Sunday, December 9, 2012

Bibliophile: Idle Hands at Kwantlen Polytechnic University

“Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”
― Groucho Marx, The Essential Groucho: Writings For By And About Groucho Marx

We go over a university's new books, and pick out some highlights.  We are discerning and conscientious.  We are Bibliophile.

This week, we're looking at BC's Kwantlen Polytechnic University.  More after the break.

 Before we get into the books, a few words of preamble.  The Bibliophile entries, of late, have slipped into more of a biweekly schedule.  That's largely because of other time commitments, and because the "search until you hit twelve entries" method is more time consuming than the "pick the best out of a total of 600" that I used to do.  But I will keep doing these posts, because I've recently realized why I do them.  See, for the last six months, I took up a side project cataloging the contents of the department library.  I was in the middle of this when the department administrative assistant came in, and started doing the same thing: it turned out that this had recently been made one of her duties.  I turned over my files immediately, and stopped my tally; if this was paid work, then I wasn't going to take over someone else's labor by doing it for free; ain't so scab, etc.  But at the same time... it was harder than I thought to let it go.  Doing my digital work is great, but it means that I don't really get as much hands-on book experience like I used to.  And I *like* doing it, and doing it often; by the time I turned things over, I had cataloged 1500 books.  And the loss hit me.  Where else in my life, I thought, am I going to get the chance to sort through a large collection of books on a regular basis?

And then I remembered I write these Bibliophile entries.  Anyway. Kwantlen Polytechnic University has a rather diverse library, which is a welcome surprise, given their stated focus on technical, business matters (and yes, there are a lot of technical, business books--if you wanted a how-to guide for OS Mountain Lion's marketing, you've come to the right place). 

A history of the devil : from the middle ages to the present / Robert Muchembled ; translated by Jean Birrell.
 Here's an interesting premise: French historian Robert Muchembled traces European history and civilizations in terms of how each regarded Old Nick. From what I can see of Muchembled's other works, this fits with his previous work on witchcraft.  The main book seems to focus on the modern period more than early Christianity, and knowledgable reviews say it's a little all over the place.  I like the idea that you can trace a civilization based on how it views its devil; on a very simple note, you can tell how different societies feel about Satan by comparing his performance in Paradise Lost to his appearances in Neil Gaiman's Sandman.  (Although you'd have to make some pretty sweeping assumptions on what constitutes civilization.)  Obviously, any historian has to balance those prongs: determining what makes a meaningful difference versus overstating a situation constantly in flux.  Failure to do so means your critics--as in poor Muchembled's case--can accuse you of "Whiggish history at its worst."  The horror.

The Malleus maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger / Translated with introductions, bibliography, and notes by Montague Summers. 
Essentially, it's a translation of the witch-hunting manual.  First written in the 15th century, this book, aka "The Witch Hammer," described what witches were like, an account that leaned heavily toward incriminating women.  I was going to make a cheap joke, but the description nails such sentiment pretty well: "Though some of the claims in this work are perhaps humorous to the modern reader, countless individuals lost their lives due to the prevalence of this book throughout late Medieval Europe, and today it can serve as a both a collection of superstitious folklore and a warning against mass hysteria and ignorance."  It's interesting in the description that it also notes that one of the reasons the witch hunting became so prevalent was because of how easy dissemination of this book became with the invention of the printing press.  The press is often associated with the spread of religion in this period (see, for example, Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning), but the effects are rarely so clearly dangerous and destructive.

The memory palace of Matteo Ricci / Jonathan D. Spence.
I had gotten my hopes up for a memory palace discussion, but it seems Spence is more biography-oriented.  Which is fine.  I guess.  It's especially fine because, apparently, Ricci lived a very interesting life.  He was a 17th century Jesuit priest who went as a missionary to China.  He mastered the written and spoken language, helped compile a Portugeuse-Chinese dictionary, and was eventually buried in a Buddhist temple, a rarity for foreigners at the time.  He's probably the only person to be considered for Beatification by the Roman Catholic church and buried in a Chinese temple.  The title of the book refers to its consideration of four images Ricci created from events in the bible and a book on memory palaces for the Chinese Ming dynasty.

