The Undead and Philosophy edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad

Read: 17 December, 2012

When I reviewed Game of Thrones and Philosophy, I complained that the book was just out to explain philosophical concepts, and it’s tie to the ostensible subject rested solely on using a few names and events for illustrations. In The Undead and Philosophy, on the other hand, the subject matter is much more integrated in the articles – each chapter using the Undead to discuss things like issues of personhood, or the relationship between desires/impulses and civilization.

In some cases, it worked really well and I felt that my consumption of the Undead genre was enriched by the thoughtfulness of the article (such as “Heidegger the Vampire Slayer: The Undead and Fundamental Ontology” by Adam Barrows). Others were just uninteresting. And still others were simply hilarious – such as the article that argued that zombies are giant erections with vagina mouths (“The Undead Martyr: Sex, Death, and Revolution in George Romero’s Zombie Films” by Simon Clark).

I can’t really think of the right audience for this book. I think that anyone with an interest in philosophy will either already be familiar with all of the concepts or will be able to find a much better introduction. Zombie and vampire aficionados may well be enriched by some of the new perspectives, but I don’t think it’s worth the price of the whole book. Maybe this is just one of those books that libraries were made for.

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Game of Thrones and Philosophy edited by Henry Jacoby

Read: 14 August, 2012

I’ve been aware of the pop culture philosophy books for a few years now, but I’ve never actually taken the time to read one. But when they mentioned Game of Thrones and Philosophy on a recent episode of Sword & Laser, I reserved a copy from the library.

If you majored in Philosophy in college or enjoy reading Foucault in your free time, this isn’t the book for you. But as someone who has only had snippets of exposure to philosophical thought without much context or explanation, I did find this book useful. A few basics of thought are illustrated using examples from the Song of Ice and Fire series.

There were quite a few problems with the book, though. For one thing, it seems to be just a grab bag of articles with little organization. I feel that it would have been more useful to organize the articles into a sort of “history of philosophy,” or something along those lines. That would have made this a far more useful book than the current “hey, something this guy wrote kinda sounds like something this other guy wrote” higgledy-piggeldy mixture we currently have.

I felt that the connection to Game of Thrones was tenuous. Some of the articles did try to offer some insight from philosophical thought into the series (and visa versa), but for the most part, the chapters were simply explaining philosophy in layman’s terms while shoe-horning names and phrases from the series whenever grammatically possible – particularly in the early chapters.

I also got the feeling that some of the authors may have never read the Song of Ice and Fire series, or at least not in a long time, given that some of the errors were on rather egregious. For example, on page 13, the author writes that a character could “flee into exile with the surviving Targaryens, like Ser Jorah Mormont…” Except that Mormont’s exile had absolutely nothing to do with the Targaryens. Or on page 224, the author writes of Daenerys: “Fleeing King’s Landing, her mother, Rhaella, gives birth to Dany and Viserys aboard a ship and then dies.” Well, for one thing, neither Daenerys nor Viserys was ever born on a ship. Also, Viserys is many years older than Daenerys. But I suppose that at least the names and familial relationships were correct…

Anyways, as I said, I think that a fan of Game of Thrones who wants a quick introduction to a few snippets of philosophical thought set in a familiar context may get something from this book. Otherwise, give it a pass.

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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Read: 26 July, 2008

Overall, I loved this book. Dawkins is a wonderful writer and I think I would have enjoyed his style regardless of the subject matter. The only major flaw that irked me was his habit of veering off into tangents, but even this was made bare-able by not only his writing style, but also by the fact that most of his tangents were just plain interesting. Dawkins makes his case even stronger, in my opinion, by fulling admitting to and even going out of his way to point out the limits of his own personal knowledge. At several times during the book, he will say that he suspects one thing but does not know for certain, showing an inquisitive and flexible mind, both humble and confident. It’s a refreshing break from the average writer who seems all too sure of her/his omniscience.

With all that out of the way, I’d like to address a couple of issues with the book. The first is with Chapter Four or “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” I found the whole chapter to be a disappointment. Dawkins takes the question of “if there isn’t a god, how did everything fall into place so perfectly to produce us?” and tries to answer it with science. This points him in an awkward and unnecessarily defensive position because the question itself is not a legitimate one (something he never once says outright). It’s like asking “how did my parents know to have sex at just the perfect time to conceive me?” It assumes that we are an end result, a goal that the universe has been working towards – rather than the more accurate assumption that the universe is merely ambling along in one of billions (to pick an unrealistically small number) of possible ways and we just happen to be a bi-product (one of many possibilities) that happened to emerge. There is nothing special about the production of us, whether as individuals or as a species.

Another quibble I had with the book is that Dawkins repeats multiple times that natural selection gets rid of negatives and keeps positives, which is just sloppy. What about the vast majority of mutations, which are just neutral? Or mutations that have both positive and negative expressions?I understand the need for brevity and keeping things simple, but this is a major point and something that a lot of Dawkins’s opposition can’t seem to grasp.

And the final detail that I took issue with is his statement that “[monogamy] is what we expect, and it is what we set out to achieve.” Is it? Maybe he’s right, I don’t know. Maybe monogamy really is the default. But that’s not what even the quickest glance around the diversity of human societies in the world today will tell me. Many societies involve one man and several women, some even involve one woman and several men. If monogamy truly is the natural default, why isn’t this expression universal? Like I said, maybe he’s right – but because his statement was counter-intuitive, the existence of polygamous societies should have been addressed.

With all that said, this was a fabulous book and I am very glad that I’ve read it. It ought to have stayed on topic a little better, but that’s okay. There were no parts of the book that I felt weren’t worth reading and that’s more than I can say for most books.

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