Friday, July 31, 2015

Books Read in July

It was another busy month of reading.  Vacationing at the cabin really helped that along.  (My ideal vacation includes time spent reading next to a beach or a pool but a cabin with some pine trees works well too.)  What did I get to?

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett - This was the first book in a book club that I started on Facebook and it was good, but not great.  It's the story of a botched kidnapping in an unnamed South American country that turns into a lengthy hostage situation.  We learn about the hostages and the soldiers who are holding them.  They form relationships.  No one feels any urgency or has much agency.  But interesting people and many fine turns of phrase.
A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam - I reviewed this at length here, so I won't say much now.  Short review, I liked it at lot.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed - This is an autobiographical book about a young woman whose life fell apart.  Her mother died quickly of cancer.  She tore her marriage apart and dabbled in drugs.  Almost on a whim, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and faces many, many hardships.  She also spends some serious alone time which allows her to grieve.  It also gives her some confidence for the future.  An interesting book.
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut - A new one for me and one very highly regarded.  I...didn't care for it.  It came off as a too smart-ass for my taste.  The book deals with war and death and marks each death with the phrase 'and so it goes'.  Sometimes this is profound but it soon became a 'bit' and lost any serious effect.
A Literary Education, Joseph Epstein - This is a series of essays and highly enjoyable.  These included writings about his time with great literature and his thoughts on art in the modern world.  My favorite though, was an essay on Jewish jokes.  Some very good stuff.
Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson - A reread for me.  I read this mostly for the first third which is historical fiction regarding Newton's time when he was young.  That whole time period was fascinating for the scientific efforts that were unleashed.

I'm right on track with the short stories.
Penal Colony - Kafka, very good
Kola Street - Asch, good
The Things They Carried - O'Brien, excellent
Spring in Fialta - Nabakov, very good
To the New World - Metzker, ok

The O'Brien story is haunting me and I'll probably need to read the book that came out of it soon.

A good month.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Links to the Past

Why Students Avoid Literature link

Journeys with Homer link

Why Every Millennial should read John Locke link

Book Review: 'Dead White Guys' link

Who Killed Liberal Arts link

Philosophy Club (Existential Comics) link

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Great Idea at the Time - Alex Beam

Before I went up to the woods, I was tipped off on a book that was something of a history of the Great Books by Alex Beam.  Beam was asked about the Great Books by someone (around 2006 iirc) but he had never heard of the set.  He decided to investigate and ended up writing this book from a skeptical angle.  It's  a good read and I highly recommend it.  I literally laughed out loud at a discussion group within a prison.
Most of the things that I've read about the Great Books has been fairly positive, this book being a prime counter example.  Now that I'm more than a third of the way through the ten year plan, I thought I'd respond to some of the criticisms.

