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Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Phaidon, 1995.

There are two types of literary criticism: academic criticism and poets' criticism.
We read academic criticism to have our attention drawn to some new points about an individual author, in order to enjoy his writing more. We also read it to understand better an author's place in the history of literature.
Poets' criticism is a different genre altogether. We read it to learn about the theory of literature from someone who really understands it, and - again - to pick up some minor points about the critic's own literary work. These points are usually the sort which appeal to our idle curiosity than to a need-to-know.
Baudelaire certainly wrote poets' criticism, and the most striking part of his theory is frightening, but clearly true:

The famous doctrine of the indissolubility of the Beautiful, the True, and the Good is an invention of modern philosophication (strange contagion, which forces one to speak in jargon when defining a madness!). The different objects of spiritual research use those faculties which are eternally suited to them; sometimes a certain object uses only one, sometimes all together, which can only happen rarely, and never in equal dose or degree.... The True is the basis or the goal of the sciences; it invokes above all pure intellect. Purity of style is welcome there, but beauty of style there can be considered a luxury. The Good is the basis or the goal of moral research. The Beautiful is the unique ambition, the exclusive goal of Taste.
(From the article on Gautier, not in this volume.)

The answer to one of the great questions of our time.
Things are not quite as simple, however, as today's bestseller-list critics would have us think. Here Baudelaire is quoting his teacher Gautier:

[W]hat exasperates the man of taste above all in the spectacle of vice is its deformity, its disproportion. Vice strikes at the just and the good, revolts one's intellect and one's conscience; but like an outrage to harmony, like dissonance, it most particularly hurts certain poetical souls.

It won't surprise anyone to learn that both Baudelaire and Gautier enjoyed their frequent reading of dictionaries, or that Baudelaire had great contempt for undisciplined poets who don't work hard.

Paperback




Pauling, Linus. General Chemistry. Dover, 1989.

Most of us remember the elder Pauling mainly as the vitamin-C guru, and as someone who attacked the whole field of metaphysics without much understanding of the subject. The fact that almost his last act in life was to sign, as final author, a minor article for which he provided the bench space was no more endearing. Unlike many Nobel Prize winners, he seemed to have gotten his prize for a major contribution to human culture, but that only made us think of him as some extreme kind of idiot savant.
Pauling's General Chemistry therefore comes as a pleasant surprise. Pauling spends much more time than most such authors in explaining basic principles, and less in outlining industrial processes. He also spends much more time than most of his colleagues in discussing the history of chemistry as part of the history of human culture (though he would probably not have thought in those terms), and frequently says 'Nobody knows', which is not too common in a first-year textbook.
Pauling seems to have been a clear thinker, if not always a deep one:

Do electrons exist?... [E]lectrons do exist: "electron" is the name that scientists have used in discussing certain phenomena, such as the beam in the electric discharge tube studied by J. J. Thomson, the carrier of the unit electric charge on the oil drops in Millikan's apparatus, the part that is added to the neutral fluorine atom to convert it into a fluoride ion.

Paperback




Lamartine, Alphonse de. Meditations Poetiques.

Many of Lamartine's contemporaries thought him puerile, and he does indeed tend to grate on the nerves in an adolescent way. His main importance may be more as a representative of French Romanticism than as a poet to read for pleasure.
If we want to turn him into a representative, we've got to look for the rule-of-thumb markers. They are all here. "Nature", individualism.
The question is where the cult of individualism will lead. Among some of the post-romantics it was to lead into the morally disastrous theory of the superman. Lamartine flirted with this idea in his youth and eventually rejected it:

The last stanza [of the original version of "Bonaparte"] is above all an immoral sacrifice to that which is called 'glory'. Genius of itself is nothing if not a talent; it is nothing but a gift, a faculty, an instrument. It compensates for nothing; it makes everything worse. Genius badly used is a more noteworthy crime: Behold the truth, in prose.

He changed it. Perhaps this appeal to absolute truth, above men, is related to Lamartine's classical streak, the streak which was to lead to Montparnasse.

Paperback, in French




Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.

Walter Pater is one of the most modern of the inventors of the Renaissance:

It is so with this theory of a Renaissance within the middle age, which seeks to establish a continuity between the most characteristic work of that period... and the work of the later Renaissance... thus healing that rupture between the middle age and the Renaissance which has so often been exaggerated.

