More Good Books. . .
Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Dover, 1994.
Eric Bentley says in his blurb that "the book might better have been called The Quintessence of Shavianism.". This book is indeed an exposition of much of Shaw's philosophy. Some of it is significant as philosophy, such as Shaw's description of what a frequently mentioned non-character in this book called The Genealogy of Morals. Some of it is good at least in the sense of being worth thinking about seriously: "[C]onduct must justify itself by its effect upon life and not by its conformity to any rule or ideal.". Some of it appears to be arrant nonsense, like the content of most of Shaw's ravings against the institution of marriage.
Shaw, like the rest of us, manages to go a good deal of the way toward an understanding of Ibsen by comparing him with Nietzsche. Like most of us, Shaw ends up by almost admitting that he doesn't understand Ibsenism, though I'm not sure that he understands that he is so admitting: "[I]ts quintessence is that there is no formula.".
As expected, Shaw has some important things to say about the aesthetics and history of drama.
"The drama was born of old from the union of two desires: the desire to have a dance and the desire to hear a story. The dance became a rant: the story became a situation.... The writer who practices the art of Ibsen... discards all the old tricks of preparation, catastrophe, dénouement, and so forth without thinking about it, just as a modern rifleman never dreams of providing himself with powder horns, percussion caps, and wads: indeed he does not know the use of them. Ibsen substituted a terrible art of sharpshooting at the audience...."
Ernst, Bruno. The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher. Random House, 1995.
There are many reasons for Escher's popularity at least since the '60s.
One is the direct appeal of surrealism, especially for those who have had little education in art history. The heightened emotional response produced by the shock of a precise but strange pseudo-reality needs little preparation. Escher's tessellation, symmetry, and impossible-geometry pictures also appeal to those with little knowledge of a kind which would allow them to appreciate other graphic art, as well as to the movement for popularizing mathematics and emphasizing its relationship to the everyday world.
In addition, graphics survive mass reproduction better than many art forms do; Escher's work, which was designed for mass reproduction, survives especially well.
He was also a great artist.
Twain, Mark. Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. Dover, 1989.
This is the travelogue written by the gentleman with the reputation (among educated Americans only, I think) for human feeling. There is quite a bit of it here, with some surprising limitations. The book is saturated with both a justified contempt for the hypocrisies of Western civilization, but this contempt extends even to a silly prejudice against the very skin-color of whites! The author's sympathy for the plight of the "natives", however, doesn't blind him to their faults. Mr. 'Twain' treats the Hawaiians and their oppressors with equal scorn; one of the most moving sections of the book is the description of the emotional state of the victims of the Thugs.
As one would expect, there are also many amusing descriptions and anecdotes, such as the comment on the fabulous connection between latitude and climate and the story of how Cecil Rhodes became Cecil Rhodes with the help of a shark, an oddball Australian tycoon, and gall bordering on insanity.
Kenyon, Kathleen M. Archaeology in the Holy Land.
Kenyon's book on The Archaeology of the Holy Land is much more traditional, wider, and deeper than Albright's book on the same subject. It covers the time from "The Beginnings of Settled Life" until the fall of the two Hebrew kingdoms. Kenyon goes into much more detail on stratigraphy, pottery typing, and the demographic conclusions to be drawn from the finds. She discusses several groups of Stone-Age inhabitants, but like most archaeologists, she tends to draw more conclusions about their religion than the evidence seems to warrant. When speaking of the Bronze Age, she integrates the archaeological, the Biblical, and the other literary evidence well. Her analysis of the physical evidence for the history of the ends of the two Hebrew kingdoms is especially detailed. A warning to the overconfident youngsters, especially among the Bible-Studies people:
It is generally accepted that Palestinian Early Bronze Age II is contemporary with the First Dynasty of Egypt, of which the date accepted in the revised edition of the Cambridge Ancient History is 3100 to 2900 B.C. This would place the Proto-Urban Period in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C. This would fit the discovery at Megiddo of a number of sealings impressed on jars which are usually considered to be of the Jemdet Nasr period in Mesopotamia, which again belongs to the second half of the fourth millennium. Jericho Tomb A 94 has produced a Carbon-14 date. The original result gave 3260 B.C. +- 110. But further research in recent years has shown, as has been explained on p. 64, that dates have to be adjusted to take into account variations in the sun's radiation, and samples giving dates of the late fourth millennium have to be read as being some seven hundred years earlier. On Palestinian evidence, this made nonsense. However, further material from the same sample has been tested, and the date when adjusted gets us back again to 3200 B.C. This all seems very odd and shakes one's faith.
