Bad Books:

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion. Noonday Press, 1997.

Why do modern books on the philosophy of religion tend to be insipid and lacking in content?
It doesn't seem to be because the analytical style of our age isn't suited to this genre: the best philosophy of religion has been written in ages more analytical and cold-blooded than our own.
There seem to be two common approaches to the philosophy of religion today. The first is generally taken by people who dislike religion for personal reasons, and look upon all religion as they look at the totem-rites of the Wagundis.
So what's wrong with that? Grayling points out that the history of philosophy is philosophy. That statement has a sort of contrapositive: What doesn't work philosophy won't work as the history of philosophy either. And these writers cannot write about a philosophy of religion as a philosophy, because they don't think it is one.
The second approach is that of the apologists. They also don't quite believe in what they're doing, since they really believe only in a scientific model of thought, with which they can't harmonize religion. So they end up abashed and apologetic. This is Heschel. He is also repetitive. (For a very different position, take a look at the customer review on amazon.)
Maybe the basic problem is that in an overwhelming antireligious society, social circumstances prevent the best people from taking an interest in religion.


Fifield, William. Modigliani : The Biography.

A biography of Modigliani could be an important work. Modigliani is probably the classical exemplar of the nineteenth-century fad for African sculpture, which is itself but one exemplar of the post-romantic fads for 'primitive' art. Modigliani also represents a significant stage in the progressive simplification of modern painting.
Modigliani's life also has social interest. He was a Jew in a society in which anti-semitic feeling was rampant. The society he lived in was itself fascinating, and has become a symbol for our own.
It's a pity that Fifield chose to ignore most of this, preferring to fill his book with giggling, pre-pubertal, and usually irrelevant references to sex. Fifield's post-modernist attitude makes one doubt even the raw facts he adduces.
If you've got the stamina and the courage, you can try sifting out the facts from the fairy tales here.

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Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Vintage, 1990

What a bore!
She's full of sentences like - writing of herself - "She realizes that in english literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it." This was in the days of Shaw and Eliot. (You're the one who asked about Joyce, not me.)
Miss Stein sometimes takes time out from praising Miss Stein to drop names. Vast quantities of names. It's name dropping because she rarely has anything worthwhile to say about the people attached to them, although they were often the people who do make a difference.
There are occasional exceptions. Stein's description of Vollard is amusing. Her remark about Maillol and African sculpture is intriguing, if it's true; I'm beginning to think that either I don't understand Maillol or nobody else does. Stein's record of how Bernard Berenson reacted to the Douanier Rousseau is also entertaining (once again, if true).
Her remarks about cubism and surrealism as vulgarizations are worth thinking about.


Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. Grove Press, 1997.

Why bother adding a few words to the swamp which has grown up around Beckett? Sometimes it's a good idea just to repeat what's simple and true, in the hope that somebody's listening.
I was recently forced by circumstances to reread Waiting for Godot. I was bored sick. I haven't said that the work is inherently boring, and therefore there's no point in arguing with me unless you were there and saw that I wasn't bored sick. And it's not going to help much to say that its ennuiogenicity is part of the theme of the play. Pain is pain, boredom is boredom, and both have grave disadvantages even as artistic devices.
There are also long stretches of dialog could easily be replaced by other words of similar meaning, or even words of almost unrelated meaning. Not much of a recommendation for an artwork.
Godot could only have been written by a licensed intellectual from the École Normale Supérieure. And don't tell me that Beckett grew to adulthood in Ireland. The play just reeks of having been grown underground.
An article states that Beckett became more and more terse, until he was writing works variously of 121 words and sixty sentences. Don't think that Beckett was pulling the critics' and the public's legs. Beckett had been playing Beckett so long that he believed it himself.
There are perfect Early Medieval poems constructed of form and feeling with almost no thought. Modernism shows us what happens when art abandons form and feeling, and when intellectualism is considered a good enough substitute for thought.


Hogben, Lancelot. Mathematics for the Million. Norton, 1993.

It's not easy to figure out why this book is such a bore.

Actually, it is probably best not to burden a scientific work with political asides at all, since it is remarkable how quickly these date. The writings of politically aware scientists of the 1930s--J. B. S. Haldane and Lancelot Hogben, for instance--are today marred by their anachronistic barbs.

This is far from being the whole problem, however. Perhaps Mathematics for the Million bores by trying too hard to follow the middle of the road. It is neither abstract enough to hold my attention in the way the popular cosmology books or Einstein himself do, nor folksy enough to amuse, as the mathematical parts of A Tour of the Calculus does.
Perhaps the old-time Marxist scientists tended to a self-importance which damaged their style. Hard to say, though. Noone condescends more than Paul Davies, yet his book is exciting. For all his lectern-thumping, Haldane often entertains.
Even Hogben can't be all bad. Many individual sections are good, like that comparing Newton's and Liebnitz' approach to calculus. Though Hogben adduces it only to mock, of course, Bishop Berkeley's description of a derivative as "the ghost of a departed number" does add something.


Roth, Cecil. Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi. Jewish Publication Society, 1992.

Roth succeeds in building a personality for Dona Gracia better than he succeeded with The Duke of Naxos, but I'm not sure how much of it is built on facts, and how much on historical plausibility. This is another of those books full of "Fresh proceedings against Diogo for heresy had perhaps been in contemplation....", "We know little, however, of the details. It seems....", "Nicolas de Nicolay... may be presumed to have met Dona Gracia and her family....".
Roth also seems to suffer even more than most authors from being star-struck by his subject:

No other woman in Jewish history has been surrounded by such devotion and affection. No other woman in Jewish history, it seems, has deserved it more.

