the Roman Republic, Tom Holland
  • Roman Blood, Steven Saylor (I've an abundance of Steves this week!)

Having to plan my reading two weeks in advance meant that I had to make some random grabs. Roman Blood was reccommended to me, and I'll probably enjoy Transforming the Mind, but I can never be too sure. In any case, I may not finish even those four as I have a sociology paper to plan for involving Weber, Simmel, and a few other theorists.


  1. Funny, I still have a soft spot for Asimov, for all his limitations. People always go on about the original Foundation series, which I thought dull and unimaginative. But the Robots of Dawn series, which ends up dovetailing with the Foundation universe still brings a smile when I remember it. Might re-read them again soon.

    The Tom Holland on Rome is fabulous. If you like it, can I recommend his follow-up Persian Fire.

  2. I'm reading the Holland book at the moment and am enjoying it -- and thank you for the recommendation. I haven't visited Persian history for a number of years now. Are you familiar with Asimov's "Black Widower" series?


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