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Began reading Maslow's The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, but gave up about half a chapter into it. I like the idea of looking at healthy psychological mechanisms being as important as looking as pathologies, and I'm of course always interested in human self-improvement, but Maslow's concept of a well-defined class of superior human beings being all-around superior, and his tacit certainty that there's only one way of being healthy, and that he can instinctively pick the "better humans" out, are rather troubling. His affirmation that psychologically healthy beings are always quick, certain, and correct in their moral judgments, and his casual inclusion of homosexuality among the "obviously" unhealthy behaviors, were just two among the rapidly accumulating warning signs.

I don't want to go Godwin, but the temptation is certainly there. So I dumped that book and instead read a biography of Richelieu.


Books! (History and Crime Edition)

The Creator (Clifford D. Simak, 2016/#29): Interesting, somewhat uneven, very old-style collection of SF stories.

The Causal Angel (Hannu Rajaniemi, 2016/#30): Not as good as The Quantum Thief, perhaps better than The Fractal Prince. Best read as a continuous history, and perhaps better than it looks, if that makes sense

By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (Barry Cunliffe, 2016/#31): Any book covering "the internal connectivity of Eurasia between the origin of agriculture and the XIVth century" is, of necessity, going to be a radical oversimplification. That said, and with a long string of caveats as to the number of guesses and debatable specific points, this is an incredible high-level view of Eurasian history in that period, as long as you focus on interactions between societies (which is the point of the book) rather than the details of their internal life. Not that the latter is completely ignored, quite the contrary, but the priority are clearly non-local interactions and their effects.

Plots of Opportunity (Albert D. Pionke, 2016/#32): A nice study on the role in Victorian England of the topos of the secret society in journalistic and literary texts; it's certainly an interesting thread to follow, and, aside from a certain lack of pithiness, an enjoyable read.

A Burglar's Guide to the City (Geoff Manaugh, 2016/#33): I can't call it disappointing — it was a very enjoyable and educational read — but it has that peculiar texture specific to a book in which a single fascinating insight is repeated multiple times, not illuminating but rather reflecting a number of examples and stories. The first chapter is the best, if nothing else because the example is the most interesting (YMMV).

Lending to the Borrower from Hell (Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Voth, 2016/#34): If Philip II defaulted so frequently (and infamously), how come he kept being able to borrow money from people he couldn't execute if they refused? Based on data sets that must have been extremely painful to extract from the original XVIth century contracts (and I complain about poorly formatted CSV files!), the authors show that (a) Spanish fiscal policy was actually very responsible, (b) the financial engineering involved in the loans made for very sophisticated and effective risk-sharing and insurance, and (c) therefore, both the Genoese's constant loaning to Philip II and Philip II's constant borrowing from the Genoese, made perfect financial sense. That's the opposite of what I believed earlier today, but their analysis is convincing. Fascinating.


Books! (Empires and Old Tales Edition)

Trio for Blunt Instruments (Rex Stout, 2016/#23): The "trio of small novellas" Nero Wolfe books aren't my favorite ones, but this was enjoyable enough.

The League of Frightened Men (Rex Stout, 2016/#24): A weird Nero Wolfe book. The plot is more or less traditional, but everybody's voices and actions (beginning of course with Archie's inner voice) are out of character. It was a disturbing read.

The Confucian-Legalist State (Dingxin Zhao, 2016/#25): An extremely fascinating book describing a high-level, integrated overview of Chinese political development. Very explicitly opinionated against some of the scholarly consensus, according to the author; I don't know enough about the field to be able to tell, but, by the same token, I found it very informative. Recommended.

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (Edward N. Luttwak, 2016/#26): As good as I thought it'd be. It meshes well with what I've been reading about the Late (Western) Empire, and paints a clear idea of what the Romans were doing and why. If nothing else, Luttwak is usually a conceptually compelling and straightforward writer.

The Lost World of Byzantium (Jonathan Harris, 2016/#27): A good book on the history of the Byzantine Empire, basically answering the question of how the hell they survived for so long, and all the ways in which they also shot themselves in the foot. Perhaps could be viewed as a more anecdotal version of Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

The Story of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part I: 1926-1935 (Ed. Michael Ashley, 2016/#28): I grew up reading these stories (no, I'm not that old, they were already in historical collections). Bad as they are in many senses, I really enjoyed reading them.