And plenty of others. You can get away with a lot by using "it seems", but there is still a limit. Even if Roth assumes that everything the Bible says about a woman is fiction, which is quite an assumption, what about Queen Helene? Roth also seems to forget that not everyone shares his ideals i. e., power and wealth.
Like every bad book, this one has a few redeeming features. On a minor point:

I have the impression that it is one of the "many inventions" of Eliakim Carmoly, who was at the same time one of the most industrious and one of the least reliable of the Jewish savants of the last century.

True, but he's fun to read.


Morton, Frederic. The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait.

A bore. The mechanics of banking, especially investment banking, and especially international investment banking, can be very exciting. Apparently, Mr. Morton wrote nothing about them, despite their obvious relevance, because he knows nothing about them. He also explained nothing about the Rothschilds' complex relationship with the Jewish religion, or about Edmund de Rothschild's complex relationships with the warring parties of the land of Israel.
Mr. Morton also seems to have trouble getting the details right. Mezuzahs are not "the miniature Torah scrolls affixed to doorways". Mr. Morton tells us what the title "Reb" means, but whoever told him forgot to explain to him that it cannot be used with a last name only, much less as a substantive with a definite article, "the Reb". Mr. Morton also seems sometimes to write "thoroughbred" when he means 'purebred'.
Mr. Morton's vocabulary seems to be about two hundred words.

Some books on the Rothschild family.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Schocken, 1985.

Benjamin reminds me of his contemporary and countryman (sort of) Nietzsche: he seems to write around subjects with a great many words; he always seems about to make his point, but never quite makes it. When he does make a point, it's a strange one; he has a talent for emphasizing the minor over the major.
Or the idea is just plain off-base. Take his essay on motifs in Baudelaire, for example. He describes Baudelaire's intended audience: "Will power and the ability to concentrate are not their strong points; what they prefer is sensual pleasures; they are familiar with the "spleen" which kills interest and receptiveness." The literary lumpen-proletariat. Wrong. Baudelaire's intended readers are us, the learned, the sensitive. It is us who are being devoured by both inanity and deepest sin. The poet's brothers indeed. And how does Benjamin continue? Ten pages on the motif of the crowd in Baudelaire. When someone does this in his MA thesis, he has an excuse.
Benjamin occasionally succeeds at hinting at an important idea. He balances these near misses with harangues of classical Marxist aesthetics:

In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man's legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.


Bradlee, Benjamin C. A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. Touchstone, 1996.

Considering how close Bradlee was to the center of history, and for how long, there's surprisingly little to this book. A few more details, mostly minor personal details, about Kennedy and about Watergate. Much of the book consists of accounts of Bradlee's own not very nice escapades. Considering how often he lectures us about racism and sexism, he seems very casual about other people's feelings.
Perhaps the real importance of this book is in showing how much a person can achieve with little except enormous self-confidence, in this case the self-confidence which comes of being born a Boston brahmin.


Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.

Bloom has basically three things to say: 1. that there is a canon of literature which is essential to a well-rounded Western education. 2. that membership in this canon is based only on literary influence. 3. that real reading should be done only for its own sake. Today, it's important to say all of these things in public. But why does he need 500 pages to say it over and over again? And he works too hard at being original, especially about Shakespeare.


Haegeman, Liliane, ed. The New Comparative Syntax.

Maybe the problem is that I am not part of this book's intended audience, but it looks to me like neo-Chomskyism at its most pedantic, a book which could please only true believers. It is mostly diagrams and abbreviations, and manages to make an inherently exciting subject boring. The chapter on the construct state in Hebrew is particularly problematic. In accordance with a famous Chomskyite custom to which some object a priori, (I don't), much of the chapter is based on analysis of imaginary sentences. Unfortunately, one of the most frequent ones is also impossible. A doubtful demonstration on p. 171 suggests that the author has never read Gesenius. (In the interests of fairness: the author of that article still disagrees with every word I've said.)
Maybe it's not really all that bad. The introductory chapter is a good introduction to Chomskyan linguistics and its history, the chapter on pidgins and creoles asks a very interesting question, and often throughout the whole book the attractiveness of the subject manages to overcome the tedium of the treatment.


Haldane, J. B. S. Science and Everyday Life.

This collection of essays from the Daily Worker (no, I'm not joking) is mainly of historical interest. Haldane belonged to that the generation in which it was normal for a British scientist to be an ultramontane Marxist. This is the place to come to see a geneticist enthusiastically praise Lysenko.
There are few facts or principles in this book that a reasonably educated person today doesn't know. Perhaps the most interesting hypothesis, stated as a fact, of course, is that the prejudice in favor of pure science is the result of the ancient Greek intellectuals' having been slave owners, and therefore having considered manual work degrading. The "Back to Nature" article is as true and potentially useful now as it was fifty years ago, but the people who need it will never accept it, especially in the form it's written here.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy.

Much has been written about Nietzsche's failings as an ethicist, but it's surprising that more hasn't been written about his failures as a philosopher in general. The subject of The Birth of Tragedy is important in aesthetics, in the history of literature, perhaps in ethics. Its main point seems to be the usefulness of looking at tragedy as the fusion of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in human beings. Perhaps. But Nietzsche brings no evidence to support his thesis; he thinks it sufficient to repeat the claim again and again. He also refuses to define his terms in language clearer than a twelve-year-old would use in a love-letter. Why is he considered so important in the history of philosophy? Or is he?


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