Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Great Transformation

The Great Transformation: the Beginning of our Religious Traditions
© 2006 Karen Armstrong
469 pages

I looked forward to reading this book, and my expectations were met. Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation is a historical narrative detailing the creation of four of the most influential religious and philosophical traditions to date -- Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, transcendental monotheism in Israel, and rationalism in Greece. She begins by examining the state of the "axial peoples" who lived in a time of transition -- when cities were becoming civilizations, and the thoughts of a few becoming the codified belief-systems of a few. The book is both a history book in its own right and one on the formation of these religious and philosophical traditions.

She begins where civilization began -- the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates -- and moves to Iran before focusing on the first axial people, the Indian "Aryans". Beginning with the chapter "Ritual", Armstrong devotes a single chapter each to a number of themes that may sum up the growing traditions -- detailing thoughts on knowledge, suffering, cosmic unity, and the like. Each of the four civilizations gets its due in every chapter, although some traditions may dominate a given theme: the teachings of Buddha, for instance, are covered in more detail than the others in "Suffering". The book ends with comments on how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each built on parts of those traditions, connecting ancient religions to more contemporary ones. (Armstrong's treatment of Israel reminded me of Isaac Asimov, and like him she makes a distinction between early Hebrew monotheism (which he called "Yahvism") and Judaism. The book's ending chapter. Also in the interests of connecting the old with the new, Armstrong summarizes her books and emphasizes the common themes that connected the axial traditions -- particularly empathy for all humans.

Armstrong writes quite well, creating a compelling narrative that seems to be quite well-informed. She keeps her various chapters and sections-within-chapters connected to one another in such a way that the reader doesn't lose focus, but instead keeps her thesis in mind. I enjoyed the book very much. I think I may obtain a personal copy sometime in the future.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Hobbit

The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again
© 1937 J. R. Tolkien. Collector's edition published 1966.
317 pages

In the middle of the Earth, in the land of Shire
Lives a brave little hobbit whom we all admire
With his long wooden pipe,
And fuzzy-wuzzy toes,
He lives in a hobbit-hole and everybody knows `im

-- Bilbo! Bilbo Baggins! He's only three feet tall!
Bilbo! Bilbo Baggins! He's the bravest little hobbit ever known. (
"The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"*)

I've heard of Tolkien all of my life: the author himself has been lost to legend, his name used to describe things as "Tolkienesque" or "straight out of Tolkien". As a child and middle-schooler I attempted to read The Hobbit two or three times, even checking out a version of it rendered in comic book form. After reading The Two Towers in high school and remembering my unsuccessful efforts to read The Hobbit, I decided that fantasy was not for me -- amending this to "magicical fantasy" after I remembered the Redwall series.

Probably inspired by my recent reading of Asimov's Magic, containing a complimentary essay on Tolkien, I decided to pay his books a visit after learning that The Last Olympian -- the final book in the Percy Jackson series -- had been checked out just before my arrival. Remembering that The Hobbit precedes the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I decided to go with it first. And so, on a lovely rainy day that was ideal for reading, I began it again. Our hero is Bilbo Baggins, a three-foot-tall hobbit from a respectable family who is not the adventuring type. On one peaceful morning, however, he is visited by an old wizard named Gandalf who more or less drafts him to join a group of dwarves on a dangerous quest to kill the dragon that drove their ancestors from their mountain-castle and who now terrorizes the dying countryside when he isn't napping on a mountainous pile of treasure.

Bilbo is not very inclined to do this, but he seems to be compelled by a sense that his fate is sealed -- as well an oh-so-slight curiosity in the idea of adventure. Neither of these are enough to make him excited about the adventure: indeed, he starts it off late, having to catch up with his dwarven companions. Thus begins a perilous adventure in which Bilbo is forced to fight or flee from all manner of magical beasts, who are very unpleasant people for the most part.

(For the record, I had this song playing in my head the entire time I read the book.) As Baggins journeys -- and especially after Gandalf parts company -- he learns to appreciate the adventurous leader within him, and the dwarves who once sniffed their noses at him as a grocer give him a grudging respect and become increasingly dependent on his leadership. Bilbo, despite having shucked off his hobbit's cloak and put down his pipe for chain-mail and a sword, is often terrified and miserable with confusion when he and his traveling companions manage to find themselves predicaments. The book ends happily, although not with the ending I'd expected and not without Bilbo having to make risky decisions.

The book is written as though it were a story being told -- read aloud, not digested silently in a library somewhere. Although the story-teller's view seems at first to be third-person and omniscient, he slips into first-person at least once and addresses the reader directly, reinforcing my impression of it as being a delivered story. It's an enjoyable approach. The book is quite enjoyable: I'm not sure why it eluded me in my younger days. Despite this, I'm not sure that I'll continue with the Trilogy: I have watched the first movie and I found it...not too engaging. Still, I won't rule it out. Knowing as I do how movies rarely do books justice, it would be foolish of me to not read a book based on its movie.

I first saw this video probably six or seven years ago. I found it attractive enough to merit downloading several times on dial-up. You can watch the extended black and white version here, or the shorter but in color version here.

Monday, May 25, 2009


© 1994 A.C. Crisipin
437 pages

Memorial Day weekend postponed my usual trip to the library, and so over the weekend my attention turned to books I own but have not yet read -- which is more that one might imagine. One such book is Sarek, a novel set immediately after The Undiscovered Country and developing on certain plot elements therein. As you might surmise, the principle character of the book is Ambassador Sarek, otherwise known as Spock's father. His investigation into a possible conspiracy to incite war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation -- and perhaps to drive Vulcan out of the Federation, as it is a rather versatile conspiracy -- drives the plot forward, although the passing away of his human wife -- Amanda, Spock's mother -- leads him to reading through her journals and thus revisiting his, Amanda's, and Spock's shared life together. The result is to give the reader greater insight into the lives of their family and into Vulcan rituals at the same time.

The second principle character of the novel is Peter Kirk, the Kirk's nephew. Trekkies might remember him from Operation -- Annihilate! in which his father (Kirk's brother) and mother were killed by the terrifying electric pancakes. Peter Kirk, approaching his thirties, is finally about to graduate from Starfleet Academy and while fretting about the dreaded Kobayashi Maru scenario, must give thought to the future he wants to pursue. How on Earth can he live up to his uncle's reputation? Kirk's life will accidently involve him in Sarek's investigation -- landing him inside the dungeon of a renegade Klingon warlord who is vowing revenge against the Kirk for his actions in The Search for Spock, which --as you may nor not recall -- involved tricking an entire crew of Klingons onto the doomed Enterprise and blowing it up while simultaneously stealing their ship to go time-traveling to the 1980s to borrow some humpback whales.

The four-fifths mark is quite busy: while Peter Kirk is trying to escape from the Klingon compound and the TOS trio is sneaking into the Klingon capital system to rescue him themselves, cloaked ships are darting across the Neutral Zone and Klingon fleets are on the move -- can the good guys pull off a victory? Pleasantly, after the matter is concluded, the book continues on to focus on Peter Kirk's self-discovery and his Kobayashi Maru experience. Can he be the second Kirk to beat the no-win scenario?

The book is well-written and fits smartly into the canon. Crispin manages to expand characters without betraying their essences, and Crispin builds on events in the third, fifth, and seventh Star Trek movies -- adding depth to them. A nice finishing touch is that she directs the plot toward The Next Generation's "Unification" episodes. Overall, a very worthy contribution to Star Trek literature.

