Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

I should read more books like this. It really made me think and has me thinking still. It should be obvious why the title of this book of essays appealed to me, and I must say, the essay with the same title was the most interesting of the group. It, in fact, is not an essay, but a transcript of a speech Russell gave somewhere at some time, and was easily the most readable. There are several areas the Russell seems to go too far in—like his belief that as a gigantic collection of atoms which unwillingly obey natural laws, people are not truly responsible for their own thoughts and actions, and the focus for criminals should be on rehabilitation rather than punishment—but his basic philosophical view is one that has a lot of affinity for me. Our actions and our societies should be based on an ethic which is designed to maximize human happiness and minimize human suffering. Elements of religious teaching which support this ethic and have foundations in fact and evidence should be kept, while elements of religious teaching which contradict this ethic or have no foundation in fact or evidence should be disregarded, regardless of how many people say that’s the way God wants it to be. Under this construct, Russell does away with the whole concept of sin. Sin is acting contrary to God’s law, but if God’s law makes no sense, even if following it is in the best interest of personal and societal happiness, it is actually counterproductive to guilt and shame people into obeying it by calling transgressions sin, because eventually someone will discover that there is no reason behind it, and then they are likely to throw the whole system of morals out for suspicion that it is all equally hollow. Russell’s favorite example to cite for this circumstance and many others is the women married to a syphilitic man. The church says both that they must not divorce and that they cannot use birth control, compelling the couple to a life of celibacy or to the birth of syphilitic children. They also cannot seek sexual relations outside the marriage. But none of these laws can increase the amount of human happiness in the world. In this case, in fact, they can only increase the amount of human suffering. And none of them have any basis in evidence or fact. Why can’t they divorce, why can’t they use birth control, why can’t they have affairs? Because God says it’s sinful to do these things. Why is it sinful? Because God says so. Something else that came across clearly in the book was that Russell was obviously writing about the church as it existed in the early 20th century and not the church as it exists today. The church of today is vastly different and way more tolerant than the one Russell wrote about, just as the church Russell wrote about was vastly different and way more tolerant than the one that existed during the time of the Inquisition. This reality begs two observations, one my own and one Russell’s. Mine: What kind of religion is it that claims at all times to represent the fixed and unalterable will of God and yet sees such change in its own dogma throughout its history? Russell’s: All of the change we have seen to church dogma over time has been not the result of the church’s own progressiveness, but rather a result of the pressure placed upon it and our society by freethinkers. + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell on Amazon on Wikipedia + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Thursday, December 18, 2003

The Spark of Independence

A little companion book to one I read earlier on the Declaration of Independence from the History Book Club. This one contains primary source materials of some of the writings and documents that influenced Thomas Jefferson and the other revolutionaries who wrote the Declaration. Most of it is tedious and dull to the modern reader, but it did leave me with a few impressions. Thomas Paine’s writing is more approachable than most, and can most easily be understood today. He was a real firebrand, practically calling for blood in the streets. And man, did Jefferson and everyone owe a debt to John Locke. His writings on government contain all the ideas pushed forward in the Revolution, most notably that man in his natural state is free, and can voluntarily align himself with any society of other men and government that makes sense to him. + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + The Spark of Independence on Amazon + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Friday, December 12, 2003

Longitude by Dava Sobel

A very interesting book about the quest to find a practical and accurate way to determine a ship’s longitude at sea. I saw the movie on A&E and, in contrast to the book, the movie left me with the impression that the Longitude Board confounded Harrison’s quest for the perfect timepiece from the very beginning. They did not. They, in fact, encouraged his efforts early on and were ready to accept one of his early prototypes as the winner. It was Harrison himself who took that model back to the drawing board because it wasn’t perfect enough for him. The book was also much less about Harrison himself and much more about the overall scientific search for the longitude.
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Thursday, December 11, 2003

The No Spin Zone by Bill O’Reilly

Started sort of slow but picked up in the middle. I liked the chapters on Jesse Jackson, taxes, and Hillary Clinton the best since they seemed to fall mostly in line with my way of thinking.

The one on Hillary seemed especially bold since he basically says that she won her Senate seat not because of any achievements in her career—Bill says she has none—but out of the pure pursuit of power and fame, bankrolled partially by tax dollars in the White House travel budget and thanks in no small degree to Rick Lazio invading her personal space.

