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Reading Joseph Mitchell, Wodehouse, and Pedro de Castaneda

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Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell

I don’t know if people were simply more gullible in the New York City of the nineteen-forties and fifties or if my easy cynicism has finally paid off in actual enlightenment, but I guessed Joe Gould’s “secret” long before the author himself discovered it. Gould seems to have been an intolerable person – a willful eccentric, a drunkard, suspicious and needy, suffering from delusions of grandeur. The last (perhaps) of the old Village bohemians, he claimed to be writing an Oral History of the age more than nine-million words long. He also claimed to be able to translate Longfellow poems into the language of seagulls. Gould’s charms, if you grant that he had any, quickly wear off. But something a little magical happens about two-thirds of the way through this book. I began to like Mitchell and to want to hear more from him – and I began to sympathize just a bit with Joe Gould in ways I hadn’t particularly intended to.

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Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse had a bit of the holy fool about him. He was an innocent, liable, like Bertie Wooster, to find himself in the most compromising situations but without accruing any personal blame. The radio talks he gave from behind German lines, for example, got him accused of collaboration during the war, though an investigation later cleared him. Likewise, in Thank You, Jeeves (the very first Bertie and Jeeves novel, published in 1935), the casual racism of the era raises hackles for today’s reader. The “N” word is thrown out several times and Bertie spends almost half the book in blackface. But Wodehouse’s essential naiveté is such that imputations of malice are quickly discounted. In fact, I wonder if this isn’t one of his very best novels. The standard Wodehouse formula is at work – there are engagements and threats of engagement, difficult relatives, combustible cottages, and an accumulation of crossed purposes that only Jeeves can untangle – but the pacing and plotting and repartee are particularly good. So too are the interactions between Bertie and his “gentleman’s gentleman,” spiced with the friction occasioned by Bertie’s intolerable banjo playing, which causes Jeeves to actually leave his service in the first chapter. Fear not, however. In the end all is well and there are kippers for breakfast, whole schools of them.

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Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, Pedro de Castaneda de Najera

“I have always noticed, and it is a fact, that often when we have something valuable in our possession and handle it freely, we do not esteem or appreciate it in all its worth, as we would if we could realize how much we would miss it if we were to lose it. Thus we gradually belittle its value, but once we have lost it and miss its benefits, we feel it in our heart and are forever moody, thinking of ways and means to retrieve it. This, it seems to me, happened to all or most of those who went on that expedition, which Francisco Vasquez Coronado led in search of the Seven Cities, in the year of our Savior, Jesus Christ, 1540.”

The Coronado expedition was like a story out of legend, a half-medieval army marching into an unknown wilderness to chase rumors of The Seven Cities of Gold. But it was not a legend, and they found nothing of the sort. In fact, the record of their contacts with the peoples of the American southwest is filled with deceit, coercion, and violence. The Spanish – or at least their leaders – never tried to understand the world they stumbled into. They only understood gold. Quoted above, Castaneda, who was a member of the army, appears to have been more thoughtful. His memoir, written twenty years later, is haunted by wonder and longing for the strange lands he saw (his descriptions of buffalo herds and the Great Plains are among the earliest by any European), but also by regret.

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Reading John Aubrey

In an 1852 journal entry, Henry David Thoreau describes visiting the Cambridge library and looking over an aged volume by Samuel Purchas, possibly Hakluytus Posthumus (1625). The experience of reading the book, says Thoreau, was “like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat.” This is his way of recommending something. For Thoreau, old books like Purchas’s “suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.” And yet, he complained, they were “rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers.”

I’m not sure it’s true, or means very much, to say that the old books are no longer “implied by our literature and newspapers,” but there is something especially rich and peaty in the English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shakepeare and Marlowe and Jonson, of course, are just a beginning. There are in addition the poets (too many to mention) and the philosophers, plus Burton and Browne and Traherne, and translators of genius like Philemon Holland, Thomas Urquhart, and John Florio, whose 1603 version of Montaigne T.S. Eliot considered the best work of translation in the English language.

The flavor of that golden era resurfaces here and there throughout the eighteenth century and even into the nineteenth. You taste it in Swift, for example; in Walton’s The Compleat Angler; in Gilbert White; in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; in Charles Lamb; and even, I suggest, in certain writings of our own Benjamin Franklin, and in Moby Dick. By the twentieth century, however, it appears only in works of self-conscious copy-catism, like Holbrook Jackson’s pleasantly Burtonesque The Anatomy of Bibliomania or John Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor.

For the best of the authentic old flavor, you must take a slice of the old books themselves. This I recently did. Visiting a favorite used bookshop, I was able, in the panicked last moments before my wife finally extracted me from the stacks, to pick out a copy of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. I had first discovered Aubrey (1626-1697), as most people do, through quotations from his work borrowed by other writers. Rose Macaulay, for example, published a wonderful commonplace book titled The Minor Pleasures of Life, which includes more quotes from Aubrey than from any other author.

The Penguin edition of Brief Lives, introduced and edited by Oliver Lawson Dick, is a mere selection from Aubrey’s original, but it still includes more than 120 of his short biographies. Aubrey’s subjects span the Elizabethan era through to the restoration of Charles II. He seems to have been related to half of the people he mentions, and many were still living when he wrote. Reading the book from cover to cover is like watching old England march by in grand procession – poets, mathematicians, peasants, doctors, divines, alchemists, soldiers, scientists, astrologers, aristocrats – while an inveterate gossipmonger whispers in your ear all their public foibles and personal shames.

Aubrey’s diction and spelling (preserved in my copy) reek gloriously of the seventeenth century. The preposterous, winning names of some of his subjects are enough in themselves to summon the era – names like Hasdras Waller, Ithamara Reginalds, Hierome Sanchy, Venetia Digby, Carlo Fantom, Wenceslas Hollar, Caisho Borough, Leoline Jenkins, and Sylvanus Scory. Aubrey’s gift for physical description and telling anecdote are unbeatable, his stories by turns poignant, superstitious, snarky, and uproariously bawdy. Every paragraph is a pleasure and a surprise.

Of a Lady Honywood, for example, Aubrey writes:

“Said she (holding a Venice-glass in her Hand), I shall as certainly be Damned, as this Glasse will be broken: And at that word, threw it hard on the Ground; and the Glasse remained sound; which gave her great comfort.”

Of John Hoskyns:

“Now when I have sayd his Inventive faculty is so great, you cannot imagine his Memory to be excellent, for they are like two Bucketts, as one goes up, the other goes downe.”

Of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke:

“She was very salacious, and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of the yeare, when the Stallions were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought before such a part of the house, where she had a vidette (a hole to peepe out at) to looke on them and please herselfe with their Sport; and then she would act the like sport herselfe with her stallions. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back’t Cecil, Earl of Salisbury.”

Of James Harrington:

“Anno Domini 1660, he was committed prisoner to the Tower; then to Portsey castle. His durance in these Prisons (he being a Gentleman of a high spirit and a hot head) was the procatractique [originating] cause of his deliration or madnesse; which was not outrageous, for he would discourse rationally enough and be very facetious company, but he grew to have a phansy that his Perspiration turned to Flies, and sometimes to Bees.”

Of Sir William Petty, when he was challenged to a duel:

“Sir William is extremely short-sighted, and being the challengee it belonged to him to nominate place and weapon. He nominates for the place, a darke Cellar, and the weapon to be a great Carpenter’s Axe. This turned [his opponent’s] challenge into Ridicule, and so it came to nought.”

Of Shakespeare Aubrey reports (how reliably I don’t know) that as a young man he was briefly apprenticed to a butcher in Stratford and used to make florid speeches whenever he prepared to kill a calf. Francis Bacon Aubrey assures us was a pederast. He tells us also that William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, liked to meditate in the dark and had caves dug on his property just for this purpose.

