Pagans, Christians, and the transformation through power
In the tradition of Robert Graves, Gore Vidal deploys all his mastery in this fictitious autob...morePagans, Christians, and the transformation through power
In the tradition of Robert Graves, Gore Vidal deploys all his mastery in this fictitious autobiography of the Hellenist Emperor Julian. The core of the book is Julian’s unpublished memoir, but, contrary to Robert Graves, Vidal uses this text as part of the story itself. The memoir is accompanied by a letter exchange between contemporary philosophers Libanius and Priscus. This exchange fills in the gaps, comments on several aspects of Hellenisms and Christianity, and in general gives a humorous counterpoint to the memoir. Vidal manages to engage the reader throughout the book with this scheme.
I won’t comment on the historical accuracy of the book. Suffice to say that you learn a lot of history of this fascinating Emperor. There are so many insights on the transformation of Julian as a young philosopher who’s afraid for his own life to the Emperor that enjoys power and war. “On the throne of the World, any delusion can become fact” and “Only historians can ever be certain of one’s motive!” are just two examples of the great sentences to expect.
Julian was the last Emperor who tried to revert the ascent of Christianity in the Roman Empire. His main motivation is straightforward: Christians, he says, do not tolerate any other religion. In contrast, all the spiritual and religious world of the Romans was constructed mixing and tolerating several local and imported religious practices and Gods. He believed the Sun God Mithra protected him, and in the Persian Campaign he even deluded himself believing he was the re-incarnation of Alexander the Great. Julian comes across as a very complex character. Through his transformation process, we learn that everyone will, depending on the circumstances, radically change if absolute power is inherited. Even Marcus Aurelius, who claims never to enjoy warfare, would be in this category. (less)
Literature is in a certain way the most neutral of the arts. There are so many musicians that don’t care muc...moreAn artist’s career with postmodern gimmick
Literature is in a certain way the most neutral of the arts. There are so many musicians that don’t care much for visual arts, and like Jed Martin (the main character of the book), many visual artists that are not interested in music. Literature stands between both, with its firm ground on the concrete (content), but also its sublimation through form and development. “The Map and the Territory” is a look at Art from the point of view of Literature. In this it is very successful, the work of Jed Martin comes alive, and you end up with a great sense of knowledge of his career (his late pieces at the end of the book are specially well described). Houellebecq writes a biography of the artist through his work, and he exposes how both are intermingled and indivisible.
There are two other elements in this book. The first is a postmodern device: Houellebecq is a character in his own work. Although fun, it is not as interesting as it may seem. In the end it is just a gimmick, and any other character would have done just as well (for instance, if you don’t know who wrote the book). The third element is the detective fiction. Here Houellebecq is fantastic at describing the policeman mind, but the investigative part (the detective part of the story) is predictable and not very credible. It works only to get into the detective psyche, but not as an interesting plot.
All in all, with its unevenness, “The Map and the Territory” is an absorbing read. It contains many insights into life, old age, and death, and the description of the artist’s career is very well executed. With its many flaws, it is still highly recommended.(less)
A useful but limited introduction to Lacan Zizek is such a sui generis intellectual that it is inevitable that any “How to read” manual will be tainted...moreA useful but limited introduction to Lacan Zizek is such a sui generis intellectual that it is inevitable that any “How to read” manual will be tainted by his worldview. In this book, he doesn’t even try to be objective, and uses most of his “library” of examples to illustrate Lacan. A lot of these illustrations are also found in his movie “The Pervert's Guide to Cinema”, for instance. At the same time, Zizek favorites strategies—dialectic reversals, paradoxes and outright provocation—are inconspicuous in this book.
The bottom line is that you get to learn some Lacan through this book. The concept that permeates across the whole work is the Big Other (the anonymous symbolic order). Zizek explains it in different contexts, with some of its subjectivization in God, History, or Cause. This piece can easily be called “A short introduction to the Big Other”.
