Friday, 16 September 2016

Words on the Move, by John McWhorter

In Words on the Move, John McWhorter begins by observing that no one complains about clouds moving in the sky, but they complain about language changing over time. For example, people these days often complain about the over-use of the word “like” and the mis-use of the word “literally.” However, as tempting as it might be to whine, he says, this is perfectly normal. Our language – and all languages – has been in a state of flux throughout its entire existence. This is the nature of language. Not only does it adapt consciously to incorporate new words, but changes subtly over the decades. He observes that old movies sound stranger with each passing decade partly because of the accents which are moving further from ours, and also to keys in our spellings that indicate the differences in pronunciation over the years – ie daughter is not pronounced like laughter, but it used to be.

He talks about our perception of words as having concrete meanings when, of course, they don’t. Dictionaries are misleading because they imply that a word has a set meaning that is fixed across time, but dictionaries themselves go quickly out of date. Amusingly, McWhorter observes that considering a word as its dictionary definition is like saying a middle-aged person looks like their high-school graduation photo. People change, and so does our language. Throughout this book, the author explains why words change.

McWhorter’s style is accessible and often witty, yet incredibly well-informed. He seems rather hip to modern culture (perhaps trying too hard at times) yet absolutely knowledgeable about the millennia of development leading up to it. The result is a quite readable, very interesting, and valuable book.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hunting with Hemingway, by Hilary Hemingway

I bought this book two months ago in Chiang Mai, Thailand, because I thought it was a biography of Ernest Hemingway... Well, it's not, but that's ok. It's still an enjoyable read.

Hunting with Hemingway is a strange little memoir by Hilary Hemingway, daughter of Papa's brother, Leicester. It begins with the passing of the author's mother, who left Hilary a cassette tape recorded by an unnamed professor, on which her father, Les, tells various hard-to-believe stories about hunting with his older brother, Ernest.

The book weaves an odd narrative, telling the story supposedly as it was stated on tape, while detailing Hilary's reaction to the deaths of her mother and father and, to a lesser extent, her uncle. At times the personal element is somewhat mishandled, I felt, as in the final chapters of the book, which seem unnecessary.

The book's value comes from the fascinating stories told by the crotchety old man on the tape. These are pure old fashioned boys stories of adventures across the globe - hunting lions, fighting ostriches, chasing Nazi U-boats...

Are they real? Did these things ever happen as stated? Maybe, and maybe not. That's dealt with throughout the book in conversations between the author and her family. At times it is stated, perhaps rightly, that it is unimportant. A story is a story. Leicester Hemingway, paraphrasing his brother, said:
A good story is at its best when the line between truth and fiction remains ambiguous.
 What bothered me was not the element of truth. I don't care if a story is embellished a little here or there. What bothered me was the hunting. It was hard to read these stories about the murder of innocent animals - tigers, lions, komodo dragons, marlin, etc. Leicester and Ernest go on about respecting the animals, yet it never enters their heads that perhaps the animals didn't want to die in the first place, and didn't need to.

I get that hunting has its place. It is not as black and white as right and wrong... But hunting for sport, for fun, is just monstrous and anyone who does it should be castrated, skinned alive, and fed to the buzzards. Of course, this was long ago in a different time, but still... It's hard to read these stories.

I've had the privilege in my life of coming up close to most of the animals they killed and I disagree with Les about them being monsters. The stories about these animals being man-eaters and posing threats are certainly wrong, and their deaths always unnecessary. This book doesn't really glorify the hunting element because it is commented negatively upon by those listening to the tape, but it is still hard to stomach. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

What I Want to Read...

I'm currently reading Hilary Hemingway's Hunting with Hemingway, and almost finished. Next up on my reading list is Aldous Huxley: A Biography, by Nicholas Murray. That's not a book I'm reading for pleasure, although of course I hope I'll enjoy it... but rather one I'm reading for study. I plan on writing an essay on Huxley before the end of this year.

After that, I'm incredibly excited about Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari. His 2014 book, Sapiens, is probably the most important book you could ever read, and I realize how insane that sounds. But seriously, have the world read this and will would all find our lives improved. I reviewed Sapiens somewhere on this blog. Hit the tag below the post to find it.

I'm also excited about the final book in Liu Cixin's Three-Body Trilogy, Death's End. Alas, the second book was not brilliant, but I have my fingers crossed for this one. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Currently Reading/Watching

I'm currently reading Hilary Hemingway's book, Hunting With Hemingway. It's an odd little story about her - Ernest Hemingway's niece - finding a tape on which her father is recorded telling stories about his adventures with his famous older brother.

I'm quite enjoying the book, although I admit that I despise hunting in almost all forms, and so the supposedly heroic tales of murdering crocodiles, lions, tigers, cobras, etc are really rather off-putting. Still, it's an engaging story.

There's much to hate about Hemingway, including the hunting, but there's no denying that he's one of the great writers of the modern era, and beyond that a fascinating character.

I'll review the book later, but for now, as I finish up reading it, I'll share this video I recently watched, which tells about Hemingway's life in more depth.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Our Human Herds, by Martin Fritz

…what I propose… is that each and every one of us carries within us two distinct moral codes, either of which can be understood as right, depending upon our circumstances…
The two distinct moral codes have a biological origin. By switching back and forth between these two sometimes cooperating and sometimes conflicting moral patterns we discover that the things we find right in one view can be seen as wrong in the other.

