“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson

5 February 2009

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. (1962). 296 pp.

Why would anyone ever think that it is a good idea to dump tons of poisonous toxins all over just about everything?  If that question has never occurred to you, you’ve never read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the book that jump-started the environmental movement.  The book argues that human actions can have devastating, even if unintended, consequences for the natural world, a conclusion that few would now dispute.

Carson makes it clear that her opposition is not to chemical use per se, but to the short-sighted and ultimately very harmful use thereof, which also happen to be unnecessary in most cases.  She shows that, counterintuitively, massive spraying programs can often lead to the target species becoming more prevalent if the chemicals more thoroughly wipe out the target’s natural predators than the target itself.  Fostering a proper predator-prey balance she says is the best way to control pests, including invasive species, and she gives many examples of when and where this has been done with success—and at much lower cost than massive spraying programs, writing that
Nature herself has met many of the problems that now beset us, and she has usually solved them in her own successful way.  Where man has been intelligent enough to observe and to emulate Nature he, too, is often rewarded with success. (81)

Examples that she gives include using marigolds to keep nematodes away from roses and using shrubs to prevent view-blocking trees from growing up too close to the roadway.

Several times she takes snipes at the chemical companies, “the beneficiaries of this ‘sales bonanza'”, for promoting the use of insecticides for their own good, not that of the public; the book is certainly not an anti-capitalist manifesto, however, and any excesses of the environmental movement find little to no support in what Silent Spring actually says.
Rachel Carson's official Fish and Wildlife Service photo, circa 1940

Official Fish and Wildlife Service photo of Rachel Carson (1907–1964), taken circa 1940

Carson explains enough of the chemistry, but never gets bogged down in unneeded detail; information on the biology of the toxins and how they interfere with the body’s normal functioning were very interesting.  Given how dangerous many of the everyday chemicals that were available back then are, and how little education the public had about their use, it seems surprising that more people weren’t killed or crippled.  Especially since chemical interactions could greatly amplify the effects of toxins: with certain pairings of chemicals just 1% of the fatal dose of each, if taken together, could result in death.  Thankfully, such compounds are better regulated now than hitherto—in significant part due to this book.

Carson’s use of language is excellent; every word selection is correct and the book’s ideas flow into each other.  She is good at summing things up and turning a phrase to catch one’s attention.  Consider: “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”  Carson also knows exactly what level of detail to get into when discussing the examples and case studies that support her thesis, never glossing over important facts or getting bogged down in technical points; for those who want to verify her claims or explore any topic in more depth the book contains a 55-page bibliography. A 7-page afterword by entomologist E. O. Wilson completes this edition; but those familiar with the excellent quality of Wilson’s other science writing may be somewhat disappointed: the afterword doesn’t add much to the book unless you hadn’t been paying attention to the preceding 353 pages.

The book did it’s job so well that parts of it are no longer directly applicable: we no longer use many of the chemicals it mentions and we don’t do a lot of the really dumb things it critiques.  But the precautionary message is still right on and Silent Spring can serve as an excellent introduction to ecology.  Recommended for all readers who live in the environment.

“The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee

3 February 2009

The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. (1957). 292 pp.

Originally published in 1957, The Normal Christian Life is based on a series of sermons given by Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian (see his Wikipedia article) in 1938-9. It was edited by Angus Kinnear, since Nee had been in a Chinese prison on trumped up charges since 1952; he would die in jail in 1972, just before his scheduled release. The Hendrickson Christian Classics edition has a nice introductory essay that provides this context and other biographical details on Nee.

The best portions of the book come early. Nee draws a distinction between sins (lowercase and plural) and Sin (uppercase and singular). Sins are bad things that we do; Sin is an attitude or view which leads us to commit sins; this is a distinction also drawn by contemporary theologian Marcus Borg in his writings. Nee writes that it is not enough to simply receive forgiveness for bad things that we’ve done; we also need personal transformation (to use a term that Borg does) so that we won’t simply keep committing new transgressions. We must stop being greedy, petty, selfish, fearful, angry, impatient, and all the rest.

