Feb 11 2011

History of the Arabs by Philip Hitti

The author is a proud, patriotic, card-carrying Arab, deeply immersed in the brilliant cultural achievements of medieval Islamic civilization, and he argues persuasively that without the Arab contribution what we call Western Civilization would never have progressed beyond the Dark Ages. There are a few statements in this book that reveal how dated it is…”Lebanon is the most stable country in the Middle East”…”Suicide is rare among Moslems”…but it is rich in detail as it attempts to do justice to Arab culture. Israel and Zionism are omitted in this volume, although it goes up to the 1960’s, and the author takes a mild and objective view of Arab civilization’s relationship with the West, unlike many modern Arab intellectuals who are implacably hostile. A book like this could never have been written in the post-9/11 era, which makes me thankful that it is still in print. The book is an artifact of a bygone era when Arabs and Muslims were not yet the Enemy.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/02/11/history-of-the-arabs-by-philip-hitti/

Jan 11 2011

Dreams by C.G. Jung

I made a good faith effort to read this book from beginning to end, and I feel severely taxed for having endured such a load of nonsense. The idea of the unconscious is not altogether implausible, but Jung takes it to levels that Freud never dreamed of. Jung’s pretense to “science” is outrageous; there is nothing remotely scientific in this work, even by the standards of Jung’s time. Jung should be read as a literary figure rather than a scientist, and even in respect to psychology he is clearly more interested in mythology and mysticism than the workings of the human mind. There were many interesting dreams recorded in this book, but I am convinced that Jung grossly misinterpreted most of them in the light of his flaky theories. Dreams are a fascinating subject, but I learned nothing from this book.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/01/11/dreams-by-c-g-jungi-made-a-good-faith-effort-to-read-this-book-from-beginning-to-end-and-i-feel-severely-taxed-for-having-endured-such-a-load-of-nonsense-the-idea-of-the-unconscious-is-not-altoget/

Jan 11 2011

Taking Stock of 2010: Books

Undemanding reading, with one or two exceptions, appears as the hallmark of 2010. Belated reaction to the economic crisis? Lack of initiative after spending several months with Count Tolstoy in 2009? Hard to say.

The exceptions: Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian, a survivor’s testimony from the time of his arrest in 1915 in Istanbul to his eventual escape into Central Europe in 1918; and in a completely different vein The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a retelling of Arthurian legends with the Grail quest a nuisance, all of the swordplay off-stage, and the men in general of secondary interest.

Most-read author this year just passed: Alexander McCall Smith. Authors new to me I want to read more of: John Biggins, Raymond E. Feist, Jo Walton, Hillary Mantel. Books read aloud to the eldest child: should be obvious from context. Best tale of the Austro-Hungarian navy: Tomorrow the World by John Biggins. Disappointment from a Nobelist I otherwise quite like: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. Best novel of first contact in medieval Germany: Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. Books in German read: none, for the first time in many years.

Full list is below the fold, links are to earlier posts on the title or author. See also 2009, 2007, 2006.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/01/11/taking-stock-of-2010-books/

Dec 22 2010

Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow

Considered to be the definitive book on the Vietnam War. I had read this book many years ago, but I’m glad that taking the Vietnam War course at LSU forced me to reread it. Despite my professor’s hawkish pronouncements, after rereading this book I don’t see any way we could have won in Vietnam, short of invading North Vietnam, which surely would have provoked the Chinese to intervene, or blasting North Vietnam to bits with nuclear weapons, which would have been inhumane and would have caused an international uproar. The enemy we were facing was simply too determined to prevail at all costs. An enemy that can maintain morale despite sustaining such huge losses cannot help but provoke admiration. Vietnam, IMHO, remains a tragic but cautionary tale about the limits of U.S. power that is just as relevant today as it was then.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2010/12/22/vietnam-a-history-by-stanley-karnow/

Nov 11 2010

Four Hours in My Lai by Michael Bilton

My instructor assigned this book, but he mostly glossed over it in class. This is not a book to gloss over. The professor sees My Lai as an aberration, an exceptional case, but I think the lesson to take home from it is that under the right circumstances even decent and honorable people can become monsters. The My Lai incident is not widely remembered by the American public, but that is unfortunate, because it has been thoroughly investigated and meticulously documented, and it deserves to be remembered even though the military and the Nixon administration did their best to sweep it under the rug. Winston Churchill is cited in this book as saying that a nation without a conscience cannot survive, which is why I think ordinary Americans need to take a good hard look at My Lai and stop sleepwalking through history. I believe in American exceptionalism, but I don’t buy into the whatever-we-do-is-right theory of American history, and this book illustrates what is wrong with that theory.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2010/11/11/four-hours-in-my-lai-by-michael-bilton/

