Books and Code · A Miscellany

Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis (A Review)


This summer my wife and I took a cruise through Greece. When I travel I try to read quality books from the place I’m visiting to try to get a feel for the culture and its mindset. As is my wont, I bought some Greek books including Kazantzakis’ famous novel Zorba the Greek.

The novel follows the experiences of an idealistic intellectual as he moves to rural Crete to re-open a lignite mine with the help of an eccentric older man–the eponymous Zorba–who he meets in Piraeus on the way. Zorba is a “salt of the earth” type, an everyday philosopher king who makes it his mission to impart his hedonistic world view to our narrator. The plot of the lignite mine is little more than a backdrop for a series of philosophical discussions between the two men and vignettes of their interaction with the local rustics.

Although written earlier and through a different cultural lens, the book reminded me very much of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Both books glorify a certain disregard for traditional social responsibilities, idealize male relationships to a point bordering on homoeroticism, and dehumanize the feminine. But whereas On the Road is grounded in an ethos of American individualism, Zorba is mired in a Mediterranean nonchalance that I couldn’t help but find distasteful.

Now, I consider myself a lazy man, but my laziness is born out of a conviction that my actions matter and that therefore must not be wasted on undesirable activity. The Mediterranean view from which I recoil feels like the opposite: a fundamental belief that individual action is unimportant.

That said, Kazantzakis’ writing, which I enjoyed immensely even in English translation, is evocative of the Greek islands as a place with a rich, if flawed, cultural memory.

Panorama of Santorini

Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto, by Geoffrey Sutton (A Review)


Years ago I stumbled upon the existence of Esperanto, an auxiliary language invented in the late 1880s to facilitate international communication. I was intrigued by its large body of original literature and tried to find out more. Upon seeing the size of this tome (and its price tag), I had to question just how curious about Esperanto I was. Lucky for me I took the plunge. Even luckier for you, Mondial now also sells an ebook version through Google Books at a huge discount. I’ve bought that too because it’s just that good.

Perhaps it’s a little ironic that the best reference on Esperanto literature is written in English, but I’m glad this is the case because it makes the topic accessible to those who don’t know Esperanto. For newcomers to the language, the typical ‘sales pitch’ focuses on ideological arguments like fostering international understanding, world peace, meeting new people, etc. a.k.a. the “internal idea.” Now, this may have been useful 100 years ago when it was created, but no more. In my opinion, there are two compelling reasons to learn Esperanto: First, to access its original literature which is largely untranslated into major languages. Second, to access literatures of smaller languages which are largely untranslated into major languages, but are very well represented in Esperanto. In these two areas, Esperanto is a veritable gold mine.

Now, here’s how you read this thing. First, if you are very new to Esperanto, jump down to Claude Piron’s section on the creative capabilities of the language. Second, read all the introductory material. Third, read the introductory section to each of the five literary periods. Lastly, read the sections on major authors and those writers who sounded interesting to you from what you’ve already learned. I would recommend starting with the ones Sutton mentions on page 18. Note that you can accomplish most of the above reading for free with the Google Preview feature. After the above (which probably amounts to 100 pages or so), you’ll be well-equipped to delve into the wonders of Esperanto literature. But, you’ll find yourself coming back to Sutton often to check up on a new writer you discovered, or to just open up to a random page, pick a name, and start reading.


The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine (A Review)


My parents were pastors so I grew up in a very religious household. Although I liked the scholarly nature of bible study, religious belief has never sat well with me. Although my early adulthood was just as steeped in Christian practices–my first two years of college were spent at a Christian school and I worked for five years in IT for the church–I became more and more aware of and confident in my agnostic intuitions and conclusions. It was at this time in my life when I began to seek out avowedly atheistic literature and Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason really resonated with me.

This book is not for people incapable of appreciating nuance. This statement is a somewhat contradictory assertion because Paine is not subtle. He pulls no punches in his critique of revealed religion. The nuance comes into play when you realize that Paine is a deist, not an atheist. At the base of his critique is not an unilateral rejection of the existence of God, but rather the conclusion that the scriptures of Judeo-Christian religion are seriously deficient and not divinely inspired.

I find his argument compelling and his approach of using the Bible as evidence against itself ingenious. However, I have three minor criticisms which I do not propose as a refutation. First, his rhetoric is too inflammatory. He makes it too easy for opponents to dismiss his argument by ignoring its substance and playing the victim to his barbs, just as moderns do today with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al. Hence my initial invocation of nuance.

Second, the work is uneven. Part 1 suffers from a lack of direct citation of the Bible which is supplied in Part 2. The reason for this is historical–the upheaval of the French Revolution pushed Paine to hurry its composition and publication. This makes Paine sound less evidence-based in Part 1 than he actually is and allows readers to sidestep the meat of his critique contained in Part 2. Sadly, The Age of Reason is often published with only Part 1–as it is in Penguin Classics’ Thomas Paine Reader. (I own that book and had to go out of my way to find a complete edition. Thanks Dover Publications!) It’s hard to blame Paine though since he wrote Part 1 during the Reign of Terror while fearing for his life, having no access to a Bible, and was arrested shortly after having written it. Keep in mind that while this work might seem atheistic today, at the time he was writing against the atheism of the French Revolution. It seems Paine was able to make enemies of both the atheistic revolutionaries and pious Christians simultaneously. A truly badass move.

Third, he makes some minor mistakes in his Biblical criticism. For example, Paine refers to all four gospel writers as being of the twelve disciples when in fact two (Mark & Luke) are only claimed to be friends of apostles. This isn’t important to Paine’s thesis since what Paine is attacking is their apostolic authority, which does apply to all four. It is unclear to me whether this is due to his own ignorance, the state of Biblical scholarship at the time, or some combination thereof (surely the former in the above example). These mistakes don’t invalidate his argument, but like my # 1 criticism, it gives opponents irrelevant things to point at while avoiding Paine’s larger points.

Although his rhetoric is often harsh, it is not mere mockery. In fact, his approach takes seriously the claims of divine revelation. He frames his case in the terms dictated by proponents of revealed religion. He points out passages that are contradictory or morally dubious not solely to mock them, but as evidence against the claim of divine origin. Many of these are addressed in one way or another in modern scholarship by source or textual critics. His interpretation of the book of Jonah as a meta-commentary on prophetic literature is an insightful one and shows that he’s not just anomaly hunting for sport.

The basis for Paine’s deism is natural theology which was a very defensible position in his day. In the 200 years since I think even this rather benign belief has become untenable. The problem of suffering has always been a thorn in the side of theism, but even more so with the advent of evolution since we are now aware just how necessary (and paradoxically pointless) suffering has been to the “creation” of life. This is why I am not a deist, although I am sympathetic to it.

The Loom of Language, by Frederick Bodmer (A Review)


The first half of the 20th century was a heady time for language learning and study. The field of philology (now commonly called historical linguistics) was at its zenith. Much of the evolution of the Proto-Indo European language family had been worked out. The hope that a world-wide auxiliary language, such as Esperanto, would be adopted internationally had not yet been utterly dashed by the two World Wars.

In this milieu, Frederick Bodmer published The Loom of Language, an erudite guide on how to study multiple languages efficiently. Bodmer was a professor of philology at MIT during this time. He was succeeded there in 1955 by Noam Chomsky, whose revolutionary ideas were responsible as much as anything for changing philology into what we think of as modern linguistics.

The book was edited by Bodmer’s friend Lancelot Hogben, a zoologist turned popular science writer and inventor of the auxiliary language Interglossa, and was part of a series of books entitled Primers for the Age of Plenty that also included volumes on mathematics, general science, and history. The science and history books are long out of print, but the mathematics book, Mathematics for the Million, remains available. (I, of course, own a copy and will review it eventually…)

There is so much great information in here that it requires repeat readings over several years, especially Part II. Consider this book a meta-manual for learning how to learn languages.

It is divided into four parts. Part I is a “natural history” of language. Part II covers the “hybrid heritage” of English as a language which straddles the Germanic and Romance branches of the Indo-European language tree. Part III covers language problems and planning movements. Part IV is a “language museum” of comparative vocabulary tables.

The most fascinating feature of this book is how it frames being a native English speaker as a positive, not a negative. While speaking English might be a disincentive to learn other languages, it can also be a great base to learn from due to its hybrid Germanic/Romantic vocabulary. As such, the book covers Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and German in the Teutonic track and French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian in the Romance track, not to mention plenty of discussion of parent languages like Latin and Old English.

The Loom of Language shares much information and spirit with The Seven Sieves. The latter is also very good, but Loom is more comprehensive and easier to find. There is even a scanned copy available on

As I said above, Part II is a treasure trove. Bodmer distills everything a student needs to know about sound correspondences, etc. to make connections across the outlined languages and accelerate learning. The only annoyance is that the huge tables in Part IV aren’t available online somewhere as spreadsheets (the book is almost a century old after all) so one could import them into a spaced repetition system like Anki for efficient learning. I typed these out as Google spreadsheets for my own use. I’ve made them available here: Romance Word List, Germanic Word List, and the Greek Roots List from the language museum. Importing into Anki or suchlike is pretty easy.

With the growth of the “polyglot” trend online, resources that purport to teach you how to learn languages quickly are increasingly common. Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis and Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner are two notable examples. However, few of these modern books come close to the rigor of Bodmer’s tome.

Defending the Undefendable, by Walter Block (A Review)


I’m familiar with Walter Block from Mises Institute-sponsored lectures on their YouTube channel. I like him and agree with many of his arguments, which makes negatively reviewing this book something of an unpleasant chore.

For starters, the tone of this book reinforces every libertarian stereotype out there: brash, pedantically argumentative, overly-theoretical, and absolutist. Personally, I like these traits in people, but they are wholly counter-productive in the kind of “apology” literature that this book purports to be. Even when you agree with Block, he makes you want to argue the minutiae with him.

Second, he conflates a pragmatic legal argument with a moral argument. There is no need to define pimps, drug pushers, etc. as “heroes” to defend the legality of these actions and in fact attempting this alienates folks who agree on pragmatic grounds.

If Block insists on making the pedantic, semantically-narrow “moral hero” case, he should have done it at the end of the book in a dedicated chapter after he had done his best with the pragmatic approach. Ideally, he would have done so in an entirely separate book.

Third, he is overly reliant on deductive, a priori reasoning, occasionally making unsubstantiated assertions that he could easily back up with facts and figures but doesn’t bother.

Fourth, some of his arguments are just plain idiotic. I offer up the chapter defending litterbugs as exemplary. Block makes compelling arguments too, but his strongest ones can be found in other books that are not as incendiary and are therefore more likely to convince, like Economics in One Lesson.

Finally, the tone and word choice in some cases sounds vaguely racist to modern ears, despite the fact that he’s trying to make pro-minority arguments at the time. I’m willing to chalk this up to the fact that the book was originally written in 1976.

Regrettably, I can only recommend this book to Block’s ideological cohorts because he fails to frame his argument in a way that will actually convince people who are not already likely to agree.

Download the pdf for free from the Mises Institute.