Christmas is a time when I accelerate my reading, and catch-up for lost time. Here’s my three books I plan to get through:
The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. I’ve read this twice already. This short book has been one of the most influential works in my own personal thinking. Even if you don’t agree with the thrust of Bryan Ward-Perkins’ thesis, it will clarify your own position.
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. The author, Peter Brown, is the modern day eminence on ‘Late Antiquity’. I’ve read many of his earlier works, and always found his exposition enjoyable. But I’m re-reading The Fall of Rome in part to have a good counterpoint in my head to Brown’s arguments, which are subtle and difficult to box in (for what it’s worth, I think Brown makes a bit too much of Late Antiquity, but to some extent this is a normative judgement).
The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics: A Centenary Reappraisal. This is an exciting time to be interested in evolution and genetics (see Haldane’s Sieve and prepare to be overwhelmed!). But I also think it is useful to have some historical perspective. Science is a human enterprise, and it is critical to step outside of the flowing river, and observe the parameters which shaped its past course and trajectory, and therefore where it may be going.
With that, an “open thread” for what you are reading, and why.
Note: The comments systems should be improved in the near future. Or so I’m told.
With some leisure, I plan to read a bit. Here is my tentative “stack”:
I also plan on browsing more of Brian and Deborah Charlesworth’s magisterial Elements of Evolutionary Genetics , and my friend Joel Grus’ Thinking Spreadsheet. I’m skeptical that I would prioritize fiction, but if I manage to read some, I’ll try and finish The Sacred Band, the last in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy.
What are you reading for the holidays? (and if you aren’t reading for the holidays, why are you spending your marginal time reading this blog!)
I haven’t had time to read a book front to back in 2 months. Probably the longest period I’ve gone like this since I was 13. I plan to “binge” as much as I can over the Holidays. Is there anything interesting you’re reading? And yes, I already have The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on my Kindle.
My post from last week, Relative angels and absolute demons, got a lot of circulation. Interestingly I received several emails from self-described lurkers who asked me for recommendations on world history, with a particular thought to rectify deficiencies in non-European history. These were people who were not looking for exceedingly abstruse monographs. Below are some suggestions….
That’s what Ann Patchett is claiming. More specifically, there are no bricks & mortar institutions which specialize in selling new books. There are places you can get used books in the city of Nashville. To remedy the situation Patchett is opening up a bookstore herself. She asserts that “…we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000. Amazon is always going to have everything – you can’t compete with that. But there is, I believe, still a place for a store where people read books.”
I recall going to a Barnes & Noble when I was in Nashville in the summer of 2004. Here’s some demographic data: “As of the 2010 census, the balance population was 601,222. The 2000 population was 545,524.” The details here are a bit muddy because parts of Davidson county are included with the Nashville total, but you get a general sense of how substantial the population of this city is. As a point of comparison Eugene, OR, has a population of 156,185, and 29 Yelp hits for bookstores. Nashville has 46 results.
Back to Patchett’s claim, I think there is something there. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out in the details. But consider the fact that it is far cheaper to brew your own coffee at home, but more and more people are frequenting shops which sell coffee at a much higher per unit cost. Obviously people are going for the experience. The main issue with bookstores is that the per unit cost of a book is higher than even a fancy drink at most coffee shops.
A friend asked me today if I thought that Powell’s would be around a year from now. I had no idea what he was referring to. By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know he was referring to Powell’s Books of Portland. I mean that I had no idea that Powell’s was in any trouble. I thought of Powell’s as an institution which could weather any shocks, its huge selection and special experience giving it an edge over other independent booksellers (and even over Barnes & Noble and Borders). The main Powell’s store covers a full city block, 1.6 acres. The total inventory of the company is at 4 million books (new, used, etc.). The downtown Portland location can be overwhelming and all consuming. And I have many fond memories of the Powell’s in the Hawthorne District from when I lived in Portland in 2002. In fact, between 2000-2005 I purchased quite a few books at the main location, as well as at Powell’s Technical. Despite not living in Portland for most of that period, I regularly visited, and always made a point to get lost at Powell’s when I came through town.
I think your many book reviews ought to be more accessible. They were for me an excellent guide as to which books I should buy as well as educational in and of themselves. You have a long list of books you reccommend over on Gene Expression Classic but clicking on them just links you to the book seller. Just as a suggestion if you could link to your previous book reviews that are buried in years gone by I think many people would appreciate them as much as I did….
I have taken that to heart, and set up a new website where I am spending a little time each day adding links to a few book reviews which are “buried” in the posts of my various weblogs over the past 8 years. I’ve also added links & quick comments to books which I have never reviewed, but are part of my “cognitive furniture,” such as Introduction to Quantitative Genetics.
The basic format is this: title, cover photo + link to Amazon, and then link to review or comment. That’s it. It’s not a “blog,” but rather a site devoted to organizing stuff I’ve already put out there. My current plan is to devote about 15-20 minutes per day to putting content on the site from my “back catalog.” When I post a review to this website, I’ll also automatically link to it from there. One thing to note is that over the years I’ve stopped reading popular books on science, and focused on the primary scientific literature more, so the “books” page will be loaded with my non-science interests.
Today we’re seeing a transition in the medium of literacy. I’m alluding to the emergence of digital formats, which will transform the physical experience of reading. You’re part of the process right now, unless you’ve printed this out. Of course we have books around, and we will for quite some time. I assume for the most precious elements of our literary collections the physical book will remain preferred until the current generations pass on. But this transition is not the first one. The book, also known as the codex, has been the primary medium of literacy in the Western world (which I will define as from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic) for only ~1/3 of the whole period across which humans have been literate. Before the book, there was the scroll, and before the scroll, there were cuneiform tablets. From Wikipedia:
The Romans used precursors made of reusable wax-covered tablets of wood for taking notes and other informal writings; while codices of parchment or papyrus appear to have been widely used as personal notebooks, for instance in recording copies of letters sent (Cicero Fam. 9.26.1). The pages of such notebooks were commonly washed or scraped for re-use; and consequently writings on codex were considered informal and impermanent.
The first recorded Roman use of the codex for publishing and distributing literary works dates from the late first century AD, when Martial experimented with the format. At that time the scroll was the dominant medium for literary works and would remain dominant for secular works until the fourth century….
The Less Wrong community is having a book discussion and offering up recommendations. I’m currently reading Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages (long time readers will know that I’m a particular fan of Xun Zi though). It is revising my view of the “received orthodoxy” as to the development of state sponsored Confucianism during the Han dynasty. A good complement to The Authentic Confucius, which is less a historical work and more a religio-philosophical exegesis of the sage’s life. I did finish Empires of the Word, but I will review it at some point so I won’t say more than I would recommend it, though with a critical eye.
Danny reminded me that I still hadn’t read Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Since I know him a bit (at least internet “know”) I’ve decided I can’t put it off any longer, and I’ll tackle it soon. I just finished two books, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. I can recommend the first, but not the second. Since I will (or plan to) review Replenishing the Earth, I won’t say more about it here. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens was written by the author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The author is a bit on the pro-Mongol side (he always ends up making Genghis Khan a benevolent warlord!), and his writing style doesn’t have the density which I prefer in these sorts of works, but Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was a serviceable book. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens on the other hand is too sensational, and it seems rather obvious that the source material was much thinner than for Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (he admits as much repeatedly), so he had to include a lot of apocryphal material, with caveats, to fill it out. I much preferred The Cambridge History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age, which I read earlier this summer. A naturally more turgid work without a central narrative (each chapter was written by a different academic), but lots of dense data.