Gossip : the untrivial pursuit / Joseph Epstein.
I searched the word "gossip" before I started this commentary, to make sure I hadn't discussed this book before.  What I found was that I've really blogged about Gossip Girl a lot in the past 4 years. Anyway, Joseph Epstein has a whole series of books in this style: Envy, Snobbery, Friendship, and Ambition.  In Gossip, he argues that gossip has morphed from something that was once a "great private pleasure" to something new-school and corrosive, thanks to the mass media and Internet.  I'm kind of skeptical--the same claims were levied at the telegraph, telephone and newspaper, in their time.  What is true is that concepts of privacy are redefined as our media tools are redefined.  And the Internet allows for a very mass, very rapid distribution, often with tragic consequences, such as in the case of Megan Meier.  The notion that truth is now in danger from gossip is likewise nonsense, though I'll admit the potential for observation, manipulation, and surveillance of information has reached unprecedented levels.  I guess the real decision as to read or not is whether you're familiar with Epstein's writing.

Masculinity, senses, spirit / edited by Katherine M. Faull.
So what we have here is an anthology about the connection between gender, senses, and the spirit, with the period being studied ranging from the 19th century to modern day.  As with any anthology, the most interesting part is the list of the essays involved, so I'll skip directly to that.   It has a very... German focus.  The first few essays focus on Zinzendorfian piety and gender union, followed by essays on 18th century Moravian masculinity.  Next is the Play Method in 19th century German Education, gender and food, anti-feminism and anti-semitism in early twentieth century Germany (there's a subject that's pretty inevitably going to end up being rather dark), and "Priesting Like a Woman: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body in the Role of Episcopal Priest."  So I guess if you want to get some reading on German manliness, this is the place to go.

On tarrying / Joseph Vogl ; translated by Helmut Mèuller-Sievers.
Vogl argues that much of Western philosophy and religion has been marked with a division between action and contemplation, and that this division has led to harmful policies and politics.  (Think "I'm the decider" and go from there.)  Instead, he proposes the figure of tarrying, which "defers, multiples, and suspends the strictures of decision-making," and draws on  Freud, Sophocles, Friedrich Schiller, Robert Musil, and Franz Kafka to make his point.  On the one hand, I like the idea of joining action and contemplation; it fits rather nicely with a branch of game studies which looks at the philosophical implications of mixing work and play, the paradox at the root of videogames--and leisure in general, really.  On the other hand, his definition of tarrying, as it stands above, is a little vague on the "and what does that mean in practice?" evaluation.

The pursuit of laziness : an idle interpretation of the Enlightenment / Pierre Saint-Amand ; translated by Jennifer Curtiss Gage.
This was right next to On Tarrying, and I couldn't resist the juxtaposition.  More scholarly books on slacking!  More, I say!  And based entirely on the output of  just two books, it's interesting that philosophies calling for more delayed reactions come from the Continental school rather than the American branch.  Anyway, Saint-Amand is also addressing the work/leisure dynamic, but in an Enlightment approach, looking at how the French philosophers of the era felt about leisure.  Specifically, he's building on Diderot, Joubert, de Marivaux, Rousseau, and Chardin.  I've had a soft spot for Rousseau ever since I took a grad course devoted entirely to him.  I'm not sure he'd be very even-keeled towards time-wasters (he tended toward self-flagellation for his own procrastinations, let alone those of others), but it would be an interesting read, especially in comparison to the usual conception of the Enlightenment as a period of constant growth and activity (which is exactly Saint-Amand's point). 

Hitch-22 : a memoir / Christopher Hitchens.
This was a combination of a catchy title and a writer I respect, if not admire.  Admittedly, I've never actually read any of Hitchens' work, but I *have* seen thirty minutes of a debate he had in Toronto on a youtube video, so I'm pretty sure that makes me an expert.  All right, I'm by no means an expert.  And that's why I turned to an expert, and consulted the UK Guardian's review of the book.  In the book, Hitchens explains--justifies?--his shift towards right-edged thinking, and his abandonment of many the ideals he used to promote.  At the same time, the overall book sticks to Hitchens' more controversial stances: his dislike with Islamofascism, his contempt for people on all sides of the political spectrum, from George Bush Sr. to Arthur Miller. He calls down those who were on the wrong side of the 9-11 attacks by not being more pro-American (really?), and of course, he takes his stance on religion in general.  The article notes that, despite Hitchens' claims, he's now less a pragmatist or ironist as a polemicist, and it has a very quotable summary: "The boy who was recruited by the International Socialists at the age of 17 may have abandoned Trotskyism, but he's still a Trotskyist at heart, never happier than when compiling lists of those who, come the revolution, will be first up against the wall."  Heh.  I don't think I'd start with a book like this for a first introduction to Hitchens;it might better to start with an earlier work, and watch his thought evolve.

