Wednesday, September 30, 2009

This Week at the Library (30/9)

Books this Update:
  • Fates Worse than Death, Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Wisdom of Harry Potter, Edmund Kern
  • Our Chosen Faith: an introduction to Unitarian Universalism, F. Forrester Church and John A. Buehrens
  • Flim Flam!, Rames Randi

I'm growing steadily more busy with schoolwork, but am still managing to read a little. This week started with Kurt Vonnegut's Fates Worse than Death, a collection of essays generally about life in the 1980s. The essays are built off of lectures given during that time period, and through them Vonnegut expresses a kind of hopeful cynicism. He fears for the future of humanity, but gives no quarter to those who say human history has been nothing but deteriorating. Scoffing at Reaganites who say that those days were the worse ever, he points out that American history is progressing: slavery has abolished, suffrage has become universal, and it's possible that the "age of American freedom" is just beginning. Vonnegut is as pleasurable and thought-provoking as ever.

Next I read through The Wisdom of Harry Potter, Edmund Kern's attempt to defend the series against political and religious criticisms of its perceived lack of morality. Kern sees Potter as a Stoic hero, one who accepts his fate but works within it for the betterment of all. Kern could only analyze the first four books in totoal (given when the book was published), but after commenting on the moral themes displayed in them goes on to deal with Harry's detractors, from both sides of political and religious spectrums. He also defends the series as literature. It's worthy reading for Harry Potter fans who take the books more seriously than just a fun way to spend an hour, or for those interested in the intersection of philosophy and culture.

I finished Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Univeralism this week, it being on the obvious subject. The book is very straight-forward, with seperate chapters written on Unitarian Universalism's themes. It was light on history, but seemed fair overall.

Lastly, I finished James Randi's Flim-Flam!, a work of debunking covering UFOs, Pyramid mysticism, psychic surgeons, and other similar topics. Randi writes casually, with a lot of biting humor. Some topics were more interesting than others, but I imagine skeptics and those interested in the listed topics would enjoy it.

Pick of the Week: Vonnegut's Fates Worse than Death.

Potentials for Next Week:
  • The Last Command, Timothy Zahn. This is last in the Thrawn trilogy. I started on it last week.
  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  • Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins, Maddalena Bearzi and Craig B. Stanford. This is a recommendation from a friend. I don't know what makes me think I'll possibly get it to it this week.
  • Last Seen in Massilia, Steven Saylor.
  • Music of the Civil War Era, Steven H. Cornelius. I'm anticipating simply mining this for information for my seminar paper on folk music of the Civil War, but depending on my needs and time, I may read it through properly.

The first is a definite, as is the second, although I don't expect to be able to enjoy it until the weekend or later. I'm hoping to get access to the Saylor novel sometime this week, but I'm not certain I'll have it.

Flim Flam!

Flim Flam! The Truth About Unicorns, Parapsychology and Other Delusions
© 1980 James Randi
340 pages

In times past I have read authors following their appearances on a favorite podcast of mine, Point of Inquiry, and that's partly the reason I decided to read from James Randi this week. James Randi is a former professional magician and hardened skeptic who for years has challenged those claiming paranormal abilities. This is not simply because he gets his kicks destroying the dreams of true believers, but because so many claiming these abilities use them to defraud innocents. According to the book, Flim Flam! is the result of Randi's having been booed off stage when he opted to speak on the paranormal at a Mensa convention. He subsequently resigned Mensa and decided to devote a book to the subject.

What follows is straightforward debunking. Joe Nickell's books are similar, although he attempts to take people claiming the supernatural is at work seriously and deals with his investigations sternly. Randi writes much more informally, often addressing the reader in a light way and making acerbic comments. The book's topics include fairy photographs, the Bermuda triangle, UFOs, transcendental meditation, "psi", psychic surgeons, Pyramid mysticism, and more. The last chapter is devoted to trials undertaken when people take Randi up on his (then) 10,000 challenge, in which he offers to pay those who can prove their abilities $10,000. (The number has risen through the years in keeping with inflation.)

Some topics were better than others. Randi and debunking fans will probably enjoy it, and I would recommend it to those who have heard of such things and want to know what the evidence might be for and against it.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Our Chosen Faith

Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism
© 1989 John A. Buehrens and the now late F. Forrester Church
195 pages

I've long been aware of the Unitarian Universalist church, ever since I read of a character in California Diaries mentioned having her mother's funeral held at a UU fellowhip. The UU church is closest to the ideal in my mind, and I dabble in the UU community online as best I can. I thought it would be interesting to read a book on Unitarian Universalism and found this one. This book is a straightforward introduction to the UU tradition: after very briefly explaining its history, the two authors each write essays about the themes present in its listed principles and sources -- The book is a bit dated in that it was written prior to the inclusion of "earth-centered traditions". The chapter on humanist teachings that warn against idolatries of the mind and spirit focused more on humanism's rationalism and less on its spirit, so to speak -- the celebration of human culture.

It was a fair read, but it seems to me there must be better introductions for those curious about Unitarian Universalism, even online.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Wisdom of Harry Potter

The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Fvorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices
© 2003 Edmund M. Kern
296 pages including notes and index.


Although I'm interested in the transmission of philosophy through literature or similar means, I'm still amused when I see books on the philosophy of Star Trek or Star Wars. When something is so popular as entertainment, it takes a moment to adjust to the idea of it being taken as ideas about life that we can learn from. The same is true of Harry Potter. This book was written in 2001 and published immediately following the release of The Order of the Phoenix. In it, author Edmund Kern elaborates on the idea that Harry Potter is an example of Stoic virtue. My interest was doubly piqued.

This is not the first I've heard of such an idea. I encountered an article at a Stoic website I've since forgotten musing that Harry is an example of a hero who puts Stoic ideals to heart. It may have been Kern's own "Harry Potter: Stoic Boy Wonder", which you can read here. The ideal Stoic believes that there are some things we can control and some things we cannot, and that to concern ourselves with the unchangeable is irrational, futile, and potentially mentally harmful. He also believes that Virtue is the only good, and that virtuous behavior is that which is in line with the laws of Nature -- among them, to live wisely, mindful of the aforementioned division between things, and to practice a cosmopolitan spirit -- concern for all human beings. Kern sees Harry Potter as trying to live up to those standards: accepting what must be, but working within that to make things better for all.

