Sunday 2 June 2013

Summer Books 2013

It's June, it's coming up for Summer, so maybe I can suggest some books to read while waiting for it to arrive?  None of these books were published this week, nor yet the week before but they're all in English, so you don't need to master Sanskrit or Latin to appreciate these antient classics.  And if any of these come at you, dear reader, from left field, then so much the better!

The Tangled Wing: biological constraints on the human spirit by Mel Konner.  I bought this 2nd hand hardback in graduate school for its subtitle.  Konner was one of the Harvard team who , with Marjorie “Nisa” Shostak,  went to the Kalahari to study all aspects of life among the hunter-gathering !ung san. He was particularly interested in child development and years later published nice book based on a PBS TV series called Childhood.  TW deals with aspects of the human condition – there are chapters called Lust, Hate, Anger, Gluttony – and shines the light of evolution to show how 500,000 years of living a hand-to-mouth existence in a small groups has shaped (hard- or at least firm-wired) how we are today and how and why we respond to situations the way we do.

Periodic Table by Primo Levi.  Like the Tangled Wing in its one word chapter headings – Gold, Lead, Cerium – each element serving as a hook to hang a tale: some fictional but many from Levi’s own life in the chemical laboratory, in wartime Italy and in Auschwitz. The Spring, I plucked a brilliant anecdote from this book in one of my classes at The Institute and after class, one of my students confessed she had an unread copy at home.  I urged her to read it and the next week she said she was half way through . . . and stoked.

On Food and Cooking: an encyclopedia of kitchen science culture and history by Harold McGee.  If you ever asked why the quantities of a recipe are given just so but wondered what the allowable variation is, then this is The Book.  Why a touch of copper improves but a trace of fat destroys meringues; why kneading is necessary; how many sorts of edible emulsion there are and how to create them.  Illustrated with informative pictures and amusing anecdote. 

Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.  I heard about this at an evening seminar series on teaching and learning held TCDin the 1970s.  Went out and bought it (I still bought new books in 1974) the next day.  More than any one book, this pointed me at home education and critical thinking, although the process was 25 years in the gestation.  Any other book by Neil Postman is worth a gander if you want to re-think your unconsidered certainties – Amusing Ourselves to Death for a start.

The Greeks by HDF Kitto.  It you read this book, you won’t have to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  All that philosophy and practical hints about how to think and how to decide what’s important is here laid out by Kitto without the distressing descent into madness and without all the motorcycle maintenance.  The Greeks is a hymn to the apogee of western civilisation: supported by slaves dying in horrendous circumstances in silver-mines it must be said, but nevertheless it gives us, even 2.5 millennia later, some idea of how to live:

Their ideal was not a specifically knightly idea, like Chivalry or Love; they called it aretê - another typically Greek word. When we meet it in Plato we translate it 'Virtue' and consequently miss the all the flavour of it. 'Virtue', at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; aretê on the other hand is used indifferently in all the categories and means simply excellence. It may be limited of course by its context; the aretê of a race-horse is speed, of a cart-horse strength. If it used, in a general context, of a man it will connote excellence in the ways in which a man can be excellent - morally, intellectually, physically, practically.

Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send, and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggeart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheaceian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all rounder; he has surpassing aretê.
That'll see us through till Labor Day and still leave time to cut the grass, catch some rays and have a few barbecues.

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