Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
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Monthly Bookpost, December 2015

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett
You were raised a patriot, to love Saypur and to believe that its virtues must be extended to all the world--but this is not your job. Your job in the Ministry is not to stop corruption and inequality; rather, those are tools in your bag to be used to aid Saypur in every way possible. Your job is to make sure the past never happens again, that we never see such poverty and powerlessness again. Corruption and inequality are useful things; if they benefit us, we must own them fully.

Any resemblance between the occupied continent here and American-occupied Iraq is purely coincidental. Of course.

I'm enthralled, and wish this one had made it onto the Hugo ballot for 2015; I would have picked it over any of the other nominees for its wonderful character and atmosphere, exciting action scenes, richness of language and parallels between a fantastic world and the one we live in. The "City of Stairs" is so-called because of the war that bombarded the city until many structures collapsed, leaving only the stairs. The natives are considered "primitive", zealous in their worship of old gods and traditions; the occupying "civilization" claims to have killed those gods and forbids the inhabitants from worshipping or even naming them, with predictable results. A cultural scholar, studying the old writings and artifacts that the occupied people themselves are denied access to, is murdered, and pretty much every zealot on the continent has motive, and so they bring in the big guns to investigate--the quiet, innocuous-looking woman who is naturally beyond friggin' badass, and her giant security guard who is even more so. And then--it seems that at least one of the gods is not dead after all...and artifacts with powers are stirring things up.

Very highest recommendations. just read it. And then wait for the sequel.


Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:—How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the MATERIALS of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either, about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the MATERIALS of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.

I began the year with Descartes, and I suppose it's fitting to end it with John Locke's epistemology, as those two philosophers pretty much set the tone for the two competing theories of knowledge that dominated Europe through the early 20th Century, with Descartes and "rationalism" contending that there are innate ideas that the mind can reach internally, and Locke and "empiricism" arguing that only when we have come to learn some things through experience can we develop more complex ideas through thought. Mathematical concepts and logical proofs may exist independently of anything we perceive through senses, but no one ever came to understand these concepts without first encountering some objects and trying to count them.

The buzzwords from Locke are that the mind is a "tabula rasa" (blank slate) that is written on as we grow and experience life, and that there are simple "primary qualities" inherent in objects themselves (solidity, extension, shape, mobility, number) and "secondary qualities" that are inherent in the observer (color, smell, taste, etc.).

Seems to me, Locke's version makes more sense than continental rationalism (in large part because it doesn't rely so much on the existence of a benevolent "God" to create inherent ideas and ensure that we perceive things accurately), but obviously people's mileage has varried over the years, and I'm more of a pragmatist than an empiricist anyhow.

At least one philosopher has suggested in hindsight that Rationalism logically leads one to Fascism and Hitler, while Empiricism logically leads one instead to Communism and Stalin. This seems peculiar to me, since Locke the empiricist also articulated a theory of government (see last month's bookpost both for Locke on government and Leibniz trying to refute Locke on rationalist grounds) that is essentially the bourgeois anti-Marxist vanguard against Communism.


Murder on High Holburn; The Cheapside Corpse, by Susana Gregory; The Ronin's Mistress; The Incense Game, by Laura Joh Rowland

"I hope you reject the developers' suggestions," was all he said. "If they have their way, we shall have houses from Kensington to Wapping, and from Southwark to Shoreditch."
"You exaggerate, Tom. The city will never grow larger than it is now. How could it? We are bursting at the seams already.
--from Murder on High Holburn

"Why are you lying in the gutter? What happened?" Catching a whiff of liquor, the Satsuma man recoiled in disgust. "The rumors are true, then. You've become a bum."
He announced, "This is Oishi Kuranosuke, former retainer of Lord Asano. He doesn't have the courage to avenge his master's death. Faithless beast!" He trampled on Oishi and spat in his face. "You are unworthy of the name of samurai!"
A crowd joined in the taunting, kicking and spitting. The pain brought Oishi to his senses. Something within him shifted, like fractured ground settling back into place after an earthquake. That day was the last time he ever drank. That day he vowed to fulfill the promise he'd made to Lord Asano. That day he began his journey toward vengeance and redemption.
--from The Ronin's Mistress