Although the Stoic Harry theme is quite strong, it is not always present. The book begins with synopsis of the first four books, followed by Kern's commentary on the themes present in them. In The Chamber of Secrets, for instance, the central theme is the individual's power over his own choices, and thus his identity. Potter readers may remember Harry's self-doubt before Dumbledore: in light of the fact that he shares so many of Voldemort's traits, and that the Sorting Hat was tempted to put him into Slytherin, Harry fears that it is there he belongs. Dumbledore gently points out, however, that Harry chose Gryffindor, just as he choses to do good when it is not easy -- just as he chooses to love and fight when neither are particularly safe. Just past the book's midpoint, Kern also takes a chapter or two to address Rowling's critics on the series' political and religious stances (or lack therof, in Kern's view) and then examines the series as literature in multigenres before returning to the Stoic theme. The book ends with an afterword written in 2003 just days after Order of the Phoenix was released and the author read it. (He read 800+ pages in just a couple of days.)

This was an interesting read. I never found Kern objectionable, although the intersection of Stoicism and Potter wasn't as riveting as I would have otherwise expected. Still, it's recommended reading for Potter fans or for those simply interested in the series' moral tone.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fates Worse than Death

Fates Worse than Death
© 1990 Kurt Vonnegut
240 pages


Kurt Vonnegut’s Fates Worse than Death is a collection of semi-autobiographical essays that function as reflections of portions of Vonnegut’s life. The essay texts come chiefly from lectures given by Vonnegut, with comments from him before, during, and after the talks are finished. The threat of nuclear annihilation seems to hang over this book, and Vonnegut’s cynical jokes and comments create a whistling-in-the-graveyard effect. The setting of the lectures tends toward the 1980s, and there are many potshots taken at then-president Reagan, some better than others.

Vonnegut displays mixed feelings about the history and future of humankind: while lamenting about where we very well may be headed, he also scoffs at Reaganites who are obsessed with restoring some lost, golden time and brings up America’s history of social progress (the ending of slavery, universal suffrage, civil rights) to champion liberal progressivism’s cause. This might indicate a hopefulness on his part that things will get better still, but it might just be an attack on conservatism. I tend to think it’s both: no matter how despairing Vonnegut sounds, it always seems as if he has a little glimmer of hope he keeps in his pockets and takes out to look at every once and a while.

The book sees him amend his opinions about some matters -- the feasibility of “folk societies”, which he expressed in Wampeters, Foma, and Grandfallons. He still wishes they would work, he just accepts that their time has past and they weren’t really all that great in the first place. Vonnegut voices opinions on all manner of subjects. One of the more interesting essay-lectures was addressed to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in which Vonnegut spoke on the failures of Imperial Christianity (that is, Christianity based on doctrine and power-wielding organizations instead of smaller communities) and expressed his hopes that Unitarian Universalism would not destroy itself in a similar fashion. Other topics include "Occidental Meditation" (reading), war, pacifism, and work. This is a definite recommendation to Vonnegut fans, but to readers in general.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This Week at the Library (24/9)

Books this Update:
  • Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire, Isaac Asimov
  • In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honoré
  • Rubicon, Steven Saylor
  • Barrel Fever, David Sedaris

I began the week with a little history by Asimov. This was the first time I've read any of Asimov's historical work, not counting the historical background he often did for Asimov's Guide to the Bible, volume I. My ignorance of the Byzantine period is near-total, but Asimov superbly rectified that situation. He tells the story of the Eastern Roman Empire's last thousand years in a six chapter narrative. It's very readable, but rather obscure by now.

Next I read a book I'd anticipated for a few weeks, In Praise of Slowness. The book documents the approaches the Slow movement takes in resisting the increasing pace of life in the United States and throughout the world -- although the book is rather US-centered in some chapters, unavoidably so. No one does suburban sprawl quite like the states. Although the book has weak spots, particularly in regards to medicine, I was pleased with it overall. It is essentially a book about making human lives both more human and more livable, and I reccommend it -- with a caveat or two.

I next continued in the Roma sub Rosa series with Rubicon. Rome is under military law, headed by Pompey the Great. Julius Caesar has broken Roman law and crossed the northern borders of Italy with his army, and civil war seems at hand. Gordianus has a lot to lose in the coming days, given that his son serves as Caesar's scribe, but things grow worse when a dead body appears in his garden -- a young and beloved relative of Pompey the Great. Vengeful Pompey takes Gordianus' son in law into his army and refuses to relinquish him until Gordianus finds the killer. Gordianus only has until Caesar and Pompey's armies meet in the cup of Italy to meet the deadline -- but before book's end, he will see battle.

Lastly, I read David Sedaris' first work of stories and essays -- mostly stories, with four essays in the back. Sedaris' first work doesn't too much resemble his latter works, which almost wholly consist of his psuedo-biographical essays, but is more entertaining than not.

I'm still working on James Randi's Flim-Flam, but it may take some time. I'm beginning work on a paper for my senior seminar, and that will detract greatly from my leisure time reading. I think the tone of upcoming books will be more casual than serious -- it's a lot easier to breeze through 400 pages of a quick novel than 200 pages of science or heavier social criticism.

Pick of the Week: In Praise of Slowness. Although Asimov's history was very enjoyable, this is more meaningful and can help people.

Quotation of the Week: "The most honest man in Rome! No wonder nobody likes you." This was said to Gordianus the Finder by Pompey the Great. While he meant it to malign Gordianus for not choosing sides, to me it comments on Rome's declining virtues.

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Flim Flam! James Randi
  • A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, John A. Buehrens
  • Fates Worse than Death, Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices, Edmund Kern. Although I was amusedly attracted to the book's title, the publisher -- Promethus Books -- clinched my decision to read this one. Books I've read in the past by them have always been enjoyable.
  • The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton. Long-anticipated: this one is going to make it difficult for me to read through 200 more pages of Randi-style debunking. Still, I think I may refuse to read it until I've taken a substantial amount of notes for an upcoming paper.

Barrel Fever

Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays
© 1995 David Sedaris
208 pages

Three years ago I heard David Sedaris talk about his experience living in Paris and was immediately taken by his style of humor. I don't know how to articulate the Sedaris experience, except to say that he writes dryly about pathetic situations. Beginning with Me Talk Pretty One Day, I began reading his works of collected essays about his life. I believe I've only read two since I started this blog, Holidays on Ice and When You are Engulfed in Flames. Barrel Fever, Sedaris' first work, is much different from the volumes following it. While they consist chiefly of essays based on Sedaris' own life, Barrel Fever is dominated by first-person fictional essays and stories, two of which are repeated in Holidays on Ice owing to the Christmas theme. (They don't lose anything in repetition, especially not his SantaLand Diaries.)