This Week at the Library (25/5)

Books this Update:
  • Wisdom of the Ages, Wayne Dyer
  • American Mania: When More Isn't Enough; Peter Whybrow
  • The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
  • Magic, Isaac Asimov
  • Selected Essays, Michel de Montaigne

Wisdom of the Ages, like Dyers' Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, is written in devotional form. Unlike the latter, however, Dyer does not depend on one main text here: instead, he draws from selections from fifty-nine authors and pens sixty essays elaborating the themes that those selections (in his view) are concerned with. The essays are arranged in the order of their quoted authors' lives: thus we begin with the teachers of the Axial Age (Buddha, Lao Tzu, etc.) and move forward to modern thinkers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (The book ends with a poem from Dyer.) After quickly exhausting the ancient religious and philsophical teachers, Dyer taps mostly poetry and it is that this point that meanings become a little more subjective, hence why I said "in his view" earlier. Although most of the essays past that point rely on poetry for their text, selections from authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson give the reader an ocassional break. Dyer writes fairly well, I think, and many of his essays are about self-empowerment. Sometimes this leads to more "New Age-y" ideas, like that people are able to change objective reality with their minds. To people like myself who would disagree with the idea that people can (to use his example) move clouds with their minds, he says that no one knows enough to be a pessimist. The book is thus a mixed bag, although I found it more enjoyable than not and I think that Dyer is harmless at his worst.

Next I read Peter Whybrow's American Mania, a book examining the biological origins of addiction and consumption and the consequences of such behavior in a society that has lost societal and legislative checks and balances to keep them in check. Whybrow first builds a case for American exceptionalism, focusing on both the biological constitution of its people (who are supposedly mostly from Risk-Taking Stock) and the structure of its government. Put together, they allow for explosive economic growth, but such growth has been rendered cancerous by the lack of government legislation and the decay of societal values. Whybrow is apparently surprised that economic and technological factors can shape culture -- rendering criticism of consumerism from conservative circles impotent -- but that particular topic has been noted by thinkers like Erich Fromm and Neil Postman. I think Whybrow does a good job arguing for the casual reader, although students of this subject like myself may want more depth.

After this, I read a transcript of Joseph Campbell's interview with Bill Moyers. Campbell is a man who studies comparative religion and mythology and who believes there are essential similarities between various myths and religions. This is the subject of much of the interview. Given the book's essential source (an interview), it isn't as structured as an argument requires. The book works best as a very casual introduction to Campbell's work, but it's too scattered to make any serious points.

I returned to one of my favorite authors with Magic --- an usual book consisting of both short stories and essays by Isaac Asimov. Most of the stories and essays deal with fantasy in some way, whether they be a Black Widowers mystery about the character of Batman or an essay praising Tolkien, but the third and last section of the book is reserved for unrelated essays, and these too are varied. The book was a delightful surprise to me: I began it only mildly curious, but the deeper I got into it the more I enjoyed it. Asimov's essays were particularly enjoyable to read, as they concern topics I can identify with easily and find quite interesting. Other essays in other books have been on topics more alien to me, like biochemistry. This was definitely a fun read.

Lastly, I finished a selection of essays from Michel de Montaigne -- who I was introduced to through a YouTube program. Montaigne was a French nobleman who liked nothing more than to hole himself up in his tower/study/library and write down his thoughts on life -- partially to keep them continually bothering him, partially for the enjoyment of it, and partially to lead behind a piece of himself for his friends and family. The book is thus written for intimates, and this shows. Selected Essays lives up to its title: only a few essays from each of his books feature, and so it is useless for me to attempt to comment on his work as a whole. Although this particular translation was created in the opening decades of the 20th century and it thus has a formal tone to it, I found Montaigne to be surprisingly easy to digest in many instances. His essays are written without much structure, appearing to flow conversationally from his mind: it's as if he is talking to himself and transcribing those thoughts, including quotations that spring to mind. He covers a wide variety of topics -- in this book alone, he wrote on lies, vanity, child-rearing, romance, education, and Stoic grace just to name a few. As this is just a sampling of his work, I will be revisiting him in the future.

Pick of the Week: Magic, Isaac Asimov.

Quotation of the Week: There were many thought-provoking passages in the Selected Essays, as well as many inspirational pieces in Dyer's Wisdom of the Ages. so I was planning on going with an irreverent wink at the reader from Asimov. Alas, I cannot find it -- so I will treat you to a quotation of Seneca that de Montaigne shared. "No one ever resists after yielding to the first impulse" speaks to me of the difficulty of getting out of a trend of behavior once it has begun.

Next Week: While I usually pen this after I've visited the library, my local library was closed for Memorial Day weekend -- and so I won't go until tomorrow. I plan on checking out something by Karen Armstrong and perhaps examining Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, however.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Selected Essays

Selected Essays
© Michel de Montaigne, edited 1943 by Donald Frame
364 pages

A month or so ago -- or perhaps slightly more than that -- I began watching videos on YouTube posted by "PhilosophicalMedia". The host presents a thirty-minute program on a specific issue, always drawn from a specific thinker. The videos have titles like "Seneca on Anger", or "Epicures on Happiness". One program, "Montaigne on Self-Esteem", caught my eye -- having heard of a Michel de Montaigne before. Watching the program made me interested in reading some of his works, and I was able to do so this week.

I approached Selected Essays with some reserve, aware that the series that this book was published into tends to be rather formal. Translations of both Epictetus' Discourses and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are part of this series, and they are entirely too formal for my taste -- having compared them to other translations. (That's yet another benefit of having access to a university library: multiple translations of classic works.) The book does not contain Montaigne's complete works: the editor informs first-time readers like myself that this is because his complete Essays would take up several volumes. The essays, we are told, were selected to !!!.

Although this translation was done in the opening decades of the 20th century, it is still formal. Perhaps that can't be helped, but for me it meant having to work through the essays, re-reading passages multiple times. Sometimes the meaning would click, and sometimes it would not -- which is unexpected, given that Montaigne is quite casual in his contents and I would expect that his writings would reflect more...crude language. But then again, his native tongue was Latin, and as a child he read Latin "classics": perhaps that made his personal writings formal. Despite this, both the host of the PhilosophicalMedia program and the editor say that when one reads from Montaigne, the reader will come to know Montaigne as a friend. Although I cannot speak to that intensity, his tone does engender feelings of...intimacy. He is utterly frank.

Montaigne writes conversationally, but it obvious that conversations with him took work. His sentences are artfully composed, but as rendered in his translation they're fairly complexly developed and sometimes feature quotations set within Montaigne's on trail of thought. In "On the Education of Children", for instance, Montaigne develops a list of attributes, midway throws in a list from another author, and finishes the sentences with more attributes from himself. (Authors quoted are generally "classical", and Seneca and Cicero seem to constitute the bulk of them in the essays I read.) Although reading some passages took work, there were other essays in which the experience flowed, and I would find myself delighted. This happened, for instance, in "On Giving the Lie", in which (partially) he wrote about his reasons for writing the Essays. To those who accused him of wasting his time, he states "In modeling this figure (that is, the character of Montaigne who emerges from the essays) upon myself, I have had to fashion and arrange myself so often as to bring myself out, that the model has to some extent grown firm and taken shape of itself. Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me."

This passage reminded me of what I experienced when writing letters to friends and family about my change of worldviews back in 2006: although I never sent out any of those letters -- although they remained unread, as Montaigne's critics said his essays would be -- writing them meant engaging in a journey of self-exploration and discovery. I emerged from that process stronger: I grew, and I think Montaigne's passage can be applied to any creative process.

