Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reading and More Reading

After recently reading two fiction books I have shifted my emphasis back to non-fiction.  On the fiction side, I first read Mary Pat Hyland's third novel, 3/17, which is the humorous story of a traditional Irish band fumbling their way through parts of upstate New York, enduring their own version of Dante's nine circles of Hell. Only this time the circles consist mainly of clueless Americans who have no real concept of Irish culture and think of St. Patrick's Day as only a bacchanal drunk-fest.  3/17 is a very funny book and I swear Mary Pat created her American characters from people I know here in Northern New York.

I have also been making good use of the free classics available for the Kindle. While on vacation I read Oscar Wilde's The Canterbury Ghost, a farcical ghost tale of an American family moving into an old mansion that has been haunted for 300 years by a ghost named Sir Simon.  At first the family denies the existence of the ghost, but when confronted with his reality, display mostly ambivalence towards him, with the exception of a few tricks played on the ghost by the boys of the family.  Sir Simon's utter inability to frighten the family angers and then later depresses him, so he closes himself off in a deserted room in despair. Eventually, the daughter in the family stumbles upon Simon and takes pity on him, as he is so miserable.  Simon proclaims his sorrow at all he's done over the years as a ghost and asks the girl to help him finally get to rest.  With the girl's help, Simon is finally accepted by the angel of death and allowed to have his peace.

The first non-fiction book I've read recently is Stephen Hawking's latest, The Grand Design, which looks at the scientific history of the cosmos, beginning with the Ionian Greeks and ending with M-Theory, a theory of multiple universes, of which ours is only one of many.  The book is controversial in that it posits that God is not necessary to explain the origins of the universe.  While Hawking does not explicitly state that modern science has disproved the existence of a god or gods, he does go so far to say that gods are unnecessary to explain all the phenomena of the universe.

My next reading was The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris. This book is Harris' promotion of a science of morality, which uses only objective facts to determine morality and not the use of authority.  However, this all depends on Harris' definition of "morality," which many may not agree with: increases in the well-being of conscious creatures.  For example, how do you define "well-being"?  Physical well-being? Mental well-being? Emotional well-being? Spiritual well-being?  All of the above?  On a very basic level I agree with Harris - many human practices and behaviors cause net harm to other sentient beings without being illegal - religious practices of ritual genital mutilation and the subordination of women for starters.  These practices should be stopped for humankind's benefit.  Many other issues are not so clear-cut though: is capital punishment a net good, or bad?  What about abortion?  Nationalized healthcare?  Or any number of other points of dispute.  Harris is careful to point out that solving these issues will be very difficult, but he insists that there are facts to be brought to bear on all such questions and that they are therefore not completely intractable.

After years of putting it off, I finally read Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago, a chronicle of Wallace's years as a naturalist in Malaysia, Singapore, New Guinea and Indonesia.  Wallace was a contemporary of Darwin and co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection.  As Wallace collected new species across all the islands of the archipelago, he began to take note of the many differences and similarities, which got him thinking about why they occurred the way they did. He eventually concluded that similar species had been the same at some point in the past and then diverged as parts of the original population migrated to other islands.  Wallace was also to distinguish which islands had fauna more closely related to Asia and which were more closely aligned with Australia.  This division came to be known as the Wallace Line.  Wallace also became a student of the division of the human groups in the islands and had many opinions as to the history of those divisions.

Different Seasons, by Stephen King, is a collection of short stories, three of which have been made into films: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which became the acclaimed The Shawshank Redemption; Apt Pupil, which was made into a movie of and same name; and The Body, which was adapted into Stand by Me.  The fourth story is an interesting one called The Breathing Method.  Shawshank is one of my favorite movies, so I was interested in seeing how it differed from the book.  To my surprise, I found very little difference, except in a few details.  Much of the movie's dialog comes directly from the novella, especially much of Red's narration.  Stand by Me also very closely follows King's story, as does Apt Pupil.  This group of stories is different from most of King's other works, in that there is little to no supernatural involved, and most of what happens in the stories could occur in real life.

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