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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