I told my wife not too long ago that, say what you want about Bill Clinton, at his base he’s no more than a fun-loving bubba. At her base, Hillary is a cold force that wants to take over the world. She reminds me of that female newscaster who was really an alien in that John Carpenter movie “They Live.” The power suit and the fancy hairdo, but when the mind control waves are disrupted, a speckled and alien thing with an agenda.

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The No Spin Zone by Bill O'Reilly
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Author's website
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Wednesday, December 10, 2003

King Arthur, His Knights, and Their Ladies by Johanna Johnston

This is seriously a book that has been on my shelf since grade school. It’s from the Scholastic Press, no less. A simple retelling of some of the Arthur stories for a school-age audience, but interesting nonetheless. These stories obviously touch us somewhere near our basic human element or they would not have been told and retold for as long as they have. They’ve got it all—magic, predestination, rags to riches, inbreeding—what more could we want?

Things worth remembering:

1. Arthur knew Lanceulot and Guenevere were going behind his back but chose to ignore it until Mordred made the affair public.

2. Galahad found the Holy Grail and was taken up to heaven for it.

3. Merlin lived backwards in time, seemed to know everything, but forgot some pretty important details.

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King Arthur, His Knights and Their Ladies by Johanna Johnston
on Amazon
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Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Allergy Shots by Robert Litman

A novel of medical suspense by an allergist. Where did I get this book? Who knows? I think I found it in someone’s office I took over during one of my many steps up the career ladder. All in all, not a horrible book. It kept my interest in the story long enough for me to get to the end. But a few things were odd. The prose was sometimes clumsy. The protagonist was black and was only, it seemed, allowed to show an interest in black women. We were told, in fact, that Ike was black in a clumsy and rather unnecessary way, and both of the women he slept with in the story were also described as black in an unnecessary way. So, he’s black. So, she’s black. What does that tell us about the characters? Nothing more than saying someone is white, so why tell us at all? The third thing that was strange was the sex itself, which was also irrelevant except for the titillation factor. Do people really have sex this casually with one another? In fiction I guess they do. And what’s with the buttocks? Such an odd word and it shows up in two of your scenes. Something you’d like to tell us, doctor?

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Allergy Shots by Robert Litman
on Amazon
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Sunday, November 30, 2003

Survival at Auschwitz by Primo Levi

True story of an Italian Jew who was captured by the Nazis in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. Very moving at times but in some respects lacking.

Lacking? How do you mean, lacking? Well, it sounds awful to say, but I did not find it gruesome enough.

There were moments that made you feel like crying, like when they got off the train and were immediately sorted into groups—those that could be of use in the labor camp and those who could not and would be sent within 48 hours to a gas chamber or a crematorium or both. The former, all able-bodied young men. The latter, all the women, elderly, and children. To think of being separated from your child or your wife under such circumstances and to speculate which would be more awful—to know what fate had in store for them, or to not know and never find out.

There were other moments that made you shake your head and wonder how such things could ever happen, but knowing at the same time that they did and that they made their own twisted kind of sense. Like the way the prisoners had to keep everything they had with them at every moment to keep them from being stolen—showering with their soup bowls clutched between their knees. Or the way those who tried to get out of work for a day due to their diarrhea would be lined up and brought before the doctor one by one and given 60 seconds to squat over a pot to prove that they were indeed ill. The dozens who stood in line desperately trying to hold it in so they could deliver when their turn came, and those who made it having their excrement examined to make sure it was soupy enough to qualify.

There were some of these things there, but not enough. Surely there were more, dozens, hundreds more, but so few seemed to make it to the page. There were some interesting things said about the human condition and the type of individual who survived such an ordeal, but now, barely a day later, very few of those thoughts have stayed with me.

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Survival at Auschwitz by Primo Levi
on Amazon
Primo Levi on Wikipedia
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Sunday, November 23, 2003

The Book of Insults by Nancy McPhee

Do I really need to say something about this book that I’ve already forgotten?

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The Book of Insults by Nancy McPhee
on Amazon
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Friday, November 21, 2003

The World of the Druids by Miranda J. Green

Incomprehensible. I’ve just read an entire book about druids and I have no idea what druids are. Neither, it seems, does the rest of the world or even the people who call themselves druids. Ancient druids may have existed, but were already dying out when the Romans stumbled across them and started writing about them. Mythical druids exist in Irish folklore, but it is folklore written by Christian missionaries who seemed to have a love-hate relationship with them. And modern druids…well, modern druids basically do anything they want in order to feel closer to their ancient spirits. What about the Dungeons & Dragons druids? I seem to remember that they could kick some serious ass. Maybe we should throw them into the mix and muddy the waters even more.

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The World of the Druids by Miranda J. Green
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Author's website
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Thursday, November 13, 2003

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Another one of those Russian novels written about the time the serfs were emancipated and the changes coming to Russian society. It’s a story, that much I can follow, but whatever the larger points it’s trying to make are are lost on me because I’m so far removed from that time and place. Bazarov is the nihilist in the story, the man who believes in nothing that he can not directly observe, and he dies in the end from an infection he gets from dissecting a corpse. Arkady is his devotee who strays from this philosophy, gets married, and lives happily ever after. What do you think that means?

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Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
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Friday, November 7, 2003

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

A friend gave me this book and I found it a fairly good read. It’s about this man who is having an affair on his wife, who then finds out that his wife is having an affair on him and wants a divorce. His life begins to fall apart after that as we discover all kinds of hidden secrets about the lives of those around him. His wife’s lover is also having an affair with his own sister, and his wife and his girlfriend are both having affairs with his brother. It’s a tangled and complicated tale, but it held my attention both because of the prose style and because throughout all the ups and downs the characters more or less maintain stilted and phony cordial relations with one another. I took it to be a book at least partly about the need to maintain certain appearances in society, even when the dirty reality beneath it all is a whole other matter.

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A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
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Sunday, November 2, 2003

God, Please Save Me by Sister Mary Rose McGeady

A little book about Covenant House, a shelter for runaway teens. I read it because it was there.

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God, Please Save Me by Sister Mary Rose McGeady
on Amazon
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Thursday, October 30, 2003

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I like Steinbeck’s prose a lot. I also liked the few pages in which he described his drive through Wisconsin. He’s good at capturing natural speech on the page and at making simple things mean so much more. The redwoods in the Northwest also stand out, as well as his wrestling with the south and its racial baggage. To end the problem, more than the whites have to change the way they treat the blacks. The blacks also have to change the way they treat the whites. And will any of that ever really happen before the whites and blacks meld together and become something new?

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Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
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on Wikipedia
National Steinbeck Center
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Sunday, October 19, 2003

Fart Proudly by Benjamin Franklin

This is a collection of writings by Benjamin Franklin. I think my parents bought me this book a long time ago, as I said to my wife, in their good-hearted by sometimes uninspired way of trying to understand the things that matter to me. The book itself was a difficult read, with a lot of material written in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way with little or no background as to what was being poked fun of. The best item was probably something Franklin had written to instruct the British Empire on how to lose its colonies, in which he listed as instructions all the things they had already done to alienate the Americans. The editor also had a libertarian slant that was fairly obvious in both his introduction and a final essay that he authored himself and in which he has Franklin espouse his own view about modern America.

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Fart Proudly by Benjamin Franklin
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Tuesday, October 14, 2003

I Will Bear Witness, Volume 1 by Victor Klemperer

Finished I Will Bear Witness, Volume 1 yesterday. Actual diary of a Jewish man named Victor Klemperer who survived the Holocaust. It was interesting from a historical point of view, but a little tedious at times as it obviously focused on a lot of day-to-day details and relationships of this man’s life. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the book is that when the Nazis come to power in 1933 and the early years, Victor purposely avoids commenting on the political events of the day, trusting the newspapers to record them, and focusing instead on his own struggles to keep his position as a professor of French literature and write his books of literary criticism. As the years progress, however, and the Nazis tighten their grip, his diary inevitably focuses more and more on the political and social atrocities that are being committed. He does this, of course, because they begin to affect him personally, but also because it’s clear by the end of the book that he can no longer trust what the newspapers say. As he cites, after all, how many times can the Russian Army be annihilated? Volume 2 is somewhere on my “to-read” shelf. It’ll be interesting to see what my reaction is to that and when I get to it.

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I Will Bear Witness, Volume 1 by Victor Klemperer
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Victor Klemperer on Wikipedia
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