Here are the books I read this year, with some short notes.
A Darwinian Left (Politics, Evolution and Cooperation) - Peter Singer
I've read a few books by Singer now, so I suppose I'm pretty into him. I don't always agree with him, but I find his arguments clear and get me thinking. This book attempts to reign in some of the more optimistic ideas of the left about the perfectibility of man, to a view more in concert with contemporary scientific thought about human nature. I suppose it is somewhat of a response to the ascent of the right in the last 20-30 years.
Introducing Barthes - Philip Thody
I'm quite opposed to postmodernist philosophy, especially since reading Fashionable Nonsense, but I'm trying to find the last moment when left critical theory still might have had something going for it, before it went completely off the rails. So I'd heard about Barthes and gave this little intro a shot. While I'm sympathetic to the idea that there are embedded ruling class capitalist messages or whatever in popular cultural artefacts eg ads, films, music, such as Barthes analyzed, it's just that I don't find this literary mode of analysis very convincing. I'm more into the sort of forensic comparisons of historical case studies and newspaper column inches such as done in Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. These 'Introducing...' books are also pretty weak, they could do a lot more with the graphic presentation style, it's feeling very dated since a lot of titles in this series date from the late 80's when photocopied cut and paste seemed very avante garde. I much prefer Paul Strathern's '90 minutes' or the Oxford Uni Press 'Very Short Introduction' series.
I just noticed Barthes wrote about Albert Camus' The Outsider, which I bought and plan to read next year, based on a recommendation by John Pilger.
Logicomix - Apostolos Doxiadis
I'm quite into graphic novels (or comics for 'serious adult intellectuals' as Robert Crumb might call them), and this is a great one. It's a great look at the early life of Bertrand Russell and his contributions to mathematical logic around the early 20th C. Doxiadis also wrote a great fiction book about a mathematician obsessed with Goldbach's conjecture.
Animal Farm - George Orwell
This is one of those classics that I had never got around to reading. I enjoyed it, as I did 1984. After this, I was able to enjoy Aardman's Chicken Run even more. I hope to read more Orwell in the future.
Rum Punch - Elmore Leonard
I've never really been into crime fiction, so I thought I'd try to rectify that. I liked Jackie Brown the movie by Tarantino from years ago which was based upon it, so I read this while on a holiday. Very enjoyable and breezy. It was interesting to see how Tarantino changed parts of the book. I watched the movie again and got more out of it. I like its more relaxed tone which I think caused some people to like it less than Pulp Fiction.
The R.Crumb Coffee Table Art Book - Robert Crumb
This is a book I wanted for a long time after seeing the Zwigoff documentary, but when I could finally buy/afford/justify it, I slept on it for a while. I really enjoyed it. It is a great mostly chronological look at his art and life. The next things I will read by him will probably be Mr Natural and My Troubles with Women.
Sweet Dreams (Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Counsciousness) - Daniel Dennett
I've read practically all of Dennett's books, but this one came out a couple of years ago without me noticing until recently. I think that is because it is just a compilation of recent essays, not a major singular body of work. That said it is worth checking out for Dennett fans. It revises and polishes some of the ideas from Consciousness Explained. I felt happy that some of his objections to various qualia inducing thought experiments were similar to my own. It made me feel that I might be able to do some worthwhile philosophy if I put my mind to it. Maybe I should go back and reread Consciousness Explained, I remember it really rocked my world at the time.
The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature - Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault
I first watched part of this famous debate as a snippet within the Manufacturing Consent documentary about 20 years ago. More recently I watched the doco again in DVD and the debate was featured more fully as part of the extras. It interested me then, so when I saw that it was the subject of a book, I decided to delve deeper. In it, you can really see a split in their modes of analysis, with Chomsky coming off much clearer and more convincing. I have some sympathy with Foucault's aims, as I guess Chomsky did, but ultimately I think he led progressive left thought down a blind alley.
The Great War for civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East - Robert Fisk
At 1300 pages, I think this is the longest book I have read. I saw Fisk's lecture a few years back at the time of the book's release and knew I had to read it eventually. It covers modern middle east history since about 1918 and the Balfour declaration, mostly through Fisk's experiences there as a reporter from the 70's onwards. The most interesting parts are his 3 meetings with Osama bin Laden, the Soviet and later US invasions of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the first and second gulf wars, and various invasions and atrocities by Israel in Palestine and Lebanon. You come away with a powerful sense of western government's callous disregard for life, the violence inflicted, the hypocrisy of their pronouncements, support for dictators, etc. I think if there is one person that could make amends with the arab world on behalf of the west, it would be Fisk. This is a great book and a must for anyone wanting to make sense of what is being perpetrated in our name in the middle east.
The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller
This is one of those pivotal graphic novels that I felt I had to read. I suppose it's an important twist on the superhero genre, being very dark and adult, but I was never really into superhero comics as a kid anyway so some of what is revolutionary about it is lost on me. I liked the artwork and the layering of exposition and dialogue. It feels modern, and in parts it's quite difficult to follow. Worth a read for anyone interested in graphic novels.
The First Eden - David Attenborough
I read this as part of my ongoing project to read all of Attenborough's doco-linked books. I find reading the books and watching the docos together a really good learning experience. It's fascinating all the clever adaptations evolution has come up with. I would contend that Attenborough is one of the greatest teachers of all time, if you consider the quality of what he has produced and the number of people he has reached.
This series is about the Mediterannean world and man. It covers geology, pre-history, mans impact and its impact on us. Since it was the crucible for western civilization, it's animal and plant motifs are embedded in our culture in a strong way. An interesting factoid is that lions roamed in ancient Greece. Our impacts led to deforestation and poor soil and hence a shift to olive trees and goats. Bull worship is also discussed. Great stuff.
