2011 10 13
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Posted by in: Books

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sign of the Four.

The second of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Not as strong as A Study in Scarlett, but not bad either.

Partha Dasgupta. Economics: A Brief Insight.

Not just a book about economics, but a book about how to think like an economist. Dasgupta hangs his discussions of various topics around two characters, one in the American Midwest, and one in Southwest Ethiopia. The prose is perhaps a bit plodding at times, but the discussion is clear and guided by a genuine interest in human well-being.

Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green. North American Indians: A Very Short Introduction

Perdue and Green make a real effort to stress the agency of North American Indians in this brief history. It’s not all just stuff that was done to them. For all their determination to correct for this emphasis in earlier scholarship on North American Indians, there is nonetheless a tremendous amount of victimization related in this almost unbearably sad story.

David Nobbs. Fall And Rise of Reginald Perrin

Reasonably funny British novel from the 1970s about a middle manager who has a nervous breakdown. It was made into a BBC series, and subsequent novels in the series actually came after their counterparts in the series. I read this first novel and then started the BBC version. But the BBC version—which was apparently quite popular—fell so far short of the version in my imagination that I stopped it pretty quickly and never went on with the series. Anyway, it’s not great, but it had me laughing a few times.

Lawrence J. Cohen. Playful Parenting: A Bold New Way To Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems and Encourage Children’s Confidence

I was very tired of the phrase “Tower of Isolation” by the time I finished this book, but the author actually has a humane, sensible, and creative approach to children and the ways that adults can use play to get them unstuck when they do get stuck. The many examples throughout the book were as helpful as the author’s theoretical observations. Worth reading if you spend any time around children, whether as a parent or not.

Jan Morris. Hav

This offering from the New York Review of Books Press brings together two short books, Last Letters from Hav, published in 1985, and Hav of the Myrmidons, written for inclusion in this book in 2005.
Hav is a small but notable city state perched on the sea in Asia Minor, a dazzling collection of nationalities and influences: Arab, Turkish, Russian, Greek, British—the list goes on. It’s history is tangled up with larger powers, and it’s rather confused architecture reflects all these influences. Although a small city, it was visited throughout the 20th Century and earlier by a parade of notables, from Hemingway to Freud. The only catch—and it eluded some original readers of Last Letters From Hav, who pestered travel agents for information on cheap passage to Hav—is that the only way to get there is through Morris’s books: Hav is an imaginary city. But it is a richly imagined one, and Morris has done a remarkable job of weaving it into our reality. Last Letters from Hav ends with a mysterious Intervention. Morris returns to Hav in 2005 to find that the Intervention, and the strange brand of fundamentalism it ushered in, has swept away much of what she explored on her first visit to the city. Although a bit slow in places, Hav is a fascinating meditation on place, history and modernity. Recommended.

Howls of outrage (6)

2010 10 16
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Arthur Conan Doyle. A Study in Scarlet
This was the first Sherlock Holmes mystery to be published and the second I’ve read, after The Hound of the Baskervilles. Although not as good as The Hound of the Baskervilles, this was still very entertaining, and I think I’ll keep going.

Like many fans of the mysteries, I find myself delighting in Holmes’ intuitive leaps. Doyle’s presentation of these leaps, as filtered through Watson’s incredulous resistance, is extremely rhetorically effective. When Watson finally relents and accepts some chain of reasoning of Holmes’s as inevitable, it’s easy to feel that we should too. But if you stop and think about it, Holmes’s entire philosophy and approach is built on a totally loopy idea of induction.

P.G. Wodehouse. The Inimitable Jeeves

Of the eight or so books by Wodehouse I’ve read, this is among the very best. In fact, it gives The Code of the Woosters a run for its money.

If you like Wodehouse, read this hilarious book immediately. If you haven’t read Wodehouse, either this book or The Code of the Woosters is a good place to start. Wodehouse was best known for his the Jeeves and Wooster stories, featuring the hapless, dim-witted Bertie Wooster, always getting himself into trouble, and Jeeves, his brilliant butler, who always figures some way out of the mess. It’s mindless fun, but Wodehouse can turn a hell of a sentence and there is always satisfaction in getting to see one of his convoluted plots sort itself out, just as you knew it would, at the very last minute.

P.G. Wodehouse. Much Obliged, Jeeves

Also deliciously silly fun.

