Book review: Punctuation..? by User Design

This is by far the hippest book on punctuation I’ve ever read. That may sound strange, but I study linguistics, so I’ve read a few good books on punctuation.

Front and back covers of Punctuation..?
Front and back covers of Punctuation..?

Punctuation..? intends to explain the “functions and correct uses of 21 of the most used punctuation marks.” I say “intends” because it’s always a toss up with grammar books. Some people get very picky about what is verboten in written and spoken English. The problem is that when these people get bent out of shape one too many times, they start convincing publishers to bound their rantings and ravings.

But Punctuation..? takes a different approach. The slick, minimalist artwork matches the concise and reasonable explanations of punctuation marks. This book will not tell you that you’re going to die poor and lonely if you don’t use an Oxford comma. Instead it very succinctly explains what a comma is and how it is used.

According to the book’s website, Punctuation..? is for “a wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert).” As someone who probably resides on the more expert end of punctuation intelligence, or who at least doesn’t need to be told what an ellipsis is, I still found this book enjoyable for two reasons.

First, the explanations are not only easy to understand, they’re also correct. This is kind of important for educational books. While it was nice that the interpunct (·) and pilcrow (¶) were included, it was even better that the semicolon got some (well deserved) respect and that the exclamation point came with a word of caution.

Pages 34 and 35, which feature some semicolon love.
Pages 34 and 35, which feature some semicolon love.

Second, although Punctuation..? is of more practical benefit to learners of English, it’s probably more of a joy to language enthusiasts because the book is actually funny. If a punctuation book has you laughing, I think that’s a good sign.

I guess the only problem I had with this book was its definition of a noun, which was a little too traditional for my tastes (you know the one). But I think that’s neither here nor there, since if you have another definition for a noun, you’re probably a linguist. And in that case you’ll just be glad to see such a cool book about punctuation aimed at wide audience.

Check out the User design website for more info and links to where you can buy it.

 

 

Up next: A twenty-years-too-late look at a seminal work in pragmatics, Cross-cultural pragmatics: the semantics of human interaction by Anna Wierzbicka.

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Book Review: The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson

The following is a book review and the second post in a series. The first post discussed Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct . This post discusses Geoffrey Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate, which is a critique of Pinker’s book. The third post will discuss some of the critics and reviews of Sampson’s book.

In a comment on the first post in this series, linguischtick (who has an awesome gravatar, by the way) pointed out that I didn’t mention two key points of the Chomskers (Chomsky + Pinker + their followers. Nom.) theory. As this post is about a book which is a direct “response to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Noam Chomsky’s nativism,” it would be good to remind ourselves of the claims that nativists make. Below are the claims along with some comments on them.

1. Speed of acquisition

Chomskyian linguists claim that kids learn language remarkably fast, so fast that it must be innate. But fast compared to what? How do we know kids don’t learn language very slowly? Chomskers has no answer. Sampson says this and then very cleverly points out that Chomsky has never supplied an amount of time it should take kids to learn language because “he argues that the data available to a language learner are so poor that accurate language learning would be impossible without innate knowledge – that is, no amount of time would suffice” (37, emphasis his).

2. Age dependence

Chomskers claim that the language instinct theory is supported by how our ability to learn a language diminishes greatly around puberty. Sampson quickly refutes this claim by showing how the evidence on which Chomskers based his claim fails “to distinguish language learning from any other case of learning” and that it is “perfectly compatible with the view that learning as a general process is for biological reasons far more rapid before puberty than later.” (41, emphasis his) So we see that leap of faith again. The evidence doesn’t suggest a language instinct, but that doesn’t stop Chomskers from jumping to that conclusion.

3. Poverty of the Stimulus

This is a major part of the Chomskers argument (and the only one that can be shortened into a perfectly applicable acronym – POS). Put simply, it goes like this: kids are not supplied with enough language info by their community to enable them to learn to speak. This is what Pinker was talking about when he snidely called Motherese – the style adults use when speaking to children – “folklore”. The poverty of the stimulus is a crazy idea, but don’t worry, it’s completely wrong. First, once linguists started researching Motherese, they found that it was much more “proper” than anyone had assumed. Sampson references one study that found “only one utterance out of 1500 spoken to the children was a disfluency.” (43) Chomskers also claim that some linguistic features never occur in spoken language and yet children learn the rules for them anyway. But wait a minute, has Chomskers ever looked for these mysterious linguistic features that never occur? Of course not. That’s not how they roll.