It goes wonderfully on and on.

I don’t suppose that Aubrey’s Brief Lives is quite the sort of thing that Thoreau had in mind with his image of a rich old book like “an impassable swamp, ten feet deep in sphagnum.” He may not have approved. But where Purchas’s books may or may not have failed make a promising seedbed for future literatures to spring in, there can be little doubt, I think, that Aubrey’s did. At least I like to imagine there’s a direct line of descent from Brief Lives to the modern literature of celebrity gossip, hearsay, and personal sniping that is so ubiquitous in the tabloids and newspapers and blogosphere of the English-speaking world. No one today, however, can match Aubrey for humor, wit, and limitless antique charm.

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Reading Feynman, Stevenson, Gladwell

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Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman

Easy pieces? You don’t expect me to understand any of that math, do you? It seems I’m not as smart as I thought I was, but neither are physicists, which is some consolation. (Anyway, per Socrates, the discovery of our ignorance is true wisdom, right?) In this book Feynman explains how we used to believe that we had discovered certain physical laws which went a long way toward making a kind of sense of the universe. It was a heady time. There seemed no limit to our mastery of the material world. But that was then, before quantum mechanics. These days, you can still trot out the old “physical laws” for some harmless diversion if you like – but don’t call them laws anymore. Because they’re wrong. Call them probabilities instead, but only when applied at a certain scale. They’re not even probabilities at the atomic scale. The truth is that we don’t really understand the relationships and interactions between objects. We don’t know why things do what they do, and we can’t begin to say what they’re going to do next. We don’t even really know what gravity is.

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Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson

Reading Travels with a Donkey, which is so far my favorite of Stevenson’s travel books, I remembered a visit my wife and I made a few years ago to the tony Napa Valley town of St Helena. The public library in St Helena shares space with a small museum dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, run on a volunteer basis by enthusiastic retirees. Stevenson and wife Fanny enjoyed their 1880 honeymoon in nearby rustic Silverado, where the site of their cabin and the summit of Mt St Helena are now embraced in California’s Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. I learned while reading the present title that there is a Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in France, which closely follows the route trod by RLS and dear Modestine (the donkey) in 1878. It seems that wherever he went in life, Stevenson’s passage was commemorated. This is remarkable because he is by no means a Shakespeare or Milton, nor even what most people would consider a second-tier Olympian of English letters. Geography bears witness, however, and many of his readers down the years will second the notion, that it’s very easy indeed to enjoy his company and to miss him when he’s gone.

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David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve done my best never to join any kind of book club, but now one of my corporate overlords has decided that’s just what we’ll have at the office. We begin with Malcolm Gladwell’s latest – and instructions to draw lessons from it on the challenges facing our business. When I was still a teenager, I remember despairing of adulthood when I saw my Dad reading books on the art of management, books like Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. Now it seems I’ve come to the same grim pass. Not that this is a business book per se. But it stinks of the same cult of “accomplishment” and is not the sort of thing I would voluntarily read. Having done so, I’m convinced that Gladwell (who may be the love-child of Art Garfunkel and Whoopi Goldberg) is a bit of a poseur. I won’t subject you to a detailed review of this book (for a slaying one, see John Gray in The New Republic.) I will only say that Gladwell’s blend of social science and self-help is not my idea of fun. I’m not sure what people see in him. The prose is limp. The preoccupations are mostly shallow. The “insights” are prejudiced. The much-vaunted storytelling is bland. As for the challenges facing our business – well, I hear there’s lots of money to be made in publishing.

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Reading Barth, Perl, Gonzalez-Crussi

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The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth

I gave this book about three hundred pages (out of 768) before setting it aside. I enjoyed those three hundred pages. They were funny, smart, and sometimes even philosophically interesting. I just don’t have the endurance that Barth apparently expects of his readers – which is saying something, since I’m not afraid of long books and the historical setting of the novel interests me. Yes, in writing an old-fashioned comic satire a la Smollett or Fielding, Barth is being very post-modern and all that. And yes, maybe I would have found something terrific at the end of the book. But for my money, nothing makes better comic satire or is more “post-modern” in any potentially positive sense of the word than Tristram Shandy.

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Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, Jed Perl

Somewhere in this unusual, gorgeously illustrated little book, Jed Perl quotes a 1719 letter from Antoine Watteau to his friend Jean de Jullienne. “In my view,” Watteau writes, “you must either do away with ornament – or make ornament the essence. It’s not something you add. It’s not icing on a cake. It’s everything – or it’s nothing.” Watteau’s paintings, full of lovers and parties of friends singing and dancing and flirting in overgrown gardens, might at first seem to fall on the side of “nothing,” of impotent ornament. The gauzy trees, the liquid distances, the women with their backs turned and wearing voluminous pink or blue silk dresses that make them somehow look more naked for being clothed – there’s an impression of frivolity in it (if, too, a bit of melancholy.) But despite his odd decision to construct this as an alphabet book with entries written variously as fiction, history or memoir, Perl nonetheless manages to open our eyes to the “everything” concealed in plain sight.

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On Being Born and Other Difficulties, F. Gonzalez-Crussi

F. Gonzalez-Crussi is consistently good reading. This was my third of his books. The author is a retired clinical pathologist with a literary bent and a charmingly dusty sense of humor. On Being Born explores the science, history, philosophy, and cultural meaning of giving birth and getting born. You may rely on Gonzalez-Crussi for some quality sentences and fascinating bits of trivia that will have you did-you-knowing everyone within earshot for days. He moves from the revolution of primordial cooperation among cells – a counter-point to the pseudo-Darwinian law of “survival of the fittest” – to Nabokovian musings (see Speak, Memory) on our differing attitudes toward the twin eternities that precede our birth and follow our death. Readers will be introduced to fun medical terms like “obtundation,” which refers to exhibiting less than full alertness, and to no end of curious facts. For example, the curious fact (and historical obsession with the idea) that the uterus moves within a woman’s body. I was particularly interested to learn about the non-chromosomal contributions of the female gamete to the zygote, which include, pre-programmed into the cytoplasm of the ovum, those polarities which determine left and right, up and down, front and back, for the developing fetus. It was Mama who taught you left from right.

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Reading Professor Borges

Available for the first time in English translation, Professor Borges collects a term’s worth of lectures delivered by Jorge Luis Borges in 1966 on the history of English literature. It’s a remarkable book, I think, for two quite different reasons.

It’s remarkable first of all in offering a survey of its subject that will be almost unrecognizable to most students of English literature. Fully a quarter of the course is spent on the Anglo-Saxon era of Beowulf and Co. Almost no mention at all is made of Chaucer and, in fact, seven hundred years of literary history are glibly ignored when Borges leaps directly from the Norman invasion to Samuel Johnson. Milton and Shakespeare are mentioned only in passing. After a couple lectures each for Wordsworth and Coleridge, we’re introduced to a long line of Victorians. Borges spends a really perverse amount of time on Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Robert Browning, and (of all people) Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He concludes with Robert Louis Stevenson. Modernism he leaves tucked in the womb circa 1895.

Second, the book is remarkable because Borges’s style of presentation is no less idiosyncratic than his selection of texts. But there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s a style born of unabashed personal enthusiasm. Literary theory goes out the window (and good riddance) or, rather, it doesn’t so much go out the window as fail to obtain entrance to the room in the first place. Questions about the nature and function and politics of texts don’t seem to interest Borges. Rather, stories interest him. The old, blind Argentinian gets up in front of his students every day and he simply tells stories. He tells whole plots of numerous works. He quotes at length from memory. He tells about the authors’ lives, their absurd notions, unpleasant habits, and frequent misfortunes. Again and again he digresses into alleyways that are sometimes more surprising and more scenic than the view from the broad highway.

