Monday, March 12, 2007

Some recommended non-fiction

Unusually for me, I have been reading quite a lot of non-fiction recently, courtesy of the excellent Toronto Public Library.
Along with a huge number of others, judging from its top position on the list of best-sellers, and my position at one time as number 1183 out of 1215 in the library reservation queue (who knew there were so many atheists using the Toronto library system!), I read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. It merely re-states a little more comprehensively and elegantly most of the suspicions about the redundancy of the God concept I have had since my teens, but I thought it reasonably well-written, even if I found his carping, sarcastic and supercilious tone a bit tiresome after a while.
This led me to re-read (or re-attempt to read) "God and the New Physics" by Paul Davies (first published back in the 80's) in an effort to get my head around quantum theory, entropy, space-time curvature, etc. I'm still finding it hard going and may fail again, but it has led me down some other interesting avenues (for instance, did you know that the human body is basically composed of 65% oxygen 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen and 3% nitrogen, with a few traces of calcium, phosporus, potassium and sulphur thrown in?)
I also ploughed through "What Good Are The Arts" by John Carey, which sounded like an interesting line of enquiry, but I was not too enthralled by it. He looks at questions like: Do the arts make us better people? Does art equal civilization? Is there such a thing as a subjectively good work of art? Unfortuately, he doesn't come up with many convincing answers, and the whole book is sadly negative, unfocussed and inconclusive, I thought.
The second half of the book purports to show how literature is superior to the other arts, but represents more an excuse to ramble on about some of his favourite authors and books - interesting enough in its own way, but equally unfocussed.
The other non-fiction book which held my interest recently was "Unspeak" by Steven Poole, a British journalist for the Guardian. This investigates the way in which language, words and labels are used by governments and politicians in a persuasive, euphemistic or propagandizing way. The book is a largely an excuse for a blistering leftie diatribe against George W. Bush and Tony Blair (most of which I totally agree with, but it often leads the book off-topic, I thought). But it does point out how some everyday phrases used in the media are subtly warping our perceptions of the issues.
For instance, among many others, he touches on:
- "anti-social behaviour" (a vague and malleable term used to discourage and even criminalize people whose behaviour may not meet the standards of a particular group with its own social agenda)
- "community" (a catch-all phrase used to pigeon-hole whole segments of society and to completely define them according to one aspect of their views)
- "climate change" (a phrase deliberately encouraged in some circles as being less scary and more disarmingly vague than the phrase "global warming")
- "natural resources" (which gives the impression that everything in nature is there to be exploited and used up)
- "human resources" (which gives a similar sense that employees are expendable and non-individualized assets)
- "ethnic cleansing" (a self-justifying phrase which effectively hides the horrors of mass murders, rapes and concentration camps which undelie it, and encourages the idea that people of a particular ethnic background are all the same, and that a particular society can be improved by deleting the offending sub-section)
- " terrorist" (a word which has been broadened in definition and inexcusably over-used in order to justify otherwise unjustifiable tactics)
- "war on terror" (a Bush-ism designed to rally the population against a non-specific enemy, despite the illogic of declaring war against a particular tactic or technique of violence)
- "abuse" (a disarming euphemism for torture when applied by the good guys)
- "freedom" (an overused and woolly concept usually employed to indicate a US-style capitalist society protected by military power).

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