Sampson gives them a taste of their own medicine by writing

‘Hang on a minute,’ I hear the reader say. ‘You seem to be telling us that this man [Chomsky] who is by common consent the world’s leading living intellectual, according to Cambridge University a second Plato, is basing his radical reassessment of human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he tells us that it strains his credulity to think that this might happen, but he has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot.’
Yes, that’s about the size of it. Funny old world, isn’t it! (47)

Another aspect of this piece of shit poverty of the stimulus argument is the so-called lack of negative evidence. This idea claims that kids aren’t given evidence of which types of constructions are not possible in language. It leads one to wonder how children could possibly learn which sentences to exclude as non-language? Sounds pretty interesting, huh? There must be a language instinct then, right? Sampson bursts Chomskers bubble:

The trouble with this argument is that, if it worked, it would not just show that language learning without innate knowledge is impossible: it would show that scientific discovery is impossible. We can argue about whether or not children get negative evidence from their elders’ language; but a scientist certainly gets no negative evidence from the natural world. When a heavy body is released near the surface of the Earth, it never remains stationary or floats upwards, displaying an asterisk or broadcasting a message ‘This is not how Nature works – devise a theory which excludes this possibility!’ (90)

4. Convergence of grammars

This claim wonders how both smart and dumb people grow up speaking essentially the same language.
Except they don’t, so forget it. Other linguists – the kind that like evidence and observable data – have proven that people don’t speak the same.

5. Language universals

This is the idea that there are some structural properties which are found across every language in the world, even though there is no reason why they should be (since they’re not necessary to language). This is where Universal Grammar comes in. Sampson devotes a chapter to this broad argument and in one of the many parts that make this book an excellent read, he very cleverly takes the argument down by pointing out that universals are better evidence of the cultural development of language than they are of the biological innate theory of language. Using a theory developed by Herbert Simon, Sampson shows that, basically, the structural dependencies that Chomskers is so fond of arose out of normal evolutionary development because evolution favors hierarchical structure. Complex evolutionary systems – something Sampson argues language is – are hierarchically structured for a reason, they do not have to be innate.

If this is the crux of the language instinct argument, it’s almost laughable how easily it falls. As Sampson notes, even Chomskers doesn’t think it carries weight.

Steven Pinker himself has suggested that nativist arguments do not amount to much. In a posting on the electronic LINGUIST List (posting 9.1209, 1 September 1998), he wrote: ‘I agree that U[niversal G[rammar] has been poorly defended and documented in the linguistics literature.’ Yet that literature comprises the only grounds we are given for believing in the language universals theory. If the theory is more a matter of faith than evidence and reasoned argument even for its best-known advocate, why should anyone take it seriously? If it were not that students have to deal with this stuff in order to get their degrees, how many takers would there be for it? (166)

Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes

The really sad thing is that Universal Grammar is the crux of the Chomskers argument. Sampson writes that “at heart linguistic nativism is a theory about grammatical structure.” (71) More importantly, it’s a theory that gathers all the “evidence” it thinks support its beliefs and dismisses any that do not. It is Confirmation Bias 101.

But don’t take my word for it. Just before he knocks down the innatist belief that tree structures prove there’s a language instinct, Sampson points out that Chomskers don’t even know how to follow through with their own thoughts. He writes

Ironically, though, having been the first to realize that tree structure in human grammar is a universal feature that is telling us something about how human beings universally function, Chomsky failed to grasp what it is telling us. The universality of tree structuring tells us that languages are systems which human beings develop in the their gradual, guess-and-test style by which, according to Karl Popper, all knowledge is brought into being. Tree structuring is the hallmark of gradual evolution. (141)

Hey-o!

So don’t violate or you’ll get violated

OK, right now the reader might think I’ve been too hard on Chomskers. Let me assuage your concerns. I’m a firm believer in treating people with the respect they deserve. So when I say that Chomskers have their heads stuck firmly up their own asses, it’s because saying “the facts don’t support their claims” is not what they deserve. A group of scientists that hates facts deserves derision. Researchers in every field use observable data to come to conclusions. Their publications are part of an ongoing debate among other researchers, who can support or refute their claims based on more data. Everyone plays by these rules because they are in everyone’s best interest. All infamous academic quarrels aside, Chomskers would prefer not to back up their claims with observable data nor engage in any kind of debate with scientists. The bum on the street shouting that the world is going to end has the advantage of being bat-shit crazy. What’s Chomskers excuse?

