Reading Adler's List

An attempt to read all the titles in Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of Western Civilization.  And some other stuff in between.


Osama - Lavie Tidhar About halfway through Osama, I realized I had a mistake. Tidhar had me thinking this was just some alt-world, modern noir detective story. But he’s aiming for something more. I had not paid enough close attention to the details. I had been too wrapped up in his wonderfully worded short chapters and missed that the plot was slipping by. Once I realized, I don’t think I caught back up.

It’s one of those books which becomes so ethereal it can be subject to many interpretations. Maybe it’s because I just glossed over some key plot points early on. Or maybe Tidhar was happy to leave it that way. Either way, this is a book that strives to introduce layers in what begins as a pulp novel about a pulp novel.

No matter how chill I try to be about reading books like this, inevitably there is the desire to find themes. Is it about the thin veil between alternate existences? Is it about recovering from loss? Or being lost? Maybe it’s all just some bad heroin. Though not explicitly mentioned, I can’t help but find some significance that the story begins in Laos, the country the French called the Land of the Lotus-Eaters. If one was to pick a place to choose to forget, Vientiane is probably a top contender.

Anyway, none of this makes sense unless you read the book. And it probably doesn’t make sense even if you do. It’s a fascinating book. It may strive to do more than it successfully accomplishes, but it tries well.

Amberzine #12

Amberzine #12 - Kucharski,  Michael It’s always cool to see people devoted to something they love. Zelazny’s friends and fans continue the saga of Amber with their short stories. Zelazny even contributed a couple of stories. Those that knew him also included some personal reflections of their time spent together before he died.

I never knew this existed until I stumbled across it from a book dealer. It’s the last of the series and I’m sure some of the stories didn’t make much sense to me because they were serials from previous editions. There are a lot of stories inspired by the gaming journals of the Amber DRPG as well as some poems, artwork and even a short graphic novella.

It’s fan fiction. Some good, some not. However, that’s really not the point. It’s a tribute to a man, and world, loved by many.

Treatise On Light (Illustrated Edition)

Treatise on Light (Illustrated Edition) - Christiaan Huygens I understood Huygens when he was presenting his argument that light travels in waves at a defined speed, but then he thought he should prove it and he lost me. His geometric proofs describing the differences in refraction are probably something geometers rave over, but I couldn’t appreciate it. Which is most of the book. Another book I’m not remotely qualified to rate.

Streetfighter in the Courtroom

Streetfighter in the Courtroom: The People's Advocate - Charles R. Garry, Art Goldberg The title says it all. Charles Garry verbally brawled in court. He was willing to call the judge racist and the prosecutor demented. He didn’t play nice.

I imagine it was hard to remain humble if you travel the country defending Black Panthers and student protestors. Garry’s ego permeates his writing. It can be a little much at times, but it’s not like it’s unearned. He fought the status quo because, in the infamous words of Dr. Horrible, the status is not quo. Garry didn’t do it with some half-assed, self-righteous resignation that he would probably lose which is all too prevalent among activists; he was there to win. Which he often did. Impressively.

Reading as a lawyer can be cringe-worthy at times. That voice in the back of my head was constantly chirping about the objections and evidentiary rules which should have prohibited some of Garry’s proudest accomplishments. But that’s the point. He wasn’t there to play by the rules. He was there to fight. He threw dirt in eyes and kicked at knees. He fought, like the title says, as a streetfighter.


As an aside, the best quote in the entire book doesn't come from Garry or one of his clients. It comes from a radio personality quoting a sign which was on Justice Frank Murphy's desk: "All men make mistakes. Be sure your mistake is on the side of mercy." Pg. 31.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2)

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2) - Stieg Larsson I’m not sure what happened. I read about halfway, set the book down and got distracted. Now, over a year later, I picked it up and finished the story. Much like the first book, it’s well-written and has great pacing. Larsson knows how to keep the tempo up as he follows various threads throughout the book.

