Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Week's Book: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Feels good to be ahead on this one. May that trend continue. I can't cover nearly all the issues presented in this book in this medium so here's a teaser.

August 19-25: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

Politics (1904 - 183 pp.) 

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism marks an entry into the political science annals that is more interdisciplinary than anything. It showcases Max Weber's research into history, sociology and comparative religion*, as well as a qualitative theory that invites quantitative. I do not know of any such quantitative study being done, although it seems like such a massive undertaking that Weber's essay will have to suffice. As with An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, this tract has been covered quite well academically by people far more qualified than me, so my purpose here is to flesh out value to the more general reader. There is no rule that someone has to be an academic to appreciate topics like morality, society and religion, after all. 

The underlying question, of how to explain the correlation Weber sees between Protestantism's prominence in states and their adoption of capitalist and especially industrial economies, is one that must have felt very relevant in 1904. Even so, the schools of thought developed throughout are seen in different Western Christian sects today. Much of the book focuses on the translation of monastic asceticism into various Protestant values, and much of the rest focuses on different sects' attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth. The morality, immorality and/or amorality of acquiring wealth is notable in its sway within sects, such as in considering the difference in a Puritan's spending habits versus a Catholic's. Weber identifies key passages that explain root causes of differences like these, while never abandoning deference to the typical criticism that it is not religion that influences economics but the other way around. 

Weber is friendlier to the Protestant cause, which shows in his sometimes rough treatment of Catholic beliefs. The analogy of a Catholic priest to a magician is likely his most hostile assertion here. His treatment of the various Protestant sects is cooler, yet he is not shy to point out any perceived contradiction therein. His treatment of John Wesley raises the timeless problem of the virtues of industry and frugality coexisting with the sin of riches - a conundrum that it is worth noting does not exist within Catholicism. Notions of monasticism being sinful in light of a duty to a place in society are similarly cast. 

Where the value lies to the non-academic, and even to the non-specialist, is in seeing how passages from various historical figures have resonated in our world ever since. The issues Weber presents are too numerous to discuss in full detail here, so I have merely outlined a few that look particularly interesting at a quick glance. The intertwining of religion, society and economy never really started and will never really end. Although 1904 seems like a long time ago, and Weber's time period shows through in the language, the concepts he presents are his perspective on nearly universal moral problems. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 10 

*Inasmuch as comparing Catholicism to various Protestant sects can be styled "comparative religion", of course.

Friday, August 17, 2012

This Week's Book: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

This should end up being one of the toughest reads of the entire year. It's very rewarding, though.

August 12-18: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

Law (1781 - 244 pp.) 

This book has been written on hundreds of times, many of them by commentators far more inured to its context and its place in philosophy than I am. The academic discussion, then, will stay with the academics. This text's value is not limited to those circles, especially given its origin - not as a research paper written at a university, but as what effectively amounts to a policy manual. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation has relevance to policymakers, lawyers and anyone who wants to consider the underlying basis of morality, not just the philosophers who teach it so well. 

Bentham's argument at times feels disconnected between the moral and legislative aspects, although it is ultimately clear that he intends both to be run according to the principle of utility. (Economists now call this "cardinal utility".) While there is a certain lack of insight in the observation that "everyone should do what is best for him or her in the context of greater society" (and how butchered a translation that is...), it must have been a refreshing departure from the sectarianism of the ancien rĂ©gime and the self-defeating stances of what would in the next century be termed the Low Church Evangelical movement. Bentham's preaching of consistency across punishments for perpetrators of identical crimes is a good example of a principle we take for granted today but was not so obvious at the time. 

Everything in the book comes back to that core principle of utility, which is defined in very clear terms at the outset and remains in play throughout. The simultaneously religious and secular nature of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation makes utility maximization more flexible than it may at first appear. Nothing is ever confirmed or denied, only considered through Bentham's perspective, and it is all very cohesive. One observation I find particularly applicable to our current world is the clear differentiation between moral and religioussanction, the former term being applied to social pressure and the latter to disobedience of a religious mandate. The fuzzy lines between religious and social dictates, i.e. what a religious teaching is versus what the social norm is of a society that associates itself with a particular religion is, themselves act as a sort of commentary on the political gaming Bentham opposes. 

