20 Books of Summer: Kant: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton

I have a good buddy who’s a professor at the nearby university and this summer he invited me to join his book group to discuss philosophy, specifically the works of Immanuel Kant, Georg Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. Since I’m not an academic by any stretch, I was honored by his invitation and accepted without hesitation. We’ve been meeting at the bar across the street from the college since June and so far it’s been both intellectually stimulating and entertaining. Despite being the only non-professor in attendance somehow I’ve managed to not open my mouth and make a fool of myself!

The first book we discussed was Roger Scruton’s Kant: A Very Short Introduction from the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series. (Almost 10 years ago I featured another book in this excellent series, Joseph Dan’s 2006 book Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction.) As challenging as I found Scruton’s 2001 short book, I must salute him for helping make a layperson like myself make sense of one of history’s most influential but difficult philosophers.

As the 18th century winded down and Kant reflected upon the current state of philosophy he sensed he, and other like him had reached an impasse. Did we understand great truths through reason or through observation? In hopes of solving this conundrum Kant wrote Critique of Pure Reason, giving birth to one of Western philosophy’s most influential texts. In this short introduction Scruton breaks down Critique of Pure Reason into manageable bites as well as providing helpful insight into the life and thought of this mighty philosopher.

This is a short book and not an easy one. But if Scuton can help an unlettered schmuck  like me makes sense of Immanuel Kant, then this book is a winner.

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20 Books of Summer: The Wild Blue by Stephen E. Ambrose

It might surprise some of you, but I’ve never read anything by Stephen E. Ambrose. You’d think after hearing so many good things over the years about Undaunted Courage, Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers I would have read at least some of his stuff, but alas I have not. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy of The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany  when I found a copy at the public library last week. Hoping it would be, at the very least, a descent book about the air war over Nazi Germany I’m happy to report The Wild Blue met or perhaps exceeded my modest expectations.

Published in 2001, The Wild Blue tells the story of the brave American men, their B-24 Liberators and their missions over Germany and occupied Europe during the Second World War. One of these men was former presidential candidate George McGovern, who successfully piloted his B-24 (dubbed Dakota Queen in honor of his wife Eleanor) 35 missions, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery under fire.  For the most part Ambrose focuses on McGovern and his bomber crews and the dangers they encountered on their missions over enemy territory.

According to Ambrose, flying in a Liberator was no picnic. The planes weren’t pressurized so crew members needed oxygen masks, heavy bomber jackets and plug-in heaters to function. With flight controls slow and cumbersome it was a nightmare to fly. Lightly armored, crews were sitting ducks for enemy aircraft fire. Initial take offs were especially risky since the bombers were heavily leaden with bombs and full fuel tanks. Flying over heavily defended targets deep in Nazi Germany US bomber forces took brutal losses, sometimes approaching 50 per cent.

The Wild Blue delivered the goods and inspired me to read more of Ambrose’s books, especially the three mentioned earlier. So expect to see Undaunted Courage or Band of Brothers featured on my blog.

This Summer’s Reading: My Five Favorite Books

Last summer, when I came across a Time magazine article listing former President Obama’s favorite books of this summer I was inspired to create my own. So once again, here’s my five favorite books from this summer.

This year I’d also like to add one honorable mention. It was hard to post this list without including Juliana Barbassa’s  Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. Therefore, I had no choice but to include it as an honorable mention.

 

 

20 Books of Summer: Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker

For a relatively small country, population-wise Canada has produced some impressive writers, especially in the field of politics. Weighing in on opposite sides of the immigration debate are Bruce Bawer with While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and Doug Saunders with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? Back in 2011, before 4chan became a platform for QAnon’s absurd conspiracy theories Jonathan Kay explored and debunked the dark world of conspiracy theories in his book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Lastly, even the ultra-conservative pundit Mark Steyn, author of a host of books including America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It is Canadian, even if he currently resides in the United States.

In that regard America’s neighbor to the North continues to punch above its weight. A few weeks ago at the public library I picked up a copy of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. With their 2019 book the two Canadians make a bold and compelling claim: In the near future the world’s population will not explode but precipitously decline.

After being told for years we’ve been sitting on a ticking population bomb at first it’s hard to take the two authors’ claim seriously. You ask why is global population going to decline within the next 40 to 50 years? The answer is everyday, the world is becoming more and more modern.

