Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reflections: Manliness

Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield
Reading a book called Manliness in public is a little awkward.  At first glance it may look like a self-help book to help the unmanly become manly.  Although Harvey C. Mansfield has a few things to say about that, Manliness is far more philosophical and academically esoteric than some would expect.  In fact, who thinks about "manliness" from an intellectual perspective at all?  Mansfield's book is fascinating and important but also a bit laborious.

Manliness attempts to define and re-enshrine manliness in what Mansfield calls a "gender-neutral" society.  Is there a place in such a society for manliness, which the author defines in part as not "mere aggression; it is aggression that develops an assertion, a cause it espouses."  One of the most interesting sections of the book is its exploration of feminism and its precarious relationship with manliness; it both seeks to eradicate it but also embrace it.  Should men be less manly but women more so?  Furthermore, is manliness a social construction or an outward expression of natural impulses?  And even more fundamentally, are women and men truly different?  Mansfield brings his cerebral prowess to bear on these questions and showcases a great deal more thoughtfulness on these questions than is sometimes exhibited.

Although it may seem odd, I am very interested in manliness as a subject of consideration and debate.  From a personal standpoint, I feel attributes of manliness have been disparaged or shunned simply because we don't know how to comfortably fit manly behavior into a gender-neutral society.  Reading a book like Gates of Fire or even canonical texts reminds one that manliness is not only a real thing but even desired.  Of course not all manly behavior, just like not all compromise or all compassion, is inherently good nor should be accepted as beneficial without additional scrutiny.  However, a great deal of manliness as a concept is rejected because it appears exclusionary.  (And on some levels it is).  I think this is a mistake, and I appreciate Mansfield's contribution to a topic I am personally interested in.  I also realize I'm probably a part of a very small audience.

Where Mansfield stumbles is in his insistence on providing far more textual interpretation than is necessary.  Mansfield has plenty to share and opine about without providing pages and pages of commentary on existing texts.  I completely understand the value of establishing concepts and ideas and by doing so with ancient or modern texts.  However, at a certain point the author should realize I'm reading his book for his original ideas and writings, not Aristotle's.  As someone who loves to write and certainly loves to quote other more capable writers, I absolutely see the value in spring boarding from existing knowledge and precedence, but eventually your interpretation of another author's writing becomes much, much less interesting than your own perspectives and outlooks.

Manliness is a challenging book to read. It assumes (or maybe not) familiarity with a variety of authors that many readers may never have read beforemyself included.  I liked the book, and I love the contribution it makes to a topic I care about.  The book's influence might be limited, but I learned a lot about the virtues and dangers of manliness and where it fits in our gender-neutral society.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Reflections: Prelude to Foundation

Prelude to Foundation
I have wanted to read an Isaac Asimov book for years.  I would pass some of his more popular workssuch as I, Robotin various bookstores time and again.  Finally I decided to begin his Foundation series by picking up Prelude to Foundation.  I generally enjoy science fiction, and for the most part I enjoyed but didn't love Prelude

The most interesting element of Prelude is the conflict surrounding the main character—Hari Seldon—and his theoretical speculation that the future can be predicted.  During an academic conference Hari posits this possibility and quickly gains the notice of the galactic rulers and the inevitable hunt begins.  After all, if a ruler could predict the future, what could possibly threaten his or her perpetuation of power and control?  Perhaps more than the narrative of the book itself, I really enjoyed the idea of what Seldon (and, of course, Asimov) calls "psychohistory."  This comprehensive and predictive worldview requires a much greater understanding of the universe—not merely mathematical but historical, sociological, etc.  That's a cool idea.  I loved the following quote from the book: "How harmful overspecialization is. It cuts knowledge at a million points and leaves it bleeding."  Academics and laypeople alike can glean some wisdom from that poignant statement.