Of the essays, there were some I enjoyed and others I didn't -- and there were passages within each essays that I liked or wasn't able to appreciate. Although the essays have general topic, the matters he discusses within those topics varied. In "The Education of Children", for instance, he writes on what the ideal tutor might teach children. In the interests of addressing this topic, he writes on what education consists of, and the importance of particular topics -- sometimes reflecting on what the ideal person might be like. The essays here address all manner of things -- religion, philosophy, character, meditation, social interaction, civilization, romantic, and on. I don't think it is an accident that the translator/editor mentioned a quotation in his introduction in which Christopher Morley addresses the scope of Montaigne's works.

All in all, I think this was a fair way to be introduced to Montaigne. Although every page did not enrapture me, my appetite was certainly whetted.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Magic: the Final Fantasy Collection
© 1996 Isaac Asimov
275 pages

It amuses me to no end that Isaac Asimov, who made being prolific the point of his professional existence, manages to have books published under his name and added to his hundreds long after his death. Magic, like other Asimovian books published after his death, is a collection of material that has has either not been collected in book form or merits, for whatever reason, being republished along with uncollected works. Interestingly, this book is not simply a collection of short stories or a book of essays: it is both. The first half of the book contains short stories, the third quarter of essays relating to the theme of fantasy, and the fourth quarter essays that have no connection to fantasy but which were probably published to see that they were in book form or to pad the book's length. (This is pure speculation on my part.)

Most of the included fantasy stories are about a man named George and an interstellar alien named Azazel. Azazel, initially conceived of as a magical being, was turned into an alien with exotic (but scientific) powers at the request of a magazine editor (as Asimov explains here and in I, Asimov). The stories are told in the first person -- at first, from the viewpoint of an unnamed friend of George's, and then from George's view as he begins relating the story of his most recent encounters with Azazel. George has the power to summon Azazel from his own world, and he only does so to ask him for favors -- wanting Azazel to use his powers to help George's friends with some difficulty in their lives. The stories included here almost all remind the reader to be careful of what you wish for.

After an oddly-placed but pleasing Black Widowers story, Asimov's editors include two straightforward fantasy fables that seem to be set in the quasi-medival world that fairy tales and fantasy novels often rely on -- with kings, castles, dragons, sorcerers, and peasants, but which contains anachronisms that may be unique to Asimov's particular taste. (In one of his stories, the "sorcerer" in question seems to be a misplaced 20th century scientist -- perhaps a wink at Clarke's Third Law.) I found the two fantasy fables to be the high point of the first part of the book: however much I enjoyed the Black Widower surprise, I'd just read the very same story only a few weeks ago.

After the last fantasy story -- one that involved a dragon who spoke like he lived in Brooklyn being approached by a clumsy prince whose job it was to slay him -- the book becomes a collection of essays. The first essays are written "on" fantasy, or on the general theme. In them, Asimov explores questions of the genre: given Clarke's third law, how can we differentiate science fiction from fantasy fiction -- science from magic? What makes science fiction what it is? To essays addressing these questions, the editors add essays praising Tolkien and pondering on the literary origins of creatures like giants and unicorns. To this date, I think the only essays I've read about Asimov have been on science, and more specifically with types of science that I find hard to appreciate -- biochemistry and subatomic physics. It was then a delight for me to read essays by Asimov on topics of history, mythology, and literature -- themes I'm more familiar with, and which I can enjoy reading about more.

In the final section of the book, the editors have compiled a few unrelated essays by Asimov. They label this miscellaneous section "Beyond Fantasy", and it was here -- in the section most removed from the theme of the book -- that I found myself enjoying the book the most. There's no way to summarize this section without doing some injustice to the essays, so I will list them:
  • He begins with "Reading and Writing", an essay concerning the potential consequences of the decline of said skills in American children.
  • Next, "The Right Answer" addresses the ways that religious people who want to take sacred texts literally but who don't want them to be compromised by claims of scientific inaccuracy can interpret the Bible to support various inflections of the Big Bang model. (By inflection, I mean stationary versus inflationary, or repeating versus linear)
  • "Ignorance in America" is third.
  • "Knock Plastic" is unique: as much of Asimov as I've read and listened to, and as much of a skeptic as he was, I've never read any direct contribution of his to skeptical literature. "Knock Plastic" contains six "security blanket" beliefs that he identifies in humanity, including people who praise themselves on rationality. (I will be listing them on my philosophy/humanities blog soon.)
  • "Lost in Nontranslation" concerns the importance of translating the connotation of words, using the biblical stories of Ruth and the Good Samaritan to illustrate his point. In both, modern readers lose the meaning because to them, "Moabite woman" and "Samaritan" don't have the bite that they would have had to their original listeners.
  • "Look Long Upon a Monkey" is an essay on anti-evolutionists' obsession with "WE DIDN'T COME FROM MONKEYS!" and the problem this obsession causes for educators.
  • "Thinking About Thinking" criticizes intelligence tests and ponders on the nature of intelligence in general.

This book was a lovely surprise for me. I approached it only out of mild curiosity, but the more I read it the more I liked it: my enjoyability began picking up steam with the two fables and absolutely took off when I got to the essays, which were a particular delight. This may be just the gushing of someone who finished the book not half an hour ago, but I think this is one of the more enjoyable books by Asimov I've read.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers
© 1988 Joseph Campbell
293 pages

I first encountered the name Joseph Campbell in Wikipedia's article on Star Wars, and since having returned to university studies I've heard his name numerous more times -- most recently in my sociological theory class, where his name arose in connection with Emilie Durkheim's work on social ritual and religion. While on one of my weekly trips to the library, I noted that they had in their DVD collection an interview of Campbell by Bill Moyers. I was never able to watch said interview, but this is apparently the transcript of it: I don't know if it's been edited for length or not. Given its format, this is not a very structured argument for anything: rather than Campbell building a case chapter by chapter, Moyers and Campbell "talk" and their conversation is parceled up into chapters labeled in ways like "Myth and the Modern World", "The Hero's Adventure", and "The Gift of the Goddess". The book's format limits its use for the first-time reader (like myself), I think. While I did glean a good impression of what Campell's main ideas were, Moyers and Campbell tended to drift -- as you would expect in a conversation, and especially in a conversation between two academics who delight in talking about one subject and connecting it to another.

Campbell is perhaps best known for The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he (I've been told) writes on the mythical archetype of the Hero. (It was through this work that I found him on a Star Wars wikipedia page, as Lucas supposedly rewrote parts of his script to better reflect the pattern that Campbell gleaned out of studying the stories of old.) What Campbell does throughout this interview transcript is to talk about themes that arise when studying mythology and religion. It's informative in that way, but the approach just seems a little scattered. Had I read some of Campbell's work previously, or watched the television specials, I could make more thoughtful comments, but as it is all I can offer are my initial impressions.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

American Mania

American Mania: When More Isn't Enough
© 2005 Peter Whybrow
338 pages

The title "American Mania" caught my eye as I wandered through library bookcases trying to familiarize myself with the library's recent reshuffling of the shelves after a discarding period: everything seems a bit out of place. The book was in the oh-so-small sociology section, and its contents immediately gained my interest. Like Erich Fromm and M. Scott Peck, Peter Whybrow uses his diagnostic training in psychiatry to examine society at large. Unlike them, he grounds his analysis in biology. Simply put, Whybrow attempts to make the case that the culture of the United States has developed far out of sync with our biology -- and looks for possible solutions.

