Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for November, 2007

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2007

by Edward O. Wilson (Vintage 1999, copyright 1998)

This book has been on my “to read” list for several years. Written by the famous biologist who said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos,” it is about the search for the unity of all knowledge (the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, ethics and religion…). It’s pretty dense going; I am aware as I read that I am missing a lot. It seems related to Robert Pirsig’s ideas about classicism and romanticism in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Both Pirsig and Wilson strive to stress the connectedness of human experience.

Chapter 6, on the mind and its relation to the brain is very interesting. Wilson contrasts art and science: “Science explains feeling, while art transmits it…. Art is the means by which people of similar cognition reach out to others in order to transmit feeling.” (pp. 127-128) Then, considering the self, he writes, “The self is not an ineffable being living apart within the brain…. The self and body are…inseparably fused: the self, despite the illusion of its independence…, cannot exist apart from the body, and the body cannot survive for long without the self.” (p. 130) About scientists, he says, “In their ethos it is better to have begun a great journey than to have finished it, better to make a seminal discovery than to put the final touches on a theory.” (pp. 132-133)

…I finished Consilience yesterday. Although not an easy read, I can say it is a very interesting one. Chapters 9-11 explore how the social sciences, the humanities, and ethics and religion can take their place in the unity of knowledge Wilson is seeking. Chapter 12, “To What End?” talks about climate change and environmental devastation. Wilson writes, “In ecology, as in medicine, a false positive diagnosis is an inconvenience, but a false negative diagnosis can be catastrophic” (p 314). This is the same argument made by in this video. In the same chapter, Wilson discusses the Rwandan catastrophe of 1997, calling Rwanda “a microcosm of the world.” When a country (or a planet) becomes overcrowded and its resources are exhausted, its citizens will fight for survival. They don’t care who else is hurt. The way humans are reproducing now ensures a global disaster like that which took place in Rwanda.

I hope it is not too late, but I am afraid it is. How many people in a position to make changes will read Consilience or The Ravaging Tide?

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2007

by Robert Pirsig; read by Michael Kramer (Books on Tape)

Somehow I never read this when it came out in the seventies and was all the rage. I remember wondering about the title; I didn’t have much understanding of what Zen was, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see how it related to motorcycle maintenance. Over the years I got the idea that it had something to do with living in the moment, with transforming a mundane technical task such as motorcycle maintenance into a kind of meditation. It does have something to do with that, but it is much more in addition: meditations (Pirsig calls them “Chautauquas”) on philosophy and (of all things) teaching writing, on mental illness and Luddites. The parts about philosophy are somewhat difficult, and I am unable to focus completely on them, so I find myself missing chunks and sometimes going back but more often just letting it proceed. I was very interested in Pirsig’s thoughts on the teaching of rhetoric at a college in Montana, because he was frustrated at having to teach students to write boring boilerplate essays, and I feel exactly the same way! I don’t always like him (he seems to despise, or at least feel very superior to, the friends he claims to love, and he can be awfully hard on his eleven-year-old son Chris), but I am glad to be reading it, finally. It also hooks right in to another book I am reading: Consilience by Edward O. Wilson.

Posted in Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Sunfall: In the Cities of Time to Come

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2007

by C. J. Cherryh (Daw, 1981)

I have a lot of paperback books on my shelves that people have given me.  I can’t remember where this one came from.  It’s not typical of the books I usually read. It is not a novel but rather six short stories, each one set in a large present-day city (Paris, London, New York, Moscow, Rome, Beijing–called Peking) but set thousands of years in the future, as a dying Sun makes most of the Earth uninhabitable or at least extremely harsh.  Outside of the cities, there is little human life; and what there is has reverted to a kind of primitive existence.  Within the cities, human society is close to unrecognizable.  Each story is a little different, but most of them portray the city dwellers as soulless and cruel beings.  The story I liked the best was “Ice (Moscow)”; I liked it because the characters lived in a close-knit community and seemed more recognizably human to me.

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Beethoven: The Universal Composer

Posted by nliakos on November 14, 2007

by Edmund Morris; read by John McDonough (Recorded Books 2005)

Although I have known Beethoven’s symphonies and some of his piano sonatas all my life, reading this biography brought home to me just how much music he wrote that does not get played a lot on classical radio and that I have never heard, or even heard of. It made me curious about several pieces; one that I just had to listen to was the Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph, which I paid my first visit to the Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland to obtain. I’ve listened to it once, and plan on listening many times more before I have to give it back next week. Beethoven wrote it when he was only nineteen.

What little I knew of Beethoven the man I got from Vicki’s Classical Kids tape, Beethoven Lives Upstairs. That was set near the end of his life, when he was composing the Ninth Symphony. This book covers his whole life from childhood to death at age 56 from (perhaps) a lupus-related liver problem. I have to admit that descriptions of individual pieces of music leave me cold because if I can’t hear or remember the music, they don’t mean much; I sometimes found my attention drifting as I listened, or else I was wishing I could listen to the piece simultaneously.

Beethoven was surely an unusual person. He seems to have had Asperger-like behaviors. He was hopeless at math, was sometimes slovenly, and does not seem to have been capable of empathizing with others. The worst came when he fought with his dying (then dead) brother’s widow over their son. He wanted custody of the boy, and he did not want the mother to be co-guardian or even to visit him. He suffered from paranoia; he accused her of all manner of things. The poor mother must have been frantic, but several courts sided with the famous uncle rather than with her. The boy, Karl, should have been traumatized but seems to have gotten through the years of battle relatively unscathed; I can’t imagine how.

On the whole, I enjoyed learning about the man behind all that gorgeous music, even if I don’t think I would have liked to know him personally.

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The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

Posted by nliakos on November 11, 2007

by Jonathan Harr; read by Campbell Scott

I am not a big fan of Italian baroque painting, so I was completely unfamiliar with the works of Caravaggio and did not recall hearing of the discovery of a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece about ten years ago. Nevertheless, I found the story of the hunt for the painting and its serendipitous discovery in an Irish monastery to be extremely interesting. It taught me something about art historians and how they work, and it made me pay attention to Caravaggio’s oeuvre (see here for some online examples) and to want to see some of his paintings, especially The Taking of Christ, which is the masterpiece whose discovery is the focus of the book. Jonathan Harr actually learned Italian in order to conduct his interviews for the book. I learned this in an author interview which followed Campbell Scott’s excellent narration.

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Never Let Me Go

Posted by nliakos on November 4, 2007

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Now that science has made cloning possible, what if people were cloned?  And what if the technology were used simply to create organ donors for the “normal” population?  And then, what if some people strove to improve the lot of these donors when they are young by sequestering them in a special boarding school and protecting them, for the duration of their childhood, from the awful truth about their very existence?

The story of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy is told from the viewpoint of Kathy, looking back on her time at Hailsham and trying to make sense of her past, present, and future.  Kathy/Ishiguro describes the behavior and thoughts of the children, then teenagers, in great detail.  I liked Tommy, but disliked Ruth, and couldn’t quite make up my mind about Kathy.  The story seemed not quite believable… perhaps because it seems that this issue has already been decided.  Then again, I read of a case where parents had a child for the express purpose of saving the life of a sibling, and I’ve heard about organs harvested from living donors abroad to be used for rich patients here in the U.S.  Perhaps Ishiguro’s idea is not entirely far-fetched–just very depressing.

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