A.B. Bosworth. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great

An excellent scholarly account of Alexander’s career, along with a number of peripheral subjects. Bosworth’s is a scholarly and not a popular account, in the sense not just that he wrestles with other scholars from time to time, but that his account of what happened is usually embedded in careful discussions of the source texts. This is exactly the way I like my history; others might find it tedious. The peripheral subjects alluded to above include, e.g,. the finer points of satrapal administration in Alexander’s Persian territories. YMMV, as the saying goes.

Cory Doctorow. Little Brother

A novel about a 17 year old hacker who is arbitrarily detained in a round-up after a terrorist attack in San Francisco, and who decides to fight back against the authorities using all his hacker-fu. At times it seems a bit like Doctorow is trying to jam every thing in the world that he finds cool into the narrative—mainly through the mouthpiece of his seriously precocious protagonist. The good news for me was that there’s a significant overlap between what I find cool and what Doctorow does: programming, cryptography, civil liberties, etc. The book, while not high literature, is also just a satisfying, well-paced read. I sort of wish I could go back in time and give a copy to my 17 year old self.

Cory Doctorow. Content

Little Brother has the distinction of being the first book I’ve ever read on a phone (while commuting on the subway). I downloaded it for free, along with a few other books whose copyright had expired, setting them into the public domain. Doctorow releases all his books under a Creative Commons license, which permits people to download and redistribute his work without paying him a royalty fee. Content, which I also downloaded and read on my phone for free, is a book of essays by Doctorow explaining, among other things, how he manages to pay the rent as a professional writer who lets people read his writing for free. The answer is, in part, just that it costs him nothing to let people download his books, that it often results in free publicity (e.g., blog posts) and buzz, and that many people who could download his books for free end up buying physical copies too (from which he does make money).

But Content is about more than how Doctorow makes a living. It’s about legal restrictions on content, like copyright, DRM (digital rights management, the technology that is supposed to stop you from giving the mp3 you bought on itunes to your friend), and the technologies, policies and trade-offs relevant to these legal restrictions. Although marred a bit by repetition, this is a good, thought-provoking collection. I especially enjoyed re-reading Doctorow’s talk, collected here, but long available free on his site, at Microsoft about DRM technology.

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2010 08 07
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Posted by in: Books

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Hound of the Baskervilles

A family haunted by a legendary curse, a wily villain, and Sherlock Holmes on the case. This novel, perhaps the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, is a ripping good yarn. It also happens to be the first one I’ve read. I hope the others are as good.

Charles Petzold. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

This book is a superb introduction to the subject of how computers work. It starts in the most basic way talking about counting and binary and electricity, then moves from telegraph relays to the simplest circuits, builds all the way up through ever more complex computing machines, and ends with a brief explanation of high-level programming languages. Each step along on the way is set out by the author with impressive clarity and patience. Indeed, there is nothing in the first half of the book that would be over the head of an intelligent 12 year old. The second half of the book is a bit more challenging, but a motivated reader should be able to get through it without any background at all in the subject. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

Lenore Skenazy. Free-Range Kids: Giving Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts Without Worry

Skenazy, a newspaper columnist, made headlines a few years ago when she let her nine year old ride the subway home alone and then wrote a column about it. In response to being branded “America’s Worst Mom” (which epithet she has borrowed for her book cover) she started a blog about worry free parenting and then wrote this book on the subject. Skenazy’s line is pretty simple: Too many parents these days drive themselves nuts with worry trying to avoid the most statistically improbable outcomes; that this has an unfortunate and unnecessary stunting effect on our children; and that the social norms that have coalesced around this worry make it really hard to stay sane yourself, e.g., you can be branded America’s Worst Mom if you let your nine year old take the subway home alone (along a route the child knows, with change for a phone call, and when both child and parent feel the child is ready for the adventure). (If my memory is not mistaken, my unusually precocious cousin was allowed to wander around Hong Kong when not much older than this when his family was passing through.)

I agree for the most part with Skenazy, and I’ve encouraged Yoon to read the book in the hope that we can agree to try to be as sane as possible when raising our son. The book did become a bit monotonous, though, since there’s only so much cheerleading for a mostly reasonable proposition that I can handle.

Robert Graves. Good-Bye To All That

Graves, the poet and novelist, was a British schoolboy in the period just before WWI and then fought in the trenches for much of that war. After the war, he studied for a time at Oxford. These three periods of his life brought him into contact, sometimes glancing, sometimes intimate, with just about every literary and cultural figure in Britain from Siegried Sassoon to Bertrand Russell to Thomas Hardy to T.E. Lawrence.

In his early thirties Graves left Britain for the island of Majorica and rarely returned. Good-Bye To All That was his bitter parting shot. I have always been fascinated by the disillusionment generated by WWI, and was especially interested by this aspect of the book. In this respect, it makes a nice companion to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I wrote about briefly last year.

