Category Archives: Books

Master Class

On my very short list of all-time favorite writers is the great John McPhee. (If you’ve never read him, stop wasting your life and correct this mistake at once.) Here, in the Princeton Alumni Journal, is an appreciation of Mr. McPhee by one of his students, Joel Achenbach ’82. Enjoy.

Further Reading

In response to our quoting Chang Ch’ao the other day, our reader Alex Leibowitz, a scholar of Chinese literature, has kindly provided further translation of the piece from which our excerpt was taken. 少年读书,如隙中窥月;中年读书,如庭中望月;老年读书,如台上玩月。皆以阅 之浅深,为所得之浅深耳。 Shao3 nian2 du2 shu1, ru2 xi4 zhong1 kui1 yue4; zhong1 nian2 du2 shu1, ru2 ting2 zhong1 wang4 yue4; lao3 nian2 […]

Reading

From the 2nd-3rd-century Chinese scholar Chang Ch’ao: Reading books in one’s youth is like looking at the moon through a crevice; reading books in one’s middle age is like looking at the moon in one’s courtyard; and reading books in one’s old age is like looking at the moon on an open terrace. This is […]

A Three Pipe Problem

Our friend Kevin Kim has just worked his way through all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures, and has a comprehensive review. Go read it here.

There Is Something Fascinating About Science

Sorry, readers, for my neglect of these pages over the past few days. I’ve hardly looked at a computer, or read the news, since Wednesday, and I will say that I’m a better man for it. Until I get caught up, and find myself actually having something to write about, here’s a little nugget from […]

A Fire Shall Be Woken

Like a great many people my age, I was bowled over in my adolescence by the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. I was smitten, transformed. Not only was I transported by the great story itself, but as the immigrant son of British expats, I was also awakened for the first time to the great depth of […]

A Jewel Unearthed

Poking around the other day at a second-hand bookseller’s in the West Village, I came upon a curious little self-published volume in a stained leather binding, cracked and brittle with age. Opening it with the greatest care, I discovered it to be a book of verse, and after reading a few entries with growing excitement, […]

Comic Relief

When my well runs dry, as it has in the wearying final weeks of 2010, I want nothing more than to withdraw from the world, switch off the computer, cancel the newspaper, siphon off a vial of Caledonia’s tawny restorative, and read old books in silence and solitude. There are a few writers who always […]

…And Then You Die

Writing a novel? I’m certainly not, but if you are, you might be interested to read a brief outline, by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood, of the scope of available plot-lines. (Thanks to my daughter Chloë for providing me with the link.) You can read Ms. Atwood’s exposition here, if you like, but I’ve also […]

Sluice Box

Last week my old friend Jess friend sent me, as a birthday gift, a book by Eric Hoffer. I’d known about Mr. Hoffer for years, but had never read him. I wish I had done so sooner. Eric Hoffer, for those of you who don’t know of him, was a most unusual autodidact. Born in […]

A Poser

Over at normblog today, Norman Geras asks a vexatious question: Not exactly a new normblog poll… … but I would really like to hear from you on how you would react to being offered the following choice. You are going to some distant and lonely and low-tech place where you will have to spend the […]

Geeks Bearing Gifts

I’ve been slacking off over the holidays. I’ve hardly even read the news, and I’ve had nothing to say even about the Mutallab incident (others have said it all by now, anyway; in particular, Janet Napolitano’s idiotic comment that “the system worked” has been ridiculed amply and deservedly). As usual, my family gave me books […]

The Forgotten H.G. Wells

Today marks the 143rd anniversary of the birth of H.G. Wells, and Google has marked the occasion with one of those curious UFO banners they’ve been featuring lately. Wells is best known today for his immortal contributions to science-fiction — such classics as The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man […]

That’s Life

Many years ago, the historian, philosopher, and author Will Durant asked an assortment of his eminent contemporaries for their opinon of the meaning of life, and gathered the responses into a book, now rather obscure. It happens that I own a first-edition copy, and the other day I took it down from the shelf. The […]

Bücherdämmerung

At work today someone mentioned the Amazon Kindle, and a lively chat ensued. The people I work with are, for the most part, highly intelligent and much younger than I — and they generally, and probably correctly, see printed books as increasingly quaint, and ultimately doomed.

