December 24, 2002

The Great Purge

The Great Purge has begun. Moving my study has meant fitting all of our books into less space, which practically speaking means purging the collection of those books we no longer want or need. This is generally a traumatic experience--at least, it was the last time I did it--but time and the presence of three children have changed many things, and perhaps it will be easier this time.

In any event, I decided that I wanted to keep a list of the books I was getting rid of, so that in some future time when I'm looking for them I need not remain in doubt over why I can't find them on the shelves. And given that, I thought it would be fun to list them here, with the reasons why I'm getting rid of them. So here it is, more or less a collection of mini-reviews of books I not only didn't read in the last month, but may have never succeeded in reading ever:

Books I No Longer Want

The Great Ideas, by Mortimer J. Adler. This is an amazing book, a tome among tomes, the product of a truly frightening amount of scholarship and synthesis. I was introduced to it (truly, this is a book that needs an introduction; only the very bold would dare presume to strike up an acquaintance with it without one) by my friend Rick Saenz, a man whose opinions I respect. Alas, when I first attempted to make use of the book to research one of the "Great Ideas", I found that the book is an outstanding soporific, either as reading material or (due it its weight) as a blunt instrument. I think I'll take my ideas a little less highly refined in future.

Windows Millenium: The Missing Manual by David Pogue. I bought this when I got my present laptop with Windows ME pre-installed. Windows ME doesn't come with much of a manual, and I thought this might be helpful. Perhaps it was; I no longer recall. What I do know is that I've not had any reason to refer to it in the last two years.

Philosophical Explanations, by Robert Nozick. Nozick was, so I'm given to understand, one of the great philosophers of our time. I first heard of him when he died some time ago, and was inspired by an article about him to send away for this book. The article described it as playful, whimsical, interesting, a book not just for professional philosophers but for any thinking person. Indeed, one of the blurbs on the back cover says, "It is important for you, whoever you are, to read...this book." I have no idea what the ellipsis in the previous sentence represents, but I suspect that the full sentence was something like the following: "It is important for you, whoever you are, to read books of all kinds, except for maybe this book.

To be fair, I got through maybe a hundred pages of this difficult and abstruse book, and on that evidence I must say that Nozick was able to write with clarity and humor about difficult metaphysical problems, with no detail lost, no matter how small. But following him through the logic was exhausting, and I finally was forced to confess that I had far less interest in the questions he was addressing than he did.

Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart. I picked up this book six or seven years ago when a good friend of ours (now, alas, deceased) was doing a Great Purge of her own. Since then I've looked at it on the shelf any number of times without the slightest temptation to open it and read its contents.

XML Elements of Style, by Simon St. Laurent. XML is something every technogeek needs to be familiar with these days; I've tried to make use of it several times, only to founder on the same rock--what I've been doing instead of XML has been easier and more convenient for me. In any event, this book didn't add notably to my understanding.

Politics in the Ancient World, by M.I. Finley. Cambridge University Press has an imprint called "Canto", which they use for books they think might reach a wider audience. I've bought quite a few of them now, and some of them are very good. This one, however, was too dry for words. As a history buff and as a sometimes-aspiring author, I thought a discussion of how the Greek city-states governed themselves would be interesting, enlightening, and stimulating: good source material for some future novel. And perhaps it could, in theory: but in practice I was disappointed.

The Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt, by W.J. Murname. I got this after reading a spate of books set in Egypt ancient and modern. I thought it might lend some perspective. In practice, it sat on the shelf unregarded.

Undaunted Courage, by Stephen E. Ambrose. This book details the Lewis and Clarke expedition, and was quite popular a few years ago. I've read it. I've grasped the reasons for the expedition, which Ambrose explains cogently; these remain in my mind. For the rest, well....it was interesting when I read it, but I can't picture myself reading it again.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, by Marcus Rediker. This is another book from Cambridge University Press's "Canto" imprint, and another that I shall discard without dismay. It's a history of merchant seaman, pirates, and the Anglo-American maritime world in the first have of the seventeenth century, an area to which I was led by my interest in Patrick O'Brian's sea stories. And reading the back cover, I can see why it sounded interesting. And there was some interesting stuff in it, but over the whole thing is cast the awful pall of Marxist Scholarship. Unfortunately the reddish tinge obscured more than it revealed. So long, Mr. Rediker.

The Naval War of 1812, by Theodore Roosevelt. Here's a book I do give up reluctantly, but only because I wish it were a different book. As a young man, Roosevelt (yes, that Theodore Roosevelt) discovered that all of the chief books about the War of 1812 were written by the British, and were horribly biased. In response he wrote a fair, balanced work, demolishing the bias of those who preceded him. It's apparently now considered "the" book on the subject by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. It is also astonishingly dry for a book about war at sea. Sigh.

The Temple and the Lodge, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. I reviewed this a year or so ago; you can find the review using the search box if you like. This is a book that attempts to link the Knights Templar with the Masons. It has some interesting things in it, but some of the statements strike me as being so credulous, so filled with wishful thinking, that I'm at a loss to know what part of it I can trust and what part I can't.

The Penguin Who's Who in the Ancient World, by Betty Radice. Again, this is reference book I bought thinking I might find it helpful. In the six or seven years since I bought it, I've never referred to it.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 24, 2002 12:41 PM