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2010 06 26
Recently read: Coming up for air edition

Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books, Canada, History

Whew! Busy, busy. But at least I can read on the subway on my way to work.

Adrienne Mayor. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy

Rome fought four wars—the so-called Mithradatic wars—against Mithradates in the first century B.C. The wily, resourceful Mithradates makes such a perfect subject, and the story of his setbacks and accomplishments is so much fun, that I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t been all over him. Perhaps now they will be. Mayor tells his story with real verve. Mithradates was especially famed for his extensive toxicological investigations—for practical reasons he was very interested in how to poison others and how to build up immunity to poisons that others might use on him—and Mayor, an expert in ancient toxicology, is especially well-suited to relate this part of the story. Where the evidence grows thin, at the beginning and the ends of Mithradates’ life in particular, Mayor allows herself speculative passages that might have been more suitable to a historical novel. But that’s partly just a matter of taste, and these passages are usually marked out very clearly as speculative. This book is recommended.

Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar

Solid, though now somewhat dated (published 2007), account of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Emphasizes the extent to which policy was not really driven by larger strategic considerations, but rather emerged through a series of accidents. My only complaint is that the book might be a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with Canadian politics. This is a pity, since I think it would be really useful for Americans to have a sense of what the war looks like from the perspective of a close coalition partner.

Edward Gorey. Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks

This book is a children’s classic published in 1950 and recently resurrected by the New York Review of Books in their excellent children’s series. The stories are well told, though it dragged in places. That might just be me, though—I’ve never had much interest in Greek myth. A chart at the back helps the reader keep track of Latin equivalents of Greek gods and heros, but there is no introduction explaining why Gorey chose to use the Latin equivalents in the first place.

Félix Fénéon. Novels in Three Lines

This is a collection of three line news summaries written by Fénéon for a French newspaper over the course of 1906. The summaries occasionally touch on politics, but they’re mostly about every day pieces of news: suicides, burglaries, assaults, and accidents. This might sound monotonous—and actually I would recommend that people not try to read the book through cover to cover without a break—but Fénéon’s summaries are, as the title of the book suggests, absolute masterpieces of compression. Fénéon was an anarchist and an important behind-the-scenes literary and cultural figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. He wrote little and the contents of this book were only saved for posterity by lucky chance.

Howls of outrage (3)

2010 02 12
Recently read: Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Louis Begley. Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was accused in 1894 of selling secrets to a German military attaché. A note had been discovered indicating that someone was selling secrets to the attaché. The note was real; just about everything else that became associated with the case was not. The only actual evidence brought against Dreyfus was the claim that the handwriting on the note was his own. It was not. Dreyfus’s first trial, resulting in a conviction, was a travesty involving significant judicial misconduct, in which antisemitism played a crucial role.

And then things got really bad. As evidence identifying the real culprit started to surface and Dreyfus’s few supporters rallied against an obviously bad decision, Dreyfus’s superiors dug themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. As the 1890s wore on, the Dreyfus Affair became bewilderingly complex, with forgeries, suicides, conspiracies, missteps on the part of Dreyfus’s supporters, and stunning reversals on both sides.

The conservative, militarist, antisemitic response to the scandal was essentially to point out that for Dreyfus’s supporters to be correct, a deep rot would have to have infected the military, a pillar of French society, and parts of the political establishment. Since this was unthinkable, so too was Dreyfus’s innocence. They were wrong, of course, and it is a mistake that continues to be instructive.

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is a tightly written account of this affair, which so thoroughly rocked French society in the 1890s. I’ve just called the plot bewilderingly complex. Begley is to be commended for having written such a clear and engaging account of it. One highlight of the book is a brief but penetrating discussion of the Dreyfus Affair in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which should be accessible to people who haven’t slogged through it, but especially interesting for those who have.

I’m not sure Begley did as good a job explaining why the Dreyfus Affair matters. Begley finished his book just as Obama was elected. Begley, who is clearly no fan of the Bush administration, takes a few stabs at connecting the Affair to current events. The lack of due process and forms of incarceration found at Guantanamo are compared to the travesties of Dreyfus’ trial and exile on a remote island. A brief section on official reactions to whistle blowers connects a defender of Dreyfus’s to Joseph Wilson. This, I take it, constitutes the main part of Begley’s answer to the question raised by the title of his book.

