A History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists b...moreA History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists because it deftly explores a wider mystical tradition that goes well beyond the literalism of Western Protestantism against which modern atheism is chiefly a reaction. It is a good book to instill humility into Christians because it exposes the religious limitations of the cramped historical literalism that has proved a cul de sac for modern Christianity.
By definition, the more mysterious God is, the less knowable it is. At the same time, the more knowable God is, the less credible it is. If the notion of God is to be saved, it must be predicated upon the mystical, ineffable, incomprehensible awareness of a divine being that transcends the nature of the physical universe as we know it. The problem then becomes that such a God is not only essentially unknowable but also irrelevant to human affairs. Every attempt to connect God to human affairs makes God at once less mysterious and paradoxically less believable.
On the one hand, the author does provide a fascinating history of the attempts of mystics — from Buddhists to Byzantine Christians to Sufis to Kabbalists — to attain an experience of God by routes other than rationalism. And she has a fascinating insight into the universality and openness of such approaches, which typically recognize the possibility of many approaches to one God. These approaches have the merit of recognizing that what cannot be apprehended by reason should be approached by other means, and there is clearly something to be said for the idea that reason is not the only mode of perception. The more unapproachable and incomprehensible God becomes, however, the less apparent it becomes that its existence or non-existence has any bearing on human affairs.
On the other hand, the literal, personal, interventionist God of Western Christianity has become increasingly untenable thanks, ironically, to Western Christianity's emphasis on literal interpretation of the scripture. The problem with the literal historicity of the Bible is that much of it is demonstrably, provably, laughably false. Quite apart from the question of human parthenogenesis or revivification, my then six-year-old daughter exposed the empirical problem quite succinctly when listening to Bible stories at the County Fair: "There's no way you could fit all the animals in the world on one boat!" People who insist on the literal nature of parables set themselves up for self-contradiction, and people who insist on the parabolic nature of reality open themselves to the charge that they are merely reciting fictions.
Fundamentalists come in different stripes, however, and the author draws a distinction between the cultural conservatism and literalism of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-imperialist reaction of Islamic fundamentalism, which she argues is primarily a reaction to the political evisceration of the Muslim world by superior European technology. As such, she argues, it is marked not so much by anti-scientific obscurantism and as by a fierce desire to reverse European political dominance.
Although the author concedes that "a passionate and committed atheism can be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism," it is clear that she finds atheism an emotionally unsatisfying alternative. After all, her comment assumes that "religious" is a term of approbation and leaves no room for a clear-eyed and dispassionate skepticism that the "force is with us." Armstrong gives a nod to the idea that one can be passionate about the world as it is on the assumption that for all practical purposes we are on our own, but she is clearly unwilling to accept such a view as the final word. (less)
George Orwell is indisputably the greatest didactic writer in the English language since Samuel Johnson. As an essayist, he is a nonpareil, and his in...moreGeorge Orwell is indisputably the greatest didactic writer in the English language since Samuel Johnson. As an essayist, he is a nonpareil, and his insights — which he modestly characterized as "a power of facing unpleasant facts" — are remarkable, original, and biting. The scintillating force of his pen shines most brightly in his essays and his memoirs.
The very power of his personal prose that gives such force to his essays and memoirs, however, leaves his fiction curiously flat. For all his insight, he seems to lack the ability to free his characters to lead independent fictional lives. A person reading Orwell's novels for their characterization would shoot himself.
Such is the force, clarity, and originality of Orwell's ideas, however, and the freshness of his candor, that it is easy to forgive the flat characterization and intrusive narration of the novels. And while each generation seems to find some pundit who dismisses Orwell's dark vision in 1984 as passe, fresh revelations of the octopus-like stranglehold of the National Security Agency over the daily minutiae of the the lives of 300 million Americans gives proof daily of how prescient Orwell was. Big Brother is indeed watching.
We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect rec...more
We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect recall. In fact, it is more akin to an evolutionary afterthought that operates on dubious premises, fuzzy memories, and irrational impulses. We are finely tuned to survive in a world where we may be someone's next meal, but the very behavior that may be adaptive under those circumstances may be unforeseen, unnoticed, or ignored in today's world, with consequences that range from the comical to the tragic.
McRaney offers a series of tart essays, each of which illustrates a quirk of the human mind that may be familiar to clinical psychologists but a revelation to the rest of us. If, like the ancient Greeks, one seeks to know oneself, this is an excellent place to start. (less)
My best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homewo...moreMy best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homework in a demanding scientific discipline (while studying Chinese on the side) before dinner, and went to bed promptly by 9:00 p.m. after a leisurely dinner and a couple of hours of science fiction. This book is not for him.
Being the opposite of my best friend on the organizational scale, much of my life has been spent on a journey to bring life into focus and clean up my act. I am a modest, but not obsessive, consumer of organizational self-help books, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow to David Allen's Getting Things Done to Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.
