03 October 2005

Reading Update

I'm still working my way through The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong -- consistently interesting and informative, but also plain bloody long. Possibly I'm just out of practice as far as reading non-fiction goes, but I find it's taking up most of my reading energy.

Armstrong spends pretty much the first half of the book grounding the various late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Islam and Christianity in those religions' intellectual histories since 1492. Which is amazingly thorough of her, but it does mean that it's quite some time before the book gets on to its supposed substance: I'm halfway through now, and it's only in the current chapter that she's started to talk about the christian movement from which "fundamentalism" takes its name. Mind you, it's told me a lot more about the history of post-Persian Iran, early settlement-era Israel / Palestine, and come to that christianity in the early United States, than I ever knew before.

One of Armstrong's more interesting premises is that knowledge in the pre-modern world could be separated into two distinct categories: logos, which was rational, factual truth of the kind science provides, with an immediate practical and progressive application; and mythos, the arena of faith, myth and poetry, where truths incapable of being expressed in factual terms were conveyed through parable, metaphor and story. She believes that we in the modern world have lost sight of mythos altogether, and have become incapable of understanding truth except in terms of logos: the fundamentalists among us are just those who struggle to hold onto religious truths in their entirety, but in a modern context feel obliged to interpret them as logoi -- hence, most blatantly, the reductionist and wilfully ignorant attempts to argue that Genesis is viable as a scientific account, but also any attempt to enact a religion's symbols literally as politics. It's fascinating stuff.

(She also considers that the emergence of revisionist pre-millenialism in late nineteenth-century American christianity -- Rapture prophecies and the like -- forms a religious parallel to the secular European genre of the future-war narrative, as seen in such works as The Battle of Dorking and indeed The War of the Worlds. Which is just fantastic.)

During the rest of my reading time, I've finished If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I enjoyed it for all the postmodern pyrotechnics (the book is about the experience of reading books, and about the book as a dialogue between author and reader, and is therefore told in the second person by a constantly-shifting narrator)... but actually, I found it less satisfying, and certainly less breathtakingly beautiful, than the only other Calvino I've read, Invisible Cities.

I thought at first the translator was different, but no, both books are translated by Wiliam Weaver. It must be the book itself which is, for some reason, rather less to my taste. Perhaps it's just that Invisible Cities, a collection of apparently unrelated descriptions of various fantastical cities as supposedly related by Marco Polo to Genghis Khan, makes only the most cursory of gestures towards having an actual narrative, whereas If on a winter's night a traveler, essentially an anthology of first chapters of novels, attempts to string them together with a coherent plot. The writing succeeds on many levels, and yet the plot reads as a fairly arbitrary mess: this is perhaps what drags it down.

Returning to my to-read list, I embarked last night on A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest -- surely overdue a reissue in the lovely new uniform editions Gollancz are bringing out of the author's work. I started it last night, and enjoyed it enough that I'm already nearly a quarter of the way through: it's a story of time-travel, in a sense, with a vividly-realised future which may or may not be illusory, and it shares with the other work of Priest's that I've read a strong sense of landscape and environment, related closely to the internal life of the protagonist. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, he's an author who creeps up on you and insinuates himself into your mind a favourite before you've really worked out what you consciously think about him.

If I seem to be selecting my favourite S.F. authors these days on the basis of their attitudes to geography... well, I'm just as much surprised by this as anybody else.

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