  • The idea of a Great Books is out of step with modern education - This is both a) true and b) not obviously the fault of the Great Books folks.  It's becoming harder and harder to simply trust that modern educators have the better part of this argument.  
  • The main promoters, Adler and Hutchins, sold the Great Books idea as a universal education - It's not.  The Great Books approach won't work for everyone and may not work for the majority of students.  That doesn't mean it doesn't have it's place.  In fact, the exact same criticism applies with equal force to the more 'modern' approach, which also obviously isn't the best fit for everyone.  
  • It's disputable that the best works were selected - This is also both true and impossible to fix.  There is no set of works that would represent the Western Canon without arguably leaving out important works or arguably leaving in some that shouldn't qualify.  So be it.  It's not difficult for a reader to go with what is presented and look for other suggestions.
  • The Great Books were picked with poor translations and bad formatting - This is a tough one for me to judge since I've read so little from the actual books in the set.  Probably 90% of what I've read has been from my Kindle or from bound books.  But it may be true.  If you're reading along with, say, the Iliad, and finding little enjoyment, look for opinions on a better translation.
  • The works selected contain too many ancient science books - I agree with this one 100%.  A modern reader can get more out of reading about Newton, Farraday etc, than they can reading from them.  Try them if you'd like, but seek out some secondary reading to really understand why they were important.
  • A 'Western' canon has little use in our multi-cultural world - I'm not sure what to do with a meta concern like this.  It's easy to look at a Great Books approach as leaving out wisdom from the rest of the world but I don't know how true that is.  If I read Plato and Aristotle, there is nothing keeping me from reading Confucius and Buddha.  In fact, I'd be surprised if the average Great Books reader wasn't more interested in reading other ancient texts than a non Great Books reader.
  • Older works don't have anything to say to a modern reader - This is similar to the previous criticism.  I disagree (of course).  This isn't to say that I look to Plato or Aristotle to solve current political issues but I absolutely do use the methods of Plato and Aristotle to get a handle on them.
  • Adler wasn't a good person/The Great Books set was a money making venture - I don't know how good Adler was.  He was certainly flawed but who isn't.  The books themselves were obviously a labor of love from Adler and Hutchins.  There was a profit motive involved but that wasn't the main driver.
  • The set of books became some kind of impressive furniture rather than a useful tool - This may have been true and maybe for the majority of users.  I don't know that this is the fault of the set makers or the books themselves.  The computer can be an amazingly useful tool or it can be a window into hours and hours of 'Farmville'.  That isn't the computers fault.
  • The topics set up in the the Syntopicon are little more than a gambit, rather than a serious tool - This is hard for me to judge.  My father found them very useful but I haven't used them much.  The exact topics (102 in all) are certainly open to criticism of inclusion/exclusion but any set of topics would have been open to the exact same criticism.  (In the book he notes that around 1990, Adler said that if they did the list now they might have included 'Equality' as a topic.  It's very possible that the topics simply need updating as time goes by.)
  • Great Books readers are a little strange - This was the one part of the book that I thought was unfair. For example, a WWII vet in the book is labeled in a picture as loving two things, the Great Books and killing japs.  That's not a fair way to sum him up.  I'm sure that any group of readers (or any other hobby!) can be made to look weird from the outside.  In this book, it felt like a series of cheap shots.
As I said though, I'd recommend the book.  I highly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reading for August

Just one, but it's a big one.

Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (book 2) link

Monday, July 20, 2015

"I Think, Therefore I Am" - Descartes

I found Descartes very interesting.  In many ways he is the bridge between ancient thought and the modern.
I resolv'd to faign, that all those things which ever entred into my Minde, were no more true, then the illusions of my dreams. But presently after I observ'd, that whilst I would think that all was false, it must necessarily follow, that I who thought it, must be something. And perceiving that this Truth, I think, therefore, I am, was so firm and certain, that all the most extravagant suppositions of the Scepticks was not able to shake it, I judg'd that I might receive it without scruple for the first principle of the Philosophy I sought.
So, in other words, even if everything that you are seeing/hearing/experiencing in life is somehow an illusion, the one thing that an individual can cling to is that the process of thought means that they must exist.  Even if life is a series of shadows on the cave wall, the idea of personal identity is the anchor that can see you through.
Descartes goes on to write about how he systematically worked to withhold the common sense belief that the things he could see were really there and the things he could hear were really making sound, etc.  The one thing that he could not talk his mind into believing was that he wasn't really there.  The idea 'I am not' makes no sense and he couldn't pretend that it did.  Whatever else was illusion, that one essential fact could not be a trick.
From this he moves on to a conclusion that is a bit more shaky:
So as it followed, that it must have bin put into me by a Nature which was truly more perfect than I, and even which had in it all the perfections whereof I could have an Idea; to wit (to explain to my self in one word) God.
This then is his second foundational statement, that his being implies a more perfect creator.  This isn't an uncommon thought though it's widely cast aside in these more modern times.  If there were rational beings that were randomly created through evolution and chance, there is no reason to think that they wouldn't suffer the same identity crises and wonder about the origins of their Nature.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Newton and Orbital Mechanics

Note: this post was written ahead of time as I'm at a cabin for the week.  If the New Horizons probe has somehow been destroyed, please just ignore that while you read this.

