Sunday, February 28, 2010

American Infidel

American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll
© Orvin Larson 1962 / republished 1993 by FFRF Inc
316 pages

Robert Green Ingersoll has long been a personal hero of mine, so when during the course of a class on the Gilded Age I was allowed to choose a contemporary of the period to write a biographical article about, I eagerly chose “Colonel Bob”.  I have read most of Ingersoll’s available works and a previous biography, and looked forward to seeing Larson made of him. At the outset, American Infidel is more personal than Robert Ingersoll: while the latter emphasizes his legal work and examines themes in his speeches, Larson’s work is very much about the man who referred to his wife and daughter as his Holy Trinity, who rehearsed his speeches before a bust of Cicero as he engaged in his favorite sport of billiards.

Unlike David Anderson's topical approach, Larson is strictly linear. While his gives the reader a better picture of Ingersoll's life as he lived it, the ever-rushing narrative was a bit distracting at times. The book might have profited from more occasional focus, but overall Larson presents a richer view of Ingersoll's life with particular emphasis on his humanistic worldview and his relationships with the religions and churchmen of the day.

      Although I tend to think of Ingersoll as a man apart from his era-- a colossus whose committment to humanism made the times look poorer by comparison -- Larson's work makes it clear that Ingersoll was a man of his time. He was a principled but profit-conscious lawyer, a frightfully polemic politican, and an ardent lover of the Union whose passion for the American dream was only rivaled by his contempt for those who would render the Union asunder or undermine its foundation.  He seems almost a man of multiple times: his political philosophy is from the 18th century and his morals from the 20th, but he lived in between the two. He emerges from the narrative as an extraordinary man of conviction, fighting fiercely for the causes he sees as just and making sacrifices in order to keep true to his principles.

    Thus, while the book has a few minor weak points, it is an easy reccommendation for those interested in the life of Ingersoll or his works.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

This Week at the Library (24/2)

This week at the library....

  • Dinner with a Perfect Stranger is a glorified Chick tract, although one with a more promising start. The book's overworked protaganist is invited to dinner with Jesus and accepts, initially providing the reader with an interesting conversation. Alas,  Jesus begins speaking in cliches and the protagonist ceases to exist except as a strawman. 
  • A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs was a deliciously interesting , humorous, and challenging read. Jacobs, a secular Jew, decides to follow every rule and suggestion in the bible literally in order to see why religion attracts people. The year-long journy changes him into a "reverent agnostic" and may help readers who do not subscribe to orthodoxy understand the appeal of both of religion and a sense of formal spirituality. 
  • Stories Behind Words by Peter Limburg consists of nearly three hundred essays on the meanings, derivations, and histories of as many words. This proved interesting. 
  • The Geography of Nowhere sees author James Howard Kunstler attack surbubran and urban sprawl as wasteful, untenable, and spiritually bankrupt while promoting the ideal of smaller-scale communities emphasizing local economies and planning designed to maximize human happiness.
  • Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters, editd by Stantley Asimov provides excerpts from several decades of Asimov's letters, organized topically.  The excerpts portray Asimov's personality fairly well, and I enjoyed the read.

Pick of the Week: A Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs

Quotation of the Week: "It isn't dying I mind. It's the thought of having to stop writing."  - Isaac Asimov, in paraphrase.

Upcoming Reads:

  • American Infidel: Robert Ingersoll.  My first draft of an encylopedic-type article on Robert Ingersoll is due next week, so you'll probably  see this one soon. 
  • The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris. If I'm able to read this one more this week, I look forward to comparing it to The Geography of Nowhere. Both would seem to analyze the impact of urban living upon human biology.

I may find books in the library that command my immediate attention, but given the impending deadline (and midterms), those two will do for now.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Yours, Isaac Asimov

Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters
© 1996 Isaac Asimov, ed. Stanley Asimov
352 pages


Had you asked me who my favorite author was in 2007, I would’ve looked askance at you, thinking that sort of question a type of sacrilege. Humanity has produced so many varied authors -- how could I dare choose one? That was before I read my first short story collection by Isaac Asimov, featuring little forwards to introduce each story. I loved reading Asimov’s collections -- adored them. Each book was a feast, and a year later I realized: Isaac Asimov was my favorite author. I could say that because of his breadth of approach: he wrote on science, history, religion and literature in addition to his fictional works which were equally varied. Thus, I looked forward to Yours, Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters.

The book is most appealing to fans of Asimov, particularly those who are fond of his personality as displayed in his forwards, memoirs, and the like. Edited by his brother Stanley, the book consists of quotations -- typically short, but with occasional long passages -- lifted from the many letters Asimov wrote throughout his lifetime. The excerpts are arranged topically, the first chapter consisting of his mentions to the joy of letter-writing and the last his reflections on death. In between, he comments on everything in his life, seemingly: science fiction, limericks, science, travel,  Star Trek,  age, funny stories, his fans, his fellow authors,  his health, and his religious views among other subjects.

Although I’ve read a couple of Asimov memoirs (I, Asimov and It’s Been a Good Life), Asimov managed to surprise me there and again. I enjoyed reading about his friendship with Carl Sagan and Gene Roddenberry, and I was amused to see him quoting from the same letter exchange between himself and Leonard Nimoy that Nimoy quoted from in I Am Spock.  The book reflects Asimov’s personality well: informal, witty, self-depreciating and immodest at the same time,  and typically charming. Having been consigned to bedrest with plenty of fluids, I enjoyed cozying up with the good doctor today. For the Asimov fan, this is an easy recommendation.