This is weak stuff.* There are of course similarities between any two miscarriages of justice. But even if the similarities were more striking than they are, they wouldn’t tell us why the Dreyfus Affair matters today. You can be entirely ignorant of the Dreyfus Affair and still be offended by the scandal of Guantanamo Bay. All you need for that is a functioning conscience. If you’re not offended, you’ll hardly be convinced by a series of strained analogies with the Dreyfus Affair.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to get very deeply into the question of why any historical incident matters, but here are two fairly obvious (non-competing) answers as they bear on the Dreyfus Affair.

First, from history we (sometimes) find out why we are a certain way now. My understanding is that French society and politics is the way it is today in part because of the reverberations and aftershocks of the affair. Begley has nothing (that I can recall) to say about contemporary French politics or culture, focusing mainly on the United States. That’s fine, but I don’t believe the United States was shaped in significant ways by the Dreyfus Affair, and it’s an American audience that he seems mainly interested in addressing.

Second, studying history can broaden our sense of what’s possible. There are all kinds of contingent features of society and human nature that look fixed and permanent, and all kinds of things that seem certain at any moment that turn out to be thoroughly mistaken. I think the Dreyfus Affair matters, and not just in France, in this way. Many of those involved in persecuting Dreyfus, even after it was, or should have been, clear that he was innocent, acted in ways that were utterly irrational, stupid, and blindly defensive. It was unthinkable to many that such trusted figures of the establishment could behave this way. But it is an incontrovertible fact that they did. It was unthinkable in particular to people who thought a certain way: people with a streak of authoritarianism, who were reflexively inclined to give people in power the benefit of the doubt.

As I said above, this is instructive. It gives us a nice morality tale about the dangers of trusting officials in authority. It’s a story that ought to leave us a little more paranoid, a little less trusting of authority. But as instructive as it is in this sense, it would be a mistake to think that we can simply take the case and apply its lessons to contemporary political issues. As controversial as Guantanamo is, I don’t see how parallels between Guantanamo and some now unambiguous miscarriage of justice at the end of the 19th Century are going to be less controversial. The Dreyfus Affair, like most history, matters, but in a less direct and much more subtle way than that.

* Though Begley’s criticisms of certain French judicial procedures that worked against Dreyfus, such as an acceptance of hearsay, is certainly relevant to the issue of whether the American military tribunals contain stringent enough protections against abuse.

Howls of outrage (2)

2010 01 17
Recently read: Clearing out the Backlog Edition

Posted by in: Books, Brooklyn, Math, Programming

Peter Siebel. Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming

This superb book is a collection of fifteen interviews with well-known and highly-regarded programmers (Norvig, Armstrong, Knuth, etc). Siebel (author of Practical Common Lisp) is a professional programmer with a keen sense of the (brief) history of the profession. This gives the interviews a depth and a richness that even a clever journalist could never have matched. Siebel is a consistently thoughtful interviewer who asks just the right mix of questions. In any one interview, the questions range from practical ones concerned with how the subjects debug code to more general questions about whether the nature of programming has changed over time. Across interviews, Siebel asks enough of the same questions that we can start to view the answers in comparative perspective, while also allowing what is special about the careers and interests of the subjects to emerge.

In short, if you’re interested in programming, this book is wildly engrossing. A word of warning: If you don’t have any experience programming, and some background knowledge of the field, you’re probably not going to be able to get much out of the book. Some passages were certainly over my head, as I’ve only been a professional programmer since June, when I got my green card, and if I recall correctly, only really got started teaching myself Python about a year and a half ago. But most of it was accessible and inspiring to this junior programmer.

Amy Sohn. Prospect Park West

We lived briefly in (very South) Park Slope when we first moved to Brooklyn, and although we’ve since moved out to Flatbush, we’re back in the Slope all the time. We eat at Al Di La whenever we can afford to. We’ve been members of the infamous Park Slope Food Coop for several years now, and we’re set to have a baby in the Spring. So although my expectations weren’t all that high, I pretty much had to check Prospect Park West out of the Brooklyn Public library, after waiting patiently for my turn in a queue that was over 250 holds long. Prospect Park West is set against this familiar background. The plot follows the ill-considered affair of a Park Slope mother, whose life is connected to a few other characters by a string of coincidences that I would have found far-fetched ten years ago, before I started to notice equally striking coincidences in my own life. (Always remember that odds are that life will be filled with the improbable, since there are an enormous number of possible improbable events—so many that it would be highly improbable for us to go long without another improbable event occurring. This is one reason, among several, that life is filled with strangeness and magic, if you keep an eye out for it.)

