If this book review were to become so long that I would need chapter- and sub-headings, and if my chapter- and sub-headings turned out to be things liIf this book review were to become so long that I would need chapter- and sub-headings, and if my chapter- and sub-headings turned out to be things like “(On the Porch: 1,” “Colon,” and “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” and if I were to set some of them—but not others—off with left parentheses, and punctuate some—again, not others—with colons tending towards nothing but a thereafter empty page, you would think (aside from “Wow, this review is horribly and strangely long”) that I’d completely lost touch with any audience I ever had, right?
That is what it is like to read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee and Walker Evans (yes, that Walker Evans of Depression-era photographic fame) were sent, in 1936, by Fortune magazine to investigate the lives of white tenant farmers in the Deep South. The result was intended—by Fortune and possibly initially by Agee and Evans—to be a series of documentary articles accompanied by photographs of appropriately pitiable people. But Agee and Evans were reluctant to write that kind of article (the kind that Fortune and its readers felt they had a right to expect?) and their submissions were declined for publication in the magazine. Only in 1941 were Agee’s vastly expanded manuscript and Evans’s accompanying photographs finally published in book form by Houghton Mifflin (thank you, New England), as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Good title, I thought, upon first reading it. Unusual. Arresting. Perhaps ironic, given the subject matter of the book? To me, it connoted a seeming paean of praise that was really a denunciation. I took it for granted that the “famous men” referred to in the title were the independent, wealthy landowners keeping the tenant farmers and sharecroppers profiled in the book in a never-ending cycle of poverty and debt. After all, tenant farmers were not, were never, could never be, famous. (Whether Fortune chose to publish articles about them or not.) And exploitative white men with all the money and guns and prestige one Alabama county could furnish in that era wouldn’t have been praised by men like Agee and Evans. Not with a straight face, anyway. I began reading the book expecting in-depth exposition of the tenant system of farming, expecting Agee to eventually level an accusatory finger directly in the landowners’ direction. I expected a tone of snide mockery. I expected simmering righteous indignation.
Instead what I read (after first poring over Evans’s stark and evocative photographs) was a register of “Persons and Places” in which William Blake, Ring Lardner, and Jesus Christ (among others) were listed as “unpaid agitators.” Hmm. Then a “Design of Book Two” that read like a trial outline for a book not yet written. I could imagine James Agee sitting down to write a first draft amongst the notes he had made during his weeks of living with the tenant families—notes on old wrapping paper, notes on envelopes—and writing exactly the “Design” that was published, down to the last left parenthesis. Though Let Us Now… was originally intended to be the first of three volumes in a larger work entitled “Three Tenant Families,” Agee never got around to writing volumes two and three, which I can’t say really surprises.
Indeed, part of me wishes Agee had had just a slightly tighter grip on his hosses. Because while Let Us Now… is certainly striking in its unvarnished authenticity, it could be more intelligibly structured…more “user-friendly,” so to speak. Agee writes in a footnote on p. 281, “I am dangerously and mistakenly much against compromise: ‘my kind never gets anything done.’” And though in this case “dangerously” and “mistakenly” are certainly offered ironically, I do believe that Agee really was averse to compromise, perhaps even to cooperation, or, any cooperation that didn’t directly further his individual aims. In fact, I think this personality trait (see “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby”) is perhaps one contributing factor to why Let Us Now sold fewer than 600 copies. Perhaps readers would have been more inclined to read this unconventional book if it had at least used conventional punctuation.
Be that as it may, Agee and Evans have, between them, created a substantial, moving, and finely crafted piece of work. I hesitate to call it “groundbreaking,” because it actually seems unique among works of its kind, having more in common with Thoreau’s Walden or Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek than with documentary journalism—in the end, it is more distinct as itself than similar to anything. In a chapter entitled “On the Porch: 2,” Agee writes: “I will be trying here to write nothing whatever which did not in physical actuality or in the mind happen or appear; and my most serious effort will be, not to use these ‘materials’ for art, far less for journalism, but to give them as they were and as in my memory and regard they are” (p. 218, italics Agee’s). Agee seems at least equally concerned with the perception and transmission of reality as with the shape of life for the tenant farmers with whom he temporarily sheltered. Let Us Now…’s very best passages deal with both:
“The [lamp ‘oil’ is not at all oleaginous, but thin, brittle, rusty feeling, and sharp; taken and rubbed between forefinger and thumb, it so cleanses their grain that it sharpens their mutual touch to a new coin edge” (p. 47).
“Late in August the fields begin to whiten more rarely with late bloom and more frequently with cotton and then still thicker with cotton, a sparkling ground starlight of it, steadily bursting into more and more millions of points, all the leaves seeming shrunken smaller; quite as at night the whole frontage of the universe is more and more thoroughly printed in the increasing darkness…” (p. 304).
