Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction
Nature has its own lethal armory in the form of plagues exploding into epidemics that spread over global areas as pandemics. In this very short introduction to diseases that have ravaged populations, University of Virginia History Professor Christian McMillen chronicles the background of seven feared infections, starting with the historic Plague and continuing on to the dreaded Smallpox, Cholera, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Influenza, and finally HIV/AIDS. Some of these outbreaks are periodic, such as the flu, while others, like malaria and HIV, persist over time. With the advance of medical science, some diseases have come under control with vaccines, medications, sanitation, and education. This short but comprehensive study of pandemics reviews the economic, social, and political factors that operate when the disease strikes and the precautions adopted to limit contagion and recurrence. Poverty, dense populations, cultural beliefs, and increased mobility of the population enable the human vector to transmit the infective organism. The history of past and present pandemics is impressively described, and the author cautions that this history should serve as a lesson for possible future incidents that may arise, especially as crowding and mobility increase. The reader might reflect on the Zika and Ebola viruses and the unpredictable mutagenic strains of the influenza bug along with other potential threats.
Christian W. McMillen
Oxford University Press
There is much that is mystifying in Daniel M. Harrison’s Butterflies: The Strange Metamorphosis of Fact and Fiction in Today’s World. Mystifying, but far from edifying. For instance, why is Butterflies classified under “Philosophy?” To characterize the book as such implies that thought-provoking analyses bolstered by the promise of plausibility might be contained within its pages. Not so. With its concatenation of logical fallacies, factual inaccuracies and cheap, drugstore mysticism doubling as ersatz vatic insight, Butterflies is an insult, rather than a contribution to that discipline. Moreover, it is difficult to decide which is more unsettling, that Butterflies has enjoyed commercial success or that this sham of a book was published—and not by a vanity press? Butterflies has been called “ambitious” and “challenging.” Those adjectives apply, but not on account of staggering insight, complexity, or originality—what makes the Harrison’s work challenging is its conceptual aimlessness.
The author often muddles recklessly through concepts and fields he does not fully grasp, from hard sciences to the humanities feigning a knowledge that his claims and blatant absence of legitimately cited research bely. In its prologue, Butterflies promises readers access to “hyper-reality,” defined as a “zone of hard-core truth.” This slighting treatment of a concept supposedly foundational for the narrative is symptomatic of the diseased superficiality that pervades Butterflies. Harrison’s definition of “hyper-reality,” elides the term’s place in intellectual history, overlooking how “hyper-reality” was a contested term of semiotics that surfaced most visibly in French Structuralism of the 1960s, a movement that would influence fields from musicology to history for decades to come. It still does. Harrison’s shameful oversimplification is either an intentional erasure, a sign of unpardonable ignorance, or tacit assumptions about the audience’s ignorance.
Butterflies has its virtues, however. Harrison brings 20th century geopolitics, globalization, and recent economic trends together with skill and in approachable, conversational prose. Also, the structure of Harrison’s work is creative. Each chapter oscillates, forming a braid between chapters on non-fiction and fiction. This interlacing of the two gradually becomes a chiasmus — fact comes to seem as improbable as fiction, while fiction adopts a degree of unrelenting brutality generally reserved for reality. Moreover, this structure harmonizes with a key theme in the book about the notional separation of those two categories.
Still, creative structure cannot forgive the lack of intellectual rigor, coupled with counterfeit certitude that pervades Harrison’s roughly non-fictional chapters. In one non-fiction passage, Harrison challenges the theory of relativity. Sadly, his obvious ignorance of basic physics makes his posturing as a Wunderkind- juggernaut ready to crush basic precepts of the field ridiculous. Elsewhere, Harrison alludes to historical moments and figures with varying degrees of inaccuracy, at one point presenting what is little more than a simplistic, unconvincing inversion of the Platonic Theory of Forms, as if it were a revelation. Is the author indulging in parody at his own expense or is Harrison merely delusional? The fiction chapters, which often glamorize a dissipated elite, high on ephemeral pleasures and hollow successes, are nearly unbearable. The reason for discomfort is not related to explicit sexual content, but because it is written so poorly (and exhibits a peculiar obsession with grounding description of girls [eerily] and women by their breasts, cup size, and all). Perhaps Harrison believes that what is provocative is, a posteriori, compelling. If the author had demonstrated the ability to use, rather than abuse, language (errors are not merely stylistic, but grammatical), these chapters might have been less agonizing to read. Though one might object that Harrison is transcending the conventions of the English language, that defense would only be valid if he had first demonstrated mastery of it. One press release advertised Butterflies as a “manifesto of the millennial age.” If so, Harrison’s work is little more than an inadvertent, likely unearned, condemnation of a generation and an epoch.
