Sunday, December 28, 2008

Retrospect of Western Travel / Harriet Martineau -- Daniel Feller, ed. -- Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

I first heard of Harriet Martineau when reading Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. Martineau was a British women who traveled to the United States from 1834, returning to England in 1836. After her return she wrote two three volume works describing the United States. The first, Society in America is an ambitious examination of how well the U.S. lived up to democratic, egalitarian principles. The second, Retrospect of Western Travel, provides a more direct report of her experiences. Daniel Feller's edition of Western Travel is an abridgment, presenting what Feller judges to be the more interesting sections.

At first, I had some difficulty with Martineau's style, but in time, her prose read easily and I became engrossed in her descriptions of social encounters, prison condition, stage coach rides, hotels, river boats, and public meetings as she traveled in New York, D.C., Virginia, Charleston, New Orleans Cincinati, Boston, and parts between. Martineau was well enough known as an author to be able to visit and speak with a number of important figures of the time, including James Madison, Henry Clay, and William Lloyd Garrison.

Prior to coming to the United States, Martineau had published criticisms of slavery. Consequently, she was engaged in frequent discussions about the issue. Her initial revulsion to seeing people enslaved made for interesting reading; however, her hosts in the South were invariably slave owners and she developed a personal appreciation for their hospitality. As she was critical of colonization which was the more acceptable path to ending slavery, she often found herself acknowledging her sympathies to abolition. Curiously, this put her in the most danger in Boston, where the high society was at pains to mollify Southern sensibilities by villifying Abolitionists. Indeed, her work is most informative as to how Abolitionists were repressed and, indeed, persecuted during these years.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fanny Wright: Rebel in America / Celia Morris Eckhardt -- Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

I first read about Fanny Wright (1795-1852) in Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. Schlesinger's description of her was intriguing, but sketchy. His occasional references to her as a champion of the working class led me look for a more thorough biography which I found in Eckhardt's Fanny Wright.

Indeed, a champion of the working class, Wright also held many views that placed her easily a century ahead of her time. In a time when "respectable" women could not allow their names to be published with their own work, Fanny Wright became a well-known author, and well-received by prominent progressive figures of her time. She maintained a long and close relationship to Jeremy Bentham, Lafayette, and Robert Dale Owen. She was respected by Jefferson and other prominent American politicians. However, her radical views on marriage and education eventually left her personally and politically isolated.

Wright was born in Scotland, raised in England, and lived for some years in France. She later travelled three times to the United States and became an American citizen. Her first significant social enterprise was to form a community in Tennessee on a plantation she called Nashoba. The community was to be modeled roughly on Robert Owen's community at New Harmony, Indiana, but Nashoba was intended foremost to emancipate slaves and prepare them for colonization in Haiti or Africa. Wright believed slavery could be gradually and peacefully abolished by establishing plantations that would out-perform those based on slave labor. Nashoba and other plantations would be based on the indentured servitude of slaves purchased by or donated to these new plantations.

Nashoba turned out to be a financial failure, due in part to Wright and her partners' inexperience in running a plantation. Furthermore, scandals related to the treatment of the Nashoba slaves and the sexual relations on the plantation compounded the obstacles to success. Eventually, Wright took her slaves to Haiti where they were freed.

The vilification of Wright by the newspapers and journals of her time was stunning. It is hard to imagine anyone standing up to such criticism, and eventually it took its toll on Wright. While publicly rejecting marriage as oppressive to women, Fanny moved to France and was secretly married after she became pregnant. Eckhardt's portrait of this period in her life suggests that she was in a deep depression which lasted several years and resulted in the end of all of her previous friendships.

Wright did eventually return to public life, touring and speaking in the United States during the late 1840s and advocating the re-election of Martin Van Buren. Her reputation, however, had spoiled any real opportunity for her to be effective. As crowds dwindled and those attending were more curious than committed, Fanny eventually retired into a private life, struggling to retain her financial solvency in her conflicts with her husband. Suffering a nervous breakdown in her last years, she died estranged from her daughter and attended only by maids.

Eckhardt's portrait of Wright goes well beyond a factually reliable account and details Wright's inner life and motivations. While this make the book extremely interesting, it sometimes slips into speculative psychologizing. It isn't clear from the end notes how well founded this speculation is. Over all, the work is a sympathetic -- but not uncritical -- examination of an extremely interesting historical figure. Clearly, Wright's talents and determination to advance the cause of liberty everywhere allowed her to achieve more than women could ever hope during her lifetime. Her actions, while damaging to herself, broke seemingly impenetrable ground for women in Europe and the United States.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Age of Jackson / Adrthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. -- Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953, c1945.

The Age of Jackson is a classic work on the decades preceding the Civil War. Schlesinger provides a brief account of U.S. politics from Jefferson through John Quincy Adams, but launches the main of his work with the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Much of the work examines "the Bank War," between Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, on the one hand, and Nicholas Biddle, President of the Bank of the United States, and various members of the Federalist-Whig establishment on the other hand. Schlesinger does not overlook other important issues of the time, e.g., tariffs, nulification, class warfare, the Mexican War, and slavery.

The work is rich in detailed portraits of the eras most important figures and provides a careful guide through the kaleidascopic constellations of political alliances. The reader is emersed a time when national political parties were weak in comparison to state political parties, and when the county's leading politicians could (and would) split political parties and form new ones in pursuit of personal political gain. Along with the familiar "Democrats," "Whigs," and "Republicans," Schlesinger distinguishes such groupings as the "Cotton Whigs," the "Conscience Whigs," "Hunkers," "Barnburners," "Locofocos," "Free Soilers," the "Liberty Party," "Northern Democrats," "Southern Democrats," and the "Know Nothing Party." He is especially good at identifying the role of newspapers in promoting the views of one or another candidate, politician or political party.

What was most surprising to me was how much many of the leading figures of the time sounded like Marx. At least in their rhetoric, many politicians recognized the exploitation of the working class by newly rising corporate interests. Schlesinger quotes numerous politicians as dividing American society into the working class that produces wealth and the capitalist class that lives off of that production. For mainstream politicians of the time, wealth is a product of labor and its maldistribution is the measure of exploitation. In this respect, I am left wondering if Martin Van Buren was not our country's most radical president, and whether the power of corporations might not have been nipped in the bud had he been re-elected in 1840. Schlesinger attributes his defeat to the shrewd Whig strategy to paint William Henry Harrison as a commoner and the power of the Whig campaign treasury.

The last third of the book turns away from economic issues and recounts the struggle over slavery leading up to the Civil War. While interesting, the narrative is well known. I am not so well read as to say how much The Age of Jackson is responsible for that narrative, but surely much of it is in line with previous work on the Civil War.

Two figures stand out in Schlesinger's account that get well-deserved attention. One is David Wilmot, the radical Democrat responsible for introducing a bill to abolish slavery in the territories. The significance of this bill can not be understated. It, perhaps more than anything, was responsible for moving the issue of slavery from a matter for compromise to a nation-splitting controversy. The second figure is Frances Wright, a Scottish immigrant who was the darling of the working class, an early opponant of slavery, and an outspoken feminist. Schlesinger's picture of her is one of a late 20th century woman mysteriously born in 1795. For a fuller picture of this amazing personality, see Fanny Wright: Rebel in America.

I have wanted to read The Age of Jackson for many years. Having read it, I deeply regret waiting so long.

The Life of Charles Sumner: The Scholar in Politics / Archibald H. Grimke -- NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1892.

Charles Sumner is probably best known as the Senator who was bludgeoned on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston S. Brooks in 1856. The attack followed Sumner's speech, "Crime against Kansas," in which Sumner criticized assaults on free soil settlers by proponents of slavery. In the course of the speech, Sumner attacked South Carolina and its senator, Arthur P. Butler. This prompted Brooks, a relative of Butler and also from South Carolina, to attack Sumner unawares, beating him with a heavy walking stick until Sumner was unconscious. The attack was a landmark event in the years preceding the Civil War and spurred Northern hostility toward the South and slavery.

But Sumner's career is memorable for more than his victimization. Grimke's biography of Sumner, in the style of the times, is a glowing account of the Senator's career. Sumner is described as the most vocal and effective political opponant of "the Slave Power," comparable to William Lloyd Garrison's effectiveness as a moral critic of slavery. Nonetheless, Grimke rightly makes the bludgeoning of Sumner the climax of the biography.

