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

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