This reviewer fervently hopes that Harrison has not captured a new Zeitgeist–one where charlatans are sages and ‘wisdom’ is spouted by the ignorant or, worse, by those who prefer to pander to ignorance, rather than erase it. Perhaps he is merely constructing a vast cautionary tale. At least the Lost Generation, poised at the start of the 20th century, produced some writing that one hopes is as lasting as Butterflies is ephemeral.
The Book of Eli
One day, an ordinary American male––working, married, with kids––wakes up in Heaven. The surprise comes because Eli Canaan has led a less-than-saintly life. True, he’s a nice guy: he recycles, coaches his kid’s team, helps his wife with the laundry and his children with homework, walks the dog. But he cheats on his wife regularly. So what’s he doing in Heaven?
In Moffie’s Heaven, adulterers are sent back to Earth as alley cats. Groucho Marx, smoking a cigar, cracking jokes, and arching his eyebrows, is the tour guide. He shows Eli around Heaven, explaining, among other things, that the absence of cats or dogs is not because D-O-G is God spelled backwards, but because people reincarnate as pets: Good people as well-treated pets, bad ones as abused animals.
Eli’s tour of Heaven provides a humorous framework for discussion of serious fundamentalist Christian theology, as well as popular psychological and conservative political ideas. Sigmund Freud, for example, analyzes Eli and uses AA vocabulary to lecture him genially about sex addiction. A shimmering Jesus reviews the Ten Commandments, scoring Eli’s performance, chastising him for his fixations, and urging him to observe the spirit, as well as the letter of the law. But Jesus, laughing in the symphonic tones of Mozart, reminds Eli to keep things light; after all, even the Twelve Apostles were cut-ups.
Eli’s meeting with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist for whom a stint in Heaven is pure Hell, opens a discussion of sex education and the ban on prayer in public schools, followed by the Catholic Church’s obligation to pay property taxes; Eli’s meeting with Ayn Rand initiates a forum on libertarian political ideals. Eli even gets advice from Moses, Mohammed, and Buddha.
Moffie’s jokes add spice to topics that some readers might otherwise find tedious. Some jokes are a bit discomfiting. Eli’s Jewish, for example, yet he does not seem bothered by Jesus’ jokes about Jews, like this one: “Why don’t Jewish mothers drink wine? Answer—Because it will interfere with their suffering.”
Throughout Eli’s tour and meetings with dignitaries, Eli dreads being sent back to earth as an alley cat—the fate of adulterers. But God, speaking in the voice of Orson Welles, has other plans for Eli.
The Ultimate Walking Dead and Philosophy
Moral dilemmas are rich fodder for philosophical discussion, and boy, if you’re looking for moral dilemmas, The Walking Dead is the place to go. Whether we’re talking about the comic book series or the much-lauded television adaptation, hard choices abound and the plotlines are rife with moments worthy of debate and examination.
The Ultimate Walking Dead and Philosophy puts the adventures of Rick, Michonne, The Governor, Negan, Carol, Daryl, and more under the microscope, analyzing them not only through the lens of all the greatest minds in philosophy, but through the modern window of morality. Whether we’re discussing Rick imprisoning Negan in the comics or Carol’s transformation in the show, Daryl’s time with the Claimers or the Governor’s dubious sense of right and wrong, this is a smorgasbord of deep thinking.
Arguably the most interesting topic was the subject of Lizzie, the disturbed young lady with a walker fascination and a devastating impact on Carol, Tyreese, and her own sister. You could write a book alone on the topics discussed there, and this is only a drop in the bucket of The Walking Dead‘s morally complex universe.