Other Lacanian concepts (some adapted from Freud, others Lacanians in nature) are only mentioned in passing or in short isolated chapters. The Id, the Ego, Super Ego, and others are not sufficiently explained or illustrated to really absorb them. There is not a structured buildup that makes the theory coherent (maybe it is incoherent, I don’t know). While Zizek is a great entertainer/philosopher, he fails in this book to present a complete basic picture of Lacan. (less)
Lots of science and speculation of why of the Eerie Silence
Lots of readers will know already about signal-based-search for intelligent alien life. The...moreLots of science and speculation of why of the Eerie Silence
Lots of readers will know already about signal-based-search for intelligent alien life. The vignette of the scientist waiting for a radio signal coming in from space is already in the collective imagination. The Eerie Silence covers of course this but much, much more, and it is in these extras that the book excels. It generate more questions than give answers, but these are the interrogations that will drive SETI’s strategy in its search of intelligent alien life.
Paul Davies starts his quest not with alien signals, but with the Cosmic Imperative: is life inevitable in every planet where the conditions are met? There are many Earthlike planets in the universe but we only know a few. The insight of the book is that the most Earthlike planet of all is Earth itself. To prove the Cosmic Imperative, we only have to demonstrate that life originated twice, independently, on Earth. Although we still don’t know the answer, the biochemistry quest for life’s origin is a fascinating topic in itself.
The next big theme is to identify the Great Filter: even if life is imperative (it originates anywhere the conditions are met), is there a “hard” step in life’s evolution? It is not at all evident that once life originates, it will evolve into intelligence after several millions of years. The Great Filter may be life itself, it may also be intelligent life, it may be the discovery of science, or it may be a post-technological society. This has big implications for the survival of our species. If the Great Filter is in our past, we have great chances of long-term survival. But what if the Great Filter is in our future? This paints a bleaker picture for humankind.
We next move on to the very sci-fi topic of speculating what an advanced civilization might be interested in. One of the most striking analyses is that an advanced civilization may not be interested in the “real” world, after having explored all there is to it. It may instead be living in an internal, exploratory world, solving more and more complex mathematical theorems for instance, and with no interest to communicate whatsoever.
If we obtain undeniable prove of alien intelligence, the impact on religion, and specifically on the Judeo-Christian tradition would be enormous. It will be an even bigger blow than Heliocentrism and Darwinism combined. Who and how to disseminate the news of this discovery is the last part of this fascinating book. Who should talk to the press? Should governments or international organizations be informed first? What kind of immediate reactions are we likely to expect? There is of course a big difference in obtaining evidence of a remote intelligent society that to be contacted by one. The second scenario is extremely unlikely compared to the first one, and it may be the main reason of the eerie silence, among the rest to be discovered in this volume. (less)
A word about what this book is: a detailed chronicle of the government intervention in the big financial firms du...moreExtremely long with irrelevant detail
A word about what this book is: a detailed chronicle of the government intervention in the big financial firms during the 2008 Financial Crisis. It is not an explanation of the crisis or a broader history; it is just a limited timespan chronology. Sometimes this is a virtue, but the book has so much detail at so many levels that most of it is fun while reading it but of no lasting value.
The first half of the book presents all the (many!) characters with a mini-biography. One quickly looses track in the morass of detail of who’s who. The story acquires some focus with the Lehman Brothers collapse. The movie confirms this, and picks up during the Lehman failure.
This level of detail has obviously some utility and reads fast (otherwise it would be impossible to finish), but it is so full with irrelevant detail that most of it is forgotten. I see the research utility of some of it, and as a first source it may be useful for future historians and journalists. But is it really necessary to know what each character eat for breakfast, how fast they walked, or what kind of coffee were they drinking at a conference call? I understand this level of detail can make a story more readable, but in a history like this it just distracts from the important issue, which is only discussed at the conclusion: a vantage point of the Crisis.(less)
The motivation to write a novel about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is clear after reading the book. It is a very...moreHHhH: Flawed in its purpose
The motivation to write a novel about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is clear after reading the book. It is a very little known story, much less than it should be. Almost 70 years after World War II, it’s also hard to find a subject that hasn’t been given some kind of fiction treatment. Within this framework, the author chooses not to write a straightforward novel, but to write it as an essay on the writing of Historical Fiction.