J.D. Meier's Getting Results the Agile Way, based on his experience as a program manager at Microsoft, strikes me as a thoughtful and important contribution to the genre. Meier does not despise the minutiae of task management, but he attempts to transcend it. His emphasis is on identifying measurable goals, working toward them systematically, and evaluating the results regularly. In addition, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing that time and energy are finite resources, and he writes at some length about both effectiveness — doing the right things — and efficiency — doing them well.
Part of being both effective and efficient is boundaries and balance. If you work to exhaustion, it affects your ability to perform in every other area of your life. If you do not get at least a minimum amount of sleep, you won't function effectively. If you do not have some fun, your motivation will plummet. And if you do not pay attention to your relationships with other people, they will atrophy. While these observations may seem obvious, it nevertheless takes a certain amount of planning and discipline to ensure that people schedule a ceiling to the amount of time spent at work and a floor to the amount of time spent for fun, sleep, and other people.
Beyond his emphasis on the importance of short and long term goal setting, Meier is also an astute observer of the self-defeating mind games that prevent people from working effectively toward their goals, and he breaks down a number of simple strategies for addressing them, from settling for something less than perfection on a first iteration to plunging into work to escape analysis paralysis.
In all, Meier's book achieves what should be the goal of every good organizational book: it does not settle for tidying our schedules, but insists that we examine our goals in the hope that we will choose to live more meaningful lives.(less)
Marrakesh by Design is a perfect pearl of a book; brilliant on the surface but also containing many layers of effort and experience accumulated over t...moreMarrakesh by Design is a perfect pearl of a book; brilliant on the surface but also containing many layers of effort and experience accumulated over the years. The aim is to bring the beauties of the Moroccan decorative arts to an American audience so that they can be infused into American design in new and creative ways. The book includes a number of stunning examples from Marrakesh's chic expatriate community, whose riads and villas meld Moroccan tradition and modern flair.
As befits someone who has lived in Morocco many years, Maryam Montague is fluent in the vocabulary of Moroccan artisanry, whether it is the intricacies of plaster gep or the beauties of zellij mosaics or the merits of organic versus chemical dyes. Montague displays sensitivity toward the integrity of autochthonous art forms, knowledge about the importation of Persian and Arabic influences, and a talent for applying her knowledge to contemporary decor. Indeed, one of the unexpected pleasures of this book is its practical guides for do-it-yourself design projects and its catalog of merchants who deal in Moroccan decor.
In short, this is a book for the practical aesthete in search of a way to incorporate the elegance of Moroccan design into a Western setting. It is not a detailed treatise on Moroccan artisanship, nor is it a scholarly history of the Moroccan aesthetic. But for those who aspire to have a little bit of the glamor of cosmopolitan Marrakesh rub off on their own homes, Marrakesh by Design should be a welcome addition to their library. (less)
I am haunted by the ghosts of the breaker boys. At the beginning of the twentieth century, little boys of 10 and 12 worked six days a week for ten-hou...moreI am haunted by the ghosts of the breaker boys. At the beginning of the twentieth century, little boys of 10 and 12 worked six days a week for ten-hour days perched over coal chutes from which they plucked bits of rock. Clarence Darrow, at the time the most famous attorney for the coal miners, described the fate of one such boy as follows:
One day his little companion who always sat beside him leaned too far over as he picked the slate. He lost his balance and fell into the trough where the lumps of coal ran down. He plunged madly along with the rushing flood into the iron teeth of the remorseless breaker.... It took a long while to stop the mighty machine, and then it was almost an hour before the boy could be put together in one pile. Several days thereafter a man in a little town in Massachusetts thought that he saw blood on some lumps of coal that he was pouring into the top of his fine nickel-plated stove — but still there is blood on all our coal — and for that matter on almost everything we use, but a man is a fool if he looks for other people's blood.
Darrow was labor's lawyer early in his career, until his defense of the McNamara brothers for blowing up the Los Angeles Times building collapsed in a guilty plea, albeit one that saved the brothers from the gallows.
At the other end of his career, one of Darrow's more notable cases, tried in the wake of the famous Scopes monkey trial, was the defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American physician who moved with his family into a white neighborhood in Detroit, where they soon found themselves surrounded by a lynch mob numbering hundreds of angry white people. Sweet had taken the precaution of seeing that his family was well armed, however, and they fired repeatedly into the crowd, killing and wounding several people. In the subsequent murder trial, Darrow took on the defense and won a remarkable acquittal.
It was said of Darrow that he was cynical in everything, except that he lacked real cynicism. An atheist, a champion and practitioner of "free love," a lawyer who would defend the most depraved criminals and take on the most hopeless causes, Darrow earned his sobriquet "attorney for the damned" honestly. Convinced that human beings were the products of their circumstances and that free will was a myth, the only thing Darrow truly believed in was mercy. And he was perhaps the century's greatest exponent of mercy, a quality that was all the more remarkable in the astonishingly brutal and corrupt Chicago of his day. Though he was willing to defend the most depraved of criminals if the price was right, he was also highly unusual in his willingness to take up such hopeless causes as those of the breaker boys and Ossian Sweet.
This fine biography by John A. Farrell not only evokes Darrow in all his brilliant, Byronic splendor and fallibility, but also provides a keen insight into America's crippled psyche.(less)