Thursday, January 10, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #375: Five Rings, Six Crises, Seven Dwarfs, and 38 Ways to Win an Argument by John Boswell and Dan Starer

A lot of supposedly new things have been around for a while. For example: that quintessential piece of Internet content, the listicle.

Those used to appear all of the time in magazines -- some still do. And people would actually pay money for large collections of listicles in book form. This right here is one of them.

Five Rings, Six Crises, Seven Dwarfs, and 38 Ways to Win an Argument is a 1990 book, late in the flourishing of listicle books that followed the great modern originator, 1977's The Book of Lists. This particular version was compiled by John Boswell and Dan Starer, who have no biographies in the book itself, and organized into the usual thematic chapters.

Those chapters are organized in a lazy alphabetical list, from American Culture to Sports and Games with stops at Christianity, Eastern Religions, European History, Literature, Military, New Age, Philosophy, Politics, and Psychology along the way (along with more than a dozen others). Each chapter is arranged in ascending order, so, for example, Judaism begins with "The Four Questions" and runs up to "The Thirteen Articles of Faith."

Much of this book is still applicable and true. Some sections, though -- particularly those dealing with the then-current world -- are now outdated or superseded or just counting things no one cares about anymore. (In one of my areas of knowledge, they list the Big Eight accounting firms, which is now down to a Big Four.) Almost all of it is trivial, obviously.

One piece which is not trivial is called out in the title: Schopenhauer's Thirty-Eight Stratagems, excerpted from the 1896 English translation of his Art of Controversy. It's a depressing list for several reasons, primarily because it shows people have always tried to bamboozle others; these are all end-runs around logic and clear argumentation, and all will be very familiar to anyone who has followed the politics of any nation in any era. It's eye-opening to see them all laid out, one by one, as options to the unscrupulous arguer -- many of us could provide contemporary examples of most of the stratagems. And being able to identify them by number could definitely be useful in life: it's one way to point out bad-faith arguments. Luckily, you don't need to dig up a long-out-of-print minor book of lists: Schopenhauer is well out of copyright, so I can just link to an online version of the list. (You're welcome.)

Other than that, this is solid book of lists: full of minor quirky facts that the reader might remember for a little while or that might accidentally lodge deep in the brain to come out at some random time later. That is the joy of random facts, so this definitely does its job.

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