Just So Stories - Rudyard Kipling
This book was mentioned in Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, in relation to far-fetched evolutionary explanations. It's a collection of amusing and fanciful stories about how certain animals got their unique characteristics.
Democracy and Disobedience - Peter Singer
I knew this was an early book by Singer, but I didn't realise until I started that it was his first and was basically his PhD thesis. He starts with some toy model societies, democratic and otherwise and proceeds to argue in each case when disobeying the law can be morally justified. He argues that in the case of his ideal democratic model society, one can justify breaking the law in order to bring some perceived wrong to light, or to reconsider a decision, etc. There are caveats too.
In a final chapter he applies it to the IRA which was contemporary at the time of writing. When his theory is applied in practice to the sort of representative democracy we have, say, in Australia, then he concludes that a lot more is permissable.
I read this book partly to think through some of the ethics in P2P file sharing. Actually I emailed Singer about this topic over a year ago but he replied only that he didn't have time to pursue it. This book gave me something to think about but certainly didn't give me any obvious answers.
Let it be said though that I have this idea that we should ditch copyright and find ways to socialize the cost of easily copyable entertainment (and possibly a lot more). For example, the cost of mathematical research is more or less socialized. Can one justify one's file sharing as civil disobedience with an aim to bringing about such a socialization?
A People's History of American Empire: a graphic adaptation - Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, Paul Buhle
Sadly, Howard Zinn died this year. This is a graphic adaptation of his most famous book. It covers many of the key lessons from 500 years of US history. If you had to set someone in the Tea Party movement straight, getting them to read this book would probably be about the best way. Native Americans, the Philippines, Vietnam, Reagan in Central America, Operation Ajax (to overthrow Mossadeq in Iran) were among some of the most interesting topics for me.
Dreams of a Final Theory - Steven Weinberg
I didn't read much science this year. What's happened to me? But I really enjoyed this book. It's both sad and happy. It's sad because it is partly a defence of particle physics in support of the super conducting super collider which was never built, but happy now that the LHC has been built and seems to be a pretty good substitute. Weinberg is a great scientist and communicator. He makes some important points about reductionism and philosophy, while explaining the importance of symmetry in fundamental physics. It's not a terribly technical book, there are no formulas for example, and is still worth a read 16 years after publication.
I Peed on Fellini (Recollections of a life in film) - David Stratton
David Stratton is probably Australia's most famous film critic. This is a very entertaining autobiography, mostly dealing with his involvement in the film scene, as the title suggests. One aspect I found interesting are the places in Sydney he lived and worked in from the 60's onwards, and the old cinemas that used to play quality films. Stratton played an important part in the push for the relaxation of excessive censorship that used to exist here. (It still has a way to go) The quality of films that Stratton programmed in the Sydney Film Festival is amazing, and he showed many great director's films at the beginning of their careers. This book is full of great anecdotes and an enjoyable read.
Radio Free Albemuth - Philip K Dick
I read this in prep for the new film which I saw recently. Not one of Dick's best, but it was later reworked into Valis, which does have that distinction. I've safely read quite a number of Dick's books, but I had a slight fear that this book might make me go a bit crazy. Thankfully (?) it didn't. Although surely Dick had some mental problems, he had the ability to step outside that and write rationally about his experiences. This book is semi-religious. Maybe religion is a form of paranoia. The film was done pretty cheaply and not great either, but I think I was able to appreciate it better having read the book first. One for Dick fans.
The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
This is classic SF from 1976. It concerns a low ranking soldier recruited into interstellar wars with some bad aliens, but in between battles he has to travel long distances close to the speed of light so relativistic effects cause him to jump through hundreds of years at a time. The scientific exposition was refreshingly non-silly, despite being written some 35 years ago. The plot is pretty simple and episodic, but it accumulates into an affecting parable of war and the passing of time. At the time I think it was read partly as an allegory of the Vietnam war, but that association is not necessary any more and transcends it. Ridley Scott is apparently trying to make a film of it. I think it has the potential to be a really good one.
Molvanîa (A land untouched by modern dentistry) - Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch
Molvania, a fictional former eastern bloc country, is the subject of this parody travel guide. The jokes are light and breezy, if a little repetitive. I've always liked the authors, who are famous Australian comedy writers of my generation (D-generation, Frontline, The Castle, The Dish) and having quite a collection of Lonely Planet's on my shelf I found the mis-appropriation of that style and format amusing. There seem to be a lot of cheap copies of this book floating around 2nd hand, which is partly why I bought it.
North Korea, South Korea: US policy at a time of crisis - John Feffer
This is a good shortish book on North Korea from Seven Stories press, who publish other good left progressive books by Chomsky, Zinn and others. It was published during the height of Bush II macho posturing when things looked bad. Well they still do now. It would be interesting to hear what the author has to say about Obama's policies. I learnt that there were some positive steps taken during the late Clinton years but they were rolled back under Bush II. The North has taken positive steps to open up and change and more can come but wants to do it on its own terms. It could be unified peacefully with the South eventually provided the US used more carrot and less stick. The US has 35,000 troops in South Korea. The North knows that weak countries (like Iraq) get attacked and is only doing what is rational in trying to get a nuclear bomb. One day there are even plans to build fast rail through China and down the peninsula and under the sea to Japan. If the two Koreas were united and this sort of thing happened then the whole NE Asian region could become the economic powerhouse of the whole world. Fingers crossed, no war.