If you read anything about orbital mechanics (and I read enough about space exploration that I do), you begin to have a handle on the size of Newton's breakthroughs.  He really started the idea of 'falling around' something as a way to visualize gravity's effects on planets and other orbiting bodies.
The New Horizons probe is set to pass by Pluto today after years and years of travel from Earth.  On its way, it did a slingshot past Jupiter to pick up speed.  This is a fairly common maneuver for space probes and it relies directly on Newton's understanding of gravity.
So, while you see new pictures of Pluto, take a moment to thank Newton for his help.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bacon's Four Idols

I meant to write about this last month.  The most striking part of Bacon was this:
There are four classes of Idols which best men's minds. To these for distinction's sake I have assigned names, calling he first class Idols of the Tribe; the second, Idols of the Cave; the third, Idols of the Market Place; the fourth, Idols of the Theater.
Each Idol is interesting.

1. "The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in the human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men."  These are the false things that men believe because it falls in line with human experience.  The idea that the sun went around the earth falls into this category because from the simple experience of sunrise and sunset, it made sense.  It was only with direct measurements of stars and planets that the truth could be gained.
2. "The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man."  These are the individual beliefs and superstitions that everyone has.  I may believe that the wearing of a certain shirt will always bring about a good day for me, because within my memory it always has.  But without a rigorous test, I can't tell that for certain.  (And if that test was positive, it would simply set off a whole new batch of tests, etc.)
3. "There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there."  These are the things that we believe as a people, in part because that belief is strong in the people around us.  I think this happens at every work place and almost certainly happens within each industry.
4. "Lastly there are Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration.  These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion."  I think this would encompass the cultural values that are passed on through TV and movies.  Maybe through books too, though that seems more culturally scattered now.  Political beliefs probably also fall into this category, or at least are vulnerable for the same reasons.

I don't know the way to avoid all of these idols but surely the first step is to simply be aware of the pitfalls that are out there.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Links to the Past

Argument for why the Greeks were essential link

Zoomable Graph of History of Philosophy link

Why Kids are avoiding Literature link

Legacy of Descartes link

Learning Shakespeare in the Bush link

Despair Bears (Existential Comics) link

Friday, July 3, 2015

Author Timeline

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Books Read in June

June was another busy month for reading.

The Fourth Part of the World, Toby Lester - Very interesting book.  Highly recommended.  This book details how the Europeans found out about the other parts of the world.  It serves as a history of map making for the Western world.  If you've ever been interested in the Age of Exploration, this is a must read.
The Call of Cthulhu, by HP Lovecraft - I've never read any of the Cthulhu mythos before.  Very interesting stuff.  The idea of 'knowledge that man should not know' horrifies me.  But it's a fascinating horror.  Hard to look away from.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - A reread of one of my favorites.  This involves a futuristic revolution by a penal colony on the moon.  There are echoes of the American revolution but I love this book because of the questions that it asks.  Early on, a professor asks 'what is moral when done by a group of people that would be immoral if done by one'.  I've pondered this for twenty some years and I still don't have a good answer.
Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man' by Christopher Hitchens - This is part of a series about 'Books that Changed the World'.  Hitchens writes of the history of Paine and the influence that Paine's writing had on both the American and French revolutions.  Good stuff and I wish that Paine was covered in the Great Books list.
Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas by himself - Fredrick Douglas was an escaped slave who wrote about his experiences under the whip.  Some horrifying stuff and this was highly influential on the abolitionists of the day.  Full of insights.  A very necessary history of the systematic awfulness of slavery.  Wish I'd read it earlier in my life.

All in all, a very good month of reading, even beside the Great Books.  If you're looking for something to read, I'd say that any one of these five will be rewarding.

Short stories:
You Go Where it Takes You by Balingrud - good
My First Love by Nadir - excellent
Alas, Babylon by Fitzgerald - very good
Master and Man by Tolstoy - very good

This brings me to 26 read through June.  Right on target.  These deserve a more full treatment but I'd be kidding myself if I thought that I would find time to write more about these stories each month.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Readings for July

(Man, I've gotten behind.  Almost missed this!  Sorry.  Will improve.)

Descartes: Discourse on the Method link
Newton: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (prefaces, definitions, axioms, general scholium) link