He heard the soft tap of footsteps behind him as he strode down White Goat Wynd and turned in annoyance, assuming it was a debtor come to beg for a reprieve, so when the knife plunged into his chest, his first reaction was indignation. Who dared raise a hand against him? An embittered client? Baron? A fellow banker, jealous of his success? The long list was still running through his mind when he died.
--from The Cheapside Corpse

The townsman touched the women's bodies. Recoiling, he cried, "They're all dead! And their eyes! What is this?" He thrust his hands up and yelled, "Get me out of here!"
His comrades pulled him up. He sat on the ground, panted, and babbled. Sano and Hirata flung away more beams until the entire room was exposed. Now they saw what had frightened the young man. The dead women were eerily, disturbingly well preserved, their eyes a bright, gleaming red.
--from The Incense Game

The final books to date in Gregory's Thomas Chaloner spy novels bring the reader deep into the dutch wars and have the usual interlocking plots and escalating body counts I've bemome accustomed to. In Murder on High Holborn (at the time, on the outskirts of London; today, pretty much in the middle), it's an English warship sunk by traitors in the Thames, a plot by Fifth Monarchists to replace King Charles with "King Jesus", a corpse found in a brothel, and a ghost story in which Chaloner meets a woman dead for over 40 years. The Cheapside Corpse takes place at the start of the Dutch War, at a time when bankers (goldsmiths, really) were required by the king to finance the war, and who in turn shook down the people of London at exorbitant interest rates. This, together with the outbreak of plague, sets the tone for another mystery. Perhaps Gregory will eventually take up The Great Fire. I'll look forward to it.

The fifteenth Sano Ichiro novel by Laura Joh Rowland is the best one I've read so far. It's based on a real incident in 1703 in which a high ranking Lord was executed for drawing a sword within the walls of Edo castle, and two years later the Lord's samurai retainers, now masterless, slew the man against whom he had drawn the sword. The trial of "the 47 ronin" was controversial, with some saying that the ronin should be executed for treason against the shogun, and others saying that they were heroes for avenging their master's death. In Rowland's book, Sano is called on to pass justice in a trial in which a decision either way will be unpopular and may lead to Sano's downfall and execution (ugh, not again!). In the sixteenth, The Incense Game, the actual crime to solve (poisoned incense, natch) is almost an afterthought compared to the descriptions of the aftermath of an earthquake that really happened, the deterioration of the shogun in rwesponse, and various elements of the arc plot.


Department of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
"Just keep her alive until she's eighteen," my sister says. My sister has two daredevil boys, fraternal twins. She lives in the country but is always threatening to move to England. Her husband is British. He would like to solve all their problems with boarding school and compulsory backgammon. He has never liked it here. Weak-minded, he calls Americans. To make him happy, my sister serves boiled meat for dinner and makes the peas mushy.

There's a stock relationship trope featuring a woman with manic positive spontaneity paired with a practical-sensible traditional male who has trouble coping with her. Barefoot in the Park. Dharma and Greg. the Bloggess. The dancing girl in the new Bloom County strips. Department of Speculation is what happens when you take that trope and remove all of the woman's zest for life and make the man a typical doofus.

I read it in an attempt to broaden my horizons. It was on a list of noteworthy books written by women, and the list got it half right. The book was indeed written by a woman.

I'm aware that I'm not the target market. Department of Speculation is maybe written in a code that women get and men, if they bother to look, conclude that women are some ineffable alien species whose "really deep thoughts' aren't as deep as they think.. The unreliable female narrator separates all of her paragraphs into separate vignettes such that this happens, and then this happens, and then another thing, like very short diary entries, each one of which presents a small event in a way that implies that there's something very fucked up about this modern world. Which, in fairness, it is, and her along with it. Part way through she begins to refer to herself in the third person as "the wife" and her husband as "the husband". She can't cope. "The husband" retreats from her into adultery, and their daughter's getting a complex-womplexkins. Bottom line, I found myself belittling women while reading it, and I don't like the person I am when I do that. Fortunately, the book is short.


