Best and Interesting Reads of 2008

  • By AdminL
  • January 6, 2009
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By Myint Zan

 

 In the first four months of 2008 I sloughed through the tome entitled An Inquiry into the Causes and the Wealth of Nations written by Adam Smith (1723-1790) and first published in 1776. The version that I read is edited by Kathryn Sutherland and is published in 1998 in ‘Oxford Classics’ by the Oxford University Press. A very detailed introduction and extensive notes written by the Editor help provide a historical context and ‘fore grounded’ this very influential text. The particular edition includes all the ‘Five Books’ (though with some deletions in some places) of Adam Smith’s masterpiece and runs over 600 pages (over 300,000 words). I do not pretend to have understood all of the expostulations of Smith’s whose work, among others, did –at least partly- influence Karl Marx. Since I read (in comparison) a small book entitled Adam Smith’s Mistake: How a Moral Philosopher Founded Economics and Ended Morality by Kenneth Lux (Shambala Publications) in 1992 I thought I would attempt to read –and finish- Smith’s work in the original. The extensive and useful annotations by the Editor were also very informative. When I did finish Smith’s treatise I acknowledge that I am not able to give a well-informed evaluation of whether or not (some) of the theories and analyses of the ‘Adam’ (pun intended) of (classical) economics were ‘wrong’, mistaken or otherwise. Suffice to say that I do not find anything (in the negative sense of the word) very provocative or very disagreeable (even if I disagree with some aspects) in the Wealth of Nations. As an aside I could say that I not only disagree with at least some if not most of the claims in the late Milton Friedman’s (1912-2006) book Freedom to Choose parts of which I have read some years back, I found his preachy tone and tenor to be at times disagreeable.

 

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) first published his Myth, Ritual and Religion in 1913 and I read Volume II (only) of the paper back edition (reprinted 1995, Senate publishing) in 2008. It is of course a (much) easier and therefore in this respect more interesting read than the Wealth of Nations though needless to say Smith’s earlier work and in the more –important- field of economics ( in terms of impact on the daily lives) is much more influential than this early 20th century classic in anthropology.

 

Adam Smith was and is a very influential person but and even more influential personage (so to speak) than Smith would be Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543)– the modern espouser of the heliocentric theory.. I do not think of even attempting to read (in translation) Copernicus’s ground-breaking work On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres where he laid down his earth displacing theory so to speak and which –according to legend or -history as the case may be- was published not only in the year and month that Copernicus died but Copernicus actually saw his published book on the day that he died on May 24, 1543 virtually ‘in his last breath’. This legend or dramatic event was confirmed by Jack Repcheck the author of Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began (Simon and Schuster 2007) when he wrote (at page 171) that ‘Copernicus had the will to live to see the book that contained his lifetime commitment to understanding the heavens, the work that in the years ahead would make his name one of the most revered in Western history’. The main narration in Repcheck’s entertaining and informative read though was about ‘how Copernicus history-altering book came very close to never being published’.

 

I move on from reading about the events that led to the eventual publication of Copernicus work to that of a simplified summary of the monumental, tremendously significant theories and achievements of an even more influential scientist’ work. Newton’s Gift : How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World by David Berlinski .Though written with the general educated public in mind some parts of the book are not as- easily accessible as Repachek’s historical narrative. Berlinski does a good job of trying to explain in as clearly as possible the basic tenets of a few of this scientific genius’ scientific discoveries and findings. As a result even if I do not fully understand all of what Belinski explained I am at least slightly more knowledgeable about both Newton’s life (1643-1727) and his discoveries and achievements.

 

I have read the books of the late Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) more than almost any other author and in 2008 I also read Gould’s posthumously published The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities (Penguin 2006) which is indeed another enjoyable and educative book by this prolific author.

 

Though I would not, even attempt to read a translation of Copernicus book ‘adorned’ as it would be by mathematical calculations and diagrams and first published in the year 1543 I did read Relativity: The Special and General Theory written by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) himself. First published in English translation in the year 1920 the translation was by Robert W. Lawson and Introduction by Amit Hagar. The republication by Barnes and Nobles was in 2007. In the Preface written in December 1916 Albert Einstein wrote that his ‘work presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.’ Even before I read the book I have written in place of ‘ a fair amount of patience and force of will’ the words ‘very considerable’. I am grateful to the author, the translator- and to the publisher for republishing this scientific classic. At the same time I readily confess that despite my considerable efforts –some times re-reading four or five times certain paragraphs and formulas- some aspects of both the general and special relativity theories are still beyond me. I have read Bertrand Russell’s ABC of Relativity 25 years earlier in 1983 and I trust that the efforts that I have made to understand the most revolutionary and insightful theories of this scientific genius 25 years apart were worthwhile.