A little digression. It is true that there’s a slight similarity between this novel and Littell’s “Kindly Ones”, but it is not significant at all to grant any comparison. Littell’s main character is a fictional homosexual intellectual SS officer that goes to the east front, returns to Berlin, and survives the War. As Binet correctly puts it in this book, “The Kindly Ones” is “Houellebecq doing Nazism”. “HHhH” is the story of Heydrich and his assassins. It’s much more limited in scope (very historical) and timespan (only until 1942). “The Kindly Ones” and “HHhH” are really two VERY different novels.
Two forces are at play in the book: Fiction and History. Sometimes they collaborate as in any good historical work, but most of the time Binet is extremely ambivalent about the whole process. Although this exercise is successful at times (specially the beginning and the last parts) and funny (his endless perorations about the color of Heydrich’s car, green of black), at the end it leaves the reader with a sense of real frustration.
There are two main issues with this work of fiction. The first is the one we just mentioned. Binet make his point with so much vigor that the effect is the opposite: one wants to dumps the fiction work and instead read a real a History book. The other big problem is how the characters (historical or fictional, it doesn’t matter for the sake of this argument) are displayed. Heydrich comes out in all his evil glory, and we really get a three-dimensional rendition of this fascinating Nazi. But Binet wrote the book to vindicate and as an ode to the heroes, Heydrich’s assassins. They in turn come out as mannequins, without any real depth. There’s even no real difference between the three main ones. True, there’s a lot of talk about heroism and grandeur, but it feels abstract, with no real relation to the real human beings that committed the Resistance Act. In this regard, the book fails completely.
HHhH may not be your “typical” historical fiction, but “different” has never meant “better”. (less)
Great historical background and description of our system problems, but sketchy diagnosis and solutions
Every once in a while there’s an independent wr...moreGreat historical background and description of our system problems, but sketchy diagnosis and solutions
Every once in a while there’s an independent writer that, unencumbered from ties to any institution or publishing company, is free to write on topics that most established pundits won’t. These high profile intellectuals won’t venture there because they may consider that the subject matter may be too “obvious”, too speculative, or outside the space range where an original contribution can be made. Juggernaut is the first book I read by Eric Robert Morse, but judging by it and by the title of some of his other publications, he may well be one of these independent thinkers.
Juggernaut is based on a simple premise: as a consequence of the Closing of the Frontier, our system has become a zero-sum game with everyone striving for one goal, Money. We are trapped not only in a physical nation (frontier) but also, more significantly, into a political system. This “Juggernaut” can only get bigger and more encumbered, and the only way to fix it is through more regulation, which only puts more strain in the wrong direction. Morse basic premise here is that the only function of Government is to transfer wealth (see chapter III.3 – The Costs of Transferring Wealth). This last point (Big Bureaucratic Government) is the core of Morse’s diagnosis, and also where he focuses his energies at trying to propose a solution. It is important to note that although this may seem traditional Right Wing ideology, he goes beyond that and after reading the book one gets a genuine impression that he is not following a specific creed.
Morse presents his theses with an historical narrative of economics (and some political) theory. He starts with the Founding Fathers of economic thought to the early 2000s. This is really the main reason why anyone would want to read this book. It is a really well written (though selective) history of economics. Chapter I.4 (The Abstraction of Wealth) is a very good introduction to Money, and a very good example of what Morse can do.
After presenting this background information (History), the author develops his thesis, with the main diagnosis summarized above. It then becomes problematic. Morse’s verdict that the only function of Government is to transfer wealth is plausible and elegant in its simplicity, but there are many other dimensions that are not discussed in this book (the pacifying role of Government is one example, as discussed in Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Out Nature”). There are other fun simplifications, like comparing Social Security and Medicare to a gigantic Ponzi scheme (page 411), but overall Morse fails to convince that the problems we have (which are correctly stated) are only the result of the Juggernaut (Big Clumsy Government).
