I have read “Huck Finn” over ten times, and it always wins my heart. I am amazed that ole’ Samuel Clemens can still make me chuckle, think and feel... all at the same time.
Ostensibly, “Huck” an adventure book: Simple but kind Huck Finn takes flees his drunk father. Together with Jim, a noble hearted run away slave, Huck runs down the Mississippi in the mid 1800’s, collecting experiences. Yet, below the surface, “Huck Finn” is much, much more.
One a deep level, the novel is a morality play about individual responsibility versus societal norms. (But don’t worry … The book itself is so entertaining, you will never guess!) Society has “meanness” in it: Slavery, con men like the King and the Duke, clan rivalries killing off entire families. Yet, the true regard that Huck feels for Jim cuts through this meanness. The real conflict is how simpleton Huck, partially in the grip of the masses, judges himself for helping Jim escape. This aid is “evil” in society’s eyes. By choosing the “evil” of his love for Jim, Huck becomes the most moral character in the book.
At first I thought the narrator sounded too northern and dry. But, as the story progressed, I grew to like the crispness of his style. Though he does a pretty sub-average job of rendering some dialects (especially deep southern and Jim’s), at least he does not over-do it. Being a northerner myself, the narrator’s rendering comes close to the way the dialog sounded in my mind as I read “Huck” first in junior high. I rated the entire package as a 5, though I could easily have shaven off half a star for the dialect handling. But the book is so excellent, and the narrator so understated, the package is well worth the cost.
The most interesting book I have read in a long time. Beginning as a standard de-bunking book, where Pigliucci uses clear-sighted logic to dissect pseudo-scientific ideas, like UFO's, Psi studies, and the Dover, PA Intelligent Design case, he thankfully moves into new territory, saving it from being another Michael Shermer book.
Instead, the author uses these cases studies as a spring-board to illustrate the power of science. Slowly, and with increasing resonance, he begins to unveil the unique contribution that philosophy could bring to the understanding and advancement of science. In the process, he takes solid aim at "Scientism," the near religious belief in Atheistic Science as the only thing that produces value--think Richard Dawkins.
What I really enjoyed was how Pigliucci moves beyond Popper-ian "experiemntal falsifiabilty" into a more nuanced, updated view of what contemporary philosophers of science tell us what it really means to be "scientific." Science means close observation, and adherence to the peer review process to even out our biases. It also means using and careful reasoning, both inductive and deductive. Ultimately, being truly scientific means realizing that our current theory is just a temporary understanding that further study will, likely, sweep away.
The book finishes with a wonderful meditation:"How can you tell an expert from a charlatan?" Healthy food for the grey cells. Of course, Pigliucci, or any relatively competent thinker can, with relative ease, debunk things coming from the Cato Institute. But what about us? Regular people. You know; "John Q. Public?" He looks at 1) The quality of the evidence provided. 2) The reputation of an "expert" among their peers. 3) The expert's biases.
Overall, a great book on skeptical thinking. Instead of an easy debunking of straw-men like Depak Chopra and ESP experts, his focus is on the philosophy of how science works in the real world. Indeed, it looks at science's role as perhaps the only surefire way to overcome our frail human biases when uncovering the truth about things the way they are--and not, for good or ill, the way we want them to be.
While I really enjoyed this book, I found it diffuse, almost lacking a clear thesis. Gladwell illustrates both the upside and downside of “going with your gut,” and mentions that training is necessary to truly control negative "blink" reactions. But he never seems to pull it all together, helping us guard against these poor gut reactions.
For instance, he illustrates how police officers are trained to work in tense situations. The better they trained, the more the officer’s mind strains against the “blink,” or “thinking without thinking” reactions that their body’s increased adrenalin are causing. After a white knuckle high-speed chase, for instance, a well trained officer will still follow protocol to avoid placing themselves, the suspect, or any innocent bystanders in jeopardy.
Yet, despite this training, four likely well-trained NYPD police officers opened fire on immigrant Amadou Diallo 41 times as he reached for his wallet to identify himself. Blink, with a vengeance.
The difference? Gladwell does an admirable job of raising the question, but a miserable job of tying them together. Still, since I love questions, I gave the book three stars. Paraphrasing Pablo Picasso, computers are worthless because they only give you answers. I subtracted points for lack of cohesion.
Similar to my first exposures to systems thinking and chaos theory, learning about network structure will change the way I think. While I would like to look at the math behind this discovery (if I have the time!), Barabasi served as a great introduction. After all, decades of reductionism have shattered the world into a myriad of parts, and we need some conceptual “glue” to reassemble these parts rationally.
And it seems likely that scale-free network topology that the Barabasi helped discover in Web pages may be such a “mental glue.” The topology seems to fit many natural phenomena. But, is this a new “math” describing the structure of reality, similar to Newton’s laws? As an empiricist at heart, I would like independent verification, instead of the author, and one of the initial discoverers of network topology, giving us the old rah-rah.
This overt boosterism shaved a star off of my rating. Once Barabasi began “science fictionizing” the results of network theory near the end of the book, my inner critic reared up. To wit: The “Internet as one giant computer…” A fully mapped cell protein network ends physician visits (we will email results of blood work, which the doctor will use to prescribe “designer drugs”), cures cancer and psychic disorders such as bipolar disorder… (?)
Let’s not get too far. We are not there yet! And when we get there, I have a sneaking suspicion that old Mother Nature has a wrinkle or two up her sleeve.
Still, read this book! You will be taking quite a ride.
Now I know why “War and Peace” ranks so high on great books lists. Tolstoy has the unique ability to move from the high to the low seamlessly. His minute descriptions of daily life are detailed, yet lithe enough to pulse with life without plodding. His treatment of his character’s psychology is nuanced without being pretentious. And lastly, his grasp of the philosophy behind human events is stunning, though decidedly debatable.
Plot-wise, there are few novels that leave me feeling that everything that happened was inevitable without second guessing the author. This novel, though sprawling and complex, has a feeling of self-contained inevitability.
The characters seem to breathe. Tolstoy develops his main character, Pierre from a seeming oaf in a prissy drawing room, through mystical insanity to a final solidity in his final married life. Indeed, it seems that the “peace” of Pierre finds in the hearth is the proper counterpoint to the backdrop of “war.” Other characters seem intensely real as well, from the duplicitous Kuragin to the lively, pretty and impetuous Natalia. These characters strike a chord of truth and grow to encompass their experiences.
There are, of course, flaws. Karatayev seems an idealized Russian peasant. Though feeling inevitable in the novel, the Pierre- Natasha- Andre love triangle seems overly novelistic. And Tolstoy has a propensity to preach for pages at an end.
The flaws, however, are far outweighed by the perfections. “War and Peace” is worth experiencing.
As to the reading, Davidson animates his characters, giving each a separate voice. He does have a habit of pausing in the middle of sentences to take a breath, and emphasizing odd phrases. Still, I find myself immensely pleased with the book. Great literature given justice; Entertaining as well as enlightening.
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