Okay, kids, welcome to the Chameleonfire Book Club. It’s still the holidays so hopefully you have more time to read than usual. There are no fees to pay, nothing to subscribe to (except maybe my blog feed, which is free anyway), and no obligations. There are no ‘bonus points,’ except for the stimulation of some dormant neurons, a delightfully scintillating phrase or two, and maybe even the odd ‘Omigod’ gasp of insight. This is not about flaunting my erudition. It’s about the old-fashioned joy of sharing great writing—a goal I stated for this blog from the outset. And what is great writing if not that which develops ideas in depth and enhances our understanding of the world? I’m not above the occasional light novel but I figure if I’m going to spend my precious time reading, it had better bloody be worthwhile. If I want fluff I can watch TV. I get visibly annoyed with authors who waste my time with tripe, clumsy prose or gratuitous violence and I decided years ago I had no obligation to finish a book that pushed any of those buttons. So welcome! And feel free to share comments.
- The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
NOT a Luddite’s manual, this technology journalist was shocked to find his attention span seriously declining in middle age; at first, he thought it had to do with aging but decided to consult neurological scientists. What they’re discovering is worrisome for humanity’s intellectual development in the 21st century. HINT: 24/7 immersion into a digital environment is not healthy for our brains, particularly for children, who are still completing their neurological development; plenty of old-fashioned book reading remains a vital intellectual development tool. (To get a sense of what a vital tool reading is for intellectual development and just how this has revolutionized human societies, see Maryanne Wolf’s book on the reading brain, Proust and the Squid.) Just as with food, a balanced and controlled diet of media is necessary. In my view, every principal of every school and every teacher should read this book.
FAVOURITE QUOTES: “As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favour of a bland but immediately accessible style. …They will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as ‘groupiness,’ where people read mainly “for the sake of feeling a belonging” rather than for personal enlightenment…” (p. 107)
“The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.” (p. 119)
In one lab experiment: “Five hours on the Internet, and the naïve subjects had already rewired their brains. …If our brains are so sensitive to just an hour a day of computer exposure, what happens when we spend more time online? …Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged.” (pp. 121, 122)
- For Us, the Living by Robert Heinlein
This recently discovered first novel by the renowned sci-fi master, never before published, is actually more of a Utopian model than a novel, and easily fits into the genre of Utopian literature. Written in 1939, it shows incredible foresight into the kinds of social and economic changes that would be needed if humanity is to survive the 21st century. Way back then, he figured out that monopolistic capitalism had to go and with it our current system of banking. Which only reinforces my contention that the best artists are the visionary ones, not those who keep us circulating in the back eddies of fetish or self-indulgence. As explained in the Introduction by Spider Robinson, For Us, the Living is less successful as a novel than as a Utopian treatise. Robinson manages to pull off the feat of being simultaneously denigrating yet praising of Heinlein’s first effort. Still, the novel is wonderful for its development of a future Utopian society that has actually learned from the crises of its past. And like other, better-realized works of sci-fi like Frank Herbert’s Dune, it’s rooted in very earthly political, social and economic history. For Us, the Living is also a surprisingly quick read given the weighty material.
FAVOURITE QUOTES: “A modern city is an almost incredibly helpless and delicate organism. It has lost its power to produce the actual essentials of life. In spite of its transportation systems, it cannot move as they found out in the evacuation of London. It is like an overgrown idiot baby in an incubator. It is completely helpless without the many servants that succor it.” (p. 73)
ON RELIGION: “All forms of organized religion are alike in certain social respects. Each claims to be the sole custodian of the essential truth. Each claims to speak with final authority on all ethical questions. And every church has requested, demanded, or ordered the state to enforce its particular system of taboos. No church ever withdraws its claims to control absolutely by divine right the moral life of the citizens. If the church is weak, it attempts by devious means to turn its creed and discipline into law. If it is strong, it uses the rack and the thumbscrew.” (pp. 104, 105)
ON CORPORATE REFORM: Heinlein envisages a new America of the 21st century in which a new Constitution has been written to replace the original, which had been mostly disregarded anyway: “In another place in the constitution, corporate persons were defined and declared to have no rights of any sort except wherein they represented rights of real persons. Corporate persons could not be damaged. An act committed against a corporate person must be shown to have damaged a real person in order to constitute an offense.” (p. 112) I’ve been saying this for years! Abolish corporate ‘personhood’—now!
