Chew on this for a second: if you need to get from Egypt to Vietnam, you can walk. You need a boat to get from Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea, but...moreChew on this for a second: if you need to get from Egypt to Vietnam, you can walk. You need a boat to get from Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea, but you will never be out of sight of land. So how did anyone settle Easter Island, Pitcairn, Vanuatu? They're all tiny islands isolated by hundreds of miles of water. When they were settled, how did anyone know they were there in the first place? Did people just get in a boat, sail around for a couple of weeks, and come back if they didn't find land? Well, how do they find the place they came from if they've been floating around the Pacific without a compass for days at a time? What did they eat in the meantime? Did they just wait around for rain? If you think about it, the settling of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia is one of the most amazing accomplishments of any group of people ever, and the Lapita culture did it without using compasses, without ships that were nailed together, without metal.
Sorry, but that's amazing. And yet who the Lapitans were - their beliefs, how they lived, how they managed to occupy a larger share of the world than any other culture, past or present, is mostly a mystery. Yet Lapitan pottery has been found on atolls with nothing but hundreds of miles of water on all sides. Kirch pieces together evidence (archaeological and sometimes cultural) from Hawaii, Rapa Nui, and the endless array of islands to describe the political organization of precolonial Pacific islanders, their practices, technologies, and habits. It's a great book on a neglected topic that deserves more attention.(less)
Karl Popper's a sad case. One of the greatest geniuses of the last century, he was an analytical philosopher par excellence at the exact moment when e...moreKarl Popper's a sad case. One of the greatest geniuses of the last century, he was an analytical philosopher par excellence at the exact moment when everyone started to ignore analytical philosophy. But at least he got to survive to see himself become extinct.
Wittgenstein and Popper were from opposite sides of the tracks in Vienna, both had taught school for a little while, both Jews who escaped the Anschluss (Wittgenstein with a bit more dignity than Popper), but beyond some superficial biographical similarities they couldn't have been more different. Wittgenstein was cerebral, a charismatic child prodigy with a religious bent; Popper was practical, a cranky tyrant, a social animal. Popper had readers; Wittgenstein had followers (many of whom undoubtedly had no idea what he was talking about.) Wittgenstein said (unhelpfully) of morality that whereof we cannot speak, thereover we must pass in silence; Popper ruefully exclaimed that belief in reality is the ultimate moral imperative.
Naturally, someone decided to stage a showdown, and gave it a name: "Are There Philosophical Problems?" This book tells the story of what may or may not have happened, who may have threatened the other with a poker and with what purpose in mind, but it's also a panoramic survey of prewar Viennese philosophy, as fertile a bunch of intellects as have ever found themselves in one place. The philosophy is a little watered down, but not so much as to be meaningless. This book's worth reading if you're curious about either Wittgenstein or Popper, though I think Popper comes off a little poorly... but unfortunately, I wasn't there.(less)
Contrary to widespread rumor, this is a far from bleak book. While every character has his or her own misery, and it all takes place in a place called...moreContrary to widespread rumor, this is a far from bleak book. While every character has his or her own misery, and it all takes place in a place called something like "cattle-roundup-ville", the moments of religious ecstasy and moral clarity are heartbreaking in their frequency - it's hard not to wish that one had such bizarre events going on around one in order to prompt such lofty oratory.
The story involves Ivan, Dmitri, Alyosha, and Smerdyakov, four brothers with a rich but notoriously lecherous father, Fyodor. All four brothers were raised by others, Fyodor having essentially ignored them until others removed them from his care. In the beginning of the book, Alyosha is in the monastery, studying under a famous elder name Father Zosima; Dmitri has just left the army and stolen a large sum of money from a government official's daughter, who he has also apparently seduced, all while pursuing a lawsuit against Fyodor for his inheritance and canoodling with his own father's intended, the local seductress Grushenka; Ivan, the intellectual in the family, has just returned from (I think) Petersburg. Dmitri is violent and impulsive, referring to himself as an "insect," and gets into fistfights with Fyodor several times. Smerdyakov works for Fyodor as a lackey, having gone to France to learn to cook at some point in the past. It's unimaginably more complicated and digressive than all this, and just trying to follow this crucial sum of three thousand rubles through the story is almost impossible. But anyway, Fyodor is killed and much of the book hinges on which brother killed him and why.
When I first read this book in high school, my teacher (who was a devout Catholic, a red-faced drunk who wore sunglasses to class, and the most enthusiastic reader of Russian literature imaginable) asked everyone who their favorite brother was. Was it Ivan, the tortured skeptic? Dmitri, the "scoundrel" who tortures himself for every wrong he commits but can't help committing more? Or Alyosha, the saintly one who always knows the right thing to say? (Certainly Smerdyakov is no one's favorite.) At the time I went with Ivan - I was in high school, after all, and his atheism and pessimism were revolutionary to me.
But now Ivan seems rather selfish and callow, and I can't help siding with Dmitri, the one Dostoevsky uses almost as a case history of conscience. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky gives his characters all the space to talk like gods, clearing pages upon pages for their reasoning and dialog. Dmitri fumbles with Voltaire and is clearly not overly literate, but in some ways that's apropos, because his main problem is the constant internal conflict between his desires and his ethics which is only partly resolved when he chooses to become responsible for not only what he does, but also what he wants.