Pater is at his best when discussing literature. His remarks about "Two Early French Stories" explain not only the rather limited subject of that essay, but also what is so appealing about French fiction until today. His discussions of Renaissance culture in general and of the principles of cultural history are equally enlightening.
In writing about painting, Pater has an amazing and consistent talent for missing the point:

[Botticelli] paints the goddess of pleasure in other episodes besides that of her birth from the sea, but never without some shadow of death in the grey flesh and wan flowers. He paints Madonnas, but they shrink from the pressure of the divine child, and plead in unmistakable undertones for a warmer, lower humanity.

Even here, though, he manages to get the principles right:

He is before all things a poetical painter, blending the charm of story and sentiment, the medium of the art of poetry, with the charm of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting.

Lyric poetry, he might have added. His words help one to look at the painting with fresh eyes.

Paperback




Hawkins, Gerald S., and White, John B. Stonehenge Decoded.

The body of this book is a popularization of Hawkins' calendar/observatory theory of the function of Stonehenge. That theory seems to be the front runner.
First, a note on the importance of popularizations of this kind. Paradoxically, the 'respectable' scientific publications, such as the reports in Science and their counterparts in Nature, Cell, or whatever, rarely explain the scientific significance of anything. Neither do they give much raw data, which is what a newcomer from Mars might expect. A scientific convention dating mainly from the end of the nineteenth century requires that they give the results of one experiment, with a summary of the numbers to back it up. Sometimes the earthshaking significance of this experiment, or these numbers, is so obvious that this is science at its best. More often not. In any case, the researcher in his original article will usually try to sound as dry and bored as possible, so that his colleagues will take him seriously. He therefore makes an effort to leave out both logical and stylistic connectives. So for the real stuff, we have to wait until a summary article appears around Science's waistline, or between the whiskey ads in Scientific American, or until a book like this comes out.
True to type, Stonehenge Decoded collects the data, organizes it, and puts it into context, mainly historiographical. Hawkins radiates the overconfidence which only an astronomer in the second half of the Twentieth Century could have, but he is careful to mark his conjectures as such, even though he personally believes them as dogma. So it's easy to forgive him.
The appendix consists of reprints of the original 'technical' articles. This is a great convenience, but seems never to have caught on among the publishers.

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Ford, Boris, ed. The Pelican Guide to English Literature: The Age of Chaucer.

Reading Middle English poetry is sufficiently difficult to make us ask "Why bother?". Is this living literature to be read, or "literature" to be inflicted by teachers who are even more ignorant than their compulsory-education pupils?
Real literature can be studied for pleasure, or for its significance in the history of literature, or for incidental information which can be gleaned from it.
Middle English poetry is certainly an important primary source for the history of the Middle Ages. It is also worth reading for what it can tell us about the literature of our own world, and for what it can't: alliterative versification and allegory are (for us) dead ends. (Derek Traversi here emphasizes the difference between Medieval allegory and its imitations from Spenser onward.)
Chaucer and Spenser are the bigger questions here. The authors of The Age of Chaucer all hold by the traditional opinion which makes of Chaucer a 'great'. It's worth remembering that he has also be contemptuously called a "journalist".
As to Spenser, the authors here are unanimous on the need to deconstruct him, but of all the authors discussed or anthologized here, he is the one most likely to be read for pleasure.
Our age's difficulties with long works of poetry are a subject for discussion in themselves.




Clark, William R. At War Within: The Double-Edged Sword of Immunity. Oxford, 1997.

This book is mainly concerned with the problems caused when the immune system attacks the self. It includes summaries of the history and the science, and an excellent introduction to the ethical questions surrounding organ transplantation.
Dr. Clark tends to mouth the party line:

"'Tis assured that two of the Condemn'd Prisoners, now in Newgate, have, upon this Occasion, offer'd themselves to undergo the experiment, upon receiving his Majesty's most gracious Pardon...." How could something like the "Royal Experiment" ever have happened? Why didn't anyone cry out that this was immoral, unethical, inhumane?

And what makes Dr. Clark so certain that it is inhumane to allow condemned prisoners to volunteer to take part in a medical experiment in exchange for their lives, after he has declined to object to His Majesty's right to kill them in the first place? Is it because that represents medical policy in many Western societies today? And, by the way, is Dr. Clark aware of the similarity in meaning between 'immoral' and 'unethical', or has he bought the medical societies' new definition of 'ethics' lock, stock, and barrel?
Clark also tends to write down to us in a way which turns his scientific opinions into fiats:

"Being immune" to something means that, as a result of having once been exposed to something our bodies consider foreign, the immune system reacts more strongly to it the second time around. This is a special property of the immune system called memory. Among all the marvelous and sophisticated parts of the body, only the immune system and the brain share the property of memory - the ability to store information about previous experience.

Dr. Clark may know of some definitions of "memory" and "information" which make this sound reasonable, but he never tells us what they are. The word "memory" normally means more than "the ability to store information about previous experience". After a major heart attack, the heart will undergo irreversible changes which will cause it to react differently to stimuli forever after, thus preserving "information" about the heart attack, in some detail. A brick wall will similarly react irreversibly to being hit by a stone which breaks one of its bricks. This is not normally called memory. Is Dr. Clark referring to the existence of a note of the existence of the original record in similar form, in the sense that we are conscious of remembering and our consciousness has features in common with the memory itself? Is he referring to an ability to reprocess the information after the original stimulus has ended? Whatever he means, he should have explained.
It is useful to compare the expectations from clinical immunology in 1995 with the realities of 1999:

The results were so encouraging that a second child with ADA-SCID was treated with gene therapy just a few months later, with equal success.

On the transplantation of organs from swine to people:

We will probably not see the first transplants of their organs until at least the late 1990s. But if everything goes as planned, the pigs would then be used for the same food purposes for which we currently use pigs, and their organs will be available for transplantation.

We all know where xenotransplantation is holding now, both for reasons which Clark foresaw and because of problems which he underestimated. And there is nothing more depressing than reading the clinical reports of today's ADA-SCID children, whose physicians seem so irrationally enthusiastic as not to understand their own words.

Paperback




Garcia Lorca, Federico. Three Tragedies of Federico Garcia Lorca. Norton, 1955.

Garcia Lorca invites comparison with Ibsen in subject, in structure, in their relation to us now. Both of them treat not 'great' subjects, but the inner frustration caused by a conflict between an instinct and society. Both are men who seem oddly fascinated by the special conflicts felt by a woman in their society. Neither writes plays: both write extended dialogs with a single trigger-event. Both use the leitmotivs of secrecy and witchcraft to increase the oppressiveness of their plays, and perhaps for more. Both authors struggle with the relationship between prose drama and poetry.
Our reactions to the plays of both of them have changed, because their molly-bolts were social problems which are for us not even memories.
So why is Ibsen more satisfying? Why is he discussed more by the historians of literature, while Garcia Lorca is often discussed by politicians?
Whatever you may think of Aristotle, a work which produces a clear emotional effect will usually make a bigger impression, and will satisfy more. Ibsen's plays have a clear resolution, or at least make us feel that they do at first. Garcia Lorca's tend more to end with an equivocation and ambiguity almost as great as that which oppressed us throughout the play.

Paperback




Sears, F. W., Zemansky, Mark, and Young, H. D. College Physics. Addison-Wesley, 1991.

A customer reviewer on the amazon.com page seems to have fallen in love with "Sears and Zemansky" at first sight. He is the exception. For most people, this is the sort of book one learns to love years after having first seen it.
"Sears and Zemansky" is the prototypical physics textbook, except that it assumes no knowledge of calculus. One might ask: why not skip this stage and go straight to the bathing-suit physics books? Because that system is where the difference between physics and pseudo-mystical hogwash comes from.
"Sears and Zemansky" teaches you the nuts and bolts. The physics you have to learn yourself from between the lines, or from a teacher. That's why first-year physics should be taught be a physicist, and not by a Nobel prize winner in field windings or a graduate student who finds faculty elections more entertaining than Physics 101. Motherhood and apple pie.
I remember only one fault in Sears and Zemansky. The 'it is therefore obvious that...' which precedes the last line of so many of the proofs. For me, that was usually the only line which wasn't obvious.
One fault is pretty good for a book of this scope.

Hardcover





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