Reading – English
An impeccable spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's master agent
Owen Matthews (2019)
I have long been intrigued by spy stories. This one is a true story of the man considered by John Le Carré to be the greatest spy ever. Presumably the real history will be far less romantic and fanciful than the novels.
Herman Melville (1851)
I have read Moby Dick a few times. Like Huckleberry Finn, it is widely accepted as one of the great classics of American literature, without however any particular agreement about the mood, meaning, importance or merit of either. Recently, I read in The Economist a piece about how Moby Dick espoused a multicultural view of the universe. The last time I read it I was struck with how dark it was. That was quite a few years ago, so I suspect this voyage will be a different one.
A few pages into it, I am struck with the denseness of the observation and aptness of the language. He speaks of the image we see “in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” It attracts as well “landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster – tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” Isn’t that a wonderful reading and description?
Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification
Timur Kuran (1995)
I read about this book in FiveThirtyEight. It is about the intriguing question of people's balance between saying what is socially acceptable and desirable, and expressing one's private views.
I am not sure what the book has to say about the subject that is not fairly obvious: that we are both individual creatures and members of a larger society. There are various equations and graphs to illustrate what happens if some set of numbers exists, without however the trace of any attempt to ground the equations in empirical data or to use them to predict the future. The argument seems to fall into the ancient fallacy of assuming that extremely complex perceptions and emotions are proper material for use in simple logical propositions.
Worse, he posits that there are real, fixed inner beliefs, only not observable from the outside. Not even Descartes would have subscribed to such naive dualism.
Kuran is a zealot for his own idea. He should know better.
Nevil Schute (1942)
I pick up adventure novels for bedtime reading sometimes. The genre is full of clichés, double whiskies, chain-smoking, torrid romance, hidden doors and passages, unknown identical twins, secret codes, little-known Oriental poisons, and potent judo cuts. There are good guys and bad guys, and just about always the good guys win.
In Most Secret, there are good guys (the British) and bad guys (the Nazis), but the characters among the good guys are a varied bunch, with very human and plausible idiosyncrasies, loves and luck. They are out to win the war but are fully aware of the gruesomeness of what they are doing, pausing to consider the Geneva Conventions. There is enough tenderness in them for strong devotion to a pet rabbit and its daily needs.
I rather enjoyed this story and would like to find others resembling it.
Death comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather (1927)
The New Industrial State
John Kenneth Galbraith (1967)
Corporations have lives that are well described by the principles of Darwin. They have an instinct for self-preservation, even after the initial need that gave rise to them has been met. They grow, and compete with others their size – but at other times they herd with them. They need food, and to survive over the long term must develop behaviors like sexual selection, with the peculiar twist that the fancies they must meet – or create – are those of their customers, who feed them.
Galbraith's view is that the modern technostructure goes beyond the corporation, so that business, government and educational institutions share an interest in preservation of the planning system. There's no doubt much truth in what he says. Apple's yearly release of new iPhone models, and the growth of subscription plans for software, fit well with his descriptions.
The Tale of Genji
Musasaki Shikibu (ca. 1008)
translated by Royall Tyer (2001)
I started this in 2006 (the receipt inside informs me) and paused at some point after that. I liked the story, but the break was reasonable, after reading 623 pages of it – except that the total length is 1120 pages. At this point in time, I am having good luck in reading very long works in installments. Genji has no natural subdivisions larger than its fifty-four individual chapters, so I created artificial subdivisions.
A natural subdivision is at the death of the narrator, Murasaki, and soon afterwards of Genji. The chapter for Genji's death is blank, very fittingly.
It is a tale of manners. The courtly life is full of protocols and rituals with highly detailed choreography. The characters often communicate with each other by brief symbolic poems, which are judged by their knowledge of the canon of symbols and their calligraphy. They contintually lecture each other about how such-an-such a course of conduct would look.
In the stories of the modern West, passionate courting usually leads up to success, with marriages and couples who "live happily ever after." Occasionally, there will be a tragic failure, possibly followed by a suicide. There is not such resolution in the late chapters of Genji, leaving some readers' expectations disappointed. Rather, the characters may dwell on the illusory nature of life, and slowly dwindle away the balance of their existences. It is a different view of things.
The Second World War
I. The Gathering Storm (1948)
I've read through much of Churchhill's Second World War series over the years. I haven't read the first of the series before now. Indeed, my 1948 edition had uncut leaves. This volume has little dramatic action; perhaps its point is the inaction of the great European powers between the wars. After the First World War, people had little appetite for conflict. Disarmament and the League of Nations seemed the mood of most. Perhaps this would have been the right approach, but for Nazism and Hitler – I'm not sure. Churchill explains that it had been the policy of England for centuries to oppose any power that tried to take over Europe: France, Spain, Germany. That seems like a rational approach.
