Ah, Stephen Greenblatt. How much I prefer you to Harold Bloom. You prove things, not just assert them. You have a clear narrative, though not lacking in complexity. I really have to read more Greenblatt.
The title is a bit misleading. How the world became modern? In what way? The narrative of this history revolves around the book On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. It is a beautifully written Latin poem that describes a world view familiar to modern-day atheists, philosophical Buddhists, and physics lovers. All the universe made up of moving atoms that form and fall apart and form other things. That being true, there are no gods, so enjoy the life you have before it is over forever. Don't mistake this for the reputation of Epicureanism of mindless pleasure. Real Epicureanism is more Buddhist, attempting to take pleasure in the now without excess, mindful that life has disappointments.
This text nearly disappeared during the Medieval period until a Renaissance book lover found it and saved it from obscurity and destruction.
The narrative first follows the philosophy in the ancient world, its restoration by the Italian book collector, then its spread in intellectual life throughout the centuries, influencing many writers and thinkers, including the American Founding Fathers.
This is a compelling read. Though 400+ pages, you don't feel them. It moves quickly, with stories, anecdotes, analysis, and appreciation of the fortunes of history and the beauty of an old poem.
After I'd finished this book I had to wonder who the anticipated audience was? This is not a how-to, with detailed techniques for creating positive psychology in your own life. Mention of specific techniques is pretty much in passing. It's like a biography, but not so much of Seligman, the titan of the field, but of the discipline of positive psychology, with a great deal of "how I done good" in the mix. Seligman narrates how, under his tutelage and that of his disciples, positive psychology has been fast-track adopted by the military, by a grossly expensive private school in Australia, and Penn State's very special Master's degree for very special applicants.
But more interesting, and rather off-putting, is his need to defend the very subject he says is still in its early stages and still needs more than the one randomized controlled trial he describes in the text. Mostly his defensive posture, and his attacks, are directed at Barbara Ehrenreich and her book _Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinks Has Undermined America_. I believe lazy and irresponsible are two of the adjectives he uses for her methods critiquing his work, but don't quote me on that. And while I haven't read her book, he himself says that he is surprised the military wanted to jump right in when more research was needed. As far as I can see, his work simply doesn't meet her standard, while his work does meet his own standard.
But I'm troubled how easily he dismisses over hundred years of social science research and how his work could be used by the far right. Poverty? It's nothing. Trauma and abuse? Don't worry about it. Anything else shown to be a factor of causation for anti-social behavior means nothing to Seligman, because it is all about the individual and their non-positive thought patterns. Used in the wrong hands, those of one hundred years ago and some of those in Congress now, that is a recipe for the "take thee care of number one" mentality that doesn't need to help preschoolers with Head Start programs, or funding state colleges at adequate levels so students don't leave college with more debt than they can pay within the rest of their life.
Like any titan who has virtually created a field, Seligman is certain that his way is the best way to solve personal and global problems, and if only every person on the planet would listen to him, it would work on all people. I've had that feeling too, somedays; I just haven't published enough to feel a can say it with an entire book.
Lastly, to points of minor interest. The main thrust of his work is that it isn't what happens to you that matters as much as how/what you think about what happens to you. Fair enough and findable in many other books. It's an essential part of Buddhist philosophy. But does he mention Buddhism for even a moment? Nope.
And yet, I still give the book 3 stars. While I have these worries and reservations, I think Seligman's field of study has points of great validity. I'd like to take one of the workshops he has arranged around the world. And I was interested in his narrative of it's adoption in various places. And it is surprisingly interesting; I would like to hear in ten years how it all panned out for the disciple.
Crossing Jordan by Adrian Fogelin has some very good characteristics. The friendship between the two middle-school girls evolves nicely, and the background figures of an male friend of Cassie's, the dead neighbor (who is a significant presence), and the Jemmie's grandmother, are nice touches. However, the book lacks a stronger focus, eluding the difficult situation of mutual familial prejudice it builds up. Running is used in the beginning to create the friendship, but it falls off as the focus of the girls' interest in favor of reading Jane Eyre. Summarizing and quoting from Jane Eyre fills the later chapters of the book. While the book was a thread from the beginning, it overwhelms the book by the end, not to mention spoiling all the best parts for readers you were probably going to encounter it later in their education. That is no favor to either Jane Eyre or to the narrative Fogelin lets it usurp -- her own. So many little bits are not tightly bound with the rest of the book. Why the beehive hair style and consequent buzz cut for Cassie? It moves the plot and the characters no where. The story seems to have too many balls in the air, from prejudice to civil rights history to Jane Eyre to sibling conflict. Tightening in would have served the novel better, but the feeling is that with so much in the air, so much she wanted to discuss, she loses track of these points and lets all the pretty, spinning balls fall to the ground. Not a bad book, but not as good as it ought to have been.