The Geography of Nowhere

The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
© 1993 James Howard Kunstler
303 pages

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same
There’s a green one, and a pink one, and a blue one, and a yellow one --
And they’re all made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same
(“Little Boxes”, Pete Seeger)

James Kunstler’s A Geography of Nowhere is a scathing rebuke of land-use and development policies of the past hundred years which do nothing but maximize the profit of developers, enslaving the American economy to a need for expansion, while offering humanity nothing but a soulless and miserable expanse of boxes.He promotes an approach to land development that emphasizes human needs and communities that are not only “human sized”, but worth living in and caring about.

After a brief introduction -- recounting a cartoon villain’s mad scheme to make everyone dependent on freeways which he builds and on cars which he sells -- Kunstler begins the book with a history of development patterns since the first European set foot on American soil.  Kunstler sees the overall pattern of American development as being set against the European pattern that emphasizes the integrity of local communities. In his view, American development has been driven by individual greed and the desire to maximize profit through endless subdivision and mass production of living and working spaces. Most American counties and cities are organized along strict grids that give no thought  to the landscape or to the humans that will live in them.

As the book progresses, Kunstler rants against Modernist building styles and launches into a history of suburbanization, beginning with the first (late 19th century)  trolley-dependent communities. The root of the suburban impulse, Kunstler says, is that people want to escape the cities. In addition to the primary desires to get away from the noise and grime, Kunstler believes American suburbanites are attempting to find escape from the spiritual bankruptcy of the commercial-driven city. Ultimately, given the way suburbs will continue to develop, this is a futile goal. The vast expanses of subdivisions are no better, ultimately: they repeat the failures of urban planning and provide nothing in the way of community, isolating people further.

Kunstler contrasts the failings of modern American cities and suburbs to the ideal of a small town community, placing particular emphasis on the importance of a local economy. In his view, there is no community without a local economy. Not only are American development policies unwise and untenable from a long-term perspective (given their dependence on oil), but they are spiritually void. Kunstler returns to this often, writing on the importance of a sense of “place”, of the connections that tie people together and to the land.  He sees building aesthetics as important to maintaining human happiness within communities, as various elements (T-intersections and tree-lined roads, for instance) give us psychological security.  I find this fascinating, and it’s making me itch to read Alain de Botton’s book on the architecture of happiness.

Kunstler thus presents two premises: one, that suburbanization and urban sprawl are in the long term economically disastrous; and two, that these matters contribute to the unhappiness of the people who live within them. Speaking for myself, my own quality of life increased when I moved from a semi-suburban area dependent on automobiles to a small university town with a genuine sense of community, and one in which I can walk anywhere I want to go. I’ve developed a passion for small-scale human communities and am repulsed by the same sprawl that fascinated and excited me as a child. I am thus an ideal audience for Kunstler.

His ideas are worth considering, I believe, and are not his alone. although I am cautious about recommending the book given Kunstler’s tone. Although easily keeping my attention and often inducing me to laughter, he is exceptionally opinionated -- sometimes bitterly so. This may turn off readers who would have otherwise benefited from the deleterious trends that he points out. There may be better books on the same general topic, and if I read them I will point them out. For the moment, though, this is the only one I know of and I cautiously pass it on to you.

Born in 1948, I have lived my entire life in America's high imperial moment. During this epoch of stupendous wealth and power, we have managed to ruin our greatest cities, throw away our small towns, and impose over the countryside a joyless junk habitat which we can no longer support. Indulging in a fetish of commercialized individualism, we did away with the pubic realm, and with nothing left but private life in our private homes and private cars, we wonder what happened to the spirit of community. We created a landscape of scary places and became a nation of scary people. 

From the book, page 273.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (23-2)

It's that time again, from Should be Reading.

Neighborhoods like Georgetown or Beacon Hill are walking neighborhoods. It is not necessary to hop in the car to get an ice cream cone or a bottle of aspirin. You walk to  a store -- enjoying the felicities of the street as you go -- and you are able to see other people along the way. You may even have a conversation with a stranger. This is called meeting people, the quintessential urban pleasure. (Or else it is called a mugging, the quintessential urban calamity.).

- p. 127, The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Fall of America's Man-Made Landscape; James Howard Kunstler)

Stories Behind Words

Stories Behind Words: The Origins and Histories of 285 English Words
© 1986 Peter Limburg
288 pages

I have long held an interest in etymology and the history of language, thus this book’s interest to me.  Author Peter Limburg expounds upon the meanings and derivations of hundreds of words in 285 essays sorted into seven general categories. The book’s table of contents -- displayed on the main cover, incidentally, which you may view by clicking the preview image above --  is not quite complete, as Limburg typically discusses similar words that branch off from the topic in the same essay. For instance, the essay “To Badger” gives not only the meaning and history of that phrase, but discusses other words derived from the behavior or perceptions of animals.

The essays tend toward the thorough, with only a few exceptions. Even though I’m a “word nerd” and a student of history, I found here much to inform. I learned why the US legislature is a “Congress” and not a “Parliament” for instance -- and that cathedrals are named after the residing bishop’s throne, the cathedra.  Uncomfortably, there are no citations or references given -- a potential problem for me given that I’ve not heard of some of Limburg’s opinions and would like confirmation. For example, he posits that the medieval church’s chief problem with witchcraft was that it amounted to heresy: only later was the accusation of witchcraft used as a weapon against  people.  Limburg’s tone is conversationally informal: he likes to end the essays with dry humor or a pun, which is appropriate for a book of word-history. My favorite: when Limburg ends the essay on brassieres, he first comments on the changing perception of bras in the modern age and then notes that 'men will be watching future developments with great interest.'