Prospect Park West is not a great work of literature, but it’s readable enough. The book’s basic outlook is misanthropic without much in the way of compensating insight. I get that some Park Slope mothers can be a bit much, but so can the author when she (in the mouths of her characters) gets going about them. The author gets points, though, for her depiction of the strange, confusing, prickly racial tension you run across in Brooklyn all the time, and which I struggle to explain to my friends back in Canada. This too was perhaps also a bit overdone, but unfortunately not by much.

One correction: A check out line at the Coop that stretches back to the bread section does not count as long. I don’t know when Sohn shops, but that’s pretty routine in my experience. Long is when it goes all the way along the produce aisle as far back as the milk section.

Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist

This is only the second Dickens novel I’ve read, the other being A Tale of Two Cities. I found A Tale of Two Cities pretty silly, but against my better judgment found the ending weirdly sublime. I didn’t have as much luck with Oliver Twist, which I read for the sole reason that we’re naming our kid “Oliver” and I figured I should at least read the book that helped make his name famous. (On my to do list: Who the hell is Oliver Cromwell?) I found the social commentary in the first part of the book entertaining enough, if heavy-handed. But as the plot advanced, the melodrama and the general absurdity of it all started to suck the fun out of it. Also, I know the book is a product of the early nineteenth century, but the fact that one of the characters is usually referred to simply as “the Jew” and even gets to be the butt of a big nose joke was driving me nuts. What’s that? Dickens was a child of his era, so cut him some slack? Well, I’m a child of my era, so take your own advice and cut me some slack while you’re at it.

Vivant Denon. Introduction by Peter BrooksNo Tomorrow

Vivant Denon was, among other things, the first director of the Louvre Museum, in charge of sorting and cataloging all the goodies that Napoleon stole from the Egyptians. A wing of the Louvre bears his name to this day. Denon was also “maybe, probably,” in the words of Peter Brooks, the author of No Tomorrow a thirty odd page long erotic masterpiece. The New York Review of Books has recently published a fine bilingual edition of the story with an introduction by Peter Brooks. The intellectual imprimatur provided by the publisher and the scholarly introduction makes it totally not skeevy that I’m writing about erotica on my blog.

There’s a lot to admire in Denon’s story and the way he tells it. As for the tale, a woman seduces a man, for pleasure, without negative consequence for either. As for the telling, Denon is delicate without ever being prudish, erotic without ever being explicit. It’s good clean fun for the adults in the family.

Surendra Verma. The Little Book of Maths, Theorems, Theories, and Things

This book covers a very wide variety of mathematical and logical puzzles and problems and more. The author even throws in a discussion of the Body-Mass Index*, presumably because it’s . . . expressed in numbers? Because it’s a little book, and because it’s trying to get to so many subjects, and because the author also likes to throw in limericks and factoids and anecdotes willy-nilly, this book treats each of its subjects in an extremely superficial way. I like limericks and factoids and anecdotes as much as the next guy, but there really wasn’t room for a lot of math in this book, or much opportunity for the author to make the case that mathematics is intrinsically interesting.

Let me also take a moment to plead with the publisher to fix the typos in this book before reprinting, if the book ever gets another shot at life. You know you’re in bad hands when you read the sentence: “No one has ever found an even number that can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers” (p. 76). Oh, really? Cause I think I might be about to make mathematical history!

* Verma tells us that knowing your BMI “can give you an idea of how healthy your weight is.” He doesn’t note that a lot of researchers think the BMI is misleading or useless.

Howls of outrage (6)

2009 12 31
Recently read: Remembrance of Things Past

Posted by in: Books

Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past

Proust’s project in Remembrance of Things Past (also known, more recently and accurately, as In Search of Lost Time) is, as he puts it in the last sentence of the work, to attempt “to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted one which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure—for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days—in the dimension of Time.” One and the same person can, at different points in his or her life, occupy different social circles, ranks, families, ways of life, and so on. The project of exploring these differences requires Proust to painstakingly recreate the social worlds of his childhood, of a period before his birth, as well as the social world that coincided with his young adulthood and then his middle age, and to follow a number of characters through those periods.

Proust pursues this all in an astonishingly long-winded way—3294 pages in my edition. One of Proust’s several rejection letters read famously, “I may be dead from the neck up, but I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.” I believe the reviewer was referring to the Overture which opens Swann’s Way, the first novel in the series. If so, it’s actually more like fifty pages. There are a number of dinner parties in the book. The shortest is about the length of a decent sized novella. The longest of these dinner parties seemed to me to last well over 200 pages: almost every word, every glance, from every participant recounted, meditated upon, digressed from. Long twisting sentences, paragraphs that stretch three pages, an epiphany that stretches over the last 200 or so pages—Proust can go on and on.

