Saturday, June 24, 2006

What books should everyone read?

Over a week between posts, and while I have read two new books, I'm not going to review either here. You can find them on the list to the left should you be so inclined. I'll review one of the two next post.

I've been thinking about posting a list of books that I would require everyone to read (had I that authority), especially since this idea received about as much of an enthusiastic reception as anything on my blog does, a single comment. This isn't at all the same thing as "what books would you take to a desert island" because that list strays into personal preference and utility (How to Build a Raft, or some such, always tops my list when I'm asked the desert island question). This list by contrast is a list of books that not only may be interesting and enjoyable, but also useful and instructive as well. At least, that's how I understand it.

And there are problems and pitfalls with such a list as this. If the list gets too long, it begins to be simply a list of good books. If the list is too short, there will be obvious omissions and gaps. Perhaps I also ought to make an effort to balance the list between fiction and non-fiction. Or should I make separate lists for fiction and non-fiction? Plus, there is also the danger that if I listed something like The Lord of the Rings someone may simply be inclined to ignore it since everyone and their dog raves about LOTR. Will this then cause one to ignore the rest of my recommendations as well?

Right. Well, at any rate I am coming up with a list, but I don't have any firm idea yet of what form it will take precisely or how long it will be. I've got a vacation coming up in a couple of weeks, perhaps I'll try to finalise it then and post it afterwards.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Books and Politics

The last two new books I have read were both, somewhat, about politics, though in different ways. The Age of Reagan was a political history of the period between 1964 and 1980. It seemed odd to me to call this time, "The Age of Reagan", but the reason the author does so is because he is intended to write a two volume history of politics during the time in which Reagan was most involved in politics. This first volume (the second has not yet been finished) covers the time from when Reagan got involved in politics in a big way up until just before he was elected president. The second volume will, I imagine, cover the eight years of his presidency and perhaps the years after up to the present as time influenced by Reagan's presidency. The book is quite good, though lengthy and less devoted to Reagan than the title might indicate. There are very large chapters dedicated to people like LBJ, Carter and others explaining the political landscape to provide a deep background to Reagan's actions and ideas in the years before he became president. The book was thorough and interesting and I learned quite a bit from it. The only complaint that I have is that the chapter on Carter and his presidency was lifted nearly verbatim to make up the core of the book *The Real Jimmy Carter*. I look forward the second volume.

The other book I read is called The Party of Death and it deals with the pro-life movement and its opponents in society today. This book was only published a couple months ago and was written by Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at *National Review* and writer for *National Review Online*. In large part, what people think about when they hear the words "pro-life" is abortion and the debate surrounding it. And, in large part, this is what the book is about. It does also, however, deal with euthanasia and end of life issues as well towards the end of the book. They are not given only a cursory treatment, but it is less than the topic of abortion receives. Much fuss has been made from the left side of the political spectrum over the book's title, but scant attention has been paid to the books contents by the same people. On the one hand, this is strange, but on the other, not so much. The book is tightly reasoned and simple and spends much time dealing with real-life examples and cases. In sum, the argument is that we are all human from conception through old age and that all arguments for abortion and euthanasia rest upon the assumption that it is okay to kill some human beings for arbitrary reasons such as location (in the womb or out), age (whether elderly or embryonic) or because of some perceived imperfection (whether Down's syndrome or Alzheimer's). Ponnuru (and I agree with him) flatly rejects this. All humans are entitled to life by their Creator (an idea with an extensive pedigree in American thought) and thus cannot be deprived of it without some sort of due process, and certainly not at the whim of another individual or because the person to be disposed of is inconvenient to another. (Ponnuru notes that it is possible to support the death penalty and oppose abortion and euthanasia without contradiction, though he himself does oppose the death penalty as well for other reasons.)

Ponnuru has made a conscious effort not to rely on religious belief as a basis for his arguments and adhering to reason instead. (He does also note that reason and religion are not incompatible, though.) It is possible for an atheist to be convinced of the immorality of abortion without first believing in God; indeed, this is the path that Ponnuru took. He became convinced of the rightness of pro-life positions before he ceased being an atheist and became a Catholic. The book itself is one that I think should end up being required reading for just about everyone. It's going to be one that I make my children read in their teenage years, along with Hayek's Road to Serfdom.

There's an idea, a list of books that I think everyone should read at least once in their lives regardless of who they are. A good idea for a blog post, neh?

I laugh every time.

And I've read this about a half-dozen different times.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Mysteries

I sampled two new (new to me) mystery writers recently. I had heard of both, but neither's books are terribly well-known nowadays. Everyone has heard of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, and to a lesser extent people know Dorothy Sayers and Erle Stanley Gardner, but who today is really familiar with Ellery Queen and SS Van Dine? So I got the first book of each author, The Roman Hat Mystery and The Benson Murder Case, from the library and read them.

Both author's names are pseudonyms, but in the first case there are actually two people who collaborated to write the stories and in the second it was only one person. The conceit of the Ellery Queen tales is that the author is also the detective and is a well-known author of mystery stories within the world of the books as well. Layers upon layers. Van Dine's books feature a detective, Philo Vance by name, who is something of a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey. He has the lazy upper class mannerisms of Wimsey combined with the supreme ability and confidence (though in Vance's case it crosses into being supercilious arrogance) of Holmes. And, furthering the comparison to Holmes, he has his very own Watson who tags along and then writes the case file for publication later in the person of Van Dine.

The Ellery Queen book was good. I enjoyed the mystery, the clues were laid out for one to follow and the author played quite fair with the reader throughout. The detective was quirky enough to be interesting, without being weird enough to be off-putting. Philo Vance, on the other hand, was not very good at all. Vance was irritating in the extreme and the story was not put together well. Vance spent an inordinate amount of time insulting the intelligence of everyone else and behaving like a cad. The police, and presumably the readers by extension, are expected to be uncommonly dense and to miss obvious clues. The author, via his detective, propounds a ridiculous theory of detection based entirely upon psychology and discounting all physical evidence, and I mean all. I intend to read more of the Ellery Queen novels (though not all, since they began to be written by ghostwriters after a couple decades), but I am done with Van Dine.

It's all books with me, isn't it?

It seems lately that all I ever get around to posting about is the books I'm reading. I do run across other things of interest that I think would be fun to mention here, but I rarely find myself motivated enough to spend a few minutes writing about them. Here's an exception, of a sort. It's still about books, but not about books that I myself have read.

The National Endowment for the Arts did a study on the reading of "literature" by Americans. (The study itself can be found here.) My primary problem is their use of the word "literature". They explained their usage thus:

The 2002 SPPA asked respondents if, during the past 12 months, they had read any novels or short stories, plays, or poetry. A positive response to any of those three categories is counted as reading literature, including popular genres such as mysteries, as well as contemporary and classic literary fiction. No distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works.

While I can understand why one would not want to try and draw distinctions between the quality of different works for the purposes of this study (the amount of extra work would be insurmountable and the conclusions drawn could the work be done would be debated endlessly), continuing to use the word "literature" is a bit deceptive since it has the very positive connotation of being a work of lasting quality. Since what was being included was essentially all fiction, it would have been less deceptive to have used "fiction" to cover to what they refer.

Also, if anyone is interested enough to read parts of that study, they do sometimes also include data inquiring about reading books in general; that is to say, they include non-fiction as well in some of their questions.

Monday, June 05, 2006

20 Books in May

Woot! Or perhaps even w00t! Better than I had thought I would do.

Two Books

I read two new books recently, both about sports, though one was interesting the other was bland. The disappointing book was called, simply, The Football Book. I hoped it would be better than it was, but I feared from the first that it would be as it indeed was because I noted that it was put out by Sports Illustrated, a magazine with which I have never been impressed. It was mostly a lot of large pictures (the book itself is the size of a coffee-table book) which in and of themselves are not terribly interesting, devoid as they are from all context, both the games from which they were taken and because they have little or no connection to the text. Other than an insipid introduction by Rick Reilly, all the writing in the book is republished excerpts from past magazines and most that is writing of a very low quality as well. The book is not informative, it is not interesting, it provides nothing new and it rarely even attempts any of these feats. The closest it comes is listing leaders for various statistical categories in each decade. This, though, falls short because (again) no context is given. Who came in second place? Or third? How would a player who played 5 years in one decade and 5 years in the next stack up? The book also includes the 20 or so greatest players at each position. Determined how? Ranked it what order? No such information or reasoning is given. If you like looking at large, uninteresting pictures and reading uninspired prose from hacks, then this is the book for you.

The second book was much better; it held my interest well and served it's purpose admirably. Game of Shadows is a book about BALCO, Barry Bonds, steroids and professional sports. The book is marketed and written about in most news accounts as if it was only about the first three of those four topics I listed, but the fourth is at least co-equal with them and perhaps the most important. The writers are up front about the fact that much of the evidence for Barry Bonds knowingly taking steroids is circumstantial. But no less an eminence than former Chief Justice Warren Berger noted that "Circumstantial evidence is the most damaging evidence there is, because it's the most difficult to arrange." (Quoted in this article.) Indeed, the evidence is such that there is not a doubt in my mind that Barry Bonds knew very well what he was doing and the book also raises concerns that steroids are a much more widespread problem than most people realise, not only in baseball, but throughout all professional sports. In this book, the writers link BALCO and steroids to football as well as baseball, though not basketball, but I see no reason why basketball should not also have its problems. It merely may not have had any players mixed up with BALCO. For anyone concerned about the direction of sports in the current era and especially anyone with an interest in whether or not today's athletes are setting the marks they do with chemical assistance, this is a must-read book.

Chess Movie

Watched a foreign film not too long ago called Dangerous Moves. It was a French film, so some of it was a bit too artistic and the ending was odd and unsatisfying, but the bulk of the movie was interesting to me. It deals with two chess grandmasters playing for a world title. One is an old man, and a Soviet citizen (the film was made and set in the early 80's) and the other is a young man who fled the USSR and leads a dissident's life in Europe. The movie is an interesting study of the passions and desires of the players and the various people around them, the political games that are played with the match and the mind games each of the players attempts to use on the other. It was an enjoyable film during the body of the film, but the ending really was weak and disappointing. It was vague and ambiguous when it didn't really need to be. Still, all in all, an enjoyable movie and one that portrayed the chess fairly accurately, though I did neglect to note whether or not the proper square was in the right hand corner of the board in each scene.