Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2017

by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau trade paperback 2015; copyright 2014)

Bryan Stevenson started working with prisoners on  death row  while he was still in law school. Later, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (from the EJI website).

In Just Mercy, Stevenson presents what he views as some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system: the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole,  the witch hunt for “bad mothers”, the execution of innocent prisoners due to technicalities, the corruption that allows incompetent defense or prejudiced prosecution to condemn innocent people to life in prison or capital punishment, the incarceration and abuse of people with disabilities, the awful treatment within the prison system, and more.

Chapters about the case of Walter McMillian, an African-American man on death row for a crime that was committed while he was at home hosting a fish fry for about twenty people, are interspersed with chapters narrating other cases. Thus, Walter McMillian’s story begins on page 21, when Stevenson was not yet thirty and he received a call from the judge in the case, warning him not to proceed with it, and ends with the Epilogue and Walter’s death from dementia. This reflects the reality that a single case can drag on for many years without resolution, as it works its way through the levels of the justice system. (Many of Stevenson’s cases made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Miller v. Alabama, which declared the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole to be unconstitutional.)  Meanwhile, the innocent prisoner’s life is running out. It was so evident that Walter McMillian had been wrongly accused, sentenced, and imprisoned (he was sent to death row even before he was sentenced to die), that the reader can hardly believe that this case actually happened. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”. The people that arrested, prosecuted, and condemned Walter McMillian had to have known that he was innocent, yet all they cared about was “solving” the crime (The true murderer was never found.). At one point, after years of trying to get McMillian out of prison, Stevenson was told by a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, “Bryan, it’s all going to work out, but you’ll need to wait a few more months. He’s been on the row for years, so a few more months are not going to make that much of a difference.” Oh, really? Try it yourself, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer. You will find that every single day on death row is an eternity.

One chapter that affected me even more than Walter McMillian’s tragic story was “All God’s Children”, which focuses on three cases handled by EJI:  Trina Garnett, an intellectually disabled, neglected and abused child who when she was fourteen unintentionally set a house on fire, which resulted in the death of two other children; Ian Manuel, convicted of armed robbery and attempted homicide when he was thirteen; and Antonio Nuñez, charged with kidnapping and attempted murder at fourteen. In all three cases, older children involved in the same crimes received lighter sentences because they implicated the younger ones, while Trina, Ian, and Antonio were all found guilty and sentenced to life without parole (in other words, sentenced to die in prison).  Stevenson points out that adults convicted of similar crimes usually receive much lighter sentences and eventually serve only ten or twenty years before being released. Children who are sentenced and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are usually released after spending some period of time in juvenile custody, perhaps when they turn eighteen or twenty-one. But these three minor children were all prosecuted as adults, and all received life without parole. Ian Manuel actually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, supposedly for his own protection. Even when the victim in his case (who survived and went on to lead a normal life) requested that his sentence be reduced, the courts refused to budge. By the time the EJI took on their cases, Trina, Ian, and Antonio were “broken by years of hopeless confinement” (although Ian had somehow managed to educate himself while in solitary confinement). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the EJI was finally able to get their sentences reduced, but they had to serve more time added onto the long time they had already spent in prison.

Reading this book, I was constantly horrified and ashamed of what passes for “justice for all” in these United States. It’s not justice, and it’s definitely not for all.

See also The New Jim Crow.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Photograph

Posted by nliakos on January 3, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (BethanyHouse 2015)

My daughter Vicki gave me this novel set in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing that I had enjoyed The Atonement by the same author. It was a very quick read (just one day!), and the ending was obvious from Chapter Two, but I read on, keen to find out how that ending would be achieved.

Twenty-year-old Eva Esch’s younger sister Lily runs away from their Lancaster County community, intending to “go fancy”. Eva and her older sister Frona must deal not only with this crisis but also with their brother’s family’s impending move into their deceased parents’ home and farm, which will necessitate their finding another place to live. In a parallel plot line, Ohio Amishman Jed Stutzman travels to Pennsylvania by train to learn more about his trade; on the train, he finds a copy of Little Women, with many notations in the margins, and a photograph of a pretty Amish girl between the pages. Since the Amish do not permit personal photos which show their faces, it’s a bit of a mystery how the photo came to be, but Jed finds himself smitten by not only the lovely face but also by the sentiments in the notes. When he gets to Pennsylvania and sees Eva, he takes her for the girl in the picture, who is in fact Lily, the runaway sister. It takes a while to sort this misunderstanding out.

