This pleasing volume offers a brief look at the ceremonial regalia of three shamanic cultures of the far north: Siberian, Inuit, and Tlingit. The imagThis pleasing volume offers a brief look at the ceremonial regalia of three shamanic cultures of the far north: Siberian, Inuit, and Tlingit. The images are lovely and the text provides something of a context for what we're seeing, but the little textual content there is feels padded, with a lot of repetition between long figure descriptions and the body of the book. Don't come here looking for an in-depth analysis of these cultures, or even of the shamanic regalia represented. But you will get an enjoyable collection of pictures with a bit of a gloss.
Readers who enjoy this book might also like Thames and Hudson's superb Wilder Mann, a study of ceremonial pagan costumes from Northern Europe. ...more
It's impressive how well this book has withstood the passage of time. More than a century after its publication, it continues, on the whole, to feel eIt's impressive how well this book has withstood the passage of time. More than a century after its publication, it continues, on the whole, to feel extremely fresh and insightful, compared with the works of some other psychologists whom I could name. Like ... people whose name rhymes with "Kroid." But I digress.
Unlike the dogmatic theoretic architectonics that would increasingly dominate the field of psychology in the twentieth century, James subscribed to an empirical pragmatism that is quite current. On the basis of his minimal overt theoretical commitments, he uses this book as an opportunity to reflect systematically on the nature and import of religious experience in its various expressions, in the service of beginning to lay the foundation for a theoretical science of religion, by which we may empirically examine the roll religion plays in people's lives.
He has thus unapologetically advanced his model of religion as primarily a matter of individual experience, and these two words, of course, carry an enormous amount of baggage. Religion is for James, first and foremost, a system of sentiments and beliefs operating in counterplay with various kinds of experience, including prayer, conversion, and, most importantly, rare mystical experiences of ineffable union with the absolute, howsoever that may be conceived.
It is without a doubt the book's primary limitation that he sticks to that model, which works very well with the liberal Protestant theology and Transcendentalist philosophy which saturated his zeitgeist, but the farther we travel out from that center, the less universal his model of religion may seem. There's a case to made that it is applicable to many forms of Buddhism and some Hindu philosophies such as Advaita Vedanta, but by the time we get to Confucianism, his focus on the individual relationship with the divine starts to lose touch. And when we leave the high civilizations behind and apply his model to the Tlingit, the Navajo, the Mayans, or the Hawaiians, we're on very shaky ground indeed.
What endures is a thorough and thoughtful of examination of the religious traditions that were nearest to hand, and a still-valuable analysis of their basic patterns of expression. That may form the basis, at least, of more diverse comparative work.
Some modern readers may be put off at times by its grand style and the sometimes-homilistic tone of the book, but they may do so at their peril, as it's easy to mistakenly infer a certain intellectual complacency that is regularly contradicted by the sophistication of his analysis. James's book remains a classic in the field of the psychology of religion, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. ...more
Ridley has written an engaging and fascinating account of the human genome with the frame of writing one chapter focusing on a particular gene on eachRidley has written an engaging and fascinating account of the human genome with the frame of writing one chapter focusing on a particular gene on each of the 23 chromosomes, and in this grand tour gives us a picture of the history and major issues of modern genetics research. He wisely does not confine himself too narrowly to this premise, which could quickly turn into a gimmicky straight jacket for his narrative. Instead, it becomes a basis for considering a range of phenomena of human importance including neurological development, sexuality, death, and free will in the light of the human genome and its functions.
He paints a vivid portrait of human life as a burbling cauldron of catalyzed chemical reactions governed by a gargantuan genetic blueprint saturated with history, incorporating errors, fragments of ancient viruses, and endless redundancy, yet still elegantly guiding an undifferentiated blob of protoplasm through its merry journey of development into fantastically complex mammals.
