lection gilbert

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lection's "new and noteworthy" page is named after Gilbert, in Oscar Wilde's "Critic as Artist," who opines:
To know the vintage and quality of a wine one need not drink the whole cask. It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient, if one has the instinct for form.
On the lection gilbert page, I present occasional brief notes on recent books that I've picked up and tasted. I try to read enough of each book to deliver some sense of its "vintage and quality," while at the same time some sense of why I didn't keep reading. My not keeping reading is not to be counted against a book, of course. Vita brevis . . .

february 2019

Newcomer. Keigo Higashino, trans. Giles Murray. Minotaur, 2018. A central element in police procedurals is the canvassing of possible witnesses. This usually comes to nothing, and is disposed of in a few sentences as nameless detectives are supposed to have done the rounds of the neighborhood and returned with nothing of interest. In Newcomer, Higashino turns the genre inside out, and makes one detective's rounds of the shops in the vicinity of a murder the framework for an entire mystery novel. It's an ingenious idea, but involves introducing so many characters and plodding through so many prosaic details that the story never gains momentum. [02.13.19]

Two fairly recent books take odd turns partway through. These turns didn't exactly ruin them for me, but made the latter parts of them somewhat skimmable. In The Man from the Train: The solving of a century-old serial killer mystery (Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James, Scribner 2017), the authors connect a string of early-20th-century axe murders – committed near rail lines, involving the bludgeoning of entire families, committed at night in warm months by a killer with sexual motives. But then they break off halfway through and start on another string of killings, earlier on and less well-documented, attempting to work them into the pattern. It's a convincing argument but becomes more than a little episodic, and ultimately overwhelms the reader with detail. Meanwhile, in Bad Blood: Secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley startup (John Carreyrou, Knopf 2018), the author spins a compelling tale of corporate misdirection (to put it mildly) and extravagant wishful thinking about a blood-test technology that was supposed to revolutionize healthcare, and turned out to be a pipedream if not an outright lie. Two-thirds of the way through Bad Blood, Carreyrou becomes the protagonist of his own story, as the rest of the book relates his own investigative journalism – you almost expect him to start narrating the composition of the very book you're reading, and then to summarize the aftermath of its publication. [02.05.19]

october 2018

Not All Dead White Men: Classics and misogyny in the digital age. Donna Zuckerberg. Harvard, 2018. Donna Zuckerberg ventures into the vilest reaches of Reddit to report on the uses that the "manosphere" is making of the Greek and Roman classics. She groups the various "men's-rights," anti-feminist, and "pickup artist" philosophies under a catchall term of their own devising, The Red Pill. These guys, while they're not complaining about how women rule the world and enslave them, apparently love to read Marcus Aurelius and the Ars Amatoria. After a sharp introduction, Zuckerberg's book develops a rhythm of giving a useful textbook-like summary of a classical tradition (e.g. Stoicism), and then mining The Red Pill for quotes. The problem is that these quotes are so unbelievably illiterate and moronic that there's barely any sense in examining them. It's as if you were to go back and forth between the dolce stil nuovo and the nearest bathroom wall. I will say this: it's as well to know that such horrors exist, and Zuckerberg's book, while I couldn't finish it, will play its part in documenting a bizarre chapter in 21st-century culture. [10.11.18]

august 2018

Fairies: A dangerous history. Richard Sugg. Reaktion, 2018. I wouldn't say that Richard Sugg's provocative book Fairies: A dangerous history takes fairies seriously. But it takes the belief in fairies very seriously. As Sugg notes at several points, fairies are supernatural, and we tend to discredit supernatural stuff. But religion involves the supernatural, and religion is serious as all hell. Why wouldn't the belief in hidden, little, charmed people be equally serious? Sugg's first three chapters concern the persistent and often deadly-earnest belief in a parallel fairy universe that was pervasive in Britain and Ireland till very recently (and is still quite viable in Iceland, though Sugg does not discuss that country much). His fourth and fifth chapters take a tour through fairyland in high and popular culture from Homer to the present, and to me as an English professor were well-trodden territory. [08.19.18]

First Taste of Freedom: A cultural history of bicycle marketing in the United States. Robert J. Turpin. Syracuse, 2018. Robert Turpin argues that bicycles have meant many things to Americans since they burst onto the scene as a post-Civil-War craze. Early "velocipedes" and "ordinaries" were daredevil contraptions; not for women and children. Late-19th-century "safeties" (basically the bikes people ride today) allowed non-athletes to ride, at the cost of "emasculating" the hobby. Europeans notably thought of bikes as athletic equipment and racing as big business, but in America, by the mid-20th-century, bikes were for kids, or seen as sorry alternatives to cars. The dynamic keeps shifting, with current eco-friendly (and distinctly white/upper-middle-class) cycling initiatives gaining ground once more on the automobile. Turpin's book is well-presented and well-written, but perhaps ultimately as dry as its subtitle suggests: a lot of this academic history consists of quotations from bicycle advertising and rhetoric. [08.12.18]

april 2018

The New Chimpanzee: A twenty-first century portrait of our closest kin. Craig Stanford. Harvard, 2018. Craig Stanford's survey of the current state of research in chimpanzee ethology is quite long, and though it is thematically varied, the method of each chapter is pretty much the same: review the literature, note observed chimp behaviors and how researchers have quantified them, and then muse about how chimps evolved these behaviors. Everything our relatives do is assumed to be functional, and since it's functional it must be adaptive, and therefore associated with reproductive success and maximizing access to valued resources (or some other such functional formula). This could all well be completely true, but it has the sound of fitting observations to theory, which in turn shores up theory via evidence. Part of the problem for me is that human beings are classic ####-ups, and very often don't behave in functional ways that maximize our reproductive (or any other) success: so why assume that chimpanzees are so much better at it than we are? I don't really mean to disparage Stanford's clear and sober exposition of the vast research projects that have followed on Jane Goodall's pioneering studies. But it strikes me that Goodall's method, which involved far more thick description and what amounted to ethnography as much as ethology, is the reason we're interested in all these more dispassionate quantified observations to begin with. [04.21.18]

january 2018

Hell and Its Rivals: Death and retribution among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the early Middle Ages. Alan E. Bernstein. Cornell, 2017. Hell and Its Rivals is a really good book, and I wish I had the patience or the expertise to do it justice. Bernstein's ambitious project is to trace the concept of Hell Itself back to its origins in the three Abrahamic religions, with copious comparative reference to other faiths of Europe and the Middle East. The period Bernstein studies is antiquity through the first millennium or so of the common era, with looks forward to how received notions of Hell continued to play out in later medieval and even modern thought. His basic premise is that Hell was a much-negotiated idea. Most religions assert some form of justice that persists after death, but our uneasy relationship to the Other Side keeps people refining and contesting the parameters of Hell's permanence, scope, physical reality, and eternity. Why didn't I read more than 60 pages? Hell and Its Rivals is extremely exhaustive, and it's neither a narrative nor an essay. The body of the book includes all sorts of things that other books might stow away in footnotes. This makes it better for reference and background study than for the kind of reading I do propped up in bed at night – my weakness, not Bernstein's. [01.27.18]

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