3QD Editors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2004

When I posted the “10 Best Books of 2004” according to the New York Times, Matt Jones responded by asking what the 3 Quarks Daily’s editors’ favorite books were. Being suckers for this kind of flattery, we are happy to give a top ten list of our own, in no particular order (the other editors declined to pick books):

1.  Cruising Modernism by Michael Trask

“A literary critical exploration of early twentieth-century apprehensions of class consciousness and desire, for example in the commingled alarmism over sexual deviancy, vagrancy and consumerism.  A strong feature of the book is its wide-ranging attention to the aesthetic (Henry James, Stein, Hart Crane, Cather), the philosophical (pragmatism), the political (Progressive reformers) and the social-scientific (early sociology), making a strong case for its argument’s historical validity.” –Asad Raza

2.  A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness by V.S. Ramachandran

“Not very many people realize that over the last couple of decades, cognitive scientists have quietly been mapping the brain, figuring out how we think and perform the mental miracles that we do even in routine mentation. One of the most interesting figures in this effort has been V.S. Ramachandran, a man who has designed and performed ingenious experiments to show how the mind actually works. This is no mere theorizing, à la Freud; this is hard science, and the brain is shown to be a thing of extreme beauty. Rama, as he is affectionately known, delivered the 2003 Reith Lectures for the BBC, which have been collected into book form here. Rama is a writer of sharp wit, and his delightfully wry sense of humor shows frequently in his lively prose.” –Abbas Raza

3.  Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit

“An interesting attempt to defend urban cosmopolitanism from an Internationalist non-Eurocentric standpoint.” –Morgan Meis

4.  Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

“Mamdani lays the responsibility for 9/11 at the doorstep of Reagan and his cold war policies, especially as pertaining to Afghanistan, in the most cogent and logically progressive argument I have read anywhere. Filled with important historical details, the author demonstrates an extraordinary grasp of current events and Mamdani sounds almost better than Chomsky in his criticism of the West’s War on Terror.” –Azra Raza

5.  The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, new translation by Vincent Katz

“It is tough to translate the amazing Roman poet who feels so damn modern. Vincent Katz does an admirable job.” –Morgan Meis

6.  Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar

“Sardar shows that Islam is as complex and contradictory and full of tensions and as resistant to simplication, as Christianity or Judaism. This is a wonderfully enlightening book, full of information and informed opinion, even revisiting the Rushdie affair in an interesting way.” –Sughra Raza

7.  The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

“In this fictional account of the events surrounding the 1940 US elections, the pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh wins against FDR. Roth describes the events as a 7 year old Jewish boy in NJ and graphically exposes the Fascist government’s attempts to assimilate the Jews into mainstream America. As the world this family has known comes crashing down in slow motion through a series of terrifying incidents, the fear being experienced by the tender little boy, the brave father, the converted older brother and the incredibly stable and brave mother is palpable. I finally understood what Arendt meant by the banality of evil.” –Azra Raza

8.  Selected Poems 1963-2003 by Charles Simic

“It is too hard for me to describe Simic’s surreal hypnotic voice. He constantly tries to wrench meaning and hope out of dark places, and so can be deeply uplifting.” –Abbas Raza

9.  The Artificial White Man by Stanley Crouch

“There is no one so relentlessly Crouchy as Stanley Crouch. A unique American hero.” –Morgan Meis

10. The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

“This is Dawkins’s best book in years, and he has never written less than a brilliant book. The literary conceit which lends the book its title is, of course, that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Dawkins’s tale is that of all of life. Starting in the present he travels back in time to meet the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, then further back to meet other ancestors connecting us to other life forms, and so on, until we are at the origin of life itself. At close to 700 dense pages, the book is filled with a massive amount of biological information. The sweep of Dawkins’s erudition is truly astounding, and if you find yourself getting exhausted at times by the relentless and seemingly endless litany of facts, keep going: at some point toward the end, I had the supremely ecstatic experience of being absolutely awed at the majestic grandeur, variety, and tenacity of the whole history of life, as well as at the prodigious effort that has gone into classifying and understanding it.” –Abbas Raza

HAVE A GOOD HOLIDAY! And please add other suggestions as comments…


World cities to celebrate Don Quixote, 400 years on

Cities on five continents will next year hold a series of cultural events in honour of Don Quixote, 400 years after Miguel de Cervantes brought the character to life, Spain’s Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said.

