Wednesday, August 8, 2012

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (part 2)

I'll be honest: between my sister visiting this week, and August already being a relatively busy month for me, I haven't made the time to finish reading Moonbeam yet.  I'll have it done by Friday, but until then, how about some delicious filler?  Way back in the misty reaches of, er, May, I listed the books I was reading at the time, and talked briefly about each.  That seemed to spark some interesting discussion, so I'm going to go ahead and do the same thing again.  Below, I'll put the title and author of each book, what my opinion is of it to this point, and a recommendation based on that incomplete reading.

Prisoner's Dilemma, by William Poundstone

What it is:  In game theory, the "prisoner's dilemma" refers to specific conundrum that can occur when two individuals are offered a choice to either betray or cooperate with one another, and occurs when betrayal is always beneficial to the individual, but cooperation is better for the group (if that was unclear, the wikipedia article has an example).  Poundstone chronicles the life of John von Neumann, the man who "invented" modern game theory, and interweaves the mathematical and social dictates which drive such choices with the Cold War crucible in which they were developed (von Neumann was working for RAND, a pentagon think tank).

How I'm liking it:  Quite a bit, actually.  I'm only a short way into it, but the book seems to strike a good balance between biography and math; it's not 'soft science,' but neither is it inaccessible to lay-readers.  And I really like that it examines both the social and mathematical aspects of decision-making in game theory; too many times, one is focused on to the exclusion of the other.

Recommendation:  This is an engaging and informative history of modern game theory, and anyone interested in that branch of socio-mathematics should consider giving it a look.

Medieval and Tudor Drama, edited by John Gassner

What it is:  A collection of plays from Britain, circa 1200-1500 AD.

How I'm liking it:  I've always found medieval art, music, and theatre to be extremely interesting, because so much that we take for granted in modern entertainment was just being developed in that time period.  This is especially true in music, where the concept of polyphony was just beginning to bloom following the collapse of the Roman Empire, but other artistic fields also show a surprising amount of unbridled creativity, absent many of the tropes and patterns to which we in the present day are accustomed.  That said, I understand that I'm one of the very few people interested in reading a passion play as anything other than a sleep aid.

Recommendation:  This collection is probably not one that very many people would have an interest in reading for fun, but if you really want to know what theatre was like before Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the other renaissance authors came along, this is probably as good an introduction as any.

Conan of Cimmeria, by Robert E. Howard

What it is:  What, you've never heard of Conan?  Technically this is the second collection by chronology, but chronology was never very important to Howard (the shorts were mostly originally published separately, and were designed to be read independently).

How I'm liking it:  As much as people like to credit Tolkien for creating the modern fantasy genre, he's only part of the story.  While LotR may have given us the standard fantasy races and epic narrative on which so many stories now rely, it was the Conan short stories that laid the table for scads of muscle-bound he-men to come.  And much like LotR, Conan is a lot better than most of the stuff that came after it.  I've been picking my way through the old L. Sprague De Camp collections of Howard's stories at my leisure for a while, and on the whole I've been glad I finally got around to them.

Recommendation:  These are very predictable stories, in a way: Conan has some task to complete or foe he must overcome, he goes out and does so, the end.  But unlike too many imitators, Howard's original is more than just a musclebound killing machine: he's a brutally intelligent hunter and warrior, and the world he travels through is as interesting as any.

Maphead, by Ken Jennings

What it is:  The biography of a topophile (spellcheck wants me to change that to "pedophile."  Honestly...), and of mapmaking itself.

How I'm liking it:  With the first book in this list, I mentioned the challenge history/science/math/etc. books face of balancing narrative with meat.  This book, written by that guy who made a killing on Jeopardy!, contains too little of the latter, and ends up being too much about Jennings' childhood and, to a lesser extent, the lives of some of the major names in the history of mapmaking, and not enough about the history of mapmaking itself.  This is a very readable, enjoyable book, but I'm not learning as much as I'd like from it.

Recommendation:  In terms of entertainment, this is a perfectly fine bit of writing.  But for folks looking for a more substantial read, it will probably prove disappointing.

Lord Foul's Bane,  by Stephen R. Donaldson

What it is:  The story of Thomas Covenant, a leper living in the near past, who is somehow transported to a fantastical world more vibrant and alive than he can comprehend.

How I'm liking it:  Since it's one of my favorite books ever, I'm liking it quite well, thank you.  The reason I'm re-reading now is because the final book in the Covenant series (spanning two trilogies written in the 70's and 80's, and a more recent quadrilogy) should come out in about a year, and I'd like to have re-read the other nine books before then.  And since they're all absolute door-stoppers, I figure I'd better get started now.

Recommendation:  The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is unarguably one of the most influential stories in modern fantasy, and perhaps in modern fiction.  It codified the anti-hero in contemporary literature, and has expanded many vocabularies (including my own) by leaps and bounds.  That said, it's been said that there are three kinds of people who read Lord Foul's Bane: those who read it and love it, those who read it and hate it, and those who give up in disgust after chapter seven (of which I'll say no more, because it's such a crucial, dramatic scene).  I highly recommend it, but clearly I fall into the first camp.


  1. And in comparison, I'm halfway through Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, two-thirds of the way through my third or four reread of The Hunger Games, and keep meaning to get back to 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin In The Mouth.

    I reckon you's a bit more err-u-dite than me.

  2. Oh boy. Your reading lists are always so varied! Mine usually follows as such:

    Law textbook. Another law textbook. A third law textbook, and get ready for some variation, because the last book is an international politics textbook!

    All in all, thrilling stuff.