But the greater disappointment comes when Morse proposes a solution. Part IV (Autarcky) is dedicated at sketching short-term and long-term answers to our problems. His short-term solutions are general liberal wisdom (this is were you can confirm that Morse is not following GOP): buy independent, make your own stuff, start a small business, use the Internet to avoid the city, etc. For the long term solution, we get straight into science fiction and futurists territory, and most of it is better covered in Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”. Basically, Nanotechnology will solve all our material problems (Morse is a little less extreme in his argument, but since he makes a prediction to 2300, subtleties don’t really matter).
It’s easy to agree with the symptoms that are explained in the book, and although you may not agree with the disease and the medication, this type of argument are nevertheless interesting to read and think about. And they only come from independent writers these days. (less)
A comprehensive but ideologically biased economics history
There are a couple of points that are good to know before you pick up this short economics h...moreA comprehensive but ideologically biased economics history
There are a couple of points that are good to know before you pick up this short economics history. First, the title is misleading, it is not “new ideas”, but just “ideas” form dead economists. Second, it is not only theories (ideas), but also biography (at least sometimes). The latter is where the book fails the most. I’ll come back to this later.
This is a history of ideas book, but it is also a saga of how modern economy (the dismal science) came to life. This epics starts, naturally, with the Physiocrats and Adam Smith. Modern free-marketeers and Republicans have taken for themselves Smith’s theories. They place them in the ideological camp against Big Government. But “The Wealth of Nations” starts with a critique to Mercantilism and its focus on money. Wealth, in Smith’s view, is productive, not monetary. Of course the Spanish Empire learned this the hard way after bringing gold and silver from America. This new theoretical framework for wealth is the real revolution. One wonders what Smith would have thought of modern finance, with its obsession with paper money and fancy instruments that are several levels of abstraction removed from real wealth. In this sense, Adam Smith is more of an Economics Theory Foundation figure, and not so much a piece to place on one side or the other of the ideological camp.
Buchholz traces how economics develops from this early foundation, explaining Malthus, Ricardo, Alfred Marshal invention of the economic supply and demand curves, and then moving forward to modern economics from Keynes to Behaviorists. The book is very successful in presenting all these theories in a coherent framework and a small package.
There are, however, two big problems with “New Ideas from Dead Economists”. The first is how biography is misused. The book presents mainly ideas, and in most cases biography is used to move the prose forward. But when the author doesn’t agree with a theory, he spends more time on the economists’ flaws. Marx is portrayed as a drunken, money waster youth, negligent provider for his family. I don’t see how this is relevant at all in understanding his theories—it is a fun story, but that’s a different type of book. Buchholz critique of Marxism is tinted with this (irrelevant) biographical information. In my opinion, this is not a very honest way of debating economics.
The other problem is his uses of examples. Marshall is praised with many illustrations that “prove” him right. Malthus, the opposite. With almost every economic theory on can find examples to prove or disprove it. So one wonders how these examples were chosen, and if this is just confirmation bias on the part of the author. (less)
The book in two concepts: Darwinism, Adjacent Possible
This is one of these books were you have the feeling of reading an overextended magazine article...moreThe book in two concepts: Darwinism, Adjacent Possible
This is one of these books were you have the feeling of reading an overextended magazine article or a detailed script for a TED talk. It’s not that the ideas are uninteresting, they are. It’s that the evidence to support them is too anecdotal to grant a complete book.
There are two main concepts that are developed in the book. The first is a parallel between the development of ideas and Darwinian evolution. The second—a corollary of the first—is that ideas can only emerge into the “adjacent possible”, a large but finite set of possible developments that can take place given the current state of the art. The author details both of these concepts with many examples throughout the book, but one has to wonder if these examples are handpicked or not to prove the thesis. As Nassim Taleb explains in some of his books, it’s pretty easy to find evidence that supports a theory. Johnson never explains if he ever looked at ALL the available data, and if he did, what was his method.