 

I managed to read only one book in Burmese in 2008. And the book is mainly another historical narration in the form of a novel entitled in translation ‘Dared to be stung or not’. The author is Maung Thar Ya (born 1931) an exiled Burmese author who have been living abroad since 1999 and currently residing in the United States. The novel based on real events that first occurred in October 1953 and for the next year or so relates how the narrator (the author) and his then colleagues –all students from Mandalay University- were arrested for planning subversive activities against the then Burmese government and how he and his fellow student activists were interrogated ‘vigorously’’ during their stints in jail. The book concludes with how one of them somewhat ‘betrayed’ their cause and how about twenty years later (that is in the early 1970s) that person was a middling official in then Burmese government .First published around March 1972 in Burma the author averred in exile in May 2004 (in a preface written in exile to the second edition of the book published in Thailand) that within a few weeks after its publication the book was banned and all the unsold copies were confiscated. To read in the year 2008 of what happened in early to mid-1950s Burmese student’s movement provides a historical glimpse and generates in one’s mind retrospective comparisons. The anti-government Burmese student movements of the 1950s had faced a much less authoritarian government. In contrast, their younger brothers and sisters since the early 1960s had to face and struggle against much more authoritarian regimes.

 

I read two more novels in quick succession after I read that of Maung Thar Ya. The first is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The small booklet that I bought for around one US dollar from a road side stall in Malacca, Malaysia is apparently an abridged version and have ‘scribblings’ and notations in a youthful hand writing. It was fun to read about ‘All animals being equal but some animals (being) more equal than the others and I have now read three of Orwell’s novels: Burmese Days (in 1975) ,Nineteen Eighty-Four (in 1976, reread in 2006) and now Animal Farm in 2008.

 

The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was first published in the year 1852. I bought the 1995 reprint of it (Penguin World Classis, 1995 edited with an introduction by Dr. Keith Carrabine of University of Reading in Canterbury) in December 2007 and read it in 2008. Being a sentimental person (perhaps) with an effort, I held back tears when I read certain sections of the book especially the one depicting little Evangeline’s death. At the time when I bought it in late 2007 I have no inkling that an African-American (or bi-racial) person would be elected president of the United States within the year (Hillary Clinton was then ‘surging’ in the polls and had seemed unstoppable.).

 

The above books were read till about the mid-year. Around that time for the next several weeks if not a few months I was detracted from reading when I was requested to write a Moot problem for the 2008 Law Asia Moot Competition where teams of law students from United States to Malaysia to India to Philippines and other countries participated and mooted in connection with the Law Asia Conference. At the request of the Law Asia Moot Competition Committee I wrote, gratis, a 6500 word Moot problem, then a 6000 word ‘Bench Memorandum’ for judges in the Moot competition for both the national and international finals that were held in August and October 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I also have to mark the applicant’s and respondent’s memorials written by altogether 18 teams and consisting about 200,000 words. Reading a few of the better memorials was, perhaps, an ‘interesting read’ for 2008 in that the students were arguing both on behalf of the applicant’s and respondent’s sides based on the Moot problem for which I have spent at least 30-35 hours ‘concoting’ or inventing it and which deals with international law issues. It took another 70 to 80 hours for me to write the Bench memorandum and to mark the Memorials. (The Moot problem can be accessed at http://www.lawasiamoot.org/moot_problem.pdf (accessed 1 January 2009)

 

I bought The Nine : Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin (Anchor Paperbacks 2008) in the United States a few days before I had the chance to observe ‘live’ the nine United States Supreme Court Justices at a hearing at the Supreme Court in Washington DC, for about half an hour. On the morning of 8 October 2008 I had to wait in line in front of the United States Supreme Court building for more than three and a half hours to observe the hearings in a particular case which lasted about half-an-hour. I finished reading Toobin’s book about a month later in early November 2008.

 

At the Supreme Court book shop I bought a few books one of them being The Supreme’s Greatest Hits: The 34 Supreme Court Cases that Most Directly Affect Your Life :by Michael G. Trachtman (Sterling Publishing 2006) The sub-title of the book is self-explanatory and I was aware of the bare facts and the decision of at least some if not most of the 34 United States’ Supreme Court decisions that Trachtman summarized.

 

Sigmund Freud first published Civilization and its Discontents in 1930. The English translation that I read in late 2008 was translated and edited by James Strachey with a brief biographical introduction by Peter Gay (W. W. Norton Publications, not dated) . Freud took a somewhat pessimistic view of the ‘human condition’ and I should say that I have some ‘resistance’ to a few of the postulates that were made by the father of psycho analysis. As I write, it occurs to me that I am perhaps more amenable to accepting some of the analyses and comments in Andrew Lang’s Myth, Ritual and Religion published nearly twenty years earlier in 1913. It seems to me that Lang’s mainly anthropological account and analysis of myth, ritual and religion is arguably more empirical and less conjectural than that of Freud’s psychoanalytically-based views.