    However, and perhaps interestingly, I just finished looking at the prisoner's dilemma and how it applies to international politics and interactions between nation states. I have to say, though, that if someone showed me it within a mathematical context, I would probably drop out. Or cry. Or both.

    Math is the worst.

    1. After reading yourself, I couldn't help myself with this Simpsons reference:

      "They're a colorful bunch ... There's a mathematician, a different kind of mathematician, and a statistician."

  3. Ah, Game Theory, how I love/hate thee. It's so interesting, but I never want to see another decision tree for the rest of my life!

    Considering Jenning's notoriety as a spermologer, I'm not surprised by his book's focus

    1. This post lead to a long email discussion about the gene-centered view of evolution and game theory. (And a story about Rarity scuba-diving into a giant Spike, but that's most irrelevant.)

      Someone somewhere once said that game theory is interesting because the only people who act in the way game theorists predict are sociopaths and other game theorists.

    2. Hehe, I've heard that before. It does a good job of modelling firms too, though I've oft heard them compared to sociopaths, so...

      Such a critique may apply to a more naive version of Game Theory. The behavior of normal individuals could be better modeled with the addition of certain, hard to quantify factors such as a sense of altruism

  4. I read "Priceless" by William Poundstone, and I thought that was a very informative book. It's about how we perceive price and how malleable the concept is. The latter half is full of interesting examples, like a chapter on how prices are designed on restaurant menus.

    1. Interesting. Sounds like one I'll have to look up!

  5. I can barely keep up reading one book atop one fanfiction at a time. :/ Obviously, my life is a sham.

  6. So... several more books to be added to my towering pile of tomes to-be-read.

    I have to admit, though I generally find your tastes to be mostly similar to mine, I'm one of the gave-up-in-disgust-after-chapter-seven people. For some reason, I can't seem to get through a story when I'm constantly wishing the protagonist dead.

    1. I contemplated typing up a lengthy reply to this, but I think I can sum it up this way: I thought that making it so brutally clear how broken (and indeed, repellent) Covenant is allowed Donaldson to examine both the basic human need for restitution, the idea of the "unforgivable sin," and the curious blindness of those who lack ambiguity (both Lord Foul and the people of The Land) in ways that no lesser event could have.

      That said, believe me when I say I understand what you mean about not wanting to spend any more time with a protagonist whom you loath. I certainly won't fault anyone who, feeling that way, decides that a particular book isn't for them.

  7. I must say I am with you on Renaissance-era music at least. I'm one of the "I may not know art, but I know what I like" camp with respect to literature and, well, art. But music has been a passion of mine for decades, and truth be told, would be my career choice if money were not an issue. And I find myself quite taken with the complexity of the musical forms used during that period, as constrained as they were. They're also quite fun to write. There's much beauty to be found in seeming simplicity.

  8. Let's see, what have I been reading in terms of real books as of late between college (luckily it's going to pay off by Saturday), watching cartoons and old movies, writing whatever pops into my head, etc.

    Savage Pastimes: A cultural history of violent entertainment, this book was an entertaining read that convincingly asserts that violence in entertainment has always been there because it satisfies an inner need of ours and that we have actually improved in this regard in many ways (that is how we satisfy this need has increasingly more humane, I really can't think of a better word). What other people in different time periods used for such needs often comes across as disconcerting and droll and that alone made it worth my time, it addition to its other parts.

    The American Language, I had to return this piece by the Sage before completing it, but it was a somewhat interesting work on the study of American English. It's not my favorite by him, though, and to be honest I wouldn't recommend unless one has an interest in American English linguistics.

    War is a Racket, written by America's most decorated soldier, this antiwar piece talks about war profiteers, the price of war, and what should be done. It also includes more essays by Butler as well, such as how to respond to the second war in Europe. If nothing else, it shows the mindset of certain Americans during the rise of fascism.

    Vanity Fair, I was only able to look at part of Thackeray's book before I had to return, but the parody element of it (who says Victorians can't do metahumor) means that I will eventually will come back to it.

    A collection of Orwell's essays (found these online), this includes some of his literary reviews on writers like Dickens and Wells, his thoughts on the politics of at the time (in both writing and in actual politics), on English culture, and more. To be honest, even though Animal Farm is my second favorite piece of fictional literature, I find Orwell most enjoyable in this format.

    Hollywood Cartoon: American Animation in its Golden Age, it's about what the title says, a critical (serious here, no one and almost nothing gets by without a single criticism directed at it or them) history on American animation from the early 20th century to the late 60's. It's chapters on Disney and Schlesinger/Warner Bros. are certainly worth the time of anyone with interest in either. Technically, there really isn't a time I'm not reading this, no surprise this is my favorite book of all time. (Then again I'm a little biased; few people have influenced me as much as Mike has).

  9. This post has reminded me of how little reading I've been doing lately. All I've managed to get through recently is my own Conan collection, a reread of the complete Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and a skim through the Meaning of Liff. For shame, me.

    Also, yes. Thomas Covenant is indescribable. I really must read those again.

  10. It's so strange. I used to read constantly, but I've only touched a handful of books these last couple years (college ruined me). I suppose I still read plenty online, or at least I did before joining the fandom, but a computer screen can't compete with the real thing.

    The last book I flipped through was The Craft of Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis, and before that was one of Michael Crichton's posthumously published novels, Pirates Latitude

  11. The only thing I'm 'reading' everyday is Lehninger's Principle of Biochemistry. I wish I can say that's because I'm super busy, but in reality I'm just too lazy to even go more than a chapter a day with that one, lol.