A key component of modernization is urbanization. The bulk of the world’s population resides or is  predicted to reside not on farms or in villages but in cities. Urban families aren’t engaged in labor intensive farm work, so families are smaller. Living in cities makes it’s harder for conservative elements like their parents and in-laws, churches and mosques to pressure them into having lots of children. It’s also easier for city-dwelling women to obtain reliable birth control and receive helpful family planning advice. Lastly, more and more cities around the world are joining the global economy, leading to an explosion of service sector “knowledge jobs” throughout the world, especially in South and East Asia. These jobs require an educated workforce, prompting more women to delay marriage in order to attend college. Once in the workforce, many women continue to delay marriage and with it motherhood since it’s seen as a career impediment. So, as the world urbanizes it starts having fewer children. Once a country dips below the birthrate of 2.1 children per couple its population begins to contract, then collapse.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, there’s both good and bad things on the horizon. Lower population should put less pressure on the environment, resources and the global food supply. Potentially, it could also lead to lower unemployment, since there’d be less competion for jobs. With fewer global births, the population ages and the authors speculate this could lead to a “geriatric peace” since there’ll be fewer young hot-heads in positions of power.

On the other hand, without a huge pool of young workers it will be harder for countries, especially in Europe and East Asia to generate the taxes needed to pay for the retirement and medical expenses of a ballooning population of seniors. On a related note, the United States, Canada and the countries of Europe will no longer depend of young immigrants to replenish their employment rolls and help prop-up their birthrates. (This could get worse if today’s anti-immigration sentiment leaves a lasting legacy around the developed world.)

If, after reading Empty Planet you’d like to get another perspective on where the world might be going, I’d encourage you to read Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. I suspect Empty Planet is one of those books that will be embraced, debated, attacked, and in the end highly influential. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.

20 Books of Summer: Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

I’ve yet to jump on the Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime bandwagon, but after reading the grandaddy of them all, Peter Høeg’s 90s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow maybe it’s finally time. In search of something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, not to mention just a fun piece of fiction, I borrowed a copy through Overdrive and gave it a try. Before long I was sucked in and couldn’t put it down.

On the surface, things look simple. One night in Copenhagen a young Greenlandic boy is found dead after falling off the roof of an apartment building. The responding police deem it an accident but one of the late boy’s neighbors, Smilla, a 30-something loner of mixed Danish-Greenlander heritage thinks otherwise. Based on her extensive knowledge of snow, stemming from not just her early childhood in Greenland but also her time as a snow and ice scientist, suspects foul play. (Smilla also knows he was deathly afraid of heights and thinks it’s odd he’d be on the roof in the first place.) Her quest to know the truth will take her from the corridors of Denmark’s wealth and power to her ice-covered childhood home in Greenland.

Smilla is a great character. Intelligent, misanthropic, dogged and not afraid to throw a punch or two if needed she reminds me a lot of Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones character from the Netflix series of the same name. Fitting for such a broken individual, your knowledge of the character is slowly revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel.

This novel is dark, seasoned with memorable characters, complex (to quote the Dude from The Big Lebowski “there’s so many levels, man” ) and pulls you along like a freight train to the bitter end. It’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

20 Books of Summer: The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

I’m a huge fan of the website The Reading Lists. Every few days or so the site’s producer, Phil, a self-identifying book nerd in the United Kingdom, interviews a successful academic, business leader, writer or artist and gets that notable person talking about books. An interviewee might share a list of his/her favorite books, or a particular book that was inspiring or even life-changing. Some will mention books they’re forever recommending or what they’re currently reading. If you’re the kind of person who loves book recommendations I highly recommend The Reading Lists.

Back in March Phil interviewed theoretical physicist and bestselling author Lawrence Krauss. When asked what Krauss was currently reading and what made him want to read it he said the book was Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. It was recommended to him by his friend Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, social critic and political theorist because “we were discussing the evils of modern religion. It describes in harrowing detail how Christianity in the first few centuries AD makes ISIS look like a kindergarten bully.” Well, with a provocative statement like that how could I not take a chance on The Darkening Age? I immediately borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading it. I was not disappointed.