Nov 04 2010

The Soul of China by Amaury De Riencourt

My exposure to Chinese history has mostly been disappointing thus far–but this book was FASCINATING. The author writes in the colorful and subjective style that today’s politically correct historians are afraid to write in. He is not afraid of making judgments, which is refreshing given that modern academicians are steeped in relativism. The core theme in this book is how at a very early point in its history China created a stable civilization that changed very little for thousands of years, and how this cultural petrification led to a crisis when China came into contact with the energetic and innovative West. In the end China embraced Marxism-Leninism as a way of rejecting elements of Western civilization that did not fit with Chinese culture, such as individualism, Christianity, and democracy, while embracing those aspects which were undeniably positive, such as science and industry. I have to say that this book saved me from a hopeless ennui regarding Chinese history.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2010/11/04/the-soul-of-china-by-amaury-de-riencourt/

Oct 22 2010

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

The title character is that rare example of a man who is honorable to the point where his honor is insufferable. He distinguishes himeself in war–no small thing among the naturally warlike Romans–but cannot abide lowering himself to curry favor with the public. The story features some memorable passages from both the popular and the aristocratic cause, but Shakespeare as an Englishman of good breeding naturally sides with the aristocrats. But the story of a man who is too noble for his own good is a fitting subject for a tragedy, and this one is a fine example of the Bard at his best.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2010/10/22/coriolanus-by-william-shakespeare/

Oct 12 2010

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

There has been a movement in recent times among historians and political scientists to rehabilitate Machiavelli’s reputation. After reading this book, I cannot agree with these scholars. Machiavelli’s recipe for statesmanship is inhuman and diabolical. He clearly sees power as an end in itself and not as something to be used to serve the public good. His treatise is entirely concerned with the interests of the the ruler and not with the interests of the ruled. This, in my opinion, is the wrong place to start in developing a political philosophy. Yet I have to say that this was a fascinating book, and it merely codifies what was probably already known and accepted among the rulers of Machiavelli’s time. The book is dedicated to Lorenzo di Medici, but Machiavelli’s hero was not Lorenzo but Cesare Borgia, who successfully used the methods prescribed by Machiavelli to rise to power and then came to a bad end when other rulers successfully used the same methods against him.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2010/10/12/the-prince/

Jul 23 2010

Religion and Science by Bertrand Russell

Russell seemed confident, even in 1935 when this book was written, that science had effectively triumphed over religion in the minds of most people. He no doubt would have been appalled to see that in twenty-first century America religious faith is still going strong. But his analysis of the issues that religion and science dispute over is entirely lucid and rational, even though it is clear which side of the debate he is on. I myself have no objection to any of his arguments, which are wholly logical. Yet unlike many secularists, Russell is not under any illusions that science and reason will ultimately produce the best of all possible worlds or save the human race from extinction. He is a true rationalist, devoid of most of the sentimental prejudices that most atheists and secularists are not even aware they possess. Russell is the most reasonable opponent that any religious person could hope to encounter, and he is always a pleasure to read.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2010/07/23/religion-and-science-by-bertrand-russell/

Jul 15 2010

Psychology and Alchemy by C.G. Jung

The word “alchemy” in the title is suggestive of the scientific merit of this book. Jung seems to believe that psychological wisdom can be found in the writings of the alchemists, and in this work he pores over their texts in search of his own Philosopher’s Stone. The texts are far out to begin with, but Jung’s interpretations of them are even more far out. To say I “read” this book is perhaps an exaggeration; most of it was beyond the realm of readability. Freud takes a lot of heat these days for being unscientific, but compared to Jung’s bottomless penchant for mumbo-jumbo he seems positively rigorous. If you’re looking for insights in this book, it seems to me you can find just about anything you’re looking for; Jung can turn a cake recipe into font of hidden knowledge. Alchemy has been discredited in favor of chemistry; I leave it to other readers to judge how closely Jung’s theories approach scientific psychology.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2010/07/15/psychology-and-alchemy-by-c-g-jung/