In this way he proved that rhetoric, in Plato’s phrase, is the art of working upon the souls of men by means of words, and that its chief business is the knowledge of men’s characters and passions which are, so to speak, the strings and stops of the soul and require a most skillful and delicate touch.

The secret of Pericles’ power depended, so Thucydides tells us, not merely upon his oratory, but upon the reputation which his whole course of life had earned him and upon the confidence he enjoyed as a man who had proved himself completely indifferent to bribes.

– Plutarch


book enhancement II

Here is a recollection of the books I have read during the past 12 months, in order of chronology.  The previous year reviews are here.

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez- The novel is an interesting mix of detective noir with retro science fiction.  The main character Mack is like a robot version of Marv from Sin City.

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi- This book chronicles the author’s quest to uncover the causes of the world’s most recent economic collapse, a.k.a the biggest fraud in all of History.  As he puts it “the very dullness and complexity of that journey is part of what made this cannibalistic scam so confoundingly dependable.”  But Mr. Taibbi explains it in a humorous way that I could digest.

After reading this book I was left with a deep-seeded dislike for financial institutions and human greed, specifically of the unsustainable Anglo variant from the last two- three decades.  This book will piss you off and instill distrust in everything monetary, which is probably a beneficial thing.

Wealth Inequality in America

A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb- This book is a sort of memoir mixed up with some fascinating Brazilian history.  If you ever want to visit Brazil read this book first.  It’ll also make you want to visit Brazil.  I never would have known there were once Dutch colonies there and then later, renegade colonies of runaway slaves and natives formed on the frontier in the Amazon.  These free states were all destroyed by the Brazilian government once they became too successful or threatening…  probably not unlike the Rio slums of today.

The book gives you a portrait of life in this country, and implies that the political corruption and status quo there hasn’t changed much over time, despite it’s BRIC status and modernization.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson- Instantly one of my favorite books.  I guess I could relate to it since the main character is an expat around thirty years old trying to figure his life and career out, and enjoying his travel adventures.

Byzantium by Judith Herrin- I’m very intrigued with the history of the Eastern Roman Empire and what became of it, perhaps because so much was lost.  This book is the best one I have read about the subject.  I can’t wait to visit Istanbul and hopefully parts of Anatolia someday, and see some of the ancient places mentioned.  The story of Byzantium really became a slow-death tragedy, but the book points out that, if not for the buffer it provided, the rest of Europe, and hence Western Civilization, would probably have been overrun by the powerful Ottomans.

Another tidbit I recollect is, if not for an earthquake that destroyed ancient fortifications along the coasts of Thessalonika, the Turks would not have been able to land and conquer that area, and surround the city-state, as soon as it did.  It’ll resolve a lot of mystery but leave a ton of “what-ifs” going through your head.

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin- Recommended to me and now highly recommended by me if you’re looking for a great self-improvement type of book.

Berserk Vol. 1 by Kentaro Miura- I don’t read much manga but every once in a while an art style jumps out at me.  I first saw this at the science fiction book store in Gamla Stan, in Stockholm.  It was in Swedish but eventually I ordered the English version off Amazon.  I’m going to have to get all of the series.  The author/ artist has devoted his life to it, and its truly inspiring.

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto- A book about the history of the Dutch colony of New Nederland, or what is today Manhattan and other areas of New York.  It was cool to read this with the perspective I have after living in Amsterdam for five years.  I have a new appreciation for the Dutch culture and how it affected America, especially the philosophy that derived from Grotius and the independent spirit that no doubt developed during the Dutch Provinces’ rebellion against Spain.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin– the audiobook version is available on youtube.  This is a great source for motivation and inspiration to be an industrious, self-reliant, inquisitive Renaissance Man.

Trilobite! by Richard Fortey- If you want to learn more than you ever thought you could about trilobites, this book is written by an expert archeologist/ trilobitologist who has devoted his life to them and put it all down into this book.  Did you know that trilobites developed crystal eyes made out of calcite?

Trilobites appeared during the Cambrian explosion and were one of the most successful animals in history in terms of survival, as they managed to exist on Earth for 380 million years.  Do you imagine humans will survive for that long?

An excellent documentary in which both trilobites and this book’s author appear.

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker- This book offers a new perspective on World War 2.  It makes a strong case for pacifism using newspaper articles, diaries, public proclamations, and other research spanning 1914- 1941.

More significant than any action of America in defense of her national interests was her instant reaction of retaliation, revenge, punishment and death upon the foe.  From such evil can come no good thing, but only disaster and doom immeasurable.” – John Hayes Holmes

There is so much compelling evidence presented in this book that points to an agenda that is not taught to us in the history books, which is:

Roosevelt wanted war with Japan and knew the attack on the fleet in Pearl Harbor was only a matter of time.  He had the U.S.armed forces take steps to aggravate Japan and make that empire feel threatened.  Churchill didn’t want Nazi Germany to have a Eurasian empire.  He was willing to bomb, blockade and starve most of Europe rather than pursue a peaceful settlement with Hitler  All of these geopolitical agendas indisputably caused more people to die and suffer than otherwise would have if peace had been the real goal, the book implies.

It would have been nice to have more research from the Soviet and Chinese side, but I suspect most of that is not as easy to find as an old NYT article.

By her territorial vastness, amazing energy, unrivaled financial status and owing to the composite character of her people she is the one country which could have saved the world from the unthinkable butchery that is going on.  It is a strange phenomenon that the human wish is paralyzed by the creeping effect of the war fever.” -Mohandas Gandhi, on the U.S.A.’s entry into the war.