“It was as hot as all the days of the week piled one on top of another, or as if they were a series of burning-glasses…” (p. 344).
At bottom, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is far more subversive than an in-depth investigation of tenant farming, more subversive than an accusing finger leveled at the landlords, more subversive than snide mockery or even righteous indignation. Far from declaring that the tenant system has essentially committed crimes against these and other tenant families and that as a result, it should be reformed or abolished, Agee seems to be declaring a harsher truth: that such wrongs cannot be righted by any human effort. At times, he seems to imply that the tenants he profiles will never escape what in 1936 were their ‘present’ circumstances. Agee imagines the tenants he meets to be asking in the silence of their hearts, “In what way were we trapped? where, our mistake? what, where, how, when, what way, might all these things have been different, if only we had done otherwise?” ( p. 74). Later, he divides all humanity into two groups, the Prolific and the Devouring and writes, “…the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights….These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies. Whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence” (p. 418).
Far from betraying some deep-seated snobbery or fatalism, I would argue these passages indicate a desire on the part of Agee to short-circuit any impression that the tenant families he meets and profiles are merely examples of a “social problem” (inside front cover). The term “social problem” implies something temporary and curable, something which does not exact the lives of human beings as a kind of tribute. However, Agee seems to take his assignment more seriously than Fortune ever intended him to; instead of simply describing and decrying what he found in Alabama, he seems to think he owes it to the tenant families in question to present them as more than arbitrary victims of an unjust human system. Though they may seem to be merely the temporary and ‘present’ losers in an age-old struggle between the “haves” and “have-nots” (Marx is quoted on p. xvi.), Agee seems to be trying to illustrate how permanent are the tolls exacted by what others think of as temporary disadvantages. Cotton tenantry in the Deep South of the United States of America in 1936 is just one example of what you may call a “social problem,” if you like: humankind’s continued inhumanity to humankind. How comes it to be that though the Earth provides more than enough to satisfy every human need, some humans’ needs are ignored in favor of other humans’ mere wants and desires? How comes it to be that we do not care more for each other, refusing to trade in other people’s misery, for money? Though Agee may or may not have honored these tenants’ lives in a way they would understand or approve of, he, in his own way, seems genuinely to seek to honor them: “…by bland chance alone is my life so softened and sophisticated in the years of my defenselessness [that] I am robbed of a royalty I can not only never claim, but never properly much desire or regret” (p. 377). ...more
Published ten years after Teaching as a Subversive Activity, this book is interesting but hardly as interesting as that one. Teaching as a SubversivePublished ten years after Teaching as a Subversive Activity, this book is interesting but hardly as interesting as that one. Teaching as a Subversive Activity not only offered a coherent educational philosophy and concrete examples for implementing reform, it was characterized by great optimism, energy, and humor. Its overall effect was similar to that of a starting gun or trumpet fanfare. In contrast, Teaching as a Conserving Activity has the air of something written from the trenches. The author appears by turns frustrated, resigned, pragmatic, weary, dutiful, yet jaded—like someone only halfway through hiking the Appalachian Trail, someone footsore and exhausted who nevertheless knows there is no turning back.
The entire book is predicated on the idea that in order to preserve homeostasis and stability in a culture, “education tries to conserve tradition when the rest of the environment is innovative. Or it is innovative when the rest of the society is tradition-bound…the function of education is always to offer the counterargument, the other side of the picture….Its aim at all times is to make visible the prevailing biases of a culture and then, by employing whatever philosophies of education are available, to oppose them” (19-20). I disagree with this thesis, and as a result, found much of the book to be a disappointment (one point particularly being Postman’s momentary lapse into the kind of unwarranted either/or, “other side of the picture” thinking he decried in Teaching as a Subversive Activity). I preferred Postman/Weingartner’s earlier thesis that the purpose of education is to enhance students’ capacity for survival—physical, emotional, and intellectual. Can schools serve as thermostatic controls for society? Yes. But their primary function should be preparing their students for life after midterms.
I found it especially ironic, then, that Postman laments the way schools have been used as instruments for social conditioning. Though he championed the idea of discussing sex in the classroom in Subversive, here he includes sex education—along with drug education, driver education, counseling, free-lunch, baby-sitting, and racial integration—in a list of services he thinks schools should not provide. “The schools have assumed the burden of solving extremely important problems, but they are simply not equipped to achieve the solutions” (110). Problems like ensuring cultural homeostasis for entire societies? Though Postman asserts that he has turned his back on “twentieth-century ‘liberalism’” (205), I think he is confused.
