So-So:


Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. Harcourt Brace, 1982.

It's sad to add Nabokov to the list of artists who don't have too much to say about art. In teaching one to read, Nabokov's main point is that one must keep one's eye on the details, the map of Mansfield Park and the dates. His boogeyman is people who identify with the characters of a novel.
Nabokov sometimes tells us what a literate ten-year-old could see for himself. On the other hand, he sometimes adds useful ideas to the theory of criticism. Among these are the concept of the "sifting agent", a character who sifts the events in the novel to help us see them from the author's point of view, and the "perry", a peripatetic character who serves as a technical device to bring us to a place or a situation which the author wants to talk about.
Nabokov points out a few interesting technical details in each of the works he discusses. Jane Austen frequently uses major plot elements to solve technical problems. "Since Proust had invented the whole Guermantes family he could not specify the king" who had had a relationship with one of the early Guermantes. (Why not?)
It could be that much of this book really reflects Nabokov's approach to criticism. It could also be that some of the problems of the book derive from the fact that Nabokov never edited these lectures for publication. But the fact that Nabokov left teaching as soon as he had the money to do so is a little suspicious.

Paperback




Proust, Marcel. Swann's Way (In Search of Lost Time, Vol 1).

My complaint isn't against Proust; my complaint is against the professors of literature. First of all, why is this book supposed to be so great? "...his new recognition of the continuity of present with past. One common answer. For whom is this new? And this business of the pseudo-biographical narrator. So?
And why do they insist on discussing Swann's Way as a stage in the history of the novel? Is it a novel? Does it have any characters constructed in depth, or only figures used to exemplify metaphysical principles? Does it have a plot? You answer, "Look at this philistine, who thinks that a novel is supposed to have characters and a plot!" Again, my complaint isn't about what Swann's Way doesn't have. My complaint is about people who build literary theories by confusing a prose-poem with a novel.
You have to have Proust in your course, since everyone else has him in his, but instead of trying to prove his influence on ???, how about discussing him among the inbred and enfeebled descendents of Baudelaire?

Paperback
Hardcover




Kitani, K., et al., eds. Pharmacological Intervention in Aging and Age-Associated Disorders: Proceedings of the Sixth Congress of the International Association of Biomedical Gerontology.

I picked this one as an exemplar of the many books published after ad hoc scientific conferences. The series published by the NYAS are probably the most respected, and since their conferences on alleviating the problems of aging recur almost every year under different names, they are a good representative of the class.
This book was published after a conference of enthusiasts; this is one of the endemic curses of the genre. The big thing in 1996 was free radicals. One article in this book unabashedly gives a table of "The 'Free Radical' Diseases", twelve in all, including atherosclerosis, cancer (no qualifiers listed), Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and essential hypertension. The other articles in the book seem to agree. I wonder why they left out El Niņo. All of the attempted interventions showed great success, and none of them had any potential drawbacks severe enough to even be worth mentioning; not even melatonin, the panacea whose structural similarity to serotonin makes one wonder.
Actually, several of the articles in this book include something worth reading, either provocative experimental results or interesting literature surveys. And it's nice to know that not all the loonies are amateurs publishing on the 'Net.

Paperback
Hardcover




Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah: 1626-1676.

A book of this kind can stimulate interest in two ways, as a biography and as a history of religion. This book succeeds tolerably in both.
As a biographer, Scholem presents Shabtai Zvi and Nathan of Gaza not as dangerous crooks, as they are often presented, but as case studies in psychopathology. He presents Shabtai Zvi's behavior as the result of what is now called bipolar illness; he would have done better to call it a schizo-affective disorder, if you like that kind of thing. He draws Nathan of Gaza as a typical visionary mystic of the kind who have prophesied in many times and places, although they would be considered ill if they did it in a modern Western society.
Scholem quite properly looks for the causes of Shabtai Zvi's influence more in religion than in economics, or than in other social phenomena. While doing so, he makes distinctions which are important in understanding the histories of Jewish, Christian and Muslim messianism. He points out that messianism has more often than not been disassociated from mysticism, and that mysticism itself has tended to serve two almost unrelated functions, one intellectual and the other emotional.
This book is extensively researched, but Scholem too often creates facts from his own psychological analyses of what Shabtai and Nathan would have done. He also tends to look at the Kabbalah as the whole world, neglecting other trend which were at least as important three hundred years ago. In his analysis of the differences between early Christianity and Sabbateanism, he doesn't seem to notice that Christianity flowered as a Roman religion, not a Jewish one.

