Friday, October 2, 2009

Back to the Archives: 2006 Reading Summary

    I didn't get a history major for nothing, and this year proved to be a good one. I began the year reading a fascinating and challenging historian on a seemingly inexhaustible subject. John Lukacs's Churchill: Historian, Visionary, Statesman. First, Lukacs: he writes in three modes, the particular, the panoramic, and the visionary. In this book, he displays his panoramic view. Later, I listened (again) to his Five Days in London: May 1940, where he describes Churchill's assent to power against the backdrop of those who in Britain who would have cut a deal with Hitler. This is Lukacs, who can write like a good novelist, showing his "particular" mode. You learn that history (as always) could have taken a very different turn. 

    Continuing a bit a Churchill theme taken up from last year (and that goes back to at least the 6th grade), I listened to Dr. John Ramsden's Winston Churchill audio lectures presented by The Modern Scholar (trying to muscle-in on the well-established pioneer in this market, The Teaching Company). Here I give the nod to Ramsden's work over that of Rufus Jones for the Teaching Company that I listened to last year. Ramsden provides a good concise summary of Churchill's career and the issues it raises. 

    Another foray back into my past was to Lawrence Lafore's The Long Fuse. Professor Lafore was my professor for "Modern England: 1850-Present", but his forte was 20th century diplomatic history, and The Long Fuse was assigned to me twice by another history prof as an undergraduate. As the coming of the First World War must be seen as a tragedy of the highest magnitude—at once inevitable and painfully wrong—it bears constant consideration and reconsideration, as indeed it has received. Interest in this topic led me to the excellent short consideration of the subject recently published by David Fromkin, Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War and Why? Fromkin does an excellent job of recounting the build-up to the Great War, how decisions, fears, alliances, and human fallibility created the slow motion train wreck of Western civilization that lasted—as some will argue—to the Treaty of Paris in 1991. 

    A regular on my reading list is Garry Wills. In the history category, I read his Henry Adams and the Making of America. The first section is a consideration of Henry Adams, one of our great earlier historians who has often been dismissed as "gloomy". Wills argues persuasively that this is not the case, at least not for this work (unlike his autobiography, written toward the end of his life). In the latter part of the book, Wills then takes his readers through Adams's great work of American history, A History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Wills adds his insights to the glory of Adams work to show how dramatically the nation changed and formed in those 16 years from a rag-tag uncertainty to a solid national identity and government. Wills is a master of taking the familiar and finding the new or unusual take on a person or event. 

    While Wills has been a staple in my reading since 1976, when C and I read his Bare Ruined Choirs while commuting to Muscatine, and I read his brilliant portrait of Richard Nixon, Nixon Agonistes, there are happy new additions the favored historians list. One new historian on my high priority list is Niall Ferguson. Ferguson is a British historian who was at Oxford and now serves on the faculty at Harvard. Yeah, he's good. I read Colossus: The Price of America's Empire. Ferguson, who's written on the First World War (The Pity of War) and the British Empire, takes a look at American history in light of the British experience. Ranging over American forays into formal imperialism (e.g., the Philippines) and informal (U.S. domination of Latin America), Ferguson shows that the U.S. tries to evade the fact of our dominance and our quandary of how to square our anti-colonial heritage with the fact of our predominance on the world stage. This ambivalence complicates issues of how to engage in places like Viet Nam and Iraq. By the way, expect to see Ferguson on next year's list, as he's just published The War of World: The Descent of the West and the Rise of Asia, where he takes a panoramic look at our calamitous century. 

    To round out this History list for this year, Jon Meachum's audio of Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of a Friendship. I think that R read this. Two more complex and important men have rarely met in such a crucial time and under such amazing circumstances. Meachum does a fine job of mixing the human element seen in private with the public personas acting on the stage of world history. In the end, I think that Winston comes out as the more attractive figure, great as FDR was in the pantheon of American history. 