The stories' narrators don't share much in common beyond being kooky and pathos-inspiring. I said before that the only way I know how to describe Sedaris' writing is to say that he writes dryly about pathetic situations, and the same is true of these stories. In one, a teenage suicide attempts -- through her suicide letter -- to instigate a lynch mob at her own funeral, including a CD containing "Music for Stoning". The humor here is dark, morbid, and more than a little perverse -- moreso than his biographical essays, I think, and not quite as funny. While I enjoy his fables (as read on This American Life), I didn't enjoy his stories here as much as I expected. The essays were typical of his essay collections, meaning that they made for disturbingly funny reading.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


© 1999 Steven Saylor
276 pages


"Alea iacta est."/"The die is cast." / "Let the game begin!" - Julius Caesar

"The most honest man in Rome! No wonder nobody likes you." (Pompey, to Gordianus.)

Murder on the Appian Way began with the people of Rome rioting in the streets. Although our Roma sub Rosa narrator Gordianus was able to leave the city on business, he was unable to escape the political maneuvering that resulted from the murder of populist Publius Clodius.Partially as a result of the increasing political instability, Rubicon begins with news of Julius Caesar's having broken the law of Rome and crossed the northern frontiers of Italy with his army. The Republic has reached point of crisis. Aging and allegeldy retired Gordianus the Finder would just as soon spend the rest of his life in his study, reading through plays and memoirs while entertaining his grandchildren, but it so happens that a visitor to his home is found death in his garden under the eyes of a newly repaired statue of Minerva. The visitor happens to be a young relative of Pompey the Great, one that the dictator is quite fond of. As Gordianus prepares to sort out the means of the young man's death, Pompey the Great himself arrives at Gordianus' door to inquire as to where his relative and courier has gone off to. When he finds out that his relative's destination is somewhere beyond the river Styx, he promptly seizes Gordianus' new son-in-law Davus out of spite and impresses him into military service. Davus will only be released from his newfound obligation when Gordianus has solved the mystery of who murdered young Pompeius and why.

The timing is rather unfortunate, as Julius Caesar is marching through the Italian peninsula with his army. His position in Rome being weak, the Great One is departing with those loyal to him to Italy's extreme south, where he hopes to rally supporters around him. Gordianus must solve the murder before Caesar and Pompey's armies meet: for no matter who wins, Gordianus will lose. His son Meto is Caesar's scribe, and with Davus in Pompey's army his family could meet great sorrow in the battle's aftermath. Such an investigation seems impossible, as everyone who might be of informational use has fled Rome -- either out of loyalty to Pompey or to hiding places in the countryside. Gordianus is given a chance to accomplish his mission when he spots Cicero's allegedly bedridden scribe and ex-slave Tiro strolling about Rome in disguise as an Alexandrian philosopher. Cicero and Gordianus may not share the same politics or values, but they both dread a Sullan-style dictatorship and are attempting to stay neutral -- although Cicero intends to keep on top of things by employing Tiro as a spy to both sides. Together Tiro and Gordianus set out for Brundisium, where they are expecting Pompey and Caesar to meet in battle.

In the last book I commented that the historical background of the novels was becoming increasingly important, and here my attention was attracted wholly to it, with little thought given to the murder that forces Gordianus into such a predicament. History is about to change, and the reader is able to see it happen through Gordianus' eyes. Rome is utterly deserted by its government, and the Appian way is occupied by marching troops. Before the book's end, Gordianus will have been invited into the tents of both Pompey and Caesar as they attempt to out-manuever the other. The book succeeds as historical fiction and fiction proper: after finishing the book and reflecting on it, I realized Saylor worked in more foreshadowing than usual in this work, perhaps as a consequence of telling the story differently. I often feel as though I'm literally following in Gordianus' footsteps, privy to his every thought and facial expression. To be sure, Gordianus always keeps some cards close to his vest, but in this book he seems to have lost an entire deck of cards in there. It's a fine addition to the series, and I eagerly await more.

It will be some time before I'm able to continue the series, though. I cannot find the three books three books preceding The Triumph of Caesar and following Rubicon in any of my libraries, and I will not read Triumph out of order for purposes of continuity, so I have purchased the books used through Amazon marketplace, and I cannot say how long it will take for Last Seen in Massilia to arrive.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Praise of Slowness

In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed
© Carl Honoré 2004
310 pages


I have been living philosophically for over a year now, and as time passes I am attracted more and more to a life that is quiet, gentle, simple, and slow. This is facilitated by the university town I live in that allows such a life -- a life where I linger for long hours in the university cafeteria enjoying the company of friends, a life where I am free to simply go for a walk around a beautiful town any time I feel like it. I want to live as a free human ought. As my politics become more radical, my sense of spirituality more universal, and my mind more centered, I have found a variety of topics to be of increasing interest -- like the New Urbanism movement, which is intent on making communities “human-sized again”, getting away from ill-considered suburban sprawl. Another is the philosophical and religious concept of “simple living”.

In Praise of Slowness is a book that incorporates simple living, New Urbanism, and the philosophical life into its text. I will summarize as it as being written to make human lives human and livable once more. Where our way of life has reduced us to living passively, consuming unthinkingly, and bouncing from one task to the next without ever really enjoying anything, Slowness asserts that we should slow down and think about what it is we’re doing. This happened to author Carl Honoré in his pre-Slow days: after fuming at every person whose path interrupted his in a busy airport, he was drawn to a store display promising bedtime stories for children that could be told in sixty seconds or less, sparing parents the annoyance of having to sit down and read for their child. In his recollection, he was preparing to order the entire set when he realized that this was going too far. That capitalism, consumerism, suburbanization, industrial agriculture, and other systems in use in our society have gone too far is a common criticism, but is not less valid because of this. As the author writes, people in the United States work too long, drive too fast, turn meals into pit stops, and have allowed life to become nothing more than background noise they are annoyed by while working on to-do lists. Separate chapters cover living arrangements, sex, work, leisure, food, spirituality, medicine, and childrearing. There’s a lot of depth here, because author Carl Honoré is applying the same principle to as much of human life as he can without making the book overly long.

As much as I like the book’s premise, there are signs that some parts of it were written incautiously. There were facts put forth that needed citing and a little too much reliance on anecdotes. The entire chapter on medicine was disappointing. Homeopathy does not work “slow”, it does not work. Perhaps the “medicine model” does need checking -- some matters are more psychological than biological, I would suspect, and a little philosophy would be more effective than a pill -- but evidence-based medicine is still far superior to massages that are meant to let the body’s “energy” move around more freely. What startled me was how true the holistic doctors kept to the descriptions made by them of skeptics like Steven Novella and James Randi who have examined their claims and found them lacking. The tactics they used haven’t changed!

Although the chapter on medicine is quite week, the newage doesn’t spoil the rest of the book: it’s quite localized, as it were, and I can recommend the book on the whole. Just read with a salt-shaker nearby.

Related Reading:

Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire

Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire
© Isaac Asimov 1970
289 pages


The history of the eastern Roman empire, ruled from Constantinople, has long been a weak point in my own historical literacy. When I spotted a book on its history by Isaac Asimov in my library's catalog, I was delighted at the prospect of introducing myself to both Byzantine history and Isaac Asimov's history work. Unfortunately I won't be able to read more of it -- these books, like most of his work, are out of print and the only copies on Amazon are held by opportunists who offer them only at obscene prices.

The old city of Byzantium's history as told in section one's six chapters became the history of the Roman empire when the Emperor Constantine decided to rebuild it in his own image, creating a "New Rome" out of a city on the straits between southeastern Europe and Asia minor. It gained more importance under the reign of Diocletian, when he divided the old Roman empire into four administrative areas headed by two emperors -- one in the west, and one in the east at "New Rome which is called Constantine's City", or Constantinople.

Although the western empire eventually transformed into the European feudal world and officially died in 474, the empire in the east continued long after -- for nearly a thousand years, before finally being done in by the rising Ottoman Turks. In my own experience, histories of the Roman empire have referred to the eastern empire in a very passive way, as if it were only the echo of the west's once-ringing bell. Although Asimov is only able to give the empire a summative treatment, its history still emerges as fascinating and unique, deserving of more attention. There are many interesting characters and stories here -- like the emperor who saw his empire nearly destroyed by the Parthians, who triumphed over them and restored his dominion only to see it eviscerated again by Islam's armies before his death -- and Asimov makes me think of issues I've never before pondered. I never for once have given any thought to how the crowning of Charlemagne as "Holy Roman Emperor" by the western pope might be received by emperor in the west, who arguably has a better claim to being holy, Roman, and imperial. It also raises more questions, as answers often do: while I found out how Christianity spread to Russia (and why it is more East Orthodox than Roman Catholic), I then wondered what it replaced in Russia.

For all the story's interest, it is not a story with a happy ending. Although the Byzantine empire at its height resembles the Roman empire at its height (with much less influence in Europe), over the course of a thousand years it is weakened by constant political intrigue from within (monks seemed to have held a great deal of political power and ambition for more) and the constant attack of enemies from without. "Barbarians" in the Balkans seem to be an ever present problem, the western polities view the old Empire with scorn and hatred (demonstrated by their vicious sack of the city in 1204), and Asia provides a merry list of rivals starting with the Parthians and culminating with the Turks -- who destroy the withered remains of the state in a move that is more redundant than dramatic. Asimov's epilogue comments that while the western empire left an imposter "ghost" of sorts in the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantines left their own imposter-ghost in the form of the Russian empire, who married one of the last Byzantine princesses and assumed the title tsar, from caesar.

This was a very readable introduction to Byzantine history. I recommend it, but good luck finding it.

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks

Thursday, September 17, 2009

This Week at the Library (16/9)

Books this Update:
  • Death by Black Hole, Neil deGrass Tyson
  • Murder on the Appian Way, Steven Saylor
  • Waiter Rant, "The Waiter"
  • Taming the Mind, Thubten Chodron
  • Pebble in the Sky, Isaac Asimov
  • Dark Force Rising, Timothy Zahn
  • The Philosophy of Humanism, Corliss Lamont

This was an unexpectedly busy week for reading, although I had read most of two of these before finishing them this week. I began by finishing Neil deGrass Tyson's Death by Black Hole, a collection of popular science essays and edited for continuity purposes -- largely so that the essays refer to one another. The 42 essays are divided into seven sections: "The Nature of Knowledge", "The Knowledge of Nature", "Ways and Means of Nature", "The Meaning of Life", "When the Universe Turns Bad", "Science and Culture" and lastly, "Science and God". Tyson is definitely entertaining to read: popular science readers should give this one a go if they can.

I then returned to Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series. What stands out most about this book is that history is becoming a more powerful force in the books. Before it was just the setting: when commenting on Roman Blood, I said that Gordianus could just as easily be a streetwise detective in the gritty streets of New York back in the thirties or fifties. As the series has progressed, this has become much less true. The murder of a populist politician, Publius Clodius, has outraged the common people of Rome. The book begins with rioting in the streets, rioting that will see houses of any stature looted and the Senate house burned to the ground. Gordianus escapes this chaos when he is asked by several people to find out the details of Clodius' murder in the Roman countryside. Unfortunately for Gordianus, politics extend far beyond the city walls, and he will find himself in the thick of things. The book ends with the dictatorship of Pompey the Great, meaning -- for students of Roman history -- that the death of the Republic isn't too far off.

I next read Waiter Rant: Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, a semibiographical book consisting of essays recounting the author's near-decade of waiting tables and serving as front-area manager. I said before that it reminded me of This American Life in that it uses the stories of some people in society to both entertain and provoke to response. The Waiter isn't just interested in making the reader laugh or wince: he muses on political and sociological topics that relate to why their lives are the way they are.

I also finished Taming the Mind by Thubten Chodron on various elements in Buddhist religion and philosophy. I wasn't too happy with the book: it was more dogmatic than other Buddhist books I've read, even Zen Buddhism for Beginners. It also seemed to lack focus. (No pun intended.) It covers a little bit of everything but doesn't go into a lot of detail: only one section of the book seemed to deal with the topic's title, and I think had it been expanded the book would have been better for it.

I picked up Triangle on Sunday for some lunchtime reading. It contains all three of Isaac Asimov's Empire books, and despite having had it for a year or so I've never read any of them. I read through Pebble in the Sky that Sunday, though, and found it enjoyable enough. The book is set in the galaxy's far future, when humanity has populated most of the galaxy and been unified under a central empire ruled by Trantor. So much time has passed that no one really knows of humanity's origins on the lowly planet of Earth. It is viewed by the galaxy as you or I might view a wretchedly small town in the middle of a fetid swamp populated by violently superstitious people. On Earth, the reigning theocrats believe that in times past, Earth was strong, mighty, and ruled the galaxy. This opinion has led to their outright revolt several times, and when a time-traveler from 1949 is accidentally thrust into the future, the secret police believe he is an imperial agent sent to uncover their plans for future galactic domination.

I next continued in the Thrawn trilogy by reading Dark Force Rising. The new Republic continues to struggle with its place in the galaxy, and political intrigue makes things all the more worse. Grand Admiral Thrawn is continuing to strengthen the Empire under his leadership, and is enjoying a growing reputation for unfailing cunning. A very interesting element of this book is the Dark Force, a ghost fleet of sorts lost years before the clone war. The ships' crew went mad and destroyed themselves, but not before launching into deep space with no known coordinates. If found, its two hundred ships could give either the Empire or the New Republic a decisive tool to eradicate the other. This is not quite as strong as the first book, but it is strong enough to keep the story going.

