can’t see the forest

Summer Reading List

Apart from the less-than-strenuous reading regimen required of me as an undergrad, here are the books I’ve been chewing up over the past month or two. I’m listing them in hopes of piquing your interest, but also to lay a bit of groundwork for some of the things I’ll be writing about in the coming months.

Ernest Becker (1925-1974)

The Birth and Death of Meaning (The Free Press, 2nd ed., 1962, 1971). In this groundbreaking work subtitled An interdisciplinary perspective on the problem of man, Becker examines the largely fictitious nature of human culture as a whole, and of the individual worldviews that comprise it. Combining techniques of psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology, the author describes the advent of science as a new plot twist and potential antagonist in the paradox-rich struggle of mankind to come to terms with the strange, beautiful, and terrifying world in which each new generation finds itself thrust without mercy.

The Denial of Death (The Free Press, paperback ed., 1973, 1997). A follow-up to the previous book—and Becker’s swan song, for which he posthumously earned the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction—The Denial of Death is the culmination of Becker’s life’s work, and is more directly concerned with psychology than its predecessor. Whereas Freud sought the genesis of neurosis primarily in the sexual/familial confusions of infancy, Becker convincingly argues that the primal angst of man is existential in nature, underscored at all times by his terror of death. Far from ponderously morbid, The Denial of Death is an intensely luminous assay of human motivation.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)

The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton Univ. Press/Bollingen, 2nd ed., 1949, 1968). Here Campbell, the venerable scholar of mythology whom a learned friend of mine describes as “everybody’s granddaddy,” delineates and examines what James Joyce termed the monomyth—the basic structure and materials out of which every great human story of adventure and discovery is fashioned. Drawing from a dizzying array of examples from the cultures of every clime and time, Campbell shows that, at least in terms of the underlying psychology/witchcraft, the various mythologies of the world have much more in common than may be superficially evident.

The Masks of God, Vol. I: Primitive Mythology (Penguin, 2nd ed., 1959, 1969). The Masks of God is a four-volume survey of the world’s mythologies. Campbell devotes this first book of the set to the examination of the earliest, most “primitive” epics and rites of some of the world’s most ancient hunter-gatherer and planter cultures. If The Hero is a view under the hood of the myth on a personal level, The Masks is a more sociological approach to the same. Campbell opens with a discourse in which he considers the imagery that underpins mythology as part of the genetic human endowment, homologous to Jung’s collective archetypes. It will take me quite a while to work through all four parts of the series, but the opening leg of the tour has been most promising.

A. Noam Chomsky (1928-      )

On Language (The New Press, 1998). This is actually a compilation of two of Chomsky’s works in the familiar question-answer format: Reflections on Language (1975), and Language and Responsibility (1979). Since Chomsky is such a prominent and outspoken critic of geopolitical and economic hegemony in the contemporary world—of blatant and brutal colonialism in a world that is supposed to be post-colonial—it is easy to forget that he is also one of the most eminent and accomplished cognitive scientists the world has known.  Taken together, these two works serve to make Chomsky’s theories on cognition and expression as accessible as possible to the layman. Language and Responsibility primarily discusses the origins of generative grammar, which represents a sort of Copernican paradigm shift in the study of linguistics conceived  and executed largely by Chomsky long before he became known as a high-profile dissenter of the Vietnam War.  It also delves into some tangential issues related to linguistic theory as it applies to philosophy and political theory. Reflections on Language is a more technical review of some of the outstanding problems in linguistics yet to be satisfactorily answered by science.

So—what is the synthesis of all of this? Well, that remains to be seen. But these few volumes, which were chosen off of bookshelves almost at random, are fitting together serendipitously to paint a panoramic mosaic of the human condition encompassing all sorts of perspectives and incorporating numerous disciplines. I’m beginning to see the forest now, and I hope to be able to write on these topics sooner rather than later.

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2 Responses

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  1. homeyra said, on 7/16/07 at 2:10 am

    Great selection Curtis. All address the foundation of human behavior, a much needed vision as we are always distracted by the “headline of the day”.
    Looking forward your future posts.

  2. Curtis said, on 7/16/07 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks Homeyra–actually, you just said very elegantly and concisely exactly what it was that I was trying to say, I think. It’s very difficult to study anything beyond the depth of a dilettante without putting on blinders and obscuring a lot of the ‘big picture’ from view; but, that being said, I think the interdisciplinary approach to behavioral science offers a lot of insight into the things we see, hear, and read about elsewhere.


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