More So-So Books. . .


Thompson, John Eric Sidney, Sir. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization.

I suppose one ought to read this book. The urban Native American nations were great enough in population, longevity and cultural coherence to require one to know something about them. That given, one might as well learn about the Maya.
Having gotten that far, one might as well read this book. The author, by his own confession "a sort of doyen of Maya research", has the sort of humorous humility which one could have once demanded from an educated person and a real expert in the field.

One must not get the impression that this custom [of building dated monuments] was carried by immigrants, any more than one should suppose that bands of colonists from Chicago carried the custom of erecting skyscrapers to New York, St. Louis, Dallas, and Minneapolis.

There's also a lot to be said for "regarding archaeology as a backward projection of history", and not as an cheap imitation of electrical engineering.
Still, it's hard for me to get enthusiastic about the Maya or Maya studies. I can't feel much sympathy for people whose religion included frequent human sacrifices, a custom which makes their habit of making holes in their tongues and passing objects through them, also in the name of religion, absolutely inviting. And all of the author's comparisons to the Salem witch trials aren't going to make me like the Maya even better. I also tend to distrust cultural reconstructions of people whose literature cannot be read, but only deciphered.

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Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Penguin, 1998.

By the time Frazer had put this book through a few editions, it had turned into an essay on the relationship between magic and religion. If a thousand pages (his own abridgement) can be summarized in a few lines:
Early man's lack of understanding of the difference between himself and his world engendered magic. The beginnings of that understanding engendered animism, which developed further in the same direction into polytheism, which developed into monotheism.
Every generation remakes every great book in its own image, and in our time The Golden Bough has turned into an essay on mythological archetypes.
This book has many merits. Frazer has a deep and original understanding of human beings. He even makes comprehensible the many cases in which individuals honestly believed in their own divinity. He greatly entertains me by pointing out how many of my own behaviors have numerous parallels in the obviously magical practices of 'primitive' peoples. Some of his philosophical and historical observations, such as those on the similarity between magic and science, and their opposition to religion, are correct and startling. The examples are engaging, if sometimes repetitive.
The book also has some faults. For our generation, which rightly suspects strange anthropological phenomena in far-away places which systematically support the author's thesis, the lack of footnotes in the later editions is a problem. Frazer's sub-hypotheses frequently start out as explicit and apologetic guesses, but they turn into facts to be further built upon within three pages.
Frazer also tends to be uncritical, as in his repetition of the Herodotus' old stories of the temple-ladies of the East as facts which need no support. Occasionally, he is just plain wrong, and when he invents a prohibition of killing swine in Biblical Jewish law.
Much as it pains me to agree with Harold Bloom on anything, some books are so important as classics of the wide-essay genre that it doesn't matter whether either the facts or the theories are right. The Golden Bough is one of them.

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Tregear, Mary. Chinese Art. Thames and Hudson, 1980.

It's not a simple matter to complain about a survey of Chinese art of this size. To write such a book properly would take something on the scale of Pope's Survey of Persian Art. But this one has more limitations than some other books of similar size.
Serious art historians have traditionally been better at names and dates than at stylistic questions, and have tended to avoid aesthetic questions. Chinese art presents special problems, however, and Tregear should have taken pity on us. She says nothing about the basic aesthetic assumptions of Chinese art and the differences from Western art. Her remarks on style and influence are mostly limited to vague one-liners like: "Badashanren's composition is in the Chan tradition of Mu Qi and Liang Kai, subtle and yet very strong.". End of subject. She would have us believe that the developed designs of Chinese Bronze Age figurines were born fully armed from the head of Neolithic pottery.
Tregear repeatedly attributes the Hellenizing tendencies of Tang decoration (my words, not hers) to some unexplained "Middle East". She might have looked a little further east, to Iran and a long Central Asian tradition.
Tregear is better when discussing classical Chinese painting.

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Khayyam, Omar (Fitzgerald, Edward, trans.). Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, n.d.

There are those who say that Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat is very inaccurate. I don't know Persian, so I wouldn't know. However, I don't think that anyone claims that Fitzgerald distorts the basic content of the poems. In any case, Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat is an important work of English literature and of cultural history in its own right.
The greatest poets have written on the impermanence of both life and wisdom. Fitzgerald's efforts are far from the best. His language is often precious, his rhymes unnatural, his images alternately forced and flat. Some of the quatrains work, though, in spite of themselves:

Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after a To-morrow stare,
A muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
Fools! your reward is neither here nor there!

Fitzgerald would have loved the Thomas A. Crowell edition (which includes two versions of the translation and Fitzgerald's introduction). The binding is good. The typography is overly ornate and overly varied. The frontispiece is amazing. It shows a thin young woman half-dressed in some kind of pyjamas, in a helical post-Praxitelean pose, staring off into space. The colors are Linotype-primary, with blue predominating. In the background are a building which seems to be a cross between a Persian mosque and a Central Asian tomb and (You guessed it!) a gigantic full moon. Springfield Oriental at its best.