Also be sure to watch this excellent documentary series on the Nazis.

the way out is see through

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” -René Girard

This French scholar studied and compared common structural patterns in great literature.  He discovered that the triangular formula, his theory called Mimetic Desire, was not only common among these works but in fact applied to all human desire.

“Only the great writers succeed in painting these mechanisms faithfully, without falsifying them: we have here a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, has less variability the greater a writer is.”

No doubt this goes along with what Joseph Campbell has written about myth.  I find this fascinating not just when considering story development, but also because it applies to things in real life as well.

This psychological strategy goes into all advertising and propaganda.  Once researchers figured out how to exploit the subliminal instincts in our hindbrains, our society transformed us into consumers at the mercy of our own primitive desires.  Check out this documentary to understand what I’m talking about:

Happiness Machines

It is amazing how easily we can be compelled and manipulated.  In this day and age, I believe it is very important to be aware of this psychology.  It allows you to question your desires from a clearer perspective before every choice.

On the one hand, Buddhism teaches us that detachment is the pathway to happiness.    On the other, without desire humans are not compelled to take action.  Without action our societies would collapse, so civilization must balance human desire through its culture in order to be successful.

It’s all like the Allegory of the Cave, the question is where are you in it?

book enhancement I

I want to start recording my thoughts on the books I read or listen to (audible)- here are the first “reviews”:

The Next 100 Years by George Friedman- The author proposes how geopolitics will unfold over the next century.  He says the U.S. will continue to dominate as the world’s main Superpower.  New regional powers will emerge and the U.S. will support or suppress them to maintain its hegemony.  These regional powers will  be a Polish bloc, Turkey, Japan, and Mexico (not China, Brazil, Iran and India, which seems to be the current popular belief.)

The author believes that the main threat to U.S. dominance would be the amalgamation of a Eurasian superpower.  At first Russia will threaten to be this (again), and then the author predicts Turkey will return to Ottoman form.  Meanwhile Japan will want to expand (again) after China’s rapid growth collapses and Beijing is weakened.  The author predicts that Japan and Turkey will form an alliance and conflict will ignite with a surprise attack in space.  At the end of the century Mexico will actually be a power to be reckoned with, especially since a large part of the U.S. population will be Mexican.

All this may sound a bit far-fetched, but the author actually makes a convincing case for his predictions, and also reminds you that people 100 years ago would never have been able to predict the order of the world today.  It was a fascinating listen, especially for all the statistical trends and emerging technologies used to support his predictions, like Space-based Solar Power.

Sabriel by Garth Nix-The first two or three chapters were a struggle to dive into, but eventually I was immersed in this strange magical world where the living are haunted by the dead (undead) until they are put to death properly by “anti-necromancers”.  Once you get an idea of how the rules of the world work, and its history, its actually really cool and very original!  Definitely a must-read if you want to get an idea of the high-quality fantasy literature that is out there.  I’m eager to read/ listen to the rest of the series.

God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens-  The author recently passed away, and I don’t know if he or Steve Jobs got more status updates on facebook from my friends when it happened.  Regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), I think everyone should read this book.  As for the author, who narrates the audiobook as well, I wish Americans could sound as articulate and sophisticated as Christopher Hitchens (especially our politicians).  He might sound like a snob sometimes, but you can’t deny he’s also very sharp.

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett- Somehow I’ve never read a book by this famous author.  Too bad for me!  It’s refreshing to be treated to a fantasy novel with witty humor and a very visceral way of describing details to the reader.  The author doesn’t quite explain why everything happens, but its enough information for you to visualize the ideas, which keeps the story moving at a nice pace.  One of the hilarious characters is a super-smart camel, another is a professional listener; the main character is a pharaoh-prince trained to be an assassin (‘cus the royal coffers are running dry paying for all those expensive pyramids).

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates by Adrienne Mayor- This was a bit long-winded.  It was insightful to learn about Mithridates.  I wanted to learn about him because of the parallel between the Roman Empire and the United States.  Mithridates created a regional empire from his base in Anatolia by poisoning his rivals (including his mother and siblings) and massacring tens of thousands of Roman citizens.  He pushed as far west as Greece, and it was there his luck failed and his momentum was destroyed.  Forced to go on the defensive, eventually he was so desperate and on the run as to plan a circumvention and surprise attack on Rome around the Black Sea and through the Carpathians where they would never expect him to emerge.  Unfortunately, he was mutinied in the Caucasus before this could happen.  Bummer.

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl- His children’s books all had his unique sense of humor and so does this one, though its for mature audiences.  Loved it.  Laughed out loud reading it.  The story is just ridiculous.

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson- What?  Swedish Historical Fiction?  I am so happy that this book exists.  I guess they made some film of it in the 60’s, but they really could make a new trilogy out of this book.  I have a soft spot for Scandinavia and one of the reasons is because of its Viking history.  This book illustrates the life of a Viking named Orm, who’s epic adventures take him all over the known world around 1000 A.D.  You really get a sense of the way that things were back then (in comparison we have it so easy and are so weak today)… it instantly became one of my all-time favorite books (and all because I hesitantly picked it up at the airport in Oslo or Gotenborg because it had a cool cover illustration of Vikings and I needed to use up the rest of my Kronors- random awesomeness!!)