Lastly, I read an introduction to the philosophy of humanism by Corliss Lamont, former president of the American Humanist Association. I read it more for historical information, which I was able to find here. I don't know that the book's purpose is to convince those who do not associate themselves with the label: I think it may be more suitable for those looking for information about Humanism, like those who are already drawn to its values. It's recommended reading for humanists an those interested in nonreligious philosophies of meaning.

Pick of the Week: Murder on the Appian Way was too strong to ignore.

Quotation of the Week: I read a fun little ditty in The Philosophy of Humanism that I'll share next week, but what I liked most this week was an excerpt from Taming the Mind:
By ourselves is evil done;
By ourselves we pain endure.
By ourselves we cease from ill;
By ourselves become we pure.
No one can save us but ourselves;
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path,
Buddhas only point the way

Potentials for Next Week:
  • Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire, Isaac Asimov
  • Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, John F. Buehrens, F. Forrester Church
  • Rubicon, Steven Saylor
  • Flim-Flam! Psycics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions; James Randi
  • In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honore
  • The Last Command, Timothy Zahn

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Philosophy of Humanism

The Philosophy of Humanism
© 1990 Corliss Lamont
326 pages

This is very straightforward book on the obvious subject, giving a history, description, and promotion of contemporary humanism. Author Corliss Lamont once headed the American Humanist Association, although he is perhaps better know for his political activities. After a short introduction, Lamont gives a history of the Humanist tradition, tapping both religious and scientific personalities as well as poets, politicians, and poetry -- for humanism is a grand tradition.

Subsequent chapters delve into humanist values and common beliefs -- he focuses on the importance of affirming life and using the scientific method as our guide whenever possible, and devotes a chapter to metaphysics. The chapter on the affirmation of life was interesting. Not only did he express a need for naturalistic mysticism -- the importance of losing one's self in the feeling of the sublime -- but he writes on ethics and politics. Lamont's socialistic political views do not seem to motivate the text: he writes that while Marxism and democratic socialism are themselves friendly to humanism, humanists need not be socialists.

Lamont's humanism is a kindler, gentler humanism, reminding more of Erich Fromm and Isaac Asimov than of the voices in the "New Atheism". Perhaps Greg Epstein's so-called "New Humanism" is merely a return to Lamont and Fromm's. While Lamont criticizes religious elements and maintains that humans must and should ground their lives in the natural world, he doesn't seem bitter or angry at it -- only at the abuses. He's also more open to emotional life than modern humanists are. Lamont is more passionate about what Humanism is and what it does than the failures of its rivals.

The book is quite readable, although the chapter on metaphysics may give some reades pause: it tends toward academic. My own copy of the book came with the first and second humanist manifestos, which were replaced in 2003 by the third. This is reccommend reading for humanists and those interested in a life of meaning and joy outside of religious belief.

Related Reading:
  • Erich Fromm's The Sane Society

Dark Force Rising

Dark Force Rising
© 1992 Timothy Zahn
376 pages


I'm continuing in the Thrawn trilogy with Dark Force Rising. When we left the series at the end of Heir to the Empire, Leia Organa Solo was about to pay a visit to a mysterious alien planet with a strong affection for the recently deceased Lord Vader and his progeny. Leia hopes to use her "royal" influence to encourage the Noghri to break with the old Empire. Luke is drawn to a man who is rumored to be a Jedi master from before the great purge, while Han and Lando Calrissian participate in numerous action sequences.

The title can again be taken in two ways: the Empire is growing more strong thanks to Thrawn's leadership, but much of the second half of the book concerns the discovery of a "Lost Fleet". In the last decades of the Republic, a fleet of largely automated ships was lost when their crews went mad from disease. The location of the lost Fleet -- the "Dark Force" -- has been every merchant's Holy Grail since. In this book we learn that Talon Kardde, the smuggler-merchant who was sch a strong character in the last book, knows where it is and he might be persuaded to sell them to the Republic if they make a good offer. Things will not go the way anyone expects, however.

This book didn't seem as strong as the first book, although the ghost-fleet was a strong element. Still, I will be finishing the series.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pebble in the Sky

Pebble in the Sky
© 1950 Isaac Asimov
223 pages


After finishing the Foundation and Robots series (save Robots and Empire) I decided to move on to the Galactic Empire series which fits in between them -- tying Earth's near future as depicted in the Robots books and the Galaxy's far future in the Foundation novels together. I was able to purchase Triangle last fall but have never gotten around to reading any of the three Empire books contained within (The Stars like Dust, Pebble in the Sky, and The Currents of Space) in full until today. My impression of the series from what I've read in Asimov's biographies is that they were not produced as a deliberate trilogy, but are rather three books that share the same essential setting. As the stories are not related, I've decided to read them in the order that they were published instead of in order of internal chronology.

The Galactic Empire books are set thousands of years in Earth's future, in which humanity has colonized the galaxy and forgotten its own origins. Eight hundred years ago, the galaxy was united under the Spaceship and Sun emblem of the Empire, bringing peace, prosperity, and order. This I was expecting, and so you can imagine my surprise when the novel started out in 1949 Chicago, beginning with the story of a retired tailor named Joseph Schwartz who is suddenly thrust into Earth's future when he walks through an undetectable fissure in space-time. He is an artifact -- his language dead, limited parts of its vocabulary known only to archaeologists who specialize in the dismal subject of Earth.

Dismal? Earth? Indeed -- in Asimov's setting, Earth is a partially radioactive backwater planet regarded as the back end of nowhere, populated by superstitious and generally nasty people who think too much of themselves. The Galaxy, lead by the city-planet of Trantor, has long forgotten its populations' origins: the theory that life arose on one planet and spread is supported by only a few, and bears an embarrassing resemblance to the stories told by the theocrats reigning in Earth that once Earth was the center of the galaxy, that all of civilization sprung from that meager pebble in the sky.

The theocrats on Earth -- the "Council of Ancients", who rule through custom and secret police -- have not forgotten Earth's former glory. If we can believe characters in the book, Earth has rebelled against the might of the Empire on at least two occasions. Earthers may be their galaxy's Roma, despised and regarded as "uncultured", but they are fiercely proud of themselves regardless. They regard themselves as free and technically at war with the Empire, although they allow an imperial procurator to live in a fortress on Mount Everest. Thus, when an Imperial archaeologist arrives to do some research in Earth's radioactive zones -- forbidden by custom -- and a stranger is taken in by Earth scientists who are quite possible subversives, the Ancients' secret police smell a conspiracy. As the story unfolds, we shall see that their paranoia is being induced by their fear that a plan in the works will be uncovered by the Empire -- a plan that could topple the Empire and give Earth its "Second Kingdom".

