EvolutionLanguages & LinguisticsPoetry & ProseReligionScienceVisual Art

2011 Inspirational Reading

Out of the 100 books I read last year, I wanted to high­light a few that I found par­tic­u­larly reward­ing.


Brave New World

Aldous Hux­ley - Brave New World

One of the clas­sics of utopian/dystopian fic­tion, of course, and deserving of the status. Many apt ana­lyses of the novel have been writ­ten before, so I will not go into too much detail. Suf­fice to say that Brave New World ask many rel­ev­ant ques­tions about the effic­acy and moral implic­a­tions of extens­ive con­trol of indi­vidu­als by col­lect­ives. Whereas in Orwell’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four con­trol of the masses was mainly achieved by lin­guist­ics and journ­al­istic means, the people in Brave New World are manip­u­lated by sub­lim­inal indoc­trin­a­tion dur­ing youth, and by indul­gence in enter­tain­ment, drugs, and sex in adult­hood. Essen­tially, the ques­tion posed these nov­els, and related ones like Zamy­atin’s We (also read in 2011) and Rand’s Anthem, is whether a degree of col­lect­ive con­trol is war­ran­ted at all, and if so, in what form. As in most things, I per­son­ally believe in a bal­ance and middle road regard­ing this issue, but nov­els like this one help chal­lenge all kinds of assump­tions and ideas.


Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan - Pale Blue Dot: A Vis­ion of the Human Future in Space

Sagan has been an inspir­a­tional fig­ure to for quite a few years, but there are a couple of books by him that I had­n’t got­ten around to yet. Pale Blue Dot is another com­mend­able pop­u­lar sci­ence book, where he explores issues sur­round­ing space travel and col­on­isa­tion. The treat­ment of sub­ject mat­ter such as lunar and mar­tian explor­a­tion and set­tle­ment, manip­u­la­tion of aster­oids, etc. is access­ible and clear, as well as well-argu­mented. It really chal­lenges the reader to take a long-term view of the eco­sys­tem on Earth, pos­sible changes in cli­mate (man-induced or not) that may prove fatal to our spe­cies, and the pos­sib­il­ity of extra-ter­restrial expan­sion to ensure the future of man­kind, without look­ing away from the dangers involved in that grand quest.


Titus Groan

Mervyn Peake - Titus Groan

Titus Groan is the first part of Peak­e’s Gor­menghast series, one of those strange fant­astic names that buzzes through your mind for years as some­thing that’s some­how part of the lit­er­ary land­scape, without really giv­ing a clear idea of what’s it all about. That’s what second-hand books are for, though: blind buys. It turns out that the series (thus far) is a unique piece of lit­er­at­ure, that is gen­er­ally seen as a clas­sic of fantasy, which is a bit mis­lead­ing when you get down to it. Titus Groan is rather fant­astic, in the sense that it is set in a gothicy castle, gloomy and dusty, a fea­tures char­ac­ters that are as grot­esque as they are fas­cin­at­ing. How­ever, unlike most fant­astic works, there is little room for the magical in Titus Groan, at most a touch of the uncanny. Instead, the work’s bril­liance rests in its entirety on those char­ac­ters, the strange, mean­ing­less rituals per­formed in the castle, the intrigue and attempts at murder, and the gen­eral sense of weird­ness that per­vades the events in the book. I get the idea that the series is some­what of an author’s favour­ite, and quite inspir­a­tional to many artistic folk, and judging by the first volume, I can see why, as Peake has cre­ated a thor­oughly ori­ginal and lively work.


Early Color

Saul Leiter - Early Color

I was thor­oughly impressed by Leit­er’s expos­i­tion in the Jew­ish His­tor­ical Museum in Ams­ter­dam late 2011. I’m nor­mally not that into most art pho­to­graphy, but Leiter proved to be an excep­tion. Par­tic­u­larly his 1950s col­our work, which makes bril­liant use of reflec­tions and cadres was stun­ning. The book Early Color was reprin­ted for this exhib­i­tion tour, and that will be good news to those who’ve sought it for a longer time. I’ve read that earlier edi­tions went for up to $200 second-hand before this one was avail­able. The book itself has a lot going for it, con­tain­ing all the pic­tures at the exhib­i­tion I found most stim­u­lat­ing, and more beside.