All told, this book of essays on the history of words made for an enjoyable and informing read.  Those interested in the subject -- particularly in the words listed in the table of the contents -- will probably find this book both useful and entertaining.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible
© 2007 A.J. Jacobs
388 pages


Day 111. When I'm jotting down tips on how to land a second wife, it's clear that the pendulum has swung too far into the Bible's crazy territory.  (p. 138)

I began this blog in May 2007 with A.J. Jacob’s Know-It-All, in which he records his experience reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I enjoyed the book immensely, and so jumped at the chance to read another work of Jacobs’. In A Year of Living Biblically,  he tasks himself with following every rule and suggestion in the Judeo-Christian bible as literally as possible in an effort to understand what religious beliefs and practices do for people. He intends to honor the various commandments’ literal meaning, rather than their specific expression*, and establishes references to help him along the way. Not only does he convene a panel of religious leaders to help him navigate the maze of translations and cross-interpretations, but he begins to build a library of biblically-focused works for his own research. He also commits to spending time with other biblical literalists (the Amish,  Mormons, and Young-Earthers) and making “pilgrimages” to Jerusalem and the Creationist site in Kentucky.

Jacobs’ initial steps onto this new religious path are bumpy indeed, as he attempts to adjust to a confusing new regimen. Jacobs isn’t content to take the bible’s ethical mandates seriously: not only does he begin living the Golden Rule, but he lets his beard grow out, attaches tassels to his clothing, avoids his wife during her period, and begins each month by blowing a shofar. He thus strives to fulfill its ritualistic laws as well. He also attempts to follow the Bible’s advice for punishing others for their sins, but breaks no laws in the process: he does stone adulterers, but does so with pebbles. As the months pass, Jacobs immerses himself in the life, becoming the sort of person others cross the street to avoid coming near. So intrusive are the biblical laws that Jacobs fears he is being absorbed by a newborn alter-ego -- the long-bearded, staff-toting, moralistic “Jacob”.  Jacobs fights to maintain his sanity, even though he obviously enjoys the journey in part. When the time comes for him to leave the Hebrew scriptures for the Christian, he is reluctant to abandon his beard and horn-blowing.

Although Jacobs intended to follow both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, his attempts to live a Christian life are stymied by the fact that he can’t accept Jesus as the Messiah: beyond that, all the New Testament contains are a few ethical rules already covered by the Hebrews. Thus, he spends his three Christian months visiting Christian churches. This causes a bit of a stir given his beard and fondness for robes. Humorously, Jacob’s year-long research into the Bible causes him to take issue with the way Christians like Jerry Falwell misuse the Hebrew scriptures, robbing them of their context.  Speaking of Falwell, Jacobs finds out that despite the man’s ability to vomit sound bytes, his actual sermons are dull.

When the year-long journey ends, Jacobs seems conflicted. Although he’s relieved of the burden of following so many rules, he enjoyed the structure they gave his life.  He especially enjoyed the group activities, like dancing with drunken Hasidic Jews on a night designated for revelry. He feels as though he has benefited from the experience overall, having gained a reverence for life while remaining agnostic. I enjoyed watching him grapple with the life, and I recommend the book to both religious and nonreligious audiences. It will allow us -- particularly the nonreligious -- to understand our fellows better. Religious audiences may glean the same, but not so much if Jacobs happened to subscribe to his own life stance. In any case, both audiences are sure to be amused by Jacobs’ constant reacting to what is expected of him. This was an exceptional read, one I'm sure to remember with fondness.

The inside cover includes pictures that track the growth of Jacobs' beard and hair over the course of a year. You may view it here.

*“Those who piss against the wall” could be taken literally to mean hobos and drunken college students, for instance, but its literal meaning would be males. Females would be hard-pressed to pee against a wall.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dinner with a Perfect Stranger

Dinner with a Perfect Stranger: An Invitation Worth Considering
© 2005 David Gregory
100 pages

 When  Nick Cominsky received a personalized dinner invitation from Jesus of Nazareth, self-proclaimed Deity Extraordinaire, he was more than a little dubious. Obviously, his friends have concocted yet another wild joke. Since springing their trap is more interesting than helping his wife tend to their 20-month old, Nick drops in by the appropriate Italian restaurant on his way home to see what his friends have planned for him. The reservation is valid, but Nick is surprised: he is met not by the robed hippie he might expect from a joke, but by a disappointly conformist fellow in a stylish blue suit.

"Nick Cominksy," he said. "Hi. Jesus."
In retrospect, a thousand comebacks were possible -- "Jesus H. Christ! So good to finally meet you!" ...."Are twelve of our party missing?"...."I didn't know they buried you in a suit."
The absurdity of the scene, though, stunned me into silence. What do you say to that?

Although startled by the man's matter-of-fact demeanor, Nick decides to humor him. The longer their initial conversation goes on, however, the more uncomfortable Nick becomes. "Jesus" makes no attempt to convince Nick that he is in fact Yeshua bar Joseph of Nazareth. He does no miracles, yet stands by his claim. He is as gentle and unassuming as the "prince of peace" might be. Intrigued, Nick agrees to humor the man further: he'll suspend his disbelief and they'll work from there. In return for a dinner of conversation, "Jesus" will tell Nick who set up the evening in the first place.