I also liked Nee’s definition of salvation, which is rather non-standard: “[Salvation] relates not to our sins nor to the power of sin, but to the cosmos or world-system. We are involved in Satan’s world-system. To be saved is to make our exit from his world-system into God’s” (55). He uses Noah and his family as an example; their salvation was “not so much that they were personally not drowned, but that they were out of that corrupt system. That is salvation” (56).

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee (1903–1972)

Much of the rest of the book didn’t strike me as very useful; he doesn’t argue from first principles but from a number of assumptions that he never defends or explicitly state; insofar as I don’t share those assumptions—about the nature of the Bible, how atonement works, and what God is like, among others—I didn’t find the central argument of the book very compelling. (One example: the author assumes the idea of Original Sin and its inheritability.)  The book never deals with the concept of love—the most important concept in Christianity; indeed, I’m not certain the word even occurs anywhere in the book.

Nee begins the book by asking “What is the normal Christian life? We do well at the outset to ponder this question. The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian.” Unfortunately, the book leads one to think that the problem that many of us have is that we try to do things, whereas we should really just sit back passively somehow and focus our efforts on believing that God will make everything work out okay in the end. Some of this comes close to the position of the Word of Faith movement and almost superstitious.   Finally, the portrait of God that Nee draws is one of a capricious deity that is always poking and prodding people, pushing them around and pulling the rug out from under them in order to manipulate them into doing good. God, as is often the case when the substitutionary theory of the atonement is assumed, comes across as rather punitive and blood-thirsty, a matter not particularly helped by Nee’s frequent and casual use of the term “the blood.”

This raises another problem.  Nee frequently falls into using jargon indiscriminately, often throwing around terms like “the blood”, “the cross”, “reckoning”, and “carnal power” without pausing to define them . One should always be suspicious of someone who doesn’t make his or her points in plain language (see “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell) and here one is forced to question exactly how much real meaning is in some of Nee’s statements; the vagueness of the terms allows many of his claims to mean almost anything the reader wants.  Often, the opaque terminology makes it is hard to derive any meaning from the text at all. Consider the following passage:

The Scriptures declare that we are “dead indeed,” but nowhere do they say that we are dead in ourselves. We shall look in vain to find death within; that is just the place where it is not to be found. We are dead not in ourselves but in Christ. We were crucified with him because we are in him. (p. 48, emphasis original)

Or another:

Unfortunately, in presenting the truth of our union with Christ, the emphasis has too often been placed upon this second matter of reckoning ourselves to be dead, as though that were the starting point, whereas it should rather be upon knowing ourselves to be dead. God’s Word makes it clear that “knowing” is to precede “reckoning.” (p. 38, emphasis original)

I have conversed before with people who use such language and I’ve no doubt that many will find these sorts of statements inspirational and purposeful.  That’s fine so far as it goes, but it’s not clear to me that he’s actually saying anything or conveying any real meaning.  It’s so easy to read what you want into what he’s saying that there’s not a lot that you can read out of what he’s saying.

Beyond those problems the fairly short book is easy to read.  Nee frequently uses anecdotes about his personal experiences, usually conversations he’s had with others, and illustrations involving everything from factories, light switches, putting sugar in tea, and buying books to help make his points. Readers may want to have a Bible handy when reading, as Nee often refers to and uses as background scripture passages without reproducing them in the text.  You can learn more about The Normal Christian Life by checking out its Wikipedia page.

Not recommended—especially for people without a solid grounding in theology—albeit not without value.

“The Path to Power” by Margaret Thatcher

27 January 2009

The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher. (1995). 615 pp.

Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs are contained in two volumes; The Downing Street Years (1993) cover her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and this volume, though published second, largely covers her life prior to that point.  The book starts off with her childhood and upbringing, her time at Oxford, and then very quickly moves into politics; she is elected to the House on page 100, less than a sixth of the way into the book.

This is very much a political autobiography; you won’t learn much about Thatcher’s personal life, hobbies, or interests.  So don’t read this book unless you’re interested in British politics.  If the terms three line whip and Hansard are unfamiliar to you, this book probably isn’t for you; the author doesn’t stop to explain these things and you’ll be frequently at a loss when she mentions red boxes or tells how she wondered whether it was constitutionally possible for Alex Douglas-Home to become Prime Minister.

