Friday, January 21, 2011

1. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbot.

I got this book for free. We were at the Book Bank in Old Town, Alexandria, right before Christmas, and they had a trivia question: what was Tiny Tim’s last name? I, of course, said Cratchit, and they gave me the book I was about to buy. It would’ve cost $1, but still…Flatland is a novella about mathematics. It’s also a satire on Victorian mores, gender roles, and the like. The narrator is a square in a 2-dimensional world populated by geometrical forms. He has a vision of Lineland—a one-dimensional world populated by dots and short lines. He also has a vision of a 3-dimensional world. Very dry and essay-like. The strangest thing about this, for me, occurred while I was in the waiting room at a mechanic’s. An episode of “The Big Band Theory”, a show I’ve never watched, came on and a character started talking about this book. I was impressed because I would consider this a somewhat obscure text.

2. A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, a collection of interviews with philosophers conducted by Tamler Sommers. A very diverse collection. I would consider this a good introduction into current philosophical trends for a novice. Towards the end, it started to lag as the interviewees retreaded some of the ground already covered in earlier interviews. Still, thoroughly enjoyable with lots of insights into process and motivation for the philosophers and researchers. Topics include the supposition that freewill is a myth, the theory that morality is an evolutionary adaptation, certain examinations of cultural morality mores, etc. Here’s a nice review by Joshua May in Metapsychology Today.

3. Dead Babies, by Martin Amis. I will admit that I haven’t read Amis before. I've gotten a certain impression of him which made me think that he might be a little too high-maintainance for my tastes. I was pleasantly surprised by Dead Babies. Very enjoyable. Quite a voluminous vocabulary. The eponymous ‘dead babies’ refers to grossly serious ideas that lead to introspection—basically, anything that takes one away from the decadence of self-refraction. The story follows a group of overly wealthy 20-somethings over a weekend at their country house. I can't help but flash on Withnail and I because of the subject matter and tone.

4. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. I read this because I’m teaching it. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll be teaching it again, if I have any say. If I do, it will be much excised. The bulk of the novel is a reverie on the miseries of immigrant life in Chicago around the turn of the 20th Century. By the last 100 pages or so, the breadth of the novel expands into an exploration of full-scale political corruption. The subject matter is certainly important and thought provoking, but after a couple hundred pages of descriptions of inevitable, unescapable misery, my students became desensitized. It is, of course, propaganda, I realize. Still, some very nice moments of real genius. I’m glad I read it, not so much that I taught it.

more to come...

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