More So-So Books. . .


Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Random House, 1965.

It's always good to be reminded that what's obvious to us may not be obvious to everybody. Or even true.
As far as the concept of the nuclear family goes, this has become a cliché. Our concepts of childhood and of the relations between children and adults are another story. Concepts of childhood were clearly very different even in our own past, but it's hard for us to imagine them.
This book thus serves a purpose. However, M. Aries falls into the very trap which he warns us against. Whatever he believes is true, and its truth needs no evidence. Anybody who disagrees with him is wrong. That also needs no evidence.
This problem becomes greatest when M. Aries is discussing the history of education. He introduces an important distinction between three almost unrelated functions which pass for education: the teaching of technical skills, such as a trade or certain socially desirable bodies of received knowledge; the teaching of the elementary skills needed by most people in a society, e. g., reading, writing, and 'rithmetic; and the transmission of the most important values of the culture.
He correctly observes that the Renaissance Humanists turned education into a lifelong endeavor by emphasizing the third. He repeatedly decrees that they were wrong in both the emphasis and the endeavor. What is his evidence? 'In France, we do it differently.' In general, he finds it literally incomprehensible that anyone anywhere can think differently than a twentieth-century product of the French lycée.
He similarly adduces the adult proportions of children in Medieval drawing as evidence that their culture had no concept of childhood. Maybe it didn't. But the size of the children's heads could just as well be the result, common enough, of a technical problem in drawing turning into a stylistic convention.
This book will teach you a lot about the history of the concepts of childhood and the family, but it will also strain your nerves.

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Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. Harcourt Brace, 1956.

This larger part of this book consists of articles on individual poems. An ancient blurbologist wants to make of them explications de texte. They are not that. They lack the rigid structure of traditional explications de texte, which might have held Mr. Brooks to features which could be seen and discussed clearly. They also lack the resonance with the critics of the past, and with our own school days, which the traditional form would have added.

So what are these articles? Until I read the two articles on the theory of criticism in the appendix, I couldn't figure that one out either.

It turns out that they exemplify a theory of criticism which claims that paradox is the common ground of all great poetry. This, in turn, is part of a theory which holds that there are common rules to all great poetry, and that there are limits to artistic relativism.

As works in the theory of criticism, there's much to be said for the articles in the appendix. As a work of applied criticism, there's less to be said in favor of the body of the book. Brooks has trouble staying concentrated on his subject. One also suspects that he has more learning than he has feeling for art, or understanding of it. It is instructive to compare Brooks' choice of poems with Palgrave's, in the same "Victorian taste".

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Fallding, Harold. The Sociology Of Religion: An Explanation Of The Unity And Diversity In Religion.

Fallding says that he is trying to theorize on the functions of religion in society without devaluing religion.
For many reasons, he fails to do much of anything useful.
The first part of the book is a collection of summaries and quotations, mainly from the most pseudo-physical works of the academic sociology of religion. And this in spite of the fact that Fallding himself mentions in his introduction that he knows of the difference between the "sociology of religion" and the study of the relationship between religion and society.
Many of these citations are lacking in content. Many of them are written in language which is best understood as a parody of itself:

Finally, in any comment on Parson's views, reference should be made to his notion that all groups include "integration" and "pattern-maintenance" amongst their functional imperatives. While Parson certainly does not lead us to believe that either of these is equivalent to religion, he gives them the character of very pervasive constraints that call forth a variety of actions.

Many of these comments are from the compiler's earlier works. Waste not, want not.
Fallding does seem to make one major attempt at originality in this book. He propounds his theory of "sectarian protest", according to which religions normally begin as the attempt of an out-group, not necessarily an economic out-group, to gain respectability. His evidence, however, is extremely forced.
Fallding makes some useful, if incidental remarks, about the perennial problem of revealed religion vs. rationalism.
The juxtapositions created by his collecting instinct are also sometimes interesting. It surprised me, for example, to see how closely Victor Turner's concept of liminality parallels the work of Van Gennep.

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Goodden, Christian. Three Pagodas: a Journey Down the Thai-Burmese Border. Jungle Books, 1996.

