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.


Blogger Bazarov said...

Before I give my recent reading list let me comment on you writing, "I'm now trying to figure out why there is a sudden spate of books developing arguments for atheism."
I believe it's partly because the Zeitgeist is ripe for it and partly because it was an organized decision on the part of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. I remember seeing an interview with Dennett talking about how he agrees with Dawkins in what he says, but not necessarily how he goes about saying it. Dennett said he was starting to be won over though and thought perhaps he should be a little bit more like Richard in that he go on the offensive. The interview, which was done a few years ago, can be found here... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CJW32gnYfE (It's around the 4.5 min mark).
I don't know if Harris was in on it then because I hadn't heard about him until his End of Faith came out, but I'm guessing there was some premeditated timing going on, at least with Dennett and Dawkins, because I believe they have the same book publisher/agent, John Brockman.
I would guess the other books that came out saw a new market and the publishers and authors took advantage of it.
Ok, so what have I been reading?

What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis. I learned a lot, but then again I never really knew much to begin with about the Middle East.

The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I don't seem to mind prolixity as much as the next person so I thought they weren't bad. I did like The Brothers a bit more, but Prince Myshkin was quite a likable character and I thought the whole idea of a benevolent person's only place in a corrupt society is an asylum...sorta funny in a disturbing way.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I really liked this one. I had to keep a dictionary near at all times, but that's nothing unusual given my weak vocabulary. But Dickens sure uses some funny words, man. It was a bit of a tear jerker but nonetheless good. He has quite the command of the English language.

Collection of Nikolai Gogol shorts. I particularly liked "The Overcoat" (Akaky Akakyevich is a character I couldn't help but feel sorry for and at the same time he would be so pathetic that you couldn't help but laugh). "The Diary of a Madman" is also quite amusing. Gogol is quickly becoming another favorite.

Working on:

Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge by Gerald Edelman. I just started this one and haven't read nearly enough to make any sort of judgement on it.

Volume I: The Seeds of Revolt by Joseph Frank. I'm half way through with this one and it's sorta what I expected: some things were expected and others were surprising. The amount of work that must've gone into these books is beyond me though. I'm grateful someone did it but I could never see myself taking on a similar task. I look forward to working through the series.

On Hitchens I'd have to say I'm ambivalent. He seems like a cankerous drunken asshole, but at the same time he ripped on Mother Teresa...see why I'm so divided? He was also one of the few people I saw on major media ripping on Falwell when that fuckface finally died, so there's another plus. But then again, anyone with a working brain should've come to the same conclusion as he. I don't think I'll be reading that book of his.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Bowlegged_Lou said...

I might have to check out Hitchens now - I saw him interviewed on Penn & Teller's Bullshit series ripping Mother T a new one. If the book's like his personal style, I might enjoy it.

As an additional recommendation, since it sounds like you've got too much free time - I just finished James Carroll's House of War. It's a great way to be terrified of the government.

11:22 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

lou, nice to hear from you. carroll-man, talk about prolix. i got through constantine's sword. the house of war--well, i started it. but sometimes i just have to do something else, like figure out a blind blake song or learn a new chinese character. did you know that "fart" in mandarin combines the two characters for "light [such as a firecracker]" and "butt"? you probably did.

i read hitchens's book on mother theresa. i thought his "devastating" critique left her suprisingly untouched, and revealed her simply as dogmatic and naïve (admittedly, not a great combination); but beyond some of her dubious assocations (such as with duvalier fils in haiti), there weren't a lot of what i had hoped, you know, revealing her to have poisoned hindus or run drugs or something.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Michael Krahn said...


I am a Christian who is writing a blog series on Dawkins' book "The God Delusion".

Join the conversation at:


2:28 PM  
Blogger MyUtopia said...

That is quite a list!

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Frodo said...

What was that about: various understated sexual attractions?

And what do you mean by men aren't wearing enough hats?

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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?"

Can I have an example of 'violence and death' as legitimate expressions of ANY tradition, reaction, response, action, or defense?

If the Zeitgeist is ripe, what exactly will happen when we make room for revolt? Peaceful sit-in- like actions?

Are you admitting to elitism?
Bloggingly. Not personally?

Me Wahine

3:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how can llama fur be hand chewed?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Put the fur in your fist then gently insert your fist in your mouth.

The question is...

Can you swallow it?

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