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Robert Pirsig, RIP

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — obit as bead game ]
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A meditation on Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:


Tryptich: zen speaks to zen, Suzuki to Suzuki, motorcycle to motorcycle

Pirsig died yesterday at his home in Maine, after 88 years hereabouts.

War Books, local version

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — saved from a slush pile]
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A while back, I presumptuously submitted my effort for Modern War Institute‘s War Books Profile series, where it has languished on the slush pile for a few months now. No need to waste a decent post, though, so I’m posting it here, locally, on Zenpundit, for any who may be interested.

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Name: Charles Cameron

Brief Biography:

Charles Cameron is the managing editor of the strategy blog Zenpundit, and a past Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at BU and Senior Analyst at The Arlington Institute. He is a three time finalist in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center’s Art of the Future challenges, and author of the essay “The Dark Sacred: The Significance of Sacramental Analysis” in Robert J Bunker, Blood Sacrifices (a Terrorism Research Center Book). He is the designer of the HipBone family of conceptual games, and is currently working on a book on religious sanctions for violence titled Landmines in the Garden.

Top Five Books:

Mustafa Hamid & Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan. Respectful enemies – he, a friend of UBL and Mullah Omar, she, a counter-terrorism expert for the Australian Federal Police – debate and confer across battle lines to draw a detailed picture of AQ structure and history. A unique collaboration.

William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse. The key to ISIS intensity has to do with what then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Dempsey called their “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.” McCants masterfully reveals that apocalyptic driver, and the somewhat obscure scriptures on which it is based.

SH Nasr, ed., The Study Quran. With enemies such as ISIS and AQ that are given to quoting scriptural texts, it is important to have a reputable, non-sectarian translation and scholarly commentary on the Quran. This is that book.

Hegghammer & Lacroix, The Meccan Rebellion: The Story of Juhayman al-‘Utaybi Revisited. A slim volume, a delight to hold in the hand, and packed with detailed scholarship on what is arguably the seed moment of contemporary Jihadism.

John Kiser, The Monks of Tibhirine. This book, and Christian de Chergé’s astonishing letter to the jihadists who would shortly martyr him, is an eloquent testament to values we should cherish in a time of brutality and hatred.

The One That Shaped Me The Most:

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game. The human mind, attuned to variety and complexity yet primed to understand complex matters in binary terms, tends to hold war and peace as poles apart. Musically speaking, war is equivalent to discord, peace to harmony. The musical technique of counterpoint, so central to Bach, plays “voices” against one another in a manner that recognizes their variety and individuality and allows for discord while constantly working to resolve it harmoniously. It thus offers us an analogy for the constant interplay of warlike and peaceable motivations, both within the individual human and among the world’s societies and cultures – an invaluable overview of the natural condition. Hesse’s novelistic Game shows analogy rather than linearity as the key to creative insight, and offers a contrapuntal play of ideas as the overarching architectural structure for comprehending a world of conflict and resolution. It won the Nobel.

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Reworking my list today, I might well reckon the McCants book has served its brilliant purpose, illuminating in fine detail the apocalyptic nature of ISIS theology, and substitute a no less valuable but more wide-focus tome, Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam, which broadens our understanding by offering a comprehensive exploration of “lived Islam” across the centuries and continents, going far beyond “scriptual” Islam as understood by the fundamentalists.

Ideally, of coure, there’d be room for both McCants and Ahmed, as there is in the tiny bookshelf on my desk..

Muslim does not equal Terrorist

Friday, April 21st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — witting or unwitting, there’s a blatant inability to make this simple distinction ]
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The sane alternative:


Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba and His Holiness the Dalai
Lama are two role models for our century.

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There’s an interesting conflation of Islam and Terrorism in a post titled 2 Faces of Islam: Why All Muslims Benefit from Terrorism from Freedom Outpost:

While many Muslims are just as horrified by terrorism as the rest of us are, all Muslims nevertheless benefit from Islam. This is because both peaceful and violent Muslims tend to share two important goals: (1) the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, and (2) the silencing of critics of Islam. Since terrorism helps achieve these goals, all Muslims benefit from Islam.

This would make sense — I’m not saying I’d agree with it, merely that it would have a logical form to it that wouldn’t make me go cross-eyed — if it read [note: this paragraph edited in light of comment below]:

While many Muslims are just as horrified by terrorism as the rest of us are, all Muslims nevertheless benefit from terrorism. This is because both peaceful and violent Muslims tend to share two important goals: (1) the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, and (2) the silencing of critics of Islam. Since terrorism helps achieve these goals, all Muslims benefit from terrorism.

But no: under a caption that tells us 2 Faces of Islam: Why All Muslims Benefit from Terrorism, it twice states all Muslims nevertheless benefit from Islam.

The conflation is evident, Islam and Terrorism are interchangeable in the writer’s mind, and that interoperability is liable to find an echo in — or seep diasastrously into — the reader’s mind, too.

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The actual relation between Islam and contemporary Islamist terrorism is neither “Islam is a religion of no terrorism (aka peace)” nor “Islam is a religion of terrorism (aka war)”. To get at a couple of the major nuances here, the Meccan Cantos and the Medinan cantos of the Quran suggest very different readings of what the religion was originally all about, and how it adapted to violent hostility; and in terms of contemporary Islam, not all Muslims are Salafist, and not all Salafists are jihadist fighters, but some of them most definitely and ruthlessly are.

In addition, Islam needs to be considered both scripturally — the usual western critique — and culturally, by which I mean how Islamic belief plays out in cultural practice across time and space — a far subtler matter. SH Nasr‘s The Study Quran is a prime guide to the former, and Shahab Ahmed‘s What Is Islam?
The Importance of Being Islamic the towering work to digest in understanding the latter.

A useful corrective to the “Islam is a religion of war” perspective can be found in the lives and works of two proniment Muslim proponents and practitioners of nonviolence, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the Muridiyya or Mourides, and Badshah Khan, Gandhi‘s Muslim friend.

For context around the Mourides, and in constrast with the Wahhabis of the Levanty, see Why are there so few Islamists in West Africa? A dialogue between Shadi Hamid and Andrew Lebovich.

The inability to distinguish Muslim from Terrorist, and the violence that follows it, can truly be described as Islamophobia.

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Image:

  • Sheikh Aly N’Daw, Choice, Liberty and Love: Consciousness in Action
  • A Backlog of Books for the Antilibrary

    Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

    [Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Image result for sapiens harrari book  Image result for Tolkien and the great War: the threshold of middle earth   Image result for soldiers & Ghosts book  Image result for the grand strategy of the roman empire

    Image result for intellectuals and society book sowell   Image result for Dynasty book Tom Holland   Image result for psychology of military incompetence book dixon   Image result for Xenophon's Retreat book waterfield

    Image result for the young hitler i knew   Image result for You belong to the universe Keats    Image result for Assholes a theory       Image result for Hitler's Private Library

    I have an intimidating backlog of new and newish books to review here. I have an even longer queue of not so new books for my Antilibrary. I’m not sure when I will get to some of these, given my schedule, but they are nice to have on hand for research purposes.

    Here’s why I picked these up:

    Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

    Buzz mainly. Saw a few reviews and some chatter on Twitter. I also like evolutionary and cultural evolutionary themes, “Big History” and the like. OTOH I have also read folks bashing  Harari for a poor grasp of economics, so we shall just have to see.

    Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

    This is a natural follow-up to The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings which I reviewed the other day, but in truth I’ve been looking for a copy of this book for a while in used bookstores. I didn’t buy the hardback when it was new and regretted it. This one I will start reading now.

    Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity by J. E. Lendon

    The ancient world is a topical area where I have been trying to build my Antilibrary for some years now and this book is a twofer being also military history. I am also, in some ways, hoping to make up for the subpar education of my youth by reading the classics and ancient histories.

    The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward Luttwak

    Edward Luttwak is one of our more creative – some might say weird – strategic thinkers who is known for putting forth provocative positions embedded with offbeat tangents. Luttwak is also, after a fashion, not an “operator” , or so it is bruited about – and not just an armchair theorist. I liked his The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire even though he gave Byzantine purists fits.

    Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

    Sowell was in the news that day for retiring as a columnist and I was in a bookstore.

    Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

    I have read some of Holland’s other books, most notably Rubicon. He’s an engaging writer and popular historian with a knack for keeping the narrative moving.

    The Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon

    While I’m sure a book like this could write itself, Dixon did it and I’m interested in his systemic conclusions, if any, off organizational incompetence.

    Xenophon’s Retreat by Robin Waterfield

    Xenophon, the student of Socrates, historian and mercenary always struck me as interesting, which probably led me to organize the Xenophon Roundtable years ago on the Wayne Ambler edition of The Anabasis of Cyrus. I also need to pick up Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny again; so little time. So many books.

    The Young Hitler I Knew by August Kubizek

    A source in almost every major bio or history of Adolf Hitler ever written other than Konrad Heiden’s Der Fuhrer and Trevor-Roper’s  The Last Days of Hitler. Most likely, you have already seen the most reliable or noteworthy parts of Kubizek’s memoir reproduced elsewhere more than once in print and documentaries. This is another topical area for Antilibrary building.

    You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathan Keats

    Buckeyballs. That’s why.

    Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

    Partially finished with this one. It is a reasonable argument  built upon recognizable observations but being a philosopher, Dr. James is a bit of a pedant and circles back frequently in the text to reiterate his line of reasoning. This may be standard philo practice  but it makes the book slower going than it might have been for a popular format.

    Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life by Timothy Ryback

    A side of Hitler that neither the German public during the Reich nor the generations of students of history after WWII have normally seen. A useful source for research.

    That’s it!

    REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

    Saturday, March 25th, 2017

    [Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Image result for the felowship the inklings book

    The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

    “….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

    “….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

    The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

    What were the Inklings?

    This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

    Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

    The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

    One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

    As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

    In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.


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