The epilogue of Professor Borges excerpts an interview which neatly sums up Borges’s personal philosophy of reading. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms,” he says. “Reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek… If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost – which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which also is not tedious to me. But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you. Reading should be a form of happiness…”

Never tedious itself, Professor Borges is unrecommendable as an introduction to English literature. It is, however, a wonderful introduction to Borges as a teacher, and it offers a fascinatingly oblique view of its subject for those already possessed of a more orthodox understanding.

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Reading Notes: G.K. Chesterton and John Gray

In his biography of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton has only a few things to say about the “Dumb Ox” himself, but that’s the way it is with all his books: the ostensible subject is most of the time fondly neglected for the atmosphere surrounding it. From most writers this would be intolerable, but from Chesterton, somehow, it’s better than tolerable, because almost no one else is so fun to read. Chesterton’s Aquinas is no vague hypothesizer of miniature angels traipsing about in Nana’s sewing kit, but the champion of common sense philosophy, out to rescue medieval Christendom from the slow creep of Platonism, and to return it – with some help from Aristotle – to an affirmation of the reality and value of the material order, and a reasonable sense of our place within it.

Regarding our place within it, Aquinas – and Chesterton – insist that we are at home; that the material order is no catastrophe but essential to human beatitude; that a ghost is no more a complete man than a corpse is; that the senses are windows through which we perceive an actual world beyond, and into which light shines to show us ourselves; that the will is free; that we are kindred to other animals while at the same time elevated by intellect; that human reason has “a divine right to feed upon facts.” My grasp on medieval philosophy is weak, but I know that Chesterton is simplifying things. I also know that the compellingly baited lures of our own “age of uncommon nonsense” (Chesterton’s phrase) are sometimes difficult not to swallow. But I’ll happily take this antique sanity over the sort peddled today by persons like John Gray in Straw Dogs.

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Both Plutarch in the Moralia and Montaigne in The Apology for Raymond Sebond argue that animals are more human than we imagine. John Gray, however, wants us to know that humans are no different from animals at all. These are two very different things to say. The first grants that certain traits we might have imagined belonged only on our side of the fence are actually present on both sides. The second claims that there is no fence at all and that you are the physical, intellectual and moral equivalent of a bacterium.

Gray’s arch-materialist philosophy is the same, I gather, as that popularized by Daniel Dennett and his ilk. According to this view, your sense of self is illusion, your notion of what constitutes just or ethical behavior is imaginary, your every action is absolutely determined, and all that you think you know about reality – relying on common sense – is false in almost every detail. There’s some buzz these days about Thomas Nagel’s attack on this arch-materialism in his recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I have not read and am not qualified to comment on, but Andrew Ferguson’s recent piece for The Weekly Standard gives a summary.

Whatever your personal take on the issue, it’s hard to avoid the sense while reading Straw Dogs that Gray is slowly dismantling his own argument without realizing it. For example, after assuring us of our utter unexceptionality compared to other animals, he goes on to admit at least three exceptions. Per Gray, human beings do, in fact, differ from animals in possessing a sense of selfhood (and hence an understanding of death), in the complex conflicts of their interests, and in their means of employing language.

I’m less sure of these particular points of divergence than Gray is, actually. I’ve known animals with what seemed remarkable notions of their own selfhood – and I could trot out a half-dozen anecdotes suggesting that certain animals, at least, do have a notion of what death means for an individual. But in my opinion, despite the obvious fact of our basic commonalities with other animals, there comes a point – in the degree and use of intelligence, for example, or in the control of nature, or in the capacity for empathy, etc. – where even differences that might be characterized as quantitative add up, in effect, to qualitative differences. No bacterium will ever write a book arguing that bacteria are essentially equivalent to human beings. The fact that Mr Gray’s book exists seems to contradict its own premise.