So, if you haven’t tried it, is worth it? It’s hard to say. 3294 pages is about 100 hours of reading, give or take a few dozen hours. You could read a lot of awesome books in 100 hours. I had to repeatedly resist the temptation to pick up something else just to take a break, since I knew that if I lost my momentum, I would probably not finish (as happened to me about ten years earlier when I only got a few hundred pages in). Don’t be mad at me if you waste a bunch of time trying to like the book. For what it’s worth, though, I found ROTP one of the most remarkable books I have ever read in my life. And for all the frustration I felt with it (on which more below), when I turned the last page I had already decided that I would read it again, and possibly again after that.

In part what is so amazing about ROTP is that Proust is able to capture in the most minute detail what it is like to be a conscious human being. The momentary, fragmentary thoughts that flit in and out of our consciousness a hundred times in an hour while we’re occupied with other things, or simply lying in bed letting our minds wander, and that are forgotten almost as soon as they’ve passed—Proust is able to slow time down in his narrative, to capture these thoughts, and to set them out carefully for our inspection, connecting them with other thoughts and connecting, and connecting, until we start to sense the outlines of a vast set of interconnected associations standing behind consciousness and shaping it in more or less subtle ways. I’ve simply never come across anything like this before—not like this, not with such care, and fidelity and assurance.

Because ROTP is about time in the way I described above, the subject of Proust’s reflections is usually only obliquely time. As he traces different lives, especially his own, through different periods, to which are attached very different social stations, sensibilities, and preferences, the narrator has a great deal of time to reflect on the preoccupations of those lives. Since Marcel, the narrator, is given to obsessive jealousy, this preoccupation becomes one of the great secondary themes of the novel. I would guess that somewhere around a third of ROTP is taken up with this theme, also counting the obsessive jealousy of Charles Swann concerning his lover Odette, which prefigures in significant ways the narrator’s own jealousy concerning his lover Albertine.

Personally, I find obsessive jealousy a pretty boring theme. I’m not an especially jealous person. I never really understood Othello either. Worse even than boredom with this theme is the fact that Marcel seems incapable of genuinely loving (at least as I can recognize it) the object of his obsessive jealousy, who, when she isn’t the occasion for spasms of jealousy, actually bores the crap out of him. And no wonder. For all his incredible powers of perception into his own mental states, and for all the acuity that allows him to see through Albertine’s dishonesty, Marcel seems deeply uninterested in her as a human being, in really attempting to see the world through her eyes.

So, this is a pretty serious problem for the novel as a whole: Marcel is a cold fish with a boring preoccupation and a tendency to go on about it at great length. And that coldness extends through the entire novel. There are very few moments of genuine human warmth in those three thousand odd pages. Nor do I think this is a case in which Marcel Proust, the writer, is wiser than his narrator, Marcel, or his own novel. There seems to be something deeply stunted in the novel’s view of the capacities of human beings for genuine love, friendship and affection.

So it was tough going at some points. But I found in the end that what is remarkable and, as far as I can tell, utterly unique, in ROTP outweighed what was frustrating, repellent, or boring in it. So, as long as it was, I hope at some point in the future to spend a few hundred more hours in Proust’s company.

Howls of outrage (7)

2009 12 29
Recently read: Two books on philosophy and children

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Gareth B. Matthews. Philosophy and the Young Child

Gareth B. Matthews. Dialogues with Children

Gareth B. Matthews is a professional philosopher well-known for his work on Ancient and Medieval philosophy. He has also had a long-standing (and often related) interest in pedagogy. These two books of his on philosophy and children, both from the early 1980s, are wonderful, and deserve a much wider audience than they probably currently enjoy.

Neither book aims to offer a “how-to” for engaging children in philosophical dialogue, though they are brimming with examples. One of their main virtues, besides simply offering clear accounts of interesting philosophical issues, is the spirit in which they approach philosophical conversation with children. Here is a nice statement of Matthews’ approach, from Philosophy and the Young Child:

The combination of assets and liabilities that an adult brings to a philosophical encounter with a child makes for a very special relationship. The adult has a better command of the language than the child and, latently at least, a surer command of the concepts expressed in the language. It is the child, however, who has fresh eyes and ears for perplexity and incongruity. Children also have, typically, a degree of candor and spontaneity that is difficult for an adult to match. Because each party has something important to contribute, the inquiry can easily become a genuinely joint venture, something otherwise quite rare in encounters between adults and children.

