January 31, 2012

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2012

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
A rather rambling and formless, if amiable and enthusiastic, popular history of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and its rediscovery during the Renaissance. The grandiosity of the subtitle is not, thankfully, insisted upon in the text, which in fact says rather little about the quite interesting history of how Lucretius was taken up, and Epicurean ideas were elaborated on, in early modern Europe. Passages of novelistic you-are-there detail, which Greenblatt admits are totally made up, are mercifully brief and fairly clearly marked as such. (Such claims of influence as he does make strike me as very thinly supported, though not clearly wrong.) Enjoyable, if slight, if you are prepared to care very deeply about books, and to sympathize with philosophical materialism.
(I am not sure why Greenblatt writes that the only manuscripts we have from the ancient world are those from Herculaneum preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. In Egypt and other desert countries, manuscripts have survived from Roman, Ptolemaic and even earlier times, some of them rather famous. But he is not a classicist, and one hopes he is a bit more careful about his own period.)
Margaret C. Jacob, Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe
On the positive side, the subject is important, and there were lots of interesting anecdotes and suggestions. Against that, it is far too scatter-shot and lacks not only a single global argument, but even much cohesion within individual chapters. It is also far too limited in scope, to the Enlightenment and its immediate predecessors in the 17th century. But if one wanted to look even at what was distinctive about that sort of cosmopolitanism, it's very strange to not even try to compare it to Latinate humanism and earlier medieval traditions, or the way the travels of learned artists spread styles and ideas during the Renaissance and before. (Comparison with any other part of the world is of course too much to expect of a Europeanist, even one interested in cosmopolitanism.) Finally, Jacob makes causal claims — e.g., that alchemical ideas in early-modern natural philosophy were displaced by mechanical ones because the latter were less politically troubling to monarchies — with a sweep and assurance totally out of proportion to anything she presents by way of evidence or argument. Over-all of little value to me, but perhaps of more use to specialists in the period.
Amar Bhidé, A Call for Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy
Full-length review: Hayek contra Chicago.
Rachel Loden, Dick of the Dead
Not as good as her superb Hotel Imperium, but still great:
The Idiad

Shall I write a poem about you
And your epic struggle against stupidity?
Feh. But if the brain is a city
I too have rooms in the swampy part, surrounded by crocodiles.
The monarch butterflies sail down from the Canadian Rockies
To overwinter in Pacific Grove, pair off and fly away;
They bruise me. I get crankier.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the Saugatuck
Please text me beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Palookaville.

Gerda Claeskens and Nils Lid Hjort, Model Selection and Model Averaging
Full-length review: How Can You Choose Just One?.
Shorter me: the best available review of model selection from a statistical standpoint. Presumes a reader with some knowledge of asymptotic statistics.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Exactly as good, as monstrous, and as ambiguous, as I remember it (unlike The Sundial). One mark of its excellence is that its things that go bump in the night are perfectly convincing, and yet the real horrors are all those of the all-too-human mind. I am not sure what point there is to other haunted house stories, really.
ObLinkage: Kit Whitfield on the first paragraph of the novel. Whitfield is exactly right about the way "small, unnerving echoes whisper back and forth along her pages". (Take, please take, the ending, for example.)
Patrick O'Brian, The Letter of Marque; The Thirteen Gun Salute; The Nutmeg of Consolation; Clarissa Oakes / The Truelove
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; The Great Transformation; The Commonwealth of Letters; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Enigmas of Chance; The Dismal Science

Posted by crshalizi at January 31, 2012 23:59 | permanent link

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