Pebble in the Sky is very much dated, but one of the reasons I like reading Asimov's stuff is that his works are dated. His novels and story stories have that mid-20th century feel to them, one that's hard to put into words but very noticeable -- like when the characters speak of tape recordings. The same feeling is present when watching Star Trek's original series, but I can't put my finger on what it is. Pebble in the Sky is a rather interesting story, although it was not originally meant to be a novel and may bear that out. It's recommended reading for Asimov fans like myself, and for those who like their science fiction to have that classic "feel" to it, whatever it is.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Taming the Mind

Taming the Mind
© 2004 Thubten Chodron
217 pages


I judged a book by its cover when I read this one. Oh, I looked it up on Amazon to see what readers were saying about it -- my substitute for thumbing through the book, which I cannot do when requesting books through an online library catalogue -- but really, I checked this book out because I liked the cover. The scene looks simple, natural, and tranquil -- and that's the neighborhood I like my mind to live in. The book is apparently written as a sequel to a beginner's guide to Buddhism, although I'm not sure why -- as this book seems to cover the basics. Chodron gives a history of Buddhism, comparing its schools of thought to one another, explains the essential teachings, and then applies them to parenting or employment.

Chodron takes Buddhism very seriously -- judging from their works that I have read, more seriously than the Dalai Lama. What I like about the Buddhist tradition is its emphasis on rationality and skepticism, and parts of this book made me uncomfortable in their apparent failure to live up to that standard. Siddhartha is viewed as less a wise teacher and more a demigod, and Chodron's advice to practicing Buddhists to avoid people who don't take the teachings carries a whiff of isolating fundamentalism. The book doesn't seem to mesh together very well, aside from being about Buddhism in general. There are chapters on Buddhist history, Buddhist culture, and other assorted topics that don't seem to go with "Taming the Mind". That book is in here -- some of the introduction, and the two beginning sections of "Our Relationship with Others" and on habits -- but there's a lot of information that distracts from that and absorbs space that perhaps should have gone to expanding the aforementioned sections.

Parts of the book are better than others, but I can't say I would recommend it. And I'm sorry to say that, because I never like reading a book and not being able to get anything out of it.* I'm going to try the author again, though.

* Save this, from "Dhammapada 165":
By ourselves is evil done;
By ourselves we pain endure.
By ourselves we cease from ill;
By ourselves become we pure.
No one can save us but ourselves;
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path,
Buddhas only point the way

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Waiter Rant

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip -- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter
© 2008 "The Waiter"
302 pages


While browsing humor site NotAlwaysRight, in which the malevolence and stupidity of the average consumer are celebrated through submitted quotations, I noticed a link in the sidebar to this book, which is based off an older blog of the same name (old enough for me to have read it years ago). I was pleased to find that my library had access to it. I decided to read this immediately following A Murder on the Appian Way (instead of finishing Taming the Mind) for the benefit of a friend, who spotted it and was immediately hooked after he read the introduction in the few minutes we had before a class started.

As you might guess from its title, Waiter Rant consists of stories told by an experienced waiter who has worked in a couple of restaurants for nearly a decade. It reminded me much of the NPR show This American Life, where every episode consists of first-person stories about a theme. Although I've listened to TAL for years, I approach every episode cautiously: it's a poignant show, a very human show. When it's funny, it's tear-inducing, gasping for air funny. And when it's sad, disturbing, or maddening, it hits the same way. There's no hint of manufactured comedy or tragedy in either This American Life or Waiter Rant, making both the comedy, tragedy, and otherwise more powerful. Although this is a very funny book, sometimes the humor is bitter, and it's always served with thought-provoking musings by the Waiter.

Our host -- not to be confused with his occupation of waiter, peon, and quasi-manager -- recounts the near-decade he spent working in two restaurants of varying quality, although neither of them seem like very pleasant places to work. Although some of the chapters are straightforward story-telling, most chapters consist of stories told about a given theme -- the narrator recounting them to himself in thought as he is involved in something similar. For instance, in "The Back Alley of Influence", he muses on the hidden side of restaurant life: just as customers will never see the back door of the restaurant with its overflowing dumpster, nor will they ever really realize anything about the lives the waiters live or on how much they depend on illegal immigrants.

Waiter Rant is definitely a recommendation, even if you don't make a habit of frequenting restaurants. Just be prepared for the authenticity.

A Murder on the Appian Way

A Murder on the Appian Way
© 1997 Steven Saylor
413 pages


"Oh, the times! Oh, the morals!" - Cicero

"Ah, judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason!" - Mark Antony, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. (Act 3, scene 2)

A Murder on the Appian Way starts out in chaos. Publius Clodius, the darling of the plebs, has been murdered on the highway south of Rome. Clodius has been deeply involved in Rome's political wranglings between the populares (populists) and Optimates (aristocrats). His own personal rival is Milo, a man who has been threatening to have Clodius done away with for some time. Clodius was loved by the mob for many reasons, chiefly his support of the grain dole, and when his stabbed and strangled body appears in Rome they want blood. The city is dark, but alive with hatred as people gather torches and march on the Senate, then on Milo's home.

The setting here at the beginning is well done: I really felt as though I was in Rome, hiding behind locked doors staring out into a dark city and hearing the voices of the mob. I could feel Gordianus' fear and anxiety about what the next hours would bring. They brought nothing good, as the Senate house burns. The Republic hasn't held elections in a year, and the rioting mob results in a period of anarchy where homes larger than huts are sacked and people are murdered. Gordianus' own home is similarly plundered when he and his son Eco are attempting to glean information at a political gathering, and the statue of Minerva in his garden is pushed off of its pedestal, breaking in half. It is very appropriate that the goddess of wisdom, justice, and civilization would be broken in two in a book such as this, where men "lose their reason".

Although Milo is commonly thought of as the man who killed Clodius, many people aren't quite certain -- among them, Clodius's widow and the general-politician Pompey the Great. Both approach Gordianus and ask him to find the truth of the matter, leading him to the countryside surrounding the Appian way where he will conduct interviews and try to find the truth of the matter. Gordianus' attachment to the truth, which Saylor's Cicero will thumb his nose at as being foolishness (he being of the opinion that "Truth" is whatever oratory that helps the Republic), serves him well in gathering the respect of many people in Rome, but also makes him dangerous to those who don't want the real story being told.

