Thursday, August 14, 2008

World of Washington Irving (2)

Van Wyck Brooks
E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc.

Ideas and Quotes for Discussion
"...Crockett won his election to telling a few good stories, after letting the other candidates wear out the crowd with oratory."

"As late as 1815, the President's wife was called 'her majesty.' "

"The Federalists perpetuated European forms; the Republicans devised and developed forms that sprang from the habits and history of the American people. They represented new men in a new world."

"Jefferson's new republic was a secession from the time-worn categories, kings, nobles, priests, burghers, artisans and peasants; and it place life on a new basis by affirming that 'a man's a man' and that the pursuit of happiness was every man's right. Now, much of this was old in theory, but what government had ever tried to carry it out in practice?"

"Meanwhile, the Hudson River Valley and all the country about New York teemed with the legends of the Dutch.... All these legends had been long current when Washington Irving, in 1800, made his first voyage up the Hudson...."

"For this was an age of letter-writing, preeminently so, and the sexes were equally accomplished in the epistolary art. Many novels were written in the form of letters....The highest of female accomplishments was to write a fine letter.... Aaron Burr excelled in the letters he wrote to his daughter, largely to instruct her in letter-writing."

"There was no one like Mike Fink for dodging snags, bark, islands of driftwood or for mastering the wild cross-currents of the Mississippi. He was the forerunner of the race of river pilots whom Mark Twain was to celebrate in after days" [in Life on the Mississippi].

"Thomas Paine in Common Sense proclaimed that the cause of America was the cause of mankind."

"Paine, in The Rights of Man, attacked the assumptions of hereditary government."

Joel Barlow had prophesied, "...the Americans would have forgotten how much they owed to Paine and would take him for an atheist and a drunkard. Indeed, he was taken for little or nothing else. In these fifteen years the mind of the country had changed in many ways, and he [Paine] might have been another Rip Van Winkle."

"Thus, unhonored, lived the man of whom Benjamin Franklin had said that, while others could rule and many could fight, 'only Paine could write for us.' "

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

World of Washington Irving

Van Wyck Brooks
E.P. Dutton & Compnay, Inc.

Why read it? To remind Americans of the struggle to define America, whether it would become just another imitation of a European state, or a country in which the people are responsible for its government. To remind Americans of the foundation for the American way of life, the period just beyond the "Declaration of Independence," the Revolutionary War and the constitution, 1800 to 1840. A new kind of history. Its title is deceptive, yet literal. The book is really about the WORLD of Washington Irving, rather than focusing on Irving himself. This book is about many people of Irving's time--writers, statesmen, naturalists, explorers and painters--who helped to open the American continent and define the government of America.

The author paints pictures of the times. The details are graphic and vivid. And he's also a name dropper and a gossiper. Almost anyone you have heard of or have not heard of from that period is in his book, usually accompanied by a brief biographical sketch with details you did not know. In addition to Irving, the following are the names of people and places that Brooks describes in detail in his history of American culture between 1800 and 1840:

Philadelphia; Parson Weems; Thomas Paine; Franklin; Benjamin Rush; Alexander Wilson (ornithologist); the Bartrams; Charles Brockden Brown (early novelist); New Jersey; New York; Lindley Murray (grammarian); Cooper; Freneau; Jefferson; Trumbull; Timothy Dwight; Connecticut; the South; South Carolina; Virginia; John Marshall; the frontier; Lewis and Clark; Paulding; Bryant; Charleston; South Carolina; Alabama; William Gilmore Simms; Poe; Davey Crockett; Schoolcraft (Indian lore); Ohio; the prairie; Andrew Jackson; NP Willis; the Hudson River Valley; Boston.

Man of the ideas of these Americans focused on politics: the enthusiasm of Americans for republics and democracy vs. those who admired European aristocracy. The Americans of that time knew what America was all about. Americans were "tired of kings." Between 1800 and 1840, America was defining itself, its people proud of their independence, their differences from European governments and proud of their society and geography. Many a writer of that period wrote travelogues to counter the negative messages about America from European visitors. But the essential political issue was the battle between the Federalists who did not trust the people to run their own government and the Republicans who did. Andrew Jackson, says Brooks, was the successor to Thomas Jefferson.

I found, as a reader, that with Van Wyck Brooks's style, I would begin to read his sometimes agonizingly long paragraphs and could not stop until the end of the paragraph. His paragraphs flow, uninterrupted, from beginning to end. Just as Emerson's style was the sentence, Brooks's style consists of the paragraph, mini-compositions within the chapters.

Brooks creates a tapestry of people, scenes, and ideas that help the reader to understand the culture of America between the 1800s and the 1840s. The struggle was between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to make America a duplicate of Europe, and the lovers of the republic, led by Jefferson. In those years, the direction of our government had not been finally decided.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Universe and Dr. Einstein (2)

Lincoln Barnett
New York: Time Inc. Book Division
1957 (1948)

Ideas and Quotes to Discuss
"From the outset, he [Barnett] realized he could not proceed at once to Princeton to interview Dr. Einstein, for he did not have the faintest notion of what questions to ask...." Editors of Time.

