Thursday, September 17, 2020

books report

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch (Bloomsbury Press)
Defining a reference book as one to be consulted rather than read straight through, this book itself almost fits that definition by consisting of a roughly historically-based arrangement of short essays on (mostly) famous tomes. Begins with the codes of Hammurabi and Justinian, but includes no further legal codes; but it does cover dictionaries, lots and lots of dictionaries. When it gets to books I'm well familiar with, like Grove's (the music encyclopedia) or the Mansell catalog, I found a few misleading statements or omissions - like not mentioning that librarians call it the Mansell catalog or that it's only a part of the National Union Catalog, not the whole - but no major errors of fact. This is a pretty well-researched book, and I'm inclined to search out more of its author's works. (There are statistics for each work discussed, but no photos, which is too bad, because the Mansell is a really awesome sight.)

In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs edited by Andrew Blauner (Blue Rider Press)
I cam across this on the virtual shelf and picked it up out of curiosity. Only a few of the writers had I ever heard of. Their essays are arranged in chronological order of the Beatles song discussed. Most of the early ones fit the title by discussing the place of the song in the writer's life, often as latter-day youthful discoveries by writers too young to have heard the songs when they were new. With the later songs, more of the essays turn to analyzing the song, often preceded by disclaimers that the author isn't much of a Beatles fan. A close semiotic analysis of the lyrics of "Good Day Sunshine" is a little daft, but I got something out of a consideration of the question of what exactly did Charles Manson do to the reputation of "Helter Skelter." Discussions of where "goo goo g'joob" might have come from, or of how the harmonic shifts of "Penny Lane" resemble Richard Rodgers (no kidding), or of how "A Day in the Life" and "You Know My Name" (talk about a weird pair) were put together in the studio, were also interesting.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music (and Why We Should, Like, Care) by John McWhorter (Gotham Books)
Get off my lawn! This book isn't an old fogey complaining that nothing is as good as it used to be, it's a young fogey making the same complaint, and it sounds just the same. McWhorter considers it self-evident that the old stuff is good and the new stuff is anemic, so he spends more space declaring this than analyzing it, devoting much attention to poetry even though he says he doesn't much like poetry. But I was most interested in the last chapter, on popular music. McWhorter praises lavishly a lot of dull, meandering, unmemorable and fairly obscure "Great American Songbook" era-songs, not even always getting their titles right (the song from Mack and Mabel is "I Won't Send Roses" not "They Won't Send Roses"), and only mentions one first-class melody, Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight." Which is realy just a fragment, the complaint he has about newer songs. The absence of any better examples, of which there are lots, is glaring, but McWhorter thinks he can prove his case from lesser songs: he can't. Meanwhile he brushes off genuinely melodic, and genuinely full, newer pop songs like "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Oops, I Did It Again." My guess is that what McWhorter is displaying is his personal tastes, which would be fine if he weren't setting his tastes up as the infallible judgment of civilization.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (HarperCollins)
I don't dispute the facts in this book, but they're framed as a thesis that humans live a perverted, unnatural, self-deceptive, and destructive lifestyle, and always have, in a context in which biology is the only truth. Surely there's a way of communicating some of these facts without the dismissive and condescending air of one of those infinitely superior species with giant brains out of a 50s skiffy movie. I had enough of those movies back then and have no taste for another one.

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum (Princeton UP)
Sounded like a hopeful title, but I stopped dead at chapter 3, which purports to explain why young humans need an education, and does so by propounding totally daft Freudian ideas of how the human mind works. If this kind of reasoning is what a humanistic education leads to, we could do with less of it; fortunately I don't think this necessarily follows.

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