 

Madam Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwininian Look at Literature By David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash (Dell paper backs 2008) has some possible eclectic links with a few of the themes of Freud’s shorter though much more significant tome.. I learnt, among others, the gist of many novels, plays and short stories some of whom I have heard of a and quite a few more that I have never heard before. Just as one would venture to suggest that there seems (to me) a tad of Freudian fundamentalism (not surprising since the author was Freud himself) and perhaps reductionism in Freud’s view of ‘Man’s Discontent With Civilization’ (Freud’s original suggested translation of the title of his book) there seems to me a Darwininian fundamentalism and reductionism in the father and daughter’s joint effort to establish and spread what could be said to be ‘Darwinian Crit-Lit’(critical literature from a Darwinian perspective).

 

One of the novels that was analyzed in the Barashs’ book was of course Madam Bovary written by Gustav Flaubert and first published in French in 1857. The 1995 Penguin Classics edition of the English translation does not state the name of the translator. Immediately after finishing Madam Bovary’s Ovaries I started to read the translation of Madam Bovary. Gustav Flaubert was stated to have toiled for five years in writing his masterpiece and I did ‘toil’ for more than ten hours but finished reading less than half of the book before I gave up reading it- at least for now. One of the themes of Flaubert’s book is the adultery of the protagonist of the novel’s title. The same theme – can be found in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the protagonist (heroine?) of the novel did engage (or indulge) in similar acts. In 2002 I bought from a second hand book shop Lady Chatterley’s Lover and though I read parts of it I did not finish it (Lady Chatterley’s Lover was also analyzed from what the authors of Madam Bovary’s Ovaries claimed to be a ‘Darwinian perspective’ in their book.) . Hence the inclusion of Madam Bovary does not quite fall within the category of ‘best’ or (to me) ‘interesting’ read of 2008 but I must vigorously ‘protest’ that this does not, by any means, involved a (negative) literary judgment on Madam Bovary or Gustav’ Flaubert’s literary achievements.

 

The American jurist Roscoe Pound (1870-1964) first published his Introduction to the Philosophy of Law in 1922. The revised edition came out more than a generation later in 1954. The edition that I read from Yale University Press did not state its publication date but when one reads more than fifty years later after its revised edition one feels that perhaps the title would have been more appropriate if it were ‘Introduction to the History of Philosophy of Law’ since a substantial amount of Pound’s work was narrating the historical development of some legal doctrines almost exclusively from Western sources. Some if not most of Pound’s sentences are very long and can instructively be compared with the very different writing style of the British judge Lord Denning (1899-1999) whose short, (though never incoherent) sentences are the hall mark of his judgments and books. In terms of originality I am of the view that Pound’s book is less original than that of The Concept of Law (first published 1961, revised edition 1994) by H.L.A. Hart (1907-1992) which I read in 2007 and its view of the ‘philosophy of law’ is less panoramic than that taken by H.P. Glenn in his Legal Traditions of the World (first published 2000, revised edition 2004) which I had read in 2003.

 

What’s the Verdict: You are the Judge in 90 Tricky Court Room Quizzes by Ted Valiant ad Marcee Theroux (Sterling Books 2004) contains a brief summary of the facts and the trial courts and appellate courts’ decisions in 90 actual cases mainly by American courts The reader is asked to guess what would be the trial courts and appellate court’s decisions with a check list provided in such a way that the person doing the quizzes could not check more than the decision of one case at a time unless he or she flips through various pages to search for the answer to the quizzes.

There are two more books that I finished reading on New Years’ Day 2009, though I have started reading them earlier. When George W. Bush’s presidency is set to run its course in less than three weeks and the first bi-racial (okay black or African-American) person is scheduled to become the 44th President of the United States I finished reading The Book of the Presidents by Vincent Wilson Jr (R R Donelley and Sons, 2004) which contains brief two-page information concerning all the 42 men (and they were men) who became President of the United States from George Washington to George W. Bush. (Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States so Barack Obama would be the 43rd person to become President and he would be the 44th President of the United States)

 

The Chicago based writer and attorney Lowell B. Komie presented me with a signed copy of his book The Lawyer’s Chambers and Other Stories (Sword Fish Chicago 1994) on October 17, 2007 when we met for a few hours in Chicago. I have read most of the collection of 17 short stories from the previous collection entitled The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie (Swordfish, Chicago) in 2006 when I bought the collection through amazon.com. I have re-read some of the stories and did finish reading two more stories by Lowell on New Year’s Day 2009.

 

And finally just a few hours before I wrote this I discovered by chance that the outgoing United States president George W. Bush read a total 40 books before the end of 2008.(See Karl Rove ‘Bush is a Book Lover’, Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2008, www.online.wsj.com/article, accessed 1 January 2009) Yours truly cannot compete in terms of the quantity of the books read – I do reserve my judgment as regards the quality- with those of the President but it is a pleasure to share a few comments on those that I have in 2008 and to convey my best wishes to readers for the New Year.

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