This book presents a futuristic dystopia of an unusual kind. Unlike in Orwell's 1984, Huxley's dystopia is one in which everyone is happy. However, th...moreThis book presents a futuristic dystopia of an unusual kind. Unlike in Orwell's 1984, Huxley's dystopia is one in which everyone is happy. However, they are happy in only the most trivial sense: they lead lives of simple pleasures, but lives without science, art, philosophy or religion. In short, lives without deeper meaning. Although people are expected to work hard and efficiently during working hours, during off hours people live in an infantile way, never engaging their minds, and satisfying themselves with sex and drugs.
The premise of the book I find quite interesting. However, the execution is lacking. The characters are not particularly endearing, and indeed they are quite flat. Worse, Huxley fails to explain why this future of controlled contentment is wrong. The reader will intuit that the this indeed a dystopia posing as a utopia, but Huxley's reliance on this feeling is a philosophical failure. It is the burden of the author to present us not with an account of something we know is bad, but to explain the source of the knowledge.
Huxley attempts something akin to an explanation in the second-to-last chapter, a discussion between "the Savage" who grew up outside civilization and Mustalpha Mond, a World Controller. However, the attempt falls short, as Mond has concise answers to all of the Savage's questions, and the Savage lacks the education and/or intellectual power to find reason behind his feelings.
During the conversation, Mond refers to philosopher Francis Bradley and credits him with the idea that philosophy is "the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct." Perhaps this inclusion is intended to convey that Huxley agrees and will make no attempt to manufacture a "bad reason" why the world he created is evil. However, I find this deeply unsatisfying. Why write a book to tell people what they already know? Moreover, a single reference to Bradley is not sufficient to convince me that this definition of philosophy is correct. If Huxley's novel relies heavily on this idea, he should have supported it with more than a solitary statement of Mond. Indeed, Mond promptly refutes the statement by denying instinct as separate from conditioning, and as the civilized population of the world seems to be controlled largely by conditioning, it would seem that in Huxley's world, Mond is correct!
In summary, Huxley crafts an interesting future world where people are blithely content without knowing passion or pain. Unfortunately, he fails both to craft an interesting story to set in this world and to write a strong philosophical argument why such a world would be harmful for mankind. He relies on the obvious faults of the world and the intuitive reaction of the reader, and thus provides no deeper insights.
As a social message, as a novel, and as a statement on the way in which mankind should behave, I find Brave New World inferior in almost every way to 1984. The one word of praise I will give to Huxley's novel is that his dystopia is more unusual and more intriguing than Orwell's. If only he had dome something more with it.(less)
I read this book for the first time when I was 16 years old, in the summer between 10th and 11th grade. Up until that point in my life, I had never qu...moreI read this book for the first time when I was 16 years old, in the summer between 10th and 11th grade. Up until that point in my life, I had never questioned any of my values: my values were my parents' values and that was that. This book made me open my mind to other possibilities, and since I didn't have a job or anything else to do (I was at my summer home in Holland and mostly spent my days riding my bike along the Vecht), I gave a lot of time to thinking about this book. To say that its effect on me was profound would be an understatement. Since that time I have reread The Fountainhead on several occasions.
Let me say now that I am not an Objectivist and I do not think that Ayn Rand has "the correct" view on life (or that there is one, simple "correct" view). On the other hand, neither do I think that all her ideas are completely without merit. If you need always to agree with the author, don't read this book. If you like thinking about new ideas, even if you ultimately reject them, pick it up soon.
Rand's characters are criticized as being "flat." I don't think this is a fair representation, as they do change and develop during the course of the book. What is true is that the characters are people second and representations of ideas first. The hero, Howard Roark, is rather inhuman because he is Rand's idealization of man. The master villain, Ellsworth Toohey, is similarly inhuman, but he is far more interesting than Roark because, whereas Roark is blunt and forthright, Toohey is clever and manipulative. The other characters in the book, who lie between these extremes, are very human because they find themselves in moral dilemmas as they are pulled in various degrees by the forces represented by Roark and Toohey. Dominique Francon, who spends the novel engaged in an internal war between the social values that are thrust upon her and her innate sense of right (Roark must battle with society externally but has no internal conflict -- he is "perfect" from the beginning). Gail Wynand fights this same battle, but he must deal not only with social values but also the part he has played in shaping them. Peter Keating is a victim, but by being a victim he propagates his weak, immoral values and thus becomes one of the villains.
