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Good Books:


Eccles, John C. The Physiology of Synapses. Springer Verlag, 1964.

The late Sir John Eccles practically invented the science of the synapse, and in rough outlines he also came close to perfecting it. But basic neurology was not his only profession. If you want to see the difference between a savant and a technician, compare Eccles' urbane arguments with Karl Popper (The Self and Its Brain) with the narrowmindedness of R. A. Nicoll's obituary for Eccles in Science (V. 277, no. 5323, 11 July 1997, p 194). Nicoll will never understand why people are so angry; Eccles would have, and so did Maimonides.
It could be that today the average undergraduate already knows the main points of the revolutionary discoveries of the 1950s, but this book is still a well organized summary of the neurology of the single neuron, and even more so of the synapse. It is also an example which a layman can understand of real science and real science-publishing.

Hardcover




Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Vintage, 1999.

I haven't added a book note in a long time, but having seen so much nonsense written about the theme of this novel, and of Marukami's work in general, that I can't resist. (I've also seen people say that Marukami's works are just pot-boilers with no theme at all.)

The subject of Windup-Bird, like the subject of Kafka by the Sea, is identity. More specifically, the subject is identity which has been damaged by the person's subjugation to outside powers, often the power of society, and his recovery by the assertion of his own will. It's surprising that people argue about this, since all of the main characters of the book tell you this themselves. May Kasahara, in the letter on pp. 461-462, tells us that she is escaping from the rules set out for her by the society of tree frogs. Toru tells you that it is his having asserted himself to rescue Kumiko which returns him to himself, and thus removes the stain from his cheek:

...I had been given the name "Mr Wind-up Bird."... [T]he wind-up bird was a powerful presence in Cinnamon's story. The cry of this bird was audible only to certain special people, who were guided by it towards inevitable ruin. The will of human beings meant nothing, then, as the vet [- the only other person with the mark on the cheek -] always seemed to feel. People were no more than dolls set on tabletops, the springs in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose. [pp. 524-525]
"Poor Mr Wind-up Bird!", said May Kasahara. "You emptied yourself out trying so hard to save Kumiko. And you probably did save her. Right? And in the process, you saved lots of people. But you couldn't save yourself. [p. 589]

But May was wrong. Toru did save himself. He survives - miraculously -, the sign on his cheek disappears, he waits for Kumiko to get out of jail, and plans for the children he will have with her. "I put the shaver down and took a good look. The mark was gone.... It had disappeared from my cheek without a trace." [p. 600]
Kumiko tells us that she is willing to sacrifice her life to kill the man who has taken over her will; the killing will return her to herself:

The freedom to do anything at all was taken from me.... My brother held me with yet stronger chains and guards - chains and guards that were myself.... I have to leave for the hospital now, to kill my brother and take my punishment.... I have to do it for his sake too. And to give my life meaning. [pp. 602-603]

Is Murakami himself conscious of the universality of these themes when he writes them? From what I have seen in interviews, I think not. His novels are born of one scene which with which he was suddenly inspired, or of a problem relating to Japanese history or society. But would we bother reading them for those?

Unlike the evil uebermenschen of Nietsche and Shaw, Mr. Murakami's save themselves from the deadening dictatorship of society by saving others,not by trampling them.

Paperback




Strauss, Lewis L. Men and Decisions.

This autobiography of a high official under several American presidents contains the usual amusing anecdotes from a long-dead world, but it is indeed important for what it tells us about the men and decisions involved. Before the second world war, Strauss was a representative of the U.S. government in a semi-official effort to save European Jews; Weizmann had his own reasons for refusing to cooperate. Strauss refuses to either justify or condemn him. Strauss was involved in the decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan; his account is thought-provoking but frightening. And yet another version of the Oppenheimer affair, but this time from the man in charge of the investigation.
Strauss seems to have been an intelligent and good man. It says something about this kind of book that he always comes out morally right, even when pooh-poohing the fallout damage to innocent (but foreign) islanders from nuclear tests gone awry.