The difficulty with Prelude to Foundation is that it feels somewhat cold.  I never truly connected with Hari Seldon or his companions.  I went along for the ride but wasn't exactly moved by it.  As the title of the book suggests, Prelude is a prequel and certainly feels like it.  After some thought, I wonder if it was good or bad that I started with the prequel rather than with the first book in the series as Asimov wrote it.  I can't say if I would have felt more or less invested in the characters.  As a stand-alone book, Prelude is perfectly adequate but by no means a masterpiece.

And so I find myself asking if I'll continue with the Foundation series.  Probably.  I liked Prelude well enough to want to see where things all end up.  I must admit I probably won't remember too much from the book aside from the concept of psychohistory.  I always like finding a new series to dive into and spend a few years with.  I'm hopeful Asimov's Foundation series can be that new series for me.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Friday, May 26, 2017

Reflections: Learning in the Light of Faith

Learning in the Light of Faith
Learning in the Light of Faith is more of a tract than it is a book.  Its brevity is one of its most attractive attributes. (I recently finished reading a book which was over 1,000 pages long, so I was ready for something a bit shorter).  Learning in the Light of Faith is a collection of speeches given to students in the Brigham Young University Honors Program by various LDS scholars and leaders. As can be expected, not all of the speeches are created equal, but the cumulative value is very evident.

Several years ago I read People of Paradox by Terryl Givens.  As a Latter-day Saint, it was an illuminating book and one which had a significant impact on how I saw the Mormon culture I am a part of.  One of the most interesting questions explored in that book was that of education and Latter-day Saint doctrine.  Learning in the Light of Faith provides a brief but valuable answer to the salient questionhow should Latter-day Saints, especially scholars, balance their loyalty and deference to reason and revelation?  With scholars like Neal A. Maxwell, Henry B. Eyring, and Dallin H. Oaks answering portions of that question, this little book is plenty authoritative for me.

I have a personal interest in the topics explored in Learning in the Light of Faith; therefore, I may find it much more interesting than a general audience, even a Latter-day Saint audience.  Although all Latter-day Saints should have a keen interest in educationsecular and spiritualnot all need be a scholar in a secular sense; albeit, the requirement to be a scholar in the spiritual sense isn't wisely ignored.  No doubt this little book is useful for both groups, it's much more relevant for the former group.

Learning in the Light of Faith was a refreshing and energizing exploration of topics I care a lot about.  I love the idea of scholarship, and I love the doctrines of the LDS Church.  Therefore, a book like this speaks directly to some of my most cherished beliefs and convictions.  Even with its brevity, Learning in the Light of Faith has plenty to edify its readers.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Book of Mormon
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: The Lord's Way

Friday, May 12, 2017

Reflections: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings
So. Much. Talking. Brandon Sanderson is a very creative writer, but I feel he has not learned a simple but critical lesson of storytellingshow and don't tellThe Way of Kings weighs in at 1252 pages, and my feeling is that it probably should have been half that length. Even though I'm a fan of Sanderson's Mistborn series, I am not eager to recommend The Way of Kings to any reader not willing to slog through pages and pages of banal dialogue and inertia that crescendos into an anemic conclusion.

To begin with, and on a more positive note, The Way of Kings does showcase Sanderson's particular strength as a writer, which is his creativity. Although the fantasy elements of this book are not as surprising and interesting as in Mistborn, mostly because they feel somewhat similar to Mistborn's, but they're interesting nonetheless. Sanderson works hard to establish his world through its culture, geography, and mythologies.  His worlds are detailed but not overwhelming.  The Way of Kings exploresin a limited wayconflicts between reason and revelation, faith and doubt, myth and history.  This is all fine and fun, but the exploration is often times clunky and clumsy.

