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