Saturday, May 21, 2016

My Love of Book Lists

I love book lists. I enjoy looking through them so much that I sometimes go looking for them online. I have also been known to spend several hours poring through entire books dedicated to such lists. When I see that a new major list is available, say from a source such as Amazon or The Guardian, I cannot but help getting excited at the prospect of digging through it.

If any of my readers are not familiar with the phenomena that I am talking about, I am referring to the catalogues of books that are now all over the Internet. However, these lists are not new to our digital age; some of my favorites go back decades, and such lists have been produced for centuries. These catalogues of book titles sometimes purport to be lifetime reading suggestions, lists of the greatest novels ever written, lists of the greatest nonfiction books ever written, etc. There are also specialty lists, such as the best history books ever written, the best books on the American Revolution, the most influential philosophy books and the most essential New England Books, to name just a few.

These lists are not without controversy. Folks often criticize them. The compilers of these lists are often questioned for books that they include, as well as for those that they do not. Often, the creators of the lifetime reading lists are accused of constructing restrictive guides that dictate what people should be reading. Harold Bloom’s famous Western Cannon has come under particular scorn for this reason. His enormous compilation of suggested books has also been criticized for not being inclusive enough in terms of race and gender. It seems that some of Bloom’s critics may not have read his Cannon, as it is surprisingly inclusive and includes a surprising number of women and ethnically diverse authors such as Chinua Achebe, Zora Neale Hurston, Najib Mahfuz and Mario Vargas Llosa, Aimé Césaire, as well as many others.

My take on these lists is that if one does not take them too seriously, they can be great fun for the bookish person. If one is going to think about how we would have constructed them differently, it is best to ponder this issue good-naturedly. Such lighthearted critique can also be part of the fun. These compilations can also provide very useful information pertaining to what books are out there waiting to be read.

I love to peruse such lists and count how many of the tomes that I have read so far. Though such lists do give me ideas as to what I should read in the future, as someone whose TBR cannot be concluded in a lifetime, I am not sure if this last fact is a good thing. Lists like Bloom’s Western Cannon and Clifton Fadiman’s reading plan are treasure troves of interesting books that make my mouth water.

Ultimately, these catalogues of books are just the opinions of others. As a bookish person, however, reading these opinions and thinking about how my views are similar or different regarding these books is something that I very much like to do.

I will continue to peruse new and old booklists. In our digital age, they are not difficult to find. Neither is there any lack of new lists being produced. In the end, if one does not take such lists too seriously, they can provide many hours of stimulating and intellectual amusement.

Some of my favorite book lists are:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels on Colonialism

My general commentary on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is here.

In this post, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on a particular passage that comes toward the end of the narrative. In the final chapter of this work, Gulliver is summing up his adventures and commenting upon European society through the lens of his experience. His commentary is scathing. Having visited all sorts of diverse lands and peoples, the narrator ponders what the effects of European invasion would be on these places. His general thoughts on are part of these musings,

“they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon.   Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right.   Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so  pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” 

One thing that it is important to remember is that this was written in 1726.

These thoughts are remarkably ahead of their time. Two centuries of European domination and oppression of native peoples lay ahead. One of the aspects that is striking about this quote is the number of components that a modern critique of the colonial system it contains. One example is the reference to stealing what belongs to the indigenous people. European hypocrisy is so well illustrated with irony with the image of  a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial.” The destruction of native life and culture is mentioned. The condemnation of torture and murder for greed is also surprising in light of the time that this was written. The reference to “the earth reeking with the blood” sounds so ahead of its time as well.

The line “and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” is biting irony that has a very modern feel. Here, Swift anticipates centuries of lies and hypocrisy that the colonial system was built upon.  

Such empathy for non-Europeans is surprising for the time. It does, however, fit in with the earlier narrative of this work. Throughout this book, Gulliver encounters strange people after strange people. Though the societies that he visits are filled with flaws, the narrator comes to see that they all contain certain aspects of European civilization. Many of the individuals that he encounters turn out to be honorable or decent. Furthermore, Gulliver is often judged unfairly by others for his differences.

Often, eighteenth century writers, such as Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, are credited with being the first real critics of colonialism. The above quote shows that Swift was doing so much earlier.

Some attribute Shakespeare’s Tempest as a critique of Colonialism. Others disagree with this assessment. Even if this is the case, it is a far cry from this direct attack launched by Swift.

Such overtly anticolonial sentiment was unexpected in a book of this era. It shows what a perceptive and innovative thinker Swift was. He was aware of the world around him in a way that we usually only attribute to much later intellects.  Such innovation and creativity is but one reason that Gulliver’s Travels deserves its reputation as an essential work of literature.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is a very famous book that I recently read for the first time. This work was completed in its final form in 1735. This story is a satire and a social commentary on the state of humanity. It examines various human foibles such as war, prejudice, religious conflicts and politics, to name just a few. Surprisingly, I found much of this commentary to be very relevant to our current times.