Uncertain order : the world in the twentieth century / Blaine T. Browne, Robert C. Cottrell.
 This book divides the twentieth century into sets of three, based around three time periods--1900-1945, the "Decline of European Hegemony," 1945-1989, "The Age of Super Powers," and 1989-Present, The World Order in Transition.  And it also has three major themes: ideology, conflict, and technology.  If those seem as rather broad themes, then you're in line with the mandate of the book, which is to provide "arm chair historians" with an overview of the twentieth century.  I'll admit, what attracted me to this book is the mild paradox in the title rather than an interest in the subject per se.  It's almost refreshing after years of having Foucault's anarcheology drilled into me to see a book that not only chooses to present a century-long perspective as a narrative, but promotes that long narrative as one of its major selling points.  It promises balanced coverage of Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the non-western world in general, though if you've summarized it as "the nonwestern world in general," I think some of that balance has already gone out the window.

The Silk Road : a new history / Valerie Hansen.
Hansen's book looks at the history of the Silk Road, the land trade routes connecting China to Africa and Europe prior to the industrial age. The initial description compares it to the Suez Canal and the Colossus of Rhodes as "iconic in world history."  I find that interesting, mostly because, as a collection of routes that changed over time, it lacks the permanence of those structures.  Admittedly, like the Canal, it's about the flow of trade, but without the literal flow of water there as well, it seems more ephemeral--and yet, it had reality to it, in the trade it produced and the way people thought about it.  The material Hansen looks at seems tailor-made for archaeological wonder-stories: apparently, some of the records have been suppressed for years as trade secrets, "sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead."  From written record to death shroud.  There's something your daily newspaper can rarely attest to.  Unless it's wrapping a fish, maybe.  ...I'm drifting here.  The point is, it looks like an interesting book.  The road saw the distribution of silk, spices, glass, and paper into Europe, all of which have obvious significance.
Anne of Tim Hortons : globalization and the reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian literature / Herb Wyile.
I love that title.  I've got a kind of backwards experience of Anne of Green Gables, Canadian icon that she is.  I became generally aware of the books through the TV show spin-off Road to Avonlea.  The original played after a Disney movie, and reruns of it played immediately after reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation for much of my childhood.  Despite that ubiquity, though, I never got into it; early Canadiana could not compete with cartoons and sci-fi in this lad's heart.  Then I saw the musical version, which was an odd introduction, because my high school biology teacher played the role of the uncle.  And finally, in my last year of high school, I read the first book in the series...and none of that has anything to do with the book at hand, as Wyile's study is actually about how contemporary Atlantic Canadian writers resist the image of Altantic Canadians as improvident and regressive.  I suppose the connection is that by engaging in all these different media forms of Anne of Green Gables, I too have played a part in perpetuating the idyllic Maritime myth.  I can get behind such a goal, especially coming from a province whose familiarity in popular culture comes from Little Mosque on the Prairies and Corner Gas.  It's cultural studies-based lit scholarship in its quintessential form; Wyile looks at how these authors characterize a region's history to reflect its current place in the world.

Umbrella / Will Self.
I'll note that the Kindle version of this on Amazon UK is actually more expensive than the paperback.  Thanks for the gouging, Amazon.  Self is one of those fiction writers/academics, and he's fairly prolific; I've read a little bit of both his fiction and his theory, and I think I prefer the former.  The book starts in the 1930s (I think) with "maverick psychiatrist" Zack Busner coming to work at a mental asylum with a number of patients who have been in a coma since the end of the First World War.  The center of his attention is Audrey Dearth, feminist and munition worker.  "Is Audrey's diseased brain in ts nightmarish compulsim a microcosm of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century?"  Honestly, what book would ever answer a question like this with "no"?.  Self's short stories were inventive and well-told, and it looks like this book, from that description, is similar.

Later Days.

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