Favourite Readings 2021 – Another winter of intellectual rather than geographical journeys…

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Stefan Zweig, Montaigne (8th edition, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, 2014)

Frank Schorkopf, Der europäische Weg. Geschichte und Gegenwart der Europäischen Union (3rd  edition, Mohr Siebeck, 2020)

Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason. From Judgement to Calculation (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1976)

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from . You can read all the posts in this series here

Stefan Zweig, Montaigne

As the founder and chairman of the Montaigne-society, I certainly believe one should – first and foremost – read Montaigne’s famous essays themselves. This work is so incredibly rich, diverse and wise that one can and maybe should turn to it every other day (I have a copy of his essays next to my bed, two in the living room, one at my desk at home and one at my University office…). But there exist not only great essays by Montaigne, but also on Montaigne. Probably the most celebrated one was written by Stefan Zweig. While Zweig was exiled in Brasil and deeply depressed due to the unrivalled horrors of the Nazi-regime, he found a copy of Montaigne’s essays in the basement of the house he had rented in Petropolis. Lamentably, it did not save him from ultimately committing suicide, but he described Montaigne as an “homme libre” in these illiberal times, as a “tröstlicher Geist”. The degree to which he adored Montaigne’s work and felt liberated by merely reading his essays, is evident from the original title he placed on the typescript: “In gratitude to Montaigne”. As all his late work prior to his suicide, his essay on Montaigne remained a fragment. Was it Ernst Bloch who once remarked “All that is great remains a fragment”? Well, quod erat demonstrandum. No matter if you find the current state of the world as depressing as Zweig or not, Zweig’s careful and passionate essay about the work and life of the founder of this very genre will provide a moving afternoon – be it an introduction to or recap of this great Geist’s cogitations.

Frank Schorkopf, Der europäische Weg. Geschichte und Gegenwart der Europäischen Union

You might think: A history on the development of the European Union –  as a ‘best read’ of the year? Are you serious? Come on! But Schorkopf’s attempt to display and trace how the Union came into being and was shaped, is truly worth it. He masterfully blends history, politics, and law. His constitutional history of Europe is rich in detail, yet never gets lost in it. Even if you are familiar with this unique project, I believe you will, on each and every page, gain novel insights, and will be inspiringly reminded of, or learn about, fascinating details about the development of the Union. A vivid combination of a bird’s eye perspective and nuances of Europe’s constitutional history, this condensed history of the Union – and beyond – on 228 pages is truly remarkable. This is European Zeitgeschichte at its best: Depth, breadth, focus, and brevity. Yet it is written in plain and elegant language. Clear and meaningful sentences. Nota bene: The book is accompanied by a podcast. I must confess that I am not a big fan of podcast (besides EJIL Talk! – of course) as too often I sense excessive self-advertisement and experience “logorrhea”. Schorkopf’s podcast “Europas Weg”, however, is truly outstanding. Lots of original audio documents bring the EU’s history alive. I strongly encourage you read Schorkopf (and listen to his podcast) – and I strongly encourage Schorkopf to publish an English translation with a distinguished publishing house to reach a wider readership.

Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason. From Judgement to Calculation

Ad fontes – especially in a dynamic, over-written field like artificial intelligence. MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, which is inter alia evidenced by the fact that he programmed the natural language processing tool/chatbot ELIZA – already in 1966! His 1976 book has become a classic. As the title indicates, Weizenbaum is a fierce critic of the unreflective use and admiration of computer technology. However, his text is less about simply demystifying and relativizing computer power in general and artificial intelligence in particular, but rather – or also – a critique of society and naïve science at large, in praise of the humane, of our creativity, of our abilities to judge, not just to calculate, and so on…His vivid, multifaceted, philosophical book is as entertaining as well as it is serious. An easy, but earnest read. And an early but nonetheless still valid memento not to depreciate the genuinely human in the digital age as we are facing the advent of omnipresent artificial intelligence.     

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