Which really is my take on the entire book. Postman is confused. He disagrees with many of his former statements but not necessarily in ways that make sense or for reasons that are clear. He holds some strong opinions, but these opinions do not hang together or reinforce each other. He remains strongly against standardized testing but at times seems to advocate standardizing the curriculum. He makes a rim-shot out of Sesame Street on page 85 but then calls it “brilliant television” on page 189. He reproduces quotes from the likes of George Bernard Shaw and then writes, “if you replace the word ‘art’ with the phrase ‘language education,’ you will have a precise statement of what I have been trying to say” (153). Mr. Postman may ridicule HAGOTH all he likes, he must forgive the reader’s crap detector for going off.
All that said, I do not begrudge Mr. Postman his opinions or his book. Though I disagree with him on schools’ serving as thermostatic controls for the broader culture, I think he serves as a pretty good barometer for the state of education and educators in America. This is exactly the sort of book one might write after a decade of defeat, denial, and disillusion (which jibes well with my understanding of aspects of the 1970s), and through it all, Mr. Postman remains a generous and tenacious thinker. Tenacious because he is still grappling intelligently with large, complex, and exhausting problems, and generous because he doesn’t shrink from sharing his struggles and about-faces with the rest of us....more
As best I can piece together, this book is a compilation of articles appearing in Foxfire magazine between the years 1966 and 1972, and though the subAs best I can piece together, this book is a compilation of articles appearing in Foxfire magazine between the years 1966 and 1972, and though the sub-title (“hog-dressing, log cabin building…” etc.) promises all kinds of crazy coolness, it turns out the coolest thing about it is that it was written by ninth- and tenth-grade English classes at Rabun County High School in north Georgia in lieu of a “normal” English curriculum. Reading the text, you would never guess. There are no typos, no dangling modifiers…even the phrasing is completely standard. Every so often you’ll come across words like “froe” and “whup,” but they are actually words in northern Georgia, and most of the interviews are transcribed phonetically in order to capture the true Appalachian accent. Though it almost hurts to say it, this magazine whups my own tenth-grade attempt (about WWII) to heck-an’-gone.
The book includes how-to segments (e.g. Building a Log Cabin, Making a Basket out of White Oak Splits, Soapmaking), interviews with local plain-living experts (Aunt Arie, Daniel Manous, Hillard Green), and compilations that serve mainly to preserve a certain segment of local history or aspect of Appalachian culture (Mountain Recipes, Weather Signs, Hunting Tales). All the articles are excellent, but people who find such things uninteresting might struggle a bit.
A disclaimer for English teachers: This book, when read in conjunction with Teaching as a Subversive Activity may lead you to chuck your standardized curriculum and start a magazine.
I'm giving this one four stars based on the sheer volume of scholarship it contains. However, if I could grade separately the first two chapters and tI'm giving this one four stars based on the sheer volume of scholarship it contains. However, if I could grade separately the first two chapters and the last (the frame narrative, if you will, that attempts to contextualize all of the information that makes up the body of the book), I'd give them three stars. The thorny problems that arise when one tries to reconcile ancient and modern interpretations of Biblical scripture deserve more than a statement that "they're irreconcilable." That's like a symphony composer eschewing a coda on the last movement and ending the entire piece in discord. Like a surgeon performing a complicated procedure but neglecting the stitches. Perhaps the two approaches to Biblical scripture, the ancient and the modern, ARE irreconcilable. But the urge to reconcile them deserves more than a sketch, more than an outline of a response.
Aside from this lack of explication, I found this book fascinating. I especially enjoyed Kugel's original translations of the Biblical Hebrew texts and his occasional outflashings of humor. Although I'm not sure reading this book has fundamentally changed the way I approach the Bible, it has altered and broadened my perspective....more
This is one of the very best books on education I’ve ever read. Although published in 1969, I find myself wishing that everyone everywhere would pickThis is one of the very best books on education I’ve ever read. Although published in 1969, I find myself wishing that everyone everywhere would pick it up and read it. Though it’s a bit long on references to Vietnam and rather out of date in some of its neuroscience (see Ch. 7: Languaging), it still has extremely important things to say to both teachers and students. (Sorry, administrators, you don’t even make the list, seeing as how you are unnecessary and in many cases counterproductive to the learning process.)
Postman and Weingartner make many points, not the least of which is that there exists in the public educational system of the modern United States a pretty sharp demarcation between school and real life, a demarcation that results from using outdated methods to inculcate irrelevant information, and which serves to discourage real learning and real learners. They trace student cheating, conformity, cynicism, behavioral problems, emotional problems, and high dropout rates (among other problems) to this needless demarcation between “real” and “school,” and advocate, among other things, a questions-based curriculum as a way to close the gap.