Over the course of various sea voyages, Gulliver travels to many strange lands. These include his famous visit to Lilliput, a land whose citizens are tiny. Conversely, Brobdingnag is a land of giants. Laputa is a floating island. Balnibarbi is a horribly dystopian society being wrecked by ideologues. Glubbdubdrib is a magical place where the dead are resurrected. Luggnagg is a land where a few folks are immortal but in a terrible condition. The Country of the Houyhnhnms is a place of sentient horses and with characteristics of a utopia.

 This work goes in so many directions in terms of social satire that it is difficult to write a comprehensive summary. In general, Swift takes aim at hypocrisy as well as absurdities that are ingrained in the society of his time. Many of the issues that the author tackles are still with us in the Twenty First Century.

At times, the criticism of humanity is lighthearted, at other times searing. Though the entire work is not negative, the narrative reaches an extremely cynical point during the visit to Glubbdubdrib. At one point, Gulliver convinces the island’s governor to summon various historical personages back from the dead. At the protagonist’s request, mostly leaders from the past are resurrected. After encounters with these ghouls, Gulliver draws some dark conclusions about government,

“Here I discovered the true causes of many great events that have surprised the world; how a whore can govern the back-stairs, the back-stairs a council, and the council a senate.   A general confessed, in my presence, “that he got a victory purely by the force of cowardice and ill conduct;” and an admiral, “that, for want of proper intelligence, he beat the enemy, to whom he intended to betray the fleet.”   Three kings protested to me, “that in their whole reigns they never did once prefer any person of merit, unless by mistake, or treachery of some minister in whom they confided; neither would they do it if they were to live again:” and they showed, with great strength of reason, “that the royal throne could not be supported without corruption, because that positive, confident, restiff temper, which virtue infused into a man, was a perpetual clog to public business.” 

This is a grim depiction of human governance indeed! Here and elsewhere narrative, it is apparent that Swift is not enamored with many human institutions. Government is but one of these institutions that bear the brunt of his ire.

This work was surprisingly ahead of its time. This is exemplified by an underlying theme throughout the work. That is, people need to be viewed as equals. Throughout the story, people of all shapes and sizes engage in the same foibles and exhibit the same virtues. Swift also points out that folks have a tendency to unfairly discriminate and look down upon people who are different. The giants of Brobdingnag disparage smaller races, and the Houyhnhnms think less of Gulliver because of his human appearance. This type of narrow thinking goes on wherever Gulliver ends up.

Another striking aspect of this book is Swift’s attention to detail. It is very impressive and ranges from the effects of the giant Brobdingnags’s booming voices on Gulliver’s eardrums to the menacing effect of giant flies to the clever way that the Houyhnhnms manipulate small objects with their hooves.

There are so many reasons to recommend this book besides the above. It is a very rich work and works on several levels. I will be sharing my thoughts of Swift’s take on colonialism in a future post. Furthermore, this is book is effective satire. Much of the humor here still works, as when Gulliver puts out a fire in the tiny Lilliputian castle by urinating upon it. It is also an engaging adventure story and travelogue.

I highly recommend this work to those who are familiar with the basic storyline as well as those who are not. This is an engaging book in many ways and on many levels. The classic is also still very relevant today.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My History of Reading History Books

In a previous post, I wrote about my early reading of science fiction books and how this experience led me to my current reading patterns. Science fiction books were not the only tomes that I read in my early years, however. I also did a lot of history reading.

Unlike science fiction, which I read less frequently these days, I still devote a fairly large percentage of my reading to history. In fact, my current interest in the American Revolutionary period dates back to my youth. Some of my earliest history reading was on this subject.

As I moved into adolescence, my curiosity about history expanded into new areas beyond the Revolutionary era.  Like many young people, much of my interest began to center around World War II and, to a lesser extent, other military conflicts. A fair amount of my reading even involved military history. As I got older, I became less interested in accounts of generals, armies, strategies and tactics. With that, the politics, sociology, human costs, etc. surrounding World War II and other conflicts is still a fascinating subject to me. 

I also delved into other subjects as diverse as the histories of Great Britain, Poland, Russia, China, the Indian subcontinent, natural and human made disasters, the history of science, certain industries and more. No matter what my interest were at the time, I would always gravitate to a book about the American Revolutionary War era.  

My interest has not been constant. I do recall a time, only a few years ago, where I became so interested in literature that I refrained from history books for several years. Nevertheless, the pull back to humanity’s past was strong enough to bring me back in. 