Saylor has delivered an incredible read here. History is no longer the setting but is now actively driving the plot -- think of a story set on the Titanic before and after the ship hits the iceberg and begins to sink. The fall of the Republic is similar to the sinking of the Titanic, and it may be here in this book that the Republic hits its iceberg. Historical fiction must be both good history and good fiction, and I'm reasonably sure A Murder on the Appian Way is both -- its setting is compelling, its characters believable, its drama gripping. Saylor combines historical fact with an examination of moral ambiguity, both in interpersonal affairs and in politics.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandries
© 2007 Neil deGrasse Tyson
384 pages


Although I've encountered Dr. Tyson before -- chiefly through interviews in podcasts like The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe and the Humanist Network News -- I've never read anything by him. His Death by Black Hole is a collection of columns and articles he has written for scientific magazines, edited for continuity. The 42 essays are divided into seven sections: "The Nature of Knowledge", "The Knowledge of Nature", "Ways and Means of Nature", "The Meaning of Life", "When the Universe Turns Bad", "Science and Culture" and lastly, "Science and God".

Tyson has been billed to me as the next Carl Sagan, and in some ways I think the description fits. He's definitely passionate about popularizing science, and criticizes scientists like Richard Dawkins who he thinks have lost touch with the common people. Tyson as an astrophysicists writes essays mostly dealing with those themes, but he addresses a few other fields and science in general before the book is finished. The majority of these were fascinating, even if I don't particularly understand the subfield being worked in, and humor abounds. It's worthy of a read.

This Week at the Library (10/9)

Books this Update:
  • A History of God, Karen Armstrong
  • The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
  • Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn
  • The Sons of Caesar, Philip Matyszak
I started the week off with Karen Armstrong's History of God, a religious history focusing on the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While her focus remains here, Armstrong often connects themes in these religions as they develop to developing traditions in other religions The book reminded me of her The Great Transformation. While she covers a lot of information -- focusing not only on the general history of the religions but trends within them, like mysticism and rationalism -- she does it fairly well, and the end result reads nicely.

I decided to revisit Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World this week. I read it in 2006, and it helped reignite my passion for science and the natural world, as it concentrates on the benefits of science education and scientific thinking in understanding and enjoying the world -- as well as protecting us from very easily made errors.

I reread another book following this, although I'd forgotten most everything about it except for a few particulars. Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire is the first in the Thrawn trilogy of Star Wars books set after Return of the Jedi, in which Imperial forces are rallying behind the extremely competent and devious Grand Admiral Thrawn to take on the New Republic, which is having serious problems creating a government from the ruins of war and from the framework of the Rebel Alliance. The trio from the original trilogy are the book's main characters, but other characters (like Thrawn and Mara Jade) are introduced. The last sentence in my extended comments sums it up nicely: "Zahn delivers a prime Star Wars novel with elements of everything that made the movies enjoyable while making believable modifications to the now-late ROTJ universe."

Lastly, I read The Sons of Caesar, a narrative history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty covering Julius Caesar to Nero. According to the author, the Julio-Claudian dynasty oversaw the complete transition of Rome from Republic to Empire, each succeeding emperor making changes to the system. After spending a little time to analyze the late Republic, Matyszak devotes one chapter to each of the emperors. The narrative is nicely done, giving me a feel for how Rome was changing over the generations. It never lost my attention.

Pick of the Week: I'm exempting Sagan because I've read Demon-Haunted World before. The Sons of Caesar gets it this week, I think.

Quotation of the Week: "Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. It is a way of of skeptically interrogating the universe with an eye for human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those of authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan -- political or religious -- who comes ambling along." (Carl Sagan, in an interview available at the Sounds of Sagan. He reflects a similar sentiment in the book.)

Potentials for Next Week, in order of likelihood:
  • Death by Black Hole, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I'm mostly finished with this one.
  • Taming the Mind, Thubten Chodron. This one is shaping up to be more dogmatic (and thus, less enjoyable) than I had anticipated. I may finish it, but I may stop and move on to something more enjoyable, like..
  • Murder on the Appian Way, Steven Saylor
  • Waiter Rant, Steven Dublanica.
  • The Philosophy of Humanism, Corliss Lamont. Considering I've thought of myself as a Humanist for over three years now, it may seem strange that I've never read anything about it. Humanism is a philosophy easily self-arrived at, though, its values being human values, and so no books are necessary.
  • Dark Force Rising, Timothy Zahn. The second in the Thrawn series.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Sons of Caesar

The Sons of Caesar: Imperial Rome's First Dynasty
© 2006 Philip Matyszak
296 pages, 16 pages of plates.


Most of my Roman reading has been set in the late Republic, although as a western student of history I have a working knowledge of the Roman empire. Even so, the amount of emperors I can name is somewhat limited, as is my sense of where they fit in on the timescale -- with some exceptions. For instance, I didn't know Nero was closely related to emperor Augustus, nor did I know how quickly he rose to the office. For me, The Sons of Caesar was an edifying read, nicely written and very informing. It corrected my ignorance of the early imperial period while telling an interesting story in and of itself.

Matyszak begins the book with statement that republics do not become empires overnight, and the empire that westerners think of is no exception. Although the system that would eventually emerge from the Republic's death would be vastly different, Matyszak maintains that the early imperials simply co-opted elements of the old Republic, with each successive generation seeing more liberties taken. By the end of the first dynasty, the "last remnants of the old Republic [had] been swept away." According to Matyszak, the transition between Republic and Empire happening nicely within the bounds of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and those six emperors (Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero) are the topic of the work. He starts the book by analyzing the character of the old Republic, showing how what we might think of corruption was really just the normal affairs of the late republic. He shows too how it could be manipulated.

The first chapter on Caesar is nearly an introduction by itself, as Caesar -- despite his claims to "Dictator for Life" -- is more republican than any of his successors, and his rule does not last for very long. Soon he is assassinated, and Matyszak devotes attention to the war between Mark Antony and Octavius for the throne. The chapters do not blend right into one another: each emperor gets his own, but when it ends at his death, Matyszak chooses to begin the next chapter by telling the story of the successor's career up to that point before he actually becomes emperor. Matyszak keeps himself grounded in primary sources, being careful to avoid taking some of the early Roman historians seriously, as some of them liked to gossip. This is a well-done narrative, definitely one of the better popular histories I've read.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire
© 1991 Timothy Zahn
404 pages


A few weeks ago I decided to read the Thrawn trilogy in full. Set in the Star Wars expanded universe five years after Return of the Jedi, it seemed an apt introduction to the post-trilogies universe. Although I am not a stranger to Star Wars fiction, the majority of my reading -- except for this book, I think -- has been set before the original trilogy. I haven't sampled any of the vast post-ROTJ offerings for the same reason I was wary about starting Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels and for the same reason I am finding it difficult to get back into post-Nemesis Trek literature: people have been writing these novels long enough for the stories to be completely unrecognizable to the new reader, and I would rather not immerse myself in a pool of stories if I can't swim.