Be warned though, The Girl Who Played With Fire makes no attempt to be anything other than a middle book in the trilogy. Larsson is clearly egging us on to read the third book. Given how well he writes, I should be ready to continue on. But there is a certain fatigue to the books. Maybe it’s misogynistic violence fatigue or just a lack of real connection to the characters, but I think I’m going to hold off for awhile.

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge George Berkeley with Introduction By Costica Bradatan (The Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading)

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge George Berkeley with Introduction By Costica Bradatan (The Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading) - George Berkeley Berkeley does not hedge on his maxim esse est percipi (being is being perceived). He jumps in head first, bets all on black and puts all of his eggs in one basket without actually mixing metaphors. Berkeley ramps up Locke’s arguments and simplifies them. He does away with Locke’s notion of a substratum of existence and commits fully to the idea that all we can perceive are Ideas. What has hindered his predecessors was their unfounded belief that Matter has existence apart from the mind. By casting aside Matter, the paradoxes of geometric problems, as well as the dilemma in deciphering levels of reality, are set aside.

Which leads to the next question. Dr. Bradatan writes a great Introduction in which he summarizes the question and answer:
If there is no such thing as matter, what is it, then, that we experience in the outside world? It is God’s Discourse. The world is living word. In Principles, as well as in most of Berekely’s other philosophical works, nature is seen as the “visual language” that God uses to speak with us. The things we see around us, their unfolding and succession, their changing into one another, are not meaningless occurrences, but they form divine speech; they say something about the “Author of Nature.” Introduction, Pg. XIII.
The world only exists because it is perceived. Not only by us (or more appropriately me, because I can’t be sure you exist), but by the Spirit (codename : God) as well. It is the Spirit’s act of perception which maintains existence when I am not actively perceiving. It’s all very Hindu actually. There’s a story in which Vishnu sleeps dreaming of the universe and Brahma sits on a lotus growing from his navel. When Brahma opens his eyes, the world is created and, after millions of years, Brahma blinks and the world is destroyed only to be recreated when Brahma reopens his eyes. Or something close to that. Though I’m sure Berkeley, who was a Bishop in the Anglican Church, would object to the comparison.

Berkeley dispenses with any drawn out methodology underlying his premise that we experience the Idea of things, and not things themselves. Which probably doesn’t win any converts to his extreme view of existence. But it’s a fascinating way to view the world.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding - John Locke, Kenneth Winkler Locke’s Essay is considered a foundational work for the new empiricism which arose out of the friction between Descartes with his rationalist followers and the old-school Aristotelian empiricists of the Scholastics. In true empiricist form, Locke binds himself to the proposition that all knowledge can only be gained through the senses but, in an interesting twist, also refuses to put blind faith in the accuracy of the senses.

To begin, Locke spends Book I rejecting any notion that there is innate knowledge. It’s a fairly simple premise which is drawn out unnecessarily. If there was innate knowledge, then there would be no dispute among individuals about it. Children would have it. People of other cultures would have it. Everyone. Since that’s not the case, there isn’t innate knowledge. The closest he comes is in the perception of God. Most (but not all) cultures have an understanding of a higher power. However, he maintains consistency and argues that the existence of God is something that is rationally concluded by observations in the world.

The second and third books, which are the bulk of the Essay focus on definitions. The nature of Ideas and Substance is discussed at length. Ideas are broken down into simple and complex ideas. Essentially, simple ideas are the ones that are ones which define themselves. Power, pain, pleasure, etc. He similarly breaks down Substance into primary, secondary and tertiary qualities. The primacy of a Substance is that which is the core essence of a thing. Since he’s unable to define a thing’s core essence, Locke intellectually creates a substratum of existence in which a thing can be purely defined. This seems to go against the empiricist ethic because we have no experience of this substratum.

Book IV is where he gets to the heart of his epistemology. Which, quite frankly, is a bit of a let down. For Locke, “our highest degree of knowledge is intuitive, without reasoning.” Pg. 321. He copies Descartes in his conclusion that we know only clear and distinct truths. For him, it’s a conclusion reached by recognizing our experience. For Descarte, it was an a priori recognition.