Written in the days of heady optimism over the human genome project, Ridley's work still holds up rather well, or so I'm told by colleagues with a deeper knowledge of biology than I can claim. To this layperson, "Genome" was a fascinating a illuminating tour into contemporary biochemistry and into our own information essence. ...more
Smil has presented a serviceable overview of energy in its manifold forms, from the physical force to metabolic cornerstone to social phenomenon. An eSmil has presented a serviceable overview of energy in its manifold forms, from the physical force to metabolic cornerstone to social phenomenon. An enormous amount of factual data is presented with very little connective tissue, leaving the reader to do the heavy lifting of tracking the minutiae and assembling a personal story of what it all means. A useful if unlovely guide to an important topic. ...more
A lovely catalog of the superb Artio bronze Gallo-Roman Celtic devotional statue found in modern-day Bern published by the Bern museum. Of all the CelA lovely catalog of the superb Artio bronze Gallo-Roman Celtic devotional statue found in modern-day Bern published by the Bern museum. Of all the Celtic statuary I've seen, it's by far the most impressive - quite overpowering. The book features excellent photographs of the statue along with its attendant (and also impressive) Capitoline Trinity sculptures, along with a historical analysis and thorough description of the artifacts' provenances. A nice brief treatment of an important find. ...more
Harari attempts to leap through hominid history in a few great bounds, organized into a few arbitrarily-chosen watersheds such as the scientific revolHarari attempts to leap through hominid history in a few great bounds, organized into a few arbitrarily-chosen watersheds such as the scientific revolution, and by so doing to illustrate through example his underlying conceptual framework, which is evolutionary humanism. We can therefore ask two questions of the book: is the high-level history he presents interesting and useful, and is the conceptual framework he employs persuasive?
For this reader, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding no. His two purposes are sufficiently at odds that his attempts to tell some kind of story of human evolution are erratic, arbitrary, and peripatetic, directed hither and thither as they are by his philosophical interests. After long trying I abandoned trying to hold the common thread of his story of human history when I at last concluded that there was no thread to follow, and the book instead consists largely of an assemblage of chronological anecdotes.
I was surprised to find that Harari is a professor of history, because his work is highly theoretical and shows little grounding in empirical historiography. He makes numerous errors, such as interpreting the Code of Hammurabi as though it were intended as an actual legal document, when we know from copious extant Mesopotamian court records that it was not used so. More surprising, his presentation of the concept of chivalry in the Middle Ages is so ahistorical that I was genuinely stunned to learn that he is not only a specialist in the European medieval period, but focused on political ideology and treated it in several books. It does not show from his gross generalizations that repeatedly border in outright distortion, or indeed, cross right over the line.
In tone, I found this book to be smug and off-putting in the fashionable "intellectual-who-knows-everything" style of countless insufferable TED talks and Big Thinkers a la Stephen Pinker or Malcolm Gladwell, who similarly lack any evidence that they've mastered the fundamentals of the disciplines they deign to illuminate for us lay persons.
I could go on with my criticisms, but you get the message - I found it neither conceptually nor factually illuminating, learned little from his manifesto on atheist humanism as a conceptual paradigm, and generally was alienated by its tone. ...more
I read this book in preparation for a trip to Bern, Zürich, and the Berner Oberland - I wanted to get a sense of the country's history, and BirminghamI read this book in preparation for a trip to Bern, Zürich, and the Berner Oberland - I wanted to get a sense of the country's history, and Birmingham's approach of focusing on the small dairy village of Château-d'Oex in the district of Gruyère sounded more interesting than a conventional national history. I'm glad I took this approach - sometimes studying local history provides a richer sense of a national culture than you can get from a higher level, and given the striking social, political, economic, linguistic, and cultural diversity that characterizes Switzerland, it's probably particularly true in this case.
For my itinerary this book proved to be an excellent fit, covering the city-state of Bern in some detail and giving copious scrutiny to life in an Alpline cheese-making community. It was striking to visit national museums in Zürich and Bern and, in contrast with Birmingham's village-level focus, to get a sense of the markedly different ways in which the history of the region was understood by its urban centers versus how it occurred on the countryside.