Given its scope, the book is surprisingly small -- it winds its way through biology, psychology, economics, history, and politics, ending with philosophy. Whybrow begins by looking at why consumerism thrives in the United States, exploring the biological heritage of its citizens and speculating that most Americans are the descendants of generations of adventurous and risk-taking migrants whose curiosity and inventiveness have helped create a supereconomy -- enabled by the perfect governmental and economic system, a classically liberal republic dedicated to material prosperity through laissez-faire capitalism. The two key components are like a flame and kindling -- together, they create a roaring fire. A key aspect of the United State's biological constitution is that the allele so common in the United States that Whybrow associates with risk-taking is also associated with addictive behavior -- an origin of the manic behavior he will address later. A nation composed of risk-takers combined with a government that promotes and thrives on risk-taking behavior are an explosive combination in Whybrow's opinion, and they have the promise of boundless prosperity -- so long as the financial system is held in check by societal pressure (the more "humanizing" aspects of culture like a sense of community or religion ) and governmental regulation.

There's the problem. After delighting in the United States' economic growth throughout the 20th century (its general growth, even taking into account the Depression and recession of the '70s), Whybrow laments at what began happening in the nineteen-eighties. Not only did the "conservative revolution" remove the breaks from the roaring locomotive that is the American economy, but the technological boom allowed for even more instantaneous communication, making the world far too small and busy for human beings to live comfortably in it. Adding to his distress is that culture, which was supposed to keep economic growth in its place, has either been re-written or rendered impotent. The result of this is much unpleasantness -- obesity, stress-related illnesses, and the near-complete alienation of humanity from its natural and healthy societal norms: healthy family life, intimate communities, healthy sleep cycles, a good diet, exercise. Manic consumerism is like a cancerous cell: its growth is unchecked, it is unnatural, it is harming its host, and it is spreading -- not only in industrializing countries, but in nations like Britain and France that are being overwhelmed by the tide of American culture. Ultimately, there's not much that can be done, and Whybrow seems to hint that the cancer will continue to grow unless more people become aware of the problem and mindful of the power of culture itself. What will become of us if this does not happen is only hinted at darkly: the United States in the novella Manna comes to mind,

Whybrow writes well, and I think he makes his case fairly -- but the book could have been much stronger. Given that (as Whybrow notes himself) the disconnect between society and biological needs is developing in other industrializing countries, I think Whybrow's criticisms of what economies based on manic consumption do to their societies could have stood on their own, without his work on America's biological composition being mentioned. I can't make an intelligent comment on it, but it seems a bit far-fetched. When Whybrow writes (apparently surprised) about culture being used by the economics system, he is unwittingly noticing the same thing that Karl Marx, Erich Fromm, and Neil Postman noted: economic and technological systems shape the cultures they are introduced into, even if they are the initial products of those cultures. I think if Whybrow had connected his work to other criticisms -- particularly those from the Frankfurt school -- the overall effect of his argument might have been increased. As it is, Whybrow seems to be surprised that human culture has been subjugated by those forces. Also, although he explains why people become enslaved to their work, he doesn't really address why people become obsessed with buying other than referring to the addictive effect buying can have on many people.

Overall, a very readable book with a valid core criticism despite weaknesses in the way the argument is made.

Related Reading:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wisdom of the Ages

Wisdom of the Ages: A Modern Master Brings Eternal Truths into Everyday Life
(Strangely, the subtitle on Amazon is "60 Days to Enlightenment." It seems to be a different edition with 20 more pages.)
© 1998 Wayne Dyer
268 pages

My local public library has taken to rearranging its shelves this spring after a period of discarding (a period I missed, otherwise my personal library would have gained substantially), meaning that I can no longer flit from shelf to shelf in the certain knowledge gained after a lifetime of experience in this library. This has led to me accidentally seeing books in areas where I was not looking for them, leading me to Wisdom of the Ages by Wayne Dyer. Dyer, if you recall, penned a book interpreting the Tao te Ching that I read recently. Dyer is something of a self-help guru whose advice reminds me a little too much of stuff you'd find on the Oprah book club list at times, but which is generally rationally kosher*.

Words of Wisdom consists of quotations from philosophical and religious teachers as well as authors and poets and interpretive explanations on those quotations by Dyer. The book consists of sixty chapters, each devoted to a particular concept that Dyer finds important (self-reliance, kindness, inspiration, leadership, etc) and each introduced by one of the quotations or literary excerpts. The chapters are arranged in a manner that seems to be chronological based on the thinker whose work is quoted. Only one author (Ralph Waldo Emerson) is repeated: Dyer draws from both his poetry and his essay work. Given when they lived, the classic philosophical and religious teachers are quickly exhausted and the bulk of the book's content is drawn from poetry with occasional breaks from people like Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi.

The individual chapters are written well, and I think Dyer does a good job of explaining the poetry. Individuals may agree or disagree with Dyer's interpretations of the many poems included, but there were poems that made little sense to me until I read Dyer's explanations for them. Other poems, like Frosts' "The Road Not Taken" and "If" by Kipling, are more straightforward. As far as value goes, I think it's mostly good advice. While some of his thoughts definitely remind me too much of The Secret and similar works, I'd say the majority of it makes sense. The questionable chapters deal with the power of the mind. I am well aware of our ability to change our perceptions of reality through the power of our minds -- learning to control our emotions and direct our thoughts -- I'm very "skeptical" about our ability to change reality itself with "thought energy", as Dyer claims to do when projecting happiness and calmness at bickering people in the grocery store. Whenever Dyer makes a claim like this, he attempts to ward off questioners like myself by saying "No one knows enough to be a pessimist" -- that is, we don't know that we can't move clouds with our minds, so what's the harm in believing so? I think you could test cloud-moving abilities, but Dyer does not quote from scientists. Although he quotes Buddha in promoting reason as the only way of arriving at the truth, it seems from my perspective that Dyer doesn't quite give reason its due.

What this means for the reader depends on the reader. I think Dyer is generally harmless: his chapters are about individuals taking charge of their lives -- their beliefs and their perceptions. He offers tips at the end of each chapter to help people implement the advice of each chapter, just as he did with Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. Maybe some of his other books are more compromised, but I think this is generally a solid read. I enjoyed the experience. I may read more Dyer in the future.

* Now there's a contradiction in terms.

Monday, May 18, 2009

This Week at the Library (18/5)

Books this Update:
  • The Robots of Dawn, Isaac Asimov
  • The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman
  • Familiar Poems, Annotated; Isaac Asimov
  • Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong
  • The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown

I will begin by saying that I still intend on giving Erich Fromm's The Sane Society and Timothy Keller's The Reason for God their respective dues, although the Fromm commentary will not be as thorough as I would like seeing as it belongs to my university library and my notes on it vanished when moving out of the residency hall for the summer.

This week's reading began with a return to Isaac Asimov's science fiction, and more specifically to his Robots series. The Robots books are different from the Foundation novels and his various short stories in that they are written as detective novels , each starring plainclothesman Elijah Baley and his android partner, Daneel Olivaw. Having earned an reputation for being a clever detective who can adapt himself to different cultures, Baley is asked to visit the Spacer world of Aurora to prevent a prominent politician's career from being smeared by accusations of robotocide. While robotocide is not a serious crime -- amounting to nothing more than property destruction -- the politician's particular views and those of his enemies make the case of the destroyed robot important. Baley meets Olivaw in transit to the planet, and once there they begin investigating a murder in which the only person who could have committed the crime swears he didn't do it. I found it to be as interesting and fun a read as ever.

I next switched to a more serious piece of work, Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, which focuses on the first month of the Great War: August 1914. The book is a rather highly-regarded work of military history, which I read more for its reputation than anything else -- although I do have a very strong interest in the Great War. Tuchman devotes the first sections of the book to the political breakdown that led to the war itself, tracking the motivations of the various European powers as they slid into their respective alliances. Once the war begins, the book becomes a more straightforward military account that ends with the Battle of the Marne and the development of trench warfare. I found the book to be quite readable and detailed, although military histories don't particularly interest me.