Eva finds herself drawn to Jed and he to her, and the rest of the book details how they manage to get together. As in The Atonement, I enjoyed the glimpse into this unique culture. I couldn’t help but wonder why they aren’t all obese, because they are always eating sweets (Eva sells the candy she makes in a little shop attached to her house, and the characters are constantly eating cookies, ice cream, pies, cakes, fudge, peanut butter balls, Butterfinger truffles. . . .)!  I suppose the fact that they are constantly walking or working might have something to do with it.

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The Tao of Pooh

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Benjamin Hoff (Dutton 1982)

I read this little gem long before I began learning t’ai chi ch’uan back in 2010, but I remember loving it, so I recently purchased a used copy from ThriftBooks, my latest find on the web (cheap prices, great customer service), and reread it. Using Winnie the Pooh as a kind of model (and Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit as counter-models), Hoff explains the basic tenets of Taoism:

  • The principle of the Uncarved Block: things in their original simplicity are naturally powerful (Winnie the Pooh being “the very Epitome of the Uncarved Block”)
  • Knowledge and education cannot provide deep understanding or happiness.
  • Things are as they are. Don’t try to change them into something they aren’t. (“A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.”) Accept your limitations.
  • Wu Wei, “without doing, causing, or making”: working with natural laws and our own inner nature without stress or struggle. Acting according to circumstances and your own intuition. (This “can be seen in the practice of the Taoist martial art T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the basic idea of which is to wear the opponent out either by sending his energy back at him or by deflecting it away, in order to weaken his power, balance, and position-for-defense. Never is force opposed by force; instead, it is overcome with yielding.”)
  • People who are constantly busy are missing out on a lot. They are never at peace. (Rabbit is an example of this kind of person.)
  • We should believe in our own power and use it, rather than trying to be like others.
  • Caring/Compassion (Tz’u) give us courage and wisdom.
  • Appreciating ourselves for who and what we are brings us contentment; dissatisfaction brings only misery.
  • An empty mind is receptive to what is truly important. “While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing.” (This one really made me sit up and pay attention, because that’s me: instead of just appreciating the beauty of the fallen leaves in the park, I try to identify the tree they fell from.) Nothing has value.

Throughout, Hoff quotes lengthy passages from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, invents dialogues with Pooh and among Pooh and his fellow denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, and intersperses it all with E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations from the Pooh books. So the reader of this book had better be familiar with those books.

Hoff followed the Tao of Pooh with The Te of Piglet, which I also own and have read, but it might be time to reread that too. I didn’t like it as much as The Tao of Pooh, though, when I read it before.

Posted in Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Susan Moon (Shambhala 2010)

I just loved this book of essays about getting older, written by a Zen Buddhist American woman in her mid-sixties (my age). Susan Moon is direct, honest, and funny. She writes about the challenges of aging (physical deterioration, memory loss, loneliness…) as well as its joys (human relationships, grandchildren…). She writes from a Buddhist perspective, about her changing body and mind, her mother, her friendships, her self-doubts.

I suppose that most people under sixty would not appreciate this book, although reading it might give them the gift of an older person’s perspective on life, which would not be a bad thing.

Some favorite quotes:

My mind, like my bladder, is shrinking with age so that it doesn’t hold as much at once.

In a way, it adds interest to life to have these small problems to work on. Taking care of oneself becomes a more intricate project and sharpens one’s problem-solving skills. My knees talk to me, and I have to respond. The old bones provide a kind of companionship. It’s not really me who needs things like handrails and hiking poles, it’s my knees; I make these arrangements for them, because we’re family.

It’s not my fault when I have a senior moment any more than it was my fault when my hair turned gray. I’m just a human being, after all. I’ve had a lifetime of junior moments, when one word follows another in logical–and boring–succession, when each action leads to the next appropriate action. For countless years, I have remembered to bring the pencil with me when I go downstairs to use the pencil sharpener. I think I’ve earned the right to break free from the imprisonment of sequential thinking. A senior moment is a stop sign on the road of life.

Gradually, without noticing when it happened, I seem to have let go of trying [to find a mate]. It’s a big relief, I can tell you, not to be scanning the horizon for a spiritually minded socially engaged emotionally intelligent senior bachelor every time I leave the house.