Sumner is portrayed as a reluctant politician, who is drawn to office by his passion to end slavery. His contribution to Abolition is well recorded in the biography. I was, however, left wondering if Sumner was ever occupied with other issues than what brought him to be a leader of the Massachusettes's "Consceince Whigs." Grimke does indicate that Sumner was an early proponent of women's sufferage, but he says little about Sumner's attitudes toward economic questions that were significant prior to the War. Sumner's Whig background and close relationship to Joseph Story would indicate that he was no friend of the Northern working class, but instead an aristocratic Massachusettes politician, defending the intersts of the incipient power of corporations. However, Grimke does point out that Sumner was not sympathetic to the Whig position on banking and tarrifs. Furthermore, Sumner's undogmatic relationship to the Whigs made him acceptable to the faction of Democratic Party that joined the Free Soil Party.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Grimke's work is his descriptions of the potential for violence that lay just below the surface in the halls of Congress. Besides a detailed description of the attack on Sumner, Grimke quotes a paragraph from Henry Wilson's History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America illustrating the climate in Congress. According to Wilson, in 1845, during an anti-slavery speech by Rep. Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, Rep. E.J. Black of Georgia, "approaching Mr. Giddings with an uplifted cane, said: 'If you repeat those words I will knock you down.' The latter repeating them, the former was seized by his friends and borne from the hall. Mr. Dawson, of Louisiana, who on a previous occasion had attempted to assault him, approching him, and, cocking his pistol, profanely exclaimed: 'I'll shoot him; by G-d I'll shoot him!' At the same moment, Mr. Causin, of Maryland, placed himself in front of Mr. Dawson, with his right hand upon his weapon concealed in his bosom. At this juncture, four members from the Democratic side took their position by the side of the member from Louisiana, each man putting his hand in his pocket and apparently grasping his weapon. At the same moment Mr. Raynor, of North Carolina, Mr. Hudson, of Massachusetts, and Mr. Foot, of Vermont, came to Mr. Gidding's rescue, who, thus confronted and thus supported, continued his speech. Dawson stood fronting him till its close, and Causin remained facing the latter until he returned to the Democratic side." A near gun battle on the floor of the House of Representatives puts our present "partisanship" in perspective.

In all, Grmike's Sumner is a wise and selfless paragon of justice, but such sympathy for the subject of a biography is typical of 19th century writing. Grimke's portrait of Sumner is engaging and entertaining, but should be augmented by more recent critical scholarship.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ohio's Grand Canal: Brief History of the Ohio & Erie Canal / Terry K. Woods -- Kent, OH: Kent State Press, 2008.

I recently read The Map that Changed the World which described, among other things, canal building in England around the turn of the 19th century. That, along with my interest in antebellum American history, led me to pick up Ohio's Grand Canal. It's a short little book that will appeal mostly to local historians, but it sufficiently described the political and financial arrangements necessary to build Ohio's canal system that I found it quite illuminating.

Construction of the Canal roughly occurred in the decade following 1825. Prior to the creation of the canal, Ohio's economy was more closely linked to New Orleans than the eastern seaboard. By connecting the Ohio River with the Lake Erie, the Ohio canal system linked the Western United States with New York's Erie Canal, and allowed for the economic and social development of Ohio. However, the usefulness of the canal was short lived. By the end of the Civil War, railroads had replaced canal transit as the primary method of moving both people and goods. Canals were simply too expensive to maintain.

Maintenance was especially problematic in Ohio, since unlike the Erie Canal, the Ohio canals did not have the financial support needed for it to be built to last. Much of Wood's book describes the changing leasing and ownership relations and the obstacles to financing the canals' maintenance. Ultimately, the entire canal system fell into such disrepair that the great floods of 1909 and 1913 completely destroyed its utility. Only recently have sections of the canals been identified and preserved in parks as a reminder of Ohio's past.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion / The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman -- NY: Times Books, 2008.

Emotional Awareness is a transcript of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, an experimental psychologist studying emotion. Ekman met the Dalai Lama in 2000 without any affinity for Buddhism. What he discovered was that much of the conclusions of his research fit well with the Dalai Lama's approach to emotions and the cultivation of compassion.

Ekman's views on emotion make up the majority of the book, since his conversations with the Dalai Lama were predicated on questions and topics that Ekman had prepared. In presenting his questions, Ekman expounds his views as a kind of starting point. It is only toward the end of the conversation that the Dalai Lama contributes much more than clarifying questions, points of agreement, and brief statements about Buddhist psychology. However, Ekman's work on emotions is engaging and its fit with Buddhism is intriguing. It provides a well-developed, analytic substructure for understanding emotion.

The main topic of the book -- the awareness of emotion -- turns out to be another way of referring to "mindfulness," and so the conversation can be understood as an exploration of right mindfulness, particularly regarding emotions.

By the end of the book, I came to recognize that the Buddhist view of emotions differs importantly from what I understand as the Freudian view or what has become established as the common sense view of emotions in the West. This view holds that if we do not act on emotions like anger, frustration, annoyance, etc., they become suppressed (or repressed) and manifest themselves elsewhere in destructive ways. They become the basis for neurosis.

In contrast to this, the Buddhist view of these "afflictive" emotions is that they are passing mental disturbances, and that acting on them usually results in harming others and perpetuating bad karma. Instead, the healthy approach to such emotions is to observe them, recognize their source, and in so doing, one can recognize that the source is not the actor, but is instead the broader conditions of the action. By understanding this, one can response to the anger in a way that is not directed at others and does not perpetuate bad karma. The result is that one's anger harmlessly passes away, and one is free to respond constructively to the conditions that produced the emotion. By pausing to recognize the true source of the emotion, that is by being mindful of one's emotions, one creates time to choose how to act on the emotion instead of acting in the grip of the emotion.

Until reading Emotional Awareness I had no other framework for understanding emotions but the Freudian framework, though that model never really reflected my own experience with emotions. Emotional Awareness has given me grounds to question this model and has made clear to me the Buddhist psychology that I have always tried to act on.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Awakening the Buddha Within / Lama Surya Das -- NY: Broadway Books, 1997.

The centerpeice of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths, roughly put: (1) life is filled with suffering, (2) suffering is caused by selfish desires, (3) the elimination of selfish desires will eliminate suffering, and (4) the Eightfold Path is the means to eliminate selfish desires.

For many years, I have been reading fairly scholarly books on Buddhism. I've been especially attracted to ancient writings and I have shunned more popular treatments, particularly books by Westerners. Much to my dismay, I have found very few works that provide an extended, systematic treatment of the Eightfold Path. (The Ancient Path of the Buddha by Piyadassi Thera is a notable exception.) So I was conflicted when I discovered that Lama Surya Das (a.k.a. Jeffery Miller from Long Island) wrote a 400 page work detailing the Eightfold Path. Well, I am quite pleased that I overcame my prejudice against Western Buddhist authors and read his work Awakening the Buddha Within.

In an effort to bring Buddhism to ordinary Western life, Surya Das's writing is chatty and colloquial. He often employs pedestrian and superficial metaphors to express difficult ideas. However, his honest and unpretentious treatment of the Eightfold Path makes it relatively easy for me to overlook these passages. Through out the work, Surya Das observes that Buddhism has transformed and has been transformed by every culture that it encountered, and so there is no reason to be ashamed of the westernization of Buddhism and its differences from the Asian Buddhist traditions. This, more than any substantive description or analysis of the Eightfold Path, makes the work valuable to me and worth recommending. The fact that his treatment of the Eightfold Path is generally quite instructive makes it all the more worthwhile.

Surya Das provides a clear treatment of the central concepts behind each step of the Path. He illustrates his points with stories of his training in Himalayan monasteries and in a French Tibetan retreat center with traditional stories from the history of Buddhism. His treatment of the wisdom steps of the Path is uneven. He does not give deep expression to right view, missing the complexity and nuances of the Buddhist worldview and its metaphysics. Admittedly, doing so in a popular idiom would be a remarkable achievement; however, he does a very admirable job of expressing the significance of committing oneself to the path of enlightment, i.e., right intention.

His best work is in explaning the ethical steps on the path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. It seems clear that an important motive for his seeking training in Buddhism was to understand how to live a moral life. It is also here that the westernization of Buddhism appears most significant. Surya Das effectively identifies how Buddhist ethics are in accord with specific Western concerns and moral impulses and how Western ideals, like gender equality, can help perfect the Buddhist tradition.

The sections on meditation steps are perhaps the weakest. The chapter on right effort gives fine inspiration to the reader to remain dedicated to the path of enlightenment, and the chapter on right mindfulness does an adequate job of explaining and stressing its importance to attaining enlightenment, but his treatement of right concentration devolves into (mostly) a series of transcripts for guided meditation. Unless the reader commits these to memory or has a friend read them aloud in a medidtation session, they serve little purpose. It would have been better to present these sections in an appendix, and use the chapter on conentration to explain general principles for right concentration.

Regardless of its weaknesses, Awakening the Buddha Within easily succeeds in the extremely important task of explaining in detail the most practical and important truth a Buddhist can seek to understand: how to follow the Eightfold Path to enlightenment, and it makes an excellent case for the legitimacy of Western Buddhism as a worthy element of world Buddhism.

Friday, October 10, 2008

1968: The Year that Rocked the World / Mark Kurlansky -- NY: Ballantine Books, 2004.

As a review of the year 1968, Kurlansky's book 1968 is somewhat weak, but as a review of the student protest movement of that year, it is quite good. Kurlansky focuses mostly on the student movement in the US, particularly Berkeley and Columbia Universities, but he makes a laudable effort to include accounts of Paris, Prague, Poland, and Mexico City. He also provides an interesting account of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Admittedly, this is quite a list of events to cover in a single book, but I was left wanting something more than accounts of resistance. Kurlansky recognizes the significant social and economic changes that were underway during 1968, but gives them short attention. Missing is a sense of the general ambiance of the times within which the student movement took place. Furthermore, his treatment of the student movements concentrates attention on a handful of people who came to be picked out as "leaders" by the national media. Despite the insistance of the actors themselves that the movement was driven by spontaneous, decentralized motives, Kurlansky provides biographies of a handful of people as though this would provide insight into the events.

Despite these complaints, 1968 was an engaging read. Much has been written and told about the student movement of the 1960s to make Kurlansky's work unsurprising, but it does conatain enough untold stories to make it quite rewarding, and the story is told well enough that I wanted to follow up reading this with other more complete accounts of specific events.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology / Simon Winchester -- NY: Harper Collins, 2001.

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester is really about the man who made the map that changed the world: William Smith. It's an illuminating biography of an 18th century miner and canal builder who hailed from the working class. Smith comes to recognize the repeated sequences of rock lying just below England's topsoil. From these observations, he develops a theory of the history of rock formation and sets out on a long project to map the geology of the British Isles.

Winchester's prose is often repetative and sensational. The early pages read like a poorly written trailer to a movie that you know can't possibly be as good as the trailer suggests. In the end, though, Winchester portrays Smith's life well enough for the reader to understand Smith to be a complex character, incapable of writing the book that would establish his place in the history of science. Instead, Smith's place is established by his authorship of a magnificent map. Even here, the map is only produced when it is sponsored by the leading map maker of the time.

The book combines biography with accounts of class relations in late-Georgian England and a smattering of the fundamental principles of geology. The main story is centered on Smith's life-long struggle to make a living and his roller coaster relationship with his patrons in the English aristocracy. Smith comes off as a gifted geologist and hydrologist, but a pathetic business person and academic scientist. All in all it was not the page turner I had desired, but it was interesting enough, especially for how it illuminated the circumstances surrounding the foundation of the science of geology. I would have appreciated a bit more geology (or even the technicalities of map making) and a little less biography.

Monday, September 22, 2008

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East / William Dalrymple -- N.Y.: Holt,1997.

William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East combines two of my favorite book genres: history and travel. The book records Dalrymple’s 1994 attempt to follow Byzantine traveler-monk John Moschos and his pupil, Sophronius the Sophist, on their extraordinary late 6th century journey across the Eastern Byzantine world. Moschos’ goal was to gather and record the wisdom of the Christian desert fathers of the Byzantine East before that world disappeared. His book The Spiritual Meadow is a collection of the stories, sayings, and anecdotes that he collected during those wanderings among the monasteries and hermitages of the Levant. Dalrymple weaves Moscos’ anecdotes with his own in a poignant witness to the fate of the successors of those 6th century Christians.

Like Dalrymple, Moschos and Sophronius traveled at a pivotal and dangerous time in the history of the Middle East. The declining Byzantine Empire was being attacked from the west by Slavs, Goths, Lombards and Avars, while in the east Sassanian Persia and raids from desert nomads were disrupting life. Moschos records monasteries burned and populations slaughtered or sold into slavery. Many of the great cities of the East, cities such as Antioch and Tyre, had decayed to mere backwaters. More significantly perhaps, Moschos was an almost exact contemporary to Mohammed. In fact, his young companion on the journey, Sophronius the Sophist was eventually appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem and defended the city against the first army of Islam as it emerged from Arabia to defeat all before it.

The conflict between modern day Islamic states and Israel dominates our current understanding of the Middle East. The fate of practitioners of third major religion to arise in the Middle East, Christianity, seldom occurs to us. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common heritage. They have many common prophets, holy spaces, and even practices; all are mid-eastern religions. Dalrymple goes so far as to state the Islam actually preserves very ancient Christian ritual; he observes that John Moschos would feel more “at home” with Suni Islamic ritual practices than with those practiced in many of the modern Christian churches. Yet Christians, be they Armenian, Palestianian, Syriac, Coptic, or Maronite are being driven from their historic homelands.

Dalrymple witnesses to their suffering and dispossession. In Turkey and Palestine, at current emigration rates, it is probable that neither Christian community will exist by 2020. In Lebanon and Egypt, the larger size of the Christian population predicts that they will exist longer, but they are experiencing decreasing influence. Only in Syria did he see a “confident” Christian population, but they fear a severe backlash whenever Asad’s repressive regime collapses. Dalrymple points out Moschos’ significance as observer and recorder of the”beginning of the end” for Christians in the historic home of Christianity. He sees his own journey as witness to the end of that fourteen hundred year Christian exodus.

Dalrymple weaves a fascinating blend of history, politics, travel, and spirituality. He successfully evokes the clouds of incense and mystery of Orthodox worship, the dry and cruel landscapes preferred by 6th century ascetics, and the terror of traveling where wandering bands of insurgents shoot foreigners. The stories from The Spiritual Meadow greatly enhanced the story of Dalrymple’s own journey. This is a terrific book (one that I’ve actually read twice). What is missing in this book is a map. Travel books must have maps.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The World Without Us / Alan Weisman -- NY: St. Martin's, 2007.

Alan Weisman's The World Without Us is based on the implausible premise that all human beings on the planet might suddenly and simultaneously disappear. What then? How much of what we have created will remain and for how long? As absurd as such a premise is, the inquiry sheds light on the ecological role of humans on the planet and how we have and have not irreversably changed it. Weisman writes that many of the non-native plants that we established in one place or another will, in time, lose ground to the native plants. Others will survive. Domesticated farm animals will be easy targets for a regenerated population of preditors. Dogs will not survive, but cats might.

Some of his most interesting passages describe the slow decay of buildings and their eventual complete decomposition. He compares the probable lifespan of specific artificial substances and comes to some rather interesting conclusions. For example, in time, little of Phoenix, Arizona will remain in a regenerated dessert but shards of glass and fire hydrants. The longest lasting materials will be plastics and nuclear waste. Both will continue to be deadly dangers to the remaining, recovering, or newly evolving species left behind.

Plastics will not retain their present form. Instead, they will decompose, but this will mean only that they will fragment into smaller and smaller peices. At first this seems benign, but Weisman points out that while we are familiar with birds and other animals that die because they mistakenly swallow plastic artifacts, the decomposition of these artifacts means that smaller and smaller animals will become the victims of our plastics. Plastic is the substance "that keeps on killing." The long-lived danger of nuclear waste is, of course, well known.

Among Weisman's more interesting observations is that much of the existing built world remains only because of constant maintanence by people. For example, without a constant supply of electricity, pumps that daily evacuate water from the New York subway system would fail, and much of system would flood. Water damage would cause widespread collapse of structures over and around the subway lines.

The World Without Us is not, however, a single coherent story. Weisman runs off on frequent tangents that make grasping the whole of the work difficult. After some of these tangents, he appears to recall that he is writing about the world without us and offers a tenuous link between his tangent and the main theme. Unfortunately, this hodge-podge structure is all too common in books I have read recently. It's as though authors don't quite have enough material on a subject to fill 250-300 pages, and are given the freedom by their editors to throw in whatever interesting padding they can vaguely relate to the book's subject. It makes me long for solid sustained treatments of a single subject.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Queen's Empire, or Ind and Her Pearl / Joseph Moore -- Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1886.

Travel logs can be quite entertaining, but when they were written long ago, one not only gets a glimpse of the visited world, but one gets a glimpse of the traveler's world. This is certainly true of The Queen's Empire by Joseph Moore. Moore opens his narrative by telling us how he indignantly protested the lack of adequate food service on a slow train trip in Colorado. The vignette sets the stage for reading the account of a haughty American traveler, making his way from London to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka.) Along the way we see his racism, classism, and ethnocentrism, along with a healthy dose of anglophilia. It's a stark reminder of the attitudes current in the privileged classes in late 19th century America.

Nonetheless, Moore gives a fascinating account of his travels in Italy, Egypt, India, and Ceylon, especially the latter two countries. His travels in India take him from Bombay to Dehli, and across the country to Calcutta. He gives lucid accounts of the people and sights along the way, including the Taj Mahal, temples, and a British fort. From Calcutta, he travels north to Darjeeling and the Himalayas where he spends a week at the foot of Kanchinjanga, the world's second highest mountain. Finally, he travels by steamer down the eastern coast of India, stopping at Madras and continuing to Ceylon.

Throughout the account, Moore gives special attention to the religious views, rites, and customs he encounters, particularly those of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Perhaps his most vivid writing comes at the very end of the book, where he describes the capture of wild elephants in Ceylon. The captors (with the cooperation of tame elephants) patiently herd the elephants to an encloser where two ropes are tied around their back legs. In time, they are chained to a tame elephant and taken away for sale.

In the process, Moore describes the death of one man and two elephants. The man, of course, is crushed by an angry elephant. Of the elephants, one received a mortal wound from a rifle. Here is Moore's description of the death of the other: the elephant "writhed, screamed, tore at the foliage, pawed the earth, tossed clouds of dust over her back, flung her trunk about fiercely, and planted her head upon the ground for leverage to rend asunder the bonds. At length she fell, in exhaustion, anguish, and despair, and lay motionless and resigned. The natives well knew that these symptoms forebode the loss of their prize. She panted for an hour or more, sighed deeply, and died--of 'broken heart.'"

Moore's engaging prose is accompanied by drawings and photographs on 52 plates and a fine foldout map of India and Ceylon.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Socialism Before the French Revolution: A History / William B. Guthrie -- Macmillan Co., 1907.

By the time this book was published, Marxism dominated the socialist movement, but the revolutionary movement Russia was yet to succeed. The Progressive movement in the US was in full swing, but corporate control in the US was at one of its historical highs. In Socialism before the French Revolution, William Guthrie examines the roots of socialism, particularly in the work of three important writers: Thomas More, Thomas Campanella, and Morelly. Guthrie places these authors on one side of a rough ideological divide that separates (1) thinkers who believe that the natural workings of society generate the best of all possible social arrangements from (2) thinkers who believe that human ingenuity can improve upon these arrangements. The former strand of thinking comes to its culmination with Adam Smith. The latter has its origins in Plato.

Guthrie acknowledges the utopian tendencies in his subjects, but emphasizes numerous practical proposals in each. Topically, Guthrie addresses their views about private property, surplus value, and -- quite interestingly -- the role of the family as an instituion in opposition to socialism and the general good. The analysis of socialism goes beyond the three central figures and touches on several other radical thinkers, particularly various French thinkers. The entire work leaves one thinking these pre-industrial authors were a lot more modern than one would have thougth.

The work earned Guthrie a PhD in political science at Columbia University.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Geological Story Briefly Told / James D. Dana -- NY: Iveson, Blakeman, Taylor, and Co., 1876.

Reading 19th century science books is amazingly fun, particularly when the basic paradigms of the subject of study have not yet been overthrown. Along with a general account of the principles of the subject, you get a sense of what was important in the field at the time. By 1876, when Dana's The Geological Story Briefly Told was published, modern geology had been well established. Dana focuses on the fosil evidence for sequencing the layers of exposed rock. Darwinianism is already accepted, but there is knowledge of neither plate techtonics nor potassium-argon or carbon dating. Consequently, the arguments and conclusions are simple.

Of course, without a good understanding of recent work in the field, the reader must be careful about accepting the conclusions from the 19th century, but even a lay understanding of the field is sufficient to allow the reader to learn a little about geology and the history of science.

The Geological Story Briefly Told provides a clear account of the minerals that constitute rocks, the forces that create rocks, and most interestingly, the history of rock formations through geological time. Without modern dating processes, Dana's only conclusion about the length of geological time is that "time is long."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change / Pat Murphy -- Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2008.

Briefly stated "Plan C" is Pat Murphy's proposal for how we can respond to the "triple threats of peak oil, climate change and increasing inequity" in the standard of living of the planet's population. Murphy suggest we must curtail our use of fossil fuels and strengthen the bonds of community. I had expected a bit more practical advice about how to do this, particulary building community, but that's not the book that Murphy wrote. Instead, he mainly describes the the activities and institutions that have promoted our current problems. Along with the "triple threats," Murphy discusses U.S. militarism and imperialism and the corporate control of the mass media.

There is very little in the book with which I would disagree, but then very little that has not been described better elsewhere. The value of the book is in how Murphy brings together under one cover brief explanations of the most pressing problems of our time; however, I more than a few times wanted more complete arguments for his assertions (as willing as I was to accept them.)

Among the more interesting points was Murphy's criticism of various green technologies as inadequate to resolve our environmental problems. Instead, Murphy has the courage to conclude that our only hope is to drastically "curtail" our greenhouse gas emissions. The term "conservation" is too moderate for Murphy as it does not seem to imply returning to a virtually pre-industrial lifestyle.

Murphy argues that we, as pioneer individuals, must transform our lifestyles before a wider political commitment can form to make wholesale societal changes and it is the role of small, ecologically aware communities to support these pioneer members.

The notions are compelling for me. For several years I have worked to create and strengthen the Maryland Green Party, thinking that having a political institution that could champion a radical political and ecological agenda would be an important avenue for change. I have, however, come to the conclusion that such a political institution can not flourish without more or less permanent social groupings that will sustain the connections between people while they are politically active, and for such social groupings to succeed, they must be based in geographically compact communities. Murphy does not write about the extension of his vision of lifestyle and community into politics, but such and extension seems natural and beneficial.

I would recommend Plan C to anyone with a curiousity about and slight knowledge of Climate Change and Peak Oil for its concise summary of these problems. However, Murphy's "curtailment" response to these problems may be more than anyone who is not already convinced of the depth of the problem can handle.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change / Reid Ewing, et al. -- Washington, D.C.: ULI, 2008.

As the subtitle suggests, Growing Cooler provides statistical evidence to support the claim that compact development is a necessary element of a U.S. effort to stabilize the climate. The book notes the transportation sector’s sizeable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the inability of technological changes to meet the necessary reduction targets. It argues for the need to significantly reduce vehicle miles traveled, and the importance of compact development in accomplishing this. Compact development’s significance is compounded by the long time horizons of the built environment relative to policy measures.

As someone already fairly convinced of the benefits of smart growth, I found the information very clearly presented but not revelational. What I found most valuable in Growing Cooler was its definitions of the sometimes nebulous elements of sprawl and of compact development. The book is optimistic that increased compact development will occur given rising gas prices, changing demographics, and an emerging paradigm shift related to climate change.

The last chapter prior to the conclusion presents policy recommendations for federal, state, regional, and local governments, many of which will be familiar to those who follow or are involved in smart growth advocacy. I recommend this book to those who are new to the idea of smart growth or are looking for hard evidence to site to skeptics.

Design with Nature / Ian McHarg -- NY: Wiley, 1969, 1994.

My introduction to Landscape Architecture, Design with Nature gives me a sense of the field as being where geology meets the built environment. McHarg’s “ecological planning method” identifies geological features such as slope, drainage, bedrock foundation, et al., for a given region and uses these factors to determine what type of development is appropriate for what land. Although the emphasis is on ecological factors, McHarg also recognizes historic value and leaves room for other social values to be considered in the process.

I found myself frustrated that the process does not address certain planning questions such as how to build communities that promote transit and non-motorized transportation. McHarg allayed these frustrations by repeatedly noting that the ecological method does not generate a plan, it simply lays the environmental basework; other goals can be addressed when the plan is made. Indeed, the method seems a far more sophisticated base than either sprawl or geometric concepts such as greenbelts, wedges, or even spider-web networks.

The book moves back and forth between chapters presenting broad ideas and concepts and chapters presenting case studies. Many of the case studies are set in the mid-Atlantic, with much information on Washington, DC, which I enjoyed. There is a lot of information in this book, and I found the broad chapters a bit heavy on ranting and the case studies sometimes too detailed. Nevertheless, between the rants and the geological inventories, this book is a real nugget of insight on how to think about the world we live in and our relationship to it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind / Michael Axworthy -- NY: Basic Books, 2008.

Overall, Axworthy's History of Iran provides decent accounts of the military, diplomatic, and political history of Iran. He even includes material on Iranian poets. However, the coverages of various centuries is quite uneven. The earliest centuries are given very short attention. As the history reaches recent times, the treatment is more detailed. Iran has seen human settlement for 7,000 years, but Axworthy devotes fully half of the book to the most recent 300 years, and 40% of the book to the last century. This may be plus for anyone interested in gaining a quick background on contemporary Iranian politics, but for the student of Iran, the most interesting material is undeveloped. There is virtually nothing on such matters as the life, customs, social structures, economic conditions of early Iranians. Instead, we are informed of the doings of various rulers and the fates of various dynasties.

Axworthy's more recent history will be at times quite informative for anyone whose knowledge of Iran is from accounts of journalists and pundits, but as a rule, it is not especially revealing and at times the perspective of the author seems to over determine his analysis. This is even true (and especially so) in his treatment of the Iranian religious leader Mani. Axworthy dubs Mani "the Dark Prophet" and his treatment of Mani is so hostile that Axworthy feels the need to write, "It would be foolish to attribute all evils of religion to Mani, but he does seem to have done a remarkably good job of infecting a range of belief systems with the most damaging and depressing ideas..."

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth / Jhumpa Lahiri -- NY: A.A. Knopf, 2008.

Exploring similar themes as her previous works, Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent set of short stories evocatively illuminates the immigrant experience. Although thematically repetitive, the fresh characters and scenarios keep the writing from becoming stale. The details of the cultural conflicts are distinctly Indian (or perhaps distinctly Bengali), yet the characters’ experiences of nostalgia, rebellion, and loneliness are both compelling and universal.

Secrets / Nurrudin Farah -- NY: Arcade Pub., 1998.

As a civil war unfolds in Somalia, family events uncover secrets that redefine these longstanding relationships. Peppered with dream sequences, the plot line itself takes on a dreamlike character. Although it contains many beautifully written passages, I found the novel disappointing. The unraveling of the family secrets was drawn out without developing any real sense of suspense or anticipation. The background of the incipient civil war is only slightly revealing in its effect on everyday life and even less revealing of the broader political implications.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry / Robert Cervero -- Washington, DC: Island Press, 1998.

The Transit Metropolis offers good analysis and rich data on the transit systems of select cities from multiple continents. Presenting twelve case studies from Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, and Canada, Cervero covers not only the form and technology used in the transit system, but also supportive policies and relevant political and institutional arrangements. A ‘transit metropolis’ is “one where enough travelers opt for transit riding, by virtue of a workable transit-land use nexus, to put the region on a sustainable course.” This broad net captures cities that use their transit systems to guide urban growth (adaptive cities), others that create a transit system to serve their more spread out land use pattern (adaptive transit), cities whose downtowns are transit havens (strong-core cities), and cities who use a mix of adaptive-transit and adaptive-city methods (hybrids).

Rather than laying out hard and fast rules for transportation planning, the book offers a wide and impressive array of methods. The only absolute offered is that transit should support land use policies and not vice versa. Although repeated pointing out that quality services attract more riders, Cervero does not couch this as a universal recommendation, noting that pricing transit affordably may mean lower quality vehicles in poorer cities.

From the case studies, it seems clear that cities with good transit are primarily wealthy cities outside the United States. For those primarily interested in the United States, comparison with U.S. cities is provided in many of the case studies, and the final chapter provides shorter examples of U.S. cities recently improving their transit systems. My own interest is primarily with developing cities, and I was disappointed not to have any examples from Africa or from poorer Asian cities (Singapore and Tokyo were the Asian examples). Nonetheless, the case studies clearly presented ways of designing transit systems that suit local conditions and aims.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood / Taras Grescoe -- NY: Bloomsbury, 2008.

This is a book that will depress most rational readers. This is especially true if you enjoy eating fish and seafood, whether for pleasure, health, or ethical/political reasons. The author enjoys seafood for all of the above reasons, but his worldwide travels investigating the quality and sustainability of the world’s seafood yield a very frightening picture. The vast majority of fish caught these days are from species of rapidly diminishing quantity and quality (both taste-wise and for one’s health), and are caught in non-sustainable, exploitative ways. That Grescoe remains committed to producing and consuming fish in ways that are sustainable, tasty, healthy, and non-exploitative is commendable—but the enormity of the task is daunting, to say the least, because of the force arrayed against it.

I say force, singular, because, as with almost all of humankind’s other problems, the main driving mechanism behind the vanishing seafood is industrial capitalism (including, of course, the Chinese version, these days). Fishing and fish-farming are now dominated by huge corporations, able to marshal vast resources to catch (devastate) entire species, and much of the demand for many threatened species is due to increasing numbers of very wealthy consumers. Global warming, pollution, exploitable cheap labor, artificial (toxic) growing conditions and feeding habits, waste, externalization of costs, etc, all play interconnected roles in helping reduce what were once thought to be effectively infinite numbers of fish down to near extinction levels in case after case. And, of course, all the above factors are caused or exacerbated by industrial capitalism, whose course, if unchanged, will make it very unlikely that much healthy seafood will remain in the world within a few decades.

Grescoe is a very engaging and interesting writer on all aspects of the issue, so the book is a “pleasure” to read in that sense, with large amounts of local color and fascinating facts about seafood and the social relations surrounding its production and consumption. He himself both consumes, and visits the production sites of, many types of seafood, including some extremely exotic and even dangerous ones. Although not explicitly ideological, he is intrepid and successful in analyzing what could be done “rationally” to remedy the situation, and in listing ways by which one can make individual consumption choices that promote health, quality, sustainability, and fair labor conditions. The title refers to the fact that smaller fish at the “bottom” of the food chain in the oceans, such as, say, anchovies, are generally much better consumer eating choices than large predators such as tuna. And he lists some environmental organizations' websites for "certifiably" good product choices, which are again very helpful to the individual consumer.

The catch, of course, is that the profit motive of industrial capitalism is arrayed against such rational, individualistic solutions, and is of vastly greater potency, at least so far. Unless an alternative to growth-oriented industrial capitalism is found (and soon), no solution to the problem of vanishing seafood (or global warming, or so many other current environmental problems) will be remotely feasible. I highly recommend the book, depressing as it is, for it makes very clear both that we have little time left to begin to seriously address such problems, and what we will be losing if we fail to do so.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time / Jeffery Sachs -- NY: Penguin, 2005.

Jeffery Sachs's book The End of Poverty makes a convincing case that extreme poverty worldwide can be eliminated within decades. His arguments appear in the last (and most valuable) half of the book. In the first half, Sachs recounts his involvement with various governments as an economic adviser. Chapters are devoted to his work with Bolivia, Poland, and Russia, and while I'm sure he can be credited with successes in in Bolivia and some in Poland, I am left with the impression that there is more to these stories than he is telling. Before turning to his main thesis, he provides interesting chapters on China, India, and Africa.

His argument for how to end poverty is superb. While some (e.g., Bill McKibben) have criticized Sachs for his enthusiasm for globalization and free markets, Sachs's actual views on these issues are nuanced and at least defensible. Sachs embraces globalization as the context in which countries with extremely poor population can escape "the poverty trap" by gaining access to investment and markets. Sachs's history of championing debt cancellation for poor countries gives credibility to his claims. Presumably they would be even stronger if he were more explicit about making the World Trade Organization less an instrument of rich counties.

Sachs's support for free markets is also very qualified. While he supports free markets in some goods and services, he recognizes that markets cannot be relied upon to distribute necessary goods and services to the extremely poor. Consequently, other arrangements must be put in place to guarantee that the poor are not left without these. Sachs recognizes that there is no single prescription for ending extreme poverty, but that many factors are involved and differently so in different places in the world. In general, however, he argues that if the rich contries of the world would fulfill their past promise to provide .07% of their income to alleviating poverty then the human capital, infrastructure development, natural capital, knowledge capital, and public institutional capital could be developed in the poorest countries. With these resources, their economies would be sufficently stable to allow them to participate productively in the global economy and see their economies grow.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life / Barbara Kingsolver -- NY: Harper Collins, 2007.

A few years ago, I read Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer. It was a joyful experience. So I was expecting that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle would be great. Unfortunately, I was not so pleased with it. Kingsolver's 'letters from a friend' style was peppered with turns of phrase that were a bit too clever for their own good. The theme, of course, is very interesting, but it was not as well developed as it is in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. However, together, Pollan and Kingsolver pursuaded me to choose local foods whenever possible and to purchase a subscription with a community supported agriculture farm. Changing our dietary habits is one of the few things that we can do to dramatically affect our ecological impact. What surprises me about both Pollan and Kingsolver is that they don't unambiguously advocate a vegetarian diet. Both seem to accept that we should reduce our meat consumption. These days, vegetarianism is an extremely easy lifestyle to maintain -- much easier than eating local foods. So the benefit for the sacrifice is far greater.

Poverty and Water: Explorations of the Reciprocal Relationship / D. Hemson, K. Kulindwa, H. Lein, and A. Mascarenhas, eds. -- London: Zed Books, 2008.

Poverty and Water is a collection of nine scholarly papers and a summary concluding article. The papers are not consistently informative and often make uncontroversial points. Their central theme is that poverty and the lack of access to potable water and/or water for irrigation are strongly related. Furthermore, the World Bank's initiatives to privatize water has had highly detrimental effects. The authors urge a return to the notion that access to water is a basic human right which must not be left to the vaguaries of the market. While I think the main conclusions of the book are sound, a reader would be well-served to pick and choose which papers to read, but the summary article is worth reading in any case.

When the Rivers Run Dry Water: The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century / Fred Pearce -- Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry is a nice introduction to hydrological problems around the world. From ground water to aquifers, from sea water to rain water, Pearce describes attempt to capture and use a resource that is in ever-increasing demand. Besides giving the impression that everything hydrologists have done in the past 150 years was a mistake, Pearce drive homes the maxim, "water runs up hill to money," meaning that those with money always have the power to acquire water at whatever cost to others or the environment. It's a sobering read with one hopeful note: "We never destroy water...Somewhere, sometime, it will return, purged and fresh."

Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy / Lawerence Hass -- Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 2008.

Hass provides an extremely readable account of what he takes to be the central ideas of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, placing Merleau-Ponty in a long historical context. Along the way Hass contrasts Merleau-Ponty's ideas with other Twentieth Century philosophers, particularly noted phenomenologists. He makes a compelling case for Merleau-Ponty's philosophical method described as "singing the world" or "saying to show."

Mediaeval Philosophy: Illustrated from the System of Thomas Aquinas / Maurice De Wulf -- Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1922.

De Wulf's Mediaeval Philosohy is a short readable summary of a many of the central ideas in Thomas Aquinas's philosophy. Topics include, metaphysics, theology, ethics, and law. I was surprised to learn tha Aquinas held a rather robust view of the individual and human rights. Consequently, he seems much more modern than I had previously thought.

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock And the World Economy / Matthew Simmons -- Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.

Twilight in the Desert probably only deserves three stars for its literary merits, but I gave it an extra star for the importance of its main theme. Author Matthew Simmons argues that based on his study of papers of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Saudi oil production is at or close to its peak. When this happens, world oil production will also peak. The economic consequences are hard to predict, but they will be profound and in all likelihood quite negative. Fortunately, some government and industry decision makers are beginning to heed Simmon's arguments. The main debates now seem to be how soon the peak will come and how sharp the decline will be. In the last paragraph, Simmons optimistically suggests that peak oil may be the oportunity to remake our society in a more benign and humane form. We can only hope. In the meantime, I'm training myself to enjoy life on a low energy budget.

Speeches of John Bright M.P. on the American Question / John Bright -- Boston: Little, Brown, 1865.

John Bright was one of two important advocates for the Northern cause in the British Parliament during the American Civil War. This volume brings together a number of his speeches on the topic. He makes both a moral case and a practical, economic case against British recognition of the Confederacy. It's entertaining to see the issues from the British perspective. Many of the issues of that time have analogues today.

Why I Am a Republican: A History of the Republican Party / George Boutwell -- Hartford, Conn.: W.J. Betts, 1884.

Published in 1884, Why I Am a Republican is a defense of the party by a former member of the Lincoln and Grant administrations. It also appears to be have been a campaign piece in support of James G. Blaine, Republican nominee for president (1884). Much of the work praises Lincoln's careful leadership to end slavery. Later, Boutwell served as the president of the American Anti-Imperialis League and opposed the US government's acquisition of the Philippines.

Making Peace with the Planet / Barry Commoner -- NY: Pantheon Books, 1990.

I first heard about Barry Commoner when he ran for president in 1980. He made what for me was the audacious but indisputable claim that the only way to avoid the environmental disaster caused by plastics was to stop producing it. This is the theme of Making Peace with the Planet. Commoner distinguishes the "ecosphere" from the "technosphere," or the natural world from the industrially constructed world and argues that the later is at war with the former. To end the war, we must gain social control over "the governance of production;" that is, the private control of production must yield to democratic control.  Furthermore, production must be redesigned to avoid environmental damage from the start. Instead of this approach we have established "acceptable limits" to pollutants and more or less ineffective regulations.  This has not solved our environmenal and ecological problems. Commoner's vision is radical in that it sees to the root of our problems and offers what is likely the only solution.

The Phenomenology of Mind / Georg Friedrich Hegel -- London: Allen & Unwin, 1949.

It seems silly to write a "review" of one of most well known books in the European philosophical canon; so I'll simply write that this is Hegel's first important work. It employs the dialectic method that he used throughout his philosophical career in an examination of individual consciousness, including careful reflections on consciousness, self-consciousness, science, reason, ethics, art, and religion.Your appreciation of this work will be enhanced if you first gain a good understanding of Plato, Spinoza, and especially Kant. Certainly read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or at least the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics before reading this work.

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess / David Shenk -- NY: Doubleday, 2006.

This is a nice little introduction to the history of Chess, stressing its significance as a metaphor for war and politics. It also emphasizes Chess's significance in learning and psychology. Interspersed through the text is a commentary on a game played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851, known in the Chess world as "the immortal game." For a more serious history of Chess read the classic work entitled History of Chess by H.J.R. Murray.

Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism / William Bennett -- NY: Doubleday, 2002.

I normally wouldn't bother reading anything by William Bennett, but after finding out that he quoted me by name, I had to look into this one. As it turns out, he refers to me as "the organizer of the Washington protests" (peace rallies coincidentally scheduled for two weeks following the 9-11 attacks). Here we have clear evidence of the shoddy research and unreliable statements coming from Bennett. While I was involved -- along with about 150 other people -- in planning the peace rally, I was hardly "the organizer." I suspect that Bennett wanted to attribute my view (rather randomly quoted in The Nation magazine) to someone important in the peace movement; so he elevated my role to fit his purpose. The "moral clarity" that Bennett purports doesn't seem to extend to honest, careful scholarship. Then again, maybe he's just laughably incompentent.

Garbageland: On the Secret Trail of Trash / Elizabeth Royte -- NY: Little, Brown, 2005.

Royte began to wonder what happened to her trash once it left her New York City residence, so she started following its trail and then wrote about what she discovered. The result is this highly entertaining and informative book. She covers waste that ends in landfills, recyclable materials, and compost, all in amazing detail. By the end, she introduces the reader to the concept of "Zero Waste," or working to make our modern waste stream conform more closely to nature's universal practice of turning "waste" into resources for new life. I was so inspired by this book that I joined my city's Environment Committee and I'm looking for ways to bring Zero Waste to my city's waste management practices.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hegel's Philosophy of Right / Georg Friedrich Hegel -- Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942.

Having enjoyed the Phenomenology of Mind, I thought I'd read something else by Hegel. My philosophical training was in Social and Political Philosophy, so the Philosophy of Right seemed, well, right. Hegel's account of the structure of civil society and the state are illuminating, but mostly for how it illustrates Europe of his day. For me, his accounts of property and freedom are perhaps the most interesting elements in the work.

What We Know About Climate Change / Kerry Emanuel -- Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007

What We Know about Climate Change is a very short book -- more like a long article -- that encapsulates some of the most important discoveries in climate science. At times it could use some superficial editing to clarify parts, but on the whole it's well worth the short time that it takes to read.

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity / James Lovelock -- N.Y.: Basic Books, 2006

James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia was a disappointment. Lovelock is the first proponent of the "Gaia Thesis," that all life and non-living matter on Earth is an interconnected whole. More significantly, the Earth has an ability to regulate conditions in the biosphere to maintain a favorable equilibrium for the current configuration of life. These general theses are reasonable enough. Unfortuantely, Lovelock does not add much to the discussion over climate change. Much of the work relies on metaphors designed less for understanding and more for rhetorical effect. Lovelock is a strong proponant of nuclear power, skeptical of the solar power, and a critic of wind power. Here, his positions deserve attention, but his arguments are weak, and tend to belittle his opponants.

Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline / Lisa Margonelli

Margonelli's Oil on the Brain takes the reader to various locations important to the oil industry and describes the impact of the industry on the people who live there. Margonelli treats everyone she meets sympathetically, without overlooking the profound problems that oil production and consumption are creating. I would have liked a more analytical work, but her non-judgemental observations provoke important questions and some thought. The best chapters describe her visits to four "petrostates:" Venezuela, Chad, Iran, and Nigeria. An American reader can not escape recognizing how our consuption habits are disrupting the lives of people in these oil producing states, often to their profound detriment.

Information on the Renunciation of War, 1927-1928 / John Wheeler Wheeler-Bennett

Wheeler-Bennett's The Renunciation of War, 1927-1928 contains a long essay explaining the diplomacy that resulted in the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact which renounced war as an instrument of national policy. In all, 14 countries including the six leading powers of the time signed the pact. The Pact marked a high point in the international effort to outlaw war. Wheeler-Bennett also inlcudes the text of diplomatic letters and crucial speeches related to the negotiations. Among the most interesting documents is the Soviet Union's critique of the Pact, which nonetheless did not prevent it from adhering to it.

Our Own Religion in Ancient Persia: Being Lectures ... Presenting the Zend Avesta As Collated With Pre-Christian Exilic Pharisaism / Lawrence Mills

Mills's Our Own religion in Ancient Persia is a collection of Lectures on several facets of Zoroastrianism. His primary thesis is one which I believe is now well accepted -- that many of the central theological views in post-exilic Judaism and Christianity find their historical roots in the Zoroastrianism of Babylon. The ideas include, monotheism, the immortality of the soul, and the relationship between God and evil. The style of the work ranges from academic to poetic to memoir. Like many works on Zoroastrianism, this one fails to give a systematic treatment of the subject, but it is nonetheless entertaining.

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth / Tim Flannery -- N.Y.: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005

Tim Flannery's Weather Makers is an excellent primer for anyone interested in Climate Change, though much of what he discussed is becoming general knowledge among people paying attention to the issue. Al Gore Inconvenient Truth covers a lot of this territory, but Flannery deals with it in more depth and with a more careful treatment of the science involved.

In Defense of Food / Michael Pollan

Another great book by Michael Pollan. I'm getting to be a groupie. In In Defense of Food, Pollan examines the health effects of "the Western Diet," i.e., how most Americans eat. The diet is composed almost entirely of processed foods, the credibility of which is based on "nutitionism," i.e., the ideology that by reducing foods to their nutrional components we can understand what in food is necessary for health. The food industry then breaks down whole foods and engineers "food-like products" that are declared healthful by food industry marketers. The alternative, of course, is eating food -- not these reconstituted food-like substances -- but whole foods that would be recognized as food by your great grandmother. It's a quick and easy read, but very informative.

The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place / Judith Adler Hellman

Hellman's book The World of Mexican Migrants is built out of countless interviews with Mexican migrants and their families. The interviews were conducted in the US and Mexico and reveal a complex set of conditions and motivations for migrations. Most interestingly, it emphasizes that the common understanding of Mexican migrants as escaping poverty and "seeking the American Dream" misunderstand Mexican migration. More commonly, migrants intend to accumulate enough capital to build houses or start businesses at home in Mexico.

Ghazali: The Revival of Islam / Eric Ormsby

Ormsby's brief introduction to the life and thought of Hamid al-Ghazali is quite good for anyone with little familiarity with Ghazali. The opening chapter gives a brief account of some of the main figures and schools of Islam that were the backdrop to Ghazali's thinking. While it was a good idea, it is not carried out particularly well. However, as Ormsby turns to Ghazali, the work becomes clear and more valuable, though it reamins somewhat superficial.

Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to Ancient Faith / Peter Clark

Peter Clark's introduction to Zoroastrianism is clear and concise. He sketches the various theologies that appear through its history and compares them with the Vedas, Judaism, and Christianity. His treatment of the Zoroastrian community's internal dialog over conversion and marriage outside of the faith is quite interesting.

The Book of Tea / Kakuzo Okakura

Kakuzo's The Book of Tea is a charming little explanation of the role of tea (or teaism) is Zen and Taoism. He has chapters on the boiling, whipping, and steeping of tea; Tao and Zen; tea rooms, art appreciation, flower arrangement, and tea masters. For a fuller treatment of much of this material see D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture.

The Greening of America / Charles Reich

The Greening of America was a blockbuster bestseller in 1971-72 heralding, according the Reich, the coming of a new consciousness that would result in a revolutionary social transformation away from the destructive, dehumanizing institutions of Corporate America. Time has proven Reich's predictions too optimistic, but his critique of Corporate America remains trenchent and accurate.

Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision / Kirkpatrick Sale

Kirkpatrick Sale's Dwellers in the Land presents a brisk argument in favor of geographical determinism, particularly the importance of bioregions in shaping our identities. He goes on to argue that this is a very good thing -- that our nationalized and globalized economy and culture is the root of many of our problems. Sales argues that by reconnecting with our local bioregion, we can restore our environment and resolve significant social and economic problems. Occasionally, he waxes on about the Earth as a single organism, i.e., the "Gaea" (or Gaia) Thesis. While this sometimes amounts a kind of religious faith, embracing the vision has the practical consequence of underscoring the value of the planet and humbling our place in it.

The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life / Richard Florida

I would not have finished this book but that my book club will be discussing it. The most interesting theses are trivial at best. Most of the work is a description of the the life preferences of "the Creative Class," a flattering term for what one would otherwise call the bourgeoisie, particularly the high tech bourgeoisie. Florida's quantitative support for his theses goes no deeper than the comparison of various "indexes" that mostly are mere rank-order lists of cities. He provides no data on the strength of the correlations that he asserts and often the relata are not independent. He generally disregards the contributions of the working class by, for example, generally attributing the value of high tech products to the work done by software engineers. He advocates city planning that intentionally caters to the wants of the wealthy and privileged. All of this in the pursuit of the sacred goal of "economic growth" regardless of disparities of wealth and the ecological limits of the planet. It's nothing more than euphemistic boosterism for some of the worst tendencies of the global economy.

Buddha's Ancient Path / Piyadassi Thera

Piyadassi Thera's Buddha's Ancient Path provides a clear and detailed explanation of Buddhism's most important elements. Most introductory books afford one or two chapters to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, giving only the barest outline of the details that are brilliantly presented here.

Buddhism / Christmas Humphreys

Christmas Humphreys's Buddhism is the first book I read on Buddhism (back in 1971). Re-reading it confirmed for me that it is a good introduction to Buddhism for anyone with little to no understanding of Buddhism.

Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra / Edward Conze, ed.

Buddhist Wisdom Books is composed of the two most popular sutras from the Prajnaparamita Sutras: the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. Edward Conze provides extremely helpful commentary for both sutras.

The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika / Nagarjuna; Jay L. Garfield -- N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1995

This volume is a translation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika (MK) with commentary by Jay Garfield. The MK is the most important work by Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism. The MK is primarily a work in metaphysics, dealing with objects, properties, time, space, causation, personal identity and other topics. Nagarjuna's arguments are largely critical, reminiscent of Zeno on motion, and prefiguring Hume on causation, and Kant's antinomies. The positive doctrine is the mutual dependence of all things and the ultimate "emptiness" (shunyata) of the phenomenal world. Garfield's commentary is extremely helpful in elucidating this difficult text.

The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamika System / T.R.V. Murti

In The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, Murti compares the metaphysical systems of Jainism, Advaita Vedantism, and the Theravada and Yogachara schools of Buddhism with the dialectical system of Madhyamika Buddhism. He also compares these to the metaphysical views of Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Bradley. The book is an outstanding presentation of Indian (particularly Buddhist) metaphysics and is quite accessible to western philosophers. Murti especially notes the similarities between Kant's Transcendental Dialectic and Nagarguna's philosophical techniques.

Stonehenge & Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered / Norman Lockyer

Norman Lockyer's studies of ancient Egyptian and British monuments rightfully makes him the progenitor of astro-archeology. His work on British megaliths, however, has been superseded by more exact calculations. In any case, his work, like other works in astro-archeology, reads more into the data than is justified. While it is entirely safe to say that the megalith builders consciously aligned many if not most of their monuments, it isn't at all clear that Lockyer is correct in claiming that that these alignments were set to observe the rising and/or setting of "warning stars" and "clock stars." Among the most interesting aspects of this book is Lockyer's hypothesis that the early megalith builders aligned many of their monuments to celebrate the year beginning in early May. He also includes discussions of British folklore and traditional celebrations which he claims support his astronomical interpretation of the megaliths.

Disloyalty in the Confederacy / Georgia Lee Tatum -- Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1934.

Tatum's Disloyalty in the Confederacy reveals opposition to secession and continuation of the rebellion within the Confederacy. Tatum's reseach demonstrates that the public attitudes during the Civil War were complex, varying especially across class, region, and time. Among the more interesting aspects of the book is her discussion of a secret society known as the Heros of America.

Night / Elie Wiesel -- NY: Hill and Wang, 2006.

Elie Wiesel's Night was first published in English more than ten years after the War. Little scholarship on the Holocaust had been published by then. I can only imagine how shocking and moving the work would have been a the time. It still retains enormous power, but it is a testament to Wiesel's efforts that we "never forget" that much of the spirit of this work is part of our general knowledge and understanding.

Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media / Robert McChesney

In Communication Revolution, McChesney argues that we are at a "critical juncture" in the history of communication, i.e., a time in which the conditions for the shape and development of a new global communication regime are being determined. McChesney encourages his fellow professors and students in the field of communication to abandon their isolation in academic scholarship and actively interweave the pressing issues of communication policy planning into their research. In particular, he encourages academics to become aware of and involved in the new movement for media reform that he detects building since 2003.Overall, the work is persuasive. It also provides the reader with a wealth of bibliographic citations for anyone interested in the political economy of communication. Sadly, the citations are buried in the endnotes and not organized in a convenient bibliography.

Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union / Leverett Wilson Spring -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885.

This history of Kansas was written 20-30 years after the events it describes: Kansas during its colonization just prior to the Civil War. The account describes a near civil war between anti-slavery and pro-slavery residents, with the territorial governors struggling to maintain peace and order. The author writes a good deal about the murders that have been attributed to John Brown and his family and followers. Unfortunately, the book provides too few reminders reagarding the roles of the numerous political and military actors and the temporal sequence of events for the work to be an easy read for someone with little background.

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future / Bill McKibben -- NY: Times Books, 2007.

Bill McKibben's Deep Economy is an important and abitious attempt to unsettle the economic paradigm that values economic growth above all other values. He especially seeks to remind us that our satisfaction and quality of life often have more to do with our relations to other people than how many possessions we have accumulated. At the same time, he does not question the need for greater wealth among the planet's least well off. McKibben argues that to address the two most pressing problems of the 21st Century (Peak Oil and Global Warming), we must rediscover the values of local economies. At times Deep Economy advocates sweeping changes that are hard to know how to apply. This leads McKibben to reiterate his advice, "patronize your local farmer's market" as the prime exemple of how to alleviate the world's ills; but in the end, McKibben's main claims and arguments are absolutely right. Unfortunately, it's up to us to work out the details of creating effective local economies.

Cartesian Meditations / Edmund Husserl

Husserl's Cartesian Meditations took me back to my earliest experiences with philosophy when I wrestled with Descartes's first meditation and the problem of solipsism. Starting with Descartes's challenge to found knowledge only on that which is beyond doubt, Husserl claims to lay the groundwork for any future science. The most interesting section of this work is the fifth meditation in which Husserl addresses the question of other persons. Establishing the fact of other persons, Husserl argues for the objectivity of an intersubjective world. My philosophical training did not lead me to phenomenology -- something I dearly regret.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals / Michael Pollan -- NY: Penguin Press, 2006.

I was attracted to this book on based on Pollan's earlier book, The Botany of Desire. In the Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan examines the origins of food in four food chains. In the process he reveals startling facts about the food we get from grocery stores, restaurants, and "big organic" grocers like Whole Foods. He provides a detailed description of Polyface Farms in Virginia, which strives to produce food for local consumption, using inputs that are entirely found on the farm itself. All in all, the book is a powerful argument for eating locally grown produce. His section on vegetarianism presents the stongest case for meat eating that I have read, though what is argued to be justified is only meat that comes from a self-sufficient farm like Polyface and where the animals are essential to the sufficiency of the farm.

The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism / Ismael Hossein-zadeh -- NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

The growth of the military-industrial complex in recent decades deserves careful examination and Ismael Hossein-zadeh gives it just that. Following the recent work of Chalmers Johnson, Hossein-zadeh's scholarly work argues that the growth of militarism in the US is undermining the democratic nature of our government and society, and that the common interests of the Pentagon, congressional leaders, and defense contractors have transformed US imperialism from "classical" or economic imperialism into "parasitic imperialsm." The former sought to agrandize the nation, the latter seeks to secure and expand more of the nation's public spending for the defense industry. The former was characteristic of defense industries that were built by the state for the goals of the state. The latter has come about due to the imperatives of private defence corporations competing in a capitalist economy.

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic / Chalmers Johnson -- NY: Metropolitan Books, 2006.

This is the third book in a three book series written by Chalmers Johnson. Blowback, the first book in the series, makes the point that much of what is described as irrational terror attacks are in fact what the CIA has termed "blowback," or the unpleasant consequences of US actions abroad. The Sorrows of Empire, the second book, focuses on the massive (and growing) number of US military bases abroad. Over 700 are officially recognized by the Pentagon, but Johnson remindes us that there are many more covert bases. The third book, Nemesis, recapitulates many of the points made in the previous two volumes and emphasizes how the ascendent values of militarism may be inexorably transforming American government into a unconstrainable military bureucracy.

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic / Chalmers Johnson -- NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

This is the second (and best) book in a three book series written by Chalmers Johnson. Blowback, the first book in the series, makes the point that much of what is described as irrational terror attacks are in fact what the CIA has termed "blowback," or the unpleasant consequences of US actions abroad. The Sorrows of Empire focuses on the massive (and growing) number of US military bases abroad. Over 700 are officially recognized by the Pentagon, but Johnson reminds us that there are many more covert bases. The third book, Nemesis, recapitulates many of the points made in the previous two volumes and emphasizes how the ascendent values of militarism may be imperceptibly transforming American government into a unconstrainable military bureucracy.

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire / Chalmers Johnson -- NY: Henry Holt, 2004.

This is the first book in a three book series written by Chalmers Johnson. Blowback makes the point that much of what is described as irrational terror attacks are in fact what the CIA has termed "blowback," or the unpleasant consequences of US actions abroad. Much of the book describes the ill effects of US military bases in Okinawa. The second book, Sorrows of Empire, focuses on the massive (and growing) number of US military bases abroad. Over 700 are officially recognized by the Pentagon, but Johnson reminds us that there are many more covert bases. The third book, Nemesis, recapitulates many of the points made in the previous two volumes and emphasizes how the ascendent values of militarism may be imperceptibly transforming American government into a unconstrainable military bureucracy.

Essays in Zen Buddhism, Second Series / D.T. Suzuki

Someone once wrote there are two kinds of people in the world, those who have read D.T. Suzuki and those who have not. Beyond the tautology, the writer was underscoring the importance of Suzuki's work. It's hard for me to disagree. Suzuki is among the most respected writers on Zen Buddhism and on Buddhism generally. His reputation is particularly high in the West. I think this is primarily because of his clear, scholarly, analytical approach to his subjects. In Essays on Zen Buddhism (Second Series), Suzuki takes up the Zen method of the koan in achieving a state of enlightenment (satori). He offers numerous accounts of events that triggered satori in various Zen practitioners, dividing them into several kinds of responses to the koan. Much of what he writes illuminates the psychological mechanism involved in reaching satori. His scholarly, ananlytical style has resulted in much criticism of his work by Zen practitioners. For many, scholarship and systematic analysis actuallly inhibit one from attaining enlightment. However, for anyone not actually dedicating themselves to Zen, Suzuki gives an unsurpassed account of the tradition, not merely in this book, but in numerous others. Moreover, he treats the subject so sympathetically, that one is tempted to put aside Suzuki's works and find a real master to follow.

The Children of Hurin / J.R.R. Tolkien -- London: Harper, 2007

It's hard for me to be objective about this book. I've been a Tolkien fan since 1970 and I've hardly read a word by him that I don't treasure. The Children of Hurin is nicely edited, presenting a very clear and gripping account of the life of Turin Turambar, son of Hurin. Hurin, captured by the Enemy Morgoth, was cursed along with his descendents, making Turin's life a tragedy. The story reveals a great deal about Tolkein's concept of fate in Middle Earth. Elements of the story are rooted in the Volsunga Saga particularly the death of the dragon Glaurung.

The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery ... that Could Change History / Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino -- S.F., Cal.: HarperSanFranscisco, 2007

Jacobovici and Pellegrino make an extremely strong case for their claim that the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was found intact outside Jerusalem, including the remains of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of Jesus, and other family members. They argue that one of the sets of remains is from Jonah, son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The book is told in a detective story style, which makes it quite gripping, but I missed the kind of scholarly support that might come with an academic treatment of the subject. Their main argument is based on a statistical calculation of the probability that several names associated with Jesus would all appear in the same tomb. The book leaves me wondering what reception it has received in professional circles.

The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest / Rick Darke -- Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2002

This is a really wonderful book. Darke's hundreds of photographs of America's Eastern Woodlands are stunning, even though he does not appear to rely on lab or digital techniques to enhance the images. They seem true to the eye. His text really makes you appreciate the forest as a living place that changes from season to season and develops over the years. The last half of the book is essentially a brief encyclopedia of native woodland plants listed according to their Latin names. It's an excellent resource.

The French Revolution, 1789-1799 / Peter McPhee -- Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002

I was a little disappointed in this book. I was hoping for a general overview of the revolution which would identify a number of important dynamics within the revolution and explain their interrelations, along with some fuller account of central figures. While the McPhee does a bit of the former, I still was left feeling that I didn't have a very clear picture of the revolution. I can't say the work did much to correct an embarassing gap in my knowledge of European history. The work included occasional statistical data to establish certain points, but none of it was detailed enough or thorough enough to be terribly meaningful. Nonetheless, the book has a number of redeeming features that other readers may well appreciate.

History of the Reign of Phillip II / William H. Prescott -- Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1878

I have read only the first two volumes of this three volume set. I was surprised how little it tells of Phillip himself. The first volume contains a lot about Charles V, the Spanish war with France, Phillip's marriage to Mary of England, and unrest in the Netherlands. The second volume is largely about the resistence to Spanish rule in the Netherlands, the defense of Malta against a Turkish attack, and the tragic life of Juan Carlos. I find Prescott's writing quite engaging.