It seems to be the season to be making lists of 10 — perhaps you are looking for a last minute Hanukah gift (it starts on Friday). Here at Berkeley, we are all going to have to give up our work in our labs and offices because the campus is on mandatory furlough and curtailment for 15 days (we dare not even sneak onto campus to try to do research, because there will be no heat and no janitorial services or toilet paper for the bathrooms!)
Here are some books that I enjoyed in the last year. I’ve taken the most liberal definition of “books” imaginable — including DVDs, CD sets, and web postings. All of the items listed below stimulated my thinking — I hope they do so for you too. There is no significance to the ordering, neither do I claim that these are the best 11 books I read over the last year — but they are all books that happened to be on my mind as I composed this post.
(And to avoid the cliche of giving a list of 10 items — I include an extra bonus item in this list — for a total of 11.)
Paul Nahin, Mrs. Perkins’s Electric Quilt and Other Intriguing Stories of Mathematical Physics (Princeton). Paul Nahin is one of the most wonderful writers I have encountered — I go out of my way to collect all of his books. This particular volume introduces wonderful and weird stories about a variety of problems in mathematical physics. The title comes from the celebrated problem published by Henry Dudney: A square quilt of 169 identical square patches is to be cut into a number of pieces which are themselves square by cutting along the stitch lines (i.e., no cutting through a patch). How can this be done in the fewest number of subsquares? Nahin traces how this particular problem turns out to be closely related to issues in electrical circuit theory. This is a book for those who have at least a lower division background in math, science, or engineering.
Daniel Matt, Zohar: The Pritzker Edition (Stanford). Local writer Daniel Matt has just published the fifth in his 10 volume projected series of a translation of the Zohar, a work of vast mysticism attributed to the school of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (although some scholars attribute it to the 13th century Spanish figure Moses de Leon). If you don’t read Aramaic, you’ll likely benefit from Matt’s translation, which brings out the poetic metaphors in the Aramaic (and if you do read Aramaic, you’ll benefit from Matt’s careful reconstruction of the Aramaic original which can be found online.
Christian Bök, Eunoia (Coach House). Eunoia is a book of univocalics — each chapter uses only a single vowel — a, e, i, o, and u. Those who love word games or good writing will be delighted by the expressive ability Bök derives from this sharp limitation. The work thus begins: “Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and backwards zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal).” You can read more at the Amazon preview or this Flash-enabled web page. Don’t overlook the amazing spoken word CD that can go with this book.
Neal Krawetz, Body by Victoria (Blog post). This is not a book at all, but a blog entry (because reading means much more in 2009 than simply reading books.) This blog entry deconstructs a catalogue photograph by Victoria’s Secret and uses powerful reverse engineering steps to show exactly how it was photoshopped. It’s a fascinating presentation of emerging tools for examining photoshopped or otherwise manipulated photographs, as well as interesting parable over the notions of beauty in our society.
Thomas Keller, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (Artisan). If you relish the thought of turning your kitchen into a science laboratory, here is a chance to study from a master, “French Laundry” chef Thomas Keller, as he explains the widespread haute cuisine technique of sous vide. This is the technique that landed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey in trouble when he was accused of cooking pre-made foods — but in fact, it is a powerful and widely accepted way to make succulent dishes that are simply not possible with conventional techniques. If you are interested in other presentations of scientific methods (particularly molecular gastronomy) in cooking I can recommend all of Hervé This’s books, but perhaps Molecular Gastronomy is the place to start. It is in here that you’ll find This’s amazing recipe for intense chocolate mousse — using only chocolate and water (before the advent of molecular gastronomy, these were viewed as traditional enemies). If you need a bit more convincing look at this brief presentation by Heston Blumenthal. If you want to challenge your cooking abilities to their very limit, take a look at other molecular gastronomy cookbooks such as those covering recipes of Grant Achatz and Ferran Adria.