Many will find the path that Thatcher took to power to be interesting.  She never held any of the three principle offices or shadow offices (Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Minister, or Home Secretary) before becoming Tory leader in 1975.  She was Education Minister in the Heath Government, and then shadowed various departments in opposition before deciding to oppose Heath for the party leadership.  Throughout the book her disagreements with other Conservatives is a constant theme and she often critiques her colleagues who were less keen on market forces and more willing to engage in socialist policies.  However, she rarely, if ever, has any criticism of herself which makes the book less interesting than it otherwise might be.

Some, especially those on the left, may be annoyed at the frequent sniping she does at Labour, almost as if the book were a political speech and not an autobiography.  But she writes “of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer.  He was a serious man and a patriot.  Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show.”  Most of the compliments she has for other Labour members are of the “he was a good speaker” variety.  I am forced to wonder if this book would have turned out any differently if Thatcher hadn’t written it so soon after leaving office.  Perhaps her analyses would have been different.

Something I found interesting was the view of British government from the inside—how the opposition and government are at each other all the time, how frontbenchers interact with backbenchers, how various politicians rise and fall.  A disappointment that I had was that the book doesn’t really describe any of the debates and exchanges which happen in the House of Commons.  Anyone familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions will understand my dissatisfaction at this omission.  (Hint for those not in the know: debate in the British House of Commons is very different in tone that that on the floor of the U.S. Congress.)

Thatcher circa 1975

Thatcher circa 1975

Anyway, the last 140 pages or so cover her activities after leaving 10 Downing Street.  In the final pages she becomes somewhat more reflective and also comments on how her early life experiences shaped her political and other views.  Rest of the second part is only slightly autobiographical and tends to be more an exposition of her views on the European Union (she was skeptical or closer political integration), traditional values and the family (she was socially conservative on such issues), and the need to continue opposing socialism in all its guises.  Those seeking more information on her foreign policy views should check out her more recent book Statecraft.  Those wanting more on her views on social policy, fiscal policy, and how they interact should read The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher, which covers her entire time in politics.

To give you a bit more of the flavor of the book, here are some not necessarily representative quotations and fragments that I found interesting for one reason or another.  The second one seems quite Randian to me.

Market forces operating within the right framework make for fairness, and … even beneficent state control only makes for equality. (228.)

All collectivism is always conducive to oppression: it is only the victims who differ. (406)

So many people and so many vested interests were by now significantly dependent on the state—for employment in the public sector, for Social Security benefits, for health care, education and housing—that economic freedom had begun to pose an almost unacceptable risk to their living standards.  And, when that finally happened, political freedom—for example the freedom to join or not join a union or the freedom to have controversial views and still be entitled to teach in a state school or work in a government department—would be the next victim. (440)

The primary duty a free country owes, not just to itself but to countries which are unfree, is to survive. (365)

Youth cult of the 1960s whereby the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. (186)

That one mortal sin in the eyes of mediocrities—he had shown “lack of judgment”, i.e. willingness to think for himself.

As indicated above, I would not recommend this book to most people, only those interested in politics and who have some background in British government.  For those who are and who do, I would recommend this book. It has me interested in checking out it’s companion volume, The Downing Street Years.

“When I Was a Young Man” by Bob Kerrey

20 January 2009

When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by J. Robert Kerrey. (2002). 261 pp.


This is a short, autobiographical work by former Democratic Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.  He describes his happy childhood in Nebraska, how he joined the U.S. Navy and became a Navy SEAL, and his various training.  Kerrey was sent of to Vietnam where he took part in several actions and was ultimately wounded seriously.

The portions where he describes his convalescence after the amputation of part of one leg, including how it impacted how people saw him, has lessons for us today as we face so many wounded Iraq vets.  Incidentally, Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam.

The book lacks direction and purpose, however.  Perhaps that is because, as he explains in the preface, he set out to write a different book: one about his father and uncle, the later of whom was killed in the Philippines in WWII.  There are some anti-war sentiments throughout the book, but they are never really developed or made explicit, Kerrey doesn’t truly make them his own.  Anyway, from the preface he sort of sets things up this way:

In the first half of my life, history was one of two things: sterile and meaningless information to be memorized for school tests of myths told to generate good feelings and memories.  The patriotic and heroic stories I heard in my youth caused me to believe that my nation was never wrong and that my leaders would never lie to me.  When the sand of this foundation blew away, I lost my patriotism.  In the second half of my life, I rebuilt this foundation on something sturdier: the observation that Americans at their best can be unimaginably generous and willing to put their lives on the line for the freedom and well-being of others.