The only qualm I can take with this undeniably seminal work is just how much time Bentham devotes to defining his terms. These lengthy sections can often be skimmed. It would also have been nice to have seen a direct reply to Kant somewhere, considering the inherent opposition those two greats have with each other. When Bentham sets out his principles, though, he sets out timeless notions that I think form the basis of much of how we should perceive both our personal ethics and our legal system. 

Ease of Reading: 1 
Educational Content: 10

Saturday, August 11, 2012

This Week's Book: If Walls Could Talk

Feels good to finally be caught up. This was a fun one, not that any here aren't.

August 5-11: If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

History (2011 - 325 pp.) 

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is a history book that reads like a pop history book, which makes it great for a quick read but a nuisance for citation. I enjoyed it thoroughly and would recommend it for anyone who wants to learn quirky tidbits that fit into a larger story. It's written by the chief curator of the Historical Royal Palaces. She augments much of the work through her own experiences, whether through cleaning medieval toilets or making Georgian wallpaper from scratch. I like the approach - it's something different, and specifically something that can be applied to a book like this. 

The style and format of the book are very much appreciated. The breakdown of the book into four parts (bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen), and then each of those parts into small sections (usually under ten pages each), allows the reader to consider individual aspects of the home in their own miniature contexts. It also allows for putting the book down without having to trudge through the latter half of a forty-page chapter, something I've done far too many times in my history-reading young life so far. The trivia aspect of each section also keeps the content fresh, with no individual topic taking up too much of the book. Lucy Worsley must have had a lot of fun writing the manuscript. 

Anything else I could reasonably say would be a spoiler. Enjoy the various histories of closets, serial murders, toilets, dinner parties, makeup and mistress/servant relations throughout. Many are enlightening, others are hilarious, still others are surprising, and some are simply dark. Aside from the occasional bit that doesn't get fleshed out nearly enough, like the brief mention of Jamie Oliver's impact on cooking without any reason given as to why, I liked it. A little too casually written for the specialist but probably just fine for the specialist who's taking a break. Think of it like an economist's general interest book that way. 

Ease of Reading: 5 
Educational Content: 9

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Last/This Week's Book: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

For the first time in Book a Week, I've read more fiction books (16) than non-fiction books (15). Considering 11 of the first 14 books I read this year were non-fiction, I find that... oddly interesting? A necessary evening out of the numbers? Either way, here's a new entry and there'll be a far less fictional one coming up soon too. Beyond that, who knows?

July 29-August 4: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Science Fiction (1979 - 143 pp.) 

I somehow hadn't read this yet. Owing to its classic status, its fast pace (always important when you're reading so many books in such a short period), and the fact hat seemingly everything on the internet references it in some way, I figured I should. I also recently bought the five-volumeUltimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one of many collections I've been reading from, so if my page counts ever seem off that's why. 

The toughest aspect of reading this book for me was that everything seemed a little too familiar. Unfortunately, you'll share the experience after reading this entry if you don't already. I had seen references to bypasses, heard about Vogon poetry, heard the phrase "Mostly Harmless", had stumbled across Babel Fish, knew the Answer to LUE, knew what the Restaurant at the End of the Universe was... then of course, none of these would have been spoilers if the story had been more conventionally written. I like the lack of a distinct plot, and Douglas Adams could not have known his book would be so referenced in such an all-encompassing way. Certain topics were surprises, so I won't mention them here, but readingThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was more of a "when do I get to the ____ part?" experience for me than any real topical discovery. 

