Best and Interesting Reads of 2009 (and One Offensive One)

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  • January 7, 2010
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By Myint Zan  


I started the year with Survival of the Sickest: The Surprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity (Harper Perennial, 2008) by (Dr) Sharon Moalem (with Jonathan Prince). It contains some information or informed (or ‘maverick’) speculations or hypotheses about the relation between sickness and longevity as the sub-title indicates.


Much more intellectually challenging and difficult read was Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves (Penguin Non-Classics, 2004). Dennett wrote in the Preface that he had thought about and (partly) worked on the book for about 30 years though I read it –- in about three days. I will immediately qualify by saying that I do not mean I fully comprehend the arguments of Dennett. Dennett was among others called by some of his critics variously as a ‘Darwinian fundamentalist’ and one had mentioned him sarcastically as ‘Giordano Bruno with tenure at Tufts’ (Tufts is the University in the United States where Dennett is a tenured Professor; more about Bruno below.) The 95 year old author Martin Gardner has once stated that the title (and the claim made  in the book) of one of Professor Dennett’s earlier books Consciousness Explained is ‘brazen’. (see below) One has to have considerable familiarity with quite advanced topics in philosophy, evolutionary theory, ethics and even game theory to appreciate Dennett’s book but even though it is –to repeat- a difficult read it is worth the effort in trying to understand Dennett’s claim (or assertion) that human free will like human genetics and other human cultures have ‘evolved’.


I read only about one third of the nearly 600 page book The Portable Karl Marx edited by the late Eugene Kamenka (Penguin Books, 1983). Eugene Kamenka ‘selected, translated in part’ and ‘introduced’ Marx’s writings (including personal letters) from 1836 (when Marx was about 18 years old) to writings in the 1870s with brief biographical information of major events in Marx’s life. It includes among others Marx’s high school and University reports and a 2 ½ page excerpt (in translation) of Marx’s doctoral dissertation (submitted to the University of Jenna in March 1841 when he was 22 years old) entitled ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and the Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.


Most of The Portable Karl Marx remains unread by me due to the fact that I do want to pursue other readings from other books but William F. Buckley Jr’s (1925-2008) God and Man at Yale (with the sub-title) ‘superstitions of academic freedom’ (50th anniversary edition, Regnery Publishing Inc. 2001; the book was first published in November 1951) I did not care to finish it due to its offensiveness. God and Man at Yale is among others and to put it mildly extremely self-opinionated. Buckley  mentioned and attacked by name numerous Yale Professors who taught at Yale  during the late 1940s early 1950s as being ‘atheists, communists, liberals’ etc. Buckley posed himself as an ‘underdog’ conservative writer and almost as a victim of the causes and personnel whom he attacked or at least strongly critiqued. In the opening Buckley wrote that (his book is) ‘For God, for country and for Yale in that order’. Buckley’s and for that matter his numerous right-wing followers in America ‘God’ is the sponsor and sustainer (only) of the right-wing of the Republican Party and He (God)- I suppose it is a He- is also not only anti-Communist and anti-socialist (recall that  President Obama is disparagingly mentioned as a ‘socialist’ by the right-wing in America) but anti-liberal, pro-big business and pro-military as well.


I did read quite a few journal articles in 2009 and from most of them I have learnt a lot. Among the best would be Ann Marie Lofaso’s ‘Toward a Foundational Theory of Worker’s Rights :The Autonomous Dignified Worker’ published in Volume 76 (Fall 2007) Issue of University of Missouri Kansas City Law Review . I thank the author an Associate  Professor in the College of Law at the West Virginia University College of Law in the United States for presenting me with an off-print of her excellent article. For me it is a matter of regret that in the United States’ political, cultural and legal milieu Ann’s article would have much less influence and impact than Buckely’s conservative, indeed reactionary tome.


While studying for my post-graduate degree at the University of Michigan Law School the late Andrew S. Watson (1920-1998, Professor of Law and Psychiatry) in his course ‘Psychiatry for Lawyers’ in the spring of 1982 recommended to over 30 students in his class that if we have ‘nothing pressing to read’ we should read Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and the Relation to the Unconscious. As an ‘incentive’ Professor Watson also informed us that there are many jokes in the book. Though I did read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (first published 1900) about six months later in the Fall of 1982 and Civilization and its Discontents (first published 1930) in 2008 it took me more than 27 ½ years and about 250 books later to take up Professor Watson’s advice when I read Jokes and their Relations to the Unconscious (first German edition published 1905, W. W. Norton Standard Edition. 1990, translation by James Strachey). I did laugh at some of the jokes Freud mentioned and ‘dissected’ and can recall at least three new jokes which I have learnt from it though I could not recall now most of Freud’s ‘explanation’ of the jokes vis-à-vis the unconscious.


The versatile writer (producing about sixty books in a writing career which spans more than six decades) Martin Gardner celebrated his 95th Birthday on 21 October 2009 and by design I finished Gardner’s book Jinn from Hyperspace and Other Writings Both Serious and Whimsical (Prometheus Books 2008) on his 95th birthday. It contains 36 essays written by this (now) Grand Old Man of Letters on various topics including ‘false memory syndrome’, Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) and the more philosophical essays include, among others, and in part a critique of some of Daniel Denett’s ideas regarding consciousness.


