Read a lot of philosophy books? Me neither, so How Civility Works was a bit of a riddle. And although I thought the author had some interesting reminders that enforcing civility can be a way to squash any dissent or political disagreement, I am not so sure that I would follow him on the path of sacrificing civility on the altar of free speech…
Yesterday, we saw that statistics could be fun, and today, we see that philosophy can be boring and depressing. I must say that the author has a remarkable ability to spot the contradictions and ridicule of modern life, for example why it’s silly to have a group of people with complicated food restrictions while many others literally starve… Still, an entire book about the follies of men makes me want to go jump in the river. Can’t we have a bit of silver lining, please?
In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies tackles the widespread opinion that we must never forget difficult moments because it will somehow inform a better future with incisive examples that show that it’s not always the case. From the Edict of Nantes to 9/11, from King’s Philip’s War to the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, the author fearlessly examines well-known and obscure examples to show that history curricula are highly selective, on the one hand, and that a little bit of forgetting can help greatly with the forgiving part of building the future. Expect erudition and nuanced moral judgments.
Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter is a collection of short essays written over many years, and arranged by theme. In them, the author addresses politics, altruism, animal liberation, science, and many other topics, and is never afraid to share strong opinions, forcefully argued, or to diverge from his overall liberal stance. Reading sequentially can be annoying at times as some essays overlap, and practical solutions of perfectly good ideas are dismissed too lightly in my opinion. Yes, we can put a man on the moon, but it’s really a very simple project (even using 1960’s technology) compared to creating a universal public library. Still, one would wish that this more elevated type of thinking would permeate society instead of slogans and promises for quick fixes.
Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism tells the story of five utopian movements of the late 18th century and 19th century, ending with the Civil War. Some the Shakers, Oneida) are better known than others
The author describes the movements without necessarily drawing parallels between them, but the resemblances are often stunning. The various movements described perfect futures, with an array of serious or amusing characteristics such as lemonade-tasting oceans (really!), equal rights (for the members, from whom could be excluded the undesirable), and no mosquitoes (excellent idea). The successful ones organized work in efficient collective manner that brought them property and some degree of staying power (those that were unable to organize work and finances failed promptly). They created intricate, infinitely detailed rules that governed every aspect of life, from how to cut meat to the kind of pets that could be kept. And of course marriage and sex were especially regulated, with some communities forbidding it entirely while others read like swinger clubs.
The Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneidans all shared a charming optimism that they could indeed set up a lifestyle that would bring perfect happiness. How far they were from today’s taste for dystopia!
The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path invites the reader to embrace meditation as a way out of essential anxiety. The author’s voice is kind and not overly spiritual, so the text is quite accessible. He also manages to take abstract, even obtuse Buddhist concepts and translate them into clear, sometimes colloquial English. My favorite part of the book came at the end, where he shows how the Buddhist tradition encourages students to use the energy of so-called sacred emotions to change the world. If you thought that Buddhism was essentially passive, you are in for a surprise!
Still, I would not quite wrap my head around the fact that anxiety is our default state….
You know that I love short books, and Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life is nice and slim — that’s about the only kind comment I can make about it. I’m not sure I could figure out what it was about, although I did read half-way through it before giving up. Let me offer an example, the first sentence of chapter 20: “Borges explores this Dadaist gap between constructed generalizations and ungraspable particulars in ‘Funes, the Memorious;.”