Monday, January 18, 2010

Non-Literature Good Books Round-Up

I don't only read literary fiction. I think the posts about hamburgers from last month more or less gave that fact away. Oh well, now I've come as clean about it as Mark McGwire should probably have done with regard to steroid use a decade or so ago. Anyway, I don't want to omit good things I'm reading because they don't conform to your societal norms, non-existent population at which I'm directing unnecessary (and certainly undue) disdain (which is absolutely irrational). I like things like history and philosophy and political stuff which the last thing generally marches hand-in-hand with both of the two preceding, so here's a rundown of other things I've read lately that fall pretty much into those categories and I think maybe you'd like reading, too, and here's why that could be:

"THEM" by Jon Ronson - If you know Jon Ronson's name these days then it's probably for the movie, "The Men Who Stare at Goats," released in theaters last November, and a movie based on his book of the same name. (That's the reason I know who Jon Ronson is, anyway.) As a result of a fairly universally underwhelmed response, I opted not to see it -- but the story was still intriguing to me. And it was in investigating Ronson's book that I discovered it was not a novel or a semi-fictional account of a top secret government program to harness the potentially psychic powers of certain members of its rank-and-file but instead based in truth with actual interviews conducted by Ronson of certain alleged participants, which I also haven't read but, you know, I do intend to.

And so that leads to "THEM" finally, at long last. "THEM" is another of Ronson's non-fiction documentarian expositions, this time dealing with the fringe world of fundamentalist movements and their notably shared affinity for contriving an all-powerful Them looming over everything, plotting and planning to control the minutest aspects of the rest of the world population's lives, and manifesting itself in a number of different ways depending on who the fringe-group-in-question most regards as a threat. The results of Ronson's investigation may startle you, but probably won't. Still, the book is strange and humorous, even if in the end there probably isn't some sub rosa group plotting a world government, although that is of course what Them want you to think.

"Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell - Have you ever noticed how you love history with an effusion most others find off-putting at best? Well, I've noticed this about myself, sort of, and thankfully so has Sarah Vowell (of herself) because "Assassination Vacation" is extremely good at presenting said effusion for history in very entertaining terms. Like if you've ever wondered for instance about the details surrounding the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley (the story doesn't delve into Kennedy's much more recent assassination). Vowell travels all over the country in search of the strange places related to these presidents and their deaths and their assassins and sometimes their assassins' deaths. Plus the coincidences of history, for example one big one returned to throughout her narrative is Robert Todd Lincoln (President Lincoln's eldest son) and his unfortunate proximity to all three presidential assassinations that occurred during his lifetime.

Plus, Vowell's Generation X-ey self-awareness for the most part is amusing, if at times a little much in terms of deviation and self-deprecation. She brings a humorous, quirky attitude to her over all presentation of the boatload of facts and, again, fascinating historical coincidences surrounding these assassinations (as Vowell says, allowing for a kind of organization and logic that brings order to all things chaotic like a president's assassination).

"A Theologico-Political Treatise" by Baruch Spinoza - Reviewing philosophy is a weird thing to me. I don't think this will be a review so much as an opportunity to thank Spinoza for offering a sensible alternative to the irrational, superstitious Christendom extant in his time just as it is, of course, in ours. I mean could this that follows not just as easily be said of Pat Robertson and his ilk? --

. . . for the masses take no pains at all to live according to Scripture, and we see most people endeavoring to hawk about their own commentaries as the word of God, and giving their best efforts, under the guise of religion, to compelling others to think as they do: we generally see, I say, theologians anxious to learn how to wring their inventions and sayings out of the sacred text, and to fortify them with Divine authority.
I recognize Spinoza's treatise comes from a different point in human existence, and I see how some of his arguments are less applicable to life today, but the thrust of what he's saying remains true and worth fighting for: the Bible and reason are not mutually exclusive. I may not be a religious person in my own right, but you can take a rational approach to understanding Scripture and the imperfect people responsible for bringing the purported word of God to the world. Many of the chapters could simply have Spinoza saying, "Understand people that the writer of this passage did not mean for you to take it literally."

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