books book reviews

Short book reviews of short books

reviewed by T. Nelson

On Bullshit

by Harry G. Frankfurt
2005, 68 pages

There's not much to say about bullshit. It's brown, and, uh, it comes out of cows*. So Harry Frankfurt wastes no words in what must be the smallest philosophy book ever. Bullshitting, he says, is not lying, but using words in a deceptive way with indifference to the truth. This implies that there is, in fact, such a thing as truth; bullshit, says Frankfurt, is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. If you believe there's no such thing as truth, everything you say is bullshit.

* Yes I know, but cows are funnier than bulls. Nature is sexist.

dec 09, 2015

On Inequality

by Harry G. Frankfurt
2015, 102 pages

In this book, little more than a long essay, philosopher Harry Frankfurt puts forth a number of arguments why the Left's obsession with economic inequality is ill-conceived.

His main argument is that focusing on inequality leads to alienation. He writes:

A preoccupation with the alleged inherent value of economic equality tends to divert a person's attention from trying to discover ... what he himself really cares about, what he truly desires or needs, and what will actually satisfy him.

This is because what is needed for oneself is not related to whether someone else has more or less. It is poverty, not inequality, he says, that is the problem.

These arguments are widely held by modern economists, who view individuals as a homo economicus. Frankfurt's analytical logic is clear and elegant. But I suspect progressives will be unmoved; inequality as they use it is a political issue, not a moral one, because it involves only relative comparisons: double everyone's income and the amount of inequality is the same, yet the activists' ardor is not dampened.

The sob stories about inequality we keep hearing have little to do with economics, sharing, fairness, or generosity, and everything to do with increasing the power of the state. When the state does as the progressives demand and takes away people's freedom to improve their economic condition, we merely exchange one form of inequality for another.

The young idealists who say they think otherwise are the real audience for this book. It will challenge their beliefs.

nov 21, 2015

The Bumper Book of Astronomical FLOPS

by Lester Haines
2013, 230 pages

If only it had been published, The Register's Bumper Book of Astronomical FLOPS: Heavenly Wonders Obscured by Driving Rain would have been the perfect gift for anyone tired of going outside to see the latest spectacular comet only to get drenched in pouring rain.

This surely would have been a beautifully bound coffee table book with 230 full color plates of astronomical features ranging from “crap comets to fog-hidden planetary alignments.” That is to say, 230 breathtaking photos of clouds taken at night.

Unfortunately, it's as fake as the other gift items on their page. It's a missed opportunity. It would have been the only honest astronomy book ever written. So even though I can't give it any stars, I will never throw it away.

aug 11, 2015

Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality

by Theodore Dalrymple
Encounter, 2015, 127 pages

Neuropsychiatric disorders are in the news again: a German airline pilot, apparently depressed, committed mass murder last week by deliberately crashing his plane, killing 150 people. But is depression a disease, as many patients insist, or a moral failure? If the latter, how can we encourage patients to seek treatment? Do antidepressant drugs really work?

It's a much-needed discussion. Dalrymple says medicalization takes away our moral sense. It's a well written essay, but it's too short.

mar 29, 2015

The Bonobo and the Atheist

by Frans de Waal
Norton, 2015, 289 pages

The author, a primatologist, wants to talk about morality and religion as genetically programmed behavior. It's an interesting topic. But he gets off on the wrong foot on page 11 where he accuses American doctors of being involved in ‘torturing’ prisoners in Guantanamo. This kind of sets the tone for the rest of the book.

He then talks about altruism in various animal species, then changes the subject to religion and atheists, then back to animals again. Short summary: religious people are too dogmatic, atheists are too dogmatic, scientists are too dogmatic, Hieronymus Bosch's Triptych is interesting, and animals are just like us—they know right from wrong, but they're so peaceful, not religious and not dogmatic at all.

Maybe not, but chimpanzees also commit infanticide and cannibalism. Bonobos aren't the peaceful hippie chimps as de Waal portrays them either: they kill and eat other monkeys. Not sure how that affects his thesis. Maybe something like: monkeys sometimes kill and eat each other, but at least they're not dogmatic about it.

mar 29, 2015

How To Talk To Your Cat About Gun Safety

by Zachary Auburn
Random House, 2016, 134 pages

“It is frequently said that curiosity killed the cat, but what is often left unsaid is that the actual cause of death was the improper discharge of a firearm by a poorly trained feline.”

