The Best and Worst Books I Read in 2020
Russo argues that Hellenistic science was significantly more developed than generally believed, and that it was killed by the Romans. This is one of those books that you have to approach with aggressive skepticism: Russo makes the case for a Hellenistic hypothetico-deductive scientific method, and some of the deductions he makes from second-hand readings certainly seem a bit much. But even if you don't buy its thesis in the end I think it's worth reading. A fascinating collection of stories about Hellenistic science and how the Romans viewed it. Doesn't really address the question of whether there could have been a scientific and industrial revolution in ancient times (the answer is almost certainly No, but I'd still like to see it argued out).
Lots of surprising facts, but perhaps most surprising were the things that remained backward for a long time: did you know that the first complete translation of Euclid's Elements into Latin was done in the year 1120, by an Englishman translating from the Arabic?
Hipparchus compiled his catalog of stars precisely so that later generations might deduce from it the displacements of stars and the possible appearance of novae. Clearly, Hipparchus too did not believe in a material sphere in which the stars are set. His catalog achieved its aim in full: the stellar coordinates listed therein were incorporated into Ptolemy’s work and so handed down until such a time when a change in the positions of the “fixed” stars could be detected. Changes were first noticed in 1718 A.D. by Halley, who, probably without realizing that he was completing an experiment consciously started two thousand years earlier, recorded that his measured coordinates for Sirius, Arcturus and Aldebaran diverged noticeably from those given by Ptolemy.
Larence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
Four interconnected novels set in sensuous and decadent Alexandria in the days before World War II, focused on a loose group of foreigners drawn to and trapped by the city's pleasures. Each novel begins with an epigraph from the Marquis de Sade. Some have derided the prose as purple, but it works well given the setting and intended effect. Begins in a highly experimental, lyrical, wistful, impressionistic mode but mellows out into a normal novel later on.
There's a Rashomon element to it: with each book you learn more, and as the "circle of knowledge" expands, events and characters are recontextualized, and shifting perspectives transform mysterious romances or shadowy conspiracies into something completely different. Tragic love; Cavafy; personal relations vs historic forces; Anglo vs Med culture; colonialism and its failures; everyone is the protagonist in their own story. Really makes you want to have a doomed love affair in a degenerate expat shithole for a while.
I had drifted into sleep again; and when I woke with a start the bed was empty and the candle had guttered away and gone out. She was standing at the drawn curtains to watch the dawn break over the tumbled roofs of the Arab town, naked and slender as an Easter lily. In the spring sunrise, with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque reciting the Ebed — a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria. ‘I praise the perfection of God, the Forever existing; the perfection of God, the Desired, the Existing, the Single, the Supreme; the Perfection of God, the One, the Sole’ … The great prayer wound itself in shining coils across the city as I watched the grave and passionate intensity of her turned head where she stood to observe the climbing sun touch the minarets and palms with light: rapt and awake. And listening I smelt the warm odour of her hair upon the pillow beside me.
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
I read about 10 pages of Gibbon every night over the last year. Just super comfy and endlessly entertaining, I would happily keep going if there was more. The scale. The ambition. The style. Is it outdated in some respects? Sure. But Gibbon is not as impressionable as you might think, and his anti-Christian bias has been vastly exaggerated in the popular consciousness.
Full review forthcoming.
The subjects of the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonour the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity nor animated by the vigour of memorable crimes.
Álvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
Seven interconnected picaresque novellas that revolve around the titular Maqroll, a vagabond of the seas. Wanderlust, melancholy, friendship, alcohol, and heartbreak as we follow his adventures and ill-fated "business ventures" at the margins of civilization. It's very good at generating a vicarious pleasure in the "nomadic mania" of the main character and the parallel world of tramp steamers, seamen, and port city whores. Stories are told through second-hand recountings, miraculously recovered documents, or distant rumours found in exotic locales. Underlying it all there's a feeling of a fundamental dissatisfaction with what life has to offer, and Maqroll's adventures are an attempt to overcome that feeling. Stylistically rich and sumptuous, reminiscent of Conrad's maritime adventures, Herzog's diaries, and even Borges.
My favorite of the novellas involves a decaying tramp steamer and a parallel love affair (between the ship's captain and its owner) which is taken up whenever and wherever the ship goes to port, then put on hold while at sea.