What develops from here on out is a thinly veiled author tract. The storied setup lingers for a while longer, but slowly and surely Nick becomes a character in a Chick tract. The tract begins as Jesus and Nick discuss religion as a means of making sense of life. Jesus delivers a spiel on various religions in turn -- Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Armed with memories from a comparative religion class, Nick holds his own briefly before being subdued into silence by the fact that his debating partner has come to the table much more prepared than he. Jesus -- by which I mean author David Gregory -- makes a distinction between something working and something being true. In his eyes,  if something is not completely true, it will cease to function at some point. His approach to analyzing other religions is whole-cloth: there's no chance of dividing effective practices (meditation or yoga, say) from  the religious context that they are associated with.

Gregory -- speaking through Jesus -- develops the conversation in such a way that religions other than Christianity are proven to be unteneable. Religion itself is untenable, for --  Gregory-Jesus says -- there is no path to God. Humanity is damned. Its own efforts to reunite with God are pointless, for there is no way to earn the forgiveness of God. It can only be accepted, and that by accepting the fact that Jesus -- God -- took on the price of humanity's  sin.  Nick has no reply: his Chickification has increased at a steady pace throughout the book,  his character become a thoughtful-looking strawman. He is saved only from 2-D damnation by the fact that he hasn't quite converted by book's end.

I was somewhat disappointed in the book. I read it knowing that it was a work of Christian evangelicalism, and the strength of its opening portions was encouraging. What started as an interesting exercise in apologetics -- and thus for me, counter-apologetics -- quickly became rather shallow. Gregory does do a good job of making Christianity appear to be superficially cohesive, and I would have loved a book that continued to challenge me by giving that facade depth of substance and thus a strong case. Instead, Nick becomes a sock puppet and Jesus/Gregory looks weak for taking advatange of the situation: the author is reduced so far as to bring out the old "Lord, Lunatic, or Liar" tack. The book will probably be well-received by Christians, and I can imagine it working on a Nick-like  person who's not prepared for its arguments. Nonchristians  who are prepared might profit by reading the book, if only to give their brains a brief workout. I enjoyed it at the beginning -- it's a pity the conversation became one-sided so quickly.

As an end-note: this book may have worked better with Paul as the inviter. He is, after all, the inventor of the Christian narrative as we know it : he's the man you can thank for making the doctrine of original sin a cornerstone of Christianity. Bible-Jesus never really elaborated on what "believing in me" meant, beyond renouncing worldly goods, following the Torah, and committing to a kind of agape love.

This Week at the Library (18/2)

I haven't done a review post in nearly a month, as I've been toying with the idea of dropping the weekly summaries. When I changed from a weekly to an individual format over a year ago, I maintained the weekly posts because I posted those where this hobby of mine began, on MySpace. I've avoided MySpace for a long while, though, so that need is lost.

Additionally, I liked the idea of having shorter summaries and longer comments both: one allowed readers to get a quick idea of what a book was about, while the other provided more details.  The weekly review posts also punctuate the routine, and enable me to give people previews of what's coming.

On the other hand, writing the truncated summaries tends to be tedious. I like writing about the books I read, but I delight in details. The summaries seem rather bland, which is why my favorite part of the review posts are the ending features -- the highlighted quotation, favorite pick, and list of upcoming reads. I've been thinking about various ways to accomplish what I like while ditching what I dislike, and the approach I'm going to try for a while is to limit summaries to a sentence or two.  Hopefully, that will serve to introduce people to reads they might potentially like, while reducing the tedium on my part.

  1. The Motorcycle Diaries:  I read this book to introduce myself to "Che" Guevara, but the Diaries are chiefly about the geography of the land and his occasional misadventures. Political reflections are present, but marginal. 
  2. Letters from a Stoic consists of the classical Stoic Seneca's letters to his friend and student Lucilus. The translation made for an easy and informative read: Seneca's approach to Stoicism may be the most accessible text beyond The Emperor's Handbook.
  3. Sand and Foam by Kahlil Gibran was my second visit with that author. Unlike The Prophet, which is poetry and philosophy in a novel form, this consists mostly of one-line aphorisms. These aphorisism are poetic and mystical in form, and I enjoyed many of them.
  4. Red Emma Speaks, an Emma Goldman anthology, was certainly a thought-provoking read.  Goldman's anarchist perspective and her attempts to grapple with the role of violence in political activism were particularly interesting. The book added much to my understanding of the period and to the philosophy.
  5. Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger is the strangest war memoir I've ever read. Although giving a detailed account of the gruesomeness of life on the Western Front, Junger rarely reacts to this as a human being might be expected to react. Even when he is wounded, his recorded thoughts are bizarrely unemotional. The book may be regarded as "pro-war" as Junger sees armed conflict as a supreme test of character.
  6. The Tyrannosaurus Prescription consists of one hundred and one essays by Isaac Asimov. I doubt I've ever read an Asimov collection with a wider range: he covers science, language, science fiction, history, culture, and more. As usual, I was delighted.
  7. A Power Governments Cannot Suppress is another collection of essays, this one by Howard Zinn. The essays emphasize the need for and the  role of popular movements in political reform. I thought it encouraging.
  8. A Guide to the Good Life is William Irvine's attempt to create a popular introductory work to Stoicism. The guide emphasizes Stoicism as a way of life rather than being an academic approach. It's easily the best guide I've read: I admired it for its thoroughness and readability. 
  9. I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy is both an autobiography current to 1995 and a Star Trek memoir. It's been one of my favorite books for years, giving Trek fans like myself an inside look into the franchise and into Nimoy's fascinating life. The book is charming and often hilarious.
  10. The Emperor's Handbook,  a translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations by David and Scot Hicks, is the most readable approach to Aurelius I've yet encountered. This fresh translation is very direct, increasing the books' communicability while maintaining Aurelius' meanings for the most part. A few passages seemed flat, but they were a definite minority.  

