BOOK REVIEW: Comedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis

Comedy: A Very Short IntroductionComedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This introductory guide examines comedy in a broad fashion, covering literary, historical, philosophical, and – to a limited degree – its psychological dimensions. The book investigates the shifting meaning of the word “comedy” and the changes in media and mechanisms through which it’s been conveyed. So, if you’re concerned (or hoping) that this book is simply an accounting of comedy as the literary genre counter to tragedy, that’s not the case. It discusses not only literature and drama, but also standup comedy and other devices by which humor is conveyed, and it uses “The Simpsons” as well as “Candide” and “Don Quixote” as examples to get points across.

This VSI guide does have a little bit of overlap with the “Humour: VSI,” but where that book focuses heavily on the theory of what makes something humorous, this book addresses that subject in a much more superficial way. On the other hand, this book spends more time looking at comedy from ancient times onward and how its ways have changed since the age of the classics. This guide also peers more beyond the cognitive and philosophical aspects of humor to how elements such as physicality, persona, and even death play into comedy.

It is a scholarly introduction, so one shouldn’t expect a laugh riot, but it is a more entertaining read than if it only looked at comedy as the literary mode opposed to tragedy. If you wish to develop further insight into the many facets of comedy, it’s worth checking out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton

Free Speech: A Very Short IntroductionFree Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This concise guide outlines the debate on the perennially precarious issue of freedom of speech and expression. What factors (if any) should determine whether speech is restricted or not? Only when harm will be done to other individuals or to society at-large? Under a set of predefined conditions designed to advance societal harmony, or, perhaps, jingoism?

Some of the most interesting discussions in the book involve questions of whether any individuals or entities should have special privileges vis-a-vis freedom of speech? Historically, religions have claimed to be beyond criticism, but even as blasphemy restrictions have been softened (or applied equally to minority as well as majority religions,) there are still other groups seeking special status. For example, should a renowned artist who produces something that would otherwise violate public decency standards be able to publicly display said work because it has some redeeming artistic merit? (One can imagine the challenge presented by this question, given the inherently subjective nature of “artistic merit.”)

The book generally describes two or more opposing stances on any given issue, almost ensuring there will be points with which one agrees and others with which one doesn’t. I found the book thought-provoking, which led to a couple interesting realizations. For one thing, while I’ve been dismayed about how some groups are trying to carve out sacred spaces in which they are beyond criticism, challenge, or even [the nebulous] “being offended,” I was reminded that this is nothing new, and that whether it’s royal families or “the Church” there’s always been some group who wanted “freedom from” offense, challenge, or critique. It’s just a question of which groups make said demands that’s changing. For another thing, while I’m generally about as close to a free speech absolutist as one sees, I did learn that there is one question on which I don’t take the most pro individual liberty stance (in part because I didn’t recognize it as part of the debate.) The issue in question is copyright protection. There are those who argue that access to knowledge should be free and unimpinged, and that – furthermore — this would advance creativity. [I don’t really understand this stance as it seems to assume that creators of intellectual property will work even harder if they don’t get paid, but that’s a discussion for another time.]

If you’re interested in questions of free speech, particularly as they pertain to religious beliefs, pornography, and the changing state of intellectual property, you may want to read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Social and Cultural Anthropology [VSI] by John Monaghan & Peter Just

Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short IntroductionSocial and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction by John Monaghan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was one of the most interesting “Very Short Introduction” books — of the many titles in the series that I’ve read. The authors use stories and examples to convey the basics of the subject in way that’s not mind-numbingly dry (i.e. the scholarly norm) – in fact, there’s a fair amount of humor laced throughout the book.

Most of the examples come from the two tribes that these two authors study – i.e. one in Mexico and the other in Indonesia. However, those two groups provide a rich arena of interesting anecdotes, and the authors do use social groups outside their research focus when necessary.

In addition to learning about the nature of ethnographic fieldwork and what anthropologists do, there’s an exploration of culture, the various ways in which people are socially organized (i.e. kinship, castes, societies, etc.,) and how different societies view religious belief, economic activity, and selfhood.