Books! (Conquest and Magic Edition)

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Frances Yates, 2016/#19): A reread. It was particularly interesting to re-read this not long after reading Ackroyd's history of the English civil wars. James I's foreign policy was a mess, and he was far from a nice person, but, in his defense, he was trying to avoid the war, caught between the English' many variations of protestantism and the Hapsburg gold and steel. Not in his defense, he probably hastened it by his bumbling.

The Sultan's Admiral (Ernie Bradford, 2016/#20): The writing is a bit dated, although definitely not in an Eurocentric way. This is consistent with his goal, which is to rehabilitate (or at least clarify) Barbarossa's reputation in Europe, and explain his enduring fame in Turkey and North Africa. After reading this biography, and even after some cautious discounting, I can very much see the point: his activities were as awful as those of his contemporaries (including pretty much all European states), but he was very, very good at them. Bradford makes parallels between his career and that of Francis Drake, and I think those are valid ones, mutatis mutandis. Two personal notes: One, Barbarossa seems to have been that rare kind of adventurer who dies old, rich, healthy, powerful, and respected (well, except, eventually, by his enemies). A difficult trick, that one. Two, I had read before, of course, about Venice's protracted and painful loss of his territorial spoils from the Fourth Crusade once the Turks took Constantinople, but it was very interesting to see it happening, as it where, from the other side.

On Late Style (Edward W. Said, 2016/#21): A series of essays (from an incomplete manuscript of the book, put together with other text) about "late" artistic production (music and writing, in particular); Said is using late not just as in "too late," or "late in life," but also indicating not an elegant, serene capstone to a creative career, but rather a chronologically or artistically dissonant note. Quite engaged with Adorno. Some observations that I found interesting, and of course plenty of things I had no idea of, but not something I have the background to fully evaluate (or perhaps the interests to fully enjoy).

The Fall of Cities in the Mediterranean (Ed. Bachvarova, Dutsch, Suter, 2016/#22): This book explores (from different angles, and with different degrees of interestingness) the forms and concepts of the city lament, from the oldest Mesopotamian lamentations of around 2000 BCE, to Greek and Roman representations of conquered cities (most of them in theater and literature), up to Constantinople and the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922. I thought I'd enjoy the Mesopotamian chapters more, but the ones about and around Troy-Greece-Rome are fascinating, with lots of attention being paid to Hecuba in particular and the point of view of the conquered in general. I hadn't known there's a lost play from somebody called Phrynichus called the Capture of Miletus that traumatized his audience so badly that after the first showing they fined the author and forbade the play, or any other about the topic, from being produced again. Now *that*'s writing.


The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 2 (Ed. George Mann, 2016/#13): As advertised. Late 2000's science-fiction short stories; nothing astounding, and a few underwhelming ones, but overall I enjoyed it.

The Dynamics of Disaster (Susan Kieffer, 2016/#14): A disappointing book on natural disasters. The author clearly knows the topic, but I found the structure of the exposition unenlightening, and the writing itself not particularly good.

A Murder By The Book (Rex Stout, 2016/#15): This one felt untidy, but in a satisfactory way (for me, not for Nero and Archie). Basically, it was one of those cases in which they have to muddle through and more or less make things work, which is of course as entertaining as when they are at their best.

Before Midnight (Rex Stout, 2016/#16): An enjoyable one.

Paradox Lost (Frederic Brown, 2016/#17): A reread. This kind of book, a collection of short SF stories from the 1970's and before, was in a way the backbone of my reading during my late childhood and early teens. I loved them then, and unarguable stylistic and technical issues aside, I still do.

The Golden Spiders (Rex Stout, 2016/#18): A Nero Wolfe story mostly by the numbers, which isn't a bad thing if you're me.