Locke was heavily influenced by Robert Boyle’s Corpuscular Hypothesis at the time and his views defining Ideas and Substance clearly reflect that impact. It’s surprising then that Locke fails to appreciate how scientific advancements will affect our ability to experience new things which may give a greater foundation for knowledge. Locke views science as a means to develop our judgment about knowledge, but does not actually increase knowledge itself. A fine distinction which ultimately seems fairly meaningless. Locke assumes that the experience of his time could provide the most clear and distinct truths which form a basis for knowledge. Additionally, since he’s a religious man, he allows for revelation from God as another avenue for knowledge.

The edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding edited by Winkler is an abridgment. I was debating whether I should return this to the library and get the full work, but I’m glad I stuck with the abridged edition. Even in this edition, Locke is repetitive and wordy. I’m sure I lost some of the logical build-up to his conclusions, but I got the gist. It was groundbreaking at the time and for that it has to be appreciated. However, since Locke limited his knowledge to what could be experienced in the late 17th century, it seems considerably less relevant for the 21st century. In this age of DNA, molecular chemistry and microbiology, extensive discussion about the definitional difference between a horse and piece of gold seems a bit unnecessary.

The Great Book of Amber - Roger Zelazny We’re all shadows in Zelazny’s world. Reflections of the one true world, Amber. Infinite in number and possibility. And the children of Oberon are the gods. Some duty-bound, some languid, but all mostly petty.

Zelazny creates an epic mix of paganistic pantheons and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Amberites bicker and plot in Ovid-worthy tales. Their familial infighting is something out of Greek, Roman and Norse myth. Then throw in the allusions to Chaos as a Hell, Amber as Heaven, Earth as a favored Shadow and you’ve successfully, and unnecessarily, overanalyzed a fantastic fantasy tale.

The first five books, commonly called the Corwin cycle, are unquestionably the best. The second set of five, the Merlin cycle, expands the foundation of the Amber universe to the point where it begins to totter. Zelazny is maybe too zealous in expanding the myth behind the workings of the Pattern and Logrus. Kind of like how we were all happy with the mystery of the Force until Lucas used midi-chlorians to sciencefuck a perfectly good faith. Anyway, Zelazny’s imagination gets unbridled as the books progress and the ride becomes increasingly bumpy.

For the diehard fans, the book inspired the 1991 classic diceless RPG Amber. A game I obsessed over for a couple of years. Apparently the rights to the game have been tied up for several years so nothing has really developed on that front. However, a recent Kickstarter by the same makers of the original developed another diceless Amber spin-off called Lords of Gossamer and Shadow. Check it out and if anyone is interested in trying it out, let me know.
The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
"Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting."
For those that have fallen in love with books, Alan Bennett gives this wink and a nod to you. Takes about an hour. It’s a good, long wink. And more than enough for him to charm you.

Radical Lawyers Their Role in the Movement and in the

Radical Lawyers Their Role in the Movement and in the - Jonathan Black This should be required reading for every law school graduate.

Well, maybe not the contract lawyers. We lost them a long time ago.

A collection of essays by lawyers in the late sixties and early seventies as well as letters and interviews by defendants themselves. Black Panthers and those in the student movement. All the contributions are excellent. They challenge that secret self-satisfied righteousness we have when we are fighting for a cause. A good trial, a clever motion, an indignant bail argument. These are window dressing. Before we can claim to be fighting for a cause, we have to take a good look at how we undermine it. As “officers of the court,” defense lawyers are too often complicit in perpetuating the same injustice sought to be overcome.

