Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“[Herodotus] understood that to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves reflected; he knew that to understand ourselves better we have to understand Others, to compare ourselves with them, to measure ourselves against them. As a citizen of the world, he did not believe that we should isolate ourselves from Others, or slam the gates in their faces. Xenophobia, Herodotus implied, is a sickness of people who are scared, suffering an inferiority complex, terrified by the prospect of seeing themselves in the mirror of the culture of Others. And his entire book is a solid construction of mirrors in which we keep getting a better and clearer view of, above all, Greece and the Greeks.”

–Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other (New York : Verso, 2008), pg. 19.

This quote brings to mind Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo’s descriptions of a string of exotic Asian cities turn out to be the layers of a vision of his native city in Italy.

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What accompanies us

Among all forms of prehistoric religion, the strangest and most difficult to understand in our own day seems the cult of the dead, the constant presence of the dead in every aspect of life. To a prehistoric man, in contrast, our strangest and most mysterious form of worship would be our use of books. Yet these two forms of belief converge. Concretized as portable objects that accompany us—our parasites, persecutors, comforters—the dead have settled on the written page. Their power has never diminished, even though it has been wondrously transformed.

— Roberto Calasso (trans. by William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli), The Ruin of Kasch, pg. 330

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Changing the world

Some book and media titles from the Multnomah County Library:

50 Aircraft That Changed the World

50 Battles That Changed the World

50 Companies That Changed the World

80 Days That Changed the World

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

Bridges That Changed the World

Five Equations That Changed the World

Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World

The Gun That Changed the World

The Invention That Changed the World

The Machine That Changed the World

The Map That Changed the World

On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World

Paintings That Changed the World

Photos That Changed the World

Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World

The Ship That Changed the World

Six Months That Changed the World


And my favorite:

Atlantic Ocean: The Illustrated History of the Ocean That Changed the World


Is there a book called Cliches That Changed the World?

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Sherlock Holmes

When I was a child, I got The Complete Sherlock Holmes Treasury as a Christmas present (probably from Aunt Judy). Of course I read it right away—what nine-year-old can resist Sherlock Holmes?—and would re-read it every two or three years as I forgot how the cases ended (though I could never forget “The Red-Headed League”).

I have this book on hold, which has prompted me to dig that old treasury out of a box in the closet so that I can re-read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” before the hold gets filled. However, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is the very last story in the book, so, clearly, it is my duty—and nothing less!—to read all of the stories which precede it. And to do such reading on a cold and snowy weekend next to a fire…O, the sacrifices I make to duty!

Sherlock Holmes would be proud. (And he would probably also get as much of a laugh as I did from this album.)

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A sub-blurb

A cover blurb from the paperback edition of Jonathan I. Israel’s Radical Enlightenment:

One of the truly great historical works of the decade.

The book and the blurb were published in 2001.

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Loving the alien

A few days ago, I wrote about how difficult it can be to learn about cultures that are unconnected to one’s own; how we lack a context in which to understand what we are trying to learn.

Part of my difficulty in this kind of learning is that I tend to approach it purely intellectually, which is perhaps the worst way to approach it; cultures have a primal, earthy core—the smell of food, the words of prayer, the meanings of “papa” and “mama”—that ratiocination is slow to see, if it can see it at all. And without understanding those, what can we really understand?

Perhaps the best way to learn about a different culture is to love that culture, or at least love a person of that culture. Love shows us what reason cannot because love makes obstacles into opportunities. The boring stretches of the Iliad might stop someone reading it out of intellectual curiosity, but to the person reading it to impress a girl in Thessaloniki, those endless lines of boasts become an endless string of jokes, because love can make us laugh like that and help us go on.

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As an undergraduate, I took two runs at Plato’s Republic, neither notably successful. I am sure I know where to find the paper I wrote about it, and equally sure I would rather leave it where I have lain it.

Thanks to the fine folks at Multnomah County Library (full disclosure: I work for MCL, which is how I know they are fine folks), I will be taking a third run at it over the next month. MCL is sponsoring a “Read the Classics” program, which offers 24 discussions in six different series. You can sign up (for free!) for any individual discussion, as long as you think to sign up before 25 other people do (enrollment is capped).

I look forward to the chance to re-engage the Republic, and I might post about it here as I go.

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Henry Fairlie

In the post immediately below, I note how good British commentaries on the United States can be. One example:

Henry Fairlie was a British journalist who worked in the United States from the mid-1960s until his death in 1990. If you like American political history and ever have the opportunity to read The Kennedy Promise or The Parties (both are out-of-print), you should take that opportunity. In the former, Fairlie presents a forceful case for John and Robert Kennedy as quintessential Cold Warriors; in the latter, he paints such a vivid picture of the sad-sack GOP of 1932-1978 that you can understand why Reagan is revered by Republicans for reviving it.

Both books are odd, and I don’t fully agree with either, but they are well-written and have an intelligent unorthodoxy to them that makes them fun to read.

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The two best books I have read so far this year are Cultural Amnesia by Clive James and Austerity Britain by David Kynaston. Both books deal at great length with the effects of World War II on their main subjects (for James, the culture of Mitteleuropa; for Kynaston, British daily life).

One of the smallest effects of World War II—albeit an effect of great importance to me!—is that without it, neither set of my grandparents would have met, married, or had children.

My paternal grandparents met in Liverpool in 1940, where my grandmother was a local girl working in an aircraft factory and my grandfather was an American mechanic brought over by Lockheed from Los Angeles to help prepare new planes for test flights.

My maternal grandparents met in San Francisco in 1942, where my grandmother was a farm girl from Whatcom County, Washington who moved south with her younger sisters to look for clerical work and the excitement of city life, and my grandfather was a Marine corporal from Columbus, Ohio waiting to be shipped to Guadalcanal.

I have no point to all of this biography, it just strikes me now that I have thought about it.

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“Bookhunter” interview

My friend and co-worker Laural Winter interviews Jason Shiga, the author of Bookhunter, my favorite graphic novel.

Bookhunter is the story of how the Oakland Public Library’s detective squad and SWAT team cracked a 1973 book theft case. If you find the idea of a public library having a detective squad and a SWAT team intriguing, then you might like this book. If you think public libraries should have had a detective squad and a SWAT team a long damn time ago, then you will love this book. Plus, it’s funny, it’s smart, and the plot works.

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The New York Review of Books edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy is 1382 pages long.

Here’s the problem with that.

If I’m feeling melancholy, then I’m in no condition to read a serious 1382-page book with a lot of Latin in it.

If I’m not feeling melancholy, then why would I want to think about melancholia?

It all seems so simple…now that I’ve spent $25 on the book…

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