Saturday, October 27, 2007

Book sale!

It's that time of year again! I don't know if I was concerned more with the limits on my reading time or my shelf space, but in any case I only got six books this time (total outlay = $2.85).

Thomas Hardy – The Return of the Native

I've always wanted to read this, ever since I heard the novel-writing sketch on Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief, that three-sided LP (both physical sides labeled "side 2") I got as a (birthday?) present in ... well, some time ago now. Here's that first sentence, which the crowd was really getting into:
A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.
Just think if he hadn't crossed out "the" and written "a" instead. Narrow escape there. (Or, as Dennis the commentator mourned at the time: "It looks like Tess of the D'Urbervilles all over again.")

Lao-Tzu – Te-Tao Ching (R. G. Henricks, ed. and trans.)

You probably thought the title was Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing, as I have also seen it). But no. According to the introduction, this edition is based on recently (=1973) discovered texts which they think are earlier (and presumably less corrupted) than the ones we know. And these "Ma-wang-tui" texts have the Tao and Te sections in the opposite order. So there.

Grant Gilmore – The Ages of American Law (1977)

According to a blurb on the back, the New York Law Journal believes this book to be "an exciting and lively little intellectual history of American law." It's an expanded version of the 1974 Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. What are these ages, you ask? They are 1) The Age of Discovery (post-Revolution through Civil War); 2) The Age of Faith (Civil War through WWI); 3) The Age of Anxiety (post-WWI through what in 1974 was the present). Here's Professor Gilmore on The Age of Faith:
My description of American law before the Civil War sounded like a romp through the Garden of Eden. [...] When we turn to our next period [...] we find ourselves expelled from our lovely sunlit garden and condemned to wander uncertainly in the law's black night. And yet American law apparently achieved its greatest triumphs during this period. Never had lawyers and judges and the new breed of law professors been so confident, so self-assured, so convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they were serving not only righteousness but truth. [...] Perhaps, when everyone is blind, it is child's play to persuade ourselves that we now see better than our sighted predecessors ever did.
Perhaps a revised edition will describe a new age: the Age of Prozac. But I know little of these matters.

Our next book is also an historically oriented work:

F. M. Cornford – From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation (1957)

Cornford is the distinguished Plato scholar whose Republic adorns many of our shelves. From the back cover:
[The book] is a needed reminder to our day of the intricate connections which continue to exist between critical scientific thought and social and emotional experience. In Cornford's own words: Philosophy, when she puts aside the finished products of religion and returns to the 'nature of things,' really goes back to that original representation out of which mythology itself had gathered shape.
Related to this, sort of, we have:

Sir James G. Frazer – The Golden Bough

This is a one-volume edition (864 pp.) edited by Sir James himself in 1922. This is of course a very famous work, but actually I only know it from Wittgenstein's brief remarks, which are mainly critical. Here's the beginning of the preface:
The primary aim of this book is to explain the remarkable rule which regulated the succession to the priesthood of Diana at Aricia. When I first set myself to solve the problem more than thirty years ago, I thought that the solution could be propounded very briefly, but I soon found that to render it probable or even intelligible it was necessary to discuss certain more general questions, some of which had hardly been broached before. In successive editions the discussion of these and kindred topics has occupied more and more space, the enquiry has branched out in more and more directions, until the two volumes of the original work have expanded into twelve.
I think we've all been there. Here's a blurb from Harry Woodburn Chase, Chancellor of New York University:
Dip into Frazer's Golden Bough and sense something of the mesh of fear and suffering and regimentation and bloody sacrifices from which civilization has meant escape.
So, good Hallowe'en reading, then. Here's a random selection, from the section entitled "Kings Killed When Their Strength Fails":
[I]t used to be the regular custom with the Shilluk to put the king to death whenever he showed signs of ill-health or failing strength. One of the fatal symptoms of decay was taken to be an incapacity to satisfy the sexual passions of his wives, of whom he has very many, distributed in a large number of houses at Fashoda. When this ominous weakness manifested itself, the wives reported it to the chiefs, who are popularly said to have intimated to the king his doom by spreading a white cloth over his face and knees as he lay slumbering in the heat of the sultry afternoon. Execution soon followed the sentence of death. A hut was specially built for the occasion: the king was led into it and lay down with his head resting on the lap of a nubile virgin: the door of the hut was then walled up; and the couple were left without food, water, or fire to die of hunger and suffocation. This was the old custom, but it was abolished some five generations ago on account of the excessive sufferings of one of the kings who perished in this way. It is said that the chiefs announce his fate to the king, and that afterwards he is strangled in a hut which has been specially built for the occasion.
So they changed to the new way because the king suffered too much the old way. Got it. Of course, maybe the Fashoda chapter of the Shilluk Nubile Virgins Union had something to do with it. We may never know.

Anyway, let us turn, finally, from this barbarism to the modern period of Science and Rationality:

Steven Pinker – How the Mind Works (1997)

Having gotten other books by Pinker at previous sales, I was actually wondering whether I might score this one this time. And lo, it has come to pass. It might be sniffed that this is a popularization rather than Real Science, but according to the index, there are as many references to Descartes as there are to Debra Winger and Andrew Lloyd Webber combined. It'll have to wait, though, not only because I haven't read the other two yet, but also because I have his latest one out of the library, and that one I have to take back. Of course, I'll probably buy it from them five years from now. Maybe I'll have read this one by then.

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