Many consider Cervantes’ work “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” — one of the earliest novels written in a modern European language — to be the greatest Spanish book in history.

The masterpiece will be celebrated with events throughout Spain but also in cities such as Dallas, Mexico City, Paris, Brussels, Oran and Saint Petersburg, set to host a string of plays, debates, exhibitions, concerts and films.

The first edition of Don Quixote came off a printing press in Madrid on December 20, 1604, and the book was made available to the public on January 16, 1605 — becoming the world’s first best-seller.

More here.

Pliable solar cells are on a roll

From New Scientist:

Imagine wearing a jacket or rucksack that charges up your mobile phone while you take a walk. Or a tent whose flysheet charges batteries all day so campers can have light all night. Or a roll-out plastic sheet you can place on a car’s rear window shelf to power a child’s DVD player.

Such applications could soon become a reality thanks to a light, flexible solar panel that is a little thicker than photographic film and can easily be applied to everyday fabrics. The thin, bendy solar panels, which could be on the market within three years, are the fruit of a three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar (H-AS).

The new solar panels will be cheap, too, because they can be mass-produced in rolls that can be cut as required and wrapped around clothes, fabrics, furniture or even rooftops. “This technology will be a lot easier to handle than the old glass solar panels,” claims Gerrit Kroesen, the physicist from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands who led the development team.

More here.

Sikhs are the real losers from Behzti

Gurharpal Singh writes in The Guardian:

The cancellation of the play Behzti (Dishonour) following protests by Sikhs in Birmingham was not, as a Sikh spokesperson claimed, without winners or losers. If anybody has lost it is British Sikhs. In a single act the community has overturned years of hard work and reverted to type as a militant tradition fixated with narrow communal interests. Doubtless the mobilisation will be seen as another nail in the coffin of freedom of speech, coming close on the heels of the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands and the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred. What these interpretations overlook, however, is the pioneering role of Sikhs in framing British multiculturalism, the contribution – unwittingly – of the British state in promoting the idiom of religion in public life, and the deep tensions within the Sikh community itself that have produced such a play.

More here.

Digital inheritance raises legal questions

From CNN:

As more of our personal lives go digital, family members, estate attorneys and online service providers are increasingly grappling with what happens to those information bits when their owners die.

Sometimes, the question involves e-mail sitting on a distant server; other times, it’s about the photos or financial records stored on a password-protected computer.

This week, a Michigan man publicized his struggle to access the Yahoo e-mail account belonging to his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin M. Ellsworth, 20, who was killed November 13 in Iraq. Though Yahoo’s policies state that accounts “terminate upon your death,” John Ellsworth said his son would have wanted to give him access…

To release those messages in such circumstances, Yahoo said, would violate the privacy rights of the deceased and those with whom they’ve corresponded.

More here.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Yuletide Trotsky

Presumably set to coincide with the onset of holiday gift-giving madness, Verso has reissued the three-volume biography that at one time was considered to be “the most delicious gift to smuggle to an East European intellectual.” Neal Ascherson reviews Isaac Deutscher’s monumental biography of Leon Trotsky in the London Review of Books:

…Reissued by Verso in three paperback volumes, Deutscher’s biography is still tremendous. The power and excitement of his prose knock the reader down. His command of the language, late Victorian in its freedom and in the absence of secondhand imagery, in some ways surpasses that of his fellow Pole Joseph Conrad. The scholarship is enormous and – given that the Moscow archives were closed to him – comprehensive. Above all, there is Deutscher’s own enthusiasm, a sort of majestic urgency. He believed that his subject mattered. Not just because of the tragic, even messianic shape of Trotsky’s life, but because Deutscher was convinced that in writing about this dead man, he was also writing about the future.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Continuing with the seasonal theme, try juxtaposing these two pieces: the current fate of Bethlehem, followed by an account of how the dollar’s weakness is affecting New York chefs’ ability to use truffles.

But if you really want to think about the twisting striations of culture, capitalism and religion this time of year, you could read this sharp and thoughtful digest analyzing the meaning of Christmas songs.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Invisible bias (and some interesting tests to take)

“A group of psychologists claim a test can measure prejudices we harbor without even knowing it. Their critics say they are politicizing psychology.”

