Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | June 22, 2013

Books, Book Reviews, and a List of Reading Lists

1. A short post in the Paris Review points to this short film, The Last Bookshop, which “takes place in a dystopian future world without books.”

~ ~ ~

(I get a bit of a Harry Potter vibe from the video, but that could just be due to the fact that the film is set in southern England — and the fact that the shop-keeper bears some resemblance to Mr. Ollivander.)

2. Either the irony was lost on them, or they didn’t care: Kenan Malik recounts a story about self-censorship (emphasis added):

Almost twenty years ago, in 1994, the Independent newspaper asked me to write an essay on Tom Paine, the eighteenth-century English revolutionary. It was the 200th anniversary of his masterpiece, The Age of Reason, a book of which Paine said that it was a ‘march through Christianity with an axe’. ‘All national institutions of churches’, wrote Paine, ‘whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to be no more than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.’

Few authors have so punctured the pretensions of organised religion or so savaged the claims of divine revelation as Paine. Fewer still have faced such ridicule and vilification for doing so. In England The Age of Reason was suppressed for decades and successive publishers imprisoned for blasphemy. Anyone who distributed, read or discussed the book faced prosecution. Some were arrested for simply displaying the portrait of the author. In America, where hitherto Paine had been feted as a hero for his unwavering support for independence, newspapers denounced him as a ‘lily-livered sinical [sic] rogue’ and ‘a demihuman archbeast’. The Age of Reason, as I observed in my Independent essay, became ‘The Satanic Verses of its day’. And, given that comparison, I thought it reasonable to open the essay with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s novel, satirising the divine origins of the Qur’an.

The Independent thought otherwise. There was consternation in the editorial offices when I filed my piece. Eventually one of the editors phoned me to say that I could not use the quote from The Satanic Verses because it was deemed too offensive. No amount of logic or reasoning could persuade her otherwise. The irony of having been commissioned to write an essay on Tom Paine, the greatest freethinker of his age, and then being banned from quoting from a freely available book, seemed to escape the Independent editors.

At the heart of the argument for restrictions on offensive speech is the belief that while free speech may be a good, it must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

It is an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of diversity and of free speech. When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflict. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Diversity is important because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can held create a more universal language of citizenship.

Please do read the whole thing. As Malik says, “‘I believe in free speech. But…’ may well be a motto of our times.” (H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

3. Tyler Cowen reviews How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell. Cowen’s take: “this is perhaps my favorite economics book of the year. Quite simply, it is the best single treatment on what in Asian industrial policy worked or did not work.”

From the review: “Studwell explains that South Korean policy was based in a notion of ‘export discipline’ and that policymakers were quite ready to see leading chaebol go bankrupt, which indeed they did often. Everything was directed toward export capacity and they didn’t worry about what rate of price inflation, often in double digits, the cheap credit policies might create. It was a gamble on a world-historical scale, noting that South Korea engaged in much more borrowing than did the other Asian tigers. His p.111 account of how Park and his cronies started arresting most of the nation’s leading businessmen, to teach them a lesson and to skew corruption in nation-building directions, is sobering and thought-provoking reading.”

4. A good point (emphasis added): “My biggest problem with this sort of discussion is that they’re not even wrong. Saying that you found these symbols or ideas in a text is almost certainly true. Concluding that everybody else notices and responds to them in the way that you saw them is a different matter. The very fact that two people can read the same text and interpret it differently tells me that one should be cautious in assuming that kids will read a storybook in the same way as a PhD candidate in humanities. There’s a reason why literary criticism and child psychology are different academic programs.”

5. Dale James: “Mythology and Comic Books.”

6. A number of bloggers have taken it upon themselves this month to compile lists of the “Essential Epic Fantasies.” See lists by:

  • Jared Shurin (Part I; Part II) — who includes I, Claudius and some other unexpected choices;
  • Liz Bourke (Part I; Part II) — who says, of Game of Thrones, “In those days, killing off characters was still a shocking thing to do…”;
  • Justin Landon (Part I; Part II) — who surprisingly includes Paradise Lost, by John Milton, and Quo Vadis, by the great Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz;
  • Tansy Rayner Roberts (Part I; Part II) — who probably has the most esoteric list — or the list with the least overlap with the other lists;
  • Ian Sales — who admits that much of his list is not, strictly speaking, fantasy or epic;

Some interesting choices. A few titles made multiple lists, including The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Watership Down, The Mists of Avalon. Jared Shurin includes The Chronicles of Narnia, and Tansy Rayner Roberts includes The Silver Chair, which is part of the Narnia series. And I’m pleased to see the Harry Potter novels on multiple lists.

7. ‘Tis the season for Summer Reading Lists. In continuity with the previous item, here is a list of fantasy titles. Here is a summer reading list by Consuelos, and here is a summer reading list by Bosco. Bosco’s list especially resonates with me. I’ve read World War Z and heartily recommend it. I also recommend Feast and Dance, obviously, although Feast is a bit disappointing — as many, many fans of Game of Thrones have noted. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, has been on my “to read” list for a while now.

At The Atlantic, Alexander Nazaryan has this summer reading list, and Richard Lawson has this list of books (fiction and nonfiction) that will soon be appearing as movie adaptations. Catching Fire, the second volume in the Hunger Games series, makes this list, but World War Z is inexcusably omitted. Also at The Atlantic, Esther Zuckerman recommends summer as a good time to tackle “classic-lite” novels — that is, books that “don’t feel particularly daunting but you’ve always meant to read and, perhaps most importantly, feel like a blind spot in your sense of cultural history.” She gives Dubliners and Ender’s Game as examples, as well as recommending Hemingway and Steinbeck more generally. (Nota bene: Ender’s Game will also be appearing on screen later this year.)

8. Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money has a list of the best selling books on August 8, 1969.


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  2. You definitely need to read Cryptonomicon. Unless you read some other books by him first, because none of them will seem as good after you’ve read Cryptonomicon.

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