If you’re starting from zero and are seeking an introduction to anthropology, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short IntroductionMyth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book situates myth amid the broader body of scholarship by examining what role myth plays within – or in opposition to – various academic disciplines, including: science, philosophy, religion, the study of ritual, literature, psychology, structuralism, and social studies. The book is organized so as to compare competing ideas of various major scholars in each of the aforementioned domains. So, as the blurb is upfront about, the book doesn’t spend much time talking about what myths are, and the discussion of how myths are structured is only made as relevant to distinguishing various hypotheses.

One does obtain some food-for-thought about what myths are as one learns how different scholars have approached myth. Questions of how narrowly myth should be defined (e.g. only creation stories v. all god and supernatural tales,) and how myths compare to folktales, national literatures, and the like are touched upon. One also learns that some scholars took myths literally (and, therefore, saw them as obsolete in the face of science and modern scholarship,) but other scholars viewed myths more symbolically.

If you’re looking for an introductory book to position myth in the larger scholarly domain and to examine competing hypotheses about myths, this is a great book for you. However, those who want a book that elucidates what myths are (and aren’t) and how they are structured and to what ends, may find this book inadequate for those objectives. Just be aware of the book you’re getting.


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BOOK REVIEW: Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch

Egyptian Myth: A Very Short IntroductionEgyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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It’s a daunting task to provide a flyover of such a fruitful mythological tradition, one that spanned thousands of years. This book does a mixed job of it. When it’s good – it’s exceptional, and when it’s not – it’s not. One can’t fault a book with this one’s editorial mandate for not being comprehensive. However, one can fault it for not using the little space available in the best manner. The book spends too much time discussing art and artifacts, and (to a less objectionable degree) history. I say “to a less objectionable degree” not because there was less space devoted to history but because having some historical and anthropological background is of benefit to understanding a culture’s stories [more so than knowing about their material possessions.] Until I got to chapter three, I thought the book might have been mistitled and should have been “Egyptology: A Very Short Introduction” because it was such a broad discussion of Egypt and its artifacts.

That said, in chapter three, the book does an excellent job of reviewing the gods of Egyptian Mythology. Thereafter, it meanders back and forth between being an excellent introduction to Egyptian Mythology and a rambling discussion of things Egypt. There’s a fascinating presentation of the conflict between Horus and Seth, but most of the discussion of myths are short summations (often one-liners.)

I don’t have any basis for comparison, and, therefore, couldn’t tell you if there is a better introductory guide to Egyptian Myth. That said, it does a good job of presenting an outline of the subject, but expect to spend a fair amount of time reading about subjects that are, at best, tangential to the stories of ancient Egypt.


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BOOK REVIEW: Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel

Knowledge: A Very Short IntroductionKnowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a concise guide to epistemology, the study of knowledge and how knowing relates to believing (if at all) as well as to truth. After discussing the meaning and ubiquity of the word “knowledge,” the book explores a couple varieties of skepticism – the idea that there is nothing (or, at least, very little) that one can know with certainty. Skepticism is correct in a sense, but is also dissatisfying and arguably irrelevant, and this led to many attempts to produce a more nuanced understanding of knowledge. The book proceeds to evaluate the major contenders, rationalism (knowledge comes from reason) and empiricism (knowledge comes from experience,) pointing out the strengths and limitations of each.

The book next challenges the definition of knowledge as “justified true belief.” It considers how justification can be a problem through Gettier Problems – scenarios in which an individual is correct in their conclusion but incorrect in their justification. The author then questions what is justification and what are the problems with various approaches, explaining internalism, externalism, and testimony in the process. The book moves on to various sliding scale approaches – e.g. saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to say one knows something if it’s likely true and the stakes are small, whereas, if the stakes are large, one is forced to be more skeptical. The final chapter dives into the interface of psychology and epistemology, reflecting upon our intuitions and the biases reflected in them.

While the subject matter might seem dry, I felt the author did a great job of presenting scenarios by which one could more easily wrap one’s head around the ideas than one would be able to via abstract thinking. The writing style is clear and easy to follow.

If you’re looking to understand the challenges confronted in epistemology, this is a great book to start your study.


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BOOK REVIEW: Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward

Anarchism: A Very Short IntroductionAnarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Despite having graduate level education in Political Science, I never learned about anarchism. Even as an individual holding libertarian [classically liberal] beliefs, I dismissed anarchism as a philosophy without practical merit, one that failed to grasp the realities of human nature. And I apparently wasn’t alone as all those professors who built the curriculum that I studied didn’t find anarchism worthy of more than a passing mention as the theoretical endpoint on a continuum, a point that could never be reached in reality.

I read this little guide to the history and political philosophy of anarchism to help rectify this gap in my education, and to determine whether I was correct to dismiss anarchism as a pie-in-the-sky ideology of no practical value.

This introductory guide makes the point that anarchists have had influence in areas like labor and education policy. In essence, the book suggests that anarchism isn’t as bleakly devoid of success as it would appear. While we don’t see any functional and long-lived political entities devoid of governance by an organization with a monopoly on use of force, that doesn’t mean anarchist ideas haven’t made an impact.

The book starts with definitions and an overview of those thinkers who made anarchism seem potentially viable. It examines anarchist history and how anarchism related to competing ideologies. There’s a chapter that looks at the individualist / libertarian approaches to anarchism (in contrast to the leftist / socialist strains that dominated the early history of anarchism.) There’s a chapter that investigates the connection between anarchism and federalism. The book ends with a discussion of the green anarchists and how anarchism might move forward (to the degree it does so.)

This was a fine overview, offering insight into anarchist history, philosophy, and the divergences of thinking between anarchist scholars. It’s dry reading, and while that’s almost unavoidable in a book that’s brief, scholarly, and on a specialized subject, I’d say this volume is probably in the lower half of VSI titles for readability. Still, if you’re interested in the subject, it’ll give you the gist in a small package.


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BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction by Antulio J. Echevarria II

Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions, #523)Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction by Antulio J. Echevarria II
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This concise guide to military strategy is well-organized and can be readily understood by an amateur reader. The book provides an overview of the domain of military strategy by comparing and contrasting related pairs of strategic paradigms.

After an overview chapter (ch. 1) that broadly defines the subject and lays out the organization for the rest of the book, chapter two explores strategies of annihilation and how they are similar to and different from strategies of dislocation. Chapter three investigates attrition and exhaustion, strategies that deal in destroying warfighting resources and will to fight, respectively. Chapter four elucidates how the threat of force can be used to keep the enemy from making a move (deterrence,) or force them to make a desired move (coercion.) Chapter five looks at strategies that rely on instilling fear to change an opponent’s behavior, including aerial bombardment and terrorist tactics. Chapter six considers different approaches to using selective targeting to achieve strategic goals: i.e. decapitation and targeted killing. The penultimate chapter (ch. 7) contrasts the various approaches to cyber warfare with cyber-power, more generally.

The final chapter (ch. 8) briefly examines the determinants of success and failure of military strategy.

The book is straightforward and uses historical cases to provide clear examples of each type of strategy. It doesn’t go much beyond definition and some classic examples, but it is an excellent starting point for organizing one’s thoughts on the topic in preparation to learn more.

If you’re in need of a concise overview of (or refresher on) military strategy, this is a fine guide to consider.


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BOOK REVIEW: Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton

Native American Literature: A Very Short IntroductionNative American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This VSI (Very Short Introduction) stimulates curiosity from its very title. One might be interested in, but not necessarily intrigued by, titles such as: “Native American Folklore,” or “Native American Mythology.” However, when one thinks of the world of Native American story and language-centric art, one is likely to first think of oral storytelling, and then, secondarily, about the immensely popular genre / commercial fiction of someone like Stephen Graham Jones. Even if one is aware of some of the Native American literary works that got widespread attention and praise, works such as Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” or the poetry of Joy Harajo, one may wonder whether there’s the basis for such a broad overview style book.

That’s just the notion that this book seeks to challenge. That said, until the final two chapters, it doesn’t always feel like the topic is as advertised. That is to say, with the exception of chapter two — which discusses the oral storytelling of various Native American tribes, much of chapters one through five is historical and cultural background designed to provide context for the creation of a Native American literary canon, but without talking about the canon’s components much. Some of the questions addressed include: how Native tribes came to written language, in general, and then to the English language, specifically; how self-image of tribal peoples shifted over time (and how that impacted the nature of written works;) the nature of various strains of Native literature (e.g. literature of resistance v. literature of assimilation, and so on.)

I learned a lot from this brief guide. I’m not going to lie, it does have some sections that are dry and quite scholarly, but it also raises some interesting ideas while introducing the reader to books that will be wholly unfamiliar to some and largely unfamiliar to most.

If you’re interested in how Native American literature came to be, I’d recommend one check it out.


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