There are some amusing points in the book, such as the club he was in that was to be called “the Angels” but ended up being “the Angles” because “we let our poorest speller write our name on the door” and then the account of what they saw from the tree house (p. 58).  Other material of interest to me were Kerrey’s comments on his religious upbringing and the evolution of his beliefs, his comments on racism, and the account of the serviceman who died in training.

This book is very light reading; I finished it’s 261 pages in about 5 hours despite a few distractions.  While not a bad book, I don’t particularly recommend it; time reading it won’t be wasted, but it would probably be better invested elsewhere unless you’re completely ignorant about the Vietnam war.

Leo Tolstoy: Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1

20 January 2009

Leo Tolstoy: Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1. Everyman Library’s (2001). 759 pp.

The Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1 from the Everyman's Library

Leo Tolstoy: The Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1 from the Everyman's Library

Though I didn’t realize it when I purchased this book, it is only the first of two volumes of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction published by Everyman’s Library—and several of the stories I’d been most looking forward to are in the second volume, which I can tell because this book includes the tables of contents for both volumes.  It also includes a 12-page introductory essay which I did not find terribly useful, but a person who brings no knowledge of Tolstoy to the book may find it helpful.

This volume contains 22 of Tolstoy’s shorter works, only some of them qualifying as short stories, others weighing in as novellas; one, Family Happiness, is called “a novel” and another, A Landlord’s Morning, was apparently part of an unfinished novel, but is a complete work in itself.

My favorite item in the book is the short story “Lucerne” (available online here).  It is told in the first person by a wealthy man staying at a resort in Lucerne, Switzerland.  He sees a mendicant musician perform for a crowd of wealthy patrons there who then refuse to give him any money and, indeed, laugh at him.  The narrator speaks with the musician and shows him kindness, while observing how shabbily the hotel staff and patrons treat the man.  This is all told, basically, to lead up to the final third of the work, in which the narrator confronts and denounces the wealthy patrons and their attendants for their shallowness, lack of compassion, and self-absorbsion.  This portion of the story has no plot or characters, it’s basically a speech by the narrator, and seems to convey Tolstoy’s own sentiments, which are clearly filled with a lot of passion and righteous anger.  An passage:

“Who is the greater man, and who the greater barbarian,—that lord, who, seeing the minstrel’s well-worn clothes, angrily left the table, who gave him not the millionth part of his possessions in payment of his labor, and now lazily sitting in his brilliant, comfortable room, calmly expresses his opinion about the events that are happening in China, and justifies the massacres that have been done there; or the little minstrel, who, risking imprisonment, with a franc in his pocket, and doing no harm to any one, has been going about for a score of years, up hill and down dale, rejoicing men’s hearts with his songs, though they have jeered at him, and almost cast him out of the pale of humanity; and who, in weariness and cold and shame, has gone off to sleep, no one knows where, on his filthy straw?”

Also earning an underline from me is “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” one of the shortest items in the collection at just nine pages; it deals almost exclusively with the theme of forgiveness.

An 1887 portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy

An 1887 portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy

“A Prisoner in the Caucasus” is a good adventure story, detailing the capture and escape of a Russian soldier.  Like several other works in this volume, this story is based on Tolstoy’s own experience serving in the Russian army.

Like any collection of short stories written over four decades, the quality and interest of these works varies a good bit.  Some are written in first person, others in third person limited.  Tolstoy doesn’t use (at least in this collection) the omniscient point of view that would inform the reader of the thoughts and feelings of the characters, except insofar as they are manifested outwardly.  His descriptions of things is also very matter-of-fact, he doesn’t put a lot of poetry or soaring language into his descriptions of settings or actions; there is no purple prose here.

While I recommend with reservations the volume as a whole there are several items in it that I would highly recommend.  Perhaps more importantly, I am now interested in getting the second volume of Tolstoy’s short works.