Lan­guage Evol­u­tion

Salikoko Mufwene - Lan­guage Evol­u­tion: Con­tact, Com­pet­i­tion and Change

This is me cheat­ing a bit, as I actu­ally read this in Decem­ber 2010. How­ever, as I did­n’t post a read­ing over­view of that year at all, the fact that this book sparked my interest in evol­u­tion­ary lin­guist­ics, and the fact that I took classes with Mufwene in Janu­ary 2011, where we treated this book, I think I can get away with it. I will prob­ably argue for the mer­its of the cul­tural evol­u­tion­ary per­spect­ive on lan­guage vari­ation and change in posts here in the future, as I will cer­tainly do so in my research. How­ever, what I want to men­tion here in par­tic­u­lar is how enlight­en­ing Mufwene’s approach is to me when it comes to so-called creole [wiki] lan­guages. These lan­guages are gen­er­ally seen as “mix­ture” lan­guages, put together from ele­ments taken from their “par­ent” lan­guages, and there is dis­cus­sion within the lin­guistic world on whether such lan­guages are fundamentally/essentially dif­fer­ent (in terms of gram­mat­ical com­plex­ity, for example) from non-creoles. I would agree with Mufwene that they are not, and that they are a product of the same pro­cesses (lan­guage con­tact and change) that shape all other lan­guages. The dif­fer­ence is in degree, due to his­tor­ical eco­logy (many lan­guages spoken in one com­munity in creole areas such as colon­ies), and not in kind. The term creole, then, refers to lan­guages that have arisen in par­tic­u­lar areas (e.g. the Carib­bean), and are spoken by cer­tain people (e.g. the des­cend­ants of African slaves and con­trac­ted work­ers), but not to a par­tic­u­lar class of lan­guages that is some­how fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent from oth­ers. There is a lot more to this book, to this issue, and to evol­u­tion in lan­guage in gen­eral, but that is a topic for another day.


The Rest

I’m not quite up to review­ing in detail all the books I’ve read, but there are a couple I want to men­tion any­way. In the area of lit­er­at­ure, lots of enjoy­ment went into Infin­ite Jest by David Foster Wal­lace, a massive book that would be a pain to sum­mar­ise, but let me just say that it is vastly enter­tain­ing lit­er­at­ure and a com­ment­ary on enter­tain­ment at the same time.

Also reward­ing was Dante Aligh­ieri’s Divina Com­media, which I read in an excel­lently trans­lated and gor­geously pub­lished Dutch edi­tion. Lots of engrav­ings by Gust­ave Doré (that is: his stu­dio) illu­min­ate the clas­sic tale that has been so inspir­a­tional in world lit­er­at­ure.

I read the final two parts [3, 4] of John Crow­ley’s Ægypt tet­ra­logy, as well as his clas­sic Little, Big this year. I find it dif­fi­cult to char­ac­ter­ise these works, and par­tic­u­larly why I liked them as much as I did. His weav­ing of magic, reli­gious issues, and his­tor­ical eso­ter­i­cism into con­tem­por­ary Amer­ican fic­tion is quite unique and works well, stay­ing far away from the usual fantasy genre trap­pings. At the same time, the books lack a sense of urgency or plot that make them dif­fi­cult to approach in some ways, and I ima­gine that people who don’t have a broad his­tor­ical know­ledge of magical, folk­loric and reli­gious his­tory might have addi­tional dif­fi­culties with the books. Not very use­ful, I know. I’ll read them again some time, and per­haps I’ll be more artic­u­late.

See an earlier post for a more in-depth dis­cus­sion of two evol­u­tion-related books I read in 2011.

Another topic that inter­ested me this year was con­cep­tions of gender and hon­our in medi­aeval Ice­land and the sagas, and both The Unmanly Man and Blood­tak­ing and Peace­mak­ing are recom­men­ded reads for the his­tor­ic­ally-minded.

A quite com­pre­hens­ive over­view of the his­tory of the human­it­ies (or cul­tural sci­ences, if you like) was Rens Bod’s excel­lent De Ver­geten Wetenschap­pen, which cov­ers the devel­op­ment of his­tory, musi­co­logy, lin­guist­ics, lit­er­ary stud­ies, and so forth in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ‘civil­isa­tions’ or tra­di­tions (e.g. The West, India, China). Per­haps a tad dry for the gen­eral pub­lic, but  - and I can’t stress this enough - essen­tial read­ing for all ser­i­ous stu­dents every­where, par­tic­u­larly those in arts fac­ulties. An Eng­lish trans­la­tion is one of those things I hope will be real­ised in the future.