Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh how I love this book. Wilde is able to make a scene come to life like no other writer of his day, a power uniquely suitable to the written word. As a playwright, this is his only novel, and what a novel. This is a book that is indeed "poisonous", a direct challenge to our morality. Witty, sharp, disturbing... This is a book that engages, makes one ask questions about previously unquestioned ethical principles. It remains as scandalous today as the day it was released to a shocked England. I cannot imagine a time when The Picture of Dorian Gray loses it's power to simultaneously hypnotize us with florescence while repelling us in the protagonists compelling fall (or was it a rise?) into narcissism.

Oscar Wilde's most famous quote is that "all art is quite useless", and I think this quote should be given some thought before one begins.

What is meant by useless? Useless as in didactic literature? No, that won't do because some of the canon is infused with what once gave instruction and now gives pleasure.

What is meant by art? From a man considered to be an immoral hedonistic dandy, one might imagine that to Oscar Wilde life was art. Perhaps this gives some understanding of his death-bed conversion. What a depressing thought though, because this is a work that makes no apologies, a work that flows as if called from the muse of old, a work that dominates the imagination like nothing else.

Dive in to this masterwork, because anything less than a plunge may give one cold feet.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as Candle in the Dark

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an introduction to clear, rational, scientific thinking, The Demon-Haunted World succeeds. As an exploration of one man's passion for the scientific search for understanding, only Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show on Earth is comparable. Clearly presented here is a staple of rational inquiry; 'Occam's Razor', a theory of parsimony that can be applied to critical thinking in general, showing that the scientific method has application beyond laboratory use.

Sagan fascinates with his exploration of the roots of "Ufology", which he presents as a case of the hyperactive minds of our species infused with Cold War paranoia. The famous astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson once remarked humorously on the logical leap made by a hypothetical observer of mysterious aerial phenomenon. He pointed out that this observer first must admit that he has almost no understanding of said phenomenon, and promptly proceeds based upon ignorance that it must be alien technology. "Hey, this is beyond my comprehension and I have no idea what this is, ergo alien spacecraft!" The influence of Hollywood cannot be said to be absent in this blatant violation of Occam's Razor.

I feel the overused and often arrogant cliche, namely that "this book should be a part of the education of every child" is going just a bit too far. I will take a step back and say that this is a book that I would insist my children would read. Critical thinking is a tool that is not stressed with the vigor that it's historical effectiveness demands, and Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is as good a light introduction as I have read.

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