In the wrong hands, it’s easy to imagine this slipping into an unrealistic, naive or romantic view of children, and indeed, without further discussion, it’s exactly what I would have imagined. But it’s very clear from the dialogues that he produces that Matthews really does succeed in pulling off some wonderful conversations.

Both books are also interesting because they offer a forceful challenge to prior work (Piaget is a special target) on children, philosophy and cognitive development. Matthews argues that researchers are often too quick to try to cram interesting questions and thoughts into unhelpful developmental stages, often misunderstanding the relevant philosophical issues along the way. Chapter 4 (“Piaget”) of Philosophy and the Young Child is especially focused on this issue, and it’s refreshing to see a philosophically sophisticated defense of a child’s end of a conversation with the famous psychologist.

Although Matthews’ focus throughout both of these books is the young child, educators at any level could read them with profit. They’re informed by a genuine love of interesting philosophical questions, and I could imagine myself dipping into them for inspiration as I planned a first year introduction to philosophy class, just as readily as I will in fact be dipping into them again when I am thinking about philosophy with my (due in April) son, when he is old enough to talk philosophy with his Dad.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 12 22
Recently read: Academic Graffiti

Posted by in: Books, Poetry

W.H. Auden, with drawings by Filippo Sanjust. Academic Graffiti

This book only takes 15 or 20 minutes to skim through, even at a leisurely pace, but if you’re a pointy-head, it’s probably still worth a trip to the library for it. A clerihew is, so I’m told, “a whimsical four-line biographical poem . . . The lines are comically irregular in length, and the rhymes, often contrived, are structured AABB.” This book contains sixty-one clerihews of Auden’s. E.g.,

Disiderius Erasmus
Always avoided chiasmus,
But grew addicted as time wore on
To oxymoron.

Auden takes aim at some familiar names—Aquinas, Beethoven, Blake, Robert Browning—and some unfamiliar ones. I admit that some of the poems went right over my head, even when I recognized the name:

Robert Browning
Immediately stopped frowning
And started to blush,
When fawned on by Flush.

Did you know that Elizabeth Barrett had a dog named “Flush”? I didn’t, and this dog was even the subject of a fictional autobiography by Virginia Woolf (!).

Anyway, good for a laugh or two.

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2009 12 07
Recently read: Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Posted by in: Books, children, Psychology

Lise Eliot. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain is about gender differences and their causes. The main outlines of the book can be summarized fairly quickly: Much popular journalism about gender differences is really awful. Journalists often present the conclusions of poorly designed studies about gender differences as fact; misrepresent good studies; or represent good studies well, but without noting the existence of conflicting evidence in the scientific literature. Eliot, a professor of neuroscience, is able to pick her way through this terrain in a surer way. She examines the biological roots of the predispositions that do tend to differ in males and females, pausing frequently to discuss the scientific evidence supporting her claims. The differences are sometimes real. But Eliot argues that they’re often much smaller than you would think on the basis of popular reporting.

Small original differences, however, can lead to large gaps at the end of a process of development, partly because of the influence of culture, and partly because real innate dispositions, even weak ones, shape behaviour. The remarkable plasticity of the developing brain means that spending a lot of time engaged in certain kinds of activities shapes further development along the same lines. A slight predisposition to engage in games that are especially effective at developing a facility with spatial concepts, for example, can have a big influence on performance in math class years later.

Boys and girls can be disadvantaged in different ways by this, since it leads many individuals of each sex to under-develop important cognitive and emotional skills at a time in their lives when their brains are most able to absorb new skills. The good news, however, is that parents and teachers can intervene in all sorts of ways to correct for this. Eliot’s eminently sensible goal is adults who have a decent blend of traits that are stereotypical for each sex: assertiveness, empathy, etc. Her book has good practical advice about this, and an interesting, readable discussion of the science underpinning those recommendations.

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2009 12 06
Recently read: Like Life

Posted by in: Books

Lorrie Moore. Like Life

This collection brings together eight short stories by Moore that appeared in various publications during the 1980s. They’re a pleasure to read: crisply written, well-observed pieces, mostly in a minor key, though with some genuinely funny moments. Moore saves her best lines for her characters, who often sound funny and insightful without ever arousing the suspicion that they’re being used as a mouthpiece for the author.