I suppose they could say that they are well-established. But in my mind that just points out the reasons for their unscientific actions. What’s going to happen to those grants and faculty positions if people stop believing in Chomskers’ witchcraft? Sampson writes

“Nativist linguistics is now the basis of so many careers and so many university departments that it feels itself entitled to a degree of reverence. Someone who disagrees is expected to pull his punches, to couch his dissent in circumspect and opaquely academic terms – and of course, provided he does that, the nativist community is adept at verbally glossing over the critique in such a way that, for the general reader, not a ripple is left disturbing the public face of nativism. But reverence is out of place in science. The more widespread and influential a false theory has become, the more urgent it is to puncture its pretensions. Taxpayers who maintain the expensive establishment of nativist linguistics do not understand themselves to be paying for shrines of a cult: they suppose that they are supporting research based on objective data and logical argument.” (129)

Chomskers have been selling you snake oil for 60 years, they can’t give it up now. They have to double-down. Now’s the time to really push the limits of decency in academia. Take a look:

“Paul Postal discusses in his Foreword the fact that my critique of linguistic nativism has been left unanswered by advocates of the theory. I am not alone there: various stories go the rounds about refusals by leading figures of the movement to engage with their intellectual opponents in the normal academic fashion, for fear that giving the oxygen of publicity to people who reject nativist theory might encourage the public to read those people and find themselves agreeing. […] This interesting point here is a different one. Nowhere in Words and Rules does Pinker say that he is responding to my objection. My book introduced the particular examples of Blackfoot and pinkfoot into this debate, and they are such unusual words that Pinker’s use of the same examples cannot be coincidence. He is replying to my book; but he does not mention me.” (127-8)

I don’t think I need to point out the shamefulness of such actions.

I read Steven Pinker and all I got was this lowsy blog post

Reading Sampson after reading Pinker is a lesson in frustration, but not because of any problems with Sampson’s book. On the contrary, The Language Instinct Debate is very well written. Sampson not only clearly points out why Chomsky and Pinker’s theories are wrong, but he does so in a seemingly effortless way. Sometimes this is obvious because Chomskers didn’t even look at the evidence, they just made something up and held out their hands. Sometimes this is frustrating because I wasted time reading Pinker’s 450-page sand castle that Sampson crumbled in less than half of that. The Language Instinct Debate may leave you wondering how you ever thought Chomskers was on to something when Sampson makes the counter-evidence seems so blatantly obvious.

In the next and final post of this series, I’ll talk about some of the reviews and critics of Sampson’s book. For now, I’ll leave you with how Chomskers’ refusal to check the evidence or believe anyone who has, along with their outstretched hand and their demand that you believe them, has inspired me to write a book of my own. It’s called Paris is the Capital of Germany, China is in South America, and Other Reasons Why I Hate Maps.

It’s due out at the end of never because ugh.

 

 

References

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2005. The Language Instinct Debate. London & New York: Continuum.

Book Review: The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

Here are the first three paragraphs of The Great Influenza by John M. Barry:

The Great War had brought Paul Lewis into the Navy in 1918 as a lieutenant commander, but he never seemed quite at ease when in his uniform. It never seemed to fit quite right, or to sit quite right, and he was often flustered and failed to respond properly when sailors saluted him.
Yet he was every bit a warrior, and he hunted death.
When he found it he confronted it, challenged it, tried to pin it in place like a lepidopterist pinning down a butterfly, so he could then dissect it piece by piece, analyze it, and find a way to confound it. He did so often enough that the risks he took became routine.

Sounds pretty nails, right? Later, Barry relates the gravity of the subject matter:

And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.

What. The. Fuck.

Events in the story of the great influenza of 1918 do not get better from there. But Barry’s writing conveys the tense and terrifying nature of what life must have been like then. To wit, from the situation in Philadelphia, things got so bad that people began to steal caskets. And then they got worse:

There were soon no caskets left to steal. Louise Apuchase remembered most vividly the lack of coffins: “A neighbor boy about seven or eight died and they used to just pick you up and wrap you up in a sheet and put you in a patrol wagon. So the mother and father screaming, ‘Let me get a macaroni box’ [for a coffin] – macaroni, any kind of pasta, used to come in this box, about 20 pounds of macaroni fit in it – ‘please please let me put him in the macaroni box, don’t take him away like that…’”

How I didn’t know about the 1918 influenza pandemic before reading this book is a mystery to me. Fortunately though, Barry’s book grounds the harrowing tales in an account of the politics, the society, and most importantly, the state of medicine at the time. This allows Barry to show that while humans were slaughtering each other in unprecedented ways in World War I, nature was doing just the same with much better results because nature’s battlefield was not limited to the fields of Europe.