The justice system is designed to isolate and wear down defendants. When those taking collective action are arrested, they are divided in the court. Sometimes, in rote form, the lawyer works for the best interest of the individual client and manages to strip away the most effective tool. Solidarity. At times, being a good lawyer is not about expertise, it’s about identifying with the client. It’s about articulating the client’s politics or experience. It’s about making arguments that don’t fit in with the rules of evidence. It’s about pushing the limits of the justice system itself. Sometimes, believe it or not, the law should actually be about justice. Not the idealized, Corinthian-column type of justice. Not the justice found in case law and doctrines. Gut level justice.
Two Treatises of Government/A Letter Concerning Toleration - John Locke, Ian Shapiro Separation of powers, separation of church and State and taxation without the consent of the governed. Sound familiar? It doesn’t take long to see that Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is the philosophical grandfather to the American Revolution. One hundred years after it was written, many of Locke’s principles were etched out by Thomas Jefferson’s quill. For Locke, civil government was a tool to maximize individual freedom while providing protection and a forum to resolve disputes.

The First Treatise on Government is talked about less and is a bit of a tedious read. Locke writes his refutation of Sir Robert Filmer’s Biblical-based argument for submission to “royal authority.” Chapter and verse are provided time and time again to refute Filmer’s own Biblical interpretation. Not exciting stuff, but a disciplined and effective argument. Locke’s opening sentence, though, is a rhetorical cannonade:
Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it. pg. 7
Locke wins the spin battle in the first paragraph.

Finally, in A Letter Concerning Toleration Locke stresses it’s not the diversity of religious thought which is the problem, it’s the lack of tolerance. A religious man himself, he sees no right for any civil authority to dictate the beliefs of the community. Everyone operates according to their conscience and should be free to do so unless trespassing on the individual liberty of others. A belief compelled is a meaningless belief.

In great libertarian fashion, Locke sees that “the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good.” pg. 156, Second Treatise. In sweeping terms, he lays out a form of government authorized by the people and checked by the institutions of government itself.

But he has his detractors as well. The technical aspects of governance are touched on sparingly. Admittedly, Locke has grandiose claims of individual freedom, has little to say about how to remedy oppression of the minority by the majority and assumes others have a belief system which can accommodate individualism. The essays at the back also provide some critical analysis on the true extent of Locke’s toleration and his legacy viewed through the lens of feminist theory.

Despite all that, five stars anyway. His words turned into a country.
Rameau's Nephew and D'Alembert's Dream (Penguin Classics) - Denis Diderot, Leonard Tancock
Devil take me if I really know what I am. As a rule my mind is as true as a sphere and my character as honest as the day: never false if I have the slightest interest in being true, never true if I have the slightest interest in being false. I say things as they come to me; if sensible, all to the good, but if outrageous, people don’t take any notice. I use freedom of speech for all it’s worth. I have never reflected in my life, either before speaking, during speech or after. And so I give no offence. pg. 79, Rameau’s Nephew
So says “He”, Diderot’s assignment of Rameau’s nephew in this likely fictional conversation. Casting aside social convention at every turn, Diderot uses “He” to explore the truly free man. A man who begs, borrows and steals without shame simply to… do what? With practiced ennui, “He” rejects everything valued by others to seek whatever whim strikes. Diderot never published this work in his life and there are countless interpretations for Rameau’s Nephew. Materialist ideal? Satire? Or was it simply a man struggling with the contradictory implications of his beliefs. There is probably a reason that the rather boring “I” is most likely Diderot in the conversation.

D’Alembert’s Dream is a slightly more straight-forward conversation. Using the voice of Doctor Theophile de Bordeu, Diderot attacks any notion of a meaningful natural world. What’s natural is natural. Science says so. In true Enlightenment fashion, he sees a world where natural selection and infinite variation is possible. Embrace it, don’t condemn it. As with Rameau’s Nephew, the problem is not with the world, but those who wish it put their interpretation on it.

Unfortunately, what I took away from both books was somewhat limited. Part of the problem is I’m part of his choir. Our obsessive need to assign right and wrong creates more harm than good. I get it. Everything goes. But does that mean there’s no course of action preferable to another? Diderot doesn’t really explore that part. For him, our actions are governed by the physical world. Value stops when the conversations end.
Opticks - Sir Isaac Newton,  Designed by I. Bernard Cohen Newton played with prisms and wrote about it. A lot. I did the same thing for a fifth grade science fair project but, yeah, his was better.