"...began to read everything he could find on Einstein and relativity." Editors of Time.

"In the midst of his researches, he began going to Princeton--not to see Einstein, but to see others who could prepare him to see Einstein." Editors of Time.

"The daring nature of Einstein's concepts, the revolution they had wrought in the entire structure of physical and philosophical thought, the radical way in which they had redesigned the architecture of the universe--all this somehow had to be communicated to a wider audience." Editors of Time.

"There are two reasons for writing a book on science for the general public.... to further man's understanding of the universe he lives in, whatever his background or education. Second is to encourage young people to study science by giving them a better appreciation of its importance and implications." Glenn T. Seaborg.

"In accepting a mathematical description of nature, physicists have been forced to abandon the ordinary world of experience, the world of sense perception."

"Questions involving the relationship between observer and reality, subject and object, have haunted philosophical thinkers since the dawn of reason."

"It is the mathematical orthodoxy of the universe that enables theorists like Einstein to predict and discover natural laws simply by the solution of equations."

"...the equations of quantum physics define more accurately than any mechanical model the fundamental phenomena beyond the range of vision...."

"Equations work, as the calculations which hatched the atomic bomb spectacularly proved."

"Nothing can ever move faster than light, no matter what forces are applied."

"...we can't feel our motion through space; nor has any physical experiment ever proved that the earth actually is in motion."

"Motion is a relative state...unless there is some system of reference to which it may be compared...."

"If matter sheds its mass and travels with the speed of light, we call it radiation or energy; and conversely, if energy congeals and takes on a different form, we call it matter.... Since July 16, 1945, man has been able to transform one into the other.... On that night at Alamogordo, New Mexico, man, for the first time transmuted a substantial quantity of matter into the light, heat, sound and motion which we call energy."

"In the Einstein universe there are no straight lines, there are only great circles.... Like most of the concepts of modern science, Einstein's finite spherical universe cannot be visualized.... Its properties can be described mathematically."

Einstein: "My religion...consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself into the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. ...deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God."

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Universe and Dr. Einstein (1)

Lincoln Barnett
New York: Time, Inc. Book Division
1957 (1948)

Why read it? Haven't you always wondered about what Einstein said concerning the universe? Well, after reading this book, you probably won't still be able to talk about it at cocktail parties, but Barnett does shed light on Einstein's ideas. And after you have read even these highlights, you will be struck with the wonder of the universe in which we live and the intellect and force that created it.

We can no longer know the reality of the world around us through our senses. It can only be described by mathematical equations. Equations were the method by which the atomic bomb was developed.

When man attempts to observe his universe, he changes it because he is part of that universe.

Since everything in the universe is moving there is no stationary frame of reference to use in measuring its motion.

Nothing moves faster than light.

E = MC squared. Mass becomes energy at the square of the speed of light and becomes radiation. "This extraordinary relationship becomes more vivid when its terms are translated into concrete values: i.e., one kilogram of coal (about two pounds), if converted entirely to energy, would yield 25 billion kilowatt hours of electricity or as much as all the power plants in the U.S. could generate by running steadily for two months."

"In other words matter is energy and energy is matter, and the distinction is simply one of temporary state. Matter and energy are interchangeable." Man turned mass into energy at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.

Magnets do not attract. They create a field that operates on the piece of iron. Stars, the moon and other celestial objects also create fields.

The Einstein universe is curved, but can't be visualized, can only be described mathematically.

The process of finding the unity beneath reality began with the 90 elements, then reducing those to electromagnetic forces and then to space, time, matter, energy and gravitation; then Einstein in Special Relativity showed the equivalence of matter and energy and in General Relativity, the indivisibility of space and time. This urge to find the unity behind the variability of the universe is the passion of science and the human intellect. However, as this unity is discovered, reality becomes even more remote from direct experience.

Concepts like gravitation, electromagnetism, energy, current, momentum, the atom and the neutron are theoretical concepts that are metaphors, inadequately described, because we lack direct experience with them.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Soldier's Heart (2)

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point
Elizabeth D. Samet
New York: Farrar, straus and Giroux

Ideas and Quotes for Discussion
“The ‘uses’ of literature [at West Point] have always been more difficult to evaluate, the metrics for cultural awareness, empathy or knowledge of the human condition being far less precise than the moon’s diameter or the number of gallons in the reservoir.”

“A glance at entrance examinations from the early twentieth century reveals the kind of knowledge required to enter West Point. Applicants in 1927 had to identify in a ‘correctly constructed sentence’ each of the following; Christopher Marlowe, Sir roger de Coverley, Elia, Cordelia, Tom Jones, Anthony Trollope, Modern Painters, George Meredith, Henry Esmond and John Silver. I wonder how many high school seniors could identify those names today.”

“I don’t consider myself a ‘non-thinking slasher’…and I don’t think Iraq is going to turn me into one.”

“It is also true, perhaps to a degree remarkable given institutional history, that my being a woman is immaterial to many of my colleagues—or so it seems to me. In my department, if an opinion has merit, if an idea can help us better to accomplish the mission, then it doesn’t matter from whom it comes. The only thing that matters is your investment in and commitment to that mission.”

