Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Books

As Justin at Flash Point Canada says,
"If this doesn't give you a chuckle, nothing will. The "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries," as selected by several staunch conservatives."
I think my favourite honourable mention is "On Liberty" by J.S. Mill - who knows how much better off the world would be if not for that fearsome work.

In other book news, apparently, I've been 'tagged' by Greg over at Sinister Thoughts, to answer a few questions about me and books. The alternative would be writing something about the latest shenanigans on parliament hill, so I think I'll talk about books as the less grewalling (sorry1) of the two options.

Number of Books I Own

I've moved over 20 times in the last 10 years or so, so any item I consider purchasing is automatically screened for its impact on my total encumbrance2, which tends to keep down my total number of books owned (especially hardcover books). I'd guess that I own around a couple hundred (Note: before any family members protest, this excludes books I own which are sitting somewhere in my parent's house).

Last Book I Bought

'City of Ember' by Jeanne Duprau. Starts well, with an intriguing premise but the ending is rushed and disappointing (not to mention not really an ending).

Last book I read

'Whisper of Glocken' by Carol Kendall. A follow-up to the Newberry Award winning Gammage Cup, it's not quite at the same level but is still a good read.

5 Books That Mean A Lot To Me

1) Systems of Survival - Jane Jacobs

I remember reading in some book (I don't remember which) a discussion of trying to meaningfully analyze the weather. If one looks too closely, trying to analyze individual drops of rain, air molecules etc., analysis is impossible because there is too much data and there are no discernible patterns to it. If you look from too far away, treating the skies around the globe as a single entity, analysis is again impossible since the changes in that one entity will appear random. Only by focussing your attention at the right level, and on the right characteristics, (tracking high and low pressure 'systems' for example) is it possible to extract any meaning or order from the skies.

Similarly, I've spent much of my time reading non-fiction trying to make sense of society and economics and politics by finding some appropriate level of analysis which lies in between the rational economic dream of constructing a tower of axiom-based mathematical knowledge on a foundation of obviously untrue assumptions and the anti rational assertion that there is no systematic analysis of human affairs possible and all we can really do to convey meaning in human affairs is to tell stories.

Jane Jacobs 'Systems of Survival' is one of my favourites because it is one of the few books I know which does in fact convincingly stake out a theory on one such source of meaning. I remember being fascinated by Nietzsche's idea of digging into the roots of why it is humans have the 'ethics' that they do and constructing a 'genealogy of morals' which he talked about in 'Human, All too Human' and how disappointed I was when I bought his later work 'Genealogy of Morals' and it didn't really seem (to me anyway, maybe I missed the point) to answer that question at all. Systems of Survival does attempt to provide a genealogy of our morals and I recommend it highly.

2) Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I can't possibly hope to summarize this book (although the linked review does a pretty good job) but aside from the content which in itself it amazing, just the way the book is written helped me realize that writing non-fiction imposes a lot fewer artistic limitations on how you write than you might think.

3) Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
As you might have been able to guess from my answers to 'last book bought' and 'last book read', I read a fair bit of young adult (or old children) literature. If I was ever to get my act together and write something more substantial than half finished stories and long winded blog posts, it would most likely be in this genre.

I read lots of adult fiction too, but whether it's just because the more innocent writing of children's books has an easier time piercing my cynical shell or just me being emotionally immature, I find that books aimed at a younger audience often have a more powerful impact on me. Case in point is Bridge to Terabithia, a deserving winner of the Newberry Medal for best children's book of 1978 (Paterson won again in 1981 for Jacob Have I Loved which is also a great book). I won't say anything more about the plot, but I really think anyone of any age would do well to read this book.


4) When Corporations Rule the World - David Korten

I talked about this book recently in this post. Aside from being extremely well written and well argued, one of the ways this book changed my thinking was to change my internal definition of species, or if not species, perhaps organism. Previously, I had only considered biological, cellular life forms as active agents in the world (allowing for artificial intelligence via computers of course). But this book made me realize that there are potentially many other active organisms (or organizations if you prefer) out there which act according to their own logic and their own agenda, perhaps somewhat but not entirely under the direction of people.

Now in a sense, this is not that different from the common wisdom that systems take on a life of their own or, as Marshall McLuhan said, that the medium is the message. But it hits home a lot more when you think of a corporation (for example) as an organism which will never die, which holds many of the same rights as people do, which can exist simultaneously all over the world, which can mobilize resources on the scale of a small country (in the case of the biggest corporations), and which lives or dies, not according to the complex set of physical, emotional and spiritual needs which humans have, but through a never-ending single minded drive to earn a return for investors (in order to grow) or at the very least earn enough money to satisfy creditors (in order to avoid dying).

Seeing the corporation as an active agent in its own right: co-existing, relying on and yet at the same time competing with people for the resources necessary for our survival, is seeing things with another dimension added.

5) Voltaire's Bastards - John Ralston Saul

There's lots I don't agree with in this book, including (possibly) the main premise that the world is suffering due to people taking an overly 'rational' approach to things and disregarding other more humanist elements of our decision making process, but there's a ton of stuff packed in here and a lot that seems dead on, from the culture of celebrity, to the climate of secrecy, to the foolishness of economic dogma, to the stubbornness of outdated methods of waging war and on and on. More than anything, this book shook me out of a phase of somewhat ideological thinking and reminded me to take a critical, questioning approach to everything, never trusting that the conventional wisdom could safely be applied in any area of human activity.


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OK, who hasn't been tagged by this yet. How about Trish, Justin, Ainge, Greg (sure his blog is about his baseball pool team not books, but what's blogging if not the freedom to write about whatever you want, whenever you want - and besides, if I recall correctly (which I'm not sure of) he was the one giving me a hard time about liking 'Life of Pi' and not making it more than a quarter of the way into 'A Prayer For Owen Meany' before giving up in boredom) and Andrew Spicer.

Don't worry if you want to dispute the tag, I won't send the meme police after you.



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1 I'm not really sorry.

2 I wonder if using the word encumbrance marks me as either a) someone in the financial/credit industry or b) someone who played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid.

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4 Comments:

  • I'm sorry you gave up on Owen Meany. It would have been #6 on my list. Yes, I'm afraid I am a Meanyac.

    By Blogger Greg, at 3:41 AM  

  • It was a long time ago (I was maybe, 15) so who knows, I might like it if I tried it again now.

    By Blogger Declan, at 8:37 AM  

  • Just to be clear, the Greg comment above is not the same Greg who has the Alert fantasy baseball blog.

    By Blogger dejour, at 4:26 PM  

  • What's your point dejour - I don't see how anyone could confuse Greg the blogger who criticized me for not liking Owen Meany with Greg the blogger who criticized me for not liking Owen Meany. Sheesh.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:52 PM  

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