Imagine how school would change if every classroom were “To Sir, With Love.” If textbooks took a backseat to students’ own questions. If teachers drilled students on the art of asking and answering questions instead of the art of 18th-century Polynesia. Maybe students would find their questions leading them to 18th-century Polynesian art anyway. Maybe not. But Postman/Weingartner’s point is that if they don’t, don’t try to teach them Polynesian art. It may be irrelevant, or worse, counterproductive to students’ survival, both intellectual and otherwise.
I opened up the paper today to find that one of the worst teachers I ever had in high school is now an administrator and making in excess of $107,000 a year. Although I was generally a good and compliant student in high school, graduating with a weighted GPA of 4.102 (I think), I didn’t take notes in that teacher’s class; I wrote them. And then passed them on down the row. —Every student there was just as bored as I was. (I still have those notes, actually, and unlike the teaching, they’re funny, wise, and wildly entertaining.) Thanks to better teachers in math, I can calculate that since the state allocated about $5,800 per pupil in its education budget when I was in high school, the $107,000 that teacher made last year could instead have been spent better educating something in excess of 18 pupils per year for the last ten years. To detractors of Postman and Weingartner who call their suggestions unworkable: You don’t think I re-evaluated, if only for a moment, the workability of Post/gartner’s suggestion to drastically cut if not eliminate administrative staff in the schools when I opened my paper this morning?
Despite superficial gains (as measured by such spurious tools as standardized test scores and graduation rates), I do not believe the state of public education is better now than in 1969. Since 1969, arts budgets have decreased, standardized testing has ballooned to take over more of the curriculum than ever before, and the grade the public would give to the public schools in the nation at large hovers around a C (and has actually decreased between 1974 and 2008—see http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d0...). Not to mention that since 1969, the number of school shootings in the United States has increased exponentially. Which means that what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, and what we’re trying isn’t working. However, to my knowledge, no program anywhere has yet “declared a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks” or “transferred all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice versa,” and I’m open to new ideas. In the meantime, I think I’ll keep on reading everything that Neil Postman has ever written. ...more
I find now that I should have been flagging pages the whole time in order to truly review Carlyle's "The French Revolution," of which this book is theI find now that I should have been flagging pages the whole time in order to truly review Carlyle's "The French Revolution," of which this book is the second volume. However, a few things stand out in my memory after these months of reading:
Carlyle’s method of understanding and interpreting the events of history is not scientific. That is to say, it is not materialistic or detached. Carlyle takes for granted that historical events have moral and spiritual, as well as material and political, significance, and that a truly capable and committed historian would not neglect the first two in favor of the second. We don’t encounter that attitude much these days, so modern readers might balk at such statements as “Thou [Louis XV:], whose whole existence hitherto was a chimera and scenic show,….Thy whole existence seems one hideous abortion and mistake of Nature; the use and meaning of thee not yet known” (v. 1, p. 19). What modern historian would apply such words to, for example, the late Saddam Hussein? Why not? According to my own hypothesis, the nineteenth-century worldview was very different from our twenty-first — while we depend on disposable sources (mostly columnists, “talking heads,” and bloggers) to supply the commentary and analysis that allows us to form opinions as to events’ moral and spiritual significance (odds are, we wouldn’t even call it that), the nineteenth century had no nightly news, no Maureen Dowd. Books were, basically, its media, and history books were allowed — and expected — to make moral judgments. Whether as a cause or an effect, morality then was less flexible, spirituality less relative. Carlyle is working from the assumption that reality is objective and knowable, that there is such a thing as a true narrative, and he is seeking to give it to us.
However, modern readers might be reconciled to reading Carlyle’s moral and spiritual (as well as material and political) version of history by the fact that, to all appearances, he would agree with the modern notion that history is discursive—that with the passage of years come new vantage points from which to look at past events and see truths previously hidden. In introducing the events of the Reign of Terror, he pauses a moment to speculate on history’s difficulties in treating of that subject in the years prior to 1836:
…now, in a new stage of the business, when History, ceasing to shriek, would try rather to include under her old Forms of speech or speculation this new amazing Thing [the Reign of Terror:] … History … babbles and flounders… …what if History were to admit, for once, that all the Names and Theorems yet known to her fall short? … In that case, History, renouncing the pretension to name it at present, will look honestly at it, and name what she can of it! Any approximation to the right Name has value: were the right Name itself once here, the Thing is known henceforth; the Thing is then ours, and can be dealt with. (v. 2, p. 274)
Though Carlyle never abandons the notion that the aim of History is to disclose an objective, knowable, eternally-valid Truth (“were the right Name itself once here, the Thing is known henceforth”), he acknowledges that historians may not be equipped to perceive “the Thing,” as it really is, from each and every historical vantage point. He seems to imply that though the past is knowable and interpretable, it is not unconditionally so, and this certainly is a sympathetic notion for most modern readers. Put another way, both Carlyle and us acknowledge that though we might write our ‘History of the French Revolution’ differently from Carlyle, that fact does not invalidate either version. (Actually, I would venture to ask, who is to say that Carlyle’s moral judgments and spiritual inferences are incorrect? Our modern era, so loath to utter any lasting and definitive opinion in regards to such things?)