    As a sneak preview of next year, I've begun reading Churchill's The Gathering Storm, the first volume in his seven volume memoir of the Second World War. (The memoir starts about 1930, as Churchill picks up on the breakdown of the Versailles Treaty.) This is no chore: recall that Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature. He claims that while the "cleverer boys" were learning Greek and Latin, he was forced to focus on the basic English sentence.


    Anne chastised me earlier this year for not reading enough fiction, following a theme that C had trumpeted for many years without success. While this charge is not wholly fair, it has some truth to it, so I decided to take up some novels. 

    The first was a listen: P.D. James's The Murder Room. I cite this as Exhibit A, as I am a regular listener to P.D. James, the "Queen of Crime". She and her enduring character, Adam Dagleish, the poet-detective superintendent, make for great listening. James is not a drawing room mystery writer, as she is strong in her stationhouse rivalries and the forensics of the morgue, as well as in dealing with the complex motives of a host of suspects. Here she adds the spice of 1920's memorabilia to her tale. Good stuff. 

    Jeb Rudenfeld is a Yale law prof that I'd heard of, so I paid some early interest in his The Interpretation of Murder, an early 20th century setting that uses Freud's only trip to America to allow sleuthing in New York. Digressions on Hamlet and the growing conflict with Jung (a travel companion at this time) makes of an interesting story. Not bad for a first try. 

    Ward Just's Forgetfulness proved an excellent choice. I'd earlier read his The American Ambassador (Exhibit B for Steve as fiction reader), so I gave this a try, as it was just published, and I'm glad that I did. Just's writing captures the surfaces of things in a way that says a lot by not commenting much. In this story, an American expatriate in France must deal with death and the rough ways of trying to reach some sense of justice. Excellent. 

    Quite independent of President Bush's choice of authors, I picked up Albert Camus's The Plague. Actually, I did so on the much stronger authority of recommendations from both daughters (and besides, I'd read The Stranger in both high school and college). The Plague was an excellent novel, and not just because Dr. Rieux is a lot more sympathetic character than Mersualt, although that doesn't hurt it any, for sure. The quiet way that Camus provides his account of the North African port city's growing peril and the efforts of residents to deal with it make for a compelling story.


Philosophy & Religion

    Garry Wills offered two new books this year that both provide succinct and insightful account of the two most important figures in Christianity: What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant. What Jesus Meant provides the more unique, yet quite orthodox, account. Both books provide new insights based on Biblical scholarship, but the emphasis in both is upon the meaning of their subjects. In both cases Wills seeks to scrub away the varnish of tradition and misunderstanding that has been coated both figures and led us to distorted perspectives. Wills rarely touches upon a subject without giving you a new and unforeseen perspective upon them, and these two books prove no exception.

    I delved this year into Paul Ricouer's The Symbolism of Evil, one of those books that have stared at me for years, begging to be read. I picked it up in part because Ricouer died this past year, and it seemed appropriate to explore. He is not an easy read—his erudition in Biblical, classical, and philosophical texts is mind-boggling. Here is explores the concepts of defilement, sin, and guilt. Fun, eh? Well worth if you're willing to swim into deep water. 

    Another lion of post-war European philosophy is Jurgen Habermas, and I read Jurgen Habermas: A Very Brief Introduction, one of a serious on a wide variety of topics published by Oxford University Press. Habermas is someone that I'd read in college, but coming out of the Frankfurt School and steeped in the German intellectual tradition, he's not easy. But this book made his thought seem easy. This guy is the living embodiment of the European Enlightenment tradition and the intellectual godfather of much of contemporary German political thinking. A well-done effort here gets to the essentials in a most effective manner.

    Thank goodness for the Teaching Company! They've helped make drives long and short, as well as mowing the lawn or time on the cardio machines go much faster. This year I listened to two programs by a favorite philosopher, Robert Solomon, who teaches at UT-Austin. The first, The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of the Emotions picks up a favorite topic of his and mine: the emotions. Solomon argues that emotions are not simply feral reactions, but are—at least in part—cognitive strategies to deal with the environment. (For a contrary few, check out Columbia prof Jon Elster's Alchemies of the Mind. But I digress.) Solomon gives the listener a tour of the emotions and then reflects in the second half of the course upon various aspects of emotional life. Whether talking about Aristotle or Sartre (favorites of his), or contemporary practices, he's always makes sound arguments and astute observations. No bombast, just solid thinking. 

