Unabashed Naïveté

Summer reading

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For a student, I’ve had a kinda-sorta busy summer in that every day I have obligations to fulfill at scheduled times (forcing me to turn down many a proposed rendezvous), but still have quite a lot of free time. So a few weeks ago I went to the library to get some books.

  • The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker
  • Abstract Algebra and Solution by Radicals, John Maxfield and Margaret Maxfield
  • The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music, Tim Smith
  • The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  • The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • King Lear, William Shakespeare
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

(Actually, I’ve had Abstract Algebra and David Copperfield lying around the house for a while, but decided to crack them open now.)

I hardly ever read fiction of my own accord, so I didn’t really know where to start. I just thought the less risky choice would be just to go for the classics. They’re supposed to be good, and if they aren’t, I’ll be that much less uncultured and able to tell people that I have, in fact, read the books they did in high school. As for 36 Arguments, well, Goldstein is Pinker’s wife, and apparently he married her because he liked her novels so much, so it’s got to be good, right?

Cover of The Stuff of Thought I started with The Stuff of Thought, whose cover suggests that the stuff of thought is paintbrushes, boobs, toilets, display screens, and toilet paper. It was the last of Pinker’s popular books that I hadn’t read. It was a tad disappointing to find that the content wasn’t as yummy as in his other books. The argument is both less interesting and less compelling (the prose is par). Or maybe I just don’t have the capacity to fully understandand appreciate it. The question is interesting: what is built into our brains, how do our minds conceptualize new thoughts? Part of the answer: among other things, our minds innate theories of space, time, and causality, and metaphorically frame many other thoughts in terms of these (as is reflected in language). For example, She gave it to him uses location (space) as a metaphor for possession, and movement (evidence: the preposition to) for change of possession. Other linguistic evidence also supposedly shows that our minds (innately?) make discrete distinctions between individuals and masses, forcing and ‘letting’, 3-D objects and 2-D objects, and other concepts. There’s also a chapter about swearing, but I’m not sure we need a Harvard psychologist to point out that cuss words usually relate to sex, poop, and God. You can also expect detailed discussions of issues like where the meaning of words reside, what causality is, and other puzzles that I would never have guessed would have provoked such nuanced and involved argumentation among philosophers. All mildly interesting, I suppose, topics not quite pass the threshold that would make me want to actually think deeply about them. A book to skim.

Have I been too harsh? Perhaps: As I’ve discovered, I don’t really have the attention span to actually read entire books, except when they really interest me. All the previous Pinker books had, but perhaps they’re actually special. With The Republican War on Science, for example, I was just a bored. It felt like reading the news, except about stuff a few decades ago, and longer. (But the news is supposed to be interesting. I must be too apathetic about the real world.) After The Stuff of Thought, I tried to force myself to read some of the classics all the way through before I got started on 36 Arguments, which I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to put down.

I am now 118 pages into the Dickens, 16 pages into the “Introductory” of Scarlet Letter, and 0 pages into King Lear. How do people manage this stuff? Sure, Dickens is funny, but only once every three chapters, and only to the same extent that bottled water is sweet (not even to the extent that mildly spicy fried chicken is spicy). Hawthorne’s fondness for subordinate phrases and clauses, not to say that they’re bad, of course — in fact, I’m quite fond of them myself, (I find it a mystery how Chinese academics get along without them) and I can see how they might easily arise when writing with actual pen and paper, since then it’s easier to add in, as you’re going along, an explanatory note in between commas with a which, than to go back an insert a sentence where there’s no space — is somewhat taxing for the reader.

I get it, it’s art and not entertainment. It requires time and effort, and even then there’s a good chance that you won’t like it that much. Just like classical music, as I learned from Tim Smith. I’m 40 pages into his book.

Cover of 36 Arguments for the Existence of GodThat’s the problem: with this high art you don’t know if your investment will be paid off in the end. Unlike with math books, which are not as funny as Dickens, and which are usually denser than the toughest piece of literature you care to produce, but which always promise to reward you with theorems, always of the highest standard (they are true). To be fair, I am only reading Maxfield and Maxfield as a novel, skipping all the exercises I can’t do in my head. But I’ve been given the OK to do this.

Eventually I succumbed to 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. It’s got 36 arguments laid out in the appendix, together with short refutations. The main novel is about the conflicts between reason, faith, and the soul, and the conflicts of identity that secular Jewish people have to face, or something like that, and a little bit about the sciences versus the humanities, and a little bit of math. It also contains words like stentorious and tchotchke and apotropaic that I had fun looking up. (Don’t worry, they’re used to good effect.) But mainly, it’s about these pretentious Jewish academics and all the fun they have in their ivory towers. And it’s hilarious. Finished in a few days.

Christopher Hitchens even wrote

You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something.

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Written by leonxlin

August 16, 2012 at 11:19 pm

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