Opticks is supposed to be much more accessible than The Principia. Which it is, but it will still only appeal to the more meticulous, math-minded among us. Newton’s analysis of the properties of light have historical significance (specifically in regards to white light) and there were numerous equations which looked like they may mean something important. It’s Newton, so it’s a safe bet.

However, he also talks a bit about the impact of the aether and corpuscles of light. A nice reminder that even the best minds can flub it every once and awhile.

Overall, Opticks reminded me of Gilbert’s De Magnete. Gilbert conducted and recorded experiment after experiment with magnets; Newton did the same with light. It’s difficult for a layperson to fully appreciate the significance of this work in the time it was written so I’ll leave this unrated as well.

Candide - Voltaire If you’ve been fairly fortunate in life, Candide can seem like an oddly humorous book. Satirical and comical. If you’ve had a fair amount of shitty things happen in your life, Candide is a well-found commiseration against those same annoying fortunate people who eagerly want to console you that God does everything for a reason.

Voltaire rejects optimism. Totally and without apology. Doctor Pangloss, and his Candide coined panglossian viewpoint, is ruthlessly shredded by the misfortunes suffered by all the characters. However, I’m not sure if Voltaire really has a purpose for his rejection of optimism. One wonders, as mentioned by Martin, whether Voltaire simply finds that “there is some pleasure in having no pleasure.” pg. 73. Without spoilers, I think it’s safe to say the book is ultimately ambiguous in its final message.

There are some larger social messages at play here as well. Voltaire attacks the pretentions of the Enlightenment and the adherence to classics like Homer, Virgil and Milton. He shows the ephemeral entitlements of kings, the inhuman cost of slavery and the hypocrisy of the Church. As fitting the Age of Reason, it challenges us to reason. In a satirical, to hell-with-you kind of way.

Regardless, whether Life has been good to you or not, there are some great lines to take away from this little book. It’s absurd and scandalous and makes a call to eat a Jesuit. Not many books can successfully deliver that line.

Dial H Vol. 1: Into You (The New 52) - China Mieville By chance, I saw China Miéville’s name as the writer for this reboot of an old DC comic line Dial H. I never read the original series, but in Miéville fanboy devotion, I had to pick up this graphic novel which includes the first several issues of the comic.

It’s trippy and cheeky and filled with hard to come by weirdness. Consistent with his novels, it take awhile to orient yourself to the world and, even after, his writing attempts to spin you around. With unlikely protagonists, an abstract villian and heroes that range from the dark alley Victorianesque Chimney Boy to the floating emo-Robert Smith template for Captain Lachrymose, the strange imaginings of Miéville are complimented well by the artists.

The last two issues took a distinctly different tone, and not necessarily better, but I’ll still follow through with the series. However, I just saw online that DC will be cancelling the line in August.

The Principia - Isaac Newton I tried. But this is Newton using geometry to explain the calculus behind his theory of gravity. Every few pages, between the charts and equations, he writes a one or two sentence introduction to the proposition about to be proved. I understood those. Mostly. And I could see this is where Newton’s Laws of Motions come from. His proofs are beyond me though.

Interestingly, one of the few other things I could understand, beyond his Preface, was the General Scholium at the end. After describing the heliocentric solar system, he launches into the modern equivalent of an Intelligent Design argument:
All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing. Pg. 442.
Newton’s fascination with Biblical history, alchemy and the occult has been credited with helping him believe in a gravitational force that pervades all matter and affects things unseen at distance. A fascinating mix of science and faith. He was probably as enigmatic as his equations seem to me.

I’m sure this book is worth ten stars but, in the interest of intellectual honestly, I’m personally not qualified to rate it.

Currently reading

The First and Second Discourses
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Judith R. Masters, Roger D. Masters
The Scar
China Miéville