    The other Solomon course this year was The Will to Power: Nietzsche's Philosophy. Here Solomon is joined by his wife and Nietzsche scholar, Kathleen Higgins (UT-Austin) to discuss this most complex of philosophers. Nietzsche is unique in many ways, and Solomon and Higgins explore his work from a number of different angles, dispelling myths and providing perspective. Highly recommended. 

    Mathew Stewart's The Courier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World provided entertaining and enlightening. Spinoza has gained my attention and admiration over the last several years. I've been weak as a student of early modern history, but I see Spinoza, perhaps much more than his much more famous contemporary, Descartes, as a pivotal figure in modern thinking (although his Euclidian form of argument is off-putting). Spinoza's insights in the emotions rates very high with me, as he tracks, to some extent, Stoic thinking. However, in this book we learn about Leibniz, the eccentric and brilliant co-founder of calculus and the mondonology (that I've never been able to penetrate) and his meeting with the quiet Dutch heretic. Good reading laced with insight from these two great philosophers. 

    Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth proved to me again why I value her work. She traces the story of myth and myths from the earliest times to the present in this slim but valuable volume. She shows myth as historical construct and as world-informing narrative that provides meaning to lives (even if it shows a shattered world, such as found in Elliot's The Wasteland). Recommended. 

    I'm not sure where it belongs, but I'm going to put Alan de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life into this category. Not philosophy in a traditional sense, but an extended, thoughtful essay based upon an appreciation of one of the greatest and most eccentric writers in the 20th century. Fun and thoughtful. 

    In a light, funny, but moving effort, Anne Lamot's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith provided to be a fun read aloud for C and I. Lamont takes her own foibles, those of her teenage son, her family, and about everything else in reality, and looks at in a humorous and touching way. 

    Finally, in the fun and thoughtful mode, Richard Watson's The Philosopher's Diet. If, like me, you decide its time to shed some pounds, start with Watson as your guide. Food, running, sex, and death are among his subjects. This guy was born and raised and educated in Iowa (Bedford, Iowa State undergrad, Iowa grad school), so it's easy to tune into his references. He now teaches philosophy at Wash U in St. Louis and specializes in Cartesian studies. Trust him to lead you if you feel the urge to go for it in the weight control field.
Social Sciences
    First, a word in defense of reading social science. Too much of it can be dry as sawdust, but when it's good, it can be very good. Not beautiful prose, but if not gummed up with jargon, it can make us see things that are right before our eyes but that we can routinely miss. If you find the good stuff, it can be very good. 

Steven Johnson: Emergence, Mind Wide Open, and Everything Bad for You is Good for You. Johnson is a journalist of science and social science (where do we draw the line?) much like Malcolm Gladwell. In Emergence, Johnson traces the ways of ants, cities, and computers. Yes, you read that correctly, and he does so in a convincing manner. In Mind Wide Open, he explores the workings of the mind, using his own experiences as a guide. Finally, in Everything Bad for You is Good for You, he takes a counter-intuitive approach of video games and popular entertainment, suggesting that these games, whatever their violence or sexual innuendo, are very mentally challenging. Ditto with popular TV: plots and narrative are much more demanding than yesteryear. Good. Fun stuff. 

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki. This audio book made for great listening. It explains, among other things, the workings of the Iowa Electronic Markets, and a host of other phenomena. I argue that it shows the value of widespread and de-centralized decision-making. Of course, you will argue, if decentralized and mass decision-making are so good, then how do we account for the election of . . . .? Well, I think that raises some specifics that need addressing; however, the Iowa Electronic Markets are very good a predicting who will (fact) as opposed to who should win (value judgment). Indeed, your author addresses issues lie groupthink, as well. Very good.


An academic heavyweight this year for me was Jared Diamond. His Guns, Germs, and Steel (a Pulitzer Prize-winner) and Collapse, published in the last year or so, were both intriguing. How the Europeans got the jump on the rest of the world, and even more so, how Eurasia has developed so much more than Australia, the Americas, and other parts of the world is examined and considered in a very through and convincing manner, considering everything from plagues to the geographic axis of the continents (the Americas and Africa on a more north-south axis, Eurasia on an east-west axis). In Collapse, Diamond looks at societies that failed (including the Mayans, where we've been now several times). It's a sobering consideration of what happens when societies fail to adopt. 

    Butterfly Economics: A New General Theory of Social and Economic Behavior by Paul Omerod. How the dismal science can learn to overcome the many paradoxes the classical accounts fail to satisfactorily explain. In sum, Omerod argues that economic behaviors show the same patters that we see in chaos theory, the seeming randomness of behavior coalescing in patterns that ants exhibit in their seeming randomness. Ants for Omerod, like Steven Johnson, provide an amazing guide to how individual decisions create a social world. 

    Animals in Translation, by Terry Grandlin. Social science? Well, sort of. Grandlin is an autistic woman with a Ph.D. in animal behavior, and she's a bit of a savant of animal behavior. This is an intriguing account of the animal world and how we and they interact in a social world. Quite fascinating. 

    The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a psychologist of the Margin Seligman sort (Learned Helplessness). He investigates modern findings from psychology (and not just the pathological sorts that were the focus of so much older work) and compares them to ancient wisdom. Guess what? The ancients (Buddhists, Stoics, etc.) fair pretty darn well when issues of what makes us happy and how to avoid suffering are investigated by contemporary psychologists. A thoughtful use of social science at its best. Recommended. 

        Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea could have gone under philosophy, and perhaps under science, but as it addresses the development of life and society though the building blocks of Darwin, which is based on population, we'll call it social science. Dennett is an engaging writer, whether or not you agree with him. He argues that Darwin (and his successors in evolutionary thought) explain it all. He's quite thorough. In depth, but it never drags, and it doesn't go anywhere an interested reader can't follow. 

    Last but not least, in more humanistic essay than social science, I must include James Hillman's Kinds of Power and The Soul's Code. Hillman trained with C.G. Jung, and he's developed his own brand of psychology (archetypal). Regardless of whether you buy his whole scheme, he is an absolutely engaging writer, speaking with familiarity and command over Greek and Renaissance culture, as well as the contemporary world, throwing out insights left and right as he goes. He never fails to engage and provoke thought. His Kinds of Power is a meditation on power in all sorts of situations and manifestations. In The Soul's Code, he argues for an acorn theory of development. I'm not sure that I buy it all, but I love the sale's pitch.
Fun Stuff
    A couple of fun things. Mind Performance Hacks: Tips and Tools for Overclocking Your Brain, by Ron Hale –Evans. Fun things to do the keep the machine working at peak potential. How about learning short hand or Morris code? Number short-cuts? You name it, he's got an angle. Fun. 

    Similarly, The Owners Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research by Pierce Howard. More a compendium than a do-it-yourself manual like Mind Performance Hacks, it's still fun and interesting. 

    Finally, I'm not done with it, but try a Raymond Smullyan book, like The Riddle of Scheherazade and Other Amazing Riddles. Smullyan is a professor of math and logic, and a man with a sense of humor and a love of paradox. He's great when you're in the mood to tackle a word problem!


    Enough for now. Other reads have gone un-noted. Too little time and patience. And many books get started and set aside for one reason or another. Since I haven't quite finished it, next year you can look forward to a fascinating—both terrifying and hopeful—book on juvenile justice courtesy of A2, and some great recent additions from Christmas. In fact, I'm so excited about what's sitting in front of me that I think it best to now close the books on this year and begin working on next year's list!

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