Style Or Substance?

I don’t read a great deal of fiction — less and less, in fact, as I’ve gotten older. It’s not that I don’t enjoy or appreciate a good novel — I do — but time is short (and getting shorter), and I still have an awful lot to learn. One thing that distinguishes the forms […]

Trees Eate But Once

A visit this evening to Jeffery Hodges’ website paid a double dividend: not only further coverage of the ongoing Fan Death crisis, but a link to a collection of “Outlandish Proverbs’, taken from a book of the same name published in 1640.

As Bad As It Gets

Someone mentioned the author Jerome Bixby today, and it brought to mind his short story It’s A Good Life — which I think is the most horrifying piece of fiction I have ever read. I looked to see if anyone had posted it online, and indeed someone has. If you haven’t read it, it’s here. […]

Mother, Goosed

I’ve accumulated an awful lot of books over the past half-century: I can never part with them, and add several each week, it seems. I’ve got lots and lots of books about history and philosophy and science, but there are hundreds of odder ones as well — and one that popped off the shelf into […]

Churchill Gets It

Like may others I am an admirer of Winston Churchill, and have lately been reading an excellent book by the managing editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham. It’s called Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, and as you can imagine from the title, it chronicles the enormously important friendship between Churchill and […]

The Lion of Zion

A new book focuses on the lifelong loyalty and admiration that Winston Churchill, whom I consider one of the very greatest men in all of Western history, held for the Jews. I’ve just heard about it today, in a Wall Street Journal opinion-page item, but I’m sure I’ll be getting a copy. The article itself […]

Myth America

In today’s New York Times is a review, by Michiko Kakutani, of The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, by the feminist author Susan Faludi. I haven’t read the book, and I am not about to comment on it. I did, however, read an Op-Ed piece by Ms. Faludi back on September 7th, […]

Mailed Fist

I’ve just read Sam Harris’s Letter To A Christian Nation. It is brief — one can finish it in an hour or so — but pungent.

Our Public Servants

I’ve been spending a few days in our seaside shack, reading a little H. L. Mencken. The collection I have in hand is The Vintage Mencken: Gathered by Alistair Cooke (at a mere $11.96, you should go right ahead and buy it). In an essay entitled Mr. Justice Holmes, Mencken pauses briefly to assess our […]

The Gathering Storm

The other day, my mind restless with the somber news of the world, and its echoes of familiar themes, I took from the shelf The Gathering Storm, the first book of Winston Churchill’s incomparable six-volume History of the Second World War. I say “incomparable” because there is really nothing else like it in all of […]

Stop, You’re Killing Me

I recently promised readers a glimpse into my latest literary purchase — a 1936 publication called The World’s Best Jokes — and here it is. (We are on holiday at the moment, and I am simply too worn out from lying on the beach in the warm July sun, and from consuming draft beer and […]

Comic Relief

We’re spending a few days at our seaside retreat in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on the outer extremity of Cape Cod, and today found the memsahib and me poking around at a local flea market. I’m always on the lookout for odd books, and after I had already, with reluctance, been talked by my better half out […]

The Unkindest Cut

Yesterday we took up Jared Diamond’s discussion of Easter Island in his latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The book, as I suppose anyone who wasn’t just stunned by a blow to the head might gather from the title, looks at societies that have failed, contrasts them with others that have not, and attempts to explain the difference.

Circle of Life

One of the obstacles that some people face in understanding evolutionary theory is the natural tendency to think in discrete terms, parsing the continuity of the world into distinct categories. Richard Dawkins, in his book The Ancestor’s Tale, addresses this problem — which he calls “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind” — and offers some examples of how the categories we see in the natural world are not sharply bounded, but merge quite seamlessly into one another. I have promised to write about some of the fascinating ideas in this book, and this topic seems a good one to begin with.