Atlas Shrugged is considered Rand's seminal work, but I rank this book higher. I confess this may have something to do with the situation under which I read and the impact it had on me personally. However, I also think that as a work of philosophy and as a work of fiction, The Fountainhead is superior. As a work of philosophy, Atlas Shrugged is more polished, but it does not fill any holes left by The Fountain. Rather, it ignores them: Rand manages to gloss over some problems so that the reader might not know they are there. By contrast, The Fountainhead more honestly demonstrates the weakness of the philosophy. For example, Rand associates beauty with functionality. While I doubt many people would deny that such a thing as beauty in function exists, it is absurd to limit the word "beauty" to this meaning. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand simply avoids stating this as plainly as she does in The Fountainhead, so the reader may not realize this weakness in her position. I prefer the unpolished honesty of The Fountainhead.
As a work of fiction, Atlas Shrugged is simply preachy. If fiction is to be, as Rand says it should be (and I agree), the translation of an abstraction into the concrete, she does not entirely succeed with Atlas Shrugged. A great deal of what she writes there reads more as a treatise than as a work of literature. The Fountainhead succeeds because the ideas are conveyed with actions and dialogue, interactions between competing forces, and rarely long monologues such as are found in Atlas Shrugged.
Ayn Rand is about as well known for her brevity as her modesty, but despite the fact that this book is most immodest both in tone and length, I recommend it strongly. (less)
**spoiler alert** The story begins when young, beautiful Dorian Gray encounters Lord Henry Wotton, who becomes Dorian's friend, mentor and corruptor....more**spoiler alert** The story begins when young, beautiful Dorian Gray encounters Lord Henry Wotton, who becomes Dorian's friend, mentor and corruptor. Lord Henry teaches Dorian that the purpose of life is simply to experience life, that experience is both the means and the end. Dorian searches for new experiences and soon finds himself engaging in immoral and vulgar acts: he breaks hearts, he breathes opium, he ruins lives and he kills. As Dorian's moral character decays, his outward appearance is unaffected; but while he retains his youth and charm, his portrait grows old and wicked-looking. At the end of the book, Dorian attacks the portrait in a fit of confusion, grief and anger, and in doing so ends his own life.
It would be possible to interpret this novel as almost puritanical: Dorian sins and is punished. Yet I think this would be a gross misinterpretation. First, Dorian's corruptor remains relatively unpunished: Lord Henry not only lives still at the novel's close, but he seems to be as free and content as always. Second, the uncorrupted -- Sybil Vane and Basil Hallward -- fall victim to Dorian's cruelty and are quickly forgotten by a world that continues to make a place for Dorian. Finally, we must remember that Wilde was himself was a proponent of the aesthetic movement: art for art's sake. His own infatuation with beauty is a part of Lord Henry's teachings, so a complete condemnation of those ideas is an unlikely theme for Wilde's only novel.
Rather, I believe the novel endorses Lord Henry's teachings, in part or in full. But we must remember that Lord Henry does not take opium, he does not wander in unsavory parts of town, and he certainly does not commit murder. Rather, he goes to the opera, he reads good literature, he surrounds himself with art, and he amuses himself with witty conversations. In short, Lord Henry lives for his own experiences, but those experiences are of a refined nature. He eschews the vulgar and lives. Dorian fails to discriminate in this way, and so he suffers and dies. Wilde is telling us that while experience is both a means and an end, not every experience is worth having. The story of Dorian Gray is a cautionary tale: live for the sake of living, but live a discerning life of artistry and culture.
In this age, aestheticism is not a common thesis, and this made The Picture of Dorian Gray particularly enjoyable for me. More than anything, I loved reading almost every word uttered by Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian's master seems a projection of Wilde himself: a gentleman who laughs at the world while relishing in its highest pleasures, who lives for those pleasures and who loves beauty more than anything. As such, it is through Lord Henry's speech that Wilde's wit is most evident.
On the whole, this is one of my favorite novels. I can hardly believe it took me so long to read it. I am indebted to Kristen for giving me such an enthusiastic recommendation.(less)
This is the book for nonlinear dynamics. Strogatz's writing is not only easy to follow, but is also pleasant, conversational, and at times even a bit...moreThis is the book for nonlinear dynamics. Strogatz's writing is not only easy to follow, but is also pleasant, conversational, and at times even a bit whimsical. The book opens with very simple material, and while it eventually touches on some fairly advanced ideas (eg renormalization), it builds up to that point very carefully, so the student should never feel overwhelmed. The examples and problems are drawn from a wide range of fields, so students from disciplines besides math and physics should see some connection to their own interests.
Some people criticize the book's scope, claiming that it is too limited, but specialized topics such as pattern formation and network dynamics are better reserved for a more advanced course.