Seamless Subtleties is one man’s journey to understand the meaning of existence, and its tight connection with humanity amid inconceivable pain. Drawing from his harrowing past, Raymond explores his traumatic experiences to extrapolate what makes people tick discordantly. Zeroing in on the two-dimensional existence of human beings — the tangible (cerebral) and the intangible (spiritual). Raymond’s eclectic journey is replete with specific tools to help others (especially those in the unbelievably inhuman conditions) live beyond the temporal to become “more creative and more connected to who we are” — all for the purpose of achieving being “one with the energy of life.”
Michael Raymond’s debut book is a chilling memoir, with a philosophical twist. Raymond opens with background from his dysfunctional childhood, quickly followed by his theoretical viewpoints. A matter of much more than mere semantics, Raymond differentiates between the brain (a power tool) and the mind (consciousness), and that one needs to be wary of the brain’s trappings to overtake enlightenment that can eventually whittle one’s identity “to the point of feeling meaningless.” Raymond breaks that down even further with an explanation of very detailed tools: his “SEER TRAPS” system, “fourteen reasons why we should value our intangible essence,” and the difference between wisdom and knowledge.
While his is an incredibly sad upbringing, Raymond only begins to scratch the surface of his past, before delving into his eclectic findings. Readers may confuse Raymond’s truth-seeking observations as leaning toward another bizarre attempt at metaphysics, until they read the remainder of his story. In fact, this reviewer is certain that no one will be prepared for the succession of heartless and unconscionable situations that heavily lace Raymond’s account. A victim of covert surveillance and harassment and familial treachery, Raymond candidly shares how his successful career and happy marriage suddenly took a nosedive. What follows is a disturbing list of experiences. Besides incarceration and institutionalization, including the associated physical and mental torture, Raymond states, “I’ve been stalked, invaded, robbed, vandalized, harassed, humiliated, demeaned, defamed, emotionally and physically tortured twenty-four hours a day for more than ten years.”
Since Raymond’s well-written memoir reads more like a creatively gripping thriller, one may momentarily forget that his first person narrative is a work of fact, not fiction. Unfortunately, “sicken” and “sordid” are but a few descriptive words that capture the essence of Raymond’s story. Yet amidst extreme duress, Raymond miraculously finds solace in silence by seeking mental awareness (via his tools) as a means of survival.
In closing, this reviewer believes that Raymond pens it best when he says, “writing this was the only way to get anyone to actually become fully aware of my whole story. The reader can select how much pain they can tolerate and when. This was my only avenue of expression left.” While highly recommended as a must-read, readers, pay heed to Raymond’s words since Seamless Subtleties is undoubtedly not intended for the faint of heart.
Spectrum of Mind: An Inquiry into the Principles of the Mind and the Meaning of Life
Spectrum of Mind: An Inquiry into the Principles of the Mind and Meaning of Life is a book that explores the timeless quest for the true meaning of life, a quandary that has inspired philosophers, religious leaders, and scientists. Part philosophy, part scientific exploration, Spectrum argues “the understanding of ourselves is crucial to our lives” and strives to provide the reader not with answers, but, instead, with key concepts and methods used to search for the meaning of life. As the author explains, it is not his job to tell the reader what to think, but, rather, to provide them with what to think about, acting as a guide on a journey as a fellow mind.
A relatively short book, Yang packs a lot into these pages. He discusses not only quantum mechanics, the human mind, the role culture and religion play, but also where philosophy fits in, not leaving out the consideration of why seek meaning in the first place. Overall, the journey in seeking the meaning of life is, according to Yang, highly personal, and it is in the journey and not the destination where readers will find answers. This book is only a step in that direction along the journey.
While this is probably not a book for the casual reader, one who would rather be entertained than challenged or reflective, it is a book suited to a reader seeking to reconcile various—even conflicting—pieces of knowledge and values. Spectrum of Mind is a heavy book, but by no means impenetrable in terms of reading or concepts. Its goal is to expose the reader to various ways of thinking from the religious, scientific, and philosophic spectrum, in order to push the limits of knowledge and reason. This is a book for a reader with an interest in expanding their knowledge base and the intersection of science and philosophy, and also, of course, the reader seeking meaning on their journey of life.