“The American army prides itself on the soldier’s ability to recognize immoral or unlawful orders: ‘I was just doing what I was told’ isn’t a satisfactory excuse.”

“Many of the sociological studies on combat motivation conducted in the decades after World War II suggested that soldiers fight for their own survival and for that of their comrades but only rarely for causes and ideals.”

Judge Louis Brandeis: “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties…. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage t be the secret of liberty.”

Dan on the treatment of detainees: “My experience at least supports…[the] contention that the blame rests, rather on unclear policy and unclear or inappropriate guidance from higher up the chain…. My position now, after much reflection, is that we should be permitted to treat detainees in ways comparable to the ways we treat domestic criminals. If it is permitted in the domestic arena, it is probably okay with respect to detainees. If it is not permitted in the domestic arena, then we should not permit it towards detainees.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point
Elizabeth D. Samet
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Why read it? The title of the book, Soldier’s Heart, refers to the symptoms of heart disease that appear in soldiers with post-traumatic disorders. They do not have physical heart disease. They do have a disease of the feeling, human heart.

The author, a female English teacher at West Point, who obviously has a close relationship with the institution and its students reveals much of what it is like to attend West Point—the rituals, the language, the culture of the military. Many of these details make fascinating reading.

Her subject, English, is out of keeping with the rest of the military training that makes up the cadets’ day. But the cadets’ interaction with the literature and the films to which she exposes them, is thoughtful, relating their lives and careers to the ideas of what they read and view. And it is a wide and varied range of literature and film that she uses.

So much of what she writes about is her interpretation of the institution and its training. The reader is taken inside its walls to view the scene from the point of view of the outsider who has willingly agreed to become an insider. She philosophizes about the psychology of the cadet, the duality of obedience and critical thought. She tries to reconcile the contradictions of the military mind. She deals with the many issues of what happens when free Americans volunteer to join the military.

As I read the book, looking for interactions with literature and life, I sometimes longed to be back in the classroom, but would I be allowed to create a culture that encouraged the personal relationship with literature as she was able to do? She taught the skills of reading literature, but she says little about explication, the isolated view of interpreting literature’s language and structure with no reference to the reader’s personality and experience. Throughout the book she refers to literary works that show the range of works she has read. One of her favorite authors, however, is General Ulysses S. Grant. In his books, he reflects thoughtfully on the military life. She not only teaches books, but she demonstrates what she has learned from them.

In my opinion, this interaction between literature and life is the only important reason for teaching literature. And it was the main reason for my purchasing this book. I was not disappointed. The author quotes from literary works and describes the responses of her students to literary works both in class and after graduation, including from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book strikes me as being somewhat like Moby Dick. In a way Moby Dick is about whaling, but that certainly is not the theme, which is the effect of one man’s obsession on those whom he leads. This book is about literature and its effects on the Cadets, but it is also about West Point and the life of the military and the effects of those institutions on the Cadets.

The author has her own agenda that has nothing to do with the theme of the book, the effects of literature on West Point cadets and graduates. For example she spends considerable time on the treatment of detainees during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While I agree with the position of the soldier she quotes on equating treatment of the detainees to the domestic treatment of prisoners in the States, it really has nothing to do with the effects of literature on the West Point cadet and graduate. Her agenda is larger than the stated theme of the book: “Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.”

One of the interesting characteristics of her writing and teaching is the ways she can interrelate literary works from different eras and places. Truly impressive. She is an eclectic reader who can join the most disparate works by applying them to her themes with her cadets.

In the last chapter she reflects on how young the cadets are and the contrast with what waits for them after they graduate. But she has helped them to think about life and war through her reading literature with them.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Underworld (2)

Don DeLillo
New York: Scribner

Ideas and Quotes to Discuss:
"...sees the great open horseshoe of the grandstand and that unfolding vision of the grass that always seems to mean he has stepped outside his life...."

"...he hears the warmup pitches crack into the catcher's mitt; a series of reports that carry a comet's tail of secondary sound."

"...little waxy napkins they got with their hot dogs...."

"...circus-catching dimes on the wing and then sailing peanut bags into people's chests."

"This is the nature of Thompson's homer: it makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what happened, those few who haven't heard--comparing faces and states of mind."

"This is the day he has never shaken off, the final Sunday before the first Monday of school."

"You used to have the same dimensions as the observable universe; now you're a lost speck."

"She intended to meet her own end with senses intact, grasp it, know it finally, open herself to the mystery that others mistake for something freakish and unspeakable."

"...the energy that hurrying people make, lunch crowds and buses and bike messengers, all that consciousness powering down the narrow gorge of Manhattan...."

"They rode home on the Third Avenue El, rattlebanging up Manhattan and through the Bronx, looking out the train windows into tenement apartments on both sides, hundreds of film-flicking lives shooting past their eyes forty feet above the street..."

"He'd served in Vietnam, after all, where everything he'd ever disbelieved or failed to imagine turned out, in the end, to be true."

"...a dead afternoon in a dark bar was not the worst of fates."

" 'Let's go eat,' or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over."

"The serenity of immense design is missing from her life."