Books! (Ghosts and Empires Edition)

The Climax of Rome (Michael Grant, 2016/#7): It's easy to see the late history of the western Roman Empire as something of an ongoing catastrophe, and in many senses it was, but it was also an spirited and creative attempt to sustain a political entity of staggering ambition given their technological and demographic realities. One way of looking at it (not the author's, and perhaps untenably teleological), would be that the survival of the Roman Empire required the deployment of military might perhaps surpassing that of an Early Modern state, more than a thousand years before technological and societal developments made it even marginally possible; and yet, for a couple of centuries, and at staggering human cost, they made a bloody good attempt of it. The author is somewhat snobbish, and certainly philosophically opinionated, but he takes the Romans in the context of what they were facing, what they wanted to do, and what (material, intellectual, and, he would say, spiritual) resources they had at hand, and that's of no little value.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (part 2) (M. R. James, 2016/#8): A seamless extension of the first one.

Civil War: The History of England Volume III (Peter Ackroyd, 2016/#9): Ackroyd's ongoing history of England is, I think, a very good one, and this volume is as good as the previous two. I don't know how to segue into that, so I'll just say it: I laughed out loud when I read that, after a series of bungled military operations, people began to call Buckingham "the duke of Fuckingham." Things like that warm your heart with the undeniable unity of the human soul.

Please Pass the Guilt (Rex Stout, 2016/#10): A bit half-cooked, to be honest.

Ghosts by Gaslight (Ed. Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, 2016/#11): An enjoyable compilation of neo-Victorian (rather than Steampunk) supernatural stories.

A Thin Ghost and Others (M. R. James, 2016/#12): In the vein Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, but perhaps a trifle more perfunctory.


Sapir-Whorfing like there's no tomorrow

I'm trying to think of it as the Abundance Non-Problem: when you have more things that you want and can afford to do than time in which to do them, so you have to choose.

Case in point:

mrinesi@hannibal:~$ ls docs/queue/books/ |wc -l

This shouldn't feel like a problem, yet it does. And it's not something that's going to go away, unless we mess things up spectacularly; if anything, it's getting worse better more so. So it's more of a psychological readjustment (infinite books not being something any of us last century dinosaurs ever grew up with) than a technical or logistical one.

(I think I might have written about this in the past. I'm very likely to write about this in the future. Because, dammit, infinite books. It's existentially unsettling.)
Cities of Empire (Tristram Hunt, 2016/#1): A look at the history of ten cities, as influenced by and influencing the history of the British Empire. I liked this book very much, and I think it works well both in helping understand local history in its larger context, and to illustrate the evolution of the Empire. A caveat: the author is both a professional historian and a professional politician, so keep that in mind.

The Medici in Florence: The exercise and language of power (Alison Brown, 2016/#2): An awfully enjoyable collection of essays about the history of Florence, touching not only some specific aspects of the Medicis' rule, but also, e.g., Savonarola's. This is very emphatically not an overview, but rather a set of a dozen essays on very specific points: the first one, for example, studies how Cosimo de' Medici was described by writers (mainly an study of different traditions of literary sucking up in XVth century Florence), while another one deals with Savonarola's use of the trope of Moses to justify his political role, and how this influenced Machiavelli's views. Endlessly fascinating, and if you read Italian (I don't), there's a series of bonus tracks in the form of primary sources.

Europe's Steppe Frontier, 1500-1800 (William H. McNeill, 2016/#3): An interesting book about, roughly speaking, the bits of Eurasia that during that period were surrounded by Russia, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire, together with the history of those three empires as related to those bits between them. The explanatory framework feels outdated (the book was published in 1964), with a somewhat too facile psychological determinism, but the book isn't nearly as Euro-centric as the title would suggest, and it's full of interesting details about a place and time I've read about mostly only in an indirect fashion (e.g., a lot of times when reading about Venice, its relationship with the Ottoman Empire is mediated by what the latter is doing in "the Balkans"; in this book, that's the main issue, and Venice is what's going on in the sidelines). I have to say, it makes the Crimean War and the whole "Eastern question" much more understandable. A funny thing in the preface: the author talks about the falling levels of violence in the region, which is darkly humorous for anybody who went through the 1990s, but, of course, it was written during the Cold War (in fact, the book ends up with an appreciation of the Russian agricultural colonization of Ukrania that I think is factually correct in comparative terms, but indefensible in ethical terms; it assumes that the end justified the means).