The Messiah of Stockholm, by Cynthia Ozick
There was an exhaustion between them now, as if they had just run out of a burning house. The roasting smell trickled up out of Lars's clothes; it fumed up from his belly, his armpits, the soaked pockets on his rump, his snow-dampened feet. Heidi's gleam was an ember. Her mouth relapsed to sleepiness. Lars wondered whether, with all her talent for turning things askew, she had given over his story--his deep fact--to Dr. Eklund, or in the last moment, revived their old habit of "we"--this hadn't escaped him. But she couldn't be depended on; it occurred to him that the woman in the white beret, in the morning's white brilliance, carrying a featherweight Messiah in a white bag was, if she wasn't an angel, a lie.

This novella is about a man, orphaned in Poland during the holocaust and smuggled safely to Sweden, who has no knowledge of his actual parentage and who copes with a very dreary adult life (no family to speak of, twice divorced, employed as an underappreciated book reviewer for a shabby newspaper, living in a laughably small apartment by himself) by convincing himself that his father must have been a certain Polish literary figure who was killed in the war.

Pretty much the only person he confides in is a local bookseller...and then one day he gets a message from the bookseller, "Found your sister", and introduces him to a woman claiming to be the literary figure's daughter, bearing the only copy of the unpublished masterpiece that could well change both of their destinies as well as literary history.

It has intense language and deals with the lies we tell ourselves in order to get through the day, and whether it is better to shatter those lies and live in the real world, or to stay comfortable. A theme as old as Don Quixote and given a fresh new treatment here. Highly recommended.


Blood Sport, by Dick Francis
I watched Keeble's daughter search for something nice to say about my living quarters and give up the struggle with a defeated shake of her young head. I could have told her that I once had a better flat, a spacious comfortable first-floor front with a balcony overlooking a tree-dotted square. It had proved too accessible to uninvited guests. I had vacated it on a stretcher.

Dick Francis is pretty much for people who know and care a lot about horse racing. Blood Sport is a bit different in that the narrator/detective is not a jockey, breeder or insurance investigator specializing in horses, but a government agent who doesn't know squat about races, and whose employer hires him out to an American millionaire to find a stolen horse. Most of the story takes place in Kentucky and the American west, and is in the style of a noir private eye novel.

Hawkins, the narrator, adds even more grit to the Chandleresque writing by being suicidal, bringing about several descriptions of deep depression, as well as action scenes where he behaves with reckless courage because fuck it, death would be a relief. There's not much of a mystery so much as a procedural tracking adventure, and the motive for one of the crimes turns on a ridiculous coincidence, but as an action-adventure story with a lot of horses, it's a good one.


Gifted Hands, by Dr. Ben Carson
Occasionally my mother sent me to the store to buy bread or milk with the stamps. I hated to go, fearing one of my friends would see what I was doing. If anyone I knew came up to the checkout counter, I'd pretend that I had forgotten something and duck down one of the aisles until he left. Waiting until nobody else stood in line, I'd rush forward with the items I had to buy.
I could accept being poor, but I died a thousand deaths thinking that other kids would know it. If I had thought more logically about food stamps, I would have realized that quite a few of my friends' families used them too. Yet every time I left the house with the stamps burning in my pocket, I worried that someone might see me or hear about my using food stamps and then talk about me. So far as I know, no one ever did.

I read this because I was curious as to how a brain surgeon could be as batshit insane as Carson, or how a black guy who overcame life in the hardcore streets of the inner city could become a fringe-right asshole. After reading the book, I'm still curious. The guy he presents as in his 1990 autobiography is not even close to the guy we see trying to out-frothymouth Donald trump on TV today. My only conclusion is that something happened to Carson some time between 1990 and the time he decided to be a Republican crusader and say what the Koch Brothers want America to hear.

