Thursday, March 13, 2014

Reading :: Journey to the West

Monkey - Journey to the West
By Wu Cheng'en

Journey to the West is a famous collection of stories about Sun Wukong, a monkey who achieves immortality and then creates chaos in Heaven, only to be sent back to Earth to pay for his crimes. He is imprisoned for 500 years underneath a mountain, then tasked with accompanying a monk on his journey to the West (India) to fetch the Buddhist scriptures. Like any fairy tale, it's full of magic and lots and lots of killing. It also satirizes inept bureaucracy—the version of Heaven described here seems pretty ineffectual.

Journey to the West has been produced many times, in many different versions. (For instance, the Japanese version of the name Sun Wukong is Son Goku, who should sound familiar if you've ever watched Dragon Ball Z.)

In fact, stop reading this review right now and go search YouTube for Journey to the West.

Are you back? Yeah. Whatever video you clicked on, that is exactly what the book was like. Supposedly someone refilms the story in Asia at least once a year. Here's the latest one, with Chow-Yun Fat in the starring role.

The book itself is an odd mixture of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Pilgrim's Progress. But, as I mentioned earlier, it's much more violent. If that appeals to you, check it out—or just watch more of those hallucinogenic YouTube videos.

Reading :: Babylonians and Assyrians: Life and Customs

Babylonians and Assyrians, Life and Customs
By the Rev. A.H. Sayce

I was looking for some pleasure reading a couple of months ago, so I downloaded this public domain book on Kindle. It's what you might expect from a book published in 1899, with phrases such as "Of this there is no proof" and lots of superfluous hyphens. Still, it paints an interesting and entertaining portrait of the Babylonians and Assyrians as they were then understood.

The book covers what was then known about Babylonia and its inhabitants; the family; education and death; slavery and free labor; manners and customs; trades and land; banking; government; law; writing; and religion. I was particularly interested in the last two.

Can I recommend this book? Not as scholarship—it's too dated and too imprecise. Not as entertainment—it's not really a page turner. But if you're the kind of person who becomes curious about a particular topic, such as Babylonian religion, and finds himself spending way too much time reading about it on Wikipedia, this might be a good way to learn a little more about it for free.

Reading :: 76 Fallacies

76 Fallacies
By Michael LaBossiere

Some people like to learn about, name, and examine logical fallacies in detail. I confess that I'm not one of them. Identifying fallacies is a detail-oriented proposition, and although I can focus on details, I tend to look at the big picture first. So, clearly, I needed to read a book like this one. And 76 Fallacies is only 99 cents on Kindle.

I'm glad I did. Although I won't be memorizing the names of all 76 fallacies anytime soon, I enjoyed the spare text and clear examples supplied by the author. In paging through the fallacies, I gained some appreciation for what makes a fallacy a fallacy, how fallacies relate, and how one might use a reference such as this one to spot them.

If you're interested in fallacies—or even, like me, just interested in gaining some appreciation for their pursuit—take a look.

Reading :: Totemism

By Claude Levi-Strauss

"Totemism is like hysteria," Levi-Strauss says in the first sentence of this slim book, "in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any identifying interpretation" (p.1). Like hysteria, he says, totemism involves bracketing certain phenomena as outside one's own moral universe (p.1).

Levi-Strauss develops this argument throughout the book, as here: "it is not because they are totemic that such systems must be regarded as irregular; it is because they are irregular that they can only be totemic" (p.53). Through a careful examination of the then-extant work on totemism, Levi-Strauss developed this influential work, calling into question what was up to that point a broadly held assumption about how "savage culture" worked.

I'm not an anthropologist, so although I enjoy Levi-Strauss' works, I can't evaluate the argument directly. But as a scholar of rhetoric and writing, I do recognize the approach—identifying a well known concept, taking it apart, and seeing how well it stands up to scrutiny. Levi-Strauss does this well and methodically, and as a result, the concept of totemism (at least, as a universal phenomenon) declined after this book made its impact. If you're interested in totemism—or in how concepts disintegrate—take a look.

Reading :: The Schlumberger Adventure

The Schlumberger Adventure
By Anne Gruner Schlumberger

Just a brief review here. In 1997, I came to Austin to intern with Schlumberger Well Services at their Austin Product Center—a very rewarding experience, leading to my first qualitative research project and three publications. The APC, alas, has been closed for a while, but I think of it fondly. I reminisced about it when I read Geoff Bowker's Science on the Run, in which he described the history of the company based on its archives and ancillary sources. Although I don't have the book at hand, I'm pretty sure one of them was The Schlumberger Adventure. So when I saw it at a used bookstore, I snapped it up.

The Schlumberger Adventure was written by Anne Gruner Schlumberger, the daughter of one of the brothers who founded the company and (for a while) the wife of Henri Doll, one of the key leaders in the company. It's not a history so much as a memoir of how the company grew from a couple of brothers conducting experiments in a bathtub to a multinational corporation. The author treats everyone evenhandedly, noting both their strengths and their foibles, and focusing more on the difficulties than the triumphs. The book is a collection of moments: driving across Oklahoma in an unreliable car; seeing their Russian partners become more withdrawn and agentless as Stalin took hold, then finally disappearing; trying to avoid the Second World War. It's a fast read and a sensitive portrait. If you're interested in the history of the company, I'd recommend it.