A bookish ramble

Magic and Mystery

cover of Magic and MysteryA friend passed this very old, battered copy of Magic and Mystery in Tibet my way amongst others she was discarding recently. I found it fascinating as an historical artifact and impressive in an intrepid-traveller kind of way.

The author, Alexandra David-Neel, was part of the early Western engagement with Asian religion, along with the theosophists (whom she knew well).

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Key classics of fantasy and science fiction

Once upon a time, no-one was considered truly educated unless they knew Shakespeare’s plays. More recently, but still not recently, an influential critic published a really big list of books which he thought were necessary for an understanding of western culture – sorry: Western Culture.

My ambitions are much smaller. All I claim is that anyone who doesn’t know the books on my list has missed key works of fantasy and science fiction, so they have missed some great books and will miss innumerable cultural references.

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Big Questions reading list

This short list recommends a few books that may be of value to those interested in religion (particularly Buddhism) and philosophy. It’s just a personal list, not a systematic set of references, so use it for what it’s worth.

1. Nonfiction

Books which are primarily about people and society but throw light on Buddhism as practised in Tibet and China.

Bones of the Master by George Crane (1996)
George Crane, American poet, meets Tsung Tsai, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) monk who escaped from the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1959-60. The two of them travel to Inner Mongolia to re-establish the monastery.

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McDonald: River of Gods

book coverRiver of Gods begins memorably with a flashy small-time crook dumping a woman’s body in the Ganges to let it drift downstream amongst remains from the funeral pyres of Varanasi.

The Ganges, India’s River of Gods, is as sacred as it has been for centuries and the ancient purification rituals are unchanged. Politically, however, India in 2047 is once again a cluster of feuding nation states and the ancient holy city of Varanasi is now the capital of Bharat.

It would be true to say this is a science-fiction novel about artificial intelligence, but that would leave out a lot. This is a big book in every way, with a dozen interweaving stories in settings ranging from Mughal mansions to the poorest slums. We have two pairs of star-crossed lovers, remote-controlled robot surgery, computer-generated soapie actors, an industrialist who gives his company away to become a temple-dwelling ascetic, a new human gender, an alien device concealed in an asteroid older than the solar system, gratuitous violence, a war between Bharat and its upstream neighbour over water resources, wild sex, zero-point energy, and much more.

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