More Good Books. . .

Berlinski, David. A Tour of the Calculus. Vintage, 1997.

Every reviewer who ever wrote about this book is right, both the ones that loved it and the ones that hated it. It will teach you many things which might have helped you to understand required calculus, instead of just memorizing the formulas. It turns out that Cauchy suspected before me that Newton's and Leibnitz' integral calculus is a philosophical con game. Berlinski asks the question, but doesn't quite give the answer, as he himself admits. It also turns out that there's a reason they taught you only that list of elementary functions in high school: there just aren't any others. But Berlinski never explains why not. And his own definition of a function itself omits the main point, the function's inherent one-sidedness.
Berlinski eventually gave up teaching mathematics and fighting against evolution to write murder mysteries. His prose varies from the memorable to the unspeakably cute.
The final line: you'll have to put up with this book the way it is, because there's no substitute for it.


Heath, Thomas, ed. The Thirteen Books of Euclid's Elements. Dover, 1956.

They told you in school that they were teaching you Euclid, but they were lying. The version of the parallel postulate that you were taught is not Euclid's; it's the one Proclus substituted because he didn't like Euclid's. They never explained the difference between a postulate and an axiom; and why on earth should one limit oneself in a proof to what can be constructed with a ruler and compass? And you think that you know what a proportion is!
This is still an essential work in the philosophy of mathematics.
Have you ever wondered what Lewis Carroll published as a mathematician?

Vol. 1 Vol. 2 Vol. 3

Alexopoulos, C. J., et al. Introductory Mycology. Wiley, 1995.

An introduction to mycology can be a lot of fun even for someone with no ax to grind in learning the stuff. These creatures are far from the nice, calm, high-school biology, one-stationary-nucleus-to-a-cell kind of life. Full-sized plants with non-cellulose walls, and with some very basic questions unanswered: have the fungi imperfecti really repented of half of their double life, or is it just another case of watching the right fungus in the wrong place? Check back frequently for the next edition: get the latest fights about taxonomy and the latest anecdotes about housewives and potatoes.


Wieder, Laurance. King Solomon's Garden: poems and art inspired by the Old Testament. Abrams, 1994.

Despite appearances, this is not a random collection assembled to benefit only a coffee-table publisher. The breadth of the collection itself points up the importance of the Bible as a subject for all of the arts in the West. In addition, many still consider it important in their lives, and its importance as a formative for Western culture is once again a popular subject.
The moral from comparisons among the various works in this book is that interest in one's subject usually succeeds much more than self-consciousness: compare the two pre-Raphaelite monstrosities with the Filippino Lippi here, or even D. H. Lawrence with Sir John Davies.
Biographical sketches would have been desirable, since not all of the artists are well known.


Rawlinson, George. Ancient History: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of the Western Empire. Barnes and Noble, 1994.

This is a late-nineteenth-century history which was recently reprinted by Barnes and Noble. It is a good, traditional history of Greece and Rome with extensive sections on some parts of the ancient world which particularly interested the Greek and Roman statesmen, i. e., Mesopotamia, Syria, Judaea, Carthage, Egypt and the Iranian Empires.
You won't find any isotope ratios here, but many of Rawlinson's points are well taken. Whatever one thinks of the Bible as history, it is still the richest and most detailed source we have for the times and places it covers; the problems and subjectivity involved in interpreting it are no worse than those involved in interpreting modern technical information. As Miss Lawrence pointed out, it's hard to understand how dating by potsherds could be more accurate than dating by Thucydides and Herodotus, since the potsherd dates were calibrated by the stories in Thucydides and Herodotus.
Unfortunately, we have been spoiled, and it is hard not to be a little bored by the succession-and-battle type of history. Considering Rawlinson's wide interests, it's also disappointing that he wrote nothing of Arabia Felix and Aksum.


Charnwood, G. R. Benson, Baron. Abraham Lincoln.