Birmingham covers a period of some 800 years in his two hundred pages, basing evocative descriptions of the life and times of Château-d'Oex based closely on primary sources. This book is an excellent and illuminating read, and I was very pelased to spend some time with it. ...more
Ibn Khaldoun's Muqaddimah is frequently described as a work of proto-sociology and economics. There is a grain of truth to that, but the similarity liIbn Khaldoun's Muqaddimah is frequently described as a work of proto-sociology and economics. There is a grain of truth to that, but the similarity lies more in the subject matter than the manner of inquiry.
I think the scientific virtues of this book have been somewhat exaggerated, in part because of its enthusiastic reception by systematic historians such as Toynbee who were making their own effort to create or discover a general theory of history. But to my eyes, Ibn Khaldoun's method is more that of a speculative philosopher than a scientist. He infers general patterns on the basis of a small number of examples, and regards the patterns as prior to the actuality.
The scientific approach would be somewhat the other way around, where the empirical example would provoke a hypothesis that would then be tested on further examples. But Ibn Khaldoun moves very quickly to a state of epistemic closure, precisely of the kind I find endemic to the Islamic thought-world of his era, and beyond.
Rather than reading this book as a progressive predecessor to the scientific revolution, I position it as a conservative work that attempts to maintain something of the rational-empirical method of the High Middle Ages in the face of its waning under the burgeoning influence of al-Ghazali. I see this book not as the forecast of the sciences of sociology and economics, but as a late example of the rationalism that had been typical of much of the thought of al-Andalus and the 'Abbasid caliphate.
I think few of his actual statements of fact will be too persuasive for the modern reader, from his position that the sun is neither hot nor cold to his view that blacks are well known to be less intelligent to his view that royalty proceeds from holy authority, and urban settled life proceeds from both. But this is a work of some interest to the intellectual historian. ...more
This is a very useful adjunct to a study of Chinese history with many excerpts from classical texts assembled and presented in highly-readable translaThis is a very useful adjunct to a study of Chinese history with many excerpts from classical texts assembled and presented in highly-readable translations. ...more
This book provides a serviceable overview of the last 3000 years of Chinese history, spending about half its length on the period leading up to the MaThis book provides a serviceable overview of the last 3000 years of Chinese history, spending about half its length on the period leading up to the Manchurian Qing dynasty, and the second half examining the development of modern China.
I appreciated how adeptly Roberts dealt with such an enormous amount of history in such a short space - particularly in the first half, which by necessity galloped through the decades at an alarming pace. I often thought in all seriousness than any single sentence could stand as the thesis for a doctoral dissertation.
On the other hand, I often felt that Roberts gave us too many trees and not enough forest, and at times this was frustrating. To take one example, I was genuinely stunned to find the final collapse of the Qing dynasty mentioned only elliptically, and in a complicated paragraph with a lot of details on officials shifting allegiances and so forth. I couldn't believe my eyes - the fall of the dynastic system that had provided the fundamental structure for Chinese society since 221 BCE fell apart after more than two thousand years, and he not only didn't pause to comment on its larger significance, he barely even noted that it happened. I read that section three times convinced I must be missing something, but there it is.
I was also a bit annoyed by Roberts's inflexible use of Pinyin as a transliteration scheme, even when the Wade-Giles equivalents are far better known. As a non-specialist, it actually took me a while to realize that Xianggang refers to what virtually every other English speaker would call Hong Kong, or that Jiang Jieshi is who I think of as Chiang Kai-shek. If you wish to stick to your transcription system, that's fine, but it's worth a parenthetical note on the first instance.