The main thing is, I’m not separate, I only think I am. I’m one of the jewel-like nodes in Indra’s Net, that vast spiderweb of the universe. I’m not a thing at all, I’m an intersection where filaments connect. Pluck me out and the whole thing falls apart, like a knitted shawl unraveling from one dropped stitch. The universe holds me and the universe needs me. No way is the universe going to leave me for a younger woman.

I think of time as the landscape I’m traveling through on a train, and the train is my life. I can only see what’s outside the window. Yesterday was Naperville, Illinois; today is Grand Junction, Colorado; tomorrow will be Sparks, Nevada. I just see the piece that’s framed by the train window, but it’s all there at once, all those places, the whole continent.

 

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Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Posted by nliakos on December 31, 2016

by Christine Montross (Penguin 2007)

This book has been on my to-read list for years, possibly since it was published, but I could never find it. Finally, I bought a used copy. It was worth the wait. Christine Montross was a resident in psychiatry when the book came out; she based it on the journal that she kept during her first semester in medical school, when medical students study human anatomy by dissecting a human cadaver which has been donated for the purpose.

Montross describes the dissection and the feelings engendered by it; she adds a dose of history when she travels to Padua to visit the theater when the father of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, essentially began the practice of cadaver dissection for medical students; she explains that without donated cadavers, doctors and students used the bodies of executed criminals or bought cadavers which had been dug up at night, in secret–and sometimes actually did the grave-robbing themselves. But she remains convinced that no other method can replace actual dissection, saying that the woman whose body she essentially destroyed during that semester in anatomy lab gave her a precious gift: “. . . She neither knew me nor knew anything about me, and yet she bequeathed to me this offering, unthinkable for centuries, that has formed the foundations of my ability to heal. My hours with her neither cured her nor eased her suffering. Bit by bit, I cut apart and dismantled her, a beautiful old woman who came to me whole. The lessons her body taught me are of critical importance to my knowledge of medicine, but her selfless gesture of donation will be my lasting example of how much it is possible to give to a total stranger in the hopes of healing.”

The last part of the cadaver to be dissected is the head and brain. Despite their progress in with the emotional component of cutting up the body of a stranger, Montross and her classmates find it extraordinarily difficult to dissect their cadavers’ faces and heads. Montross writes, “The brain is the true embodiment of my own conflicted response to anatomy. Somewhere deep within its crenellations, here lies wonder, and here lies the question of whether we have a right to pursue wonder in seemingly inhuman ways. Here is the knowledge gained by dissection, which drives our actions forward, and here lies the toll the process takes on each of us, in stress or dreams or dissonance. Here in the brain is the newly transformed identity of the doctor-to-be, with a beginner’s knowledge of disease and healing, with a stomach more steeled to trauma and to death. But somewhere, too, there must be the echo of the person who existed before cutting a human body, before feeling the cool stiffness of a pulseless heart.” Montross’ prose is exquisite; I was not surprised to learn that she is a published poet as well as a doctor.

I don’t know why it was so hard to find this book, because I think every doctor in training should read it (probably before they take anatomy lab).

Posted in Science, Memoir | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

A Christmas Carol

Posted by nliakos on December 25, 2016

by Charles Dickens (edited by Jane Gordon; published by American Book Company in 1904)

Every year on Christmas Eve, my family and I watch the 1984 movie of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott–it’s our favorite of many versions. This year, after watching the movie, I decided to reread the original novella, which I have in the collection called Christmas Stories (from “Eclectic School Readings”). The book originally belonged to my great-aunt, who was a teacher. I suppose she may have read some of the stories aloud to her classes. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed to realize that the story was edited. (Here is one of several unedited versions I found on Google Books; I should read that!)

Anyway, I read the edited version, since that is what I have. It omits some scenes  (like Scrooge’s visit to the pawn-broker’s shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) which both the film and the original story include. But it’s still a wonderful story, a classic. Everyone should know it, whether by reading the story or watching one of the movies based on it.