I suspect I'm being a little generous with 4 stars. It isn't that I don't enjoy the writing of de Waal; I do. I read de Waal's Age of Empathy (2009), which is why I moved on to The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013). Age of Empathy contains a good many anecdotes from research about animal empathy, which are informative and entertaining. The Bonobo and the Atheist is more meditative. de Waal considers matters of atheism and religion intellectually, but with much less research. Jheronimus Bosch is his companion in these meditations time after time, using the paintings as a guide in his reflections. There are some research-based anecdotes, one of which was so surprising to me that I immediately sought out a companion with whom to share it. (Did you know a juvenile chimpanzee used a log for hours as a proxy baby chimp, cradling it and gently placing it in a night-time nest? Imagination is alive in other primates.) However, that doesn't alter the overall meditative tone on atheism and religion from the European secular perspective rather than harder science. I just happen to like the European secular perspective and de Waal's thoughts about those matters.
Surely one of the great books about why evolution is true, is a fact rather than some fuzzy conspiratorial belief system of those foolish, misguided scientists. The first half is the better than the second, providing beautiful examples of actual research that shows natural selection in practice. This segment shows that, while natural selection generally takes a while to see and is almost invisible, experiments can be created that show it functioning more than most people realize. The second half is more nuanced so doesn't provide the best examples in discussions of natural selection. However, I am wondering who Dawkins thinks he is writing it for? Nominally, it's for those "history deniers," but no history denier is going to come closer to this wonderful book than a matchstick.
I love Jared Diamond's writing. Every time I read one of his books, it resonates so clearly that I can't help but enjoy his thoughts tremendously. In The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond ranges widely in his thoughts of this odd third chimpanzee (us) and sometimes goes in rather unexpected places.
Some highlights include how testes correlate with number of partners in sex and how public/private sex is, and the arts are a social method of sexual selection.
The migration of some of human kind can be studied by the transformation of proto-Indo-European language, but he includes a fervent discussion of the loss of human languages as the few powerful languages consolidate their power and their populations on the world.
He includes wonderful comments on genocide in chimps and genocide in humans across time. How we have permission to kill "them," but we must attempt to refrain from killing "us."
Most disjointed was his theories of life on other worlds, which covers a part of a chapter.
What is most interesting is the echoes of his other writings you can hear in this book. Echoes in the sense that it doesn't matter if the book came before or after this 2006 publication. His themes have remained constant: Ecological collapse, success of an area and the people controlling that area based on resources, and domesticate-able plant and animal species.
I love Jared Diamond. I enjoy how he sees the world, how he explains complex material and makes it understandable. He makes a great deal of sense. This one is about tradition living as exemplified primarily by villages in Papua New Guinea (with scattered examples elsewhere) compared to the modern western world. While Diamond clearly admires some aspects of the traditional cultures he has experience over the decades, this is no sonnet to the noble savage. He brings out the infanticide and elder murder as easily as the community relationships and natural multi-lingualism. Highly entertaining, it will seep into your sub-consciousness and influence how you think about a great many things, and help you appreciate the glorious state that allows us to walk around and not kill or be killed by the strangers that walk by us in the mall. (Read the book; you'll get it.)
The joy of this book isn't the science it presents, which must be pretty well known for anyone who has even a passing interest in science. The joy of it is the combination of the knowledge into one large tapestry, making the information feel new and exciting. Bringing in information from physics and astrophysics, plate tectonics, evolutionary biology, genetics, and more the reader moves from the stars to a time when water was the happening place for life, and land was barren, to that great moment 200 million years ago when the birth of the Atlantic allowed for the oxygen necessary for mammalian gestation. If our high schoolers were reading science this fun, we might have more scientists.
An enjoyable story within a story within a story; there are four narrators embedded within each other. Don't let that throw you off; this is one of those horror stories that makes you tense and nervous without blood or grime. It is the reader's imagination that provides the horror behind the loss and the mysteriously-powered painting. A concise, quick-read novella, the author of the Woman in Black has created a tight tale, an old-fashioned horror/ghost story that is a real pleasure to read and makes fear and literary anxiety fun.
I'm not much of a sci-fi reader, but as this is something of a classic of the genre, I felt it was time. I was not the least bit disappointed in the production. The value is high, ambient noise to appropriate, voice acting very good and at times excellent. The plot and story and completely enjoyable. At 18 hours, boredom was a concern for me, but I found myself eager to do chores as long as I could listen.
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