Chris Berdik in The Boston Globe:

Inside the wood-paneled confines of the Harvard Club, about 200 Bostonians gathered recently to tap into their subconscious. Literally. Audience members were told to move as quickly as possible through a series of faces and words projected on a screen, tapping their left knees for a young face or a “good” word (joy, sunshine, love), and their right knees for an old face or a “bad” word (bomb, agony, vomit). It took about 15 seconds for most to finish. But when asked to switch, to pair young faces with “bad” words and old faces with “good” words, the rhythm faltered and the tapping slowed. Audience members shook their heads and giggled. Some threw up their hands.

To the Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, who presided over the event, the demonstration showed that most of the audience — like most of the people who have been subjects in this type of experiment — have a harder time associating old people (or nonwhite people, or homosexuals) with “good” when given no time to think. These are all examples of what Banaji calls implicit prejudice, and their importance extends way beyond an intellectual parlor game. Implicit prejudice, she argues, can affect our decisions and behaviors without our even knowing it, undermining our conscious ideas and best intentions about equality and justice.

Read more here.

Here’s the fun bit: when you are done with that article, click here to take a few Implicit Association Tests for yourself (click on the Demonstration button once you are there). There are many different kinds, each of which measures one type of prejudice you may hold. If you took a test about race, for example, it will tell you whether you have a strong, moderate, slight, or no preference for black people over white ones, for example.

I took five tests. Here are my results:

  • I have a strong association between science and males, and liberal arts and females.
  • I have a moderate preference for young people over old.
  • I have a slight preference for other religions relative to Judaism.
  • I have a slight preference for other people relative to Arabs or Muslims.
  • I have a slight preference for straight over gay people.

So, I turn out to be a sexist, ageist, anti-semitic, self-hating (as a Muslim), homophobe. At least slightly. Who woulda’ thunk it! But before you judge me, take a few of these tests yourself, and report the results honestly. It’s kind of fun to do.

Please report the results of any tests you take in a comment to this post. I am very interested to see what other people come up with. Thanks. Now try it!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

‘Isherwood’: The Uses of Narcissism

Brook Allen reviews Isherwood: A Life Revealed, by Peter Parker, in The New York Times Book Review:

Isherwood184 Isherwood never quite fulfilled the extraordinary promise of his early work (W. Somerset Maugham, voicing the opinion of many, once claimed that the young Isherwood held the future of the English novel in his hands). His career peaked when he was still in his 30’s, with the publication of ”Mr. Norris Changes Trains” (1935) and ”Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), now usually published in tandem as ”The Berlin Stories” and popularized by ”Cabaret,” the musical and film they inspired. After his 1939 move — or, as some branded it, flight — from England and the impending European war to a softer life in Southern California, he struggled to find a new, American voice, though continuing to work his distinctive vein of thinly veiled autobiography. While the American books tended to lack the sparkle and gaiety that had marked his English ones, they eventually succeeded on quite a different level — as bleakly scrupulous confessionalism in which the once irrepressible humor reappears in a sardonic, disabused form.

More here. (W.H. Auden stands behind Isherwood in the photo.)

A THEORY OF ROUGHNESS: A Talk with Benoit Mandelbrot

MandelbrotwgoA recent, important turn in my life occurred when I realized that something that I have long been stating in footnotes should be put on the marquee. I have engaged myself, without realizing it, in undertaking a theory of roughness. Think of color, pitch, loudness, heaviness, and hotness. Each is the topic of a branch of physics. Chemistry is filled with acids, sugars, and alcohols — all are concepts derived from sensory perceptions. Roughness is just as important as all those other raw sensations, but was not studied for its own sake.”

More here at Edge.org, with an introduction by John Brockman.

A rotting corpse is a perfect gift

Robin McKie rounds up the best science books of 2004 at The Guardian:

Tired of your usual New Year’s good resolutions? Given up hope of ever losing weight, of cutting down on booze or giving up ciggies? Then try this little list of ‘must dos’: swim in a bioluminescent bay; walk on lava; extract your own DNA at home; visit Hiroshima; stroke a tiger; read On the Origin of Species; see the aurora borealis; visit an impact crater; or drive through Death Valley.