The contrasts between the worlds of medicine, politics, and society on one side and the great influenza on the other is sharp, especially since the state of medicine in the decades leading up to the pandemic might be scarier than the influenza itself. In the United States, medical students did not even learn how to use microscopes. They spent eight months in medical school, graduated sometimes without grades or by passing only four of their nine courses, and were unleashed to “practice” medicine on society (since they certainly didn’t practice any of it in the university). The true power of these contrasting worlds, however, benefits the reader when Barry shows how the worlds of politics and society that we think we live in are subject to the terrors that nature occasionally wreaks.

Here is another sobering passage from the book, just in case you thought the terror was confined to Philadelphia:

During the course of the epidemic, 47 percent of all deaths in the United States, nearly half of all those who died from all causes combined – from cancer, from heart disease, from stroke, from tuberculosis, from accidents, from suicide, from murder, and from all other causes – resulted from influenza and its complications. And it killed enough to depress the average life expectancy in the United States by more than ten years.

All shock-and-awe stories aside, it is Barry’s writing style that makes this book an excellent read. He manages to balance be sober facts and the gravity of the situation with how important and intelligent the scientists fighting the flu were. And he is not afraid to adorn his prose with some philosophical lessons for our day:

Man might be defined as “modern” largely to the extent that he attempts to control, as opposed to adjust himself to, nature. In this relationship with nature, modern humanity has generally been the aggressor and a daring one at that, altering the flow of rivers, building upon geological faults, and, today, even engineering the genes of existing species. Nature has generally been languid in its response, although contentious once aroused and occasionally displaying a flair for violence.
By 1918 humankind was fully modern, and fully scientific, but too busy fighting itself to aggress against nature. Nature, however, chooses its own moments. It chose this moment to aggress against man, and it did not do so prodding languidly. For the first time, modern humanity, a humanity practicing the modern scientific method, would confront nature in its fullest rage.

The second reason I thoroughly enjoyed this book was its span. As I said earlier, in order to talk about the influenza epidemic of 1918, Barry is forced to discuss the history of medicine, the politics and society of the time, and how these relate to today. He addresses each in a clear and concise way that made it easy to balance them in my mind while following the story. They helped to inform the narrative, instead of impinge on it.

Finally, I enjoyed how relevant this topic is these days. I may not have heard about this particular flu epidemic (still not sure how that’s possible), but I have heard about another flu that has people excited. The H5N1 flu strain has people worried that Barry might soon be given enough material to write a sequel, especially since two groups of researchers have published how this strain might potentially infect humans on a large scale. If you haven’t heard of this, the always great Carl Zimmer has the run down here and here.

Barry’s book ends with a discussion of influenza today and H5N1 in particular. In the afterword to my 2005 edition, he asks three questions:

    1. Will another influenza pandemic occur?
    2. If so, how dangerous will it be and what threat does the H5N1 virus present?
    3. How prepared are we for it and what can we do to better prepare?

The short answers to these are yes, best case: 2 – 7.4 million dead, and “at this writing, we are not prepared. At all.”

The afterword was a nice addition to help frame my thoughts on the issue. It made the book more than just a history. But if you read this book and you read the news, I don’t think you will be able to refrain from comparing the events of 1918 to today. And that is another reason I highly recommend this book.

 
 

Up next: A very lengthy review of James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

Book Review: Babel No More by Michael Erard

In Babel No More, Michael Erard goes on a search for hyperpolyglots – people who are said to speak over six languages. But he also wants to know about the legendary hyperpolyglots who are rumored to speak more than 50, 60, or even 70 languages. You can therefore understand why I approached this book with a healthy dose of skepticism. Do I believe one person can speak 70 languages? No. Do I believe that other people believe that someone can speak 70 languages? Yes. After all, that’s where the legends of these hyperpolyglots came from. But I’ve had training in linguistics. Language is a trickier subject for me.

