Monday, December 31, 2012

Out of My Life and Thought - Albert Schweitzer

A perfect foil to the last book I read and a nice finish to the year.  This is the autobiography of Albert Schweitzer, written in 1931 and with a postscript for 1933-39.  I knew of his charitable work as a doctor in Africa but knew nothing of his background as a theologian, lecturer, teacher, philosopher, author and organist.  He was amazingly prolific in his writings and acquired an extensive education through single minded focus and will.  As a young adult he had realized that:
 "...it struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to live such a happy life while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering....there came to me...the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it".
He finished a doctorate in philosophy and preached and lectured before choosing at the age of 30 to pursue a doctor of medicine with the plan of volunteering to serve in the French Congo, now Gabon, as his means of giving something back.  Imagine taking on a second career requiring seven years of school in order to "give something in return"!  Dr Schweitzer founded a hospital to care for the natives of the Congo which is still in operation today.  While working the rest of his life as a doctor, he continued to write and and develop a universal ethic for life, resulting in his philosophy of the Reverence for Life which he describes as:
"my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil."
He speaks of all we know for sure is that we have a "will to live" - this is in contrast to Nietzsche's "will to power". He rejects nihilism and embraces a positive meaning to man's existence and lived his beliefs out in caring for others.   "I stand and work in the world today as one who aims at making men less shallow and morally better by making them think".

Reading Nietzsche and Schweitzer exposed me to some of the thinking of the early 20th century when men pondered the meaning of life and existence, where they pursued learning and spoke of serious thoughts.

Published: 1933 with postscript 1932-1949  Read: December 2012   Genre: auto-biography

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Genealogy of Morals - Friedrich Nietzsche

I'll admit, I picked up this Modern Library edition of the classic work written in 1887 because of the word "genealogy" in the title (genealogy being a recent passion of mind) and because I knew very little of Nietzsche's philosophical writings.  It was a difficult read, partly because the language is out of date and largely because it is theoretical beyond my knowledge - stretching the mind is good though!  It took me several nights to read in small bits and I'm sure I missed most of the points being made.  I read up on interpretations of the work and its influence on other writers and philosophers and grasped pieces of understanding.  I won't try to summarize the writing nor recommend it.  My impression reading it from today's perspective is that Nietzsche was wildly passionate about his subject and had difficulty keeping to the point.  Reviewers explained that he was considered witty and ironic and fond of metaphors.  He died at 56 after 12 years in a complete mental collapse (brought on, it is speculated, by advance syphillis), so finished his works by age 44.  I did learn that his philosophy was twisted by Nazi Germany as Nietzsche himself adhered to none of their beliefs.

From a genealogical viewpoint, 1887 would have seen it published when my great-great grandparents were young adults and they and their children could have read it when it became more well-known after his death in 1900.  Being of German descent, maybe they heard of his writings.  The reference to it in the title had nothing to do with generations of people but rather the evolution of thoughts and beliefs over time.  A "genealogy" of a subject was a method of exploring the chronology of and idea or trend or belief.

I won't let this be my last read for 2012, I've another that's about half finished!

Published: 1887  Read: December 2012  Genre: Philosophy  

The End of Men - Hanna Rosin

Subtitle: and the Rise of Women

I bet that title got your attention!  This non-fiction book makes the case for the declining dominance of men in society and the rise of women.  The author explains how women in the last few decades have benefited from changes in society's attitudes and practices toward sex, marriage and education of women and how men have been declining in power.  She refers to the Plastic Woman and the Cardboard Man - plastic in the sense that women have adapted to the demise of the industrial age and taken advantage of sexual liberation, property rights and higher education while men have remain inflexible in adapting to these changes.

Her arguments are a mix of factual statistics and anecdotal cases of women's changing roles.  She uses interviews with 30-somethings dealing with the changing roles to illuminate the trends and changes occurring.  She states that women have less need for marriage because of their ability to support themselves and control childbirth while noting that many of the generation are embracing new models of marriage with stay-at-home Dads and fluid parental and spousal roles.  She explains and provides examples of how the passing of the industrial age and the rise of the knowledge/technical age is to women's advantage as brawn and brute strength skills give way to communication and detail-oriented ones.

In all I thought the evidence was cherry picked and felt that while the trends may be valid they are hardly as widespread as she would claim.  It did give me a different perspective on the lifestyles and environment that the next generation is living and experiencing.

Published: 2012   Read: December 2012   Genre: Non-fiction

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Handle with Care - Jodie Picoult

I did not like this book.  I sort of knew I wouldn't like it about the first 50 pages in but it was a quick read and I wanted to see how the story unwound.  I'd read another of the author's books and realized pretty quick that her stories have a "formula"; main character with a condition (this time "brittle bones" disease; last read was Asperger's), parents who tell their side of the story and a snotty sibling for a different perspective.  I so disliked the mother in this book, a martyr claiming to do the best for her child while she destroys everything around her.  The story is a downer from the beginning and just gets more depressing as the trial for a wrongful birth approaches.  According to Wikipedia, 25 states allow wrongful birth lawsuits which claim negligence on the party of the medical professional in not letting the parents know their unborn child would be disabled.  Presumably, the parents would have aborted the child if they had known.  I reject the premise but then I guess having strong feelings about the issue is exactly what the book meant to do.  Tread carefully if you decide to read this one.

Published:  2009  Read: 12/2012  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Outermost House - Henry Beston

Subtitle: A year of life on the great beach of Cape Cod

I'd had this title on my TBR (To Be Read) list for some time and picked it up in a used bookstore several months ago.  It was written in 1928 and according to the jacket "is considered one of the classics of American nature writing".

The author spent an entire year by himself on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Cape Cod  "hook" of land in a cottage constructed near the beach.  The book reminisces on his observations of nature; tides, waves, marshes, ponds, beaches and the creatures there; birds, deer, fish, even insects.  The writing successfully painted a picture and put me in the experience of a wild, windswept and ocean pounded shore.  Although written 84 years ago, it was as contemporary as if it were written last year.  I doubt the same level of isolation could be accomplished as easily in this age of instant communication.

I've put Cape Cod National Seashore on my bucket list thanks to this book.

Published: 1928  Read: December 2012  Genre: Non-fiction, nature