Favorite Quotations:

"Many a doctrine is like a window pane. We see truth through it, but it divides us from truth." (Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam)

"Don't become disgusted with yourself, lose patience, or give up if you sometimes fail to act as your philosophy dictates, but after each setback, return to reason and be content if most of your acts are worthy of a good man. Love the philosophy to which you return, and go back to it, not as an unruly student to the rod of a schoolmaster but as a sore eye to a sponge and egg whites, or a wound to cleansing ointments and clean bandages. In this way you will obey the voice of reason not to parade a perfect record, but to secure an inner peace. Remember, philosophy desires only what pleases your nature while you wanted something at odds with nature." (The Emperor's Handbook: Book 5, passage 9)

Upcoming Reads:

  •  Dinner with a Perfect Stranger: An Invitation Worth Considering, David Gregory
  • A Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs 
  • Yours, Asimov: A Life in Letters; Isaac Asimov
  • American Infidel: Robert Ingersoll, Orvin Larson. 

I Am Spock

I Am Spock
© 1995 Leonard Nimoy
356 pages


Leonard Nimoy's autobiographical I Am Spock has been one of my favorite books for years. I purchased it perhaps over a decade ago: it's a very battered paperback now, well-thumbed. I revisted it this past week and found it as ever a pleasant affair. Essentially, it is a well-written, funny, and charming autobiography of Leonard Nimoy current to 1995 which doubles as a Star Trek memoir.

The book's title runs opposite Nimoy's first attempt at the same, I Am Not Spock. That book, published in the early 70s, ran afoul of nearly everyone and haunted Nimoy for years. People believed it was his attempt to rail against Star Trek and the character of Spock in particular, and he was not rid of the legacy until the Star Trek movies began anew.

He opens this book with the admission that for years he has carried on dialogues with the Vulcan living inside his head. Said dialogues introduce the book's many chapters and sometimes contribute to their contents. Nimoy's relationship with Spock often takes center stage, even in chapters not actually about  Star Trek.  After some initial autobiography,  he launches into the three year mission of Star Trek, describing Spock's birth in the mind of Gene Roddenberry and recounting his growth as Nimoy fleshed out the character. There are many tidbits here for Star Trek fans: I can't watch the original series without thinking of Nimoy's many ancedotes, whether they be amusing and trivial or meaningful.*

Nimoy identified strongly with Spock from the outset as being "different", but as he made the character his own, his feelings became decidedly affectionate. Nimoy's authorial voice is a treat for readers -- warm, and often hilarious. He recounts William Shatner's many pranks, and DeForrest Kelly's gentle refereeing between himself and Shatner during their brotherly feuds.  After NBC pulls the show for its poor commercial ratings, Nimoy goes on to other work -- sitcoms, plays, and the odd movie.  To Nimoy's occasional discomfort, Spock follows along. He appears on inappropriate billboards and continues to shape Nimoy's pattern of thinking even after the last script has been memorized. Nimoy also recounts the rise of the Trekkies and their influence on culture, particularly in the naming of the first Space Shuttle.

In the eighties and nineties, Star Trek movies return to production. Nimoy must grapple with the death of his character and assume greater responsibilities as director -- both of Trek movies (Star Trek III, IV) and of other films, ranging from light comedies (Three Men and a Baby) to more serious exploratory films (The Good Mother). Nimoy offers plenty of anecdotes about the stories behind these films, as well.  His relationship with Spock continues to evolve as they age together: Spock becomes more at home with his human side as Nimoy grows increasingly comfortable in both his and the Vulcan's skin.

Obviously, this is a recommendation for Star Trek fans, for it has added much to my appreciation for the original series and movies. I imagine they -- we -- constitute the bulk of Nimoy's fanclub, but this book proves he's had an interesting  career outside Roddenberry's creation.

Spock: Live long and prosper.
Nimoy: I think I've already done the former, Spock. And -- in no small part thanks to you -- I've certainly done the latter.

* One such tidbit: when deciding to produce a sixth film for Star Trek's anniversary, Paramount initially planned on a prequel film visiting the power trio's Academy days, but scratched it in favor of a Cold War story called The Undiscovered Country. Strangely, the Soviet Russia collapsed as the story of the Klingon Empire's collapse was being filmed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Emperor's Handbook

The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations
© 2002, translated by David and Scot Hicks.
160 pages


I first read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in 2007 and have returned to selected passages from the book time and again. The good emperor is often in my thoughts, a severe figure attempting to live and govern wisely, but beset by the vastness of his responsibilities as ruler of the Roman Imperium. I’ve been looking for quality translations of both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus to purchase this year, and I was excited to learn of the existence of The Emperor’s Handbook, a modern-English translation of Aurelius written by two brothers. One brother translated the literal Greek, while the other used the literal translation to convey the passages’ actual meaning as they understood it. The result is direct, simple, and unadorned to the point of austerity.