Next I read Familiar Poems, Annotated, a collection of thirty-seven well-known poems compiled and commented on by Isaac Asimov. Asimov's commentary explains the historical, scientific, and literary allusions made in the various poems as well as their broader context. The poems chosen, writes Asimov, are familiar -- not necessarily "good". I found this to be the case, although I did enjoy many of the poems. The poems are generally English or American in origin, although some (Ozimandias, for instance) deal with people outside the Anglo-American sphere. Asimov's comments were quite readable and detailed, typically adding a lot to my appreciation of the poems. Asimov is as enjoyable as ever.

I returned to history with Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History. I checked out the book in the interests of reading something by Armstrong and in reading something about Islam: the last time I read about it was the fall of 2006, and while I retain the basics, I'd like to refresh myself. The book is less about the beliefs and practices of Islam and more about the history of its political expressions -- although the early parts do concern the development of beliefs and practices. Armstrong places emphasis on the importance of political life in Islam, and so the histories of the various caliphates and empires that were maintained through Islamic law dominate most of the book. She ends the book by looking at how Islamic societies and Muslims are dealing with the modern world -- and in particular, with secularism. Quite readable and very detailed: I will be returning to Armstrong.

Lastly, I read a bit of fiction set in a quasi-religious context. Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code has a controversial reputation big enough for me to skip introducing it. The book is a mystery thriller, the mystery's clues being religious symbolism and some Christian history, mythological or otherwise. The clues lead symbolist Robert Langdon and Paris detective Sophie Neveu through France and England -- chasing ghosts of Templars while being chased themselves by French cops and Catholic fundamentalists who are not gun-shy. Although Brown's scholarship has been criticized or rebutted by various people, I read the book as a straight mystery novel -- not as an expose of the Catholic church. I enjoyed the book immensely on that basis: despite having watched the movie, Brown kept my attention -- although I did have a problem with the way his final revelation connected to the ideas being developed in the book. I think I will be reading his Angels and Demons whenever a copy of it becomes available.

Pick of the Week: I'm honestly torn. Frankly, I enjoyed all of the books this week to the point that I can't say I have a favorite.

Next Week:
  • Selected Essays, Michel de Montaigne
  • Magic: the Final Fantasy Collection, Isaac Asimov
  • Wisdom of the Ages, Wayne Dyer
  • The Power of Myth, Joseph Campell
  • American Mania: When More is Not Enough, Peter Whybrow

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The DaVinci Code

The DaVinci Code
© 2003 Dan Brown
454 pages

I don't know that there is any point in introducing this book: given the controversy of its plot developments, I think it is safe to say that the whole of the English-speaking western world is aware of the book. It is controversial enough to merit books written about it criticizing Brown's research, both from orthodox Christian and nonreligious skeptical circles. The book was turned into a movie during my first year as a skeptic, but I avoided reading it based on a bit of snobbery: I dislike reading books that are popular, having acquired an irrational pride in not being a trend-follower sometime in high school.

I disregarded that snobbery this week and read The DaVinci Code, it catching my eye while on special display the library. The imminent release of Angels and Demons, the movie version of The Da Vinci Code's sequel, is undoubtedly what merited the book being put on display. As most readers are undoubtedly aware, The Da Vinci Code is a mystery/thriller novel that relies on Catholic and pagan symbolism as clues. The book and mystery begin in the Louvre, where the museum director has suddenly taken dead after arranging his body in an odd fashion and leaving behind a number of clues. The nature of the clues brings in Harvard religious symbolist Robert Langdon and Paris cryptologist Sophie Neveu. Both are quickly thrown into a conflict that is much larger and older than they are -- a conflict that has been on-going for two thousand years. The mystery that unfolds and the thriller-esque story that is told will lead to a continent-wide manhunt of Langdon and Neveu, who are pursued by police authorities, Swiss bankers, and a fundamentalist Catholic cult, Opus Dei. The story ends in revelations that have the potential to shake the foundations of Christianity -- namely, that Jesus married and had a child, and that his wife (Mary Magdalene) had been designated to lead his church before Peter ran her off to France. Brown combines this with the loss of the "sacred feminine", or the replacement of nature and goddess worship with the more stern and penis-centered monotheistic religions.

As a mystery thriller, I must say I really enjoyed the book. Although I've seen the movie (my disdain for fads not withstanding, I enjoy Tom Hanks movies) and so new all of the plot twists ahead of time, Brown kept my attention and I enjoyed the book completely. I cannot and will not comment on Brown's scholarship: I took this book as a mystery novel, not an expose of the Catholic church. What I will say is that I don't understand the connection between Mary Magdalene and goddess worship. Even if she was the bride of Jesus, and even if he was a god-thing, the worship of her can't simply translate to worship of an Earth-Goddess. The connection is tenuous at best for me. Beyond this, my only complaint was that the initial set of clues seemed to be entirely too thorough for belief. I find it hard to believe that a man shot in the stomach was able to think up a way to write three lines of clue that had double and triple meanings -- but perhaps French museum directors are really clever.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Islam: A Short History
© 2000 Karen Armstrong

This is the third or fourth book I've read in the "Modern Library Chronicle" series, which consists (I now realize) of brief but fairly informative treatments of given topics. I have not purposely been reading this series: I realized it only when looking at the back of this book and observing previous books I've read listed as part of the series (Richard Pipes' Communism and Michael Stürmer's The German Empire, namely).

My purpose for reading this book was twofold: one, to maintain what little Islamic literacy I have, and two, to read something by Karen Armstrong. I've heard a good bit about her but haven't been able to finish anything of hers. (I recall trying to read A History of God, but losing interest very early on. This was before my interest in comparative religion, so perhaps I should revisit it.) This book is less a book on the beliefs and practice of Islam than it is a history of the religion, particularly its developing political expressions. The book is divided into five parts: "Beginnings", "Development", "Culmination", "Islam Triumphant", and "Islam Agnosistes".

Commenting on this book is a little difficult for me, because I don't have a working knowledge of Islamic history to judge Armstrong against. Assuming the facts are true and the judgements valid, the book is in my opinion quite well-written. She explains the subject matter well, and as Islamic history develops, she is quick to establish connections with material previously discussed. Given her skill at communicating, I found the book to be very informative. All criticisms of Armstrong I've heard have been from people who think she isn't critical enough -- that, in an effort to see religions from the perspective I myself have been courting recently, that most of them are attempts at ethical philosophy, she ignores brutality in either the religion itself or in its leaders. What comes to mind is how she treats Mohammed's slaughter of the citizens of Mecca when he and his army of Muslims captured it. She writes that we "must be careful" not to judge him by our own standards, that in his time it would have been foolhardy to simply let them go. Given that by her account he killed all of the men and had the women and children sold into slavery, and given that his supposed intention and achievement was to create a society where even the weakest are treated with respect, I find that write-off a little lacking in courage.

I'm well aware of the need to view people in the context of their culture, but I'm also very wary of an explanation that seems more defensive than explanatory. I would have appreciated a more cynical, or not-as-romantic, view of the event. Thinking on this makes me realize how vulnerable history is to its authors' unwitting subjectivity: was Mohammad an religious idealist who wanted to create a better world for his people, or was he a practical, ambitious, charismatic and concerned businessman who was able to create a kind of community that met all of his needs?

Regardless of problems in interpretation, I did find the book useful in its less controversial explanations. What most interested me was the Islamic idea of ummah, the spiritual community. What it means is that for Muslims, faith and politics cannot easily be separated. Political expression is part of religious expression. One of Armstrong's strengths is that she does not get tied down in small matters: she looks at the big picture, spending a good bit of time comparing western civilization and Islamic civilization, looking at the way their histories have changed the way they view faith and secularism.

