liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
[personal profile] liv
There was a meme I saw ages ago where people posted a list of ten books that were important in their lives. I like this better than trying to pick ten 'favourites', and meant to post it at the time but never got round to it. So, here goes (in more or less chronological order):

  1. JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
      My Dad used to read this to me and my brothers as a long-running serial bedtime story. So it was a very important part of my childhood. Then as soon as I was old enough to read it for myself (about nine or ten I think) I started reading it every so often, and it's been with me my whole life. I always get something different out of it every time I read it. It inspired me to read linguistics textbooks that my grandfather had lying around and generally to be interested in language. The imagery very much frames my experience; for example, when I've been deeply unhappy I've sometimes had nightmares about Frodo and Sam in Mordor. It's always a point of reference for me.

  2. Rudyard Kipling: Puck of Pook's Hill / Rewards and Fairies
      Another of the books my Dad read aloud when I was a kid. I learnt a fair amount of English history and mythology from Kipling. I'd say this was the main thing that opened the way for me to read fantasy later on. Gaiman, for example, would make a whole lot less sense to me if I hadn't grown up with Kipling. Kipling was also my gateway to poetry; his stuff is rhythmic and accessible and it was through Kipling (helped by my Dad) I got into people like Chesterton and Shelley and Tennyson and Betjamen and Masefield. A lot of Kipling at an impressionable age really primed me to appreciate both nineteenth and twentieth century poetry; I can't think of anyone else who straddles both eras so successfully.

  3. Lynne Reid Banks: The L-shaped Room
      This was the first 'grown-up' book I ever read, when I was maybe 12 or so. The sex in it really isn't as explicit as it struck me as being at the time, but it's a book that deals with genuinely adult themes and relationships, as well as including sex. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the human drama is poignant without descending into soap opera.

      I had a tremendous crush on the love interest, Toby Coleman, for absolutely years, and have tended to date people who rather resemble him. I think Toby just happens to be my type, rather than my entire relationship history having been directly influenced by this book! In general, Reid Banks writes women who experience sexuality in a way I can strongly relate to, and I've not come across any other descriptions of this particular aspect of existence which resonate so strongly with me.

  4. Larry Gonick & Mark Wheelis: The cartoon guide to genetics
      Spanish M gave me this book in 1993. I was already fairly obsessed with molecular genetics by that time (indeed, I was already obsessed with genetics by the time I started school), but this bridged the gap between the level of knowledge I could pick up from reading every newspaper and magazine article I could lay my hands on, and actual high level academic specialization. The book was out of date by the time I started studying biochemistry at university, but in terms of level it was good through at least first year undergrad. And it's incredibly accessible, with its cartoons and silly puns, but never misleadingly over-simplifies.

      It's a large part of the reason why I continued biology (three quarters of which I didn't like very much at GCSE) through A Level, and that in turn allowed me to discover that there is a whole field of biochemistry which is as fascinating as genetics. So that led on to my choosing to study biochemistry rather than chemistry at university, and you could well say it determined my whole future career.

      Besides, M wrote a short letter in the front cover of this book which completely changed my life. She'd been in my class at school for the preceding term, while her father was teaching at Robinson College where he was a visiting fellow. And we'd sort of been thrown together because she arrived in the middle of the year and everybody else was already in fixed pairs for all the stuff where we needed to work in pairs. I was the odd one out, not because I was desperately unpopular, but because I was everybody's friend but nobody's best friend. So I ended up pairing with M quite a lot. We got on well, but I was totally in awe of her and didn't imagine we'd ever speak again after she went back to Spain. But she gave me this book and wrote in it how much my friendship had meant to her in the previous couple of months, and this was where she first proposed what became the dream of my teenage years, that she and I would be best friends and eventually professional collaborators who would "try to save the Humanity in the science field". So this book was the beginning of my incredibly precious and life-defining friendship with Spanish M.