More problematic in the last analysis might be Carlyle’s histrionic prose. It is full of (I open a page here at random) expressions like, “one’s New Golden Era going down in leaden dross, and sulphurous black of the Everlasting Darkness!” (v. 2, p. 197). We don’t hear such verbiage much these days, and reading it, I sometimes felt like I was suffering from melodrama overload (similar to an ice cream headache, but more ignore-able). However, I found relief in the reflection that Carlyle is not twittering about getting a facial or losing his bus pass or even about the latest protests in Iran. The events he recalls were dramatic and, in terms of European history, unprecedented as well as seminal. For something approaching a rough parallel in modern times, think 9/11. With his black-blue-and-purple prose, Carlyle is attempting to lay bare the substance of The French Revolution, its causes, and effects; he is attempting to lay bare the psychology of a movement.
At this point, I realize that most of my thoughts in regards to Carlyle stem from bridging the gulf separating the early Victorian era from our current one. (Are we Modern now or Post-Modern? Or just “Information Age?”) Surely, Carlyle’s first readers struggled not half so hard with reading this work, and it would be truer to say that I honed my deductive reasoning skills than that I learned about the French Revolution (though both are true). Certainly one must be tenacious and tolerant to find reading “The French Revolution” worth the time and effort, but for anyone interested in the time period, I’d say it’s a must.
P.S. I also recommend Julian Hawthorne’s very brief Introduction (written c. 1900, for the Colonial Press edition) which details the story of how the original and only copy of Carlyle’s first manuscript was unwittingly destroyed by John Stuart Mill’s housemaid — making it necessary for Carlyle to re-write the whole thing from scratch. Oh, the days before computers. ...more
Since this is Volume 1 of 2, I will save the bulk of my reflections for later. However, my first impression is that this is a masterful work by a seasSince this is Volume 1 of 2, I will save the bulk of my reflections for later. However, my first impression is that this is a masterful work by a seasoned writer. Carlyle's style might grate on some (occasionally, rhapsodies about "those twenty five millions" and "The Age of Paper" call to mind a drunken umpire), but in the main, the nature of the events narrated seems to fully justify a dramatic tone. Though written for people already familiar with the Revolution, its agents and effects, it is not impenetrable. Carlyle endows his "characters" with epithets in the manner of Homerian epic--instead of grey-eyed Athene, we have "sea-green Robespierre"--enabling the reader to recognize names and faces at a distance. And anything crucial is treated in full. Part epic, part history, part eulogy, The French Revolution is as engrossing as a novel....more
This is a tough book for me to review. I want to not like it, based on its slick presentation, the glib, glowing reviews plastered all over it, and itThis is a tough book for me to review. I want to not like it, based on its slick presentation, the glib, glowing reviews plastered all over it, and its status as a #1 NYT-Bestseller. And yet, I can't quite say it's not worth reading. Maybe it's not a deep philosophical treatise...so what? It's interesting. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell is writing for a popular audience (And with that haircut, who else could he be writing for?), and yet...somebody has to, besides Danielle Steele! Moreover, I defy Ms. Steele to combine Sesame Street and needle exchange programs so convincingly in one book.
I was constantly walking into other rooms to share a paragraph or two of "The Tipping Point" with whoever else would listen, and though I did not expect to still be thinking of anything I read--even the parts I was so anxious to share--a few weeks after putting the book down, I still am. ...more
This book is two things. On the one hand, it’s impressively researched and to all appearances extremely logical, and its harsh criticism of the Bush aThis book is two things. On the one hand, it’s impressively researched and to all appearances extremely logical, and its harsh criticism of the Bush administration is no doubt warranted. However, it is also at least partially, partisan, simply by virtue of being penned by a former Democratic Vice President and Presidential candidate in a year directly prior to a Presidential election. So, I read it and became vastly better informed on a whole host of issues as well as inspired by new ideas, but I also became more entrenched in my previous positions—an experience which I imagine would hold valid for readers of either political party....more
According to Bill McKibben, “This is one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting,” and I agree witAccording to Bill McKibben, “This is one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting,” and I agree with that characterization, minus the hyperbole. In "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman asks us to “picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow” (4), whether as a result of an unspeakably efficient virus, a religious rapture, or alien kidnapping. The cause really doesn’t matter, because Weisman’s focus isn’t on us: it’s on the earth we would leave behind, the earth exactly as it is at this moment. “How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces? How would it undo our…cities and public works…our plastics and toxic synthetics…our art, our many manifestations of spirit? (4)” While the book is eerie in spots (especially the description of a lone electrician cannibalizing spare parts in a silent, abandoned high rise hotel in Cyprus two years after civil war descended on the country in 1974), it poses a fair question. After all, how do we know just what our effects on the earth really are without answering what the earth would be like without us?