The Long March

There is more I’d like to say about Robert Wright’s Nonzero, and I’ll be getting to it tomorrow, most likely, but meanwhile I’ve just begun reading The Ancestor’s Tale, by Richard Dawkins.

Is Wright Wrong?

The multidimensional Kevin Kim, over at his one-of-a-kind weblog Big Hominid’s Hairy Chasms has posted a response to my mention of Robert Wright’s book Nonzero. In his post Kevin calls into question the idea of any directionality or purpose to biological evolution, making common cause in this regard with the late Stephen Jay Gould. Kevin writes:

[…I] wonder whether Wright isn’t making a mistake similar to that made by certain process theologians– people who (1) look at events happening in the “cream of the crop” of the evolutionary tumult and (2) mistakenly conclude that evolution at this top layer somehow represents a universal telos. I think human arrogance tends to suggest the “ladder” paradigm to us when we assess natural phenomena: we can’t help seeing ourselves as some sort of culmination of natural (or supernatural) processes. My own view is that life and mind are not representative of any telos at all: they are simply stochastic occurrences. Most of this cosmos, pretty though it be, is not alive.

Closed systems tend toward greater entropy over time. Within those closed systems, regions of anti-entropic activity may arise, but the overarching history of those systems is foreordained to follow the path of the “thermodynamic arrow,” as Stephen Hawking calls it. That is why, in a (theoretically) closed system like our universe, tiny pockets of life can form while most of the universe remains (as far as we know) abiotic. Billions or trillions of years hence, all that life will disintegrate as entropy settles more comfortably into its ancient throne. Those tiny pockets of life, then– those little bits of animated telos– are no evidence of a larger cosmic end or purpose. They– we– are a brief spark in the Nabokovian blackness: here and gone. The pessimist views this state of affairs with rue; the man of religion, by contrast, knows this means that each moment is absolutely precious. Life’s finitude and frailty are what give it its value.

Kevin, writing with customary eloquence, makes some very good points, and most of all I agree with his remarks about what gives life its value. But I think that he is missing the point made by Wright in his book, and is wrongly conflating the idea of telos with the possibility of there being a directionality, an “arrow”, to Darwinian evolution.

Big Game

I had put it aside for a while (I tend to have too many books going at once), but have just finished reading Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright. It is quite brilliant, and I highly recommend it.

“The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg once ended a book on this note: ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.’ Far be it from me to argue with a great physicist about how depressing physics is. For all I know, Weinberg’s realm of expertise, the realm of inanimate matter, really does offer no evidence of higher purpose. But when we move into the realm of animate matter — bacteria, cellular slime molds, and, most notably, human beings — the situation strikes me as different. The more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and, especially, the drift of human history, the more there seems to be a point to it all. Because in neither case is ‘drift’ really the right word. Both of these processes have a direction, an arrow. At least, that is the thesis of this book.”

Lapsus Manus

I have quite a few old chess books on my shelves – I have a hard time passing them up whenever I see a street vendor selling them, and they tend to accumulate. The other day, in the wee hours of the morning, weary but not yet ready to retire, I pulled a couple of volumes at random and settled in with a board and an adult beverage, looking forward to browsing a bit and perhaps playing over a master game or two. The two books I had happened to choose were The Book of the Nottingham International Chess Tournament, 10th to 28th August, 1936, With Annotations and Analysis by A. Alekhine (probably the best tournament book ever, given the quality of the annotation, and that the field included Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker, Fine, Tartakower, Vidmar, Bogoljuboff, Flohr, Reshevsky, Euwe, and Botvinnik, among others), and a wonderful collection called The Treasury of Chess Lore, by that most beloved of all chess writers, Fred Reinfeld.

Dig We Must

I’ve finished reading George Beke’s book Digging Up the Dog: The Greek Roots of Gurdjieff’s Esoteric Ideas, and must recommend it again, not only for those who are curious about Gurdjieff’s teaching, but also for those who wish a deeper understanding of Christian symbolism. Many familiar Christian ideas – the Trinity, the Twelve Stations of the Cross, even the word Alleluia – represent much older knowledge and traditions that found their way to us by way of the Greeks. Gurdjieff, who sometimes described his teachings as “esoteric Christianity”, once said, when asked about the connection between ancient Greece and the modern Church:

Everything Christian came from old Greek, then they spoil. All, all, comes from Greek.