Mysterium Coniunctionis (Carl Jung, 2016/#4): I'm reminded of Borges' comment about metaphysics being the most creative form of fiction — I think that's a fruitful approach to this book. Jung's view of alchemy being the empirical expression of psychological processes doesn't seem to me to be unfounded (what human activity, to various degrees, isn't?), and the material he describes and his interpretations of it are if nothing else entertaining, but his emphatic description of those underlying processes, with specific and complex assignations of meaning to things like "three," seems to me to be a reenacting, and almost to no degree an explanation, of what alchemists did. The fact that I'm most likely doing it myself right now only makes the thing exponentially more hilarious. Of note: he's extremely concerned about the psychologically deleterious effect of secularism, which I can understand as a reaction to Nazism (ignoring, though, not only the religious machinery of the Nazi Party itself, but the very European religious tradition of the pogrom). I'm, not unexpectedly, not as keen as he is on the idea of some revitalization of Christianity as the only possible way of restoring psychological sanity at large scale. Also of note, and also not unexpectedly, his observations about the female mind, infrequent as they are, are every bit as idiotic as you'd expect. For a person who made a point of remarking multiple times that his theories were grounded on the scientific observation of empirical fact, this amounts to professional malpractice.

Distrust that Particular Flavor (William Gibson, 2016/#5): A collection of non-fiction articles and talks. Looking at the age of some of them, and what has happened since then, I don't know if I know anybody else so attuned to the intersection of technology and culture as he is. Exaggerating only a bit, it's almost shamanic.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (M. R. James, 2016/#6): Terrifying breaches of the natural order of things, taken with polite, inquisitive fear, followed by, at most, a lifelong but mild case of nerves. It's hard to imagine a more stereotypically British (or antiquarian) approach to the supernatural.


Books! (Last Ones of 2015 Edition)

War Stories From The Future (Atlantic Council, 2015/#83): A serviceable collection of short sci-fi stories (or fragments of longer texts) illustrating different (potential) aspects of future wars, put together by a think-tank. Most of the stories are, as I said, serviceable without being brilliant, although literary merit wasn't the point of the project. The point was the conceptual exploration of future warfare, and in that side (without being anything else than an interested layperson) I'm giving it middling grades; it's more a collection of currently "hot" ideas (drones! hacking! infrastructural attacks!) rather than anything truly innovative. Still, perhaps they were going for plausibility rather than originality — a sci-fi-flavored white paper, if you will.

The Insidious Doctor Fu-Manchu (Sax Rohmer, 2015/#84): A reread. Still mindbogglingly racist and appallingly misogynist.

The Second Confession (Rex Stout, 2015/#85): A reread.


(I'm not going to be anywhere near my usual 100-120 books/year target, and I don't even have last years' quagmires as excuse. I don't like this. Let's see if I can get back to a hundred next year; if the things I do aren't leaving me enough time to read, I'm going to have to take a harder look at them.)

Over My Dead Body (Rex Stout, 2015/#78): I'm not sure I remember a Nero Wolfe story where we learn more about his past than in this one. I'm not sure I like it, just as I'm not particularly interested in Sherlock Holmes' early years (although I'm inordinately interested in Bruce Wayne between Crime Alley and his return to Gotham). A fine Wolfe story nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed Inspector Cramer's new and effective crime-solving strategy: literally not leaving Wolfe's house until Wolfe solved the crime and told him what he wanted to know. It doesn't go exactly like that, of course, but all things considered the plan has sheer elegance in its simplicity.

From a Geometrical Point of View: A Study of the History and Philosophy of Category Theory (Jean-Pierre Marquis, 2015/#79): What the subtitle says. It's a fascinating book, very close to my preferred sweet spot between formalization and philosophy when describing mathematics I want to know about rather than know. A big problem was the surprisingly large amount of misprints in the mathematical expressions.

Manual de Supervivencia (Werner Herzog (interviewed), 2015/#80): The short texts about Herzog in this (also short) book are too hermetic for my taste, but Herzog himself here is perhaps as straightforward as I've ever read him; perhaps relaxed would be a better term.

The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (H. P. Lovecraft, 2015/#81): A thousand pages of rereads.

The King In Yellow (Robert W. Chambers, 2015/#82): A reread.


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