Understand, Weisman isn’t asking from an attitude of “Oh, the whole planet would just be better off!” In fact, as chapter followed chapter, I was more and more impressed by the various situations human beings could not just abandon without the whole earth paying a huge price. One obvious advantage of us sticking around is our efforts to protect and promote threatened and endangered species. Another at least potential upside, is our ability not just to cease the activities that have placed so much stress on our planet but to commence activities that will counteract them—i.e. we have the power now not just to offset our carbon use but to find ways to sink the excess carbon we’ve already spewed into the atmosphere. If we were all to vanish tomorrow, our exhaust-spewing and CFC-emitting and DDT-spraying (still used all over the developing world) would stop, cold-turkey—probably a good thing, yes—but all of the carbon already in the atmosphere would just cycle slowly, slowly through the oceans, through plants, for millions of years before returning to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Same sort of deal for mercury in the oceans, plastic in landfills, and nuclear waste…
Speaking of which, Weisman actually details what the consequences would be if humans just stepped away from our 441 functioning nuclear power plants, our ICBMs, and temporary nuclear waste storage facilities. “Chernobyl” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Chernobyl’s cesium-137 and strontium-90 have 30-year half-lives (216). Weapons-grade plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,110 years (202). Uranium-235’s is 704 million years. U-238’s (“depleted” uranium) is 4.5 billion (205). The U.S. just began permanent storage of nuclear waste—in 1999, in New Mexico (206). Most is floating around, stored temporarily in holding tanks and waste processing facilities, and without humans to tend to their preservation and burial (cross your fingers for seismic stability), the earth would experience something on the order of at least 441 Chernobyls. Not to mention elevated levels of hydrogen cyanide, dioxins, furans, lead and chromium and mercury (140) from our countless oil refineries and petrochemical plants, two other enterprises that don’t really allow for a clean hasty exit. Thus, if nothing else, this book exposes the LaHaye/Jenkins "Left Behind" series as the worst kind of pulp fiction it is—more concerned with conservative fundamentalist Christian ideology than with the ultimate fate of God’s creation and created.
Weisman does briefly touch on the religious dimensions of his question in a final chapter, entitled “Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls;” however, he mostly ignores the alternative futures and “end-time” scenarios proposed by various religions since they all focus almost exclusively on humankind’s ultimate destiny and not Earth’s. To Weisman, those destinies are inextricably linked.
Weisman is a journalist, his prose reflects it, and for my part, I enjoyed his “facts first” approach. I believe that a true appreciation for the reality of any situation arises more from a knowledge of specific details than broad themes, and every so often, a particular detail in "Without Us" would leap off the page at me, shock and illuminate. For example, Weisman writes, in relation to the lifespan of plastic, “Would geologists millions of years hence find Barbie doll parts embedded in conglomerates formed in seabed depositions? Would they be intact enough to be pieced together like dinosaur bones? (124)” Ugh. Million-year-old Barbie doll fossils? Equally startling was the factoid that after the Battle of Waterloo, farmers were so desperate for fertilizer that the bones of horses and humans alike were ground down and applied to crops. Call me crazy, but the idea that even prim and proper 19th-century Europeans could be driven to semi-cannibalism did more to drive the fear of ballooning populations into me than any table of human caloric needs or UN Population Projections chart.
However, I find myself dissatisfied with "The World Without Us" on two fronts. The first is that, though Weisman travels from South Korea to Hawaii, researches exhaustively, and interviews a veritable army of experts in his attempts to answer how the world would fare without us, the number of women whose views and projections find their way into his book is precisely zero. One, if you count the protagonist of Weisman’s prelude, “A Monkey Koan,” Ana María Santi, who speaks a patois of Quichua and Zápara in what amounts to an anecdote rather than a consultation, and two, if you count Noonkokwa, a Maasai woman married to a naturalist at an ecotourist lodge in Kenya (whose views ARE quoted in the book), who reportedly desires her family life, including number of children, to conform to the Maasai cultural norm. True, Weisman does cite many women in his acknowledgments, but why are their voices not heard in his book? This is especially disappointing to me, considering how by Weisman’s own admission in the acknowledgments, the original idea for the book came from Josie Glausiusz, an editor at Discover Magazine, and a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather hear exclusively from men if women of comparable expertise cannot be found, but anyone who contends that not enough women occupy high enough niches in the sciences to be cited at least once in a 275-page book that cites so many experts doesn’t have his/her head glued on straight.
Perhaps I wouldn’t mind this so much (there’s nothing wrong with the substance of the book, after all), except in his “Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls,” Weisman proposes limiting “every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one” as an “intelligent solution” to the problem of squaring increasing human needs with those of a planet not correspondingly growing (272). This to me is so unintelligent as to deserve the designation ‘wishful thinking,’ if not ‘nonsense.’ For starters, who would decide on this measure? Implement it? Enforce it? I’m sure no one wants to see the forced sterilizations such as those inflicted upon American women in the 1930s repeated all over the globe. Not to mention…I don’t know about you, but I’M not going to be the one to tell AIDS-ravaged Africa that it can’t produce as many children in the next few decades as it wants to; right or wrong, I’m not going there.
However, the strongest argument against such a global one-child policy is embedded within Weisman’s book itself. In a chapter entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Weisman explores the merits of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) as well as the transhumanist/posthuman movement which advocates the jettisoning of our physical bodies in favor of immortal existence in a virtual reality created by software. Such moves would, Weisman agrees, decrease humanity’s earthly impact and ease the sorrow and weariness we feel watching our world slowly degrade. “The vision of a world relieved of our burden, with its flora and fauna blossoming wildly and wonderfully in every direction, is initially seductive. Yet it’s quickly followed by a stab of bereavement over the loss of all the wonder than humans have wrought amid our harm and excess. If that most wondrous of all human creations—a child—is never more to roll and play on the green Earth, then what really would be left of us? What of our spirit might be truly immortal?” (244). In the end, I think it is Weisman’s shared affection for both Earth and humanity, and his refusal to give up on either, that make his book so worth reading. ...more
My three-star rating has nothing to do with the quality of the ideas in this book; I think they're all top-notch. My lukewarm response has to do insteMy three-star rating has nothing to do with the quality of the ideas in this book; I think they're all top-notch. My lukewarm response has to do instead with their presentation.
Jared Diamond's prose is very readable but prolix. How, one might ask, could I find prolix a book which purports to condense the entire history of humankind into 425 pages? (As Diamond himself points out, compressing 13,000 years of history into roughly 400 pages works out to "an average of about one page per continent per 150 years, making brevity and simplification inevitable" (408). My answer is simply that Diamond does not actually condense 13,000 years of human history into 425 pages but rather picks and chooses which years with which corresponding phenomena on which continents are most relevant to his thesis. In order to prove that "history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves" (25), Diamond traces the domestication of plants and animals, the origins of agriculture, the emergence of crowd diseases such as Bubonic Plague and measles, the rise and spread of techological innovations like metallurgy and writing, and the seemingly autocatalytic process that promotes the development of large complex political entities from small, less complex ones. But "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is not a comprehensive treatment of the Black Death any more than it is a primer for understanding the development of metallurgy. In other words, he skips a lot, which I agree is inevitable; however, my beef is that in addition to skipping a lot, he repeats himself a lot, in effect writing a book that is not so much too long or too short as it is inefficient--prolix.
Diamond states the same ideas over and over again, and he always articulates BOTH the affirmative and the negative formulations, seldom omitting words that really could be ommitted without interfering with itelligibility: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, NOT because of biological differences among peoples themselves" (25); "the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia AND later, or not at all, on other continents" (92); "the reason for the failure of Native Americans to domesticate North American apples by the time Europeans arrived lay neither with the people nor with the apples....INSTEAD, the reason Native Americans did not domesticate apples lay with the entire suite of wild plant and animal species available to Native Americans" (156). While I agree that such a writing style is very clear and understandable (readable), surely after the first articulation of each idea and component, bolstering idea, Diamond could speed things up a bit?
But no, in fact, his 18th chapter (the penultimate chapter, not including epilogue, and entitled "Hemispheres Colliding") is an entirely redundant reformulation of ideas previously articulated, often referencing the exact same examples already referenced. This is evidenced by Diamond's tendency to include phrases like "in Chapter 9 we encountered," "as I explained in Chapter 11," and "as we saw in Chapters 5 and 10..." This, along with his tendency to provide overview (as in the Prologue: "Part 4...applies the lessons of Parts 2 and 3") as well as suggestions like "if we begin by comparing Figure 19.2 with Figure 19.1..." that contribute to the unfortunate impression on the part of the reader that he/she is reading the incomplete novelization of a textbook--a hitherto unknown literary hybrid.
This is not to say that Diamond has not ultimately provided a service to humanity by writing "Guns, Germs, and Steel" or that his arguments are unconvincing or that he never provides us with an arresting phrase or that the book is devoid of colorful and illustrative anecdotes. The very basis for the book rests in a personal experience of Diamond's in New Guinea in 1972 ("Yali's Question"); and I especially like the phraseology of the final sentence of Chapter 19, "...the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate." And one certainly cannot fail to be struck by the originality of some of his ideas, such as the orientation of the continents' major axes (East-West vs. North-South) having played a greater role in the differences between human societies than we have previously recognized. Overall, this book is very accomplished and worth reading.