Paperback
Hardcover




Marckwardt, Albert H. American English. Oxford UP, 1980.

In the main the present study has been content to employ the excellent collections of factual data turned up by the many excellent scholars who have concerned themselves with this subject. It has, however, attempted to see and to present these in the light of a consistent interpretation centering about the fundamental relationship between language and culture.

The features of American culture which make the strongest impression on Marckwardt are our passion for individual independence and the sometime reaction towards genteelization. He claims that the former makes us tend to hyperbolic language and incongruous compounds. He also emphasizes our penchant for classical place-names and high-sounding alternatives to "street", for example, placing these also in their cultural context. He further points out the influence which Indian languages had on our place-names. His hint that for historical reasons there was no corresponding phenomenon in Britain is rather obvious; comparisons with Canada, Australia and New Zealand would have been more to the point.
Although this book has some good points, like the technique of using the changing proveniences of the sources in the OED for tracking the history of dialects, it also has a lot of faults. He never explains why almost the entire book deals with the lexicon. The differences between British and American English may be overwhelmingly in the lexicon, but if so, this in itself should have been explained.
Marckwardt also makes many assumptions for which he should have brought some evidence: "Substandard language frequently preserves linguistically older forms than Standard English, a fact not too surprising when it is recalled that substandard English depends entirely on oral transmission..." Prima facie, one would expect that an orally transmitted language would change faster than one with written sources to hold it to the 'proper' forms.
If you want a work of this sort, you're better off with Pyles' Words and Ways of American English.

Marckwardt, in paperback




Bryant, Margaret M. Modern English and Its Heritage.

There are few people who know how to write an entertaining textbook. Apparently the need for clear organization and for at least mentioning several views of moot questions stifles the creative urge. In addition, the authors of textbooks often treat their readers with contempt: If you really had a brain, you would be studying something closer to the source than my textbook.
Bryant's book suffers from textbook disease, but once again the subject, and even some aspects of the presentation, keep the book from being a total bore. She supports her claims by many examples, often from Old English, and often long enough to engage our interest. She also does a good job of surveying the work of her colleagues, especially on usage. People living in the United States may also not realize that the battle against those she calls "the authoritarians" is not yet over.
Like most authors of textbooks, she knows everything. There was a single language which we now call Indo-European. Fact. "There is no such thing as a universal grammar." No other opinions exist.
I guess the tenure committee doesn't much care whether they enjoy their reading or not. Or maybe they just don't bother reading these things.




Ferm, Vergilius T. A., ed. A History of Philosophical Systems.

I cannot prove that this is the worst book ever written on the history of philosophy, but it is the devil I had in mind when praising Solomon and Higgins. Creel manages to distill Taoism into a two-page list of names and dates. Compare this with John King Fairbank's many good discussions, beginning with the epigram "The Chinese scholar was a Confucian when in office and a Daoist when out of office.".
"The metaphysical nucleus, so to speak, of an individual thing is an essence which is limited by different modalities which are purely accidental to it." I have no more trouble than most people understanding Ibn az-Zaig, Maimonides, and Gersonides, so why can't I make sense out of sentences like this? Is it because Ferm et al. are the archetypes of people who, in Medawar's terms, substitute convoluted sentences for deep ideas?
Maybe it's not as bad as all that. It's a broad survey, and has some content. Buy several copies out of pity.




Keown-Boyd, Henry. Boxer Rebellion: The Fists of Righteous Harmony. Dorset (Barnes and Noble), 1995.

Perhaps The Boxer Rebellion should have been called The Defense of the Legations, since that is the main subject of the book. It is very much in the date-and-battle-plan genre. Much more could have been written about the Boxer rituals as part of the Chinese peasants' tradition of magic and martial arts, or on the question of whether to what extent the rebellion was against the Qing, and to what extent for them.
In spite of everything, the book is entertaining, partly as an adventure story, and partly as a dictionary of the ignorantly evil (the Empress Dowager) and the brilliant scoundrels (Edmund Backhouse).
There are many old photographs, and a chapter on the lessons to be learned: There is no reason that there can't be another Attack on the Legations tomorrow, just as there was in Iran in 1979. The Old China Hands (or the Iraq Desk, for that matter) still remind one of a meteorologist computing in a room without windows.




Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Alan Sutton, 1998.

There are surprisingly many trees in this small book, mainly statistics and the dates on which the Plague reached various cities, but relatively little forest. Ziegler does discuss the poor quality of the contemporary literary sources, which he handles with appropriate care. Especially noticeable is his treatment of the Flagellants. He points out that if the behavior we read about were literally true, it is unlikely that they would have survived; he has no solution.
His repeated assumption that the death rate among the lower clergy was higher than that of the laity should have been supported by evidence.

Paperback




Burstein, Daniel and de Keijzer, Arne. Big Dragon: China's Future: What It Means for Business, the Economy and the Global Order. Simon and Schuster, 1998.

This is another book based on three statements repeated over and over again: 1. China is big. 2. China will never be a Western-style democracy. 3. Nobody knows the future of the Sino-American relationship.
The detail here is good and the sidebars are entertaining.
This book may be more important as a Western cultural phenomenon than as a source on China: A well-produced book of serious intent with sidebars and innumerable bulleted lists. The influence of the Internet?

Hardcover




Protter, Eric, ed. Painters on Painting. Dover, 1997.

If you want to see what great painters say on the principles of aesthetics, you'll be as disappointed as I was. The earlier sources here, late medieval and later, have some interesting remarks to make on technique, but the later ones talk almost exclusively in terms of 'feeling' and social significance. The mottos chosen by the editor give some good insights into the history of art. The selections by many of the artists give both this and some amusing views of the social position of the artists. But as to the principles of aesthetics, you'll have to settle for some of the mottos by art historians and philosophers.

Paperback




Polo, Marco. The Travels. Konemann, 1998.

This classic travel book about the most exotic of places is not very exciting. It reads like a long extract from a one-volume encyclopedia of geography. Among the more entertaining points are Marco Polo's description of asbestos, coal, and coconuts. It appears that the children's tale of Marco Polo's having brought the idea of pasta to Italy is a myth. The use of malik for a local chief in Central Asia is interesting.
The Konemann edition includes a very up-to-date afterword on whether Marco Polo ever traveled to China at all.

Paperback




Von Grunebaum, G. E. Classical Islam: 600-1258. Barnes and Noble, 1997.

Von Grunebaum belongs to the social- and political-motives school of Islamic historiography. All of the usual facts are here, in detail and in chronological order; they are always represented as part of a struggle, between the conservative Meccans and the innovative Medinans, between older and newer converts, between Arabs and non-Arabs, or whatever.
Von Grunebaum/Watson's English is very German, as is his style on a more general level.
The whole book makes one sigh for Ibn al-Tiqtaqa.

Hardcover




Grayling, A. C., ed. Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject. Oxford, 1995.

Grayling seems to belong to the cold-leftovers school of philosophy: "... philosophy consists in inquiry into anything not yet well enough understood to constitute a self-standing branch of knowledge." In accordance with the holy traditions of late-twentieth-century university philosophy, convoluted latinate sentences are considered a greater virtue than clarity; religion is mentioned with casual contempt, and ethics and aesthetics are stepchildren.
It's not all that bad, though. The breadth of the book and even the style make it a good introduction to philosophy as taught today. The chapters on the history of philosophy, about half of the book, are excellent, and the annotated bibliographies are very useful.




Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. Avon, 1996.

This book contains all of the usual facts and deductions about the history of English, plus some remarks characteristic of a book written by a non-professional, for better and for worse. Among the better: the methodological problem in using the 'zero-element' to give the appearance of absolute regularity where it doesn't exist, and Bryson's own sadness about the spread of spelling-pronunciation. Among the worse: Bryson claims that 'Yid' is an abbreviation of 'Yiddish speaker', and his table comparing country-names in English to the native forms is just plain dishonest. I also don't see why we should all have to suffer because he can't distinguish between the meanings of 'swimming' as a gerund and 'swimming' as a participle.

Paperback




Miles, Jack. God: A Biography.

I suppose we should be happy that books about the Bible can still hit the best-seller lists, and not be so particular about the quality. Miles' thesis is good: it is a mistake to ignore the development of the idea of God as it takes place through the Hebrew Bible. He also comprehends some of the important points of Biblical philosophy, such as the development from the very personal relationship between God and man to the legal relationship, then the moral, then the philosophical.
Unfortunately, he builds grand theories upon things that just aren't there, and sometimes on very doubtful readings of the Hebrew. It would also have helped if he had waited until puberty before writing this book; then he might have understood that not everything is sex.

Paperback


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