The discussions of the cultural differences between the Two Kingdoms and their causes are particularly interesting. Kenyon gives the impression, from physical evidence, that the southern kingdom was more given to what she politely calls "unorthodox cults". My eleven-year old and I both had the opposite impression, based on the Biblical texts. There are, of course, some obvious explanations.
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Tuchman, Barbara W. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914. Ballantine, 1996.
Mrs. Tuchman's books are always perfectly researched, well thought out in content, and rich in understanding of human beings. This one includes insights into the thoughts of the confused Anarchist hitmen whose descendents are still throwing bombs in the names of other Movements, but for the same reasons, and into the historical destiny of Spain as "the desperado of countries".
The book is divided into sections on the mood of the British aristocracy at the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the mood of the Germans, the Hague disarmament conferences, the Dreyfus affair, the changes in the British constitution at the end of the nineteenth century, and the early history of socialism.
Both the language of the communiques and the political games played at the Hague conferences sound eerily like those of our day; the big difference is the number of sane and intelligent people then willing to argue that war is morally desirable. Mrs. Tuchman's remarks on the economic status of Belgium during the period under question were news to me.
Like a few other Tuchman books, this one seems to suffer both from the lack of a strong unifying theme and from the human interest which her usual device of using a single individual as a motif could have provided. The section on "Czar" Thomas Reed comes close, but isn't long enough to fit the bill.
Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. HarperCollins, 1990.
The Intellectuals discussed here are those who, since the Enlightenment, have used their real or celebrated intellectual accomplishments as a stage from which to arbitrate on morals to society at large. Among the denizens of Johnson's list are such culturally important figures as Rousseau, Marx, and Bertrand Russell, and some, such as Lillian Hellman, who will probably soon be forgotten. Johnson doesn't like any of them, and doesn't like the influence of their kind on society. he considers them mendacious, hypocritical, selfish, and heartless.
For many of them, he produces a great deal of evidence that they systematically and purposely lied, and that they cruelly exploited others for the pleasures of their own egos. He also cites evidence for other unappealing characteristics which they had, such as Marx' cheap variety of antisemitism and Ibsen's undignified pursuit of medals and titles. Johnson's (apparently well justified) dislike of his protagonists, however, sometimes leads him into his own systematic distortions, unconscious and minor as they may be: Rousseau is referred to several times as having worked as a "lackey", while minor and more sympathetic characters in the same occupation are referred to as "servants". Similarly, Shelley's attempt to reach Fanny Imlay before her suicide, perhaps a rare sign of his ability to care about another human being is glossed over, and Tolstoy's interest in his own wife, apparently perfectly natural, is by Johnson's use of language somehow made to appear reprehensible.
There is a morbid bitterness in this book which invites comparison with Naipaul's The Return of Eva Peron. There seems to be a difference, though: Naipaul's bitterness, while sicker, seems to have some connection with a love of people which can be seen in his other works; Johnson's bitterness is milder and more 'objective', but somehow seems wider.
Johnson makes some important observations on the cultural significance of the accused. He writes well.
Barkley, Russell A. ADHD and the Nature of Self-Control . Guilford Press, 1997.
The dean of the experts on 'attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder' has here built both a theory of the mind and an application of it to ADHD. His theory is based on the concepts of executive inhibitory control of behavior and of the ordering of behavior with respect to time as the defining criteria of humanness.