Like Miracle on 34th StreetA Christmas Carol manages to be all about Christmas without ever mentioning Jesus, apart from Tiny Tim, who thought “it might be pleasant to [the people in church] to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Autumn’s Brightness

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2016

by Daisy Newman ( Macmillan 1954)

I’ve now read four novels set in the Quaker community of fictitious Kendal, Rhode Island: Indian Summer of the Heart; I Take Thee, Serenity; Diligence in Love, and now The Autumn’s Brightness. It seems I never blogged about Diligence in Love, which I read several months ago. That one was about an insufferably boring New Yorker, Vaughn Hill, who travels to Kendal for a work project and finds peace there, eventually moving there with her husband and teenaged children. Vaughn and her family appear briefly in The Autumn’s Brightness, although Oliver and Loveday (of Indian Summer of the Heart) do not.

Anyway, the protagonist of The Autumn’s Brightness is named Diligence, or Dilly, which confused me for a while, but Newman explains in the book that diligence in love is a Quaker concept referring to what is needed to sustain loving feelings during hard times in a relationship. The novel opens when Dilly, a widow  whose children have left home, travels to new York to visit her brainless, materialistic cousin Elmira and meets a man who makes a deep impression on her. Despite her determination to avoid a romantic entanglement, Dilly finds Mr. Durand Smith impossible to forget, and he seems equally smitten. But could he just be after her money?

A sweet story, which I finished in just one day. But my favorite is still Indian Summer of the Heart!

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Goldberg’s Angel: An Adventure in the Antiquities Trade

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2016

by Dan Hofstadter (Farrar Straus Giroux 1994)

Goldberg is Peg Goldberg, an American art dealer who bought some illegal Christian mosaics (including the eponymous angel) from a Cypriot church and was subsequently sued by Cyprus and lost the mosaics. Hofstadter is a writer who took an interest in the case and somehow managed to travel enough to interview most of the main characters in the very Byzantine (haha) plot. The book did not really hold my interest (While reading it, I read several other books), and perhaps because of that, I found it difficult to keep all the details and different people straight in my mind. I came away feeling rather depressed by the eagerness of people who plunder works of art in order to make money. My favorite part of the book was the last part, in which Hofstadter recounts a “tall tale or dream” in which he finally catches up with the mysterious Turk Aydin Dikmen, who seems to hold all the answers to the mystery.

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Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Posted by nliakos on December 14, 2016

by Dava Sobel (Walker & Co. 1999; ISBN 0-8027-1343-2)

Having enjoyed Dava Sobel’s previous book, Longitude, I opened this biography of Galileo Galilei with high expectations, and it did not disappoint. In addition to the meticulous retelling of Galileo’s life, discoveries, and inventions, Sobel has chosen to shine a light on the special relationship between the great philosopher and his elder daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia Galilei), who spent most of her short life in the Convent of San Matteo, in the town of Arcetri, outside of Florence. Suor Maria Celeste had a fine intellect and was by all accounts a virtuous and kind young woman who adored her father above all else. Despite his difficulties with the Roman Inquisition, the banning of his books,  his detainment (first in Rome, then in Tuscany and finally in his own house in Arcetri), she never doubted his goodness or rightness about natural phenomena such as the Earth’s motion.

What sets Galileo’s Daughter apart from other biographies of Galileo is the inclusion of many of the letters which Suor Maria Celeste wrote to her father (his replies have been lost), which the author translated herself. In the letters, we read about the many services that she performed for her father (from sewing his lace collars to copying his manuscripts to managing his affairs when he was away), the many requests she made of him (for money and ingredients for preparing foods and medicines, often not for herself but for others–including him), and most of all the great love and respect that she bore him.

When Suor Maria Celeste died of dysentery at the age of only 34, Galileo, who was then 70 years old, was overwhelmed with grief. When he himself died eight years later, his student and companion Vincenzio Viviani, unable to bury Galileo as he wished due to papal decree, secretly buried him together with his beloved daughter. Eventually, both sets of remains were re-interred together in a grand monument in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

Some things I did not realize about Galileo:

  • He was in poor health for most of his life.
  • He lost his sight in his old age.
  • He remained a devout Catholic despite all that he suffered at the hands of the Church and despite realizing that the Pope was not infallible.
  • Many of his friends never deserted him despite his vilification by Pope Urban VIII and the Roman Inquisition.
  • Einstein considered him the father of modern experimental science (pg. 326, Note).

Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2016

by Leonard Shlain (Penguin/Arkana 1998; ISBN 0-670-87883-9)

From time to time, I read a book that really upends my worldview. This is such a book. Leonard Shlain tells the story of human history through a neurologic lens; that is, how the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere over the right over the past five thousand years has predisposed the human race to aggression, mistrust of the female and of images. And the cause of this left hemispheric hijacking is literacy–in particular, alphabetic literacy. Over and over, throughout Western history as well as in Eastern cultures (e.g., India, China, Southeast Asian countries), he shows that once a culture adopts an alphabet and literacy spreads among its population, goddess worship declines (or is done away with completely), art comes under attack, and women’s rights are abrogated.

To the right hemisphere of the brain, Shlain attributes mysticism, emotion, appreciation of music, art, and dance, being, irrationality, intuition, love, faith, gestalts, concreteness, all-at-once perception (like facial recognition), metaphor, and non-verbal aspects of communication. The right hemisphere is most often dominant in women, who are the healers/nurturers of the human race.

To the left hemisphere, he attributes linearity, abstract thought, language, numbers, analysis, action (doing), reason, sequence, science, and  a sense of time. It is most often the province of men, the hunters/killers of the human race.

The really original part of Shlain’s hypothesis is to attribute the rise of the left brain to the detriment of the right to the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing, which is not only abstract but forcibly linear and sequential. The process of learning to read (not the content of what is read), he argues, actually changes the human brain over time, rendering it more prone to abstract, linear thought and eventually to bellicosity, aggression, and suppression of images and women’s rights. Again and again across human history, he shows how war, persecutions and massacres (think the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of first peoples in the Americas, the 15th-17th century witch-hunts in Europe and America, the Holocaust) follow increases in literacy.

In the Epilogue, Shlain confesses, “As a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends” as he “expended considerable ink bashing the left brain”. Reading his book, I often felt longstanding assumptions being turned on their heads–for instance, the assumption that monotheism represented some sort of progress (but Shlain points out that the first alphabetic people, the Jews, in recognizing one all-powerful male God, were rejecting the divine feminine principle that had checked the hunter/killer in us for millennia).

Each chapter in the book focuses on a left/right dichotomy:

