March 1, 2007

The Good Citizen’s Alphabet

Filed under: art, books, education, humor, religion — ted @ 3:38 pm

Via the Design Observer, a complete scan of Bertrand Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet.

It is fascinating to think back to the early 1950s. A couple of Polish émigrés, having studied physics, architecture and painting, and having made a few art films and started a publishing company, sit down with a leading philosopher to make something whimsical and subversive. That an alphabet book was the outcome pleases me to no end.


January 24, 2007

Yay Existentialism!

Filed under: bookish, criticism, religion — ted @ 6:59 pm

In the Chronicle, Texas professor Robert Solomon defends existentialism from its critics and those who misunderstand its premise:

Only a few weeks ago I heard a radio commentator declare that the “nothing really matters” lyric from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was truly “existential.” And I still hear pundits and some of my university colleagues decry existentialism as the source of our nihilistic gloom, the reason why our students don’t vote and why they experiment with dangerous drugs. I listen to such comments with a mix of amusement and horror because I like existentialism and I think that existentialism, not pessimism, is what America needs right now.

December 28, 2006

A Whole Imbroglio of Capabilities

Filed under: books, literature — ted @ 4:56 pm

I’m presently working my way through Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and it makes for tough-going. The text is difficult not only on account of Carlyle’s notoriously elaborate and eccentric prose, but because of the text’s near Kierkegaardian level of indirection. The narrator (not Carlyle) is an Englishman who is in possession of a disorderly collection of papers left by a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, who developed a “philosophy of Clothes” which encompasses all of life. The meaning works on a wide range of levels: the professor is clearly a pastiche of Hegel, and Transcendentalist philosophy in general, but he’s also — just as evidently — very dear to Carlyle, and certain parts of the professor’s story are autobiographical. Add to this the fact that it aims to communicate deep truths about human existence while simultaneously mocking the very effort.

Presently, I’m one hundred pages in, which puts me at the beginning of the middle. The good stuff is still to come. Carlyle’s detachment and ability to pile on detail and mockery effectively lull the reader into a false sense of boredom — and then he’ll hit you with a passage like the one below. The Professor is writing about his post-university days, and the feelings of possibility and despair he is experiencing. It hits close to home:

“Not what I Have,” continues he, “but what I Do is my Kingdom. To each is given a certain inward Talent, a certain outward Environment of Fortune; to each, by wisest combination of these two, a certain maximum of Capability. But the hardest problem were ever this first: To find by study of yourself, and of the ground you stand on, what your combined inward and outward Capability specially is. For, alas, our young soul is all budding with Capabilities, and we see not yet which is the main and true one. Always too the new man is in a new time, under new conditions; his course can be the fac-simile of no prior one, but is by its nature original. And then how seldom will the outward Capability fit the inward: though talented wonderfully enough, we are poor, unfriended, dyspeptical, bashful; nay what is worse than all, we are foolish. Thus, in a whole imbroglio of Capabilities, we go stupidly groping about, to grope which is ours, and often clutch the wrong one: in this mad work must several years of our small term be spent, till the purblind Youth, by practice, acquire notions of distance, and become a seeing Man. Nay, many so spend their whole term, and in ever-new expectation, ever-new disappointment, shift from enterprise to enterprise, and from side to side: till at length, as exasperated striplings of threescore-and-ten, they shift into their last enterprise, that of getting buried.

I’ll write a full review of Sartor Resartus after I finish it, but I may have to post more fragments along the way.

December 21, 2006

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Filed under: books, nerd — ted @ 2:15 pm

From The Guardian:

Christmas came early for fans of the Harry Potter series this year, with the revelation of the title of the long-awaited seventh book. The final instalment of the adventures of the boy wizard who, has captured the imagination of children (and adults) the world over, will be called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Well, this is exciting news. A nice splash page at Bloomsbury confirms it.

The publication date for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is still unknown, but is expected to be set in early 2007.

November 27, 2006

The Stonish People

Filed under: art, books — ted @ 12:46 pm

Plenty of excellent miscellany today on BibliOdyssey, including this illustration from an 1828 edition of David Cusick’s Sketches of ancient history of the Six Nations, which is, according to Wikipedia, a “very early (if not the first) account of Native American history and myth.” The illustration is called “The Stonish People”

(click to enlarge) 

November 21, 2006

Unusual Plagiarism

Filed under: books — ted @ 5:55 pm

An intriguing article in Slate posits that the new search technologies unleashed by Google Book Search may expose plagiarisms that occurred in the past and were never detected. It gives an example: a 1899 essay by England Howlett which copied a 1892 book by a well-known author.

Most interesting to me was this report, which indicates how unlikely accidental plagiarism is, even for a simple sentence:

But wait, you might ask, don’t people accidentally repeat each other’s sentences all the time? It seems to me that this should not be unusual. Yet try plugging that last sentence word by word into Google Book Search, and watch what happens.

It: Rejected—too many hits to count
It seems: 11,160,000 matches
It seems to: 3,050,000
It seems to me: 1,580,000
It seems to me that: 844,000
It seems to me that this: 29,700
It seems to me that this should: 237
It seems to me that this should not: 20
It seems to me that this should not be: 9
It seems to me that this should not be unusual: 0

It seems to me that this should not be unusual is itself … unusual.

Google Book Search contains hundreds of millions of printed pages, and yet after just a few words, the likelihood of the sentence’s replication scales down dramatically. And even before our sentence implodes into utter improbability, there’s another telling phenomenon at work. The nine books that contain the penultimate It seems to me that this should not be are from a grab bag of subjects: a 2001 study of Freud, an 1874 collection of Methodist camp sermons, minutes from a 1973 hearing of the Senate subcommittee on transportation. So, if replicating the same sentence alone is suspicious behavior, then to also replicate it on the same subject warrants dialing 911.

November 12, 2006

from Mill’s Autobiography

Filed under: bookish — ted @ 4:28 pm

A weekend selection:

Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, ot putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

— J.S. Mill, Autobiography, Book 5

November 2, 2006

Burglarize a Nobel laureate

Filed under: bookish, literature — ted @ 10:57 am

And make of yourself an example for a larger point about the cultural and political situation in your country.

Last week, Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer was robbed in her house in Johannesburg. She was unharmed, although it seems she was roughed up a bit after refusing to give the robbers her wedding ring.

A week later, Gordimer was keen to view the incident from the other side. The robbers, she said, are products of a society grappling with the legacy of South Africa’s past. “I know that South Africa has a terrible problem with crime, with violent crime. But I don’t think the answer is more police. I think we must look at the reasons behind the crime. There are young people in poverty without opportunities. They need education, training and employment. That is the way to reduce crime,” she said.

A similar, though more violent, South African burglary is described in the novel Disgrace — written by countryman (and fellow Nobel Laureate and Booker Prize winner) J. M. Coetzee — which was just named the “best novel of the past 25 years” by the Guardian.

October 31, 2006

The Uninitiated

Filed under: books, criticism, humor — ted @ 12:35 pm

You have to love this collection of reviews of classics posted on Amazon.

This one can be found in the comments section:

Jane Eyre is the scourge of literature

Reading this book was about as pleasant as a throwing knife to the face. I am going to be a senior in high school next year, and I just finished this book for my summer assignments for AP Literature. I literally took a victory lap around my house upon completion. I HATED this book. It was boring and rather pointless. No one cares about the romantic struggles of a fake character. This is basically the chick flick of books. I honestly believe this is the worst book I’ve ever read. I encourage everyone with a Y chromosome to stay as far away from this book as possible.

Ayn Rand

Filed under: books — ted @ 10:42 am

Via Toothpaste for Dinner:

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