As someone once said about someone else in a different context, Barkley's hypotheses quickly turn into his chapter and verse, without his realizing it, and with the auto da fe waiting for those who question. Barkley discusses time quite a bit, but he first accepts and cites Davies' theory of time as dogma. Davies may be right, but since the nature of time is so important a principle for Barkley's book, and one of Davies' main pieces of evidence for his theory is merely to call anyone who even asks about it a "scientific illiterate", the question should have been discussed better here. Similarly, Barkley's arguments for the genetic = socially adaptive nature of morality and the nature of its apparent lack in ADHD patients are circular: Barkley first assumes the genetic nature of morality, form this goes on to explain that ADHD patients should be lacking in this moral sense, and from this lack concludes several chapters later that the 'moral' problems of ADHD patients are genetically determined. The stupidity of anyone who is not a determinist, mechanist, and reductionist by immediate consent is the basis of many of the demonstrations in this book.
This book also has a lot of virtues. The point about the human importance of time is well taken, even if neither this nor Barkley's hypotheses about the nature of our time-processing is proven, and even though he appears to make many assumptions about this processing of which he is not aware. The analogy between the construction of language and the construction of our lives in terms of our motor behaviors is also interesting.
In at least a metaphorical sense, this book is marred by the same lack of integration which its author claims mars the lives of those suffering from ADHD. Barkley certainly knows how to construct a grand theory, and many of his practical observations about living with ADHD are obviously useful, but he just cannot see the places where the facts and the hypothesis don't match up. This demonstrates how correctly an experienced clinician can feel even when he doesn't yet quite know.
The quantity of citations from the professional literature is vast, the bibliography is therefore very useful, and the index is good. The use of citations and the language of the book remind one of Darwin's eight-year study of the sex life of a certain snail.
Sirica, John J. To Set the Record Straight: The Break-In, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon.
The gentlemen at amazon.com suggested a while ago that we Amazon Associates might want to put some Starr Report books on our sites. Unfortunately, I'm not sure exactly who Starr is and what the report is about.
On the other hand, if I've understood right, the Clinton escapades did revive some legal questions worth talking about, questions about executive privilege which popped up in a different form during Marbury v. Madison, when a political appointee named John Marshall decided to score some points for The Party by inventing the United States Supreme Court. The questions popped up in yet another disguise during United States v. Burr. These two were dragged up again by one Richard Nixon for his own executive privilege shenanigans, but unfortunately Nixon backed down before I got the answers to all my questions. Among the questions I never got unequivocal answers to: Is the House of Representatives required to impeach the President if they think him guilty of "high Crimes and misdemeanors", or is it perfectly legal for them to take political considerations into account?
Back to Judge Sirica's book. The wily boxer turned small-town judge writes well about the human side of the most important political case of the twentieth century. He also explains seriously, yet in terms a layman can understand, the constitutional questions and the legal hairsplitting on which Watergate turned. The appendix of legal decisions is actually fun to read.
You see, I have heard of the twentieth century.
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Albright, William Foxwell. The Archaeology of Palestine.
The Archaeology of Palestine is a very broad introduction to the subject by the dean of the Palestine archaeologists. The book covers the archaeology of Palestine from the earliest times to the Roman period. In doing so, it of course emphasizes dating by pottery type. It also covers the history of Palestine archaeology as a science.
Much of The Archaeology of Palestine is concerned with placing the finds of Middle Eastern archaeology correctly into the contexts of other sciences, especially Biblical studies. Albright takes a clear position: "Biblical historical data are accurate to an extent far surpassing the ideas of any modern critical students, who have consistently tended to err on the side of hypercriticism.". Albright adduces many specific examples of what he claims to be attempts by hypercritical scholars to debunk the Bible against the archaeological evidence.
Albright was not only an expert on Biblical archaeology, but had also a wide knowledge of history, epigraphy, and ancient literatures. It is also overwhelmingly important that for much of his life he was a Professor of Semitic Languages. He is also an amusing writer.
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Armitage, Angus. The World of Copernicus. Beekman, 1972.
This is a true scientific biography, both a biography of a man and an important popular work in the history of science.
The biography is carefully researched and cautiously written. You can read in it the details of Copernicus' 1960s proposals for curbing inflation by monetary reform.
The history of Copernican and post-Copernican science is also well done. You will read here not only about the very different contributions of Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Kepler and Newton, but also about the likes of Andrew Osiander and of Thomas Digges.
The chapters about pre-Copernican astronomy are for the birds, as scientific history, as social history and as writing. "... Avicenna, the Arab chemist and medico of the eleventh century...."
more Good Books. . .
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