The Conclusion contains the most interesting ideas. Darwinism is not only survival of the fittest; collaboration and competition play both an important role in the development of the species. The example of the choral reef is very illustrative, but once again we wonder how it translate directly to the world of ideas and inventions. Overall, an interesting thesis but without the supporting evidence it cannot be upgraded to a theory.(less)
Even if you haven’t read any of Richard Dawkins’s books, you can guess by their titles or by its reviews what...moreDawkins in a nutshell, enhanced by McKean
Even if you haven’t read any of Richard Dawkins’s books, you can guess by their titles or by its reviews what he’s all about. The Magic of Reality is Dawkins in a nutshell. You get evolutionary biology, the scientific method, chance and random events analysis, a little bit of molecular biology, some astronomy, earth evolution history (with earthquakes), and a mini “God Delusion”. The book is written in an easy language and not condescending, although some reviewers complain about that. So far so good.
Where the book really shines though, is in the illustrations. Davis McKean does a fantastic job not only in illustrating the text, but he actually enhances it. Evolution is illustrated with a bookshelf of ancestors’ photographs and trees, the periodic table is brought to life with colors and also detailed electrons drawings, seasons and rainbows are explained with geometric diagrams. All the drawings are extremely well crafted and almost never redundant.
So even if you don’t care for Dawkins, or if you know everything that’s in the book (I think most people will still find a couple of things they didn’t know, or at least illuminating ways of explaining them), the illustrations are what really make the book a great and fun read. Skip the audiobook version.(less)
This very short introduction is what it promises. It is not only an historical account of the revolution (that is presented in...moreA complete short history
This very short introduction is what it promises. It is not only an historical account of the revolution (that is presented in just one chapter), but also a complete overview of causes, consequences and scholar controversies. This book is so short that I will keep my review brief as well. Just add that it’s not only good for people just approaching the subject, but also great to get a higher lever overview if you already know the story.(less)
The main message: We are all fools, so it’s better to know it
Several researchers have already explained this: we are terrible at computing odds. One o...moreThe main message: We are all fools, so it’s better to know it
Several researchers have already explained this: we are terrible at computing odds. One of the main evolutionary theories is that, for our ancestors, it was better to overestimate the chances of being hurt or killed. The corollary is that we don’t understand intuitively probability, and this has many consequences in our modern life and work.
This book is also about the Monte Carlo method. Using computing power, you can simulate many “parallel histories”. This has the advantage of seeing the odds directly with systems that are too complex to be modeled and analyzed mathematically. Some scientists call this method “brute force”, which it is, but it works in some cases. Taleb presents this method with several systems in an easy and pedagogical manner.
The third main thread of the book is that it’s more valuable to be a wealthy dentist that a multi-millionaire trader that has a high chance of “blowing up”. Or the reverse, the trader is the lucky one from a big pool of less successful colleagues. If you’re familiar with Borges’s “Babel Library”, you will get the point. Taleb explains it from many different angles. One example: you put monkeys in front of typewriters. One of them writes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It is less impressive if the original pool of monkeys is in the order of the mega-trillions than if they are just twenty. The same apply for traders, but we just see the lucky one (the monkeys that succeed in writing theater) and never see the others.
And this leaves me with the more frustrating part of the book. Although the author claims and suggests throughout that, as a trader, he has always been on the “safe side”, i.e., minimizing his chances of blowing up, he never explains how he does it. The dentist example is clear, but it doesn’t automatically translate to finance.
The book is really entertaining to read, if you don’t mind the bullying and self-satisfied style of the author. Some reviewers complain (a lot) about this. I, in turn, found it most amusing. And I think it really makes for a lighter read that would have been otherwise. (less)
A compelling classic: a page turner with deep layers
Sometimes I'm intimidated before I start old classics. The novel may not speak as directly as a co...moreA compelling classic: a page turner with deep layers
Sometimes I'm intimidated before I start old classics. The novel may not speak as directly as a contemporary work, one say. However, Crime and Punishment doesn't fall at all in this category. It is a page turner like any good best-seller. But it also speaks at many different layers, and that's what, I think, makes it a classic.
The main character (Raskolnikov) embodies the whole process of guilt in the few months that novel covers. But it's also a representation of much more. He's a person of its time, with all the impact that Napoleon had on the youth during the 19th Century. He also represents the process of the child growing up and falling in love. He symbolizes the "Bon Sauvage" falling in disgrace and learning that real freedom comes mainly from social immersion. This novel is much more than I can probably express.
A very recommended read, this french edition is small and good. It has a a moderate number of footnotes that put 19th Century Russia in context. The extras of this edition are also helpful.(less)
My UK edition of this book comes with a Jonathan Franzen’s front-page endorsement, “Writing this rawly self-conscious has no b...moreNo-clichés cancer-memoir
My UK edition of this book comes with a Jonathan Franzen’s front-page endorsement, “Writing this rawly self-conscious has no business captivating you, let alone moving you. That it manages to do it anyway is a testament to Mr Cody's talent, honesty and singularity.” Well, considering that Mr Cody published the book, I assume that he has an interest captivating his readers. He manages this partially.
Mr Cody can certainly write. His prose is lively, intelligent, and entertaining. If you can get over what other readers have complained as “pretentiousness” (is he really pretending? I don’t know), you can certainly enjoy this memoir and its many digressions. It is in these deflections, though, that the book succeeds and fails.
This book can be appropriately described as a “no-clichés cancer-memoir”. There is none of the self-pity, new-discovery-of-the-beauty-of-the-world type of subject matter that plagues this genre. Instead we get some poignant streams of consciousness, specially the ones that deal with the “disease-self”. From here the author digresses into his many cultural references (he’s a PhD composition student) and sexual adventures (are they really true? Who cares). On the other hand, when the author pushes his family history into the picture, it becomes less interesting. He can manage a universal metaphor of the ill through art and the body, but not really through his personal history.(less)
The key is in the subtitle: A Chronicle (taken to its extreme)
I won’t get into the political controversies surrounding this book in particular and the...moreThe key is in the subtitle: A Chronicle (taken to its extreme)
I won’t get into the political controversies surrounding this book in particular and the French Revolution in general. Suffice to say that Schama is of the conservative view that the Revolution was a bloody mess, unnecessary if you compare it with the American one. If you want an overview of the different interpretations, check the excellent “The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction” by William Doyle.
This book is, in general, very readable. It is also extremely long. The big issue is that the chronology form is taken to an extreme. There’s no overarching narrative, no links between sections (most new parts just start out of the blue, and can in fact be read independently). With this you get a lot of (fun) detail in each section, but it’s also easy to get lost in the overall historical context. The parts that most suffer are the ones that you’re less familiar with (too many names, too many events).
On the other hand, I enjoyed a lot the Terror sections, the Flight to Varennes, and others. It’s probably better, thought, to read a shorter and more contextual history before picking up this book to get the most out of it. This doesn’t fix its general flaw: and extreme chronology form. (less)
An example of why reading classic (professional and amateur) historians is still relevant today
To cover the complete history of humankind (including t...moreAn example of why reading classic (professional and amateur) historians is still relevant today
To cover the complete history of humankind (including the planets formation and human ancestors) in just over 300 pages is a tour the force. This history ends in the early 1920s, and although there are many details that we now know are different (the editors do a great job here), it doesn’t make this work less relevant to modern readers.
Wells takes a high-level view of events, and focuses mainly of two threads: the societies and empire formations through the interaction and clash of races; and the emancipatory (moral) power of the main monotheistic religions. Each chapter is self-contained, but this motif is never lost of sight. Wells comes back to it throughout the book.
It is redundant to remark that Wells is a great writer and that the prose of his short history is direct and engaging. This is no minor detail in a book of this breath. Only a great writer can keep the pace and the reader’s interest in a history of several thousands years in such a short book. (less)