Editions of The Rubaiyat (and some related books) at amazon.com




Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford, 1995.

Christopher Brooke seems to insist that even the casual reader has to go back to the primary sources, and Bede seemed as good a place as any to start for Brooke's period.
Bede's work is not as appealingly structured as the Classical histories, but is more structured than the later medieval chronicles. Reading between the lines gives one a good feeling for what Anglo-Saxon society and culture were like. Seen from that point of view, even Bede's repetitive and naive miracle stories are useful. Bede is pretty explicit, though not deep, on early Western Christian theology. Reading this book in that way also provides information on some topics almost ignored in the standard modern books, such as the history of the early papacy and the Western Roman Empire after its "fall".

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Gamow, George. Gravity.

Gravity is unlike the more modern popular physics books in that it stays away from neo-scholastic mysticism and romanticism. Its style is based on that of advanced high-school or easy college textbooks; it even includes an introduction to the basic ideas of calculus.
Unlike the standard textbooks, though, it emphasizes ideas, not equations; it especially emphasizes the history of those ideas.
Because it is a very basic book, and a historical one at that, Gamow's Gravity is not out-of-date, except for one chapter on pending questions.
The faults of Gamow's book are the reverse of its virtues. In avoiding mysticism, it is too mundane: most people don't get very emotional about the tides. In writing simply, Gamow occasionally falls into fuzzy language.

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Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. The Mind of China: The Culture, Customs and Beliefs of Traditional China.

This introduction is divided into sections on filial piety, painting, Chinese historians, philosophy, and the Chinese language.
Some parts of this book, such as the section on the historians, include material not known to the average educated Westerner. Most of the book includes little that is new. Scharfstein tries to hold a middle ground between abstraction and detail, but he actually transmits very little information. This is especially noticeable in the section on Chinese painting. The book includes seventeen monochrome reproductions, but none of them is specifically referenced to illustrate style, technique, or principles.
Scharfstein often compares Chinese and non-Chinese cultures. Most of his attempts are barely relevant. It might have been fruitful to compare the Chinese scholar-culture with that of Lithuanian Jewry. Scharfstein considers it more important to write a footnote comparing the economic class structure of the traditional school system in China with those of modern France and the United States. It might have been useful to compare the Chinese attitude toward the histories in their Canon with those of the Bible. Scharfstein doesn't think so.
In his attempts at abstraction, Scharfstein lapses into a vague materialistic mysticism:

I state and establish my existence, my "Therefore I am," in two equivalent styles of nostalgia, that of poetry and that of mountains-and-water. I live my life in obligations, but also, less obviously, in my shyness of them and my homesickness for infancy. Resolutely correct on the outside, I am sadly, humorously easy on the inside. Everything there, internally, is a random walk, with no goal but the absence of one. Goalless, I can rejoin all Being....

Another publish-or-perish book.

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Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus.

It's hard to find a lot of literary value for us in this short play, but I suppose it should be read even by laymen for what it tells us about Shakespeare and Goethe.
There is little of the quest for knowledge here which makes Goethe's version of the story so modern. Faustus is a wizard and astrologer. There is also little of the psychological depth which helps us to identify with Shakespeare's characters, although Faustus' speeches on repentance and his fear of eternity come a little closer to making him human.
Those who have wondered at the differences in form between Hamlet's play-within-the-play and the works of Shakespeare himself will understand more after reading this play.
Looks to me like a play for the groundlings. Maybe that just shows my ignorance.

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Moldenke, Harold N. and Moldenke, Alma L. Plants of the Bible. Dover, 1986.

Biblical taxonomy is a corridor leading off of Biblical studies, and occasionally leading back to them. One of its upsides is that it seems to be much less given to the sort of partisan nastiness which has characterized Biblical studies for many years.
Among the big problems of Biblical taxonomy is the lack of raw information. The Bible itself is not very informative about the identities of the plants mentioned; the other ancient sources are often too distant in time, place, and language to be of much help.
One of the greatest virtues of the Moldenkes' work is the rare ability to say, "We don't know". They usually cover the possibilities well, with wide (though shallow) comparisons among the sources in the two Bibles, the Apocrypha, and related Semitic and Greek sources. Among their more irritating traits is their tendency to list the opinions of many modern translations which have little significance here.
The Moldenkes' discussions of the suggestions of infectious diseases in the Bible show their usual alternation between common sense and careful reading, on the one hand, and their tendency to accept the readings of 'authorities' with little obvious reason, on the other.

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Thoreau, Henry David. Walden.