Take a Number

As I’ve mentioned before, I am fond of books, and have a hard time passing an outdoor bookseller’s table (and here in Gotham they are everywhere) without picking something up. As a result they are all over my house; I simply don’t have enough bookshelves to contain them all, so they tend to accumulate in piles in less-trafficked areas. Every so often I make some attempt at reorganizing them, and the process takes much, much longer than it ought, because exhuming them from their dusty desuetude is like meeting old friends, and I wind up just sitting on the floor reading.

Today, while looking for something in the computer room upstairs, I noticed a forgotten pile of books, and second from the top was an old favorite: the Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, by David Wells (no, not the former Yankee hurler).

More Than This

It is always with happy anticipation that I begin reading a book; I wouldn’t have taken it up in the first place had I not some reason to think that I would profit by it, and when the writer is someone I admire as much as C.S. Lewis, I know that I will be in the company of a man of immense erudition, elegant refinement of style, and – perhaps most fascinating to me – one who is both a skeptic and a believer. So it was with great interest that I opened his book Miracles, which deals directly with a question that has been vexing me no end lately – the question of Natural vs. Supernatural.

The Bright Side

I’ve finally taken up Daniel Dennett’s latest effort, Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book is an attempt to apply the methods of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology to a critical examination of the possible reasons for our fondness for religion. It has unsurprisingly ruffled a few feathers, something Dennett seems to relish.

Sea Monkeys

Quite a few years ago I ran across a book – I can’t recall where – called The Descent of Woman, by Elaine Morgan. It puts forward a most unusual idea about human evolution, and it’s worth a mention here. I’m curious to know if any of you are familiar with it.

Figure and Ground

One of my favorite books is the astonishingly imaginative Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas R. Hofstadter. This Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, published in 1979, is an extended meditation upon the underlying connections between the work of the three men mentioned in the title – Johann Sebastian Bach (who needs no introduction), the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and mathematician Kurt Gödel. It is hard to describe the tone and content of the book – it is at times witty and playful, at times dense and didactic, but always unflaggingly, utterly brilliant. Really, and I mean this, GEB is so startlingly clever and original that at times it quite literally – and I do not ever misuse the word “literally” – took my breath away.

Jetsam

As I was walking home from the kwoon this evening, having spent a pleasant few hours first enlightening my students as to the subtleties of the “crane’s wing” and later practicing the Ng Lung Ba Gwa Cheung, I noticed some books lying in the street, about to be ruined by the rain. I took a closer look, and what I found was the Sixth Edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, a fabulous resource published in 1975, and what appears to be a first-edition hardcover copy of Lewis Copeland’s The World’s Great Speeches (from Pericles to Roosevelt),published in 1942.

How can anyone just throw such treasures overboard? Onto the shelf they go.

Birds of a Feather

From Hans Zinsser’s scholarly and delightful book Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever comes the following:

More than any other species of animal, the rat and mouse have become dependent on man, and in doing so they have developed characteristics which are amazingly human. In the first place, like man, the rat has become practically omnivorous. It eats anything that lets it and – like man – devours its own kind, under stress. It breeds in all seasons and – again like man – it is most amorous in the springtime. It hybridizes easily, and, judging by the strained relationship between the black and the brown rat, develops social or racial prejudices against this practice. The sex proportions are like those among us. Inbreeding takes place readily. The males are larger, the females fatter. It adapts itself to all types of climates. It makes ferocious war upon its own kind, but has not, as yet, become nationalized. So far it has still stuck to tribal wars – like man before nations were invented. If it continues to ape man as heretofore we may, in a few centuries, have French rats eating German ones, or Nazi rats attacking Communist or Jewish rats; however, such a degree of civilization is probably not within the capabilities of any mere animal.

The book is lighthearted, erudite, and without question the best book about vermin and pestilence you have ever read.