In the end, what I can say this: I enjoyed reading the book and found it both informative and thought-provoking. I think it merits recommending with the knowledge that interpretation plays an important role in evaluating the book. I am not certain at this point whether the book's views are very open to interpretation, or if I'm just more consciousness of the interpretative nature of a controversial subject than I am of accounts that deal with more familiar subject material.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Familar Poems, Annotated

Familar Poems, Annotated
© 1977 Isaac Asimov
272 pages

In reading I, Asimov, the good doctor made mention of his commentary work -- including his Guide to the Bible, Guide to Shakespeare, and now Familiar Poems, Annotated. The book's approach is quite simple: Asimov has collected thirty-seven poems that are or were broadly known in the United States of his time and regarded as classics of sorts. (The number includes Invictus, one of my favorites.) After each poem, Asimov has penned a few pages of commentary, focusing on historical, scientific, literary, or otherwise cultural allusions and context. In his introduction, he maintains that his purpose is not to comment on matters of meaning and meter, but to explain the "particular words and phrases used in constructing the poems". He uses an excerpt from his commentary on Cargoes by John Masefield, focusing on the line "Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir".

In connection with [this] first line in Masefield's Cargoes, it may occur to you to wonder what the devil a quinquireme might be. And who is Nineveh and why does she happen to have a quinquireme? And where, oh where, is Ophir, since you won't find it in the atlas. After all -- once you have the answer to these questions, as I give them to you, you may then go back to the line, and, having lost none of the beauty of the sound, find you have gained an added appreciation of the sense.

The poems are arranged chronologically according to subject, not published date. The selection shows a definite American bias, with 19th century American history being especially-well represented. The commentaries themselves are up to Asimov's usual stellar par. They read well, are quite detailed, and held my interest for the most part. I enjoyed the poems by themselves: although I'd read bits and pieces of most of them, I've never stopped to read them in whole, and this was an opportunity to do so. The Pied Piper of Hamelin and its commentary were especially memorable. My only knowledge of the poem was that it was about a man who played a pipe and cleared a town of its rats: I had no idea he took their children as payment, although having read the poem does make that "gotta pay the piper" utterance make sense. The greatest "A-ha!" experience for me was reading "Ozymandias": having never read it, I tend it confuse "Behold my works, ye mighty, and despair" with that "I am become death , destroyer of worlds" line, having never read either the Ozymandias poem or the section of the Gita from which the ye-mighty-and-despair-line was. I don't know if it was my attentive reading or Asimov's commentary, but I "get" the poem now.

In short, it was an excellent read and I reccommend it. I am tempted to provide the full list of poems, but given that there are nearly forty I shall only list a few:
  • Ozimandias, Shelley
  • The Destruction of Sennacherib, Lord Bryon
  • The Vision of Belshazzar, Lord Bryon
  • Antony to Cleopatra, William Haines Lytle
  • The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning
  • A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Celment Clarke Moore (Comments include origins of Christmas)
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Tennyson
  • Battle-Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe
  • O Captain! My Captain! , Walt Whitman
  • Invictus, William Ernest Henley
  • The Modern Major-General, William Schwenk Gilbert (The commentary was informative).
  • The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus,
  • In Flanders Fields, John McCrae

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Guns of August

The Guns of August
© 1962 Barbara Tuchman
511 pages

The Guns of August, like Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is work I've heard much of in my years as a history student. Used in my freshman textbook, quoted by a number of my professors, cited by Doris Kearns Goodwin as her inspiration for becoming a historian -- a lot speaks for the book. I used it a year or so ago when writing a paper for a French history class and made a mental note to return to the book to give a proper reading later on -- and this week, I have.

The Guns of August, while being "about" the Great War, focuses more on its beginning: the political maneuverings and stumbles that led to the war and the opening moves of the war itself in August of 1914, hence "the guns of August". I've been actively studying the Great War specifically for a few years now. It seems to me to be the essence of War in its wastefulness and horror. I wish when people thought of war they thought of this one, instead of the easily romanticized World War* that followed it. The book can be divided into two general parts: the first part concerns the political build-up to the war following the death of King Edward VII of England, called "Uncle of Europe" owing to his families' blood ties to the various royal families of Europe. If the late British king represented a unity of sorts, the first part of the book concerns the disintegration of the various European powers. This began before his death, of course, but perhaps accelerated following it.

Tuchman details why the alliances fell into place the way they did, and does it well -- although I don't recall reading about the Moroccan crises or the Italian-Austrian naval build-up. Much attention, deservedly, is put on Imperial Germany's diplomatic blunders after the dismissal of Chancellor Bismarck. As the countries of Europe trap themselves in the quicksand of belligerance and mobilization, Tuchman switches to military history. She writes well, and for those interested in military matters the second half of the book probably reads as well as the former. Despite my disinterest in military accounts, I found the second part more informative than expected. I'd forgotten completely, for instance, about the Battle of the Mons: my perception of the war tends to regard the Marne as the first "real" battle, with the month of preceding conflicts mere unnamed brush-ups.

The book is quite readable, I think, and detailed enough to give a student of the period such as myself new information.I didn't know, for instance, that leading intellectuals of the period predicted that extended wars of the past were far too expensive to carry on in the modern day, and consequently the next war would have to be sort. The Great War was of course not short and it was very expensive, undermining the economies of Europe for quite some time. It's interesting that this happened despite the warnings. If I had to criticize the book, I found the abcense of air power's role curious. Granted, few people are aware of the role of the British and French air forces in spotting the movements of the German army in August and helping to move the Entente armies into positions they might use to their advantage. I've used this lack of knowledge to my benefit as most of my student papers in university history classes have addressed the air forces of the European powers and the majority of those papers have included sections of aerial influence in the build-up to the Marne.

* Typically people refer to the two wars as World War I and World War 2, but I avoid using "World War 1". Such a label makes it seem like the simple prologue to World War 2 instead of a great horror in its own right. It also seems a bit inaccurate to me, as the war was only fought (as far as I know) in Europe and the areas surrounding the Mediterranean. Regardless of that sea's name, though, I don't think the war qualifies as a "world" war.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Robots of Dawn

The Robots of Dawn
© 1983 Isaac Asimov
419 pages

I return to Asimov's Robots series with the third mystery novel featuring plainclothesman Elijah Baley. Having established a reputation on Earth and elsewhere in the galaxy for his ability to adjust to new situations and earn the trust of "Spacers", or humans who have lived on other words long enough to develop their own cultures on their various worlds, Baley is asked to travel to Aurora to investigate a case of robotocide. While en route, Baley is delighted to see his old crime-solving partner Daneel Olivaw -- an android who was made to look and act human. Daneel is one of a kind, because as we will soon learn, the only other android has been rendered inoperative -- and it is that crime which Baley has been called to invesitigate.

Baley and Daneel land in Aurora -- the planet of the "dawn", hence the name -- where Baley learns that this case is more complicated than he had imagined. To render a robot inoperative is not a crime, particularly since its owner is the only man with the knowledge and skill sufficient to destroy the robot in the way it was destroyed -- but that man, Dr. Han Fastolfe, is Earth's lone champion on Aurora, the greatest of the Spacer worlds. The fifty "Spacer" worlds are all more technologically advanced than Earth, as Earth's resources are tied in maintaining its massive population. Technological advances are also actively suppressed by the Spacers, who do not want Earth to begin colonizing space anew and saturating the galaxy with its aggressive and primitive billions. If Fastolfe is implicated in any legal embarrassment, his political opponents can use that to quiet him down and thus maintain Aurora's policy of restraining Earth. Fastolfe insists that he didn't do it, forcing Baley to interview both humans and robots in an effort to discern the truth.

