Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Three Book Meme

Cover photo for Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld

Our friend Paula has very kindly tagged me for a Three Book Meme... Three non-fiction books everybody should read, three fiction books everybody should read, three authors everybody should read, and three books nobody should read.

The "everybody" and "nobody" categories makes this somewhat challenging. If it was a list made specifically for Americans, Catholics, Christians, religious, non-religious, etc... it might be somewhat easier, but here's my take on it after a bit of thought...

Non-fiction books everybody should read

Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages, by Richard E. Rubinstein.

This is really a book about how the Catholic Church absorbed Aristotle into its scholastic theology, and secondarily, how the triumph of reason, the observation of nature, and the development of the scientific method set the stage for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It tells the tale of how church authorities in Spain rediscovered the long-lost Aristotle with the help of Jewish and Islamic translators and the commentaries of Avicenna and Averroes. The book is fast-paced and highly readable for people like me who are novices with regard to philosophy. It covers in a lively way personalities such as Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Peter Abelard, Bernard of Clairvaux, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, William of Occam, and ultimately, Thomas Aquinas. What I found particularly interesting was the role of the Albigensian heresy and surrounding controversy in the final victory of scholasticism in the church. The acceptance of the aristotelian method was not initially widespread. There was a lot of opposition to it, and the future prospects for it looked dicey. What was discovered during this period, however, was that in the debates between the Cathars and the Catholics, the Augustinian arguments about theodicy (of evil merely being the privation of good) weren't cutting it against the Cathar apologists, who were using aristotelian dialectic in their arguments to great advantage. Dominic de Guzman and the church authorities knew they had to learn Aristotle and learn him fast in order to best the Cathars at their own game. In the end, however, it did come down to force, but scholasticism stayed regardless...

Jihad vs. McWorld, by Benjamin R. Barber

Never mind the globalization-cheerleading books by Thomas Friedman. If you want the straight story about the effects of globalization, read Barber's book instead. The world right now is in a state of great tension and flux. Due to the explosion of technological and medical advances, we are faced with new challenges we could have never even dreamed of before. With the unanticipated collapse of Communism, laissez-faire capitalism is sweeping the world, driven by "infotainment marketing". Globalization of the world’s economy is causing tremendous upheavals. The nation–state is weakening, and people are adrift and powerless in the face of huge forces outside of their control and are looking for new ways to define community. Half of the world is looking to draw itself further into post-modern, globally-integrated consumerism and the other half is heading towards tribalism and fundamentalism in order to find an anchor in an uncertain and threatening world. The tribalists, however, readily use the tools of McWorld for their purposes. From the Publisher's Weekly description: "Noting that McWorld can serve Jihad, Barber sketches the rise of nationalism in European democracies, in central Europe's emerging democracies, in Islam and, intriguingly, in the American Christian right. McWorld, he writes, threatens democracy by deadening debate and accepting inequalities, while Jihad threatens democracy by sacrificing tolerance and deliberation. 'They both make war on the sovereign nation-state and thus undermine the nation-state's democratic institutions.' Barber believes each culture must build its own institutions of civil society."

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

Following up on the subject of "McWorld"... Not only does this book uncover the dark side of the whole fast-food industry, it is a searing indictment of the meat-processing industry as well. Before hitting hard and heavy on those topics, an interesting description is provided of how collusion within and between the oil industries and the auto industries killed the railroad industry in America in the late forties and early fifties. That is why we have the car-driven culture and landscape that we have today, which not only characterizes North America, but increasingly much of the world as well. Schlosser provides some illuminating insight on the management philosophy and strategies of the fast food giants - using assembly-line methods to break every skill into its smallest possible components and documenting and standardizing everything to the most simplistic degree so that any darned fool can do the job... which means, naturally, that you don't have to pay anyone anything significant to do it, and high turnover is expected and dealt with painlessly (for the employer). This, of course, is being rolled out to every other industry as well, as far as it is possible to do so. At any rate, after reading this, you probably won't want to ever eat fast food again... or at least not for a really long time.

Fiction books everybody should read

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

I know that just about everyone is familar with the story, or has seen a film adaptation. It is better to read it, because Dickens goes into brilliant illuminitive detail in the book. A timeless story, not only about the true meaning of Christmas, but a warning about the necessity of examining one's own life as well. Where did I come from? What affect have I had one the lives of others? What affect have the lives of others had on me? Where am I going? What is my life about? What will others say about me when I'm dead? Dickens was a genius. Read his other stuff too. It's all good...

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

A seminal book, Don Quixote is perhaps the first novel with worldwide influence and appeal. I wouldn't know, but they say that the original Castilian is a thing of brilliance. Starting out funny and then turning increasingly serious, the chivalry-obsessed Alonso Quixano and his faithful companion Sancho Panza set out on the adventures of a deluded knight errant. Great stuff, including a set of aphorisms and moral exhortations evocative of the Siglo Oro. I haven't read it in a long, long time, I should pick it up again.

Thing Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

This African novel is about as short as Don Quixote is long. Set in an Ibo village in what is known today as Nigeria, Okonkwo is the big man in town. Self-made, serious, respected, somewhat dangerous, and a force to be reckoned with. When colonialism hits the village, the village must struggle to change and adapt in order to survive. They cannot really survive as they'd like, and Okonkwo, suddenly made weak in this reversal of fortune, cannot cope. Beautifully written, it can be read in an evening ot two.

Authors everybody should read

St. Teresa of Avila

Paul Fussell

Ernest Hemingway

Books nobody should read

Stay away from Ayn Rand, Thomas Friedman, and anything written by a CEO. For more specifics on my likes and dislikes, see my 10 Book Meme.

Let all readers feel tagged if they wish.


Paula said...

Great...I have the McWorld book but till now I did not touched...I will give it a try after reading your meme.:-).
The remark to not read: "anything written by a CEO" is priceless. Valid here in Europe too.

Garpu the Fork said...

Sadly I had read Ayn Rand, but I was in high school (book report book). I think no truer commentary was made on her writing than the Southpark episode in which Officer Barbrady learns to read and is given a book of hers.

Gimmie Steinbeck any day over her.

Winnipeg Catholic said...

Funny you should mention Don Quixote. I read the whole thing after benig inspired with all its existential commentary via Miguel de Unamuno.

Unamuno by the way, is one of the only widely acclaimed catholic existentialists. His works are pretty interesting. If you want a recommendation on one of them I can probably take a look when I get home this evening. Note however that the church black listed him for some reason a couple hundred years ago. I don't know why. I think the church ought to revisit that. He is popular in spain, they have statues of him and such, and frankly I think some of his work is important.

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

I'm glad that you have that book. I hope you enjoy it. Being an Aquinas admirer, I really think you'd enjoy the first one I listed too.


Ayn Rand on South Park. Hahaha.

Steinbeck was great. I very nearly put The Grapes of Wrath on the list.

Hi B.

Jesus was a libertarian?? Hmmm. I'll have to think that one over, Winnipeg... I really don't think so, to me he seems the very opposite of a libertarian (at least as far as I understand libertarianism), but I suppose we can all find what we want to find in our reading of scripture. There's a proof-text for almost everything. :-)

Thanks for the Unamuno tip! I've heard of him, but know next to nothing about him, so I will be sure to check him out. Thanks.