I read two affecting biographies or reminiscences of two personages who flourished in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. One is U Thant in New York 1961-1971 [:] A Portrait of the Third Secretary-General by Ramses Nassif (with a foreword by Sir Brian Urquhart) (St Martin’s Press 1988) The nature of this book is such that it can be classified more as a ‘reminiscence’ than a biography. I am glad to have purchased the book from –as with most other books in this review- and learned more about the first Burmese and first Asian to serve as Secretary-General by his one-time Press Officer who had first hand-knowledge of some United Nations affairs. The author provides a few glimpses of U Thant’s tireless effort for peace and progress during his tenure as Secretary-General of the United Nations.


Ingrid D. Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (University of Chicago Press ,2009) is a biography of the ‘philosopher/heretic’ Giordano Bruno who was burned to death on 16 February 1600 by the then Roman Catholic Church. Rowland drew attention to the fact that though the late Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) (speaking for the current Catholic Church) has expressed its regrets for the prosecution (and persecution) and sentence of Galileo but up to this day the Church of Rome has, after more than 400 years, not expressed its disavowal far less critique of its predecessor’s  action’ of burning to death an insightful philosopher some of whose theories or postulates regarding astronomy has at least been generally confirmed by later scientific developments. Rowland’s narration of Bruno’s life inexorably leading to his arrest, trial, sentence and execution by burning is indeed at times a ‘searing’ as well as affecting read.


Melford E. Sprio’s Anthropological Other or Burmese Brother: Essays in Cultural Analysis (Transaction Publishers 1991) is a collection of Professor Spiro’s essays on anthropology mainly as it relates to Burma. Though written much earlier some of them going back to the 1970s it was published in book form in 1991. Professor Spiro’s essay ‘Of the Strange and Familiar in Recent Anthropological Thought’ where he expresses skepticism of and resistance to ‘fashionable’ anthropological theories such as those of (overstated) cultural relativism reminds me of William F. Buckley Jr’s editorial in the inaugural issue of his conservative National Review magazine in November 1955. Buckley said he and his magazine is ‘standing athwart history shouting “stop”’ (i.e. to ‘stop’ what he considered to be the ‘forces’ of liberalism in American history). The forces of American history and culture were and are such that Buckley and his conservative cohorts were not only able to stop what they consider as liberalism moving forward but was also largely able to reverse and almost subjugate liberalism in America on what seems to me to be a semi-permanent basis. Though Professor Spiro did not use Buckley’s phrase at all, one also makes an association of ideas with Harold Bloom (of Yale) who in more than one of his books bemoans the assault on and  crumbling  of the Western literary canon by ‘Marxists, feminists, post-modernists’ and ‘the commissars of gender and power’. Is Professor Spiro’s ‘resistance’ to or at least criticism of ‘fashionable’ theoretical anthropological trends comparable to that of Bloom’s resistance above and would he have Buckley’s (good) luck to ‘thwart’ the undesirable forces of anthropological theory which he critiques?


The late Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) published one of his last books at the age of 97 (What Evolution Is, Basic Books, 2002). It is an excellent summary of recent ‘evolutionary thought’ or rather more appropriately synthesis of scientific evolutionary facts and findings since Charles Darwin’s publication in 1859 of Origin of Species. In the foreword Jared M. Diamond with perhaps (just) a tad of (over) confidence stated that ‘there is no better book on evolution like this’ and ‘there will be never be another book like it’.


Less than three years after Mayr’s What Evolution Is, Richard Dawkins published The Ancestor’s Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Mariner Books 2005). On the cover of the book the statement from a review published in the Philadelphia Inquirer which describes the book as a magnum opus is reproduced and indeed it is! Dawkins’ 6oo plus page (to repeat) magnum opus is a monument to his assiduity and learning. Mayr’s and Dawkins’ two books makes an overwhelming case for the historical fact of evolution. It has been a supremely educative and enjoyable experience to read and learn from these two fine, exemplar books.


After these two books, the Encyclopedia Guide to the 100 Most Influential Scientists (Introduction by John Gribbin, Encyclopedia Britannica and Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2008,) is somewhat of an ‘anti climax’ though I still learn or (re)learn about most of the giants of science as well as synopsis of facts of a dozen or so more scientists whose names and work I have not been familiar with previously.


The late Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) first published his seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 3rd edition1996) in 1962 and in 2009 among all the books mentioned in this review it is the top-selling book (ranking 1259 in sales rank in Amazon.Com books; compared that with Buckley’s God and Man at Yale at 75,117 in rank and Spiro’s Anthropological Other or Burmese Brother at the ranking, in terms of sales, at 2.987,032!) in The phrase ‘paradigm’ and ‘paradigm shift’ can be overused and I myself have used it two times in two different articles. Even though Professor Kuhn did not invent these phrases it is perhaps fair to say that he popularized it. Indeed I counted the word ‘paradigm’ about 478 times in just over 200 pages of the book.. Due to the significant influence of Kuhn’s book which extends to other disciplines other than the pure sciences there may or may not be a form of ‘paradigm shift’ in a way the scientific and other communities and scholars view and analyze science but Kuhn’s book is well-worth a read.


Last but not the least a ‘coffee table’ book Michigan Law at 150 [:] An Informal History by James Tobin (University of Michigan Law School 2009) needs to be mentioned. The University of Michigan Law School of which I am an alumnus celebrated its 150th anniversary in September 2009 at Ann Arbor, the United States an event which I attended. This booklet was presented as a souvenir to the hundreds of alumni and attendees of these celebrations. The book is sprinkled with anecdotes and archival photos and paintings concerning the history of one of the most prestigious law schools in the United States. It is indeed a pleasure to read this beautifully designed and formatted book in the 150th anniversary year of the Michigan Law School.



Dr. Myint Zan

Associate Professor

School of Law

Multimedia University




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