What I’ve been reading

1. David Der-Wei Wang, editor.  A New Literary History of Modern China.  Almost one thousand pages, and aren’t edited volumes so often poison?  Still, these short, collated excerpts provide one of the most useful and readable entry points into modern Chinese intellectual history; this will be making my “year’s best” list.  Every year you should be reading multiple books about China, all of you.  Here is a sentence from the work, from Andrea Bachner: “In a brothel in Singapore at the beginning of the twentieth century, a quaint Chinese intellectual (reminiscent of Wang) immersed in the project of writing a new Dream of the Red Chamber in oracle bone script on turtle shells inspires an English visitor to dream of creating a novel superior to Ulysses, tattooed on the backs of coolie laborers.”

2. Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — And Us.  The word “forgotten” is misleading in the title, but nonetheless an excellent look at how signaling theories work when the signal is distributed across a quality that is neither useful nor especially burdensome and costly.  In other words, it’s not all about the peacock’s tail.  The result is aesthetic beauty, and competition across that beauty for its own sake.  This book offers an excellent and clearly written treatment of the particulars of avian evolution, signaling theory, and also aesthetics, bringing together some disparate areas very effectively.

3. Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.  A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu.  Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.

4. Thomas Hardy, Unexpected Elegies: “Poems of 1912-1913” and Other Poems About Emma.  Some of Hardy’s best poetic work, it mixes “passion, memory, love, remorse, regret, self-awareness and self-flagellation…to serve a speech of intense emotional candor, all in celebration of his dead (and for many years estranged) wife, Emma,” by one account.

There is a new, expanded edition of Amartya Sen’s Collective Choice and Social Welfare, still the best place to go for his views on normative economics.

Robert Wright’s new book is Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.  I am not sure how amenable Buddhism is to bookish treatment, and furthermore the word “true” makes me nervous in this title (“useful”?), but still this book reaches a local maximum of sorts.  If you want a book from a smart Westerner defending Buddhism, this is it.


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