This biography emphasizes analysis, mostly analysis of Lincoln's personality development and relationships, over detailed lists of facts. Even the military aspects of the civil war are treated in this way, as the outcome of Lincoln's (and to a lesser extent, Jefferson Davis') relationships with his generals, which in turn change as Lincoln's personality develops.
Lord Charnwood was a lawyer, and many of the more salient discussions here are on theoretical questions of constitutional law, often questions which have never been clearly answered. Perhaps the most startling is a paraphrase of Hamilton on 'loose construction':

Hamilton laid down for the construction of statutes, that it was "qualified and controlled" by the Common Law and by considerations of "convenience" and of "reason", and of the policy which [the constitution's] framers, as wise and honest men, would have followed in present circumstances;... "construction may be made against the letter of the statute to make it agreeable to natural justice.".


Soyinka, Wole. Isara: A Voyage Around Essay. Vintage, 1991.

This is an excellent introduction to the thought-styles of small-town Nigerians a few years ago, living on the border between Christianity and animism. It also seems to be a very personal book, born of Soyinka's respect for his father and his thoughts about the changes that Africa was going through.
The book is structurally unusual. It is a fictionalized memoir which gradually becomes inhabited by people who really lived, named by their own names; it eventually turns into a powerful novella about the bloodshed and intrigue surrounding the succession to what seems to be a small-town kingship.
The statement on the relationship between monotheism and morality has often been repeated, and needs to be repeated some more.


Naveh, Joseph. Early History of the Alphabet. Brill, 1997.

This is a competent and very broad, if also very dry, introduction to the subject. It consists mostly of short summaries of the paleographic data, with a lot of good figures and plates, covering all of the early Western alphabets from the beginning of writing to the Greeks, with occasional excursions elsewhere. The emphasis is on the Western Semitic alphabets. There are a few very useful remarks on related subjects, such as the differences between the northern and southern Hebrew scripts in the Biblical period (good to think about with Saenz-Badillos' remarks on Biblical dialects), and on the paleographic evidence for widespread literacy in Biblical society.


Jespersen, Otto. Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin.

It's not likely that anyone could write a book like this now. In 1921 one could write about languages being better or worse without worrying about sounding scientific. Why is it that art- and music historians can write about good paintings and bad paintings and good music and bad music, but linguists aren't allowed to evaluate? And when Jespersen writes about the speech of women or American Blacks, at least he seems to have done his research before he decided on his conclusions.
This book includes everything which is in every introduction to linguistics, but somehow in much more detail. It also contains quite a bit which is usually abandoned these days to the developmental psychologists, and it does for the history of nineteenth-century linguistics almost what De Beaugrande does for the twentieth. Some of these historical tidbits, like Schleicher's fable (you're not kidding!), are a lot of fun. And how about this one?

It is a mistake to assume a language as given in grammar and dictionary, that is, the whole body of possible words and forms, as something concrete, and to forget that it is nothing but an abstraction devoid of reality, and that the actual language exists only in the individual, from whom it cannot be separated.... To comprehend the existence of each separate spoken form, we must not ask 'Is it current in the language?' or 'Is it conformable to the laws of the language as deduced by the grammarians?' but 'Has he who has just employed it previously had it in his memory, or has he formed it himself for the first time, and, if so, according to what analogy?'.

De Saussure? Chomsky? No, Hermann Paul, about 150 years ago.

Bloch, Konrad. Blondes in Venetian Paintings, the Nine-Banded Armadillo, and Other Essays in Biochemistry. Yale, 1994.

Unlike most modern books by scientists trying to show that they have a general education, this is real biochemistry in its total cultural context. The author is coldly realistic without being gloomy as to how science really works, but one sometimes wonders whether he isn't too innocent on his ventures into the humanities. It looks like Bloch is overinterpreting Thomas Mann's "prophecy" about proteolytic synthesis; he also does not seem to have noticed that the blondes in Botticelli's Primavera are all the same woman. (The same woman appears in several other Botticellis; Renoir also portrays the same woman not only often, but several times in the same painting. Would any art historian care to comment on this?) Bloch writes very simply and very well in his second language.


Descartes, Rene. A Discourse on Method.