  5. Chaim Potok: The Book of Lights
      I can't entirely remember why I first read this book now. I think it might have been for a Jewish book discussion group or something. Anyway, it's one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. Its portrayals of people and relationships are absolutely outstanding, and it's also full of all kinds of philosophical and theological ideas. Potok writes better than almost anyone else I know about deep friendship, and the friendship between Gershon and Arthur is perhaps the most wonderful example of this (even though The Chosen, which is purely about friendship, is perhaps better known). There's also a lot of stuff about Kabbalah in The Book of Lights, and without it I would have had almost no interest in the Jewish mystical tradition at all.

  6. Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée
      I was totally in love with Simone de Beauvoir in my late teens, at least with the image of herself she creates in her autobiography. It was this first volume that spoke to me particularly, because it covers her childhood and youth when she was someone I could relate to, before she became a world famous writer and philosopher and started name-dropping about all the other famous people she used to hang out with.

      She gave me a framework for talking about things that I want to talk about. She discusses the nature of consciousness (in a non-technical, human rather than philosophical way), and what it means to relate to other people, and the experience of being 'other'. She talks about sexuality openly and without being prurient. Living my own story of intense, passionate friendship, I loved the way she describes her friendship with Zaza. I really admired and aspired to her passion for knowledge and understanding. Then there's her relationship with Sartre which begins towards the end of the first volume; it was the first description I'd come across of an non-traditional relationship, where the people involved make their own rules and what matters is their faithfulness to eachother, and not what society expects. This was long before I'd heard of any such thing as polyamory or similar politically organized groups, but the idea that there are other options than traditional monogamous marriage and celibacy was a powerful one for me.

  7. Steven Rose: Biochemistry(republished as The Chemistry of Life)
      I read this book in one of the old Penguin blue non-fiction editions, somewhere towards the beginning of sixth form. It was badly out of date by then, (and even with my high school biology I could tell it was), but it gave me a key concept, namely regarding cell biology as being about information. It explained the original meaning of cybernetics, before the cyber- prefix simply became a pretentious way to refer to computers or just anything 'futuristic'. Also, it made me realize that lots of other aspects of cell biology are interesting in the same way that molecular genetics is interesting (the particular example was about the molecular cascade which allows cells to respond to hormone signalling by changing gene expression).

      So I've been thinking about biology in ways inspired by Rose ever since. As I've specialized I've always gravitated towards areas such as cell signalling which fit in best with Rose's informational paradigm. I can trace a direct route from reading this book to where I ended up for my PhD. So yes, a very big influence!

  8. Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
      [ profile] pseudomonas convinced me to read this when we were going out in 1998 or thereabouts. It gave me various tools for thinking about things like consciousness, formal logic, and particularly language and meaning and analogies, and helped to make sense of a lot of other stuff that deals with similar themes but less accessibly (Penrose, for example). Also, I was reading something of Hofstadter's, either Metamagical Themas or Le ton beau de Marot when I first met [ profile] lethargic_man and he was so impressed that I had read and enjoyed and could talk intelligently about Gödel, Escher, Bach that he ended up asking me out several years later! Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it did contribute to my making such a strong first impression on [ profile] lethargic_man, which obviously had a big influence on my life.

  9. Karen Armstrong: A History of God
      I am the biggest fan of Karen Armstrong. I love the way she combines a rigourous historical approach to religion with a strong sense of the numinous. And she puts across very complex ideas about religion and theology and all the related topics pertaining to the meaning of human existence in a very clear and readable way. Reading this has given me a lot of ways of thinking about the hard problems of religion, and is probably the key influence which has made it possible for me to approach religion in a mature way rather than a set of cute stories for Sunday school children.

  10. AS Byatt: Babel Tower
      The main reason I count this is because it's a fantastically good novel. I read it fairly recently, and have therefore only reread it a couple of times. But it's given me a lot to think about, there are loads of layers to it, and it ties together all kinds of themes that I find fascinating, such as genetics and language and Tolkien and gender and relationships.