His strict determinism I find equally unconvincing. According to Gray, determinism extends into the realm of the intellect. There is no free play of mind. People are no more responsible for their perspectives or beliefs than they are culpable for their actions. If this is so, of course, then there’s no point arguing. There’s no point trying to convince anyone to change his mind about anything, and Gray himself can take no credit for his own accidental illumination. Nonetheless, I insist that I can choose to punch a stranger in the face or not. I can likewise choose to endorse Gray’s notion of determinism or not, and the choice I make will have consequences. It will inform my view of life, my interactions with others, my own behaviors and choices. If this is so – if I can freely make even small and relatively inconsequential adjustments in my perspectives or ideas, and if these changes can change me in ways that I would not have changed otherwise – then strict determinism is false.

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I do give Gray points for his critique of the supernaturalism implicit in popular forms of naturalism today, by which I mean the tendency among certain materialists to pretend that the natural world is a closed system outside of which human beings operate almost as if they were themselves gods. “Cities,” Gray counters, “are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web.” Per Montaigne, nothing can be anything but according to nature. However, the lesson for Gray should be to amplify his sense of what nature is – to broaden it to encompass personhood, intellect, moral responsibility, love – rather than to reduce his estimate of man.

In the end there’s something cynical and false in Gray’s posturing as he steps down from the mountain to address the human animals that crowd non-volitionally around him: “You don’t want to hear it, dear species,” he seems to say, “but the sad truth is that no one – absolutely no one – got it right except for Schopenhauer, and of course me….” Chesterton, referring to the John Grays of his own day (1933) writes: “No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind.”

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Reading Notes: Carl Becker

The goal of philosophy in the eighteenth century was to dismantle corrupted and corrupting civic and religious institutions and to reshape the individual and society according to objective standards of nature. In place of St Augustine’s defunct city of God, the philosophers would build a heavenly city of their own, presided over not by an enthroned Christ and his saints, but by glorified Reason and the immaculate judgment of enlightened posterity.

In The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Carl Becker (former professor of history at Cornell University, deceased in 1945) argues that although the animating spirit of the period is still, to a degree, felt today, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were actually nearer in their presuppositions and ideals to medieval precursors than to ourselves. I think he’s only half successful in demonstrating this, but the book hardly suffers for it, thanks to the author’s nimble synthesis and pleasant William-Jamesian prose.

The four lectures that make up the book were originally delivered at Yale in the early 1930s. The first and fourth of them haven’t aged so well. Becker’s sense that religion has definitively spent itself as a moral and social force in the West seems premature and weakens the first lecture. In the fourth, his speculations about the future history of the Communist Revolution, and what it may come to mean for future generations when its lessons are generalized across western society, also feels flat.

Becker’s second and third lectures – the best parts of the book – focus on the eighteenth century’s radically revised notions of nature and history. Nature, in the broad sense of the term, encompassing mankind and the material order as a whole, is no longer approached by way of metaphysics. It is no longer things as God intended them to be but as they are not due to sin and the devil. Instead, nature becomes things as they actually are and as they reveal themselves to empirical examination. History, severed from sacred myth and the burden of a transcendent, unified narrative, becomes an object of critical inquiry.

By looking to nature (things as they are) to discover the essential elements of human identity, and by reading history as a long cautionary tale, what aspects of society do not invite revision? The past, for Enlightenment thinkers, becomes a story of mostly Greek curiosity smothered under two thousand years of superstition. Nature, encountered in the unfamiliar cultures of the Americas, Asia and the South Pacific, shows us the arbitrariness of our own institutions and customs. What’s to stop us from turning the whole cart over and starting again? God may not condemn us for our failure, but posterity will honor our success.

There are problems, of course. If there is no God, and if man is inescapably a product of nature, then Christianized western culture is a product of nature too. It could hardly be otherwise. How can we therefore accuse it of deforming man? Whatever is must be according to nature. And then by what measure is any cultural status quo, or any particular innovation, to be judged? Becker teases out these ironies rather effectively. “They denied that miracles ever happened,” he says of the philosophers, “but believed in the perfectibility of the human race.”

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