Leslie Klinger and Bram Stoker, The Annotated Dracula (Norton). Vampires are everywhere in mass culture this year, but there is something special of Bram Stoker’s Dracula — it is a genuinely frightening novel that at the same time was a high-tech thriller of its age — as Neil Gaiman writes in his forward to this edition, “Dracula is a Victorian high-tech thriller, at the cutting edge of science, filled with concepts like dictation to phonographic cylinders, blood transfusions, shorthand, and trepanning. ... It is told entirely in letters, telegrams, press cuttings and the like. None of the people who are telling us the story knows the entirety of what is actually going on. This means that Dracula is a book that forces the readers to fill in the blanks, to hypothesize, to imagine, to presume.” Beyond the intellectual puzzles in the novel itself, this edition is enhanced by a vast number of illustrations and exhaustive annotation (which is written from the view that Dracula is a non-fiction work describing real events.) Dracula is not an encounter with warm and fuzzy vampire-love objects — rather it is harrowing meditation on evil. This is an excellent edition to reacquaint yourself with this pop classic.
Alex Beam, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (Public Affairs). Any number of academic treatises complain about the commercialization of higher education in the US — a charge that I don’t find credible. However, this easy-to-read book talks about the famous Hutchins’ experiment at the University of Chicago with great book — a story full of huckster-academics such as Mortimer Adler. Their attempt to market perfectly horrible editions of the “Great Books” — plugged incessantly on television and radio, lead to huge sales revenue for the publisher Encyclopedia Britannica (Britannica sold over one million sets of these unreadable volumes — “32,000 pages of tiny, double-column eye-straining type” with no footnotes or introductions to help set context) and which lead to multiple charges by the Federal Trade Commission. It would be easy to take an entirely cynical view, but this book ends on a positive and optimistic note.
Allen Mandelbaum, Anthony Oldcorn and Charles Ross, Lectura Dantis (California). The two traditional ways of studying Dante’s Divine Comedy are using an annotated edition (of which there are many varied and outstanding examples) or having a set of canto-by-canto lecture/essays. This work, published by UC Press, is an outstanding example of the latter. It invites different scholars — including a healthy number of Italian scholars, to explain the Cantos. The pleasure in reading this work is not only a greater illumination of the Divine Comedy, but a wide-sweeping range of different approaches to Dante. The effect is akin to being a spectator at an academic Dante conference, and seeing how so many fundamentally different approaches yield new understandings of the work. To date, volumes for the Inferno and Purgatorio have appeared.
Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (FSG). This is an introductory presentation of the philosophical foundations of ethics by Harvard super-teacher Michael Sandel. It is based on his extremely popular course, which in 2007 set a Harvard record, enrolling 1,115 students. The popularity of Michael Sandel’s course lead to his lectures being videotaped and edited and released on public television (they are also available at justiceharvard.org and are also available on DVD.) While the presentation is necessarily basic, it has moments of surprising sophistication, and I found myself captivated (and learning) from Sandel’s book. Those who want to get more out of Sandel’s book and lectures may be interested in his rather nice reader of both contemporary and classic works that he uses as source material for his lecture. It should be noted that Sandel also recorded a special audio version of his book, which is of interest in its own right because of the way he presents material.
Transportation Security Agency, Screening Management: Standard Operating Procedures. Have you ever wondered how the TSA decides whom and what to check as people cross through airport security? Do you wonder how what a CIA or US Congress person’s identification document looks like? What triggers automatic inspection? Who is exempt from inspection? While the TSA designates this information as sensitive, it published the material on the web as a PDF. The TSA tried to redact some of the information in the document; but they merely put black boxes on top of redacted sections — apparently unaware that these black boxes can be removed by anyone who knows how to use the Adobe Acrobat program. The result is mostly dry reading, but all sorts of surprising nuggets are contained in this document. TSA has promised an investigation into how such a sensitive document was published on the Web.
J. M. Synge, DruidSynge: The Plays of John Millington Synge (RTE). The Berkeley theatrical highlight of the Fall semester was undoubtedly Cal Performance’s presentation of The Walworth Farce by the Irish performing troupe Druid. (For those of you not in the Bay Area, it is continuing to tour worldwide through next year). Druid earlier tried an exceptionally ambitious project — performing all six of J. M. Synge’s plays in a single day. That effort has been recorded on video and is now available directly on DVD from the Irish publish broadcaster RTE. J. M. Synge is of course famous for Playboy of the Western World, but the experience of seeing all of his works performed on a single day allows one to draw connections on this amazing playwright. If you are interested in this performance, I recommend clearing your calendar for a day to watch the complete set of plays in a single viewing. (Oxford University Press publishes an annotated, inexpensive paperback edition of the scripts.) For those of you who do visit the RTE website, I suggest also taking a look at their rather impressive — fully casted — reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses (on CD, on MP3 CD, and available for free online listening).