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-08 07:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Looks like a lovely set of books; only one among these I have read, and some (About biology) I am not interested in, but many of the others seem very interesting.

What I especially find interesting is Karen Armstrong: A History of God; I just looked for information online about the book, the author, and even used Amazon to read the few first pages. It looks like I've got something to read next. :-)

Thanks for your book reviews, they're always interesting. :-)

A History of G-d

Date: 2005-01-09 11:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Warning: The book is not quite as dispassionate as [ profile] livredor's review makes out. Armstrong has her own agenda, which comes across in the way she presents stuff.

<raids mail archive>

There's some good stuff there; I like her pointing out how the meaning of "faith" has changed, and "holy" in the context of "holy, holy holy is the Lord of Hosts"1 - ties in with what I was saying about angels, and she makes the same point about the opening line of the Shema that we talked about. [No idea what this was now.]

However, she does make quite a lot of assertions, such as the repeated one that ancients did not believe their creation myths literally, which are completely unsupported. (Why should the ancients not have believed them literally when so many moderns do?)

Also, I'm rather hacked off at her twisting her translations to reinforce her views. Examples in [the sixty pages I'd read when I wrote this] included:

  • Rendering "elohim" as "a technical term, signifying everything that the gods could mean for men and women". There has to be some reason why we refer to G-d as a grammatically singular form "Gods", but I don't think that is it*; it takes no account of the fact that, frex, occasionally Biblical characters use "El*him", referring to G-d, in the plural when talking to Gentiles.
  • Repeated use of "goyim" for Gentile nations, when "other nations" would do, without explaining that "goyim" simply means "nations", and would not have had its well-known perjorative associations in those days.
  • In discussing Hosea, she translates 6:6 as "What I want is love [חסד hesed], not sacrifice; knowledge of G-d, not holocausts", and goes on to say:
    He did not mean theological knowledge: the word דעת dāath comes from the Hebrew ידע yāda: to know, which has sexual connotations. Thus J says that Adam "knew his wife, Eve". In the Old Canaanite religion, Baal had married the soil and the people had celebrated this with ritual orgies, but Hosea insisted that since the covenant, Y*hw*h had taken the place of Baal and had wedded the people of Israel. They had to understand that it was Y*hw*h, not Baal, who would bring fertility to the soil. He was still wooing Israel like a lover, determined to lure her back from the Baal who had seduced her:
    When that day comes - it is Y*hw*h who speaks -
    she will call me, "My husband,"
    no longer will she call me "My Baal".[2:18]

    Well, yes, but she's doing horrible things to the translation in the process. "To know" could indeed mean in the "Biblical" sense, but that was not the only sense, and I don't think it is the appropriate one here. חסד (hesed) does not mean sexual love; it's normally translated "lovingkindness" (it's the same root as in Chasidim, which she translates "Pietists"). The word for love is אהבה ahavā.

    Moreover, the second translation completely misses the point that in Hebrew there are no words for "husband" and "wife"; the words normally used are בעל ba`al (master [of]) and אשה ishā (woman [of]). (Yes, I know; yuck.) A more literal translation would be:
    When that day comes -- it is Y*hw*h who speaks -
    she will call me, "My man,"
    no longer will she call me "My master".

  • She also presents Isaiah's abhorrent reaction to sacrifice devoid of the context that it was empty ritual, but perhaps that's just me looking at the through Hertz-tinted spectacles. [The Torah commentary and polemic essays in the Pentateuch of Dr J.H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, were a big influence on me as a teenager -- and still are; if I were to draw up a list of formative books for myself this would be on it.]

    Anyhow, I'll just take this opportunity to reassure you it's not all
    complaints; I did enjoying reading it overall.

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-09 09:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
[occasionally Biblical characters use "El*him", referring to G-d, in the plural when talking to Gentiles.]

Cripes. <skims Torah> Gen. 20:13; Abraham talking to Abimelech.

