Thursday, December 20, 2012

Favorites 5/20: Moral Man & Immoral Society

Moral Man And Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics

Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr (1936). While Arendt presents a view of politics that arises out of her German existenz philosophy training with Heidegger and Jaspers, as well as her plight as a German-Jewish refugee and American émigré, Niebuhr is a homegrown American theologian (Lutheran) that provides an analysis of politics that I found captured my ascent and has maintained it. Niebuhr is rightly categorized as a political realist, but as you would expect from a Christian minister, his concern for fundamental values is not diminished. Indeed, his tragic view of politics has led me to re-read this book as an anchor about how to think of some of the great issues in our times. (I recall specifically re-reading it at the time of the first Iraq War.)

Favorites 4/20: The Human Condition

Product Details   The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt (1956). This isn’t the firstArendt I read, I think that designation goes to Between Past and Future, which I have an image of reading in Cedar Falls the first year we were married. However, The Human Condition is probably the closest that Arendt came to laying out a systematic presentation of her very unique way of thinking about politics. Her ideas both fascinate and frustrate me, but then that’s what great books should do: push us to think. I haven’t read any Arendt in a while, but during my undergraduate and law school days, I had a real intellectual crush on her! 

Favorites 3/20: Moby Dick

Product Details    Moby Dick, by Herman Melville (1851). Fiction is under-represented on my list, and so are audiobooks,  and I've enjoyed both categories greatly, but this one belongs unquestionably. Melville is to my (limited) mind the greatest American novelist, and this book is the greatest American novel. Like ZAMM, it’s nominally about a journey, a quest, whaling, and so on, but when you put it all together, it’s a great tale, endlessly fascinating. 

Favorites 2/20: Nixon Agonistes

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man     NixonAgonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, by Garry Wills (1972). I owe a shout-out to political science (theory and philosophy) professor John S. Nelson for assigning this to an introduction to American politics class. I didn’t take the class, but I saw the book in the bookstore, and I’d taken other classes from him and found his selections sound. Well, this was more than sound. It combines the eye of a reporter with the analytic mind of a classicist (perhaps by necessity among the most versatile of scholars) in what is a classic of American political reporting the workings of American politics. If you had to read one book about American politics, this might be it. 

Intro & 1/20 Favorites: ZAMM

Having just finished reading ZAMM again, it led me to reflect on what other books belong on my all-time favorites list. I’ve done this with authors, but not with particular books (at least that I can remember). Of course, I have end-of-the-year lists of books and music that I should be attending to, and, of course, I worry that I’ll leave off some really great books (especially since I don’t have my library here in front of me). But even with all of these reasons not to attempt this, I’m going to do it anyway. What follows is in no particular order, just how they came to me as I started thinking and jotting my list about the subject. So for what it’s worth, here goes! 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Publisher: William Morrow     Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert Pirsig (1974; with a new introduction and postscript in later editions). One could go on at length about this book, but my most recent prior post will have to suffice for now. 

I'll continue posting until I have all 20 selections posted. Blogspot doesn't want to do 20 at once, it seems ("it's a piece of s**t" to borrow a turn of phrase). In any event, I will not be deterred.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If you haven’t read ZAMM, how should I describe it to you? It’s a travelogue, a father-son story, a ghost story, a journey story, a series of essays about topics philosophical and practical—I could go on, but for me it’s one of the best books that I’ve ever read (now for the third or fourth time), which I consider to be a high compliment indeed. 

This novel (perhaps too limiting a designation) created quite a sensation at the time of its publication in 1974. It reached bestseller status quickly, and it frequently appeared on college bookstore shelves, where I first saw it. I never had it assigned as a text, but a political science professor I had (John S. Nelson) assigned it in classes & often posted quotes from it (on 5/8 cards outside of  his Schaeffer Hall office). I don’t recall when exactly I first read it, but it immediately struck me as a great read. 

This time I happened to see it in a bookstore during a recent trip to Delhi, and I instinctively popped for it. Unlike many books that have to look at me for an extended period before I pick them up & read them, I didn’t let this one sit long before I plunged into it. It had been long enough since I’d last read it that I found it fresh, and, coincidentally, it proved topical because I’ve been working with young lawyers on their writing skills. The narrator taught rhetoric and composition, and he discusses teaching this topic as a part of the book. Indeed, a passing comment from a colleague while teaching rhetoric gave rise to this designation of “quality”, which becomes the key concept in the book. While “Chautauquas” (entertaining talks) on topics like teaching, motorcycle maintenance, and Quality (it quickly rises to the level of a proper noun) create an interesting part of the book, we also have the story of the narrator and his son Chris continuing their trek from Minnesota to San Francisco on the narrator’s motorcycle. A great number of poignant meetings and confrontations, with persons past and present and between father and son (past and present) mark this aspect of the story. 

I’m going to stop here because as I write this I'm frustrated by the fact that I can’t really do justice to this book. It has too many things going on for me to do justice to it. I suppose that the best thing that I can say is that I’ve never forgotten this book and I hope to read it again.