That's the only amusing line in this mercifully short book. The rest consists of some guy named Zachary Auburn trying to parodize the NRA's book How To Talk To Your Kids About Gun Safety and similar stuff. Only the first chapter is about firearms. The rest is about premarital sex, evolution, drugs, satanism, post-apocalyptic survival, and online safety, with jokes like “By letting your cat use a weak password such as these, you are leaving yourself just as vulnerable to criminals as if you handed a copy of your house key to every Mexican you met!”

Another thigh-slapper: “When your cat engages in premarital sex, three people are present: your cat, your cat's partner, and Satan! Ask your cat if they really want the Devil spying on them while they have sex.”

The author is trying very hard to make fun of religious fundamentalists and social conservatives, but it's abundantly clear he has no more clue about them than he does about firearms. An odd thing about humor: it only works if you understand what you're making fun of.

aug 29, 2018

Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyond

by Richard Jenkyns
Basic Books, 2016, 270 pages

These days people often look at the great Greek and Roman classical literature for clues about their social organization. In doing so they look at ancient societies as if they are modern, seeing them not as they were, but as we would like them to have been. Feminist scholars, for example, look back and see only misogyny, patriarchy and exploitation. Marxists see only class oppression and slavery. They are stultifyingly provincial; midgets complaining about the dirty toenails of giants.

The ancients were giants not just because of the beauty of their writing. They were giants in their influence over modern civilization. That is why Jenkyns's attempts to show us the richness of classical ideas is so refreshing.

Jenkyns gives only the briefest overview of the works, as from a great distance. He describes the literary works from Homer to Cicero in the Roman Republic, to Virgil and Ovid in the Augustan Age, which ended in AD 14. An outstanding introduction and orientation.

jun 05, 2016

Parmenides and the Way of Truth

Trans. and commentary by Richard G Geldard
Monkfish, 2007, 131 pages

Parmenides was a pre-Socratic philosopher famous for the prose poem On Nature, a profound and seminal work of ontology. He wrote:

“First, know that It Is, and it is not possible for Is to not be. ... Next, the other, that It Is Not, cannot be. That is a path not to tread upon. You cannot know what is Not, nor speak about it. ... What is there for thinking and for being is the same.”

Parmenides is saying that there is only one kind of existing thing in the world. Nothingness doesn't exist, and cannot even be talked about; if we try, we end up talking about something else.

Very little else beyond this one poem has survived. Geldard says that Aristotle misinterpreted it, creating the dualism that has been passed down through Descartes. Plato's Parmenides, where Plato &Co. discuss Parmenides's philosophy of the One, is notoriously full of syntactical chop suey, but here the simplicity and elegance of Parmenides comes through. There's not much there, however, so Geldard adds his own quasi-religious interpretations, which the reader must disentangle from the ideas of Parmenides.

may 24, 2015

Rape of the Mind

A.M. Meerloo, M.D.
1956, 241 pages

Anyone who suffers from incurable pain or migraines knows that pain burns up energy, making you physically weak. And that's why torturers use it. Their goal is to weaken your mind, turning it to jelly so whatever ideas they plant there will become your own. Torture is almost always effective in breaking a person.

Meerloo says the same thing happens in a propaganda state, but on a more subtle level. He writes: “He who dictates and formulates the words and phrases we use, he who is master of the press and radio, is master of the mind.” At first people only pretend to believe. But if dissenting opinions are never heard, they begin to suspect that everyone else really does believe the propaganda, and gradually they come to believe it themselves.

In my view the mind thrives on truth; lies are a form of pain for the mind. Eventually, Meerloo says, lies cause what Meerloo calls ‘menticide’: the abandonment of any attempt to resist. Confusion and feelings of helplessness and isolation, says Meerloo, are essential components. Such was the experience in the Korean War POW camps, where tortured American soldiers were brainwashed into confessing things they knew were false.

Knowing what to expect, whether in a prison camp or a propaganda state, he says, can protect you. Deeply held religious beliefs can protect you by giving you hope. But love and laughter, says Meerloo, are the most potent: the love that Pavlov's dogs had for their master sometimes ruined his attempts to condition them.

This book explains in psychiatric terms what Gustave Le Bon explained as social psychology. The goal of totalitarianism, he says, is to use confusion to break down the sense of personal integrity, the barrier between self and others. Meerloo's strong prose reveals deeply held convictions about the subject. The book sometimes lacks specifics and in veers into opinion, but it's a powerful and important message: a warning to us from the Cold War that it will never really be over.

jun 14, 2015

In Defense of Sanity
The best essays of G. K. Chesterton

Moved to here.

Plunder and Deceit:
Big Government's Exploitation of Young People and the Future

by Mark R. Levin

Moved to here.