In the past few years, I have been particularly interested in biographies of the people involved in America’s founding. I have also gotten a lot from books that dig into the philosophical and sociological movements of the time. Authors such as Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn have interested me lot.

Readers of this blog know that I am also intrigued by many other historical subjects. These days, about half of my history reading is devoted to the American Revolutionary era. However, I read all sorts of history books on a wide variety of topics. Like other areas of reading interest, time is the great obstacle here; I am interested in more subjects than I have time to devote to them. 

I hold a Bachelor of Arts in History, but it is through personal reading that I have really shored up my knowledge. I think that in order to understand our current world and to appreciate so many aspects of diversity in such areas as politics, social issues, literature, science, etc., a good grasp of history is indispensable. My interest in our past has impacted my thinking on so many of these subjects. 

The roots of my interests in history go back a long way. Though the areas of my interest within the broad subject of history have somewhat changed, the core of my interest still exists. The seeds that were sowed early have yielded a fertile crop.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops is an extraordinary short story that was decades ahead of its time. Written in 1909, the author paints a picture of a far future human society. Humanity has retreated underground. People spend almost one hundred percent of their time isolated in their personal rooms. A worldwide mechanical contrivance, known as “The Machine,” runs everything.

The society is dystopian. Real human connection and interaction, critical thought and connection to nature are non-existent. People are beginning to worship The Machine like a deity. Transgressions against the system are punished by death.

Vashti is a woman who happily abides by society’s dictates. Her son Kuno is a rebel who challenges the system. Among other things, he secretly and illegally visits Earth’s surface.

This tale is so prophetic that it bears noting just how accurately Forster predicted certain aspects of our digital age. What contact there is with other people is accomplished through a system that is amazingly like today’s Internet. This system relies heavily upon video conferences and applications that resemble email and instant messaging. People spend much of their day chatting with one another using these mechanisms.

At one point, the Vashti goes through a process that seems very similar to logging into a computer and checking messages, which seems to be reflective of our present day social media accounts,

"all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one"s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? - say this day month.

To most of these questions she replied with irritation - a growing quality in that accelerated age. She said that the new food was horrible. That she could not visit the public nurseries through press of engagements. That she had no ideas of her own but had just been told one-that four stars and three in the middle were like a man: she doubted there was much in it. Then she switched off her correspondents”

It bears repeating that this story this was written in 1909.

Several themes permeate the story, including the dangers of technology, loss of the ability to think critically, loss of humanity’s connection with nature and Forster’s seemingly universal concern with the issue of human connections. I have read Forster’s Howards End, A Room with a View (my commentary  on this work is here ) and A Passage to India (my commentary  on this work is here). These three novels all concern themselves with people bridging the gap between intellectual, social and cultural differences. Forster is a champion of people of differing groups reaching out to one another.  At the same time, all of these books emphasize how difficult such connections can be and how they can even endanger individuals.

Thus, it is no surprise that Forster delves into this concept within his science fiction tale. At one point, Vashti becomes infuriated when another woman, in an attempt to help her avoid a fall, touches her. 

“People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”

One would expect a nightmare world created by Forster in such a place where even this simple human shared experience is forbidden.

I highly recommend this story. As I alluded to earlier, in terms of technology, Forster was uncanny in his prediction of the future here.  In addition, though his theme of human connections is a common one, he approaches it within this tale in a unique and interesting way. Finally, this is just an interesting story that is well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Religion and Its Critics

Lately, the issue of criticizing religion has been a hot topic. On one extreme are those who want absolutely no critique of religious belief and or holy books whatsoever. On the other extreme are those who are tying criticism of faiths to their own brand of bigotry and vitriolic language. Of course, there are many folks in the middle.  In particular, the criticism of Islam has landed itself into the midst of this.

 All belief systems need criticism, including those that I hold dear. For instance, I tend to champion secularism, the scientific method and democracy, to name a few. I not only accept that these things will be criticized, but I understand that such scrutiny helps improve these thought systems. Ideas and ideologies can thrive as a result of being exposed to criticism, scrutiny and even parody. This allows invalid ideas to be discarded, paves the way for ideas that need improvement to be modified, and illuminates the strength of really good ideas. Religious belief is no exception. It is vital that in a free society, folks discuss and debate ideas. Religion touches upon our world in so many ways and must be included in the debate and discussion.

When a belief system is not open to criticism, it creates all sorts of problems. First, if I were to accept that religion should not be criticized, than I would logically insist that a whole range of other beliefs that I cherish, should also not be criticized. In addition, when folks commit irrational or immoral acts in the name of the religion, a prohibition on criticism removes the ability to examine the motivations as well as to fully expose these actions.

Ironically, though I am a nonbeliever and I often argue that we need to be free to criticize religion, I often find myself praising it as often as I disapprove of certain aspects of it. I also prefer, but do not insist, that criticism be polite and sensitive to the feelings of reasonable believers. This is not just because I like to be nice. When people’s thought systems come under scathing attack, they become understandably defensive. In addition, a one-sided view of religion, its history and how it motivates people to act does not seem reflective of reality. There is a lot of good motivated by and done in the name of religion. There are worthwhile ideas and concepts that come out of it both historically and in our present day. I wrote about the need to have a balanced view on these topics in more detail here.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a group that is called the “New Atheists.” Richard Dawkins is the most prominent of this group that includes Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others. This group uses strong rhetoric and has little respect for any religious ideas. Though they seem careful not to attack individuals, their commentary on religion is often scathing.

Though I agree with much of what they say, I find that not only is their tone too harsh for my taste, but that their view of religion is too lopsided, never emphasizing the good that comes out of it. There are also those who go well beyond this group. Social media is full of people who express biting hatred of religion. Sometimes this hatred is paired with racism. Nevertheless, in a free society, such voices will inevitably speak, and unless they are calling for violence, they should not be censored.

Just because speech is permissible does not make it right. I support reasoned criticism of all belief systems. I also like to be respectful unless a belief is hateful or promoting discrimination or violence. With that, I also think that parody as well as harsh criticism is often in order. This is especially true when the subject is murder, violence, brutality, discrimination, etc. that are driven by the things written in holy books. Simply put, there are abominable things in both the Old Testament and the Koran. The fact that these holy books also include a lot of good things does not alleviate the need for scrutiny.

As of late, Islam seems to be at the center of this debate. There has been very harsh criticism of that belief system lately. There has also been outright hate, bigotry and violence directed at Muslims. There has also been lots of fair and reasoned criticism that has unfairly been labeled “Islamophobia.” Maryam Namazie, a critic of extremist violence and mistreatment of women in Islam, has been exposed to caustic verbal attacks and harassment by extremists. Even worse, violence has been aimed at religious critics. The very worst of this involved the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. The Charlie Hebdo attacks served as a stark reminder to those of us who believe in freedom of speech just how far people will go to suppress that liberty in the name of religion.

There have been cases where non – Muslim commentators, such as Emmanuel Todd, have joined in and partially blamed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for the violence and excoriated those who are criticizing Islam. In turn, some secularists have coined the term “Regressive Left” for liberals who they deem to be apologizing for violence and discrimination in the name of Islam. 

Folks will point out with much truth that these violent fanatics do not represent the Islamic faith. It is absolutely true that most Muslims do not support such things. However, the Koran (Since the question comes up when I discuss this topic, I have read the Koran twice), which despite containing a lot of good things is full of racism, misogyny and calls for violence, points to the fact there is some connection. The fact that many of those who perpetuate oppression and violence directly cite the text of this holy book further supports this contention. 

A popular response to criticism of Islam is that parts of Old Testament advocates terrible barbarities. This is true. Though it seems apparent that it is not driving as much violence and oppression in out current age, belief in certain aspects Old Testament ideology drives some discrimination and violence. Since it is connected to all three Abrahamic Religions, this is particularly significant.  This is another good argument as to why it is imperative that people be free to criticize religious belief systems.

Though in my opinion the New Testament does not advocate violence and discrimination like other holy books do, it is full of ideas about how people should live. It touches upon morality, human nature, the nature of existence, and even economics. Such a comprehensive set of beliefs also lends itself and must be open to scrutiny. 

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the positive actions that the various religions as well the texts of the holy books seem to motivate. All the major religions drive an enormous amount of charitable and humanitarian action. With that, such positive aspects of these faith - based systems do not exempt these systems from scrutiny and criticism. However, such activities must be considered when formulating any comprehensive view of these belief systems.

Though I have read multiple texts connected with the Eastern religions I am less knowledgeable concerning these belief systems and their impact on humanity. With that, I believe most of the issues and arguments that I raise here also apply to Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, etc.

Folks may disagree with some of my opinions on various belief systems. Such disagreement is actually part of the very important discussion that humanity needs to be having about the enormously influential  group of ideas known as religion.

No doubt religion will always be criticized, in ways that I agree with and in ways that I disagree with. There will also be folks who defend these belief systems. There will be others who insist that religious beliefs are above criticism. I have argued before that a society where folks are free and open to various ideas as well as to criticize these ideas is ideal. I have also mentioned that I am a believer in The Marketplace of Ideas. In such a marketplace, all ideas, including religious ones, must be open to discussion and  debate.