The tramp steamer entered my field of vision as slowly as a wounded saurian. I could not believe my eyes. With the wondrous splendor of Saint Petersburg in the background, the poor ship intruded on the scene, its sides covered with dirty streaks of rust and refuse that reached all the way to the waterline. The captain's bridge, and the row of cabins on the deck for crew members and occasional passengers, had been painted white a long time before. Now a coat of grime, oil, and urine gave them an indefinite color, the color of misery, of irreparable decadence, of desperate, incessant use. The chimerical freighter slipped through the water to the agonized gasp of its machinery and the irregular rhythm of driving rods that threatened at any moment to fall silent forever. Now it occupied the foreground of the serene, dreamlike spectacle that had held all my attention, and my astonished wonder turned into something extremely difficult to define. This nomadic piece of sea trash bore a kind of witness to our destiny on earth, a pulvis eris that seemed truer and more eloquent in these polished metal waters with the gold and white vision of the capital of the last czars behind them. The sleek outline of the buildings and wharves on the Finnish coast rose at my side. At that moment I felt the stirrings of a warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world's seas. I watched it move toward the interior of the bay, searching for some discreet dock where it could anchor without too many maneuvers and, perhaps, for as little money as possible. The Honduran flag hung at the stern. The final letters of the name that had almost been erased by the waves were barely visible: ...cyon. In what seemed too mocking an irony, the name of this old freighter was probably the Halcyon.
An excellent introduction to the replication crisis. Covers both outright fraud and the grey areas of questionable research practices and hype. Highly accessible, you can give this to normal people and they will get a decent grasp of what's going on while being entertained by the amusing and/or terrifying anecdotes. I had a few quibbles, but overall it's very good.
The weird thing, though, is that scientists who already have tenure, and who already run well-funded labs, continue regularly to engage in the kinds of bad practices described in this book. The perverse incentives have become so deeply embedded that they’ve created a system that’s self-sustaining. Years of implicit and explicit training to chase publications and citations at any cost leave their mark on trainee scientists, forming new norms, habits, and ways of thinking that are hard to break even once a stable job has been secured. And as we discussed in the previous chapter, the system creates a selection pressure where the only academics who survive are the ones who are naturally good at playing the game.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
16 years after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a new novel from Susanna Clarke. It's short and not particularly ambitious, but I enjoyed it a lot. A tight fantastical mystery that starts out similar to The Library of Babel but then goes off in a different direction. I loved the setting (which is where the title comes from): a strange alternate dimension in the form of a great house filled with staircases and marble statues, with clouds at the upper levels and tides coming up from below.
Once, men and women were able to turn themselves into eagles and fly immense distances. They communed with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the turning of the stars inside their own minds. My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology! But it seemed to me that the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It’s not actually possible.
Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
The first part deals with science and empiricism and induction from an abstract perspective and it feels almost contemporary, like it was written by a time traveling 19th century scientist or something like that. The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is already in full swing here, Bacon dunks on the Greeks constantly and upbraids people for blindly listening to Aristotle. He points to inventions like gunpowder and the compass and printing and paper and says that surely these indicate that there's a ton of undiscovered ideas out there, we should go looking for them. He talks about perceptual biases and scientific progress. Bacon's ambition feels limitless.
But any man whose care and concern is not merely to be content with what has been discovered and make use of it, but to penetrate further; and not to defeat an opponent in argument but to conquer nature by action; and not to have nice, plausible opinions about things but sure, demonstrable knowledge; let such men (if they please), as true sons of the sciences, join with me, so that we may pass the antechambers of nature which innumerable others have trod, and eventually open up access to the inner rooms.
Then you get to the second part and the Middle Ages hit you like a freight train, you suddenly realize this is no contemporary man at all and his conception of how the world works is completely alien. Ideas that to us seem bizarre and just intuitively nonsensical (about gravity, heat, light, biology, etc.) are only common sense to him. He repeats absurdities about light objects being pulled to the heavens while heavy objects are subject to the gravity of the earth, and so on. It's fascinating that both sides could exist in the same person. You won't learn anything new from Bacon, but it's a fascinating historical document.