Asimov maintains his "unadorned" style and smoothly incorporates information from his Robot stories ("Liar!" and "The Bicentennial Man") into the plot of his book, having his characters treat them as legends of the past. The Robots of Dawn seems to rely on more characters than The Naked Sun or Caves of Steel. Although this is a perfectly enjoyably mystery novel, what I find most interesting is Asimov's replication of culture, particularly cultural taboos. Robots of Dawn was as enjoyable as ever, although I think I still prefer The Caves of Steel at this point. I'm interested in reading the final Robots book, Robots and Empire, but don't have access to it presently.

Monday, May 11, 2009

This Week at the Library (11/5)

Books this Update
  • Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality, John Shelby Spong
  • Return of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov
  • Spartacus, T.L. Mancour

Last week was a short but busy week for me, as I entered into finals week studying for exams, writing papers, and preparing to pack up a years' worth of life into only a few boxes. Consequently, I only read one book from the library and finished off two others that I've read a little from all semester. Episcopalian bishop John Spong's autobiography constituted the bulk of my reading. Although the book is the autobiography of a very interesting man -- a man who challenged his traditions and tried to humanize his religion -- it also serves to give the reader a look into the Episcopalian church's innards. I'm always captivated by stories of people grappling with their most cherished beliefs, although Spong didn't go into as much detail as I would have liked. The reader doesn't get the step-by-step retelling that Infidel provided, although Hirsi Ali was writing for different reasons and her change of worldviews happened faster. Still, Spong kept my interest while telling the story of how he sought to bring Christianity in accord with science and the human heart.

This week I also finished Return of the Black Widowers, the last in Asimov's Black Widower collections -- books compiling his Black Widower mystery stories, in which a club of men with the titular name meet monthly for dinner and are presented by a guest with a mystery to solve. This collection is special, because it was published a decade after the maestro's death and combines uncollected Widower stories with Asimov's personal favorites. There are seventeen stories in all (five more than usual), including one ("The Last Story") written by Harlan Ellison. As usual, I loved the collection -- but I did miss Asimov's characteristic comments. Ellison tries to provide this with an "afterword' extracted from Asimov's autobiography that does the job a little bit, but doesn't seem quite as personal. Excellent as always -- I particularly enjoyed being able to revisit old favorites, like "The Obvious Factor".

Lastly, I finished a Star Trek novel called Spartacus. Those familar with Roman history, or perhaps just depictions of Roman history in popular media, can probably discern that this book's plot is driven by a slave revolt. Specifically, a planet outisde Federation space called Vemla has been engulfed in war after the androids that provided the Vemlan's standard of living revolted, guided by the more sentient "Alpha" androids. A few androids take over a ship and attempt to flee the brutal war, but a storm in space disables their vessel temporarily, at which point the Enterprise-D comes to their rescue. They tell Captain Picard that they are refugees, but soon after a fleet of Vemlan ships arrives and informs Captain Picard that they intend to bring their escaped property back with them -- and he would do well to not interfere. Although Picard and his crew -- and most of all, Commander Data -- want to help the androids, they are bound by Federation regulations, philosophical questions, and the haunting fear that these androids are not the peaceful refugees they claim to be. I found the book quite readable.

Pick of the (Update): Return of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov

Next Week:
  • The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman. I've used this book in research papers before but have never actually read it despite it being used in my western civilization textbook. I will remedy that this week.
  • The Robots of Dawn, Isaac Asimov
  • Familiar Poems, Annotated, Isaac Asimov. Asimov mentioned this in I, Asimov and it sounded interesting.
  • Islam, Karen Armstrong. I've never finished any of Armstrong's work before, and so in the interests of cultural literacy I'll be lighting two candles with one flame. (I googled for more peaceful variants of the "kill two birds with one stone" variant, and I like that one the most.)
  • The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown. Yes, I'm finally getting around to it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Star Trek the Next Generation: Spartacus
© T.L. Mancour
276 pages

It seems only appropriate that I read a Star Trek book on the weekend that its newest movie comes out, hopefully revitalizing the Franchise. A number of years ago, someone donated a large number of Star Trek paperbacks to my local library, and they were consequently sold in its bookstore for a a nickel a piece, or something like that. I bought $5 worth, meriting me a large bag full of Star Trek paperback novels. I haven't read most of them, but I like knowing they're in my closet for whenever I want to experience some new Trek. Spartacus is one of those novels. You may be able to surmise from the book's title what the plot is generally about -- a slave revolt and resulting war, with the Enterprise-D caught in the middle. While exploring beyond Federation space, the Enterprise comes to the aid of a ship making repairs. The ship, as Enterprise crewmen discover, is staffed entirely by androids. Although the soon-to-be-called Spartacans and the Federation crewmen get along well, the arrival of an alien fleet makes Captain Picard realize that there is more going on here than a ship having been damaged by an interstellar storm. The androids once served their creators, the Vemlans, dutifully, and Vemlan society grew to become dependent on the androids even as the droids themselves were becoming more sentient.

When androids began to be used as gladiators, "Alpha", or completely intelligent and sentient androids, led a revolt. The resulting war partially destroyed Vemla, and now a Vemlan fleet has come for revenge. The androids would rather be destroyed as free beings than return to Vemla, and there seems to be no peaceful alternative. The Vemlans are intent on recovering the androids to put them on trial (ironic given that they deny the 'droids sentience) or destroying them, and Captain Picard is unable to come to the defense of his new friends owing to Federation law. And then, Commander Data has an idea -- one that may present a peaceful solution, or which may thrust the Federation into war with the Vemlans. The book was a breezily fun read that shows a good bit of character development on Data's part, as well as insight into Federation procedures. I think both the Spartacans and the Vemlans are fleshed out enough for the book's purpose. Assuming readers are Trek fans who can actually find the book used on Amazon somewhere, I'd recommend doing so. It's not a deep read, but it's a fun one.

Here I Stand

Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality
© 2001 John Shelby Spong
48o pages

On YouTube, I somehow stumbled across two Christians (Marcus Borg and Bishop Spong) whose beliefs are definitely not in line with orthodox Christianity. I find their attempts to humanize their religion in the face of criticism and death threats to be somewhat noble. It takes guts to challenge one's traditions. This book is essentially an autobiography of Spong, giving the reader what it was like to grow up in the Deep South during the Civil Rights movement, as well as insight into the Episcopalian Church, which I personally knew little about. Although Spong emerges as a very interesting man, I was somewhat disappointed that he did not delve into the details of why he changed his thinking on theological subjects. The reader can see Spong's southern culture -- patriarchy, racism, homophobia -- melting away, but I couldn't really get a firm "Ah, that was it" handle on why his mind would change beyond basic descriptions of his meeting theologians who challenged him to reevaluate orthodoxy. Although I'm not sure what I think about the book just yet, he merits listening to on YouTube for those who are curious. His religion as expressed in the videos I've seen is very basic: he seems to only retain Christianity as part of his culture, lacking belief in Jesus as deity and so on. I find the humanization of religion to be a very interesting subject.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Return of the Black Widowers

The Return of the Black Widowers
© 2003 Isaac Asimov, ed. Harlan Ellison
304 pages

As regular readers know, I greatly enjoy Isaac Asimov'short story collections, and in particular his Black Widower series. The Black Widower stories are "cozy" mysteries, in which a group of intellectuals from disparate fields meets once every month at a local restaurant. Each month, a different member plays host and is entitled to bring a guest. After dinner, one of the Widowers "grills" the guest, and a mystery of sorts will arise from the guests' answers. The story is driven by conversation, as the Widowers talk amongst themselves and attempt to find some conclusion. The books are very appealing to me, for a number of reasons, but particular to the Widower books is the ability of the reader to revisit the characters again and again.