  • Image/Word (an introduction to the book’s thesis)
  • Hunters/Gatherers (male and female roles in ancient prehistoric societies; the beginnings of language)
  • Right Brain/Left Brain (what each hemisphere is good at)
  • Males: Death/Females: Life (prehistoric human societies; the agricultural revolution)
  • Nonverbal/Verbal (how the left-right balance shifted to left dominance; how speech differs from written language)
  • Cuneiform/Marduk (early Mesopotamian peoples, who created the first written language we know of, and their creation myth–the horrific slaying of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk)
  • Hieroglyphs/Isis (ancient Egypt, where writing was pictorial and women enjoyed high status)
  • Aleph/Bet (ancient Hebrews and their alphabet, which Shlain speculates was the first in the world)
  • Hebrews/Israelites (musings on the Exodus and how Hebrew society was transformed by the Old Testament: “The miracle, I believe, was  the reduction of graphic symbols from  thousands to two dozen.” The Israelites’ hostility toward images)
  • Abraham/Moses (more Jewish history: Abram/Abraham, Yahweh, Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, the writing down of Yahweh’s commandments)
  • Thera/Matzah (the Exodus again; how the eruption of Thera’s volcano could have been the cause of some of the miracles described therein)
  • Adam/Eve (musings on who wrote the Old Testament; different versions of Biblical stories; early gods and goddesses)
  • Cadmus/Alpha (Prince Cadmus introduced alphabetic writing to the Greeks; misogyny among the ancient Greeks; the Old testament and the Iliad)
  • Sappho/Ganymede (sexual excess, homosexuality, and bisexuality in ancient Greek culture; as opposed to the rather straitlaced Israelite culture)
  • Dionysus/Apollo (the right-brained/left-brained dichotomy in classical Greek mythology)
  • Athens/Sparta (Greek myths that illustrate women’s loss of power and prestige; the increasing sexism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
  • Lingam/Yoni (ancient Indians’ views of books, images and the divine feminine)
  • Birth/Death (the Buddha and the religion he founded; Buddhist views on images and women; comparison with Hinduism)
  • Yin/Yang (how to reconcile Chinese patriarchy with the equality of the female principle as evidenced by the yin/yang circle; musings on the Chinese writing system and how it differs from an alphabetic system)
  • Taoism/Confucianism  (how Lao-tzu resisted writing while Confucius embraced it, eventually winning out–as a religion with a sacred book always wins out over one with only an oral tradition; how the writing down of Lao-tzu’s aphorisms transformed his belief system into something much different)
  • B.C./A.D. (Alexander the Great, the early Roman Empire; Judaism in the Roman Empire)
  • Jesus/Christ (how the right-brained ideas of Jesus turned into the left-brained, anti-woman ideas of Paul
  • Death/Rebirth (how Paul conceived of the new religion that would become Christianity)
  • Patriarchs/Heretics (early Christian history: misogynistic Orthodox vs.  more egalitarian Gnostics [Shlain: “The Orthodox/Gnostic struggle was at its core a conflict between words and images”]; Montanus, Valentinus, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, and how they corrupted Jesus’ original message)
  • Reason/Madness (the Jewish revolt against the Romans; why the early Christians accepted and even sought martyrdom; how alphabet literacy was instrumental to the spread of Christianity)
  • Illiteracy/Celibacy, 500-1000 (after the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy waned and female rights resurged; the pro-feminine Age of Chivalry; the rise of the cult of Mary; the demonization of the feminine in the devil [a concept original to Christians]; Christian ascetism; Benedict and the invention of all-male monastic communities, which “did more to undermine the position of medieval women than any other social institution”)
  • Muslin Veils/Muslim Words (the predictable loss of freedom for Arab women once the Arabs got their own sacred book, the Quran; how the illiterate Prophet’s views of and behavior with women were corrupted by later literate Muslims who wrote the Hadith; how face veiling undermines the right hemisphere; the history and geography of female genital mutilation and how it is tied to literacy rates)
  • Mystic/Scholastic, 1000-1300 (the Crusades and the resulting rediscovery of Classical learning; women’s prestige and rights at a high point in Europe; how Pope Gregory VII began to replace medieval feminine values with masculine ones; enforced celibacy and misogyny [along with promoting literacy]; Abelard and Heloise; the mass murder of the Cathars and Albigensians, Christians with a more feminine, tolerant orientation; the beginnings of the Inquisition; Scholasticism [a balanced right/left philosophy]; Hildegard von Bingen vs. Thomas Aquinas)
  • Humanist/Egoist, 1300-1500 (how Gutenberg’s printing press set the stage for exploding literacy; the Renaissance and its anti-female bias; the difference between male and female advice, and what happens when men lack female advisers; six Popes whose reigns “constitute one of the most dramatic examples of sustained folly in recorded history”; the corruption of the Church which led to the Protestant Reformation)
  • Protestant/Catholic (Martin Luther’s revolution; imageless, drab Protestantism versus Catholic images and colors; Protestant views of the female; John Calvin, who was even more misogynistic than Luther)
  • Faith/Hate (reigns of terror, religious persecution, the Anabaptists, how reading the Bible for themselves transformed European peasantry, religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the collision between literate Europeans and native Americans after Columbus’ “discovery”; Henry VIII and the Church of England; the repression of the Huguenots in France; the Italian Inquisition; Protestants vs. Catholics in the Netherlands; Africans and slavery. “Taken as a whole, the religious wars that wracked Europe in the 150 years after the printing press had transformed European culture can be viewed as a sort of mass madness.”
  • Sorcery/Science (the witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries)
  • Positive/Negative, 1648-1899 (Darwin, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of electromagnetism, the invention of photography, which “did for images what the printing press had done for written words”)
  • Id/Superego, 1900-1945 (Freud, Charlie Chaplin and the rise of images; relativity and quantum mechanics; the resurgence of the right hemisphere; surrealism in art and literature; nationalism and feminism; communism (another religion with a sacred book), Nazism and the holocaust; the power of the spoken word on the radio
  • Page/Screen, 1945-2000 (television and the Internet, which are responsible for a return to prestige of images [and not coincidentally, a resurgence of women’s rights])

In this month following the shocking election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, I wonder if Trump’s boast that he has never read a whole book, coupled with many of his supporters’ disregard of facts and reason, is a new phase of anti-literate right-brain resurgence (Shlain points out that each time a culture’s means of communication changes, a kind of madness takes over). It’s difficult to see anything positive in this particular change, but as Shlain says, when we are in the washing machine being tossed around, it’s hard to observe that the clothes are getting clean!

I really liked this book for the way it forced me to look at things in a completely new way, but I should mention that Shlain sometimes attributes cause and effect to two events without showing how he arrived at that conclusion.

Other resources:

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »