kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Summer Reading

I finished teaching around the first of May, and don't start again until June 25 (and then, in the Fall, I have a sabbatical). So I thought I would just take May off and read read read. Here's the result; I'd love to hear what my reader(s?) recommend.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

I've tried to read this three other times; this time I refused to let it beat me. I bought the new translation by John E. Woods, and while I haven't checked it against the German, it read a lot better than the Lowes-Porter I had used in the past. After reading the 850 or so pages, including lots of discussion of weather, food, health, power, love, truth, and various understated sexual attractions, all I can say is: Wow.

Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (vol.I)

I saw Skinner speak at Chicago once, and was very impressed. This book takes up political theory from the early stages (13th century), and in some detail outlines the development, through Machievelli and Thomas More, the various arguments for and against Republicanism. Lots of names, lots of theories, and very subtle and developed arguments about how political views grew out of approaches to education and rhetoric. I would probably have to say that this isn't a book everyone would enjoy, but if you're interested in Bartolus of Saxoferrato, Skinner is your man. I have to pause before I take up vol II.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great
Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

The literature on atheism seems to be quite the cottage industry these days. Along with Harris's The End of Faith, and Dawkins's The God Delusion, I've been trying to stay up with it. (Although I've not gotten to Dennett's version, or some of the others that have recently come out.) I'm now trying to figure out why there is a sudden spate of books developing arguments for atheism. Why would God allow this to happen? And does she like these arguments?

Hitchens is kind of a wanker, and there weren't too many new insights in his treatment. But he writes well, and occasionally poses good challenges for theists, or forces one to look at issues from a new perspective (e.g. Gandhi). His claim is that religion poisons everything, and he makes a pretty good case. It also gives him a chance to talk about politics; interesting that many on the right believe the problem with Islamic-inspired terrorism is what suicide bombers believe, not that they believe.

Harris's brief little "Letter" is, I think, a much more effective statement than his longer The End of Faith. Succinct, eloquent, and occasionally disturbing; quotable, as well, as when he mentions that those drowning in New Orleans, due to a perfect storm of political and bureaucratic incompetence, did so while talking (praying) to an imaginary friend.

This is a book that should at least be considered by theists. I wonder if it is more likely that a theist would read this, or an atheist would read Lewis's Mere Christianity?

Reza Aslam, No God But God

A nice, clearly-written and informative discussion--particularly sympathetic to Shi'ism--of the history of Islam. The sub-text is that Muhammad's delivery of the divine message was co-opted, altered, and in a sense corrupted by later clerics, for political reasons at least as much as for theological reasons. A good book to read for those who want a quick overview, and who are suspicious of the way Islam is represented in the US media.

It made me think that it wouldn't hurt, occasionally, to think about what Christianity looked like, 1400 years after it got started. Kinda violent in Europe, you know. Ask Luther.

On the other hand, I get nervous knowing that there are some people who think I should be killed for what I might say about their religion. I know, intellectually, that this says more about them than about me, but could we move to a point in our history where violence and death aren't regarded as legitimate expressions of a faith tradition?

Al Gore, The Assault on Reason

This was a maddening book to read; on occasion, Al waxes poetically, and actually acheives remarkable eloquence in stating what he regards as traditional American values. At other times, he will write a paragraph that says absolutely nothing, and sounds like the Al Gore one sees on "The Simpsons." He tends to split infinitives, and fails to use "among" instead of "between" when comparing more than two things, but in general he offers a useful diagnosis of what is wrong with the media, politics, and power in the US, including some succinct and powerful criticisms of the Bush administration. He seems a bit naïve about capitalism, in that its success tends to lead to precisely the concentration of wealth (and thus power) that generates the political problems Gore identifies. He also seems to think that one's access to the public megaphone, back in the days before radio, was practically unfettered. But who am I to ask for nuance and subtlety from a politician?

David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo

A fabulous book by an incredible writer. Quammen is informed, smart, curious, and writes beautifully. If you read one 600 page book this year about biogeography and what it tells us about our current environmental situation, this should be it.

Diane Ackermann, A Natural History of the Senses

A nice little discussion, full of all sorts of interesting biological and phenomenological factoids about the senses, structured around each of the basic five. I couldn't keep from thinking that the author was writing this while sipping imported chamomile tea from some windswept plateau in Tibet, wearing a robe made from llama fur hand-chewed by peasants, or something. You know the type; what back in Texas we would simply have called a Yankee, but would, perhaps, more accurately be described as an elitist, overeducated intellectual snob, writing for other elitist, overeducated intellectual snobs. Then again, that never stopped me.

Monday, May 07, 2007


Well, I certainly can't figure out what part of "whore" doesn't fit Roger Clemens.