An excellent complement to the book is the set of lecture notes written by Michael Cross and available on his website: Chaos on the Web.(less)
This is a coming-of-age book about a troubled teen in New York, although one couldn't say that James Sveck actually comes of age: he's in pretty much...moreThis is a coming-of-age book about a troubled teen in New York, although one couldn't say that James Sveck actually comes of age: he's in pretty much the same state at the end of the book as he is at the beginning.
For reasons unclear to me, I sometimes enjoy reading books that remind me of my own melancholy teenage years. James is indeed melancholy, maybe depressed, and definitely confused. He doesn't understand other people, he doesn't know how to develop meaningful relationships, and he seeks to escape — rather than fix — this problem. I'm not sure if he even acknowledges that it is a problem.
The real joy of reading this book is in the language, which is simple but graceful. James is well educated and literate, but he's also a product of the modern world, so all the language is very contemporary. His vocabulary is broad but not so expansive that you'll need a dictionary. He takes joy in finding just the right way to say something, and I appreciated the concise and precise, yet still artful prose.
Cameron gives James a few conventional sources of frustration: James is gay, his parents are divorced, and he witnessed the attacks of 9/11, all of which contribute to his confusion and anger. I was concerned that this would detract from the focus on James' underlying issues, but Cameron doesn't overplay these elements of James' life. James' inability to talk about 9/11 or to develop any kind of romance — he states that he is gay only in the abstract because he wouldn't know how to begin a romance even if he wanted to — serve more as windows for observing his emotional problems rather than as sources of them. For many readers, this probably is a good thing: you don't have to suffer exactly the same concrete problems as James to be able identify with him. (But, if you're looking for a book about a kid wrestling with his grief or sexuality, this probably isn't it.)
This is a short book: I read it on a single cross-country flight. Given the subject matter, brevity was a good choice. I may like to reminisce about my melancholy years, but I definitely don't want to relive them.(less)
The house is larger on inside than on the outside. Impossible but true. At first it appears to be a difference of inches, but then the closet turns in...moreThe house is larger on inside than on the outside. Impossible but true. At first it appears to be a difference of inches, but then the closet turns into a hallway and a labyrinth unfolds, the bowels of the house that Navidson dares to explore. Navidson makes a film, which Zampano analyzes in a lengthy series of notes, edited and published by Johnny Truant.
The book is the house and is also larger on the inside than on the outside. On the outside, it consists of some seven hundred pages (leaves) bound in sequence, with inks in patterns. Inside it contains a story in a story in a story: a documentary turned horror film, a dry pseudo-academic analysis, and a tale of a disaffected youth who finds a purpose. As the Navidsons explore the house, it responds to them and plays with their emotions. It is simultaneously intriguing and terrifying, mundane and absurd, evolving, almost living. As the reader explores the book, Danielewski plays with his/her emotions. House of Leaves is at various times sexually charged, boring, tense, pleasant, scary, subtle, vulgar, confusing and always changing. Nothing is reliable or stable.
Danielewski's writing is bizarre. If the book were any less than it is, I would describe the experimental style -- e.g. footnotes that span pages, sections of mirror image text, pages containing only one or two words -- as trite and affected. The word house appears always in blue. If you haven't, pick up the book and leaf through it (no pun intended) just to see the shape of the text. Somehow, though, Danielewski makes it work. Most of the time the strange typesetting adds to the intensity of the story.
Reading this book was an effort. It wasn't hard to make myself read: I was overwhelmed, I was obsessed, and I read constantly. It was an effort to suffer the emotional game the book plays with the reader; it was exhausting. I don't know if I'll ever read House of Leaves a second time: it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Little solace comes to those who grieve when thoughts keep drifting as walls keep shifting and this great blue world of ours seems a house of leaves
Universality is the idea that a large number of different physical systems in the same "class" will share common behavior, eg scaling laws. This is po...moreUniversality is the idea that a large number of different physical systems in the same "class" will share common behavior, eg scaling laws. This is possible when the behavior depends exclusively on certain characteristics and not on the details of the individual systems (course graining). Although this idea was not a new one, the computation of critical exponents in thermodynamic systems remained imprecise for many years because it was not well understood what the relevant characteristics were. Only with the introduction of the renormalization was this mystery fully solved.
This text starts at the beginning: Ising model, mean field theories, etc. From there, it builds up through improved theories (eg Landau) and introduces important concepts like symmetry and ergodicity breaking as needed along the way. Finally we reach RG, and the student will be amazed at how (relatively) simple the correct description is! Yet, despite its simplicity, it is easy to understand why RG took so long in coming. The concept is truly brilliant.
