Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2014
Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.
M. Arkin, American Coup
- Arkin has something to say about the self-perpetuating and
dubiously-constitutional national security bureaucracy its dim views of actual
democracy, and its apparent day-dreams about martial law. Unfortunately, after
reading this I'm hard-pressed to tell you exactly what he wants to say.
Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer
- This is the first volume of The Book of the New Sun. Some
genius decided that this was appropriate material for my middle school's
library, so I read it when I was ten or eleven, and discovering science
fiction. I found them fascinating and bewildering and I wasn't sure if I liked
them but I had to keep going. (I am not sure if I mean "genius" sarcastically
or not.) Re-reading after a lapse of thirty years, I find it fascinating and
bewildering, and I have no idea how much of it I actually understood as a boy
or how much of it I understand now. I am not sure if I like it or not, though
that hardly seems relevant; I have to keep going. (Sequels: 2,
- Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change
- This is and deserves to be a modern classic, and I wish I'd read it long
ago. Eisenstein's fundamental point, which I think is entirely sound, is that
you cannot understand anything about the transition from ancient or medieval
intellectual life to the modern life of the mind without grasping the
importance of being able to quickly, cheaply make large numbers of very
accurate copies of a text, and distribute them widely.
- To give just one point: one reason ancient and medieval scientists thought
that older books were ipso facto better books, was that it
was literally true. Scribes are awful at reproducing
technical material. This meant that either scientists had to waste immense
efforts, e.g., correcting astronomical tables or re-doing mathematical
calculations, or cluster around rare centers where rulers were willing to put
vast efforts into maintaining highly accurate manuscript collections, or live
with knowledge that degenerated from copy to copy and generation to generation.
Printing made it possible to change all that. Printing made it possible to
reproduce, e.g., a table of sines or logarithms or latitudes which could
be trusted. Printing made it possible for scholars across the
European subcontinent, and eventually beyond, to access the same texts.
Printing made possible the second edition --- the expanded
and corrected second edition.
- Again: with manuscripts, copying texts is extremely expensive. This tends
to make scholarly attention to one field of inquiry come at the expense of
others --- more scribes copying ancient philosophy or histories means fewer
copying mathematics or books of mechanical devices. The constraint of sheer
book-reproduction is vastly weakened by introducing printing: a
society which is interested in Cicero and Archimedes and
Augustine and political
pr0n can have them all . Not having to make such choices was itself
transformative. If the arrival of printing coincides with a revival of
interest in classical literature, it can propel the latter from a passing
incident (as had happened several times before) into a permanent intellectual
and spiritual revolution. It can make possible the scientific and industrial
revolutions, and all that have followed from them.
- Eisenstein also has very interesting things to say about the religious
impact of printing, including how the multi-lingual origins of the Christian
Bible first stimulated scholarship and then led to skepticism, and the feedback
loop between Protestant Bibliolatry, wide-spread literacy, and the viability of
printing as a trade and a profit-making business. Again, there is fascinating
material in here on the impact of printing on the rise and then decline of
magic and occultism. And on and on.
- There are drawbacks to the book. Eisenstein's implied reader isn't just
familiar with at least the outlines of the political and intellectual history
of western Europe from say 1400 to 1700, they know a lot about it,
including the origins and spread of movable-type printing. The reader doesn't
just know who Gutenberg was, or Erasmus,
or Francis Bacon, but Ramus
and Scaliger and Plantin and Bruno. (I admit I had to look up a lot of the
printers and not a few of the scholars.)
- Even with this knowledge, it seems to me to be insufficiently comparative.
There are gestures at why Christendom was more apt to be transformed by
printing than the Islamic lands, but some of these seem to rest on
mis-understandings  or even mere failure of imagination . More
importantly, Eisenstein pays almost no attention paid to East (and Central)
Asia. This is where printing began, and became ubiquitous, centuries before
Gutenberg. So why did it not have the effects there that Eisenstein claims for
it in western Europe? Something clearly led to very different
effects, but it's hard, on her account, to see why . Of course, this is
asking for a great deal of a single historian!
- The anthropologist Dan
Sperber once wrote
that "culture is the precipitate of cognition and communication in a human
population". Even with my quibbles, this is the best examination I've ever
seen about how changing the means of communication changed the culture of a
human population. That transformation is still reshaping the world,
and I think this book is essential reading for coming to grips with it.
- 1: I am indoctrinated enough by economics that I'd
phrase this argument somewhat differently than Eisenstein does: she writes as
though the supply of scribal labor was fixed and inelastic, and the supply of
scholarly labor was not also a constraint. These are details.
- 2: E.g., on calenderics. Islam has nothing like the
computational mess of
Easter, but in lots of Muslim countries solar calendars did and still do
co-exist with the lunar-based religious calendar.
- 3: Why shouldn't the desire to fix
accurately the text of the Qur'an, and the content of the hadith, have
led to textual and historical scholarship comparable to that called for by the
Bible? (Cf.) Vernacular
versions of the Qur'an would have been a massive religious innovation, but so
were vernacular Bibles: why not have them? Even if that was too big a step,
early-modern Sunni orthodoxy regarded (and for the most
regards) the Qur'an as the uncreated word of God: why not print it
in Arabic, so as to avoid scribal corruptions?
- 4: If a multi-lingual scriptural tradition was
somehow vital, well, East Asia had that, with Sanskrit and Pali — and
Chinese, in Korea, Vietnam and Japan — instead of Greek and Hebrew. If an alphabet and movable type were needed, Korea had those.
- Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge, Black and White and Shades of Gray
- Mind candy: prose super-hero stories. (Fittingly, given the genre, the
second one involves a lot
- Joe Haldeman, The Forever War
- Somehow, I had missed reading this until now. It goes well beyond
mind-candy to being both a great work of hard science fiction and an excellent
novel in its own right. The sexual and gender politics are dated, and the
technology is now anachronistically short of computation, but that's not really
the point; as Haldeman says in his foreword to the electronic edition, it's
"mainly about war, about soldiers, and about the reasons we think we need
them". Relativistic time dilation works here as a powerful metaphor for the
estrangement of the soldier returning to the civilian world, but not
just as a metaphor.
- Further commentary is outsourced to Jo Walton.
- (Thanks to US Airways and LAX airport for
cooperating to provide the time and environment where there was nothing to
distract my mind from this novel.)
- Andrea Camilleri, The Age of Doubt, The Dance of the Seagull, and Treasure Hunt
- Mind candy. As with any candy, I keep expecting to feel over-full at some
point, but so far, I keep scarfing them down as fast as I can find them.
- Mind candy: in which fairy-tales are constantly attempting to escape from
the dungeon dimensions, and our heroes battle them back. (There is an essay to
be written about contemporary ambivalence about "narratives".) —
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
Scientifiction and Fantastica;
Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;
Writing for Antiquity;
The Great Transformation;
The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts;
The Continuing Crises;
The Beloved Republic
Posted at January 31, 2014 23:59 | permanent link