I predict this book will have two audiences:  those interested in Aurelius’ philosophy and thoughts, and those interested in how those thoughts have been rendered here. I especially enjoyed reading this for its straightforwardness and lucidity. Aside from the occasional allusion, I had no difficulty in understanding what Aurelius was attempting to say to himself here. I compared various passages from more formal translations, and their substantive integrity appears to be intact. Although some shorter statements fall a little flat,  this is an overall improvement to other versions I've read. While I sometimes missed more elegant phrasings* from other translations,  this translation is more communicative. I think  The Emperor's Handbook will be well-received, particularly for those exploring the philosophy of the man.

Speaking of those explorers, what is it about Marcus Aurelius that compels translations and commentaries of his work today, hundreds of years after his death?  He seems the model of a philosopher-king, a ruler governing with wisdom and virtue. As Roman emperor, Aurelius' power is unparalleled and unchecked: if potential excesses are to be prevented, he himself must prevent them. As a Stoic, Aurelius believes that his life must be guided by Reason -- keeping in mind not only his duty to his people and the gods, but the difference between what he can control and what he cannot. Aurelius may be emperor, but his primary focus is governing himself well to prepare him for that task.  He does this through extensive self-counsel: he reminds himself constantly of his principles, reflecting on his life as it relates to the greater pattern.

The crisp passages vary in size from one-liners to page-long reflections, serving both to remind Aurelius of general ideas and explore ways of putting those ideas into action. For instance: since we are not truly bothered by men's actions, but by our reaction to them, what reason is there for growing angry about others' shortcomings, like poor personal hygiene?  Aurelius emerges as a fascinating character -- a pious monk, a dutiful soldier, and a patient administrator who longs for a quiet life of contemplation and philosophy but who is compelled to take on the heavy mantle of responsibility amidst the  stressful circumstances of war, natural disasters, and difficult people. It is a marvel to me that he withstood the pressures as well as he did, and The Emperor's Handbook reminds me why I was attracted to Aurelius' Stoicism in the first place. I recommend it with ease.

You can preview some of the book's language here, or browse selections from more formal translations here and here. The latter links to my personal favorites from my first time reading Aurelius.


* Compare the Hicks': "This world is change; this life, opinion.” to “the universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” I prefer the latter expression: it seems to communicate more. This was the weakest passage in the book for me, and the only one I took any real exception to.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (16-2)

Teaser Tuesday time once more, from Should be Reading. 

I complained to Houghton Mifflin that a reviewer in  discussing my book The Neutrino (my 70th) spoke of my "factory production". I said that made it sound as though I had batteries of writers slaving over typewriters with myself walking down the aisles, looking over shoulders and occasionally saying, "I'd put a comma in there if I were you."  

- Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
© 2009 William Irvine
314 pages


Last year when I began to examine Stoicism in depth, having found strength in the works of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, I read or attempted to read various introductions to the philosophy. I was unable to find a truly useful guide: the accessible books were highly technical and intended for an audience well-versed in academic philosophy. While I was able to understand more about Stoicism’s history and context, I found nothing that truly added to the primary sources – nothing that knit what I understood already and shed light on what I did not.  William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life is the book I was looking for. I have not yet encountered a better introduction to Stoicism:Like Alain de Botton and Epictetus before him, Irvine brings philosophy to the level of everyday life and does so in a thorough, emimiently readable, and fair-minded style.

            Irvine begins by establishing context, explaining what philosophy is, why it was important to the classical world, and why it is still of use today. He differentiates academic and applied philosophy, and makes it clear that he believes philosophy ought to be used to help people live more fully.  He then introduces Stoicism proper, giving a history of the various Stoic teachers and famous practitioners. He focuses on Roman Stoicism particularly, given that the works of four -- Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus -- constitute the only surviving primary sources for understanding what the Stoics thought and how they lived.

 After this introductory portion of the book, Irivine examines how Stoic attitudes changed the way these people understood and responded to the world, devoting next sixteen chapters focus on Stoic attitudes, psychological techniques, beliefs, and practices. These range from the general (understanding Epictetus' "dichtomy of control") to the specific (handling insults). He gleans these concepts from the primary sources, but attempts to justify them through his and other's experiences. I remain dubious about some of them, but I'm hardly an orthodox Stoic. Irvine often draws connections between Stoicism's ideas and practices and those of other thought-systems, particularly the Zen Buddhism he espoused earlier in his life. If the book had stopped there, it would have been pretty good, but it gets better. The last part of the book sees Irvine give Stoicism a naturalistic rather than a theological justification and discuss the problems and benefits of living Stoically in the modern world. Grounding Stoicism in the natural is necessary, given that few people would accept Stoic theology and physics today.  What this does is turn around Stoicism's approach, as we are often fighting nature instead of following it. Because human nature was not created for our happiness in mind, we have to subvert the plans of what Richard Dawkins calls our "selfish genes".

This is the best book on Stoicism I've yet read, and I doubt I'll ever read a better practical introduction to the philosophy. I recommend it highly.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
© 2007 Howard Zinn
293 pages


This year I have become convincted that democracy is not something that happens at the ballot-box but on the streets. It consists in mass movements forcing the institutions that oppose them to reform. Howard Zinn's pet subject, social movements, is thus of great interest to me. His book title and cover invoke a spirit of conviction, of fighting for justice -- and its contents do not disappoint.

