Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds Edited by Billy Collins, Paintings by David Allen Sibley

This fun volume has given me much pleasure over the last month. Bright Wings travels easy and makes a good companion when even only a few minutes become available for reading. Many of the birds come to my feeders, and I found myself thumbing through the book to read the poem.

One of my favorite birds to visit is the Northern Cardinal. The poem Collins selected has a grace and beauty to match the bird: “The Cardinal” by Henry Carlile:

“Not to conform to any other color
is the secret of being colorful.

He shocks us when he flies
like a red verb over the snow.

He sifts through the blue evenings
to his roost.

He is turning purple.
Soon he’ll be black.

In the bar’s dark I think of him
There are no cardinals here.

Only a woman in a red dress.” (203)

Fans of birds, poetry, and Billy Collins’ tastes in poetry will love this book. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 10/20/10

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

I first encountered Sam Harris in a review of The End of Faith in The New York Times a little over six years ago in September of 2004. My journey to rationalism covered many years, much reading, over a difficult path. Sam Harris became the first of the “new atheists” who explicated my mental turmoil in a logical and common sense manner. A little over two years later, he followed this work with Letter to a Christian Nation. In this book, he answered many of the criticisms leveled at End of Faith. Many of his critics had not even the slightest taint of rationalism. Since then, I have followed Harris through his blog,, which provides e-mail updates of publications and appearances. I knew Harris spent much of his time working on a dissertation in neuroscience from UCLA. This book is an off shoot of that dissertation.

Harris’ thesis runs like this: “…the split between facts and values – and, therefore, between science and morality – is an illusion” (179). He posits that human morality arose because it provided a value to early hominids. “…values actually are – the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds” (22). The contradictions among religions arose because of narrow interests of small tribes in conflict with neighboring groups. Thus, the commandments proscribe murder and theft, yet the God of Moses directed the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the way of this particular group’s takeover of large areas of the Middle East. Belief enables individuals to bridge the gap between facts and values.

Harris states, “Science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible” (28). Imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived by the “Golden Rule.”

The idea of a “moral Landscape guarantees that many people will have flawed conceptions of morality, just as many people have flawed conceptions of physics” (53). Recent polls have shown that an astounding number of people in the US believe the universe is only about 7,000 years old, and therefore expect, that if evolution were true, we should be able to see monkeys evolving into humans before our eyes. Harris adds, “the fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time” (53).

The chapters entitled “Belief” and “Religion” offer particularly complicated lines of reasoning, but the conclusion remains the same: “For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion -- that great engine of ignorance and bigotry – a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom. As a result, the most powerful societies on earth spend their time debating issues like gay marriage when they should be focused on problems like nuclear proliferation, genocide, energy security, climate change, poverty, and failing schools” (191).

At times, The Moral Landscape is not an easy read. I found myself going back over some key passages in order to fully digest Harris’ lines of reasoning. However, the challenge is extremely worthwhile in the long run. The author devoted nearly 100 pages – one-third of the book – to detailed footnotes, references, and an index. This work represents scholarship of the first order. This book belongs on the shelf of every person concerned with rationalism and the moral and ethical problems of the dangerous world in which we live. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 10/16/10

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach

I found this September read for my book club mildly interesting with a few annoyances. Perhaps the teacher in me came on too strong, but I think the “adventures” she recounts were more an excuse for paid vacations and free travel than learning things as she proclaimed in her preface. Steinbach had an idea for a book, and convinced the publisher to bankroll these trips. If not, she got in a lot of traveling on the tax payers dime.

After all, how much could she learn arriving halfway through an eight-week course on cooking in Paris – missing all the basics – and then leaving a week before the class concluded? The trip to Havana was another example. She went there to study the art and architecture of Cuba, but spent most of her time in clubs and bars dancing and listening to local musicians.

Not that the book is entirely without merit. I loved the chapter on her visit to Winchester and a gathering of aficionados of Jane Austen. She really did learn something, and so did I. Even this adventure had a minor annoyance. She proclaimed she loved Austen, whom she had read since she was twelve. Then she frets about matching Emma with Mr. Darcy – too big a mistake for anyone who read Austen more than once to make! She did become adept and turning away questions about arcane details in Austen’s novels.

If I had never visited Florence, Italy, her chapter on this magnificent city would have done nothing to make me start planning a trip there.

Another chapter I really enjoyed was the adventure set in Prague. Mostly this one revolved around Czech literature and writers. I also got a tip on an interesting novel, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal. This novel is one long sentence. I also picked up some ideas for exercises in my creative writing class.

Her relationship with a Japanese man also intruded a bit too much into the story for my tastes. Not only did he show up twice, but she felt compelled to include letters updating him on her adventures, as well as some comments which hinted that the relationship was more than mere pen pals.

If I were reading this book on my own, I would have skipped some of the chapters after a couple of pages. But, since my book club was reading it, I felt I should slog through. The opinion of the club members seemed decidedly mixed. (3 stars)

--Chiron, 10/3/10