There's a long tradition of important travel books written by well known writers of serious literature. In the last few hundred years, the tendency has been for them to be humorous explorations into human nature.
Three Pagodas seems to belong to a different genre. It's a technocrats' travel book written partly as a guide for future motorcyclists along the Thai-Burmese border, partly just to show off the author's skills as a professional traveller, and just a little to satisfy our curiosity about other cultures.
The book usually fails as literature. It is full of technical detail of little significance for the average reader, written in boring technical language:

At a distance of 117 kms by road from Mae Sariang, this Karen refugee village - also spelt Mae Sarit Luang - was the first place of any consequence going south down the 1085 and exactly halfway to Mae Sot.

The book has some good points, though. Between the lines, an industrious reader may be able to extract an impression of the complicated relationships among the various tribals in this part of the world, and among them and their nominal governments. There are intriguing descriptions of the strange cultural hybrids which places like this breed in our time, such as the "singing restaurants" of the area, or "Darkie" - called by that English name by her fellow tribesmen, who didn't even speak any Thai, and who later disappeared without anyone even bothering to ask questions, as beautiful twelve-year-olds tend to do in this sad part of the world.
Some of the photographs are good, such as those of Thai village architecture (no explanations), or of the author's Thai wife walking through absolutely pathless jungle wearing blue jeans, a Western sport-shirt, and a backpack. An accidental classic.

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Wright, Andrew H. Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure.

A main purpose of almost any work of criticism, if it is centered on a great artist, is to help us to enjoy the work of that artist even more. This should be more true of works about Jane Austen than of most criticisms, since her books are more of a pleasure to read than those of some more modern 'greats', and because this part of a novelist's job was important to her.
By this criterion, Mr. Wright's book is a failure. Though it is subtitled "A Study in Structure", it is really a collection of discussions on a few nearly independent subjects, so that it is hard to figure out what point Mr. Wright is trying to make. Even on subjects such as Miss Austen's irony, which Wright weaves in and out of at length, it is hard to find a definite point.
This book does manage to make some contributions, but they are generally either quoted from others or have to be read between the lines. Among the latter is the importance of the original division into volumes as an element of the novels' structures.
Of course, we have the usual warning about not confusing the personalities of any of the Miss Austen's heroines with the personality of Miss Austen. Such a warning is always useful, but even so, the similarities between Miss Austen's own behavior and personality and the behaviors of her sillier heroines, whom she observes so closely and so cuttingly, is odd.

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Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. Schocken, 1995.

People frequently think of 'existentialism' as a high-sounding way of saying that you can't make enough sense out of anything to have a philosophy. Of Sartre, often considered the archetypical existentialist, Paul Johnson writes:

There was in his writings... a degree not so much of inconsistency... as of incoherence, so that in the end one was not clear what, if anything, he did believe, and what, if anything, he advised humanity to do.

This books belies these criticisms. For those who know how to take just a small peek between the lines, Sartre puts his 'what we are' and 'what should we do' firmly in the tradition of (Keep calm!) the determinism/freewill problem. His solution, "authenticity" and all, is merely an intensification of a most orthodox line.
I suppose in discussing a book of this title, I ought to say something about Sartre's remarks about anti-semites, and about Jews. As to the former, he makes some good points about mass movements of the mediocre in general.
As to the Jews, he somehow misses the point. He seems to have forgotten that there are a few million of us, and that each of us is an 'I' unto himself.

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Booth, Martin. Opium: A History.

This book is a 'social history' of opium. Although its range is wide, it mainly concentrates on the use of opium as a recreational drug, and then on the influence which that use has had on political history.
The book is entertaining, and it will provide the average reader with a lot of information on the different methods of growing and processing used in different regions, on the Opium Wars, and on the strange permutations of modern South East Asian politics. (Opium is no longer grown in Turkey, while Australia is a large producer of opium. It is made there from poppy straw, though.)
As with so many books written by journalists, there are some odd slip-ups: Homer comes "not long" after Hippocrates. There are also some noteworthy omissions, such as some guesses about the nice Mycenaean lady wearing the poppy-heads on hers, or the myth about morphine not being effective orally, a myth which many people still alive can remember. The strange but well documented fact that both opium and cannabis were known in the early Near East, but that neither of them was used as a recreational drug, might also have been mentioned.