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress is a collection of essays, most written on a simple theme but some working the theme into biographical coverage of people and organizations. Zinn introduces the book with an essay on the use of history to inform, inspire, and provoke people to action. The essays that follow constitute such a history, although not one as general or as tightly woven as A People's History of the United States. The essays can be read by themselves, and topics vary.  Although most of the essays are about people of conviction of who have stood up against the powers that be (Freedom Riders, Henry David Thoreau, Eugene Debs, soldiers in revolt) many see Zinn attempt to provoke readers more directly by writing on topics such as class, immigration, nationalism, pacifism,  government, and war. Although to witness so much injustice throughout history is almost discouraging, the ending essay encourages optimism: even when the odds are against us, human history has proven to be unpredictable. Struggling for a better society is always a gamble, but if we do not participate, there is no chance that matters will improve. 

As usual, Zinn communicates his own passion clearly. Because the essential idea is one so positive that no one could be against it -- people struggling against injustice -- I suspect those who object to Zinn do so owing to his approach. While some might prefer to defend various nations and concepts with some concessions that they do harm , Zinn sees national boundaries, war, and the like as fundamentally malevolent. I enjoyed visiting the stories of those who have tried to "fight the good fight", and can imagine re-reading this book in the future. I reccommend it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Tyrannosaurus Prescription

The Tyrannosaurus Prescription and 100 Other Essays
© 1989 Isaac Asimov
323  pages

I take for granted that I will enjoy a work by Asimov, particularly a collection of essays, but this made for a particularly enjoyable read. The Tyrannosaurus Prescription covers a lot of ground: while the initial sections of the book contain essays on the future, space, and science in general,  the book's large "Forwards" section spans much of the humanities (history, literature, linguistics) in addition to miscellaneous matters like dogs and fantasy. Asimov's essays on humanity's future were especially enjoyable for me to read, given that the essays were written decades ago and many are dated now. "The Globalized Computer Library", initially published in 1980, predates popular access to the Internet, but imagines a computer system like it -- although closer in spirit to the databases of Star Trek. He's a talented communicator, riveting me with his speculations on how humanity might begin to colonize the solar system. His own ideas emphasize the Earth-Moon system, but they won't be happening anytime soon. Coincidentally, as I read that particular section I heard news that the US is more or less canceling its lunar and Constellation project plans. The book ends with reflections on science fiction and a few personal essays coauthored by himself and Janet Asimov.

A book like this would have never been published without the author's name being the key selling point, however much I enjoyed it.  Although I don't know how many people would enjoy the book in total, the scope is so general and varied that I imagine anyone can enjoy at least some of it -- and readers who enjoy Asimov will be interested regardless. I enjoyed this more than I've enjoyed any Asimov work since reading Constantinople in the fall.

Teaser Tuesday

Via Should be Reading.

A reader once wrote: "If violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, why is there so much violence in the world?"
And I replied, "Because there is so much incompetence." - p. 206-207.

- Isaac Asimov, The Tyrannosaurus Prescription 

Monday, February 8, 2010

Storm of Steel

Storm of Steel
© 1921 Ernst Jünger
319 pages


Storm of Steel is the oddest war memoir I have ever read. I've read a few of them in hopes of understanding various motivations for young men marching off to war, and ensure that I never foget the human cost of war and nationalism, but Lieutnant Jünger's story begins when he and his company disembark from troop trains onto the front and ends with his final retreat from the front, having been injured repeatedly in the meantime. For about four years, Jünger lives in the trenches or in occupied French homes on the front when he is not in the hospital recovering. He writes of life in the trenches and the experience of "going over": he coughs his way through clouds of poison gas, roots for Baron von Richoften's airmen above him, admires the new tanks being brought into battle, and writes frequently on the trials of war. 

 Although he offers many details about life at war, humanity seems to be missing. Junger is a curious soldier: his passions are never inflamed. He sees the war as a rough trade, a game almost: he does not view enemy soldiers with hatred nor contempt, and he pities his fellow Germans who have made the war personal. He sees the war as a crucible of sorts: a great trial of the soul. It is a chance fro him to prove himself. He sees nothing greater than  a man's ability to stand in the admist of a storm of bullets and artillery and fight -- never losing his nerve, never doubting that his cause is just and his duty imperative. Aside from this, Junger seems detached from the dirty business of fighting. He scarcely reacts to the horrors around him except to hope that things can be repaired after the war. When he is injured by shrapnel and arms fire, his reaction is bizaarely non-emotional. He merely comments that blood loss is copious and summons one of his soldiers to help him back to the nurse's station. When a trench partially caves in on him, he comments that it made for a "very unpleasant" half-hour.  What he does wax emotional about beyond courage under fire  is a soldier's Duty, which is his primary motivation for fighting. So committed is he to "duty and honor" that when he and his company are partially surrounded by English troops, he drags himself up from the ground with blood in his lungs and starts shooting at them at close range. Incredibly, his company escapes to safety.

There are many details here for the student of the Great War: one of the most poignant for me was his account of digging a trench and encountering long-buried equipment left over from 1914, serving as a grim reminder that for all the western front's bloodshed, the lines of battle scarcely  moved.  Despite this, I don't know how effective  the memoir might be in communicating the horror of life on the front. Jünger's detachment seems to deny war its sting, but at the same time adds a deeper level of subtle horror in giving him the ability to accept it. The worst kind of tragedy is the unnoticed. Although Jünger's attitude makes him appear to be a stereotypical soulless Prussian soldier, intent on advancing the Fatherland, I have not noticed the attitude expressed in such an extreme way before -- and I wonder if this version of the memoir has been edited to reflect the postwar Jünger's political views. 