The most famous passage in the book, Ivan's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, is, to me, far less interesting than Zosima's meditations on the conflict between justice and the collective good. The elder Zosima is a kind of Christian socialist who grapples with the typical mid-19th century Russian issues of how to build a equitable society without the extremes of coercion that the Tsar used to turn to, while also ensuring public morality and avoiding the kind of massacres that characterized the French Revolution (an event that seems to have been even more traumatizing for Russians than it was to the French due to the enormous cultural influence France had there at the time.) Zosima's answer is unworkable and in some ways naiive, but the discussion is well worth it, moreso than Ivan's somewhat simplistic dualism of Christ vs. the Inquisitor. Dostoevsky was a cultural conservative in the sense that he was constantly renewing his commitment to the obligations imposed on Russians by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, he was committed to the pursuit of joy through kindness and community and a kind of interpersonal fair dealing in a way that transcends his political concerns and is inspiring to see articulated in the lives of people who are as confused as the rest of us.
It's a huge, messy book, but so worth the effort. It took me about three months to read carefully, though my reading has been flagging lately, as well. I read this while listening to Hubert Dreyfus's accompanying lectures at Stanford on existentialism and this book which are available on iTunes U, and even when I felt his readings overreached, it was a good way to reread a tough and subtle work like this. (less)
What I find most objectionable about this book is its apparent lack of editing. Half the novel consists of people panicking over the phone about other...moreWhat I find most objectionable about this book is its apparent lack of editing. Half the novel consists of people panicking over the phone about other phone conversations other people have had about people getting on and off trains who are the children of WHO CARES. Willis has no sense of perspective, no skill for inventing the suggestive detail; consequently, this novel is a monument to the gods of boredom. This on top of the implausible premise that if time travel were available as a technology, historians would have a monopoly on its use. I have found in my travels that most historians are much better at infighting than they are at obtaining control of proprietary technologies. More red herring than a Norwegian fishing boat, it's like a Clan McGuffin family reunion. Totally useless.(less)
I "read" this in the sense that most of the words have been in front of my eyes. I'm going to have to deduct a star from Herr Wittgenstein for not hav...moreI "read" this in the sense that most of the words have been in front of my eyes. I'm going to have to deduct a star from Herr Wittgenstein for not having written clearer English.(less)
I listened to this on tape while I was driving to and from a Democratic convention in Orlando in 2004. What a nice counterpoint to such a bullshit-fil...moreI listened to this on tape while I was driving to and from a Democratic convention in Orlando in 2004. What a nice counterpoint to such a bullshit-filled event. While McCullough seems to worship anyone with the (mis)fortune to be elected President, if Truman was half the man McC. says he was, then he was twice the man I'll ever be. Interesting stories about how Truman's marriage to Bess only happened after he managed to muck up a proposal to someone he appears to have loved considerably more. Also, there are some tales of Truman's WWI military heroics that boggle the mind.(less)
Unlike Zinn's similarly-named book, this one is cogently argued. By "the people" Irons means not a single, monolithic demographic ("the oppressed"), b...moreUnlike Zinn's similarly-named book, this one is cogently argued. By "the people" Irons means not a single, monolithic demographic ("the oppressed"), but humans, folks, regular fellows. Each chapter contains a summary of an important event in the history of the Court and its decisions, the difference being that we get biographical detail on Dred Scott and Marbury rather than just the usual, dry narrative of administration.
The chapters on the origins of the Constitution and Supreme Court, though, are worth the price of the book by themselves. Drawing on Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention (pretty indigestible by themselves), Irons' sketchwork is compelling and imbues Elbridge Gerry and other, more obscure conventioneers with more personality and individuality than one usually sees in other books. Altogether, Irons did an admirable job; my only real problem is that he sometimes chose the obvious civil rights cases (Dred Scott; Brown v. Board) instead of the less juicy but equally consequential. I would have wanted to read more about Lochner v. New York, the evolution of Indian law from Marshall onward, and the period between the Civil War and the robber barons which for some reason often gets overlooked in books like these written by leftists (despite having given us the separation of church and state, the temperance movement, frontier justice, and lots of other interesting legal dilemmas).(less)
This book is a lot of fun for when you walk by St. Archibald of Poughkeepsie's Cathedral and you want to know who the hell that is. Also, how these pe...moreThis book is a lot of fun for when you walk by St. Archibald of Poughkeepsie's Cathedral and you want to know who the hell that is. Also, how these people get away with being called saints, with some of the stuff they got up to? Beyond me. Comforting, anyway, that Catholics put their money where their mouths are as far as everyone having the potential to be saved.(less)
Hard to say whether all this seems terrifically obvious because Putnam was there to point it out, because the chips have fallen precisely the way he s...moreHard to say whether all this seems terrifically obvious because Putnam was there to point it out, because the chips have fallen precisely the way he said they would, or because none of it really needed statement in the first place. This book is a great object lesson in how to build a point out of raw statistics.(less)