In fact, if I squint and pretend that this is an autobiography of a John Lewis-style liberal, the book still makes perfect sense. Carson's father left the family for another woman. Mom worked back-breaking jobs and was away from home frequently, sometimes checking herself into a mental health facility from the stress, so that Ben and his brother could have opportunity. He experienced race prejudice in the schools, leaving the local football league because the parents of the white kids said they'd kill him if he ever came back. He benefitted from government food stamp programs (and was made to feel guilty about it by conservative assholes) and affirmative action in getting his education. Patients didn't want him for a doctor until he'd become famous. He expresses high amounts of love and caring for the children whose lives he saves. His favorite part of the Bible is Proverbs, which happens to be my favorite part as well. Everything about his life experience is what makes an American with empathy, caring, a sense of service and leadership--in short, a forward-looking liberal.

How did he come to be a reactionary neo-feudalist bigot instead? The answer isn't in this book. In fact, all along, part of me has wondered whether he really means the shit he says during debates. Not that it makes a difference. Whether you're bad to begin with or just do bad things you don't really mean so that the cool bad kids will like you, the result is the same.

If there's a flaw or a hint of things to come, it's in a tendency to tell tall tales as truth. carson is full of crazy assertions that God has personally benefitted him. At one point, he says he was unprepared for a test, and dreamed the night before of a mysterious figure who wrote on a blackboard what proved to be the answers to the exam. Another time he says he was broke and prayed for bus fare, only to find a $10 on the street in front of him. Other assertions--his claim to have been offered a scholarship to West Point, and to have come close to killing someone in a knife fight--have been debunked. Not that his story would be less interesting without those details; he simply feels the need to make shit up. Which says a lot about the kind of politician he'd be. The kind who is always telling "anecdotes" about some friend who did whatever back then, or the lovable developmentally disabled guy who got fired from the pity job he was so proud of because the big bad gummint raised the minimum wage and they had to let good ol' Charly go. Those people don't exist. They are glurge tales to make excuses for someone's agenda.

I'll mention Carson's credo for success, which he calls bt the acronym, "THINK BIG":
Talent/Time management
Hope/Honesty
Insight
Niceness
Knowledge
Books
In-depth learning, and
God.

All, except the last one, being the things today's conservative republicans hate and want to destroy. Go figure.


Love Lies Bleeding, by Edmund Crispin
Fen might have said about crime what Lewis Carroll said about children: "I'm not omnivorous--like a pig." He preferred its delicatessen to its bread and butter. If, therefore, Mrs. bly had been killed by some vagrant, out of mere cupidity, he was only too willing to leave the investigation to Stagge. But the affair could not so easily be dismissed. It involved--if Plumstead were speaking the truth--subtleties beyond the mental scope of a tramp, and moreover its temporal and geographical coincidence with the other deaths was enough to arouse suspicion. A link might exist somewhere, and it would not be wasting time to attempt to ferret it out.

I've been reading about one Crispin a year now, and they're delightful. The kind of "Murder--what fun!" genre that actually seems to get away with the main detective having jolly good fun, complete with literary puns, all through a delightful romp in Oxford or London or wherever.

This, the fifth in the series, has the usual completely nonsensical plot in which an assortment of strange and apparently unrelated plot twists all come together into one main crime, detected simply because Professor Fen just intuits things. Have fun with it. I certainly did.


A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines
And above them all, the noise--combinations of object and voice, depending on chance, and on the emotions of each child involved in each activity at a given time. Sometimes heightening, sometimes faltering, but the incidents causing these fluctuations in volume and pitch impossible to locate within the given activity. The noise: spreading down from the yard across the estate, but leaving the bulk of its volume behind, so that people all over the estate, on the streets and in their gardens, on hearing it looked up towards its source, as though expecting it to be visible above the rooftops like a cloud or the rising sun.