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Dirty Job

A Dirty Job
© 2006 Christopher Moore
400 pages

When the Devil is too busy,
and Death's a bit too much
They call on me, by name you see --
For my special touch
(Voltaire, "When You're Evil")


Charlie Asher is the last person you might expect to find stealing into the homes of the deceased, looking for beloved possessions to make off with. He's a typical Beta male -- a timid, nonconfrontational "nice guy" who survives on intelligence and disarming kindness rather than brute strength. All he ever wanted out of life was the love of a beautiful woman and the chance to keep his late father's secondhand store in business, but he saw someone he should not have seen -- Death, in the form of a tall dark stranger wearing a minty green suit standing at his wife's bedside in the hospital, where she has just given birth. The startled stranger soon vanishes, along with her favorite CD. She won't be needing it anymore, for she is now dead: killed by a blood clot in her brain formed during labor. No one else sees Death, not even the hospital security tapes -- but Charlie did, and now along with the demanding responsbility of taking care of a newborn by himself, he will soon be drafted into the ranks of Death.

The minty green stranger is not in fact Death himself: the "Big D" has been gone for centuries. Forces unknown compel those among the living, like Charlie and Minty Fresh (the hospital visitor's proper name), to seek out the dying and protect their souls. The souls attach themselves to beloved posessions, and "Death Merchants" -- Minty's name for his coworkers -- collect these posessions and deliver them to their new bodies as soon as possible, thus facilitating in reincarnation. It's a dirty job, but important -- for if souls are not protected by the likes of Charlie, they become food for the Forces of Darkness. Like the imprisoned Titans, these forces cannot be allowed to gain any strength, lest they invade Earth and chaos ensue. Charlie's life, never an epitome of normalcy -- not with mildly but lovably insane employees -- becomes increasing strange. His neighborhood and city are soon home to sinister voices from below and menacing birds from above. Charlie is a  Death Merchant in a prophetic time, one in which a great battle is predicted to be fought in San Francisco -- one that will end with the rise of a new "Big D". The Death Merchants have no real idea as for whom that might signify a victory.

As Charlie settles into his role as a father and death merchant through the next six years, the predicted battle draws closer. Physical manifestations of dark spirits are able to take to the streets of San Francisco, feeding on the souls Charlie and others miss. As dark forces are wont to do, they delight in wreaking havoc. Charlie's daughter becomes an object of attention to two massive hell hounds named Alvin and Muhammad -- and then matters just get weird, culminating in a desperate drive to the Three Jewels Buddhist Center.

For a book about death, A Dirty Job is surprisingly funny, both darkly and absurdly so. Moore's dialog is particularly effective, and the characters here are more developed than in Lamb. A plot twist at the climax made for a delicious surprise, giving the endgame new vigor. If you're looking for an entertaining novel, A Dirty Job will delight.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Red Emma Speaks

Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader
© 1973, 1996 ed. Alix Kates Shulman
464 pages

 Emma Goldman was an incorrigible political activist and social critic during the Gilded Age, speaking out against nearly everything society held dear – the government, capitalism, organized religion, and marriage. She was clearly a woman of passion, and I bought this book intrigued by what she might have to say about a period that I am a student of.

Red Emma Speaks consists of articles and essays opining on the organization of society, social institutions, violence, and revolution. Compiler Alix Kates Shulman introduces each section of the book, giving the reader context, and Emma introduces the book proper herself with an extended essay titled “What I Believe”. The themes there are repeated and expanded throughout the book. All of Emma Goldman’s beliefs originated from a fervent belief in humanity’s potential – the belief that people can and should take command of themselves, living purposely. She did not, however, value states and nations: her belief in the human spirit is ardently individualistic. She takes arms against any institution that would in any way limit the individual from living freely – thus her passion for anarchism. Anarchism as understood and practiced by anarchists is not the absence of order, but the absence of outside, inflicted order. She, like Emile Carles, sees people as being able control and governs themselves as individuals. She sees the society’s progress as not resulting from the will of the majority, but caused by the provocations of individuals. The “majority”, the masses, are an inert thing that conform to outside pressures and accomplish nothing on their own. 

Her worldview and passion are certainly interesting and well-expressed here. I enjoyed engaging with her, reading and reflecting. Her relationship with socialism was particularly fascinating: like Carles, her ideal is of anarchic socialism. Reading Carles made me realize that socialism and communism were not ideals necessarily connected with a strong state, and Goldman is a reminder of this. Socialism connects to Goldman in that it supports the equality of humanity. Of particular interest to those interested in the history of socialism and communism is her analysis of the Russian state, which she claims is not communistic at all. To her, Russia is nothing more than another class-bound state: its economy is not socialized, but nationalized. She draws a sharp distinction between any government and the society it purports to serve.  Her relationship to violence is equally interesting: she seems to wrestle with it, regarding political violence as a necessary evil but then retreating given that it creates more problems than it solves. A perfect example of this is the planned assassination of Henry Clay Frick: not only did the attack on the robber-baron’s life fail to draw positive recognition to their cause, but it undermined their moral high ground.

            This is a strong book, well worthy of a recommendation to students of the period and of related thought. Goldman’s is a passionate, articulate voice that provokes the reader into revaluating convention and old perceptions.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (2-2))

Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbringer of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State- and Church- begotten weed, marriage?  - Emma Goldman (p. 211, Red Emma Speaks)