I must be missing something. Intelligent people seem to think that Thoreau was one of the greatest of American philosophers, and that Walden is an important book. I don't see it.
Though very short, Walden is diffuse and repetitive. One of its few messages is that a person can live with fewer cares, and with more time for serious thought, by abandoning the superfluous and incidental pleasures. Herbert Muller has already answered that one, and history has shown that he is right. Thoreau also talks at length about the greatness of nature and the importance of the individual. Yet another reworking of Rousseau. Many have said about Rousseau himself that he is more important to the history of ideas than to the history of philosophy.
Last time that I wrote about a famous philosopher that he has very little to say, somebody wrote to say that I'm supposed to read him as poetry. I guess he has a low opinion of poetry.

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Hayakawa, S. I. Language in Thought and Action. Harcourt Brace, 1991.

Language in Thought and Action is a textbook written by a politician, but is worth reading anyway. It is about the human uses of language. It is very much a book of moral and social advocacy. Hayakawa is trying to teach us how to correctly understand and use language, and understand about language, in order to lead healthier lives.
Among the good points: Hayakawa discusses common pitfalls in thinking and communicating, such as not distinguishing among different levels of abstraction, and such as using logics inappropriate to the subject. Not very original, but always good to hear it again. And he does have some ideas on the functions of art which I hadn't seen before.
Among the bad points: After telling us how careful he is not to dispute the existence of angels in order not to offend anyone's religious feelings, and how important the tension-releasing function (in the most general sense of "tension") of language is, Hayakawa repeatedly rants against the "primitives" who believe in a magical use of words. I know from experience that the magical use of words, if well done, performs an emotional function as important as those performed by other verbal art-forms, which Hayakawa encourages. I also suspect that he is violating about fifteen of his own rules by calling me primitive and infantile. In general, he suffers to a surprising degree from the 'I don't know it, so it doesn't exist' phenomenon.
The exercises are good, and H. even manages to persuade me to use them. This is certainly important in a book of ethics.

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McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples.

Plague books and plague theories are very popular lately, but this one is different in a few ways. it deals mainly with the past, not the present or the future. Unlike some of the others, it tries to be serious. It is an attempt to explain many important social structures, such as Hindu "transcendentalism" and the caste system, as ecologically sound attempts to contain infectious disease, and to explain the major plagues of humanity as the results of disruptions of such systems.
Plagues and Peoples is full of hypotheses with little to say for themselves except that there's no evidence against them. Long sequences like this abound:

Withdrawal into the Crimea.... may represent a deliberate choice.... But it is impossible to believe.... Inferential evidence from the eastern reaches of the steppe suggests.... This military-political record implies.... How this occurred, of course, cannot be known.... If we assume that these customs date back to the seventeenth century....

This is from four consecutive short paragraphs, and is typical. Honest, but unsatisfying.
McNeill writes well, and many readers will learn a lot of important facts here. It was here that I first found out that the black rat/grey rat theory of the end of the Black Death is far from being universally accepted, and that plague is endemic in certain rodent populations in the United States.

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Ikeda, Daisaku. Glass Children and Other Essays. Kodansha, 1979.

It's not easy to write philosophy in short, popular essays. Ikeda doesn't quite pull it off. Some of his incidental remarks, however, are incidentally informative, such as those on modern and historical Japanese animism, on the lack of respect which the Japanese have for their own cultural history, and on the traditional contempt of the Japanese warrior class for the "common people".
His references to Japanese Buddhism are frequent, but too perfunctory to be even entertaining.
His many remarks about and to the modern Japanese housewife, and about her moral power, are among the best points of this book. The undertone of military discipline and coldness even in the works of the almost-pacifist Ikeda is frightening.

Hardcover




Altick, Richard Daniel. The Scholar Adventurers. Ohio State University, 1987.

This is neither a book about literature nor a book about books about literature, i. e., about criticism. It is a collection of anecdotes related to the book sciences, mostly to bibliography.
A reviewer once said that one reads science biography for what it can tell us about science. Reasonable. If one similarly reads books like this to increase one's understanding of literature, then this one is a failure. There is much here about the personal quirks of bibliographers and of authors, some about collectors, scholarly forgers, diarists, etc. I can think only of two short passages here which actually teach us something about literature, or about people in general, a related subject:

The[re] stode before them 3 women feiries or Numphes, And saluted Mackbeth, sayinge, 3 tyms vnto him, haille Mackbeth, king of Codon; for thou shalt be a kinge, but shalt beget No kinges....

In this contemporary (if not forged) account of a performance, the witches were represented as women, and the spectator wasn't even aware that they were miscreant witches, but thought that they themselves were supernatural beings.

[The future Lady Byron] recorded the types of characters most interesting to her, among whom she counted "Characters determined by Disappointment.... Hence arise in most instances, either Misanthropy or Despondency."... [S]he spoke of 'natural benevolence changed to suspicious coldness'.

Some of the anecdotes are amusing.

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