All are culled from the pages of 100 Things to Do Before You Die (Profile £3.99), a tiny guide to scientific exotica that has been put together by an illustrious assembly of researchers and public figures, including John Sulston, father of Britain’s human genome project, Susan Greenfield and Adam Hart-Davis, with each providing a few paragraphs of witty text to accompany each entry.

Continue reading here.

Astropolitics

Eric J. Chaisson reviews Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology, by W. Patrick McCray, at American Scientist Online:

As an arriving student at Harvard more than 30 years ago, I sought out some famous astronomers at a reception to welcome newcomers. As I approached them, planning to introduce myself, I couldn’t help overhearing the end of a conversation that shocked me: A visiting astronomer was telling the observatory director heatedly, “Your observatory is getting too damn big!” He glanced at me with disdain and walked away. Welcome, indeed, to the big leagues of astronomy.

The visitor that day was Jesse Greenstein of Caltech, a powerful champion of small, elite academic programs designed to serve only a few astronomers, giving them private access to the biggest telescopes. And the recipient of his ire was Leo Goldberg, whose Harvard College Observatory took a team approach to astronomy and space science; Goldberg often supported drives to build national telescopes for use by all astronomers.

More here.

The Fox Is in Microsoft’s Henhouse (and Salivating)

From the New York Times:

FIREFOX is a classic overnight success, many years in the making.

Published by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit group supporting open-source software that draws upon the skills of hundreds of volunteer programmers, Firefox is a Web browser that is fast and filled with features that Microsoft’s stodgy Internet Explorer lacks. Firefox installs in a snap, and it’s free.

Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9. Just over a month later, the foundation celebrated a remarkable milestone: 10 million downloads. Donations from Firefox’s appreciative fans paid for a two-page advertisement in The New York Times on Thursday.

More here.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Germs: A Memoir of Childhood, by Richard Wollheim

Alan Hollinghurst writes about Wollheim’s “complex and beautiful memoir of childhood” in The Guardian:

Im_wollheim The only time I met Richard Wollheim was at a dinner party given by one of his sons, who was an Oxford friend of mine. What I remember best about the occasion is the particular thing that had to be done before Wollheim arrived. Every scrap of newspaper had to be either thrown away or thoroughly concealed (not just tucked findably under a cushion): the mere sight of newsprint would make it impossible for him to eat his dinner. It sounded like an aversion formed in childhood that an adult would normally have overcome. But Wollheim, then in his 60s, a distinguished philosopher, professor at Berkeley, author of Art and Its Objects and On Art and the Mind, twice married, a father of three, had not overcome it. It was very striking that adult intellect and sensibility of such refinement should coexist with so unallayed a childhood horror. It must also, like the most exacting of allergies, have been a terrible nuisance. Life was so full of newspaper: how could he possibly avoid it?

More here.

The Truth About Muslims

William Dalrymple writes in the New York Review of Books:

It was a crucial but sometimes forgotten moment in the development of Western civilization: the revival of medieval European learning by a wholesale transfusion of scholarship from the Islamic world. It was probably through Islamic Spain that such basic facets of Western civilization as paper, ideas of courtly love, algebra, and the abacus passed into Europe. Meanwhile the pointed arch and Greco-Arab (or Unani, from the Arabic word for Greek/Ionian) medicine arrived in Christendom by way of Salerno and Sicily, where the Norman king Roger II—known as the “Baptized Sultan” —was commissioning the Tunisian scholar al-Idrisi to produce an encyclopedic work of geography.

Some scholars go further. Professor George Makdisi of Harvard has argued convincingly for a major Islamic contribution to the emergence of the first universities in the medieval West, showing how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures and academic robes, can all be traced back to Islamic concepts and practices. Indeed the idea of a university in the modern sense—a place of learning where students congregate to study a wide variety of subjects under a number of teachers—is generally regarded as an Arab innovation developed at the al-Azhar university in Cairo. As Makdisi has demonstrated, it was in cities bordering the Islamic world—Salerno, Naples, Bologna, Montpellier, and Paris—that first developed universities in Christendom, the idea spreading northward from there.

