Ross, whose articles in the New Yorker I have followed religiously for years, and continue to anticipate with a zeal otherwise reserved for The Wire,...moreRoss, whose articles in the New Yorker I have followed religiously for years, and continue to anticipate with a zeal otherwise reserved for The Wire, delivers a multi-layered and exhaustively researched portrait of a century's music and its reception. His account includes not only a collection of nuanced miniature biographies of composers—both the duly celebrated and the tragically neglected—and sweeping, intertextual analyses of "the music"—from jazz rags and pop songs to symphonic masterworks—but a breathtaking synthesis of how the twentieth century world produced the music it did, and how the world was refracted and recasted through its lens.
One of the more amusing of his many distillations is his pitting of the twin modernist conceits against one another—on the one hand welcoming the "ragtag masses" with goofy fanfares, sentimental tunes and light operas, while on the other, consecrating an utterly abstruse aesthetic language accessible only to a select group of sophisticates.
Like a great satirist, Ross is especially keen at revealing the ironic similarities between otherwise opposing spheres. "The cultish fanaticism of modern art turns out to be not unrelated to the politics of fascism," he writes: "both attempt to remake the world in utopian forms."
Indeed, The Rest is Noise evinces many of the attributes of a novel—lucid prose, richly drawn characters, illuminating convergences between internal worlds and external events—yet firmly tethered to historical truth. It's a rare thing to be so spellbound by a work of non-fiction. (less)
Musicophelia is an enchanting read, though one is struck more by the phenomena depicted—amusias, musical hallucinations, comatose patients suddenly "a...moreMusicophelia is an enchanting read, though one is struck more by the phenomena depicted—amusias, musical hallucinations, comatose patients suddenly "awakened" by nothing more than a familiar melody—than the manner of their depiction. Sacks has always been lauded for his fluid, personable style, and for good reason, but in the wake of classics such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Uncle Tungsten, his writing seems excessively florid and repetitive—neither tight enough nor substantial enough to match the subject he loves so well.
My other criticism is that for all it's heartstopping wonder, Musicophelia rarely buckles down to the core of things. Only at specific points does Sacks truly explore the philosophical or psychological implications of his subjects. I confess I've encountered many of these "clinical tales" in his earlier books and articles, and hence, the net result feels to me more like a compendium or "greatest hits" album rather than a fully realized examination like Migraine. The key questions—what do organized tones mean to us? why have we evolved to perceive and celebrate rhythm? what is the relationship between music and language?—are touched upon, but only superficially discussed.
In much the way that modern scholars tend to pit Alan Turing against Ludwig Wiggenstein—smug and mechanical versus gruff and irreverent—Kenneally thro...moreIn much the way that modern scholars tend to pit Alan Turing against Ludwig Wiggenstein—smug and mechanical versus gruff and irreverent—Kenneally throws Noam Chomsky in the ring with Phillip Leiberman. Chomsky is Platonist at heart, a man who sees things in terms of formal systems, clean mathematical structures, innate capacities. Lieberman, conversely, has little use for pretty boxes and arrows. He sees language from the bottom up—a messy, soft-tissue affair that could only have emerged through the laborious trial and error process of natural selection.
"Evolution doesn't give a damn about formal elegance," he bellows.
Between these two poles we find a smattering of other researchers—chiefly Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom—each of whom Kenneally presents with admirable thoroughness and clarity. She then proceeds to slug together a hypothetical time line of language evolution, drawing from a great range of disciplines—archaeology, anthropology, genetics, neuroscience, physiology, and comparative zoology.
Kenneally is especially keen at presenting the wide perspective, factoring in the influence of gesture, number sense and even music along with phonology and syntax. We learn, for instance, that some researchers see speech itself as a form of gesture. "Indeed," she writes, "our ability to perceive the speech of others is based in part on our knowledge of the motor movements we make when we produce it." One linguist speculates that gesture may have been "an ancient scaffolding on which language started to build."
We are also introduced to a host of stunning phenomena observed in the animal world. It had long been assumed (by Chomsky, among others) that humans were unique in their ability to use syntax; that is, a series of rules for combining words in meaningful ways. On closer inspection, however, it has become clear that structure and rhythmicity are essential to how certain animals comprehend strings of vocal cues.
So, what distinguishes human language? Is it volume alone, its sheer breadth of lexicon? Or perhaps its complexity, the staggering variety of syntactical operations? Is it marked by the presence of one very specific attribute like "recursion?" Or does it emerge through the interaction of many smaller features? If there is an answer, Kenneally suggests, the best clues are to be found deep in our evolutionary history.
The overall effect of The First Word is to begin thinking of language not as a single, monolithic phenomenon but, as Kenneally puts it, "a suite of abilities and predispositions, some recently evolved and some primitive."
Turin is something of an olfactory mutant, possessing a preternaturally fine-tuned sense of smell and an almost freakish ability to translate scents i...moreTurin is something of an olfactory mutant, possessing a preternaturally fine-tuned sense of smell and an almost freakish ability to translate scents into verbal terms.
Consider his Proustian description of a peach base composed by Pierre Nuyens: "It is a peach played slowly, an arpeggiato chord that lets you enjoy in slow motion the entire sweep of that astonishing Persian plum from mouthwatering fruity acid, via biscuit-like softness to powdery, almost soapy bottom." Or his damning assessment of 57 for Her in his perfume guide as "a sad little thing, an incongruous dried-prunes note with a metallic edge that manages the rare feat of being at once cloying and harsh."
A fragrance, he believes, like the timbre of a voice, can say something entirely removed from the words actually spoken. The voice of a Japanese perfume called Nombre Noir, for instance, is likened to "that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated and faintly capricious."
The danger with this kind of dexterous wordplay is that it's often difficult to distinguish the literal from the metaphoric. By "soapy" does Turin mean that the scent actually smells like soap, or that it merely shares some abstract quality one associates with soap, like freshness, purity, or springiness?
Nonetheless, Turin's endless insights are dazzling to behold. The Secret of Smell provides not only an exhaustive tour through the mechanics of olfactory perception and the multi-million dollar business of fragrance production, but of Turin's eccentric mind—a spectacle well worth the price of the ticket.
It may be said, however, that the same eccentricity that distinguishes him—his loquacity, his zeal—also makes him a lousy storyteller. He wants to tell us everything, he wants us to smell things as he smells them, to grasp the behavior of molecules as easily as he does. And he wants to do it all at once. The result is a jagged patchwork of anecdotes, compact explanations, illuminating concepts and scientific microhistories held together by little other than Turin's irreverent personality.
And such irreverence! He trumpets and extols, he snorts and scoffs, he huffs, grumbles, guffaws—all with an exalted gunslinging rhetoric that can veer dangerously close to glib overstatement.
With this in mind, it's of little surprise that Turin has had such trouble getting his theories taken seriously in the scientific community, despite the copious evidence he's amassed. No one doubts that the phenomenon of scent results from the inhalation of molecules. The controversy lies in how those molecules interact with receptors in the nose. Turin argues that our receptors respond to a molecule's frequency of vibration, rather than its shape, as most believe.
The case is made more effectively in Chandler Burr's remarkable 1994 biography of Turin, The Emperor of Scent. Here we see the tempestuous biophysicist in all his virtuosity and exuberance, only mitigated through Burr's discerning and steady-nerved portraiture. The narrative distance lends a certain levity to Turin's otherwise distracting idiosyncrasies. As a protagonist he is a colorful renegade rather than a truculent iconoclast.
Of the many atheist manifestos to hit the shelves within the past few years—among them, The End of Faith, Breaking the Spell, and God is Not Great—non...moreOf the many atheist manifestos to hit the shelves within the past few years—among them, The End of Faith, Breaking the Spell, and God is Not Great—none have been so deliciously rewarding as The God Delusion, by the world-renowned evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins.
It's to his credit that Dawkins has never been concerned with the tactics of the science vs. faith debate, with strategic savvy and political niceties, but simply with determining what is true. He believes that the "God hypothesis" falls in the realm of science in much the same way that other matters, such as the chemical composition of stars, or the mechanics of visual perception were once considered unanswerable until clear-headed investigation proved otherwise. Similarly, he claims, if we are genuinely concerned with the universe, with what exists and what does not, we should want to use modern methods and reasoning to reach a conclusion, as we do with nearly every other practical endeavor, rather than resort to myths, atavisms and soothsayings.
Because he is smart, Dawkins is careful not to state unequivocally that no omniscient deity could exist, only that the likelihood is so low that one may just as reasonably presume the existence of Zeus, Thor, or the "flying spaghetti monster." The case he makes for this position is exhaustive, factoring in countless examples from biology, philosophy, history, politics and human rights.
As punishing as he can be, however, Dawkins is no provocateur. Indeed, his approach is neither superior and exasperated (like Hitchens and Harris), nor apologetic and kiddy-gloved (like Dennet). Not since Bertrand Russell has the balance between criticism and tolerance, between intellectual rigor and deeply felt compassion, been so masterfully struck.
Someone recently told me that, for all it's beauty, she couldn't get through the The Dead Fish Museum because it was too depressing. All due respect,...more Someone recently told me that, for all it's beauty, she couldn't get through the The Dead Fish Museum because it was too depressing. All due respect, this person was not reading. She was simply taking the D'Ambrosio world at face-value – mental hospitals and recovery wards, failing businesses, porno sets – a world which, on the surface, appears to resemble that of William Vollman. But in comparison, Vollman buckles. His bleakness is a fey spectacle which bullies its readers into a pre-fab discomfort. Rather, D'Ambrosio does a far harder thing, which is to achieve compassion without sentiment, yearning without nostalgia, understatement without self-consciousness, and in doing so succeeds at everything Vollman fails at.(less)