Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Two New Titles: Girard & B. Alan Wallace

Two New Titles

This weekend served as the anniversary of our local independent bookstore, Prairie Lights, and they offered 20% off everything, so time for a couple of new titles. It’s fun to browse there, and since my spouse and I, not to mention offspring, are well known there, we get plenty of recommendations. On this trip, I went with two familiar authors with new titles. The first is Rene Girard, with Pierpalo Anotnello and Joao Cezar de Castrol Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (2007). This title was new to me, and it looked good. Like a blood hound with a new scent, I was off into it (notwithstanding the fact that I have a pile of unfinished books already). The book is an extended interview with Girard after a short summary introduction. The first chapter recounted Girard’s career. He was trained initially as a librarian-archivist, came to the U.S. (from his native France), received a Ph.D. in history from Indiana, then to John Hopkins, while along the way moving his attention to literature. From there, he went on to develop a very unique theory of culture and religion. He completed his career (at least as far as academic appointments go) at Stanford in the Department of French Language, Literature and Civilization. It’s interesting how this inquisitive and original thinker broke academic boundaries.

Girard is a hedgehog (in the Isaiah Berlin sense); only he has two big ideas: mimetic desire and scapegoating. In short, we learn from one another, often to the point where we mimic the desires of another, thereby establishing conflict (most easily recognized as envy). When social cohesion becomes frayed through rivalry, societies resort to scapegoats, a sacrifice to placate the social (or religious) order. Fascinating stuff, as I’ve read some of this stuff earlier. A theory of human culture and relations that is profoundly intriguing. The interviewers believe him to be the “Darwin of the human sciences”. Well, I’m not sure about that, but he is profoundly interesting. BTW, he came across his insight while reading the great 19th and early 20th century novelists, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, Proust, among others, which he published as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

The other new title is B. Alan Wallace’s Mind in the Balance: Mediation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity (2009). Wallace is a former Buddhist monk, sometime translator for the Dalai Lama and of Tibetan texts, a Ph.D. from Stanford in religious studies, and an undergraduate major in physics. With this combination, he’s an excellent conduit of perspectives between East and West, more specifically, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and Western science. This book, as he explains in the beginning, has an interesting genesis. He reports that his step-daughter, a practicing Christian, wanted some guidance on going deeper into her tradition. He wrote this book for her, which includes not only history and theory behind Western and Eastern meditation traditions, but also alternating chapters on meditation techniques and practices. I’m not quite half-way through, but the meditation guidance is some of the best that I’ve read (and I’ve read some of this other books). The combined tour of the traditions with the additional insight from Western science makes for a great learning experience, and it certainly serves as an aid to practice.

On a Lighter Note . . . to Shangri-La

The internet has many amazing qualities. The speed at which we can access information, for good or ill, is amazing, absolutely amazing. Further, the development of blogs has changed my reading habits a good deal. I find myself reading more and more blogs, as one will often reference another. Of course, this can lead to overload, and one must constantly cull one’s reading. However, we do discover some gems, at little or no price (especially as opposed to the cost of a book, and with a much wider gate than limiting oneself to what the NYT Book Review, TNR, NY Review of Books decide is worth considering, as much as I appreciate all of those sources). All of this is leading me to Seth Roberts, whom I discovered, I don’t remember from whom, via a blog. Roberts is a professor of psychology @ Berkley, a blogger, and, perhaps most importantly, a self-experimenter. That’s right, Roberts experiments on himself (and I’m sure lots of lab rats and other such things as psychologists do). He tests, reports, measures (a challenge, but he pursues it), and he reports.

One problem he got into was weight loss. Like many of us, he got heavier than he wanted. He began experimenting with small changes. Then he went to Paris, not normally considered the weight loss capital of the world. But he drank a new (to him) sugared drink with a strange new flavor, and despite his culinary enthusiasm, he had a limited appetite and actually lost weight. From this personal episode, combined with the ability to due to scientific research (he’s on the editorial board of Nutrition, for example), he came to the conclusion that flavors not associated with calories (but containing calories) decrease the body’s set point for weight (the body has an internal thermostat of sorts to maintain a set weight). Drinking the strange drink, not earlier associated with calories, lowered his set point, thus reducing his appetite. Later, testing further, he found that sugar water did the same trick, but for some quirk of evolution, sweetness as a taste didn’t count as a flavor, so drinking sugar water a couple of times a day allowed him to continue his weight loss. He later discovered that unflavored oils did the same thing without the extra sugar calories and allowing greater consumption of some healthy, although virtually tasteless oils. He, and many others, continue to lose weight.

Roberts published his findings and theory in The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger, Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan (2006) after getting a boost from the Freakinomics blog site at the NYT. Anyway, it’s a fun read, an interesting guy, now on a kick in favor of cultured food that put bugs (good ones) in the gut, such as yogurt and kim-chee. Anyway, I’ve just started his regiment, and no results yet. But we’ll see, and I think that’s also a good thing by his way of thinking. A fun, quick read with a very easy application if you want to try it out.