Jespersen, Otto. Analytic Syntax. University of Chicago, 1984.

Jespersen probably would have considered his system of symbolization and the concepts of nexus and nexus rank the most important contributions of this work. Maybe they are useful, but some other contributions in general syntax and some observations on specific structures more so. The discussions of amorphous sentences (those without subject or predicate or both, to use some terms Jespersen dislikes) and the various ways in which sentence-elements are displaced are particularly enlightening. 'Morphoseme' is a useful concept in understanding the Semitic root.
There are people who will be shocked by Jespersen's discussion of "morpheme".

Paperback




Saenz-Badillos, Angel. A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge, 1996.

This is the only history of the Hebrew Language and Hebrew linguistics I know of which covers all periods. It is thoroughly researched and well documented.
The systematic study of Rabbinic Hebrew was long neglected because of unconscious religious attitudes. For the last few hundred years, research into Hebrew has also been 'corrected' for political motives: the remark on Geiger here would fit many others as well. Only the inmates can understand the extent to which the tense/aspect and the related waw-conversive disputes are political; here they are objectively discussed. And finally we get to see Yalon's work on Mishnaic grammar treated with the casual contempt it deserves.

Paperback




Churchill, Winston. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Cassell, 1991.

This is a completely different kind of history, in which moral direction and the avoidance of pedantry are more important than a detailed analysis of the facts and sources:

It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre for freedom, law and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur... slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time.

In spite of it all, the books are properly researched and the major facts and their connections are all here. Churchill's English is famous.

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Lewis, Bernard. Islam in History: Ideas, People and Events in the Middle East. Open Court Publishing Co., 1993.

This collection of essays is mostly on the relationships between Islam and Somebody Else, or on influences between Islamic ideas and somebody else's ideas. The essays are all well written and clearheaded; they are often entertaining and sometimes contain important points.
In several articles Lewis discusses the cult of Muslim Spain both as part of the Romantic movement and as a local need of Jews, Turks, and Western Europeans. He strongly doubts whether Maimonides was ever court physician to Saladin. He, like von Grunebaum, thinks that the pre-Abbasid meaning of daula was a cyclical change of dynasty.
You may even find something here which helps you to understand today's politics; who knows?

Paperback
Hardcover




Pigott, Stuart. Prehistoric India.

This is not only an excellent introduction to general prehistoric archaeology, but also the only comprehensible book on prehistoric India which I have ever seen. The basic points are all here: the problems of absolute dating and of cross-cultural comparisons, the importance of pottery, tools and later literary sources, and an attempt to reconstruct both the daily life and the history of the culture under study.
Those who can't see the forest for the trees will think that the lack of modern techniques makes this book worthless. So much the worse for them. The 'they were old so they must have been theocratic and authoritarian' assumption sometimes grates, but it's the only fault that this book has.



Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. Touchstone, 1995.

Much of the fun of this book comes from the memoir side, but it's also a serious work of academic history. It contrasts the Wilsonian morality which is a recurring theme in American foreign relations with the Realpolitik tradition of modern (and presumably earlier) European diplomacy.
The thesis works; many of the examples are unbelievable. Kissinger suggests that most people have a political morality much weaker than their private morality, and that this explains the willingness to lie and behave ruthlessly in foreign policy. It does not seem to occur to him that these same people may be just as deceitful and ruthless in their private lives. He would rather attribute De Gaulle's aggressiveness and nationalism to hundred-year-old defeats than to a macho tradition. He would rather attribute many of Nixon's failures to "bad luck" than to lack of intelligence. Kissinger apparently never understood that the anti-war activists were not anti-American.
Still, the traditional history in this book is well constructed, well researched, and well written; the importance of the personal history, especially of the Vietnam era, goes without saying.

Paperback




Tuchman, Barbara W. Sand Against the Wind: Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45.