Dalrymple examines the following books in this essay:

The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher

From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East by Bernard Lewis

In the Lands of the Christians: Arab Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century, edited and translated by Nabil Matar

Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery by Nabil Matar

Islam in Britain, 1558–1685 by Nabil Matar

Food and Spice

Tobin Harshaw reviews a bunch of books about food and spice, in the New York Times:

the baton has been passed from satirists to traveler-historians like Jason Goodwin and particularly Mark Kurlansky, who rode such unlikely comestibles as cod and salt to the best-seller lists. This year they have plenty of rivals, most formidably Jack Turner, a young Oxford-educated Australian whose SPICE: The History of a Temptation is an erudite and engaging account of how foodstuffs can change the flow of history.

The task Turner has set for himself is relatively straightforward: to describe the cultural histories of pepper, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and to reveal the many misunderstandings about them that have been passed down over the ages. The most obvious, and easily disposed of, is the myth that medieval Europeans used spices for purely utilitarian reasons — that is, to cover the stench of rotting meat. Anyone who’s ever found those long-forgotten pork chops at the back of the Sub-Zero knows that not all the pepper in Malabar could make them edible.

Turner’s genius lies in his organization. Rather than trying to deal with his Asian delights individually or track their stories through a tidy timeline, he has divided his book into sections devoted to the effects these spices have had on the human body and psyche.

More here.

The Kite Runner

Edward Wyatt reviews The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, in The New York Times:

Kite75 “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, a previously unknown son of an Afghan political refugee, has captivated reading groups across the country with its rich mix of familiar morality tale and timely world history. Without any significant national publicity – no recommendation by Oprah Winfrey or a morning television show, no superstar author backed by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign – the book has steadily climbed the best-seller lists, rising as high as No. 5 on the paperback best-seller list of The New York Times and selling more than 500,000 copies in seven months, a significant achievement for a literary novel.

It has done so thanks to the word-of-mouth recommendations of librarians and book sellers and on the strength of local book clubs, like the one here in Palm Beach, as well as community reading programs, where one book is chosen by a city or region, like eastern Connecticut or the central California valley.

More here.

Life is fraught with chaos and chance

Darwin had demonstrated how order could be wrung from its antagonist—how randomness and chance, when harnessed by natural selection, could create forms of the most startling beauty. Just look at the finely wrought folds of an orchid, or the iridescence of a butterfly wing. The living world seems suffused with patterns.

Ever since Darwin, biology has operated under this delusion of orderliness. Atoms might be entities of randomness, but cells—the building blocks of life—are like Swiss clocks, machines designed in blatant defiance of chaos. In his influential 1944 treatise, What is Life?, Erwin Schrödinger said that living things “produce events which are a paragon of orderliness… The situation is unprecedented. It is unknown anywhere else except in living matter.” For Schrödinger, life’s stealing of neatness out of atomic disarray was its defining miracle; this was what made life living.

But biologists are now discovering that the appearance of order is an illusion. Our molecular world—life at its most basic level—is messy. Inside our cells, shards and scraps of protein float around aimlessly, waiting to interact. There is no guiding hand, no guarantee of exactness. Our atomic stochasticity percolates upward, infecting and influ-encing all aspects of life. Far from being an exemption from the second law of thermodynamics, we are actually its most intricate example. Randomness is writ into our fabric.

More here by Jonah Lehrer in Seed Magazine.

Leaps Without Faith

P.D. Smith reviews Leaps in the Dark: The Making of Scientific Reputations by John Waller, in The Guardian:

“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,” says Galileo in Bertolt Brecht’s great play about the Italian physicist, and John Waller couldn’t agree more. In Fabulous Science (2002) Waller showed how science was a series of “powerful human dramas in which naked ambition has at least as big a role as technical virtuosity”. In his latest book he adopts an equally iconoclastic approach. Once again he takes aim at the heroes of science, firing a broadside at recent popular histories that follow a familiar formula: “The hero arrives at a new idea (Act I), suffers the wrath of jealousy, conservatism, and clerical bigotry (Act II), and is then triumphantly vindicated (Act III).”

According to Waller, scientific discovery is a “multi-participant event”, not a story of lone heroes. Another trusty cliché of popular science writing is the “eureka” moment. The falling apple that supposedly inspired the theory of gravitation was a myth. As Waller points out, the devious Newton probably used it as a ploy to avoid acknowledging any of his contemporaries. Such moments make a great story, but are bad history.

More here.