Thursday, February 18, 2010

2009 Review: Books

Global Review should review things, right? Over the next week or two, I'll review some random places, items, and ideas from 2009.

  1. The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. This is truly a great work of Western literature, and Edward Gibbon's harsh, incisive wit makes it a pleasure to read. It doesn't feel too detailed while you're reading it - but manages to cover every emperor from Pius Antoninus to the fall of Rome. Gibbon puts the onus for Rome's decline on the demilitarization of the Italians, the Orientalization of the empire by Constantine, and ultimately on Augustus' cooptation of the Senate, undermining the Republic. But he concludes by noting that what's really amazing is how long Roman civilization lasted, despite its weaknesses. Proving that point, he continues for another entire volume discussing the successor states of the Western Empire - Franks, Goths. The culture remained very much 'Roman' long after the last emperor was assassinated (though, notably, not in Britain).
  2. The Innocent Man. John Grisham is better in telling the story of a horribly unfair 'justice' process than he is in most of his fiction. The details are pedestrian, but the injustice he describes makes one scream.
  3. The Princess & the Goblin. GK Chesterton's children's fiction is a self-conscious revival of old-fashioned values: trustworthiness, chivalry, duty. The story is fun, too.
  4. Proust Was A Neuroscientist. This interesting little book describes a nexus of art and science which is notable in that the art preceded the science. It could be interpreted as joyful or as dogmatic, depending on one's point of view. Jonah Lehrer implicitly takes sides on some metaphysical questions by describing how recent developments in neuroscience support one side of the question. His chapter on taste is the most fun - and revealing. Science dogmatically believed that humans could only taste four flavors (despite research from Japan in 1907), until the late 1990's, when scientists finally verified the existence of umami. You already love this flavor.
  5. Dymer. C.S. Lewis' foray into epic poetry is accessible, and displays his affection for pre-Platonist paganism. His other works in "Narrative Poems" are not very good.
  6. Theodore Rex. Teddy Roosevelt is one of the most interesting, larger-than-life presidents in American history. Somehow, Edmund Morris manages to describe Teddy's reign without conveying that magic to the reader. One of the few inspiring passages lists the books that Roosevelt read while he was in office. It goes on for several pages.


turtle said...

"without conveying the magic" sounds like an anti-recommendation.

Chops said...

That's exactly what it is. If you want to read a biography of TR, read a different one.

Carol L. Douglas said...

Gorsh, of your list I've only read Gibbon and Lehrer. I really appreciated "The Brain that Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge more than Lehrer. I think it agrees with fundamental Christian doctrine in saying that one is not imprisoned by one's genes, that biology is not destiny.

Gibbon of course was speaking about the Roman Empire, not the Roman Republic. I'm a big fan of empire, but more of a fan of democracy, so I think that in the most important way Rome died when Caesar crossed the Rubicon.