Adams's sense of humour is on point, from the ironic (the bypass through Earth) to the dry (the aliens indeed being green, as Ford puts it) to the absurd (the argument about sitting in front of bulldozers, which was one of my favourite parts of the book). The literary value of Vogon poetry or the impact on philosophers' occupations due to the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything being known are nice jabs at their intended targets. The needless and profligate Vogon bureaucracy is something undoubtedly identifiable to many of Adams's readers. Adams avoids going too far into commentary, unlike some of his preachier contemporaries, putting in just enough to be funny without being heavy-handed. The whole thing is also more definitively British than I'd expected, in both the type of humour involved and some of the phrasing. ("Nuts to <insert thing you want to say 'nuts to'> here!") 

The plot is coherent but lacks any sticking quality due to the intentional craziness of devices like the Infinite Improbability Drive. The otherwise fun effect of the reader truly having no idea of what will happen at any given moment prevents the reader from becoming attached to any individual character. While I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Arthur Dent getting skyrocketed through various parts of the universe, I couldn't have cared less if he died at any point during it. For parody's sake, and for the statements Adams makes about whatever comes to his mind, it works fine. Learning about the details we apparently didn't know about our surroundings is way more interesting than anything the overtly mediocre Dent offers us anyway. 

I'm glad I've read this. Once Book a Week ends, whenever I have a few spare moments for light reads, I now have four more sitting on my bookshelf. 

Aside: Ford's copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is much like an e-reader. I can only imagine the smile that would have crossed Adams's face had he seen a Kindle or a Nook... 

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 2

Friday, August 3, 2012

Happy Birthday, Tom Brady and James Hetfield!

Couldn't think of two better public figure types to share a birthday with. Happy 35th, Tom! Happy 49th, James!

...and, of course, Happy 25th, me. I apparently like commemorating it by blogging about books.

Last Week's Book: The Night Circus

Talk about a fun read, and my second plot-centred book in three weeks (Wizard's First Rule). Also have to love spending much of my 25th birthday reading, which you may have guessed by now is my favourite thing to do.

July 21-28: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Literature (2011 - 516 pp.) 

This is my second recent bestseller I've read for Book a Week, after The Hunger Games. I liked this one better. The Night Circus flows well, its 516 pages feeling oddly short. It's exactly what you'd expect from a description as a page-turner. 

Erin Morgenstern's descriptions are precisely what you'd want in a book like this. They're vivid enough to paint the picture in the reader's head without bogging anything down. In a denser book, I'd want a little more detail, but a fast-paced read like this couldn't hold any more. They are the highlight of The Night Circus. They make me want to touch the silk of Celia's chameleon-like gown or devour a caramel apple right now. Even more so, they make me want a map of the circus so I can see all the tents, but of course, part of the mystery is that not even the reader knows the identity and location of every exhibition. 

The Night Circus is extremely plot-focused with a secondary focus on setting. The modern dialogue contrasts with the late nineteenth- / early twentieth-century time period, which feels strange at first but is integral to the book's flow. Morgenstern intertwines her plots and subplots well, finding a place for every detail and cross-referencing to many different parts of the book. The interludes featuring what the circus might seem like to an attendee are nice too, especially considering that the bird's-eye view of the circus a performer may have is not at all what someone who isn't so invested in it sees. The closest comparison would be The Prestige, with The Night Circus passing enough of a resemblance to call them, say, the same subgenre. 

There are two primary issues I spot, one stylistic and the other in the content. The style issue is simply that comma splices are everywhere. It is common for a five-sentence paragraph to have four of its sentences contain comma splices, for example. This detracts from the flow of the book, as quick a read as this is. The content-related one is that the love story between the protagonists feels forced. Other than a few brief encounters, there is nothing to suggest their love would be as deep and as sincere as it apparently is. Their places opposite each other in the game would suggest otherwise. The awkwardly long ending could have been replaced with more mid-story character development here, especially when entire years in the 1890s blow by yet 1902 seems to take forever. A table of contents would have been nice too. 

Something my mom mentioned to me that I'd be inclined to agree with is how natural a movie The Night Circus would be. (My Prestige comparison above isn't accidental.) Done well, it could be that movie's equal; done not so well, it could be The Time Machine. It'd be fun to find out which. 

Thanks to my mom for the recommendation. 

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 3