Over the course of a day or two, we see the bleakness of young Billy Casper, in a nothing town somewhere in the north of England. Everybody in his life is an asshole or downright abusive: from his mother who tries to beat him for going to school instead of being late in order to buy her some cigarettes, to his bullying brother, the guy who pays him for his paper route, the teacher, the pastor, the coach, the other students...the kid has no friends and no hope, and because the book is only 160 pages, we don't get enough depth beyond passing from one nasty incident to another, the cumulative effect of which is a line of people smacking him and calling him no good, and of course steering him thereby to noplace good.

Casper's one real interest and the closest to a friend is the kestrel hawk he keeps as a pet and trains in falconry...and we don't see much of that either; just him feeding it one morning, having a flashback as to the day he found it and had to shoplift the book on falconry he wanted because the local librarian wouldn't let him be a member; and then a lot of daydreaming. Flights of fancy.

Maybe the point is to get people to care more about children It just made me depressed.


Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett
"Fifty dollars each is daylight robbery!"
"No," said the coachman patiently. "Daylight robbery", he said, in the authoritative tones of the experienced, "is when someone steps out into the road with an arrow pointing at us and then all his friends swings down from the rocks and trees and take away all our money and things. And then there's nighttime robbery, which is like daytime robbery except they set fire to the coach so's they can see what they're about. Twilight robbery, now, your basic twilight robbery is--"
"Are you saying," said Ridcully, "that getting robbed is included in the price?"
"Bandits' Guild", said the coachman. "Forty dollars per head, see. It's kind of a flat rate."
"What happens if you don't pay it?" said Ridcully.
"You end up flat."

By my tradition, and on the theory that Christmas is a time of as much delight as possible, I once again read a Discworld book for Christmas. If I read Discworld only for Christmas, it will always pack a wallop as only an occasional treat can do, and I won't run out of books until I'm old and grey.

They're about my secret world, and I suspect, about most of my geeky friends' secret worlds as well, or they wouldn't be so popular. The more I read of them, the easier it is to forget that it's a Medieval/fantasy/gamergeek sort of world and not more of a funhouse mirror held up to the place I live in right now. After all, there aren't wizards and trolls and a Grim Reaper walking around in actual skeletal form speaking in all-caps in this world, right? Right? Not for real?

They're here in Discworld, though. Here are the witches---and it's quite disconcerting that, since I was recently introduced to Steven Universe, I kept visualizing Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg as if they were Pearl and Amethyst (though the analogy completely broke down trying to see Magrat as Garnet), and a delightful weird star-crossed romance between the very practical Weatherwax and one of the dithery, featherheaded faculty of Unseen University. There is a big festive wedding in one of the outlying Kingdoms, threatened with disruption by the invasion of the Elves; complete with a reminder from Pratchett that elves are among the most frightening and evil races out there, making orcs and trolls seem like suitable pets in comparison. There are coaches that are forbidden to travel on the Sabbath, so that the highwaymen can have a day off; comic hijinks that ensue when the king requests a book on marital arts and gets an illustrated guide to martial arts instead; rude mechanicals who must provide entertainment during the festivities without quite knowing what "rude mechanicals" are; and of course. the Librarian, out on holiday among people who haven't yet learned not to use the M-word around him.

Very highest recommendations. This is vintage Discworld.


De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde
I could have walked out of court with my tongue in my cheek and my hands in my pockets, a free man. The strongest pressure was put on me to do so. I was earnestly advised, begged, entreated to do so by people whose sole intent was my welfare, and the welfare of my house. But I refused. I did not choose to do so. I have not regretted my decisdion for a single moment, even in the most bitter periods of my imprisonment. Such a course of action would be beneath me. Sins of the flesh are nothing. They are maladies for physicians to cure, if they should be cured. Sins of the soul alone are shameful. To have secured my acquittal by such course would have been a lifelong torture to me. But do you really think that you were worthy of the love that I was showing you then, or that for a single moment I thought you were? Do you really think that at any period during our friendship you were worthy of the love that I showed you, or that I thought you were? I knew you were not. But love does not traffic in a marketplace, nor use a butcher's scales. Its joy, like the joy of the intellect, is to feel alive.

Whatever you do, don't piss off Oscar Wilde. You can't, because he's dead, but be careful anyhow.

De Profundus is an 80 page emo letter Wilde wrote while imprisoned in Reading Gaol for "indecency", wrote it to Lord Alfred Douglas, who I imagine was the inspiration for the upper class cad who corrupts Dorian Grey in Wilde's better known novel. Douglas seems like a horrible person, but then I have know idea how reliable Wilde is. He spends half the letter painstakingly confessing Douglas's sins against friendship and art, the other half comparing the spiritual lessons Wilde thinks he has learned from suffering to those of Jesus Christ, and then signs the letter "Your affectionate friend." So yes, there were boxes in Wilde's closet we don't really want to see opened. But you knew that.

The more cathartic part is the passive-aggressive denunciation. I've had my share of people whose judgments I took to heart denouncing me at length as a bad person and slamming doors forever. The worst were the denunciations I believed true at the time, that I've spent my subsequent life vainly trying to atone for. In 20/20 hindsight, the most vitriolic messages were like Wilde's; they said more about the author than about me. Seems to me, the main message of De Profundis is that, even if you have real talent, keep your feet on the ground. You can float away on your own conceptions and go places where madness lies.


Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, by Sir Isaac Newton
SINCE the ancients (as we are told by Pappus) made great account of the science of mechanics in the investigation of natural things; and the moderns, laying aside substantial forms and occult qualities, have endeavored to subject the phenomena of nature to the laws of mathematics, I have in this treatise cultivated mathematics so far as it regards philosophy. The ancients considered mechanics in a twofold respect; as rational, which proceeds accurately by demonstration, and practical. to practical mechanics all the manual arts belong, from which mechanics took its name. But as artificers do not work with perfect accuracy, it comes to pass that mechanics is so distinguished from geometry, that what is perfectly accurate is called geometrical; what is less so is called mechanical. But the errors are not in the art, but in the artificers. He that works with less accuracy is an imperfect mechanic: and if any could work with perfect accuracy, he would be the most perfect mechanic of all; for the description of right lines and circles, upon which geometry is founded, belongs to mechanics. Geometry does not teach us to draw these lines, but requires them to be drawn; for it requires that the learner should first be taught to describe these accurately, before he enters upon geometry; then it shows how by these operations problems may be solved. to describe right lines and circles are problems, but not geometrical problems. The solution of these problems is required from mechanics; and by geometry the use of them, when so solved, is shown; and it is the glory of geometry that from those few principles, fetched from without, it is able to produce so many things. Therefore geometry is founded in mechanical practice, and is nothing but that part of universal mechanics which accurately proposes and demonstrates the art of measuring. But since the manual arts are chiefly conversant in the moving of bodies, it comes to pass that geometry is commonly referred to their magnitudes, and mechanics to their motion. In this sense rational mechanics will be the science of motions resulting from any forces whatsoever, and of the forces required to produce any motions, accurately proposed and demonstrated. This part of mechanics was cultivated by the ancients in the five powers which relate to manual arts, who considered gravity (it not being a manual power) no otherwise than as it moved weights by those powers. Our design, not respecting arts, but philosophy, and our subject, not manual, but natural powers, we consider chiefly those things which relate to gravity, levity, elastic force, the resistance of fluids, and the like forces, whether attractive or impulsive; and therefore we offer this work as mathematical principles of philosophy; for all the difficulty of philosophy seems to consist in this—from the phenomena of motions to investigate the forces of nature, and then from these forces to demonstrate the other phenomena; and to this end the general propositions in the first and second book are directed. In the third book we give an example of this in the explication of the system of the World; for by the propositions mathematically demonstrated in the first book, we there derive from the celestial phenomena the forces of gravity with which bodies tend to the sun and the several planets. Then, from these forces, by other propositions which are also mathematical, we deduce the motions of the planets, the comets, the moon, and the sea. I wish we could derive the rest of the phenomena of nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles; for I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards each other, and cohere in regular figures, or are repelled and recede from each other; which forces being unknown, philosophers have hitherto attempted the search of nature in vain; but I hope the principles here laid down will afford some light either to that or some truer method of philosophy.

I have decided that scientific writing is good for my soul; it keeps me humble. Mortimer Adler, in his introduction to the "Great Books of the Western World", assures us that "anyone" can read any volume in the set, and not to be intimidated by the imposing stature of the great minds. Principia Mathematica, the last of the huge tomes I read this year, is part of the set, and well over half of it was utter gobbledegook to me, full of centripetal forces and equations proving the paths of orbits of objects around other objects. After the first few propositions, I found myself pretty much taking his word for it.

I looked at the syllabus for a college level humanities course that boasts of teaching Newton along with other great minds in western history. the part of the Principia covered includes the introductory definitions and axioms (Newton's three laws of motion), an introductory set of rules at the beginning of Book III; and the "General Scholium" at the end, where Newton denies contriving any hypotheses. That part, at least, I could understand.


The Historical and Critical Dictionary, by Pierre Bayle
The Japanese could not preserve their ancient government, nor their ancient worship, but by ridding themselves of the Christians, who sooner or later would have ruined both, and as soon as they had been capable of making war, would have armed all their proselytes, would have introduced into the country the soldiers, and the cruel maxims of the Spaniards, and by killing and hanging as in America, would have brought all Japan under their yoke. Thus considering things only by political views, we shall be obliged to own, that the persecutions the Christians suffered in that country were a prudential means to prevent the overthrow of the monarchy and a plundering of the state. The ingenuous confession of a Spaniard justifies the precaution of those infidels, "It gave a specious pretense to the Bonzes to exercise their hatred, and to solicit the extirpation of the Christians. Being asked by the king of Tossa, how the king of Spain became master of so great tracts of land in both the hemispheres, he too honestly answered, that he sent Monks to preach the gospel in foreign nations, and that after they had converted a good number of Pagans, he sent his troops, which, joining with the new Christians, subdued the country. This indiscretion cost the Christians dear."

See Holinshed's Chronicles from last year, and Aquinas's Summa Theologica from the year before that, for further evidence that I ought to have my head examined. Among other huge tomes, this year I read Burton, Pepys and Newton, whom people have at least heard of. The King of the 17th Century Thick Books, however, is Pierre Bayle, whose five huge volumes crammed with footnotes kept me occupied for the entire year, a bit at a time.

This was the start of an age when people were beginning to compile disparate information into collections; although Bayle's work is called a "dictionary"; it is really an editorial encyclopedia of distinct articles in alphabetical order, some of which run to several pages of commentary. The majority of articles are specific to Bayle's time, and deal with philosophers, theologians and court figures long since forgotten. And no, even I didn't feel the need to read every bit of it; by the end of Volume I, I was more than content to skim it and only look at the articles about people I'd heard of. There are enough ancient figures, and Bible characters, and famous contemporaries like Spinoza to keep one occupied.

Most of the articles are devoted to telling you what's wrong with so-and-so, according to Bayle; it makes no pretense at objectivity and bats away theory after theory, showing thaat religious and philosophical doctrines all contradict other principles that are self-evidently true, in an attempt to influence the reader towards skepticism. Because churches and kings were still putting people to death for heresy, Bayle wrapped it all up with a winking, nudging conclusion that, since he had demolished reason, faith was the only valid way to live life. Of Course.

Bayle's dictionary is best remembered, not as a good in itself, but as a stepping stone from which the likes of Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Thomas Jefferson were able to go further. There are nuggets of Awesome in it, but the amount of plain dirt needed to wade through to find it will daunt most readers.


Characteristics, by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury

By this time, my friend, you may possibly, I hope, be satisfied that, as I am in earnest in defining raillery, so I can be sober too in use of it. It is in reality a serious study, to learn to temper and regulate that humor which nature has given us as a more lenitive remedy against vice, and a kind of specific against superstition and melancholy delusion. There is a great difference between seeking how to raise a laugh from everything and seeking in everything what justly may be laughed at. For nothing is ridiculous except what is handsome and just, and therefore it is the hardest thing in the world to deny fair honesty the use of this weapon, which can never bear an edge against herself and bears against everything contrary.

Shaftesbury was a disciple of Locke who collected five disjointed philosophical essays on topics ranging from passion to virtue to aesthetic judgment, together with some afterward on the subject, and called the whole work "Characteristics". His main connection with Locke is with the "Letter Concerning Toleration', in that he advocates free speech, with the distinction that he does not slam atheists. His central thesis is that Man has been given reason and must exercise it by discussing opinions and examining himself. Shaftesbury never read a comments section.

Shaftesbury was a poet at heart. His writings are very readable, whimsical and full of "argument" based on appeals to what sounds good. He defines philosophy as the search for what is just in society and beautiful in nature, and has little use for metaphysics, which pme greatly. He believes that we achieve virtue by consistently following nature and looking for truth, goodness, beauty...which, unfortunately, he pretty much says is the will of God imposed on all things. First helpful, and then not so much.


My Boyfriend Barfed in my Handbag, and Other Questions You Can't Ask martha, by Jolie Kerr
The biggest problem I always had with the floors was that pushing a mop felt really awkward, and there was always either too much or too little water slopping all over the place and OH MY GOD WHY IS THERE HAIR EVERYWHERE THAT IS NOW WET HAIR EVERYWHERE AND GROSSSSSSSS.
Do you feel me? I bet you feel me.
And then one day I was kvetching to a similarly Clean Friend about how much I hate doing the floors, and he was all "I do mine once a week on my hands and knees." And then I stabbed him because seriously.

My last book of 2015 was a mistake. I noted My Boyfriend Barfed in my Handbag off of someone's list of books by women in 2014--probably the same list that inflicted Jenny Offil on me--thinking it was a novel or a book of Erma Bombeck-ish essays. In fact, it's a book on how to clean things. A useful book, but kinda annoying too.

Or maybe entertaining, if you like your world framed in such a way that men are pigs who leave living spaces reeking of dirty socks, armpits, stale beer and patchouli. Pigs who incessantly barf into handbags, defecate in bed, pee when they're too drunk to aim for the toilet, and leave trails of oily hair all over the floor as they drag their knuckles across it.

If you like your world framed in such a way that women are Cathy, forever rending their garments and bawling "ACK!" at their messy living spaces--if Cathy was ever edgy enough to worry about her mom seeing red wine vomit and laudanum stains on the good furniture.

If you like your world framed as a noxious, putrescent hellhole with harmful bacteria on every surface of the house and car, which it probably is, but most of us have learned to live with it and don't need a lot of reminders.

But yes, useful. There are sections on special care of kitchens, bathrooms, walls and a whole lot of detritus from makeup and grooming products mostly marketed to women. You'll learn some handy tips for special situations, and have your attention drawn to several places probably in more need of attention than most, that you haven't been giving much thought to.


And there's one more year of Bookposts done, and my quixotic decade of classics half done, covering over 2,000 years from the earliest times to 1714. The other half has just 300 years and will need much more triaging of lesser works than the first half. In 2016, I cover the era of the white powdered wigs, as far as at least the start of the French Revolution, and hopefully completing the 18th Century. Exciting times are ahead.

If anyone has some favorite historical fiction set in the era, especially mysteries and books not set in Europe (Laura Joh Rowland's Japan has been a godsend in not limiting my reading to the west, but non European historical mysteries are proving hard to come by), please share your recommendations. I intend to read the Outlander books, and am familiar with Keith Heller, Maan Meyers, James McGee, and the ones by Lillian de la Torre featuring Johnson and Boswell as Holmes/Watson. At least one Anne Dukthas time travelling book is set in the 18th century as well. What else? And what books do you want to make sure I don't leave out?

Thank you for reading. Always.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts
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