I was skeptical that Erard would not approach the subject of hyperpolyglots with as much skepticism as me. Fortunately, I was wrong. Erard is on point with the nature of language learners, separating the fact from fiction in the legend of the hyperpolyglot:

The hyperpolyglot embodies both of these poles: the linguistic wildness of our primordial past and the multilingualism of the looming technotopia. That’s why stories circulate about this or that person who can speak an astounding number of languages – such people are holy freaks. Touch one, you touch his power. […] Once you say you speak ten languages, you’ll soon hear the gossip that you speak twenty or forty. That’s why people who speak several languages have been mistrusted as spies; people wonder where their loyalties lie.

Jacket design by Zocalo Design

Needless to say, Erard finds many interesting characters in his journey of hyperpolyglots. It’s part of what makes the book so interesting. But he also gets into how language works. And, thankfully, he doesn’t do it from a best-seller pop-science fascinating-but-total-bullshit way. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is, but I can give you a sample quote:

Language, however, encompasses more than the communicating we sometimes do with it. If language had evolved solely for the means of communication, we’d rarely misunderstand each other. Instead, we have a system in which worlds mean more than one thing, in which one can devise many sentences to capture the same idea, in which one moment of silence means more than a thousand pictures. No animal species could survive this intensity of ambiguity. Moreover, people don’t appreciate how little of our meaning is in our words, even as we decipher hand gestures, facial movements, body postures automatically every day. What we mean is implied by us and then inferred by our listeners.

The real beauty of Babel No More, however, is the way in which Erard demystifies the process of language learning without removing the wonderment that people attribute to it. If anything, when you better understand the multifaceted nature of language learning, you will appreciate it more, while at the same time avoid being fooled into thinking someone could speak 70 languages or that someone who speaks more than three must be a spy.

 
 

Up next: The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This is the easiest book review I’ve ever written. It goes like this: If you like Neil Gaiman, you will like Stardust.

There’s not much more to say about it than that. In typical Gaiman style, Stardust is an entertaining story, with equal parts fantasy and reality, that could be a whole lot more drawn out than it is. Whenever I read Gaiman, I wonder if I like his way of presenting the bare necessities of worlds and stories which could fill page after page. If Gaiman were to go into more detail (not uncommon for fantasy writers, we’ve all seen the 1,000-page paperback bricks in the stores that are one of a nine part series), would I like the story as much as I do?

Picture courtesy of neilgaiman.com

I don’t know and Stardust didn’t answer that question. But that’s OK because it was an enjoyable read nonetheless. The first Gaiman I read was Fragile Things, a collection of short stories which I liked. Then I read The Last Temptation, a graphic novel which I really liked. I place Stardust in between these. It would be hard to beat The Last Temptation. It’s a graphic novel with Alice Cooper as the antagonist. NeedIsaymore?

Don’t sweat it if you’ve seen the movie. I saw Stardust in the theaters and watched it again after I read the book. They are two different beasts and I’m not sure which is better. The book of course has more context and detail, but the movie has longer roles for Robet DeNiro and Ricky Gervais’s characters. So it’s a toss up. I recommend both.

One final note: Stardust was originally released in comic form with illustrations by Charles Vess. I wish I had read this instead of the pictureless paperback novel. If you’re going to get Stardust, get your hands on one of the comic editions.

Up next: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow

Book Review: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

I was pretty sure that The Three Christs of Ypsilanti was going to be exciting. Here is the blurb on the back cover:

On July 1, 1959, at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, the social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought together three paranoid schizophranics […] The men had one thing in common: each believed himself to be Jesus Christ.

This is the type of crazy shit that was possible in the 1950s. But don’t worry, it’s all in the name of Science.

Rokeach’s investigation was “based on three simple assumptions: (1) Not all beliefs a person holds are of equal importance to him; beliefs range from central to peripheral. (2) The more central – or, in our terminology, the more primitive – a belief, the more it will resist change. (3) If a primitive belief is somehow changed, the repercussions in the rest of the system will be wide – far wider than those produced by change in a peripheral belief.”

The difference between primitive and peripheral beliefs is central to the book. Primitive beliefs, to Rokeach, “are taken for granted: a person’s primitive beliefs represent the basic truths he holds about physical reality, social reality, and himself and his own nature.” These can be backed up by other people or they can be simply based on a person’s own decisions about themselves and their world. Basically, a person’s belief in a physical object, such as a table, will be endorsed by society, while their belief in their own religious faith needs no endorsement.

