January 31, 2014

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2014

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

William 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. Definitely inferior to Top-Secret America.
Gene 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, 3, 4)
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 [1]. 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 [2] or even mere failure of imagination [3]. 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 [4]. 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 co-existed with the lunar-based religious calendar. (Indeed, in many countries they still do.)
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 part still 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 of retconning.)
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. (Cf.)
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. (Previously; subsequently.)
Seanan McGuire, Indexing
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".) — Sequel.

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

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