In The Darkening Age, Nixey clearly and vividly makes a compelling case the early Christians mercilessly and at times violently worked to suppress classical civilization. According to Nixey, it was a centuries long all out assault on pagan art, literature, philosophy and religion. So successful was this zealous crusade only a fraction, perhaps estimated between 5 to 10 per cent of the ancient world’s body of knowledge exists today.

Once Christianity went from being a offbeat cult practiced by small number of unlettered, uncultured lower class believers to the dominant religion of Rome’s high and mighty the war on pre-Christian classical heritage began. Church leaders encouraged their flock to rat out their nonbeliever or backslidden neighbors and relatives suspected of exhibiting pagan tendencies. One Egyptian abbot ordered his goons to break into the homes of those he deemed insufficiently Christian and destroy any offending works of art or written texts. Temples were invaded and desecrated, beautiful statues smashed or wrecked and entire libraries were put to the torch. Great luminaries like Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most brilliant women in ancient history (a world-class expert in philosophy, mathematics and astronomy) was brutally murdered in 415 at the hands of a mob acting on behalf of the local Bishop.

According to Nixey, attacks like these and countless others throughout the old Roman Empire arrested intellectual and cultural growth and thus changed the course of history. Gone, suppressed or ignored were works of brilliant satirists who poked fun at the established order and the foibles of the rich and powerful. So also was a cacophony of philosophical writings from a diverse multitude of deep thinkers, some critical of religion, and some who couldn’t care one way or another about it. Last but not least so were the works of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius whose views on atomic theory and the physical universe were long before their time. One wonders what the world would look like today had the early Christians not been so inimical to classical culture.

The Darkening Age is a great book to read alongside Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Mary Beard’s SPQR and Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against the Gods. Consider it highly recommended.

20 Books of Summer: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa

When it comes to books about fascinating places, I’m a big fan of what I call insider/outsider’s perspectives. These are by former residents (almost always journalists or former journalists) who, after being away for significant periods of time, return home to write about everyday life in their place of origin . With a blend of familiarity and objectivity they serve as our personal tour guides to cities like Detroit or Mumbai, or countries such as Iran or Zimbabwe.

A few weeks ago I was in the mood for one of these books. Luckily for me, I spotted at the public library an available copy of Juliana Barbassa’s 2015 book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. I’m glad I read Dancing with the Devil because honestly, I didn’t know a lot about Rio or even Brazil before diving into her book. (My Latin American politics class in college covered Brazil, but that was a million years ago and I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I learned. On a more positive note, I have fond memories of the Brazilian movies City of God and Central Station. The Brazilian documentary Bus 174 is grim, but good.)

In 2010, not long after it was announced Rio would host the 2016 Summer Olympics Barbassa, a journalist and Brazilian national, after spending 20 years abroad moved back to her childhood home of Rio in order to cover the county’s run-up to the 2016 Games. Whenever a country is entrusted with hosting the Olympics, especially the Summer Games it’s a sign that country has joined the roster of elite nations. But was Rio and the rest of Brazil ready? And if it wasn’t did it have the political will and resources to address the nation’s lingering challenges like pollution, urban poverty, corruption, and drug-fueled gang violence before 2016? Besides needing a multitude of new sports arenas and Olympic-related facilities Rio’s fractured infrastructure was long overdue for a massive upgrade. (A higher percentage of Rio residents have access to cell phones than do clean water.) Oh, if that wasn’t enough, in 2014 Brazil is also hosting the World Cup.

So, with all that in mind Barbassa spent the next four years or so running around Rio interviewing countless people including hard-line police chiefs, low-level gang members, transgender prostitutes, political and social activists, and environmentalists to see if Brazil and the city of Rio is able to overcome the many deep-seated obstacles standing in the way of successfully hosting the upcoming Olympics. While doing so Barbassa explored Rio’s politics and society in depth,  addressing issues related to gender, sexuality, race and class. And perhaps above all, the nation’s obsession with soccer.

I’m happy to say I enjoyed Dancing with the Devil and came away with a deeper understanding of Rio and Brazil. If you follow my lead and end up reading this book I highly recommend you also check out the series of eight articles posted on the online news publication The Intercept dealing with Operation Car Wash, a high level Brazilian political scandal that sadly has been largely ignored by American media.