Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2010/ Book Reviews 0

Book Reviews 0

After writing the Up Review I promised myself that I would focus less on "unfree" culture (those controlled by interests that would destroy open source software and the freedom to tinker in the name of protecting copyright) and more on works released according to values that are more congruent to my own.

Naturally, I am breaking that promise the first chance I get. The rights to these books are all owned by publishers who have a vested interest in destroying the open source software movement. (Given that many of the "walled garden" platforms these book-publishers favour -- the iPad, the Kindle, the Nook -- are all built upon open source platforms, I am sure that the book publishers would dispute this statement. Nonetheless I firmly believe it is true.)

I signed out all of these books from the public library, which still carries books accessible to people without techno-gadgets. If you have access to the Kitchener Public Library you can find them there.

It Can't Happen Here

This book was written by Sinclair Lewis, who is not to be confused with Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle. In fact, Upton Sinclair appears as a character in the book, and he does not come off well.

The book was published in 1935 -- a few years before America got into World War II. Amazingly, the public library has a first-edition printing of the book on its stacks, which meant that I was reading a 75-year-old artifact, which feels a little weird. The book was printed to last -- it's a hardcover, and still in excellent shape.

This book is a time capsule that documents the time between World War 1 (then still called the Great War) and World War 2. The fascists were in power in Germany and Italy, the Communists had taken Russia, and America was in the midst of the Great Depression.

The novel itself is a satire that envisions America electing a fascist dictator named Buzz Windrip. Although the book is fictional, it is clearly based on political situations and thinking that must have been prominent at the time. It documents the degree to which respectable people in society openly supported Hitler and Mussolini and openly despised blacks and Jews.

The main protagonist is a newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup, who comes across smelling pretty sweet because he dislikes both Communists and Fascists.

I found the book fascinating (and scary) as a systematic description of how a fascist state works, and of the many tyrannies common people experience under fascism. Reading fiction as fact is always dangerous, of course, and sure enough I was convinced.

Lots of familiar things happen: many political arguments sound familiar; politicians beat the war drums exactly as they do now; newspapers and governments collude to manufacture political crisis. But a lot of jarring unfamiliar things happen too. This is not a happy book.

This book demolishes some lies concerning innocence. Some people proclaim that America did not know about the Nazi death programs until the end of the war. But there is little question that Lewis knew full well about the Nazi crackdowns on Jews, the ways in which Jews were deprived of their property, and even the ways in which they were sent to concentration camps (which do not have exactly the same death-camp image we assign to the term these days, but which are not that far off).

At 450 pages I thought the novel was going to drag on, but it is well-written and compelling enough that I read it when I was supposed to be asleep. It's not perfect and maybe it is not credible, but it's definitely worth a read.

The Reasonable Woman

The full title of this book is: The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival. It was published in 1998.

This book was on display at the library, and instead of leaving it for some woman to read I signed it out. I hope that by reviewing it here some other people will read the book, and I will atone partially for my misdeed. I hope lots of people pick up this book.

The word "reasonable" in the title raised some warning flags; like the words "skeptical" and "rational", "reasonable" indicates membership in an often-obnoxious tribe of know-it-alls who worship the ancient Greeks and think reason can solve all problems in the world. Author Wendy McElroy might well be a member of this tribe; the book was published by Prometheus Books (which sounds awfully Objectivist) and features back-cover recommendations by the authors of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered. So far, so bad.

Certainly, the book contains elements taken from Objectivist thinkers (like Nathaniel Branden, whose work she cites heavily), as well as Aristotle's thoughts. But the book also features two qualities so often missing from the "skeptic" discourse: lived experience and compassion.

A lot of the book focuses on building intellectual self-esteem. There is a spirit of gentleness that runs through these exercises; McElroy knows that a lot of women feel they are intellectually inadequate, and one of McElroy's tasks is to help women get past that.

The book is filled with sensible lists. Here is a list of "intellectual etiquette" from the preface:

Maybe that list looks silly out of context, but it struck me as refreshing. How many times do we get into Internet Arguments where we are belittled for not knowing everything about everything? How often are we terrified to write anything for fear that we will be wrong and will be called out on it? McElroy's exercises are intended to build up confidence so that we will feel more comfortable expressing our ideas to the best of our ability.

The book has an integrity in it that is hard to pin down. McElroy has some opinions that are going to rub you the wrong way, but she gives us the space to make our own decisions around issues. She believes that women should be taken seriously on their intellectual merits but knows that they are usually judged on looks, so she has a brief section on cosmetic changes that (supposedly) will help you be taken more seriously. She also knows that some people are jerks, and alongside the sections on how to argue with integrity she has sections on dealing with hostile people and arguments. I get the definite sense that this book is the product of personal experience, and that McElroy includes the advice she does because it has worked to solve problems in her own life.

I admit it: I still haven't read Atlas Shrugged, and for all I know I am falling into Ayn Rand's gnarled clutches by recommending this book. So be it. I think this is a valuable resource for many of us -- in particular women, but also anybody who is feeling intellectually insecure and would like some interesting exercises to work through.

The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars

This book was published in 1987. It is marketed as one entry in a series about modern-day retellings of fairy tales, and both the Introduction and Afterword talk mostly about fairy tales. As is my habit, I skipped over the Introduction and Afterward until I had finished the book, and I recommend you do too -- although this book contains a Hungarian fairy tale, it's not really about fairy tales. Even though the book is filed under "Fantasy Novels", it isn't about fantasy, either. This is a book about creation, and about art, and about painting.

I don't know much about painting, and I would not have thought that a book about the painting process could be interesting. Boy was I wrong. I still don't know anything about painting (I still have not discovered that the chapter titles are taken from the titles of famous paintings), but I at least appreciate the artistic process more than I did before. That's a pretty good achievement for a book.

I have the feeling that this book would come across quite differently on a second reading than on the initial one. I found the first reading quite enjoyable, though.