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 . . .

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]

gilbert for 2012-17

gilbert for 2011

gilbert for 2010

gilbert for 2009