Rokeach goes much deeper into the literature and research on belief systems, which was interesting to me, since I am not a psychologist. Even though Three Christs was written in the 1960s, it was all news to me. I can’t say how someone in psychology today would react to Rokeach’s descriptions, but he at least bases a lot of his assertions on the ideas of the time.

The belief system is also central to Three Christs because Rokeach’s experiment was essentially to see if he could get one or more of his three patients to change a primitive belief that they held, namely, that they were Jesus Christ. Since primitive beliefs are so resistant to change and so taken for granted, Rokeach wondered what would happen when the Christs were presented with two other people claiming the exact same identity, thereby giving each of them the ultimate contradiction to their primitive belief. Rokeach placed them together in the same ward of the same mental hospital and they had daily meetings for two years.

It’s an intriguing idea and one not without its problems. First, there is the ethical question of what Rokeach was doing. It may have been done with good intentions, but Rokeach himself admits that he “really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.” Funny that a man studying three people who believe they are Christ would describe himself as God, isn’t it? No. To some people it represents what can go horribly wrong in psychology.

A related problem with Rokeach’s study is actually voiced by one of the Christs, Leon, who says Rokeach is casting out “negative psychology,” meaning he’s doing more harm than good. This is very possible and the ways that the Christs react to Rokeach interrupting their lives and beliefs can be seen as evidence of it. It’s especially poignant because of how Leon notes that Rokeach is someone who should know better.

I must point out that there are several ways to read this book. In a review of Three Christs, Slate.com wrote that “Rokeach’s book reflects a remarkably humane approach for its era,” but also noted that the book can be “starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of [the three Christs] in the service of academic curiosity.”

For another set of contrasting views, Jenny Diski writes that Three Christs can explain “the terror of the human condition, and the astonishing fact that people battle for their rights and dignity in the face of that terror, in order to establish their place in the world, whatever they decide it has to be.” Thomas Szasz, on the other hand, disagrees and says “the book is about impersonation, not mental illness – patients impersonating Christ, Rokeach impersonating a scientist studying nature. The inmates at Ypsilanti were not ‘Christs’, and everyone, including the inmates, knew it.”

All of these readings are possible. Also, after reading the book, they all seem plausible. But instead of dwelling on these different readings and clicking through to the full reviews, I would suggest that you just read the thing and take away from it what you will. It’s an extreme case, for sure, so don’t make too many generalizations about schizophrenia, the mental health system, or psychologists based on Three Christs. But get a version of the book that has the afterword which Rokeach wrote twenty years after the book was first published. In a few short pages it manages to put the study into perspective.

Speaking of Christ, happy holidays everyone.

Up next: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: A Gun for Sale and Under the Black Flag

These are two books that I put down before finishing. I don’t often do that. In fact, it’s something I only became comfortable with doing last year. In other words, all the books that I stopped reading before then still have the bookmarks in them. I probably said I would pick them up again one day. And my poor lost bookmarks believed it.

Putting books down before they’re finished often makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel like a quitter somehow. Obviously, it’s such a hangup for me that I can write two paragraphs about it. But recently, I’ve decided that forcing my way through a boring read is a waste of time. I enjoy reading so much that I’m still amazed that a book can be boring. Maybe I’m too naive, but here are two reasons why boring books surprise me.

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene

I’ve never read Graham Greene before and this misfire won’t put me off him for good, but it was a stretch. For a mystery novel, everything seems to be in place: it starts out with a murder, the stakes are high for the main characters, and there’s a sleazeball middleman who is totally going to get capped. But for some reason, this novel just couldn’t cut it for me. I was surprised that this book bored me because I don’t require much from my mysteries. But this one just had me wanting to read some Perry Mason, which I’m planning to so soon.

Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly

This book came highly recommended, even though it didn’t need to – it’s about pirates. I like pirates. I was prepared to learn that what I thought was fact is actually fiction. This book should have been right up my ally. Surprisingly, it wasn’t (Surprise!). It was boring. It was a boring book about pirates. Such a thing exists. On a positive note, this book does a very good job at pointing out that the truth is stranger than fiction and what you don’t know about the pirates is cooler than what you do know. But be prepared to wade through the high seas of boring prose.

There’s nothing more to say. Just needed to get the guilt off my chest.

Up next: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach