Friday, August 21, 2015

What I'm reading this summer II

Lots of good stuff.  For one thing, I read Alexander Dumas’ The Jester Chicot. Dumas is, of course, most famous for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. But, he was an incredibly prolific writer and I doubt I will ever get to the end of his books.  There are actually five volumes in The Three Musketeers series, of which I’ve read three – two left - and all great works. Dumas was by far the most modern of 19th century novelists that I’ve read. A few years back I started a new series known as The Valois or The Last Valois series, stories surrounding a certain family of kings in the 16th century, but it is historical fiction, not history, and it’s lively and fun. The first book in the series was The Queen Margot, which I read one summer in the mornings a few years back when I lived in Virginia. Though I wrote my own review on Amazon, it was a quickie, and I’d rather give you part of a review from 2013 by someone who calls her or himself CatLover:

Margot is the new bride of Henry, King of Navarre, and also the sister of his competitor for the throne, Charles IX. Henry was a protestant king at the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. They become allies but not lovers, theirs being the usual royal marriage of convenience.  Throw in the venomous Catherine d' Medici, murder, slapstick affairs (the serious ones I usually find boring), secret rendezvous, family and palace plottings, poisoning, hunting, sword fighting. Sign me up.

The Jester Chicot leaps a few years into the near future from Margot, with many of the same characters, but focusing on the adventures of two exceptional new ones. One of course is Chicot, who you already knew was a jester, but an unusual one, being a swashbuckling gentleman himself, and the idiot king’s favorite, who handles a plot against the king in his own fashion while satisfying his own need for revenge. The other is Bussy D’Amboise, the closest thing to one of the musketeers in Dumas’ works. The most noble and able man in France, he is helplessly in love with a beautiful married woman, but also beholden to the king’s evil brother who loves her too. And, of course, she is married. Well, sort of.  Bussy never runs from a fight, no matter the odds and he basically cuts his way through less noble and daring opposition. The plot doesn’t go where you think it will, nor does it come out where you expect – it’s not like reading a modern action novel.

I’m in the middle of the last in the series, The 45 Guardsmen, which many reviewers like better than Chicot.  It took a few chapters to grab me, but especially with the reappearance of Chicot, has now taken off.  The one thing that people don't know about Dumas is that he was really funny, much more so than any writer of his time who comes to mind.

I’m also in the midst of two Steven Pinker books. Pinker is an ivy league professor who writes sophisticated, detailed, entertaining, highly explanatory and fun books on the human mind and logic. His The Language Instinct, which I read a few years ago explains how we “grow” language, explains Noam Chomsky (who, whatever you think of his politics, completely revolutionized language theory, but was incredibly dense so as to be virtually opaque to the laymen). Right now, I’m re-reading Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which makes the case that we are as much a product of our genes as our experiences in our lives and that our minds are not complete blank slates to be filled at birth. If you’ve never given thought to it, you might even be a little stunned to discover so much of what we do was not because we saw our parents do it.  If you think that is obvious, he will enlighten you as to how much and how virulently the idea has been fought by scientists, students and others. The other one is How the Mind Works, and you can probably guess what it is about. But, it’s a broad topic and he will take you places you will not expect to go. All through his books he weaves his own social commentary based on where he thinks science takes us, much of which, to my surprise, I find I agree. Of course, his reasons are a little more well crafted than mind.

And, just this weekend I picked up yet a third Pinker book I hope to get to this summer – Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which deals with whether language is based on rules that the brain is programmed to follow (although the rules for each language differ) or based on a series of connections – aka, connectionism. I am warned in Amazon reviews that it is for serious language hobbyists only, unlike his other books which were aimed at a more diverse crowd. I am a language hobbyist – whether I am a serious one or just an admirer, I guess I will find out when I get to it. I’m always prepared to be disappointed, but I am really excited to read a book about verb use.

Speaking of language, I am also almost done with John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, my night table book, and which I guess has a pretty obvious topic too. McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English is in my pantheon of great language books. If you read my recent post on race in America, The Policing Thing, you will see that I also wish he was recognized as a leader for “the black community” rather than some of the more famous ones. Like Pinker, McWhorter strives to make his books interesting and persuasive, using all kinds of examples so unlike those that I remember from school, which seem just designed to bore you to tears.

