Filed under dewey decimal project

Dewey Decimal Project: 530 FEY The Character of Physical Law

When NewImageI was a college student, I read Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. It was a breezy fun read (and I was young and dumb enough not to notice the misogyny and other problematic aspects of Feynman’s personal life). Feynman has a reputation for presenting challenging topics in an accessible way, so with that plus my experience of reading his autobiography, I thought I’d give this book a shot, despite its unpromising title.

As I expected, it was an accessible yet challenging read. The text is taken from a series of lectures Feynman gave at Cornell University and uses the idea of what constitutes a physical law as its organizing principle and gives a decent overview of physics starting with Newton’s law of gravitation and considering a number of topics including relativity and quantum mechanics. There have been a number of significant discoveries in physics since Feynman gave these lectures in the early 60s (notably the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson and the detection of gravitation waves), but Feynman’s lectures seem to anticipate these reasonably well given the state of what was known at the time. 


Dewey Decimal Project: 523.1 ALE The Jazz of Physics : The Secret Link between Music and the Structure of the Universe

Continuing NewImage through sciences in the Dewey Decimal system, I decided that this would be a good option for something to fill the Astronomy slot since I’m a musician and for a year or so of college I was a physics-English double major.

The book itself is what I would call the academic memoir, in which the author’s area of study and autobiography are presented together. I’d read a couple books with this structure earlier when I was in language and linguistics during the 400s and as I think about it, a case can be made for some writers’ autobiographies also following this schema for presenting the contents of the book.

Alexander’s life is fascinating and he’s an example of a surprisingly common class of academics, the physicist-musician (just looking at my own circle, I can point to one friend from my undergrad days with a PhD in physics who just finished his DA in music and another undergrad friend who left physics to pursue music, which is not to consider the physicists who do music on the side as an avocation). The physics is presented reasonably well, although there’s a tendency for him to occasionally dip into a bit of vocabulary or concept without explaining it (I noted, for example, that he uses parsec without ever giving a definition of it and given the famous misuse of the term in Star Wars, it might have been a good idea to be sure to explain, at the least, that it’s a measurement of distance.


Dewey Decimal Project: 509.2 YOU The last man who knew everything: Thomas Young, the anonymous polymath who proved Newton wrong, explained how we see, cured the sick, and deciphered the Rosetta stone, among other feats of genius

The title of this book NewImageoverpromises a fair amount. I’d argue that Young is far from anonymous given his prominence in the history of physics for his demonstration that light must be a wave from the two-slit experiment (although I imagine “anonymous polymath” may refer to the fact that he published a number of his works anonymously during the 1810s). Proving Newton wrong is a bit of an overstatement in that Newton (a) wavered between the wave and particle explanation of light and (2) Newton wasn’t wrong to believe that light was a particle, as later physics revealed (all of which is not to deny the significance of Young’s experiment and the significance it had). His explanation of the eye explained not so much how we see but how we focus at different distances (and was not quite correct in the end). He had all the limitations of medical doctors at the turn of the nineteenth century and their powers as a rule did not extend to actually curing the sick. His decipherment of the Rosetta stone was only partially correct, although a strong argument can be made for his critical role in opening the mysteries of the stone and an even stronger case can be made for his work on understanding the demotic script.

But even so, a polymath’s life can make for fascinating reading, especially given the essentially polymathic enterprise underlying my Dewey Decimal project. Alas, Robinson’s writing tends a bit towards being a little dry and wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked.


Dewey Decimal Project: 491.843 ALB Teach Yourself Slovene

At this point, I’ve been throughNewImage a number of language texts, enough to get a sense for what works for me and what doesn’t (I’d like to think that in a visit to a bookstore, I’d be able to flip through a text to get a sense if it’s worthwhile). This is definitely not a worthwhile text.

The problems are numerous: There was little or no proofreading done so the book is rife with typographical errors (I marked a number of corrections in the library’s copy in just the first couple of chapters), including most egregiously, in the model conjugation of verbs. In at least a couple of instances, the answers in the back of the book are incorrect (as in having no discernible relation to the question asked) or missing. The Slovene-English vocabulary at the end of the book is missing numerous words used in the text. Vocabulary is introduced haphazardly, in some cases in examples for unrelated texts. The exercises reinforce only a surface understanding of the language and in many cases are answered by simply copying word-for-word an example from the unit under examination, and in other cases, expect vocabulary which has not been introduced in any form that I could locate.

I don’t often get angry at a book, but this one enraged me. Its sole redeeming feature is its brevity, insofar as it permitted me to complete the book without investing too much time (while simultaneously preventing me from gaining much knowledge of the Slovene language).


Dewey Decimal Project: 487.4 CRO A Primer of Biblical Greek

As an NewImageundergraduate I studied a number of languages with varying degrees of success. Spanish, Latin, Hebrew and Ancient Greek. It was this last that that completely defeated me. After just one semester, I dropped out of the Greek class. From talking with others both back in the olden days and more recently, the difficulty of ancient Greek is widely recognized.

So I approached the 480s with trepidation: there would be no avoiding attempting to re-learn Greek. 

What I recalled was that in my class, there were a pair of graduate students who were similarly being crushed by the Greek class and who talked about switching instead to a Biblical Greek class being offered through the Institute for Antiquity and said that it was allegedly much easier.

Given that memory, when I looked at the books on the shelf. I decided to pick a book on Biblical Greek, and whether I was just lucky in my choice of text or those long-ago grad students were correct, I found myself having a much easier time with Biblical Greek. 

I imagine it’s both, but this text does an amazing job of introducing the complexities of Biblical Greek. Each chapter ends with four sets of exercises, a set of sentences for translation from Greek which are presumably composed by Croy, a set of passages from the Septuagint, a set of passages from the New Testament (these latter two have supplementary vocabulary provided which is explicitly not expected to be learned) and finally a short set of English sentences to be translated to Greek. The later chapters have a few words that don’t manage to make it into either the main or supplementary vocabularies but Wiktionary provides an invaluable resource for being able to find words both in canonical and inflected forms much to my relief.

It took me nearly two years, but I worked through all 32 chapters and all the accompanying translation exercises and my phobia of ancient Greek has been alleviated. I’m almost ready to pull my old Attic Greek textbook off the shelf and give it another try.


Dewey Decimal Project: 478.2 SHA Essential Latin: The language and life of ancient Rome

It’s been a long time Essential Latinsince I studied Latin, but I figured that it’s been long enough that a refresher will be welcome, but short enough that the refresher won’t be redundant.

Sharpley incorporates a bit of cultural background alongside the language lessons which provides a nice supplement. This is generally connected to the Latin readings that compose part of each chapter which are perhaps the most notable aspect of the text—each chapter includes a number of short Latin passages (typically 1–3 sentences) with supplementary vocabulary following each. On occasion, the passage is slightly bowdlerized to make it more accessible to the student, but it’s an opportunity to actually read classical texts. Unfortunately, there is an unspoken assumption that the student will learn that supplementary vocabulary alongside the regularly enumerated vocabulary of each chapter which meant that, since I failed to do this in the early chapters, the Latin readings in the later chapters became increasingly inscrutable.

My only other complaint was that Sharpley has a tendency to skip over some aspects of grammar central to the lesson, choosing instead to point the student to the appendix where the appropriate declension or conjugation is completely enumerated. I can understand the urge to keep the page count from ballooning unnecessarily, but forcing the student into the back of the book like this feels a bit like a gratuitous economy.

Overall, with some minor adjustments, this would be an excellent introduction to Latin and I would love to try rebuilding my Latin from a more grammatically comprehensive text than this is.


Dewey Decimal Project: 464.342 DIO Las Puertas Retorcidas

The 460s are Spanish anNewImaged Portuguese. I was hoping to find something in an intermediate reader since I have at least a decent reading knowledge of Spanish. I thought Las Puertas Retoricidas would be that book, but it turns out it’s a somewhat absurdist story at the service of teaching little lessons of vocabulary and grammar. As such it seems like it could be an effective tool for its target audience (I’d guess middle school students). I skipped the lessons for the most part and just read the story, which did little to stretch my vocabulary and nothing to stretch my understanding of grammar.


Dewey Decimal Project: 458.242 ADR Italian in 32 Lessons

As I worked my way through the 400s, thNewImagee inevitable could no longer be postponed: I’m going to read a language textbook (for most of a year, it turns out), “learning” Italian.

I picked Italian in 32 Lessons primarily because it was a slender volume and I figured I could work through 32 lessons in a reasonable amount of time.

Well, the first thing I realized is that the book does not provide a guide to pronunciation. Sure, I know a little from eating pasta, but this seems essential to a language guide. Then as I worked through the book, I found that a lot of the early exercises were repetitive and somewhat pointless and it was frequent that vocabulary was used in an exercise that wasn’t introduced until a later chapter. Given the lack of any comprehensive vocabulary list in the book, this was especially problematic.

I did manage to pick up some rudimentary Italian skills from the book, but overall, it seemed a poorly conceived and executed book. 


Dewey Decimal Project: 447.09 GEN Merde Encore!

The 440s NewImagebring me to French. I’m still not up to actually learning a language and this book is thin and looks promising. It turns out that it’s mildly more interesting than reading a dictionary. I kind of hoped that literal translations of some of the expressions would have been provided, but I guess more functionality with French than I have is assumed.


Dewey Decimal Project: 439.1 WEX Just Say Nu : Yiddish For Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do)

As I continue through the 400s, I also strive to avoid having to learn another language. The 430s are German and Germanic languages and I decide on this book, Just Say Nu hich looks like it might not be a real learn Yiddish book to check off this decade.

It turns out that Wex has written something that’s a bit of a neither-nor. It looked from the cover—and the interior justified the impression—like a book that was meant to be a somewhat humorous look at Yiddish phrases and expressions, and it was, but Wex also couldn’t resist writing something that was also meant to be a serious text for learning Yiddish and as a result, the book doesn’t succeed at either goal.