I definitely learned a lot from this book, but I would have preferred Roberts to tell more of a story and put less focus on a barrage of details I'm unlikely to retain. ...more
There is so much to admire in this delightful book, which clearly was written precisely with me in mind. That is how so many of us feel who have readThere is so much to admire in this delightful book, which clearly was written precisely with me in mind. That is how so many of us feel who have read it, those of us who were young in the 80s and recognized the Atari Adventure game simply from the description of its cover art, who didn't need to be told who Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez is, or why Wade's password was "reindeer flotilla setec astronomy."
For those of us who see clearly in our mind's eye the wealth of allusions that weave the tapestry of this book, it needs only a few words to paint images of striking clarity, such as the miscellany of space ships taking off from the high school parking lot, or the epic Pac Man session. In this regard our author excels - he is a master of painting mental pictures, and as much or more so of moving the book's clean, disciplined story forward without distraction or hitch. Yes, this is a young adult novel, with all that implies, but its mechanics operate at a very high level. Cline has chops that surpass some of the greats.
And yet. Our hero's name is Parzifal, and yet I wonder if Cline has ever read Wolfram von Eschenbach's masterpiece of that name. Now, there is a Parzifal! Like young Wade, he goes on an epic quest, falls in love, faces dire enemies, and undergoes an inward process of transformation. And yet, all of this, in Wolfram's hands, is in the service of a great realization. When Parzifal faces his chief enemy on the field of battle - a Muslim, no less, in a book written during the Crusades - he recognizes his own brother, and realizes that in the very midst of conflict, we are one.
Now, there is a grand realization! But Cline's sites are set rather lower, simple fame and fortune are his business, and our basic intuitions about the world are tepidly confirmed. Yes, corporations really are foul hives of scum and villainy, people who work for them are soulless drones or monsters, and the good guys all play video games for a living.
It's too bad that Cline's considerable powers of expression and wonderful imagination are ultimately in the service of a story with the complexity of a Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, or episode of "Battle of the Planets." ...more
An excellent, lyrical translation of the Chinese masterpiece, and a good companion to the translator's rendering of "Analects." Confucius and MenciusAn excellent, lyrical translation of the Chinese masterpiece, and a good companion to the translator's rendering of "Analects." Confucius and Mencius make an intriguing pair - the former more remote and abstract, the latter more human and situational. I found both works extremely rewarding - particularly once I got a sense of the vital role they have played in Chinese history. ...more
I can't easily think of a book I've enjoyed less than this insufferable, excruciatingly pretentious bit of sermonizing by Peter Kingsley. I gave it aI can't easily think of a book I've enjoyed less than this insufferable, excruciatingly pretentious bit of sermonizing by Peter Kingsley. I gave it a chance largely on the strength of the supportive blurb by Walter Burkert, the great scholar of the ancient world, but then Professor Burkert is himself rather tone-deaf when it comes to style.
Kingsley's book, in an excruciating and witless device, is divided in two. The first half is written in the smug style of a self-styled guru, who lays it down to us about the arrival of ancient wisdom in the West. His ex cathedra sermonizing is full of assumptions about what "we" are like in the west, and what "we" may initially find difficult to understand, and what "we" need to learn from the oh-so-wise east. Nothing Orientalist there.
You see, much of the heart of the western tradition in fact ultimately derives from Mongolia, according to Kingsley. But this thesis does not restrain him from constantly generalizing about what "westerners" and "easterners" are like.
His historical fantasy is presented without any argument or evidence whatsoever, presumably in the style of the East? All linear and rational analysis is confined to the second half of the book, which is a mountain of tedious endnotes, presumably corresponding to the analytical Western style of wisdom. The experience is rather like an author telling you their conclusions over cocktails in an overbearing tone, and when you ask for the basis of his reasoning, he hands you a big pile of hand-written notes.