I was wandering in a Barnes and Noble with Bear in Maryland and mentioned that I wanted to read The Cave and The Light, which contrasts the influence of Plato and Aristotle on thinkers throughout history. So, he bought me one for my birthday. Great book.  If you aren’t interested in Greek history, everything we are today is not just influenced, but still almost dominated by their scientists, artists and philosophers, and predominantly from just a couple of centuries in one City-State, Athens. Even the alphabet we all write in is relatively close variation on theirs. Plato and Aristotle are probably the most influential of all of them, but in different ways. Arthur Herman, the author, far from providing us with just the rote history by year and battle or discovery, is a comparative historian, whose most famous work, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, is a great introduction to the Scottish Enlightenment. Its sub-title How Europe’s Poorest Nation Created our World and Everything in It, is a bit of an overstatement, but he shows how powerful an influence their 18th and 19th century philosophers had on us today. Hume being one of my favorite philosophers, I’m not fighting him too hard. In any event, Herman tends to see history through the development of liberty, always a special attraction for me. Even if all of his subjects are fairly well covered in history books I’ve already read, it is the comparative method that makes it new and engaging. It’s like a meal – it’s not so much the ingredients as the recipe.  

Along with The Cave and the Light, I picked up single volume copy of Aristotle’s works – The Basic Works of Aristotle. A lot of it is kind of dry, and I intend to peruse it over a long period of time, but when you are reading him, you can’t help wondering if he thought and wrote about everything? Of course, like any ancient scientist or philosopher, he’s going to be wrong about more things than he is right about. Doesn’t matter. Whatever your field, you will likely find he was there before your idols.

I wrote about Cerf and Navasky’s The Expert’s Speak, earlier this month in my post on Iran so I won’t go into detail. But, it is just a long list of topics and examples of things experts or so-called experts, got wrong. I love it. It's a reference book and I pick it up when I feel like it, or if I'm drifting off to sleep in my easy chair.

I also recently read two texts I got from the library. The first was William of Ockham’s A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government (it didn’t start with the Declaration of Independence, you know). I didn’t want to buy it because I suspected that though the topic was a winner for me, an 800 year old theologian is probably not going to rivet me , and I would find a few tidbits in it that would enlighten me, or at least make me happy. It is in essence a battle over the authority of the Pope, but, it is by analogy, part of the long tale of liberty against kings and even our own democracy. The other book was by Michael Polyani (a chemist who was influential in the quest for the atomic bomb) whose explanation of the scientific method is the best I’ve ever read. Personal Knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy is his epistemology – that is, how we know what we know, another subject that fascinates me. I found that my note taking was taking too long for a library book and I bought it on Amazon to get to after I finish the other books on my pile. Admittedly, it’s a lot harder. But, his views on the subjective nature of knowledge is meant to and will make a good pairing with Popper, who I spent years reading, and who argues for an objective view. I know me pretty well. When I’ve understood Polyani – or if I do – I will think likely think they are both somewhat right, somewhat wrong and also a little off the deep end. 

I also just picked up and am racing through Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics, the topic of which you can guess. I got it after reading a review of it, and it lives up to the hype, explaining basic statistics (which I tried not to sleep through in college) through fun examples rather than the bone dry ones college professors seem to love. I love statistics, particularly probability. I just hate to be bored.

I’m hoping to stop buying books or taking them out of the library for a while, until I finish these – but it’s just so hard. There's always something new that I just can't live without. And then there are the long term projects, most of which I finish (sometimes after years). There going to have to bury me with my unfinished ones.

Comment with your own summer reading, if you like.

1 comment:

  1. Agree with you on Dumas, very underrated in our time, and yes, one of the few authors writing at that time, whose writing survives, that had a sense of humor. The fact that you consider "The Cave and the Light" as summer reading, is pretty funny in its own right. You used to say you were shallow. I think not. If that's shallow summer reading I'm a monkey's pa-toot. That's a technical term.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .