Happy Anniversary to a Famously Humanist Take on Christmas

On this day in 1843, A Christmas Carol by English author Charles Dickens was first published (first edition pictured below), arguably influencing Christmas as we know it more than any pagan tradition. In fact, the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the story!

Left-hand page shows Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing; the right-hand page shows the words "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. With illustrations by John Leech
Wikimedia Commons

Dickens was ambiguous about religion; while he was likely a Christian and admired Jesus, he openly disliked rigid orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and organized religion. (He once published a pamphlet opposing the banning of games on the Sabbath, arguing that people had a right to pleasure.)

To that end, a Christmas Carol placed less emphasis on faith and observance and instead focused on family, goodwill, compassion, and joy. Dickens sought to incorporate his more humanist approach to the holiday, constructing Christmas as a family-centered festival that promotes generosity, feasting, and social cohesion. Some scholars have even termed this “Carol Philosophy”.

So when religious and nonreligious folks alike think of loved ones and the “Christmas spirit”, they are basically channeling Dickens’ once-unique take on the holiday. (Though in his time, other British writers had begun to reimagine Christmas as a celebratory holiday, rather than a strictly religious occasion.)

Iran Opens One of the World’s Largest Book Centers

Iran rarely features positively in any news reports. Yet the nation of over 80 million is young, cosmopolitan, and freer-thinking than its regime (or its enemies) make it out to be. Just one case in point — on top of centuries of rich cultural heritage — is the opening last year of what may be the largest educational complexes of its kind. As reported in Newsweek: Continue reading

The Visible World in Pictures

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The Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Visible World in Pictures) is a textbook for children written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius and published in 1658. It was the first widely used children textbook with pictures, covering a broad range of topics ranging from simple physics to social studies. Its comprehensive material and unique combination of visual and lexical (written) education made it revolutionary for the time, quickly spreading across Europe and setting the standard for children’s textbooks for centuries.

Comenius was one of the the earliest champions of universal education, including for women and the poor. He promoted a dynamic approach to teaching that went beyond the common and dull emphasis on memorization. He is thus regarded as the father of modern education.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Required Reading For International Relations Buffs

If you share my background or passion for geopolitics, foreign policy, and international relations, then consider including the following books to your reading list, recommended by leading international relations thinker and professor Stephen M. Walt. Feel free to add your own must-reads, which I will do myself in a future post.

1). Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War.

According to Walt, the book provides “an enduring typology of different theories of war (i.e., locating them either in the nature of man, the characteristics of states, or the anarchic international system)” coupled with a powerful critique of each approach.

2). Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

This classic examines how “small differences in climate, population, agronomy, and the like turned out to have far-reaching effects on the evolution of human societies and the long-term balance of power.”

3). Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence.

The author has since won a Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering theories on international conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis — topics that are explored in this still relevant 1966 book.

4). James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

This book examines the long and depressing history of authoritarians trying their hand at progress, with disastrous results (think the collectivization policy of the Soviet Union, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward). It serves as a cautionary tale on utopian ventures, especially when undertaken by centralized political authorities and well intentioned by narrow minded idealists. Definitely an important work to keep in mind in this era of big projects.

5). David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest.

Like the previous selection, this book explores the follies and foibles of policymakers, specifically with regards to the Vietnam War.

6). Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics.

This intriguing book looks at world politics and foreign policy through the prism of psychology. How do the perspectives and mental states of policymakers impact international relations? It is a question that is not asked enough, let alone explored.

7). John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

This book is about the vagaries and misfortunes of nations. As Walt sums up: “Why do bad things happen to good peoples? Why do “good states” do lots of bad things? Mearsheimer tells you. Clearly written, controversial, and depressingly persuasive”.

8). Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism.

“The state is the dominant political form in the world today, and nationalism remains a powerful political force. This book will help you understand where it came from and why it endures”. Given the rise of nationalism among both emerging powers and smaller nations fearful of globalization, this is a very necessary read.

9). Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years & Years of Upheaval.

Kissinger’s questionable legacy makes his memoir all the more important to read, if only because it helps us understand firsthand the brutal logic of realpolitik. The book also offers insights of various other major political players in both the U.S. and abroad, though as Waltz warns, none of it should be taken at face value.

10). Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.

Polanyi ambitious tries to trace the origins of industrialization, and the subsequent modern world, and what impact it has had on society, culture, and politics. The book takes a critical stance on capitalism and the idea of a self regulating market, concerns that are increasingly relevant in our globalized planet.

Waltz also offers several honorable mentions worth considering.

Geoffrey Blainey The Causes of War; Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History; Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population; Robert Gilpin,The Political Economy of International Relations; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars; T.C.W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars; R. R. Palmer,The Age of the Democratic Revolution; Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World; Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War; Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies; Tony Smith, The Problem of Imperlalism; and Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker.

Needless to say, these books are just a drop in the bucket compared to the vast world of political and international relations literature. But they are definitely great places to start. I will put together my own list of recommendations when time permits, but feel free to share your own! (No worries, you do not need to be an expert or anything — just share whatever book had influenced or otherwise appealed to you.)

Lessons From Prisons Around The World

In a newly published book, “Incarceration Nations“, Baz Dreisinger of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice goes on a global tour of prisons to discover and compare various approach to criminal justice and rehabilitation. As a professor and activist, rather than a criminal justice expert, her book offers less in the way of data and policy analysis and more in terms of insightful, first-person accounts of the various prison systems she visited, including those in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Jamaica, Rwanda, Singapore, South Africa, and Uganda. Continue reading

The Untold Legacy of the Mongols

When someone on Quora, a discussion forum, asked “What was the greatest empire in world history?”, one history enthusiast named Balaji Viswanathan made a detailed and comprehensive case for the Mongols. Far from bloodthirsty conquerors — though they were certainly that — the humble nomads founded one of history’s most extensive, advanced, and influential empires in human history, one whose legacy remains to this very day.

First, we begin with the Mongols’ better known achievement: conquering everyone that stood in their way, including some of the most powerful states of the time. Continue reading

What Students At Top U.S. Colleges Read

The Open Syllabus Project is recently launched database that has compiled more than a million course syllabi over the last fifteen years from colleges and universities across the English-speaking world (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K.). Among its findings regarding the top U.S. universities is the dominance of the works by Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Aristotle in required reading lists.

As Quartz reports:

In the U.S., Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is the most taught work of fiction, with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” a close second. In history titles, George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi’s textbook, “America: A Narrative History”, is No. 1, with Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi”, a memoir about life as an African-American woman in Jim Crow America, at No. 2. “The Communist Manifesto” is the third most taught in history, and is the top title in sociology.

The project admits that its dataset is still a work in progress, as there is a margin of error for unusual or misspelled readings; moreover, it can rely only on whatever is publicly accessible from college websites.

Still, it is pretty much the only source for what the future academic and political elites of the Anglophone world are reading. The Open Syllabus Project allows users to search by country, state/province, institution, and academic field to see what tops a given reading list. Here is the overall list among all the curricula across all five major English speaking countries. (Note that the heavy leaning towards the humanities reflects the fact the reading lists for such courses are larger than in the hard sciences.)

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Source: The Open Syllabus Project

Seems like this would make a great individual reading list all on its own! Granted, it would be nice to see more prominent non-Western works — there is a wealth of interesting perspectives, philosophies, and narratives worth exploring, especially for the ostensibly best and brightest of future generations.

To learn more, visit the project page here.

The Whimsical Bookwheel

The bookwheel (sometimes called a reading wheel) is a rotating bookcase that allows one person to easily read a variety of heavy books in one location. The books rotate in a manner similar to a water wheel, rather than on a flat table surface (the Chinese apparently invented the horizontal variety over a thousand years ago).

The first and most well-known bookwheel design was featured in a book by 16th century Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli (which was delightfully titled “The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”). Other inventors like Nicolas Grollier de Servière proposed their own variation this concept. Interesting, while his design inspired other bookwheels, Ramelli himself never constructed his own. Below is his original illustration.

Bookwheel (Agostino Ramelli)

Ramelli’s concept was deliberately complex, utilizing all sorts of gears and mechanics previously found only in clocks; this was because he wanted to display his mathematical and engineering skill. Ramelli described his invention as a “beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anybody who takes pleasure in study, especially for those who are indisposed and tormented by gout [a form of inflammatory arthritis especially common among the wealthy].” However, it is disputed to what extent it was purchased for its practical purposes rather than its unusual and aesthetic properties.

In any case, the bookwheel was an early attempt to solve the new problem of managing printed works, which were emerging in greater numbers due to the rapid spread of the printing press (books back then were far larger and heavier). Thus it is considered one of the earliest “information retrieval” devices – akin to modern technologies like hypertext and e-readers – that allow readers to store and cross-reference large amounts of information.

Nowadays, the bookwheel is valued for its historical importance, decorative appeal, and symbolic significance, making the rise of mass data and media. I would certainly love one as well.

Ramelli Bookwheel

A modern-day recreation by Léa Lagasse (Photo by Stroom Den Haag).

Taipei Sounds Like My Kind of Town

A typical Saturday night in Taiwan’s largest city.

Among the many places on my travel list is Taiwan (officially the Republic of China). As one of the most developed and multicultural countries in the world, it offers a lot to see and do — including one of the world’s most thriving bibliophile communities. As the New York Times highlights, its lively capital, Taipei, leads the world in 24-hour bookstores.

At a time when many bookstores in the United States are struggling in the face of an onslaught from the online retailer Amazon, Eslite is thriving. It has 43 stores in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. The company has plans to open two branches in mainland China this year, in Shanghai and Suzhou. Sales rose more than 15 percent in 2013 in its listed arm, and profits are rising as well.

One secret to Eslite’s success is that it is far more than a bookstore. While the Borders chain, now defunct, in the United States featured coffee shops, Eslite stores are more like self-contained shopping malls. About 60 percent of sales come from books. The rest comes from items like food, kitchenware, music, wine, jewelry, watches, movies, toys — sold in shops interspersed throughout the bookstores. One branch in Taipei has a movie theater.

Another reason for its success is the character of the city where the company was founded in 1989. As in many Asian cities, people work late into the night, and a company survey in 1999 suggested that many people would frequent a 24-hour bookstore. The busiest time for the bookstore is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., according to Timothy Wang, a company spokesman.

Indeed, it appears there is something particularly Taiwanese about this business model, which is perhaps why it seems unique only to the country.

“People in Taiwan, particularly in Taipei, are really calm. They really like to read books,” Ms. Yang said. “This is entertainment for us.”

“People really wanted to come read books late at night,” Mr. Wang said in a telephone interview. “Some young travelers who can’t find a hotel bring their baggage and settle down in the bookstore. They feel that the environment at Eslite is really peaceful.”

I cannot wait to experience it for myself someday.

The Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore

It no doubt sounds like a dream to most fellow bibliophiles: a well-stocked bookstore that is freely available 24/7 for as long as you want, even if you do not buy a single thing. Not only would I love to patronize such an establishment, but one of my dreams is open one of my own.

A recent article in the Guardian reveals that a company in Taiwan has already beat me to this idea by several years: Eslite, one of that country’s largest retail bookstores. (Official website, in Chinese, here.) Bucking the trend of most chain bookstores the world over, the company welcomes as many non-paying visitors for as long as they wish to stay:

When I visited the 24-hour shop, the busiest time was from 10pm to 2am. People were hunkered down in corners, sitting on the stairs, or hovering over the display tables. Everybody was absorbed in a book.

Yao Hong, a 31-year-old office worker, who was sitting on a set of small, hardwood steps, explained why Eslite’s Dunnan branch is a favourite hangout. “I come here three to four times a week. On Saturdays, I arrive around noon and stay till 4am the next day,” she said. “I’ve been to bars, but I don’t like them. I love to read. Here, I can read books I like and nobody bothers me.” That night, she had already ploughed through to page 275 of a 319-page memoir.

What attracts the large and loyal crowds is not only the wide selection of books – there are around 250,000 in the Dunnan store alone – but Eslite’s policy of allowing customers to read for as long as they want without having to buy.

Given the beleaguered state of a lot of bookstores across the world, from independent vendors to national chains, how does Elsite manage to pull this seemingly unprofitable business model and still remain highly successful?

Apparently, by coming one big arts and media center, offering everything from wine, tea, and food, to clothing, art exhibits, and film screenings. The company’s approach no doubt endears itself to customers as well: I would be more than happy to shell out a few extra dollars than I otherwise would if it meant keeping such an establishment afloat.

Bookstores seeking to innovate in an era of declining brick-and-mortar sales should take note of this approach — I know I will!