What we need is an integrated argument, and it is Kingsley who divides the world with his spurious dichotomies. That is troubling, but far worse is the display he makes of putting the world back together, after he has himself assiduously ripped it apart. This is a book I dislike so intensely I'm tempted to recycle it rather than give it away. ...more
An assortment of poems from the T'ang dynasty, including verse from Tu Fu and Li Ho, two of the most celebrated poets in Chinese history. These translAn assortment of poems from the T'ang dynasty, including verse from Tu Fu and Li Ho, two of the most celebrated poets in Chinese history. These translations are among the most beautiful and deeply-felt translations from Chinese that I've ever read, and this slender volume makes a superb introduction or digression into one of the great golden ages of literature the world has known. Very highly recommended. ...more
I was recently listening to a BBC interview with two historians on the An Lushan rebellion, and the interviewer read a passage from Pinker's book in wI was recently listening to a BBC interview with two historians on the An Lushan rebellion, and the interviewer read a passage from Pinker's book in which he argued that this Chinese civil war was primary evidence for his thesis that human violence used to exist on a scale we would find hard to believe, from our current perspective. When the interviewer read some of Pinker's fact and statistics about the rebellion, both of them spontaneously burst into laughter and one of them asked "What on earth is his evidence for that?"
What, indeed? Pinker relies throughout this book overwhelmingly on the death statistics for major historical events compiled by a librarian and published to his personal website in his spare time. If you think I'm exaggerating, look for yourself.
No, I'm afraid this book is the joke, and it makes a joke of its credulous audience, making specious, anti-empirical, and fatuous arguments fueled by breathtaking narcissism.
What if the situation were reversed? That is, what if a history professor wrote an eclectic book on cognitive linguistics that was fundamentally at odds with the consensus of linguists everywhere, and that relied overwhelmingly for support on a single source, which was itself entirely the work of an untrained amateur?
I think such a book would quite likely be universally regarded as a laughingstock. However, we live in a generation in which the increasing consensus among intelligentsia holds that scientists hold the answers to questions that used to be addressed by the humanities, and so Pinker's book is not only accepted as plausible, but widely lauded and championed.
I expect this is in no small part due to another factor - this is a work that very much flatters its secular humanist audience by suggesting we have learned our lesson and, by and large, moved past our brutish origins, carried on the wings of science, progress, and bourgeois values. ...more
In 1253, the Flemish Franciscan friar William of Rubruck made his way to the courts of the Mongol rulers Batu and Möngke bearing a letter from the FreIn 1253, the Flemish Franciscan friar William of Rubruck made his way to the courts of the Mongol rulers Batu and Möngke bearing a letter from the French Crusader king Louis IX. This book is an annotated a translation from Latin of his subsequent report to the king. It is a fascinating and rare glimpse of the life of the Mongols during the heyday of their empire in the aftermath of the conquests of Genghis Khan, and a true masterpiece of European medieval travel literature. William is a keen observer who writes throughout with clarity and discernment of the many wonders he encounters on his journey, and we see through his eyes as he makes the enormous journey to the fabled "Tent City" capital of the Mongols, Karakorum. Along his way he frequently rubs shoulders with Muslims, Nestorian Christians, soothsayers, and Chinese and Tibetan priests and monks, and makes what is very probably the first European report of the Tibetan system of reincarnating lamas.
I was certain going in that this would be a fascinating read, but I was surprised by how engaging and brisk it is. It is superbly translated and annotated by Peter Jackson and David Morgan, who unobtrusively offer excellent support in their rich footnotes, detailing the geography, politics, and cultural background with great erudition.
I believe subsequent generations of historians will take for granted a fact that we seem to be in the slow process of waking up to realize now - the mobile and dynamic cultures of Central Eurasia, including but not limited to the peoples of the steppe, are not peripheral or incidental to the history of Europe and Asia, but central to it. The dynamics of the high civilizations of the landmass cannot be understood on an elementary level without attending to the rich systemic interplay between its various centers, which inevitably plays out historically through the movements of these peoples. This book offers a rare first-hand glimpse at one of the greatest of these nomadic civilizations, and is a thrilling and illuminating work of a high order. ...more