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2009 11 29
Recently read: In the Land of Invented Languages

Posted by in: Books, Language

Arika Okrent. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

Why does language have to be so damn messy? Why do we have irregular verbs and inconsistently pluralized nouns and difficult to memorize and often arbitrary rules about the usage of prepositions and all the rest of it? The quirks of a language annoy and repel outsiders and almost as often stump native speakers too. And might this disorder in natural languages have consequences beyond the headaches involved in learning them? We have very muddled minds, do we not? Perhaps the muddle is linguistic in origin, and a clearer, more rational language would have us thinking clearer and more rational thoughts. And anyway, wouldn’t inventing an entirely new language simply be fun?

And so in a world already teeming with natural languages, many of which are suffering from neglect, we get people—a surprising number of people—who sweep all these languages aside in favour of new languages entirely of their own making. Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages is a highly entertaining, insightful and well-researched look at several hundred years of attempts to construct artificial languages.

Okrent begins with early modern attempts to develop languages in which the names for things would indicate clearly what they actually were. (An artificial language with this ambition would use a term for a dog which would indicate precisely what a dog is, whereas our word “dog” denotes a dog simply by convention.) It’s an utterly nutty idea, and not just because you need to know how to break the entire universe down into categories before you can create, let alone speak, the language. It gives some sense of Okrent’s approach (and her goofy sense of humour) that the word she chooses to investigate is “shit,” and that she actually pulls off quite a nice discussion of some of the philosophical difficulties raised by her investigation.

As the dream of a language that would reflect the very structure of reality faded, many people retained a longing for the simplicity that an artificial language might offer. The most famous, and successful, of the attempts to produce a clear, rational artificial language is Esperanto, which is still spoken by many people today (though it seems to have peaked a while back). (Indeed, I know a guy who is fluent in Esperanto.) But there were, and are, an enormous number of rivals, many of which Okrent examines. And then there are modern languages developed to test theories of language (especially the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). There is a language developed to embody a feminist perspective. And finally, there are languages invented as part of fictional worlds (Tolkien’s languages, which came before his books, Klingon, and more). Okrent does a great job of showing how these languages, and their strengths and their weaknesses, actually shed interesting light on natural languages. Recommended!

Howls of outrage (10)

2009 11 10
Recently read: The Philosophical Baby

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Alison Gopnik. The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here yet that Yoon is (19 weeks and one day) pregnant. I’ll try not to turn this into an awful baby blog, but the fact that I’m going to be spending a significant amount of time in the company of an infant come the Spring has got me interested in reading about babies.

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik (sister of the New Yorker’s Gopnik) tackles some really interesting questions: What is it like to be a baby? How do young children think, experience the world, view moral issues? Gopnik is pretty effective at challenging the classic view of children as cognitively defective adults. When you consider just how much children are absorbing, and how quickly, they start to seem anything but cognitively defective. Gopnik proves a thoughtful and engaging guide through some recent work by cognitive psychologists on these issues.

I thought the least effective part of the book was Gopnik’s discussion of morality and moral intuitions in children. Gopnik at least avoids confusing altruism and morality—they’re really completely different, the former being a kind of motivation, and the latter having to do with what we owe one another—as some writers sometimes do. But the connection between them seemed to me somehow muddled in parts of her discussion, as betrayed by a proliferation of vague expressions connecting them. I also noticed that her discussion of morality treated it as entirely concerned with what we owe other people. But that’s only half of it! Morality is also about what they owe us, and that side of it is important to understanding essentially moral emotions like indignation, to give just one example. It seems to me that there are also fairly rich and interesting connections between self-conception and morality (“Am I that sort of person?”) that would have served Gopnik better for reflection than the trolley problem, to which her discussion failed to add much.

But that’s just quibbling from a grad school drop out. This is a fun book, and people interested in kids and how they see the world will probably find lots here to enjoy.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 11 07
Recently read: Thank you, Jeeves

Posted by in: Books

P.G. Wodehouse. Thank you, Jeeves.

Hmmmm, well, this novel, the very first full length novel in the Wooster/Jeeves series, does have its moments. Unfortunately, it also features the N-word and a plot that hinges crucially on Wooster’s wearing blackface. I don’t know—makes me uncomfortable, though as 1930s racism goes this is the mildest possible stuff. I still think the best place to start with Wodehouse is Code of the Woosters.

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2009 09 16
Proust killed the book blog

Posted by in: Books, Metablog

Well, no, not really. I’ve been very busy with lots of things. Also, this blog never dies! It just lies motionless sometimes, mainly to elude predators.

Still, whew! In Search of Lost Time is long. But I’ll be back with a review in just 1200 pages.

Howls of outrage (6)