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Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Anchor/Doubleday, 1990.

What we need is a book to explain photography as an art form: When I look at one of Ansel Adams' photographs of a tree, all I see is a cheap imitation of a tree. When I look at one of Jeff Croteau's still lifes, I can appreciate the photograph as a work of art, but I'm really looking at it as a painting.
Sontag's book doesn't fill that need. It fails as a book of criticism.
Maybe it works a little better as a social history of photography, but not much. Even as social history, it is trite and tends to cant: "There is aggression implicit in every use of the camera.".
The language and the ideas are both cute:

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images.

Few books can be perfectly bad, and Sontag manages some interesting comments on the history of photography.

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Johnson, Paul. The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage. HarperCollins, 1996.

Readers of A History of the Jews and Intellectuals probably expect a reasoned and organized work of theology. I did. What we get here is something completely different. The Quest for God is a declaration of Johnson's own beliefs, almost without explanation.
Johnson does include some interesting speculations, such as his own views on "curiosity" as a manifestation of God's love, and a related speculation on the metaphysical purpose of sex.
As one might expect, Johnson is at his best in short paragraphs which compare the histories of the major religions, as when he claims that the Last Judgement is a purely Christian concept. (Almost, but not quite: how would he understand Daniel 12,2? He also runs into trouble occasionally by basic delicate historical theologies on questionable translations from the Bible.)
As one would expect from Johnson, or from any other member of the Old Boys' Network, for that matter, the English is generally good. There are a few quirks, however: at one point he says "imaginative" when he pretty clearly means 'imaginary', and he later mentions "genital and copulative expressions" in modern literature. We all understand what he means, but is this English?
Johnson is good at personal anecdote, whether about himself, A. J. Ayer, or Christina Rossetti, but there's surprisingly little of it here.

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Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Judging from the number of attacks on "racists" which appear in this book, Diamond apparently wrote it against them, to prove that the poor inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere are not themselves at fault for their economic and political problems.
Diamond's thesis on the evolution of economic disadvantage may be right for all I know, but he is unconvincing: the book is full of vague and sloppy arguments.
Diamond first tells us that the economic advantage of certain cultures resulted from their having had more wild plants suitable for domestication as crops. His evidence includes the claim that of the world's "56 heaviest-seeded wild grass species", "[v]irtually all of them are native to Mediterranean zones", and therefore it was only natural that plants should have first been domesticated in these regions. Had Diamond adduced evidence that domesticable plants are more prominent to the eye, or otherwise more likely to be domesticated, in Mediterranean zones, his remarks might have been relevant. Confusing number of species with size of populations is the oldest one in the book.

95 per cent of the cotton grown in the world today belongs to the cotton species Gossypium hirsutum.... However, prehistoric South American farmers instead grew the related cotton Gossypium barbadense. Evidently, Mesoamerican cotton had such difficulty reaching South America....

If Diamond had brought his evidence from the wild ancestors of these cottons, it might have meant something. As it is, his remarks may have more to do with the psychology of taxonomists than the distribution of ancient cottons.
And I could go on and on.

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Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Nature of the Gods and On Divination. Prometheus Books, 1997.

I started this double book with many expectations. I expected to learn how an intelligent Roman viewed the Roman state religion, the Roman gods, and the myths about them.
I was mostly disappointed. Cicero discusses deep subjects without giving any signs of being a deep thinker.
Even so, there is some historical interest to these books. One learns that Cicero treated the myths with contempt. For him, they were not even in themselves poetry, not even significant cultural artifacts. Reading between the lines, one does get an impression of his feelings about the state religion, which he took much more seriously. One also gets an indication of the reasons for the Roman respect for oratory.
There is nothing extraordinary in Cicero's book On Divination, but his arguments against divination might still make some impression on the astrology buffs and others with similar opinions. His comments on the political function of divination give one something to think about, when one considers his official position as an augur.

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