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-11 01:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Okay, I'll admit I'm out of my depth here. My comment above was based on my own reaction; I did not stop and check commentators (even had I wanted to, I couldn't have, unless it's in the part of Hoshea used for הפטרות), and I'm not very familiar with Hoshea in the first place. Possibly I'm wrong about חסד, though I would be surprised to learn it.

My point about אישי / בעלי is that in her translating them as "my husband" and "my Baal", Armstrong is presenting the passage as contrasting a relationship with a prohibited god with one with a husband; whereas as you point out the text is actually contrasting two ways of looking at a marriage. It's true that בעל is also the name of a god, but to drop the other view is misrepresenting the meaning of the passage IMO.

Re: A History of G-d

Date: 2005-01-09 03:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You seem to be saying it's not a metaphor at all. I'm confused. The mefarshim seem to be with Armstrong.

רש"י הושע פרק ב פסוק יח

תקראי אישי וגו' - תעבדוני מאהבה ולא מיראה אישי לשון אישות וחיבת נעורים:
בעלי - לשון אדנות ומורא ורבותינו פירשו ככלה בבית חמיה ולא ככלה בבית אביה:

That is, he's saying "ishi" is the language of love and marriage, and "baali" is the language of domination and fear. Clearly Rashi thinks the pshat is man versus god, since he chooses to tell you what the connotations are.

And just for interest:

רד"ק הושע פרק ב פסוק יח

והיה ביום ההוא נאם ה' תקראי אישי - ר"ל תקראי לי איש כי בעל האשה יקרא איש, כמו אלקנה אישה וכנסת ישראל נמשלה לאשת איש, ובעל הוא שם משותף כי היו קוראים לעכו"ם בעל לפיכך אמר ולא תקראי לי עוד בעלי כדי להסיר שם הבעלים מפיה, ורבותינו ז"ל פירשו ככלה בבית חמיה ולא ככלה בבית אביה:

Re: A History of G-d

Date: 2005-01-09 04:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Courtesy of the Bar-Ilan CD, which I forgot to credit but should have.

Re: A History of G-d

Date: 2005-01-14 09:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Actually, I know very little about the subject to be able to answer to, or even understand, what you're saying. In fact, that's the main reason why I'm looking forward to reading ab ook like this one.

I looked up a little information about her, and I couldn't find anything about any agenda. I mean, yes, I understand, there is no author who's going to be perfectly objective about a subject like religion, but this author does not seem to be - and I hope I'm not just misinformed - in the extremes in this regard.

Thanks for the note, though!

Re: A History of G-d

Date: 2005-02-04 03:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, [ profile] blackherring and [ profile] lethargic_man and I are just babbling about technical bits of Jewish scholarship that we find interesting. The book's not really to do with this stuff at all.

Yeah well, it seemed that [ profile] lethargic_man was mentioning these details to make a point about the book; I couldn't get the point or the details, that's all. :P

About the agenda; I believe in a touchy subject like this one, nobody can be totally objective; however, what I am afraid of is someone who alters the truth to give an impression, and this is what I don't think she is doing.

Armstrong does sort of have an agenda in that she strongly believes that having a spiritual connection with the Divine is what matters, the details of religious practice are much less important.

This has truth to it anyway; I personally see that the religious practice is only there to strengthen our spirtual connection, because—as humans—we tend to relate more with things we have concrete experiences with.

And she's really against fundamentalism and hates everything to do with Zionism or Israel, but I doubt you'll have a problem with either of those biases.

I am totally with her on both regards.

I am going to get to reading this book sometime (Hopefully soon), and you'll see my opinion about it anyway. :) I am supposed to have started it already, but the way my vacation became made this quite hard.

A History of G-d (c't'd)

Date: 2005-01-09 11:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hmm, [ profile] livredor, if you'd like to reply to this, I can forward you back the comments you made to my email, to save yourself the bother of typing them all up. :o)

1. Not her translation, but I like it. "Hosts" never struck me as being a funny word to use, because I was familiar with it in the Host of the West.

