Monday, August 15, 2011
The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Eight (Non-Fiction)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.