But, the Thrawn trilogy has a background not too unlike the movies. Five years have passed and the Rebellion has formed a provisional "New Republic" which still fights the Imperial remnant recently strengthened as it rallies around Grand Admiral Thrawn, a mysterious and devious imperial commander -- but it's still the Star Wars I know. The title is ambiguous as to who the empire's heir is: is it the fledging New Republic, still mostly ruled by the military leadership of the Rebellion, or is it the new face of the Empire -- Grand Admiral Thrawn? This opening story sees Princess Leia, now expecting "Jedi twins", attempt to rally support for the Republic while Han Solo tries to convince smugglers that the Republic welcomes their shipping. Naturally, neither of their missions go perfectly and the plot soon involves space battle, multiple attempts on the heroes' lives or general well-being, Lando Calrissian, and several new characters who will play important parts in the story to come.

Zahn delivers a prime Star Wars novel with elements of everything that made the movies enjoyable while making believable modifications to the now-late ROTJ universe.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
© 1995 Carl Sagan
457 pages


Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is a classic of the modern skeptical movement. I initially began to phrase that "will be considered", but quickly changed it: if a skeptical website or blog has a list of reccommended books, chances are good that Demon-Haunted World will be on the list along with Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. Sagan is perhaps best known for his work with Cosmos: while a scientist himself with experience in the Voyager and Mariner projects, Sagan made a career out of popularizing science. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes on the importance of science education and more importantly -- the mindset behind science. "Science is not just a body of knowledge," he writes here and commented in an interview, "It is a way of thinking. It is a way of of skeptically interrogating the universe with an eye for human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those of authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan -- political or religious -- who comes ambling along."

The importance of science education and a scientific/skeptical worldview are two themes here, but another that underlies them is the wonder of science. While he applies skepticism to UFO sightings, crop circles, and faith-healers in the book, Sagan writes that perhaps these things stem from an appetite for wonder that people do not realize can be found in the world of science. Part of one chapter seems to come from his lecture "Wonder and Skepticism", which you can listen to here following an interview with his co-author, colleague, and wife Ann Druyan. Sagan does not only advocate a scientific worldview on the basis that it increases our well-being or is simply useful: as he cautions in an introductory chapter, "We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces." Like Erich Fromm in The Sane Society, he cautions that change is not only useful here, but necessary.

It was lovely to revist Carl Sagan: his joy at the natural world and being able to think about it intelligently are compelling and contagious, as I found when I first read him in 2006.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

A History of God

A History of God: the 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
© 1993 Karen Armstrong
460 pages


I checked this out in early 2006 but quickly lost interest after encountering the Sumerian mythology that Armstrong introduces the book with. After breaking through this, I found A History of God to be a quite readable and informative history of the three Abrahamic religions, covering their initial origins and then tracking their development through the centuries, devoting separate chapters to the religions' response to mystics and the philosophic God of the Greeks. Armstrong is interested in what the idea of God has meant for people whose culture has been partially formed by the Abrahamic faiths, although she connects the book's narrative to a greater human story by comparison and contrast to Hinduism and Buddhism. Armstrong's voice seems fair: I can imagine no objections raised against her treatment of the faiths except from ardent inerranists or anti-religionists. The book is a thorough and readable take on the intellectual, philosophical, and theological histories of two of the world's largest religions and their progenitor.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

This Week at the Library (2/9)

Books this Update:
  • Are We Rome?, Collen Murphy
  • Alternative American Religions, Stephen J. Stein
  • Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, Shane Claiborne
  • Roma, Steven Saylor

I began this week with Are We Rome? a political work comparing the United States and the Roman Empire. Author Collen Murphy begins by acknowledging the problems inherent in comparing states that existed in vastly different periods of history, but maintains that there are some generalities that can be noted. The book comments on military matters, privatization and corruption, imperial hubris, and a few other such topics. Nothing seemed too far-fetched: Murphy is quite cautious, but not the point of annoying the reader by soft-pedaling his criticisms of the two governments.

I followed this with Alternative American Religions, a short book of religious history covering the rise and fall of groups known as “sects”, “cults”, or “new religious movements”. The first half of the book is stronger than the first, as chapters are more detailed about their subjects. I imagine the author was confined to a certain page count, as coverage of 20th century movements tended to be a bit rushed and devoid of a lot of description.

I was able to follow up on a recommendation this week in Shane Claiborne’s Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, a brief work on pro-active prayer – where the “prayer” consists not of requests of God, but admissions of needs and desires that the praying person wants to address in his or her own life. Claiborne is accompanied by Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, and the two labor to show how Christians can begin to answer their own prayers and effect God’s will. This was a little awkward to read (me not being a Christian), but I sympathize.

Lastly, I read Steven Saylor’s Roma, a historical epic spanning a thousand years of history, detailing the growth of Rome. Its history is seen through the eyes of one family, patricians whose fortunes rise and fall through many generations. We visit eleven specific generations, as there are eleven stories here. Saylor incorporates legends of pre-Republic Rome along with historical accounts to deliver a riveting story of human history, where the lives of one generation generate the legends and religion of further generations, as well as to comment on the universality of certain political and religious themes. It was a wonder to read, and definitely one to remember.

My reading this week was cut short by my preparations for returning to university and for the start of classes. I will be saving Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History for a time when I will be able to do it justice – Thanksgiving, perhaps. Like Erich Fromm, it's "serious" reading, and needs my full attention: I can't just read it off and on like a novel or popular history/science. Speaking of which, since I now have access to my university library, I can finally comment on The Sane Society.

Pick of the Week: Roma, no question. It's probably pick of the month.

Next Week’s Potentials:
  • A History of God, Karen Armstrong. I’ll probably be finishing this one – it reads much better after Sumerian mythology is dealt with.
  • The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan. I’ve read this before (2006), but it’s been a while since I read anything by Carl Sagan and I want to return to him. This and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors were crucial in reigniting my interest in science, and making the “mundane world” a joy to consider.
  • Death by Black Hole, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is supposed to be the next Carl Sagan – we’ll see.
  • Murder on the Appian Way, Steven Saylor. This is next up in Roma Sub Rosa.
  • Taming of the Mind, Thubten Chodron. This came up in a search for Buddhism.
  • The Sons of Caesar, Philip Matyszak. This is a history of Rome's first dynasty. I don't know much about it.

Given that this is the first week of classes and that there is a very strong possibility that I will be getting a new computer this weekend to replace my recently deceased Medion, I would not bet on my ability to read six average-length books. I also may check out Rome’s first season on DVD this week. If that occurs, I’ll be lucky to read three of these – but we shall see. (I'm in a very Roman mood.)