2. As I heard somebody else more recently put it, when Judaism repeatedly hammers home the fact that G-d, though written in the plural, is in fact One and there is no Unity like G-d's Unity, you know it's got something to hide.

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-08 08:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Great meme, I'm stealing it and will post my answers!

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-08 11:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Numinous is a word that should be used more often. It has a lovely ring to it, and the meaning is pretty damn wonderful as well.

I've been meaning to read Karen Armstrong's books for a while now. I just need to catch up with a friend to borrow them off him...

If I had to name a profound influence of my choice to study biology it would actually be David Attenborough. I was exposed to The Living Planet and Life on Earth at a fairly young age, and thought that natural history was just the coolest stuff around. Then I discovered pre-hospital care... and now ecology and the other macro-biological sciences have to run a close second. With theatre as a possible third.

Ho, by the way. :) I wandered here courtesy of [ profile] mumimamma's LJ.

Formative influences

Date: 2005-01-09 11:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The problem about David Attenborough, good thought he is, is that he's become such a leading light in his field that there's not really anyone to take his place and get the next generation of children into biology after he's gone.

I too was exposed to these series at a young age, though in my case it was all part of a pro-science upbringing. What had a similar effect on me that these series did on you, I think, was being given Richard Leakey's The Making of Mankind as a barmitzvah present. Full of both scientific information and full-colour pictures it put me onto palaeoanthropology and archaeology, filling a gap in the fields (genealogy, philology and linguistics, cartography, etc) that The Lord of the Rings put me onto.

Oh, and btw can I take the opportunity to point you at the followup to [ profile] livredor's comments on A History of God I posted upthread?

Re: Formative influences

Date: 2005-01-11 07:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
David Rabbit-burrow's absence will be difficult to fill, I agree. There are other great science commentators and communicators out there, but not enough in biology. The next in line might be Richard Dawkins, but I don't like him half as much. :(

Oh, and btw can I take the opportunity to point you at the followup to livredor's comments on A History of God I posted upthread?

You can. I'll read it carefully, but I'm not that much of a Biblical scholar, so any quibbling points will probably be wasted on me. I think I'm actually more interested in The Battle for God, Jerusalem, and Holy War myself. I know something about the history of the Crusades, and stuff that touches on that is highly likely to gain my attention.

Re: Welcome!

Date: 2005-01-11 07:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Numinous is a word that should be used more often.
We-ell. It means something fairly specific, it doesn't feel like the kind of word I'd want to scatter around anyhow.

Fair point. I didn't mean I wanted it to be mis-used or cheapened. Possibly, I just think people should think and write more about feelings and concepts like that.

I'm not so much into the macro stuff, the 'natural history' myself, but that's just the way my mind works, and I do appreciate a nice Attenborough documentary.

Oh, I appreciate the intricacies of biology and chemistry at the micro and molecular levels all right. When I can be assed puting the effort into it, I do all right at biochem. and molecular genetics, which is very odd, because I'm awful at a lot of basic organic chemistry. The sense of fascination and pleasure is there, but I feel it even more strongly when looking at complete organisms and environments.

Well, it ends up only being possible to devote your energies to one or a couple of things that really matter.

Which frustrates the hell out of me. I want to know everything, damnit! ;)

Hi, good to meet you. It's always fun when new people wander by. I like the way that LJ facilitates that.

I have this fascination with reading the descriptions that people scattered across the globe write of the their lives. Even the mundane stuff has its own, peculiar value. Might be a side-effect of living such a long way from anywhere else...

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-09 02:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Want to hear something funny? For some bizarre reason, when I clicked on your lj-cut, I hallucinated the thought that you were [ profile] g33kgrrl, and I was looking forward to reading what you ([ profile] g33kgrrl) had to say abut Godel Escher Bach.

