Monday, April 27, 2009


Observations on First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War, bvy Joan E. Cashin

The author is an associate professor of history at Ohio State University. This book has been published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. It has won the Fletcher Pratt award for nonfiction, and was an honorable mention in the Library of Virginia awards.

Why was I only able to find it in the Women's Studies section at Barnes and Noble?

It's from an academic press, it's clearly a biography, set in an obvious historical time period - I would think history, biography, and civil war. Not women's studies.

Who decides how to catagorize these books?!?!

"In the end?" Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends. 

Book leads to book. My determination to understand the entire world never ends.

I've refrained from typing a word (here, anyway) about the Watchmen. I'm embarrassed to admit that I had not read it until I saw the movie. I quickly made up for lost time and this gap in my geek education by reading the book a dozen times in a week, and countless times since. I picked up a copy of Watchmen and Philosophy, ed. by Mark D. White. I've copies of nearly all the media studies and philosophy books about Joss Whedon's work (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and I look forward to similar books on Dollhouse). This book, though, has turned out to be more difficult to understand than I'd expected.

Georgetown University had course requirements in philosophy, ethics, and religion. I took "Intro to Philosophy" as a freshman. I don't remember much. I remember reading and actually understanding Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" (not agreeing with it at all, but at least understanding the reasoning). I remember a ten page paper discussing arguments for and against, then countering and counter-countering, the doctrine of transubstantiation. That was interesting to me, at least. I may not have been Catholic anymore, but it never leaves your blood. Finally I understood transubstantiation, after weeks of study of the meaning of what "is" means.

But all in all, I remember so little. People's names, the names of philosophies - that's it. I can't remember the differences between utilitarianism and moral relativism.

Hence my difficulty with Watchmen and Philosophy.

I've started to read Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. I've had the book for a while, since my last trip to Nashville last year. I found it in a used book store, a cheap hardcover with the leather tearing away from the spine, printed in 1933, and clearly well-read if not well-loved.

The book is organized first in chronological order by the major philosopher. Within each chapter, organization instead is based on a logical explanation of the particular philosophy, major pieces of literature, historical context, and other major players.

After about four pages I have realized I will *never* be able to follow, let alone retain, the material without keeping a running outline as I read. So I gotta read it with a notebook next to me.

Geez. I thought I was beyond that for any book but math texts. It's a bit humbling. Luckily, though, my husband majored (a couple decades ago, but still) in philosophy. I'm gonna rely on him to explain the hard stuff. Wish me luck.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thoughts of the Stuff of Thought 

Curse words have power to them. They are just words, but language has rules that everyone (or almost everyone) in a society agrees on. These agreed-on rules apply to basic things like grammar and word order (for example, in English adjectives come before the noun they modify, and the subject and verb of a sentence must agree in number, like he runs but they run). Meanings of words are also agreed upon by the group. Studies have shown that different cultures define colors differently. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, has a single word to describe both yellow and brown. There's an urban l;egend that Eskimos have 14 words for all the different kinds of snow. English is one of the few languages that differentiates between the perfect had pluperfect ("the phone was ringing" versus "the phone had been ringing").

Stephen Pinker talks about swear words and "taboo" words in his latest book, The Stuff of Thought. I don't have it in front of me now, so all of these next lines are based on my memory of the book. He sets up a hierarchy of taboo words, from shit to piss to snot to spit, with the former being more taboo than the latter. He observes that these words are roughly in the order of danger to other human beings, as vectors of disease, and in the order that other people tolerate them in public (i.e., people might be unhappy if you spit in public, but shitting in public is more frowned upon).

Language gives insight into human nature. The fact that "shit" is more taboo than "sweat" or "fart" is a reflection of how much more harmful feces can be, as a disease vector.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

kindles - and the meaning of spines of books 

The signal of reading a book is lost when you read the book on a Kindle, notes Tom Foster via Marginal Revolution. Someone reading a Kindle is reading a Kindle, and that's all the information the act shares. But reading a real book makes a different statement, and that statement varies based on the title and material of the book.

To what degree does the display of a book matter?

I wonder what the author of The Backs of Books would say...

Meds (a commenter at MR) wrote:
Displaying books on your personal shelf is far different from reading in public...I hate when strangers can see what I am currently reading, whether it is a scholarly journal or the New York Post, but I love for my house guests to see what's on my shelf. It gives them a chance to understand me better as a friend. But random train passengers...I could care less.
I've approached a few people on the Metro upon noticing what books they were reading. One man in particular I remember was reading Bing West's No True Glory, his first-person account on the battle in Fallujah. The man was mostly through the book, and I was about to purchase it (it was in my Amazon shopping cart), so I wanted to ask what he thought. He looked military, though not in uniform (it's easier for me to approach strangers I think are military), and our conversation proved me right, and he highly recommended the book, though it took a few moments to persuade him that I could handle the intensity of the gore - he was obviously uncomfortable recommending such a book to a young civilian female.

I don't think I've ever read anything on the Metro that I've been ashamed of enough to hide the cover. But there are books I won't read there. I'll read about the psychology of killing or about war, but I won't read anything that has a cover or title that seems remotely sympathetic to Nazis or genocidal Communist regimes. I'll read that stuff in front of friends, because I feel like my friends will either already know why I'm reading it and my real opinions on it, or they'll *ask*. Strangers on a train? I try not to antagonize strangers whose sanity and strength I don't know.

At home, there are almost no books on display in the main living areas, the places guests are. That's mostly out of deference to my husband, who doesn't want the clutter of books breaking up the themes we're working on for those rooms. So my library is the basement. It's a finished basement, carpeted, but with little to no outside light. The walls are *all* bookshelves, and the center of the room is always cluttered, both from the necessary standing torchieres and duhumidifier, and from the piles of books, magazines, and craft projects I'm always in the middle of. I rarely invite people down and I warn them of the mess. I don't mind people scanning the shelves, and I don't mind adults taking down books to look at (though I prefer to hand them the books that are antiques or expensive). Books are grouped by topic, so Garry Wills' Why I Am a Catholic lives next to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian.

I love looking at people's bookshelves and seeing what they own or are reading, but that method of gaining insight into a person's beliefs and opinions is limited. The books show a person's interests, maybe, the things he is curious about, or the books are gifts from friends or family and are inscribed so he feels guilty throwing them away. Bookshelves are a source of questions, not answers.

Some questions that emerge from my book collection are questions I'd rather not some people ask. It's one thing for a liberal friend to find John Lott's The Bias Against Guns. It's another for a conservative family member to find One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.

All my books are downstairs. There is no showing off or conversation fodder though I'll fetch books as a reference comes up in conversation that makes me think someone might like to see something in a book. I don't make guests venture into the chaos that is my library, the "storage" section of the unmedicated and untamed part of my brain.

The fewer unintentional signals I give the better I manage.

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