This book is wonderfully written. The notation and typesetting are a bit uninspiring, but by the time one is ready for a work of this level, one should be able to adapt to these minor difficulties.
A reasonably good background in stat mech is necessary, and for RG in particular some knowledge of nonlinear dynamics is recommended.(less)
Kafka on the Shore is reminiscent of Wind-Up Bird: it has a lot of the same whimsy that makes the latter such a beautiful novel. However, I found Kafk...moreKafka on the Shore is reminiscent of Wind-Up Bird: it has a lot of the same whimsy that makes the latter such a beautiful novel. However, I found Kafka on the whole to be less satisfying. The mythology in Kafka is less interesting and far less integrated. It is more of a hodgepodge of various cultural symbols that fail to come together to form anything resembling a theme. It's a novel of self-exploration, but at the end, I am left wondering what Kafka learned, about himself or the world in which he lives. Although a wonderful storyteller, Murakami seems afraid to establish a clear thesis of any kind, which was particularly disappointing in a novel of this kind. As a side issue, I was also put off by some of the needless vulgarity.
Despite its problems, KotS is an enchanting story that I basically enjoyed. I don't think it will endure as a good work of literature, as Wind-Up Bird may, but I would still recommend it to somebody who enjoys surreal realism and wants to read a "fluffy" novel.(less)
This is the story of a Hasidic Jewish boy, Asher, who has a gift for painting. He grows up to be a great artist, but his art is a source of anger and...moreThis is the story of a Hasidic Jewish boy, Asher, who has a gift for painting. He grows up to be a great artist, but his art is a source of anger and embarrassment for his family and people. Many artistic subjects, most notably nudes and crucifixions, are deemed inappropriate for an orthodox Jew. The struggle between art and faith, and art and religious society, are the central themes and plot points of this book.
This book would have been far less inspiring had Asher's family and Hasidic sect been depicted as oppressive zealots. However, Chaim Potok does justice to Asher's people (and indeed to his own people) by portraying them in a generally positive light. Asher's parents both make great sacrifices for the good of the Jews suffering in Europe. They care deeply for one another and for their son. They try, but ultimately fail, to understand their son's art. This is a not book ]about bad people oppressing a good person, but rather a book about good people trying to reconcile their differences and love each other in spite of them. This makes for a much more interesting story, as well as a beautiful picture of Hasidism. (less)
This series of books is generally inappropriate for any physics course. The material is basically introductory, but most first-year university student...moreThis series of books is generally inappropriate for any physics course. The material is basically introductory, but most first-year university students will find this work overwhelming and difficult to read. The lack of examples will seriously hinder most students in problem-driven courses (as physics courses tend to be). Furthermore, these lectures were written for a rigorous two-year introductory sequence at Caltech, but most universities offer only one year of introductory classes and relegate much of the material Feynman presents other courses. For a professor to pull an appropriate amount of material from these lectures to use in a one-year course would be a challenge to say the least. On the other hand, the material is "basic" and would thus be inappropriate for an advanced course.
Although Feynman wrote these lectures with undergraduate students as the intended audience, I believe that the best audience is comprised mostly of graduate students and professional physicists. This audience is already knowledgeable of physics and very familiar with the bulk of the lecture content. However, these people will be best able to appreciate some of Feynman's unique perspectives and interesting explanations. Also, they can pick and choose which sections interest them. I do not have the time to sit down and read through these extensive volumes in one pass, but I enjoy occasionally picking one up and reading just a section.(less)
This is the book that taught me how to cook. Not only does it contain some really excellent recipes, it also gives detailed instructions for fundament...moreThis is the book that taught me how to cook. Not only does it contain some really excellent recipes, it also gives detailed instructions for fundamental cooking techniques. Some of the recipes are rather involved, but Julia provides everything you'll need to work your way up to them.
Due to the complexity of some of the recipes and the generally high butter and cream content, I would not use this book for every day cooking. I reserve it for learning new techniques and for special occasions.(less)
This book provides a satisfactory mathematical background for undergraduate physics courses, but not for graduate courses, and certainly not for (theo...moreThis book provides a satisfactory mathematical background for undergraduate physics courses, but not for graduate courses, and certainly not for (theoretical) research. I give it a rating of 3 stars because it does cover a reasonable range of topics, but I found a lot of the explanations unsatisfactory. In retrospect I wish my professor had chosen the traditional text by Arfken. I do occasionally use this book as a reference, and sometimes it does not disappoint.(less)