Monday, May 25, 2009

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.

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