It’s an interesting thought, and that’s pretty much the book in a nutshell. However, it goes on for almost a thousand pages of elucidation as the author tries to hammer home his point.

To expand, what he is saying above is that essentially while we now tend to think of our views as moral or immoral, right or wrong, these are actually fairly fluid judgments and they depend upon what is happening around us. What is right for one person in one situation is wrong for someone else. And this a biological imperative. He gives numerous examples and explanations, but it boils down to this: there is one mindset for when we have plenty, and one mindset for when we don’t. You could say today that this is the difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives view the world through fearful eyes, and appear cold and cruel from the liberal perspective. Liberals view the world as providing more than enough for everyone and act dangerously from the conservative perspective.

“Moral conflict,” he says, “began to take shape not as a battle between right and wrong, but a needed and necessary struggle between right and right.” What he means is that we need both the fearful, outsider-hating conservative to keep the group (or herd) on its toes, and the sympathetic, bleeding-heart liberal to make sure everyone has enough. It’s a result of evolution.

One point I found very interesting is this:

Feeling precedes logical justification. Usually, it is after we become aware how we feel that we look for logical arguments to support this emotional position.

How true that is, and it sits nicely with books I’ve read last year about psychology.

Overall, Fritz’s book was pretty interesting and certainly it’s hard to argue with his statements. It was certainly not very original, but he does acknowledge that the dual morality theory is not his own. One problem I had was that, while the concept as a whole is somewhat complex, the book tended to often become bogged down in over-simplicity - a tendency to state the obvious. It was also very repetitive, which sucked the enjoyment out of reading it. 

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson

Here’s another cheat review – this book is also a paperback, rather than a Kindle title, and one that I purchased back in Chiang Mai in a very cool place called Backstreet Books.

I was a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson when I was younger and as such I have a tattoo of his Gonzo fist on my left forearm. Although I don’t read him much these days, I still consider him one of my primary literary influences. Perhaps I felt that, after several years of not reading his work, he was not as great as I remembered… perhaps his work was a tad childish, even.

How wrong I was. A few weeks ago, in Laos, I got stuck into The Great Shark Hunt – a collection of Thompson’s finest work before 1980. Indeed, this was his best period as a writer, when he wrote his masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as the brilliant Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. This was Thompson at his peak, particularly documenting the counterculture of the late sixties and its subsequent demise, as well as his constant hatred for Richard Nixon.

The Great Shark Hunt chronicles the development of Gonzo, Thompson’s signature style. Although the book doesn’t follow any chronological pattern, the stories are dated, and we see him becoming increasing politicized, as well as finding his way from off-beat reporter to Gonzo journalist. His early works were short and somewhat restrained, while later they become rambling and filled with vitriol and humour.

What I found rereading Thompson’s best works was a profound sense that this is a man who understood the rhythm of speech, and that his work was to some extent intended to be read aloud. A few weeks before buying this book I watched some videos on YouTube wherein other people read his work, and I noticed for the first time just how he laughed at certain points, and how he loved to hear his words being read aloud.

In Thompson’s writing there is something – and I know he would’ve hated the comparison – Ginsbergian in the long-breath sentences. He was famous for his overuse of certain words (like doomed, swine, and atavistic) but his brilliance lay not in overstatement or shock, but in the subtle building of feeling and emotion in his sentences. There is a famous story of him typing out The Great Gatsby to get a feel for the prose, and indeed Thompson’s own work is now similarly copied by hordes of imitation Gonzo writers because he succeeded. In places, his work is as beautiful as any great American literature.

There are no weak links in this collection, although there are sometimes a few paragraphs of pages where the quality drops slightly. Yet this vast, dense volume is one of the great writers of the late twentieth century on his very best form and it is, for anyone interested in Thompson or Gonzo, an absolute must-read book. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Island, by Aldous Huxley

Here’s a classic novel which somehow I’d managed not to read over the years. Actually, I thought I had read it… somewhere in the back of my mind I told myself that I’d already read this one, and put it aside to “reread” much later.

Island is Aldous Huxley’s vision of utopia – a mysterious, remote, tropical island nation in Southeast Asia. It is a rather clunky novel, actually, which serves, from my perspective, as an often careless vehicle for Huxley’s philosophical and political perspectives. It revolves around the arrival of a newspaper reporter, Will Farnaby, on the eponymous island, Pala. He has been sent to negotiate on behalf of his employer for the rights to drill for oil on Pala.

The entire book essentially follows Will as he recuperates from a fall whilst arriving on the island, and at absolutely every conceivable turn, he is taught in bizarrely eloquent terms, the precise history and philosophy of Pala. The island was once a Buddhist society, rather primitive in its ways, but with many valuable qualities. At some point a Scottish doctor arrived, and the perfect hybrid of Eastern and Western ideas came about.

The book is not awful by any means but it is certainly a bit ridiculous. Nothing happens in it that isn’t a means for Huxley to present his reader with his personal viewpoints on everything from sex to drugs to religion. Some ideas, like the Mutual Adoption Club (MAC), are patently fraught with problems that are never addressed, while actually many of his ideas – while impossible to ever implement anywhere – are very admirable. In particular, his keen awareness of ecology.

I was very surprised to notice a staggering amount of concepts lifted and adapted from Scientology – or, more likely, from L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I haven’t had internet access since reading the book so I haven’t been able to gauge what Huxley’s relationship was with the Church, but it shocked me that his famous utopian society – an antithesis to that presented in Brave New World – contains so much from a now maligned cult. I shall have to investigate further…