Perhaps the most important concept for us in this book is that of the "clear and distinct idea", which is so important in Spinoza's system and so hard to understand in Spinoza. Descartes' claim is that any clear and distinct idea which he has must be true, since the idea had a cause, and the cause of anything which exists cannot be false. The fuzziness of false ideas is the result of their not being solely based on realities, but having an admixture of spontaneous fantasy. This works if one accepts Descartes' absolute mind/body dichotomy, and therefore that mind and material are absolutely independent; if not, one can answer that the clear and distinct idea may have been caused by something which isn't itself an idea, and to which the concepts of truth and falsity don't apply.
It is not clear to me from Descartes' language whether the cogito is a primary concept or the conclusion of a complete syllogism, but those who claim that it is a syllogism with the major term missing are generally "those mediocre minds for whom the obscurity of the distinctions and principles which they use is the cause of their being able to speak daringly on any subject".
This chatty autobiography is a good starting point for those who are afraid of 'philosophy'.

Bilingual Edition, Paperback

Davies, Paul. About Time. Touchstone, 1996.

This is an excellent book on the nature of time in the light of modern physics. Now for the other shoe:
It would appear that Davies would happily burn at the stake anyone who challenges the infallibility of relativistic time, block time, or quantum weirdness. He may not have noticed that if he lights that match, he is admitting the failure of the Scientific Project as it has existed from before Aristotle, which was, inter alia, to explain how the world works in a manner consonant with observation and human reason. As an author, he should also know that directly insulting readers makes them feel uncomfortable, and there's little to be gained by it. Before sneering at people who have only high-school mathematics, he might also have noted that we nitwits are paying for his and Hawking's research and reading their books for no other reason than a love of wisdom. In any case, much of Newton, and the relationship between mass and energy, can be derived with only high-school mathematics, if you really have to and if you're smart enough to know what you're looking for. As to the "British chattering classes", Hawking does indeed commit at least one philosophical enormity at the end of A Brief History of Time.
Still, content will atone for almost anything, and it's a book well worth reading.


Solomon, R. C. and Higgins, K. M. A Short History of Philosophy.

Although this book is organized like the standard academic history of philosophy, the authors have dispensed with the intentionally obscure language which professors of philosophy were using for a while to prove that they were serious. They have also added a lot of material on such subjects as the philosophy of the Bible and the Talmud and the philosophy of pre-literate African cultures. Although they probably did so because of their own personal prejudices, this introduces a consistency to their approach which is lacking in many similar works. Nietzsche also declaims without attempting to prove, so in what way is he more of a philosopher than the prophets?
Similarly, they deal seriously with Pascal and Montaigne, also suspected by most professors of philosophy of being insufficiently 'analytic'. Take a look at what they have to say about Spinoza's Ethics.


Waddell, L. Austine. Lhasa and Its Mysteries. Dover, 1988.

The capacity of the Tibetans for arousing either blind admiration or abject contempt in the eyes or Western observers is supernatural. These days, the attitudes of pukka sahibs like Waddell also seem so. His book, though, is the best of its kind which I've seen, especially as an introduction for art- and cultural historians. The descriptions of art and architecture are remarkably detailed; the many illustrations are excellent, even in the Dover edition. The descriptions of the daily life in the monasteries are also the most detailed which I have seen, and the book includes much information on the history of Tibet, without the usual glaring pro- or anti-Chinese bias. It is also an excellent primary source on the classical period of British imperialism in the Far East.


Sacks, Oliver. Migraine.

It's too bad that because of its title, this book will be read mostly by migraine sufferers and physicians. It is not only important in the 'neuropathology of identity', like the more famous Awakenings, but also in the history of medicine, and the history of Dr. Sacks. Most of the book is written from an overpoweringly Freudian perspective, although Sacks was never silly enough to see the sexual aspect of Freudianism as the main point. But in the revised edition: "I think now that I made an error in seeing migraines as having a complex 'plastic' structure.... " The appendix on the visions of Hildegard is not to be missed.


more Good Books. . . Home


E-mail me! All serious comments appreciated!