Monday, April 24, 2017

’Isms and ’Ologies: All the Movements, Ideologies, and Doctrines That Have Shaped Our World by Arthur Goldwag

Every idea has its name
In ’Isms and ’Ologies, published in 2007, author Arthur Goldwag takes on the Herculean task of defining hundreds of intellectual buzzwords from the past and present in the areas of politics, science, religion, and the arts. I was greatly intrigued by this concept, but the end result proved less enlightening and less engaging than I expected. I ended up liking the idea of the book more than its execution.

While Goldwag is a skilled writer who has clearly done his research, what he chooses to include in or exclude from his entries is sometimes frustrating. In the Politics & History section, for example, we are told that Straussianism is named after Leo Strauss, and a few notable adherents to the ideology are named, but as to what Straussians believe that specifically makes them Straussian is never really specified. Quite a few of the entries display a similar lack of clarity. For the reader to truly understand these ‘isms, each entry should provide a concise mini-manifesto of each movement. Goldwag, although he’s good at providing historical context, too often gets sidetracked with anecdotes and quotes. He fares better in the Philosophy and Arts section, where delineations between schools are more sharply defined. The Science section is truly fascinating—with entries like Plate Tectonics, Red Shift, and Stockholm Syndrome following each other in rapid succession­—but disappointingly brief.

The section on Religion is the most extensive, taking up a third of the entire book. This is clearly Goldwag’s area of interest and likely what led him to tackle this project in the first place. He obviously enjoys parsing the minute differences between obscure sects of Christianity and Judaism, and other faiths are also thoroughly represented. Goldwag treats each religious ’ism with dignity and respect, never scoffing no matter how bizarre they might be. He doesn’t show the same detached objectivity in the Politics section, however, as he has a tendency to rip on the Bush administration, which was in power at the time of publication. Even though I may agree with his opinions, I would have preferred he stick to defining ideologies rather than criticizing them. Over the course of the book you get to know Goldwag’s political stance and those issues of highest importance to him from what he chooses to emphasize in the entries.

There’s a brief section on sexual perversions, which almost seems as if it were thrown in as a plea for general readership, à la The Book of Lists. (Not everyone’s interested in politics or philosophy, but everyone’s interested in sex.) The closing section, entitled Eponyms, Laws, Foreign Words, is a mixed bag that includes a lot of interesting stuff under terms often derived from the names of literary characters and real historical persons.

This book will make a good reference work for hardcore readers and a fun read for the curious generalist. The question arises, what can this book provide that Google or Wikipedia can’t? The first is its browsability, which makes you aware of ‘isms that you may not have even known existed. The second is the quality of the writing, which is articulate and erudite, though at times could have been more concise and more objective. Despite my reservations, Goldwag has done an admirable job with ’Isms and ’Ologies, and I did learn a lot from it.
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