However, Diamond gradually chips away at the various misconceptions, errors, and prejudgments that cloud our understanding of human prehistory and history in the manner of a slow-moving stream or a very patient archaeologist. Maybe he imagines that this gradual approach is necessary for changing slow-moving or simply out-of-touch minds in which repetition might accomplish what erudition might not, though I really can't imagine such individuals, let alone the genuine racists whose views Diamond is avowedly rebutting making it through the book. But really (to borrow a page out of Diamond's intellectual repertoire), I believe this book could be intellectually stronger, aesthetically superior, and ultimately more influential if Diamond repeated himself less while articulating more....more
Possible essay questions I would assign to my seminar students, if I were in fact making my seminar students read the Nicomachean Ethics:
1) What doesPossible essay questions I would assign to my seminar students, if I were in fact making my seminar students read the Nicomachean Ethics:
1) What does Aristotle mean when he writes “seems?” (e.g. “Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good…” 1094a, p. 1.) 2) What does Aristotle mean by “nature?” (e.g. “…the things that are pleasant to those who are passionately devoted to what is beautiful are the things that are pleasant by nature…” 1099a, p. 14.) 3) How do absolutes function in Aristotle? 4) What does Aristotle mean by “guidance?” (e.g. “…the wasteful person who has not come under guidance passes over into dissipated acts, but if such a person happens to have care taken over him, he might arrive at the mean and at what one ought to do” 1121b, p. 62.) Does this concept of “guidance” impinge on free will? Why/why not? 5) How does “incidentally” differ from “unwilling” or “nonwilling?” (See 1137a, p. 99; 1139b, p. 105; 1157b, p. 149.) 6) What is Aristotle’s view of human nature? (See 1163b, p. 162; 1167b, p. 171; 1172b, p. 181.) 7) How does Aristotle decide which questions to pursue in the course of his philosophic inquiry and which to abandon? (e.g. “Now whether it is for this reason or for some other that their cares are lightened, let the question be put aside, but what is described does appear to happen” 1171a, p. 178).
In my opinion, this edition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics succeeds in being both no-frills and beautiful. Of course, to me, there is something inherently beautiful in a scholarly work that includes a minimum of editorial clutter; I am perhaps biased. (However, if so, I believe this is a bias shared by most other would-be readers of Aristotle, so I make no apologies for recommending this edition.) Set against 200 pages of Aristotle’s Ethics are a mere 31 pages of preface, introduction, and glossary—a highly appropriate way to present a new translation (accomplished in 2000–02) that seeks to “bypass the accumulated baggage of a tradition” (vii). In his preface and introduction, Joe Sachs argues that clarity in language and precision in thinking are inextricably linked and that “in this translation I have aimed at accuracy above all else, with the hope of putting you in contact with Aristotle, as nearly as you can be without reading his Greek” (ix).
But lovers of the scholarly tradition, fear not. In all this brevity and baggage-bypassing, Sachs has not sacrificed substance. The preface and the introduction both contributed greatly to my understanding of Sachs’s ensuing translation, and the glossary, while decidedly bare-bones, includes valuable explanation of some of the most important concepts in Aristotle as well as their corresponding names in Greek. And as for the translation…
As a result of reading his translation, I do imagine Sachs less as a bespectacled academician crouched over ponderous tomes of lore as I do of him as an opthalmologist polishing, focusing, and carefully noting which lenses best enable sight and for which reasons—an inherently less scholarly image in the popular imagination, to be sure; however for the bespectacled academician to read his ponderous tomes, he must first have visited the opthalmologist. Hard-core academicians who find fault with Sachs’s divergence from tradition based on the substance of his translation—and I say this as a non-Greek-reader—probably need to reexamine just what it is they love about Aristotle. Aristotle himself was less a product of poring over inherited tradition than of attempting to see the world around him clearly. (In point of absolute fact, Aristotle would probably not describe himself as a product at all but as an individual exhibiting certain characteristic ways of, to quote Sachs, “being-at-work” in the world. In other words, Aristotle is not so much ‘someone who sees clearly’ as he is ‘clear seeing.’)
Clear seeing precedes clear understanding, and a clear understanding of how sight functions precedes a clear understanding of how to correct faulty vision. Sachs’s translation is both clear-sighted and scholarly and provides a service to all would-be readers of Aristotle in bypassing the baggage, dispensing with the frills, and presenting the the beauty of Aristotle’s thought in as unfiltered a form as possible. ...more