This collection of Widower tales is special. Released nearly a decade after his death and introduced by Harlan Ellison, it consists of Asimov's favorite Widower stories as well as uncollected stories that don't appear in the previous books. The book is divided roughly in half, with an homage to Asimov appearing in the middle. The "homage" is a story written in the same style as Asimov's stories, with a group of friends meeting monthly and who find themselves presented with a mystery -- much to the delight of one of the characters,who has read Asimov and realizes the similiarity. Eighteen stories in all, the book ends with two pieces: one last Widowers story, but one not written by Asimov, and an 'afterword' by Asimov that has been taken out of one of his autobiographies in which Asimov writes about the series.

The book was very enjoyable: I read it in bits and pieces all through the school year, typically when my library reading was exhausted. It's definitely a favorite. I have now read all but one of the Widowers collections -- Casebooks of the Black Widowers.

Monday, May 4, 2009

This Week at the Library (4/5)

Books this Update:
  • A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn
  • The Great Journey: Peopling the United States, Brian Fagan
  • Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, Wayne Dyer
  • Wicca for Beginners, Thea Sabin

I began last week by reading the biggest book first -- and at over seven hundred pages, Howard Zinn's history of the underdogs was definitely the biggest. After acknowledging that all historical accounts -- be they notes scribbled down by Spanish friars, US Army army reports, college textbooks, or popular narratives -- are written from a biased perspective, he owns his own bias and states that this book is intended to be a history of the losers in American history, meaning a history of almost everyone except white, male landowners. Beginning with Columbus' treatments of the natives and ending with the invasion of Iraq, Zinn takes the reader through a very bloody and unpleasant history of the world's self-titled "first democracy". Although I knew much of its contents already, Zinn still manages to leave me reeling at parts. Obviously, a book like this isn't going to appeal to people like my high-school self, whose feelings are better cared for when reading a history about America the Beautiful, constantly striving forward to more freedom and prosperity. As I've learned since high school, material prosperity always comes at a high human price.

I continued reading history with my next book, although it was not a narrative. Brian Fagan's The Great Journey is more of a summary of what archaeologists and historians now believe about the arrival of humankind to the Americas. Fagan discusses the problems with finding out anything about the earliest human settlements -- environmental factors that don't lend themselves to the preservation of artifacts, for instance. What few artifacts survive -- stone tools, for instance -- are discussed at length. I've not read this much about flint knapping since the Earth's Children series. The book is arranged chronologically, and Fagan tries to present it in terms of being a play -- labeling the chapters as "acts", for instance. Although it could be a bit dry at times, interesting information would surface unexpectedly -- after page after page on stone-shaping, I found myself reading about an archaeologist who witnessed an Indian elephant die and immediately decided to test reproductions of stone tools by butchering it. I was then informed of the best method to strip an elephant of its meat -- can't say I was expecting that.

Through the week, I read bits and pieces of Wayne Dyer's Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, a devotional using the Tao Te Ching as its source. The book consists of 81 essays, each written on a verse from Lao Tzu's book of mystic wisdom. Dyer draws from various translations of the book for his essays, but always includes a verse in the text for the reader. He also connects Taoist thoughts to other religious and philosophical teachings as well as attitudes expressed in poetry. After initial comments on the verse, he distills it into one or two statement, and then comments on those. He ends each essay with a "Do the Tao Now" section, in which he makes suggestions to the reader for putting the thoughts into practice. I found this book to be more helpful than The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, although sometimes it felt too...prescriptive. I have something of a distrust for intuitive "statements". I was chagrined to find an advertisement of Sylvia Browne in the back of the book.

Lastly, I read Wicca for Beginners by Thea Sabin. My interest in this, like my interest in architecture and various other topics, stems from a PC game I play as a hobby -- The Sims 2. (It's not the first time a PC game has given me new interests, and it won't be the last.) Although I was initially reading out of curiosity's sake, I quickly connected it to my comparative religion studies. Sabin begins by explaining what Wicca is, hoping to shake the reader from his or her Hollywood- or church-given notions. I've heard a few sermons on the evils of Wicca in my lifetime: fundamentalist sects, like the one I was raised in, are quick to connect Wicca with Satanism. My own understanding of Wicca before reading the book was that it was a ritualized form of earth-goddess worship, but I found to my surprise that it has two deities as well as plenty of ritual. What I found most intriguing is that unlike most religions, Wicca is not built on philosophical or ethical practice, although it has an ethic component. The Wicca described in this book is very much about the power of symbols, rituals, and spells, and Sabin goes into great detail explaining what means what. I wasn't expecting to find that brooms had symbolic significance or that witches wear special robes to rituals depending on the season, but these are some of the things I learned. The book was very informative, even though it is written to the potential initiate. (The "Mr. Spock" portion of my brain that Sabin urges the reader to turn off several times is far too implacable for me to be an initiate in any tradition.)

Pick of the Week: A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn.

Quotation of the Week:
The poem "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver, which Dyer quoted in his book.

Next Week:
  • Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality; John Shelby Spong
  • Fates Worse than Death, Kurt Vonnegut
  • World Religion: Opposing Viewpoints, various authors
  • The Return of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov

Out of my Life and Thought

Out of My Life and Thought,
© 1933, Albert Schweitzer (translated and republished in 1960)
233 pages

These comments are long-overdue. Unlike The Sane Society and The Reason for God, Albert Schweitzer's autobiography doesn't require a point-by-point review. It's not that the book has nothing to say, but Schweitzer's point in writing his autobiography was not to completely rewrite worldviews. I found this book through The Book that Changed My Life. I don't know what led me to write it down was a potential read, but it was enjoyable. The book is, as mentioned, an autobiography. Schweitzer begins it by explaining that readers had interpreted previous work as his biography, and he wanted to correct that.

The book starts out rather dry, as Schweitzer simply writes about his early life. It's not exactly a riveting narrative, but soon livens up when Schweitzer drifts to discussing matters of interest to him. He will combine the story of his life with sections or even chapters devoted to subjects of interest, including Christian biblical interpretation, the art of organ-building, and lastly, philosophy. While serving as a doctor in Africa, Schweitzer muses on the tattered state of Western Civilization and takes the reader through his thinking process, finally proposing that the reason western civilization has decayed to the state it has is because it has lost a philosophical or spiritual center.

What Schweitzer says is very common among social critics of the early to mid-20th century, I've noted. It's eerie how Erich Fromm, Albert Schweitzer, and the Dalai Lama seem to be writing on the same topic and proposing the same basic solution -- a return to, or perhaps the creation of, a culture-wide worldview that is in line with our conditions. Schweitzer then analyzes various religions and philosophies, giving Stoicism and Taoism in particular high marks. What most intrigued me was that Schweitzer, despite or because of his decision to go into ministry within the Christian church, was able to criticize the organized church for its shortcomings, particularly in oppressing Stoicism, which he thought was a solid ethical system. He discusses Stoicism a little more at length, differentiating (as most do) between the early Stoics (its Greek founders) and the late Stoics (Romans like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus). Given my philosophical disposition, I found this particular chapter highly interesting. He ends this particular theme of discussions by promoting the creation of a worldview that draws from Earth's many traditions, but begins with a reverence for life. This particular theme is developed both in his musings and in his "this is what I'm doing", as he decides to write a book on this expanded subject.

Although the book was dry in parts, it was a look at someone who appears to be quite fascinating. I think I would like to read his Civilization and Ethics. He's definitely someone to look at later on.