And then I clicked, and did a double take, because you DID list Godel Escher Bach, but you're not [ profile] g33kgrrl after all.

And the moral of this story is that I think you might like the aforementioned LJ user. Go check her out :).

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-10 09:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Reading GEB, The Emperor's New Mind and The Hacker's Dictionary was a revelation to me at Sixth Form: both that there were all these amazing things to know and that there were other people who thought they were amazing and fun too. I've never heard of GEB being the catalyst for a relationship before, though :-)

(no subject)

Date: 2005-01-27 11:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
1) The Moomin books, as in the original Tove Jansson. All utopias fall far short of her creation - these are the books that my mother read to me as soon as I could understand them, and which I feel unashamed to call my bible: all my moral, social, emotional, poetic and aesthetic values have their genesis in the utter humanity of these books.

2) The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. I remember my mum handing me this when we were sorting through the bookshelves one day when I was about 12 or so, and saying (emphatically not verbatim), "you might not like this, it's written for girls". Naturally, I pounced upon it, and was enraptured - since then, the only books I chose from the family's weekly library visits concerned the travails of heroines cast out into the world to experience romantic adventures.

3) Franz Kafka - the complete works. After growing out of what is commonly termed Fantasy, I was somewhat lost as to where to find a similar depth of imaginative story-telling in the seemingly arid world of adult literature. In Kafka I found both the childlike invention and the adult profundity I sought, neither of them diminished by nor extricable from eachother.

4) La Nausée, by Jean Paul Sartre. I first read it as an adolescent, and was swept up immediately into the charismatic world of the deep-thinking, implacably analytical loner. Later I read more of Sartre and was less impressed by the philosophy of which the novel was ostensibly an exposition - but I still love it today, because it is a superlatively vivid evocation of the experience of the loner, which has been the majority of my life's experience too.

5) The Claudine novels, by Colette. Purely and simply, I wanted to be Claudine. This was the entire reason for my first love of Colette, but having read Ripening Seed, and having inherited my mother's hardback copy of Sido and My Mother's House, I ration myself to a couple of stories a year, and each time my astonishment at her mastery of the humane astounds me, and I end up hugging the book to my chest, kissing its very pages in an ecstasy of protective passion.

6) Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin. I read it shortly after I'd finished Lord of the Rings (I read LOTR in two days when I was 11 - A massive task, the like of which I'm not sure I would be capable now), and I liked it far better - Le Guin's world seemed so much more sensible, so much more hazily, romantically distant yet practically real than Tolkien's. I could live in a Le Guin world, but I would have problems getting along in a Tolkien one. The part of the trilogy that affected me most was, predictably, The Tombs of Atuan: I was Tenar, I knew those black-cloaked priestesses, I knew those stone dwellings, the bare moors, and the catacombs of ancient darkness buried beneath.

7) Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. Simply the most perfectly conceived, perfectly executed, most devilish, unsparing, unerringly gorgeous and tragic novel that it has been late twentieth century America's privilege to play background to.

8) Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. A Hot-spring Geisha, her life unjustly curtailed, full of life and intelligence, minutely portrayed by a man who is incapable of realising in affection the love he bears for her - a tragedy whose understated subtlety is unmatched except by the truthfulness of her portrayal, and the depth of her real despair.

9) Mrs Dalloway - "like a match burning in a crocus" - for that scene alone, and further for being the Woolf stream-of-consciousness in its vulnerable, flowering, adolescent stage: To The Lighthouse is more expansive, The Waves more poetically astounding, but Mrs Dalloway is like the simultaneous awakening of the consciousness both of the author and of the character, and for that reason is miraculous (for me, was miraculous).

10) The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington. For being the most vehemently whimsical, the most comedically subversive text of the twentieth century: the world turns on its head, civilisation goes to pot, but the Queen of Bees and her blessed troupe, led by the wolf-headed goddess and her cabal of witches, lives on.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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