ON MONETARY REFORM: “…the Federal Reserve was not, despite its title, a publicly owned bank. Nor was it a bank in the common use of the term. A private citizen couldn’t borrow money from it nor place money in it. Only bankers could use it and they owned it. …You see the banks had created a panic and a wave of fear by calling loans and refusing to loan more money. …LaGuardia became determined to break the private bankers. …He became convinced that ordinary commercial financing could be done for a service charge plus an insurance fee amounting to much less than the current rates of interest charged by banks, whose rates were based on supply and demand, treating money as a commodity rather than a sovereign state’s means of exchange.” (pp. 76, 77) All the more incredible when you remember Heinlein wrote this 75 years ago!
“We decided that money was anything which always could be swapped for goods and services. That implies that the person who accepts it believes that he can do likewise. Therefore money is money as long as everybody believes it is money. …If the people collectively as the state will accept it, then so will the individuals.” (p. 201)
- Blood of the Isles by Bryan Sykes
Now out of print, this fascinating book probes the author’s efforts to create a DNA map of the British Isles. Sykes is Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford. According to the book jacket copy, “He was the first to discover, in 1989, how to recover human DNA from remains thousands of years old and he has been called in as the leading authority to examine several high-profile cases, such as the Ice Man, Cheddar Man and the many individuals claiming to be surviving members of the Russian royal family. Since then he has worked extensively on the origins of peoples from all over the world, using DNA from living people as well as from archaeological remains.”
Now a man with such an impressive pedigree could easily become a boring, condescending pedant. Yet in true British fashion, he opts for a chatty, self-effacing approach, writing in language as accessible to the mineworker at the pub as his colleagues in the Oxford dining hall. It’s not every academic who can translate the arcane language of science into everyday prose but Sykes achieves this beautifully. He never assumes the reader knows what he knows as a genetic scientist and he skips over technical jargon as much as possible.
Blood of the Isles seeks to answer questions such as: What really is a Celt, and how long have they actually been in the British Isles? Are the British really more Germanic or Scandinavian than Celtic? Are the Picts—the forebears of today’s Scots—a distinct people from all the other tribes that settled the Isles? The answers will surprise many and shock still others, challenging long-held beliefs about their ancestry. HINT: The Celts have been in the British Isles far, far longer than the traditionally accepted arrival date of the second century BC. (Probably not a revelation to most of us with Celtic blood.) Sykes establishes that modern (as in post ice age) human habitation has been present in the British Isles for 9,000 years. It also becomes clear that British peoples’ ancestry—like most Europeans—is of hunter-gatherer stock, not coming in later with the first agriculturalists. Farming was thus not an imported skill so much as something that arose in concert with similar developments around the world. Another pleasant surprise is Sykes’ discovery that—as writers have suspected all along—there are substantial kernels of truth about the history of a people embedded in cultural mythology.
Sykes believes that as advanced as genetic science has become during the past 50 years, it may have reached the limits of its usefulness in some areas. That said, genetics has definitively lain to rest such dangerous notions as ‘racial superiority’ and actually makes a scientific case for humanity’s interrelatedness. We are indeed all the children of the ‘seven daughters of Eve,’ to paraphrase the title of another of Sykes’ popular books on genetics.
FAVOURITE QUOTES: “We may believe that nowadays we are beyond the grasp of hazy origin myths and treat them as the sole preserve of ignorant and primitive people clinging to absurd notions of the past. But in my research around the world I have more than once found that oral myths are closer to the genetic conclusions than the often-ambiguous scientific evidence of archaeology. …While no one would be foolish enough to suggest that they are entirely accurate in every detail, myths have a very long memory.” (pp. 39, 40)