Like many authors, Barbara Tuchman tends to return to structures and themes. Sand Against the Wind is, like A Distant Mirror, the history of a time and place anchored to a biography. Like Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, it is also the story of a Western nation's meanderings through an Eastern bog, often confused by its own refusal to decide if it was there for gain or out of moral obligation.
One is left with plenty of questions: Was Roosevelt an acute statesman playing at a cracker-barrel style, or was he bemused and lucky? And of course, the big What If.
As always, the characterization is as good as any novel.



Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Ballantine, 1987?.

It's about time that this former best-seller was revived. Things look different now from the way they did when this book was first published, but the book's conceit, that Western Europe's fourteenth century is a mirror for our own time, is just as true now as it was then; it's just true differently. As usual in her books, there are some profound asides here: the extent to which the Black Death didn't influence medieval philosophy and literature is stranger then she herself probably understood; the combination of cruelty with demonstrative sentimentality is one of those recurring themes in human behavior which demand explanation.
She's had many competitors, but noone writes European history as well as she did.

Paperback




Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty. Dover, 1985.

Santayana builds from scratch a whole theory of beauty, starting from the Spinozan and very modern idea that what we need to survive we perceive as good. He then discusses the development from this of such ideas as unity and resonance, and then turns to discuss such distinctions as that between decoration and art, so useful in art history and literary criticism. He does all of this without ever losing sight of his starting point. He also discusses such questions as the relationship between art and morality. He is not very analytic; he rarely tries to prove, but he always seems reasonable and is always persuasive.

Paperback




Ackrill, J. L., ed. A New Aristotle Reader.

I certainly wouldn't dare to say anything about Aristotle one way or the other, except to warn young philosophy students that they had better read quite a bit of him, and not be completely dependent on modern surveys and the Medieval commentators. As to the translation, I have infinitesimal Latin and no Greek, so I'll talk about the edition. It is designed to bring together those sections of Aristotle which still have major philosophical importance in a manner convenient for students of philosophy. It succeeds. The selection is good (with one reservation), and the bibliography by subject is an excellent idea. An index would have helped, but the mostly computer-generated index of the full Princeton edition is actually not much more useful than the non-index here. People who know better than me seem to think that this is the best one can do in English. It wouldn't surprise me.

Paperback




Holes, Clive. Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions and Varieties. Longman, 1995.

"I hope that this book will prove to be of interest to two different types of reader: advanced students of Arabic... and general linguists who have little or no knowledge of it... ". It's also a lot of fun for those who fall in between. Although much of the book is devoted to comparisons among the dialects and between dialect and MSA, it includes descriptions of the structure of Arabic which a general linguist can follow, a history of Arabic, and an entertaining discussion of the styles of Modern Arabic.
I do have my doubts about many of the words which he lists on p. 249 as "borrowed directly into Arabic from [Greek]", but this is neither the time nor the place....

Paperback




De Beaugrande, Robert. Linguistic Theory: The Discourse of Fundamental Works. Longman, 1991.

A strange but great book on the history of modern linguistics. Consists almost exclusively of quotations from the originals linked by De Beaugrande's comments:

"An 'adjective' is 'a syntagmeme whose characteristic is a greatest-conglomerate of intense characters' (sounds to me like a linguistics department)."

Here I learned that Chomsky really was an important theoretician, and not a semi-literate nudnik like most of his students' students, and that Hjelmslev made some important contributions to the philosophy of science.

Paperback




Spinoza, Benedict de. A Theologico-Political Treatise.

This book is frequently barked up as a manifesto for religious freedom. If that were its main point, it probably wouldn't have much meaning in Western society today, and in fact, it's hard to believe that Spinoza would have bothered with it. This treatise is actually the basis for a completely rational (and idiosyncratically authoritarian) theory of government, and for a completely rational theory of morals.
Its claim that the Bible is to be understood by an attempt at an unprejudiced study of its language and the local contexts of the discourses is a useful corrective for many of the confused ideas of modern literary criticism generally, and its systematic analysis of the history of government in ancient Israel is still useful.

Paperback
Hardcover


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