Of twenty-five centuries in which human memory and learning is more or less in evidence, scarcely six can be picked out and isolated as fertile in sciences or favourable to their progress. There are deserts and wastes of time no less than of regions.
Signs should also be gathered from the growth and progress of philosophies and sciences. Those that are founded in nature grow and increase; those founded in opinion change but do not grow.
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
Imagine going to a three Michelin star restaurant and being served a delicious burger and fries. No matter how good the burger, at some level you will feel disappointed. When I eat at Mr. Pynchon's restaurant I want a 20-dish tasting menu using unheard-of ingredients and requiring the development of entirely new types of kitchen machinery. Bleeding Edge is a burger. That said, it's funny, and readable, and stylish, and manages to evoke a great nostalgia for the early days of the internet—a 20th century version of the end of the Wild West, the railroad of centralized corporate interests conquering everything, while individualist early internet pioneers are shoved aside.
9/11, the deep web, intelligence agencies, power and sex, technology, family. Also just the idea of a 75-year-old geezer writing about Hideo Kojima and MILF-night at the "Joie de Beavre" is hilarious in itself.
“Our Meat Facial today, Ms. Loeffler?”
“Uhm, how’s that.”
“You didn’t get our offer in the mail? on special all this week, works miracles for the complexion—freshly killed, of course, before those enzymes’ve had a chance to break down, how about it?”
“Well, I don’t...”
“Wonderful! Morris, kill… the chicken!”
From the back room comes horrible panicked squawking, then silence. Maxine meantime is tilted back, eyelids aflutter, when— “Now we’ll just apply some of this,” wham! “...meat here, directly onto this lovely yet depleted face...”
“Pardon? (Easy, Morris!)”
“Why is it... uh, moving around like that? Wait! is that a— are you guys putting a real dead chicken in my— aaahhh!”
“Not quite dead yet!” Morris jovially informs the thrashing Maxine as blood and feathers fly everywhere.
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
An amnesiac young man walks into a burned-out city, a localized post-apocalypse left behind by the rest of the United States. He meets the locals, gets into trouble, publishes some poetry, and ends up leading a gang. Perhaps more impressive and memorable than good, I would rather praise it than recommend it. It is a slog, it is puerile, the endless sex scenes are pointless at best, characters rather uninteresting, barely any story, the 70s counterculture stuff is comical, stylistically it's not up there with the stuff it's aping. I understand why some people hate it.
But there's something there, underneath all the grime. It reaches that size where quantity becomes a quality of its own. The combination of autobiography, pomo metafictional fuckery, magical realism, and science fiction is unique. Some of its scenes are certainly unforgettable. And it just has an alluring mystical aura, a compelling strangeness that I have a hard time putting into words...
He pictured great maps of darkness torn down before more. After today, he thought idly, there is no more reason for the sun to rise. Insanity? To live in any state other than terror! He held the books tightly. Are these poems mine? Or will I discover that they are improper descriptions by someone else of things I might have once been near; the map erased, aliases substituted for each location? Someone, then others, were laughing.
Octavia E. Butler, Lilith's Brood
They say never judge a book by its cover, but in this case you'd be spot on. 800 pages of non-stop alien-on-human rape. Tentacle rape, roofie rape, mind control rape, impregnation rape, this book has it all. Very much a fetish thing. One of the main plot lines is about an alien that is so horny that it will literally die if it doesn't get to rape any humans. It's also bad in more conventional ways - weak characters, weak plotting, all sorts of holes and inconsistencies, not to mention extremely shallow treatment of the ideas about genetics, hierarchy, transhumanism, etc. In retrospect I have no idea why I kept reading to the end.
“You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!”
“Your body said one thing. Your words said another.” It moved a sensory arm to the back of his neck, looping one coil loosely around his neck. “This is the position,” it said.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series
Good God, what did Nietzsche see in this stuff? Farming raised to metaphysical principle? There's a bit of Prince Myshkin in Emerson, a bit of Monsieur Teste, but it's all played completely straight. A reliable sleep-inducer if there ever was one.
The fallacy lay in the immense concession, that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now. The blindness of the preacher consisted in deferring to the base estimate of the market of what constitutes a manly success, instead of confronting and convicting the world from the truth; announcing the presence of the soul; the omnipotence of the will: and so establishing the standard of good and ill, of success and falsehood.