Now for the not-so-positive.  The Way of Kings is riddled with problems.  One of Sanderson's biggest weaknesses as a writer is his insistence on explaining just about everything through stunted and uninteresting dialogue.  For example, several characters literally spend the majority of the book in a library.  The characters, and the readers, are forced to essentially wait around for something to happen.  Furthermore, sub-plots and conflicts take hundreds of pages to resolve.  And, just like Mistborn, the last few hundred pages is a rush to clear up the many loose-ends Sanderson has created, while still leaving enough mystery to tempt the reader to continue the series.  Some twists and turns are genuinely surprising but most are obvious and unfulfilling, even trite.  With the extended length of this book and its foreshadowing and preparation, the ending should come as a fist to the gut; it should knock the reader over.  The Way of Kings does no such thing.  In fact, I rolled my eyes when, after reading over 1200 pages, I read the following: "Most everything was still wrong."  If you write a book which is over 1000 pages long, then the landscape of the story better look a whole lot different at the end than it did at the beginning.  The Way of Kings, in this regard, is a total misfirealbeit a long one.

Based on the effusive recommendations of others, I had high hopes for The Way of Kings.  I wanted to like it.  I am a big fan of the Mistborn series, even with its problems.  For any one of The Way of Kings' virtues comes multiple storytelling sins.  At the end of any good fantasy novel, the reader should feel an insatiable desire to continue the saga, to keep living the adventure.  I feel no compulsion to continue The Stormlight Archive, and, therefore, cannot recommend The Way of Kings to other readers.

Other Topics of Interest:
Adaptation, Please: Mistborn
Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Ray Bradbury and Me

Monday, May 1, 2017

Reflections: Girt: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Several years ago I came across Angela Duckworth's TED Talk: Grit.  It elucidated  some of my inner convictions and opened my eyes to compelling evidence related to the power of grit in our lives.  I'm not blind to grit's critics, and I understand the world is a complicated place in which "time and chance happeneth to [us] all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).  Sometimes no amount of grit can overcome really, really bad luck.  However, for the majority of us, grit is and can be a deciding factor in our success and happiness.  Wanting to investigate more fully Duckworth's research and viewpoint, I purchased her book and have found a new must-read.

A book like Grit, in my opinion, is one which can change your life.  I do not write this flippantly.  As any who read my opinions know, I'm generally not hyperbolic in my feelings toward books and movies.  However, a book like Grit, with its ideas and principles, is something different.  It offers not only evidence regarding the power of grit on an individual level but a worldview in which our very culture can change and be improved by accepting as axiomatic that we do indeed have profound power over our own lives.  Duckworth is not blind to the disadvantages experienced by many; in fact, she goes out of her way to accept such facts, but pushes forward with convincing evidence that someone in a very disadvantaged position can overcome and achieve.  Furthermore, she highlights that even those who experience plenty of advantages often fail in pursuit of their goals because they lack the necessary grit.

In terms of structure, Grit falls into a fairly standard format.  Evidence is presented and then anecdotes are put forward to support the scientific assertion.  Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Grit is Duckworth's willingness to admit where she lacks evidence.  She is quick to recommend additional research in order to further confirm her assumptions and theories, but she never claims more than what science allows her to.  This can be an issue for a great many academic and professional books.  Authors are often so eager to become a best-seller that they lay humility aside in favor of feigned confidence.  It is not my feeling that Duckworth falls into this trap.

Duckworth's writing is serviceable, albeit not terribly memorable.  She doesn't belabor too many points, but the book, as with most books similar to it, could probably have been a bit shorter and had the same effect.  For the most part, I enjoyed reading the book from beginning to end.  It's a very approachable book and doesn't demand as much from the reader as a book like Thinking, Fast and Slow does.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is an important book.  I feel it is really more of a statement regarding the efficacy of grit rather than a manifesto.  As Duckworth admits, there is more research needed to confirm the effects of grit; however, this is a powerful beginning and one which should not be ignored.  I truly believe that accepting and teaching grit in a more substantial and real way can change and improve the lives of millions.  I believe our culture has overlooked the consequences of grit and has accepted too easily and lazily a worldview of chance and circumstance.  I think Grit shows a powerful alternative, and I highly recommend it for all.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Outliers
Reflections: Up from Slavery
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass