Monday, August 15, 2011

The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Eight (Non-Fiction)

     When one is a student, there is a good chance that the majority of what one reads falls under some category of non-fiction.  While much of that material may be truly engaging – there have been almost no history or psychology texts (or papers) that I have not thoroughly enjoyed – it hardly represents what one is likely to read for pleasure.  Unless you are like me and just have an improper desire to know everything, there is a diminishing return on reading non-fiction; you too often learn just enough to give you the impression that you have a reasonable position on a subject when you are a neophyte.
     I fell far short of what I wanted to read in terms of non-fiction over the course of the year.  Part of the problem was that one of the books I chose proved to be quite daunting (because I didn't approach it properly).  A larger part of the problem was that I allowed myself to think that watching documentaries was an equal substitute for reading.  It is not.  It isn't just that I can go to the bibliography and check how varied (or occasionally well-known) the sources are.  It is that most good non-fiction isn't presented as a narrow scope narrative, and it is much easier to address the material in a critical manner when it isn't a series of well chosen pictures/images/video to make the point the filmmakers have settled on.  No, not every documentary is that sinister in its approach, but few can match a well written (and researched) book.
     And not all stripes of non-fiction are fit for the documentary treatment.

     I have never met Paul Boyer, but he was my brother's faculty adviser at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the early to mid-1990s.  My introduction to him came through an appearance on a PBS special on The Rapture and how modern Evangelicals viewed the End of the World.  This of course lead me to borrow his book, When Time Shall be No More (1994), from my brother with the goal of eventually reading it.  I am definitely not the most learned source on mainstream (or crazy) Christian doctrine – I have about twelve different versions of The Bible in the house and even had to recently throw out my copy printed in German because it was left in the trunk of my car and began to molder – having been asked to leave my childhood church because I didn't like the confirmation process, and I have not been a regular at any church since it was made clear I was not welcome (by some) at the Orland Park Bible Church in the early 90s.
     When Time Shall be No More is more about how American fundamentalism and Evangelicalism has fostered a mindset that all things can be known in simple ways through God, and the implications that such thinking has towards academia, intellectualism, and science than it is an examination as to what people believe the Rapture will be.  As such, I was much happier with the end result than I thought I would be going in to the book.  It is, however, not a book expressly written for the layperson, and in this regard I found myself unprepared for the amount of extra work I would put into the reading (especially in the first few chapters).
     Boyer starts from a curiosity of the modern fascination with the notion of [an] Antichrist. Why would people be preoccupied with his arrival and how to detect him when he arrives?  This thread is kept alive in one degree or another throughout the book, but Boyer quickly shifts into a more critical approach.  What have the implications of Millennial (and Premillennial) thinking wrought on our modern psyches?  Even more telling is how tied to modern politics these beliefs really are.
     Boyer ultimately does not answer the multitude of questions he raises throughout the work.  Indeed, the concluding chapter is both abrupt and brief as to make one wonder if the deadline for publication forced him to cut the book short and offer a 'wrap-up' without all of the information he had hoped to include.  Still, I would highly recommend When Time Shall be No More to anyone interested in the interplay between religion and politics in America.

     If one were to ask me what one of the most arduous tasks I have ever experienced, I could – with a fair amount of honesty – reply, "reading Plato without becoming infuriated with him."  I am not a fan of the Socratic method for philosophical examination (though I sure didn't mind aping it for a short story.  It is just too simple; if you control all of the definitions and can set the premises, you should always win the argument.  Further, I find that Plato – through his version of Socrates – doesn't start from a position that seems at all logical or reasonable.
     So why tackle The Trial and Death of Socrates?  The most likely answer is that it was the least challenging philosophy text I could find to add to the project.  It is also part of the DTE collection I have amassed – seriously, at $2.50, this is a great deal, but I would recommend the Hackett Publishing editions if you are desiring a more academic handling of the material – and I had been making good headway in polishing off those books, so what was one more.  Lastly, I knew that it would tie-in to the plays I was reading and it dovetailed nicely with the next title addressed, Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens (2001).
     The four dialogues in The Trial and Death of Socrates – "Euthyphro", "Apology", "Crito", and "Phaedo" – do little to illuminate the actual cause that gave the citizens of Athens to call for Socrates to be put to death.  It reads, instead, as an effort to restore the good name of one of the brighter stars of Athenian thinking.  Socrates comes across as a man who holds everything worthwhile in high regard.  he won't lie to avoid being sentenced to death because he values the truth above all else.  He won't go into exile or flee as a fugitive because he cannot turn his back on his city nor have so little respect for the law (who would take him in if he did either?, he reasons ).  He seems only concerned that he will not be able to spend a few more years taking care of his younger children.  It is a very man on a pedestal presentation, but there is also something very human about it.

     One of the observations my brother made when he returned from a trip to France – this was in February on 1998 – was that 'everybody and their grandfather claimed to have been a part of the French Resistance.'  This clearly does not represent the reality of France's reaction to Nazi occupation, but it is a good national narrative to build.  It is also one I never understood how it came to take root, at least until I read Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens.
     After being defeated by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, Athens was forced to replace its Democracy with a Spartan-like oligarchy.  This led to harsher and small groups taking control of the city as its citizenry was disenfranchised or driven into exile.  Eventually, the men of Piraeus (and others) fighting the men of the City for the control of Athens.  The men of Piraeus, though smaller in number and largely without the resources the oligarchs could gather, prevailed and Democracy was restored.  How was the city to be reintegrated was the matter to be decided, and this is what Wolpert addresses quite well.  In order for the state to avoid a constant state of civil war and internecine fighting, former enemies would have to live together.  Past sins would have to be forgotten, almost literally. 
     While brief in its details, Remembering Defeat does explain the "why" behind Socrates' execution.  Socrates had been the mentor to more than one – Critias being the most prominent – of the harsh oligarchs who came to oppose Democracy before defeat and inflict atrocities on the people after being installed as the rulers by the Spartans.  Socrates must have installed some sort of anti-Democratic feelings in his teachings.  His students (some of them, at any rate) proved to be a threat to the city-state, and some of the blame for that must fall on the teacher.  While Wolpert laments the unjust execution of Socrates, it sure seemed like a means to begin healing the wounds of civil war at the time.

     I am a Kantian.  I make no bones about that.  Still, there is something almost laughable in watching one of history's most brilliant minds struggle with the notion of how to formulate and then adopt a proper means of education, especially of the young.  In On Education (1803), Kant isn't just concerned about teaching reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, but also cultural values and a strong sense of the moral good.  This is simply too ambitious a goal for anyone to take on, even now.
     Kant reveals himself as more than a little bit of a bigot, often making erroneous – sometimes slanderous – statements about how other cultures treat/abuse/educate their children.  He also reveals some little known (at least to me) German customs, such as having children kiss their parents hands after the parent has beaten them.  Because there was little in the way of education theory written when Kant was penning this, he is often alone in the wilderness of how the create a uniform system to make children more suited to be better people than the generations that came before them. 
     This is another book from the Dover collection (thought not a Thrift Edition!) I have apparently been building.  Mine cost $6.25.  You can get the text on-line for free if you are so inclined.  I think the book is worth somewhere in the $5 range, but it is not at all a prime example of why Kant is revered as a philosopher.

     Maybe The Fight (1975) isn't the best introduction to Norman Mailer.  Here, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner waxes poetically about a heavyweight championship bought.  That may not be the best showcase of the man's talent.  Still, it is the first – and to date the only – Mailer book anyone ever gave me (Steve Genge gifted it to me for Christmas 2009).
     Mailer does an excellent job of exploring himself and his own views on things such as race relations and the future of the American character.  He exposes a recurring feeling of loss for being denied access – via suicide – to Papa Hemingway.  And he spends the entire book in the camp of the real champ, Muhammed Ali.  It brings to life not just the personality of Ali, but also the social implications (or promise of them) a successful Ali embodied.  For his part, Mailer does not demonize or belittle Foreman.  Foreman is the fighter who came to the Rumble in the Jungle via the traditional American Dream – hard work, perseverance, and a strong belief in (a Christian) God.  Ali is the Muslim and radical, the man who won't stand for the status quo that sees the Black Man is something less than a person.
     Yet the book does not seek to due more than address these issues.  They are the backdrop for The Fight, and meaning grafted onto why two men would stand in the middle of an outdoor stadium – in 80 degree heat with higher humidity, and at 3 AM – and repeatedly punch each other as hard as they could manage.  Mailer gives great insight as to the appeal of boxing, rooting it much more in the rigors of training and the appreciation of what the greats had already accomplished more than any instant of organized brutality the participants would be a party to in a match.  While he also makes himself a large part of the story, he does not pretend that Ali is anything other than the larger than life force that was destined – or so it seemed at the time – to be the Black Henry Kissinger.

     I do not know if I have enjoyed a well-regarded essay less than I did "Civil Disobedience".  Entirely selfish, amateurish, and devoid of any knowledge of the real philosophy, Thoreau isn't so much calling for a resistance to an unjust government as much as he is lamenting that he can't just do everything he wants without restriction.  It is not even particularly well written.  I disliked it enough to not even consider reading Walden any time in the near future (if at all).  I don't understand how "Civil Disobedience" has achieved its iconic status, but I would like to begin the work of introducing Americans to actual political philosophy and not immature screed. 

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