Churchill's narrative is of course from his own perspective, which of course was a minority one before and after the War, but was probably the right perspective.
I am finding the political and policy questions quite interesting at this point, the military history much less so.
II. Their Finest Hour (1949)
The first volume of this set captured my interest strongly enough that I am picking up with the second. I must not have read that, either, since it was missing from my collection. The gap was easily filled. The second hand bookstores have many copies of it.
It is gripping to read of the struggle of Britain, alone, against the rapidly spreading tide of fascism, and inspiring to note its success. It was a struggle for existence, in which the English were unwilling to accept conquest or surrender. The role of Churchill, even discounted for bias in his own narration, was remarkable.
(On the other side of the coin, the minutiae of the military actions is far beyond my interest in that facet of things.)
III. The Grand Alliance (1950)
At the dawn of 1941, Hitler had conquered most of mainland Europe. A truce prevailed Russia and Germany, though Hitler had not unleashed Operation Barbarosa, his plan to take over Russia, starving its population to death and driving remnants to Siberia, making the vast land available for Lebensraum. The United States, weary after World War I and the Great Depression, was not anxious to get involved in what people tended to see as European squabbles, though Franklin Roosevelt was much more far-sighted that the country he led. England alone was fighting the Third Reich and, incredibly, beginning to turn the tide.
I find reading about the military details very tedious, but there are overarching primal themes at play. The determination and unity of the British is one. The reality that there is no safe course in war is another. The sometime inanity of national leaders is a third. There was no way that Japan could, over the long term, prevail in a conflict against the United States and a large majority of the world's population. Yet it bombed the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, taking control over the Pacific until the Allies could complete the long process of rebuilding.
The Hinge of Fate (1950)
The United States has joined the War, and the outcome is all but certain. The question is, how how will it take and at what cost to the Allies.
On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays
John Stuart Mill (1859-69)
J.S. Mill is, by most people's reckoning, one of the fundamental authors in the canon of Western political thought. I haven't read him before now. Being conditioned by a recent experience in setting out to read a very long but worthless and painful work, I will start by individual essays.
On Liberty is a very spirited treatment, beginning with the liberty of individual thought. On that topic, I find it penetrating, eloquent and persuasive. To me, it is a leap of faith and of logic to leap from that premise to the conclusion that government interference in business is an evil to be avoided except in the direst circumstances and then with the utmost wariness… which seems to be where Mill is headed. But, in fairness, Mill doesn't say that in this essay. I will see in a while what he has to say in others.
The notion that moral codes are ultimately based on the common good seems to me rather a truism. Over the course of evolution, humankind, as a group, has the same interest in developing collective norms for interaction as an individual has in developing characteristis and behaviors that will preserve him and his genes. – I suppose that there are those who don't see it this way… early Protestants and fundamentalists, for instance.
The Subjection of Women
Mill was one of the earlier advocates of women's rights, with views a century in advance of his times. His essay is strong in its statement that men cannot be fair creatures as long as they continue to hold women as a class as slaves.
His arguments are rather curious, to my taste, since they often rely on broad, unproven generalizations about what the minds and characters of women typically are. But his mission was to change people's minds, and no single or purely logical approach would be likely to accomplish that.
The Final Days
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1976)
The Final Days is a sequel to the authors' All the President's Men, in a way rather of the " – Comes Back" or "Son of – " variety. Its subject is Watergate, and its technique countless interviews with people involved. Unlike its predecessor, it has no element of the process of unravelling the story, but simply tells it chronologically. It is notable for largely succeeding (by most assessments) without providing documentation of its sources of information.
Nixon was, in my view, sleazy, vindictive, insecure, and remarkably inept in many things. Despite his failings, he had many successes, such as building rapprochement with China. He ranks low in most ratings of U.S. presidents, but not at the bottom. That distinction currently belongs to the present occupant of the White House, who is often compared to Nixon.
The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe (1794)
Udolpho was among my mother's set of about a dozen of her all-time favorite books. I recently picked it up casually to leaf through, and became absorbed with it. Radcliffe is most often spoken of as a writer of "Gothic" fiction. She was, but her writing is multi-dimensional. Her characters have strengths and weaknesses, make mistakes, and change their minds. If it all turns out right in the end, that's justice and OK by me. – I think my mother was right to rate this novel highly.
To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf (1927)
Virginia Woolf's innovative technique and style deservedly noted. The content of To the lighthouse, to make an artificial distinction, includes eternal topics such as love and death. Overall, the book leaves me a little cold. The pages devote much attention to the chasm between individuals' minds, and the superficiality of their thoughts, with rare instances of mutual care and little focus on the beauties and depth their own experiences may contain.
Journey to the Ants
Bert Hölldobler & Edward O. Wilson (1994)
Ants are extremely social creatures with highly developed roles. Usually, when we think about animals, we immediately compare them to ourselves. That works well for studying ants.
I found the book fascinating for its commentary on social mores and curious incidentals. For instance, ants are highly reliant on smell to identify members of their own race and tribe. A few parasites, such as certain beetles, have developed the odor – pheronome – that stamps them as members of certain ant colonies. Though these freeloaders look entirely out of place, the ants accept and nourish them because they smell right. One wonders whether human behavior is necessarily a lot more sophisticated.
I have seen Dorothy Richardson's name cited along with those of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust, which is indeed lofty company. She is also noted as a feminist figure.
She viewed the thirteen novels of Pilgrimage as chapters of a single work. That may be. I'll take them as separate, rather than biting off the thirteen as a set.
1: Pointed Roofs (1915)
Pointed Roofs is an apparently very autobiographical story of a stint as a governess in Germany. I found the writing very well done, and incidentally interesting for me as a description of the life of a governess. The main character, Miriam Henderson, is an intellectual figure who doesn't readily fit in with her peers or surroundings, evidently matching the personality of Dorothy Richardson.
I will certainly read further works in the series. I should also go back and reread Joyce and Proust.
2: Backwater (1915)
Miriam is, apparently like the author, very interior and intellectual, ill at ease socially. The story does not reflect an effort to distill things down to the essentials of a given event, but portrays the experience of daily life:
Getting out of touch with everything, things happening, knowing nothing about them, going home like a visitor, and people talking with you about things that are only theirs now, and not wanting to hear about yours . . . not about the little real everyday things that give you an idea of anything, but only the startling things that are not important. You have to think of them, though, to make people interested – awful, awful, awful; really only putting people further away afterwards, when you've told the thing and their interest dies down and you can't think of anything else to say.
Her writing is aware and captures well the internal processes of the mind. I am struck, though, at her alienation of her mind:
Life was ugly and cruel. The secret of the sea and of the evenings and mornings must be given up. It would fade more and more. What was life? Either playing a part all the time in order to be amongst people in the warm, or standing alone with the strange true real feeling – alone with a sort of edge of reality on everything; even on quite ugly common things – cheap boarding-houses, face-towels and blistered window frames.
So, my appreciation for the style is marred somewhat by the feeling that I have a recalcitrant grouch and moper in the living room with me.
3: Honeycomb (1917)
"I prefer books to people," the narrator thinks to herself.
I can see the originality of Richardson's writing. It portrays inner experiences in a catching way. My enjoyment is lessened by the fact that her narrator (presumably a mirror of the author) is fundamentally an unhappy, alienated person. If there are things that are entirely one's own, there is also a vast process of sharing with other people that touches on all of our own experiences. That process, and the joys and pains it may bring, seem almost entirely absent from her world view.
Well, perhaps I'll pick up the series again another day, but not right now.
On the Origin of Species
Charles Darwin (1859)
It is a delight reading this work and following how the author approaches his subject. He comes at it from many different sides, rather than riding a single notion like a hobby-horse, from one angle. He is continually saying, there is another way we may look at this. He readily admits his puzzlement with the remark that in a given area, our ignorance is profound, and devotes careful attention to arguments against his theory. He is a naturally curious person.
Beyond being the proponent of a radical idea of immense power, he is a writer who creates much interest and pleasure. I am surprised that I have not read any of his writing earlier, but very glad to have opened it now. It has been a delight to follow his mind at work.
Empires of the Word
Nicholas Ostler (2005)
A fellow-visitor to the Crane Beach dune trails, a classic linguist, recommended this to me. It is the work of an amazing author, with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, conversant with the the details of the world's languages, societies and histories.
Its strengths are perhaps its weaknesses. It is an encyclopedic compendium, not only of languages, but of their context. As such, it seemed to me in transit more of a work of reference than something to be read from the first page to the last. – I recognize that others have approached it in that beginning-to-end fashion and found nothing but delight in the process.
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded
Samuel Richardson (1740)
This is a very early English novel, in the epistolary mode, heavily didactic and moralistic. I gather that it generated scandal among some in its time because the notion of virtue supposes the notion of sin, and the book includes some description of sin, or at least coveting of sin – though hardly in a fashion to appeal to prurient interests.
Though I almost always can find something in a work that's lasted for a while, I must confess that this one left me flat. It is preachy and repetitive in the extreme. At least The Pilgrim's Progress, if also heavy-handedly moralizing, offers the allure of different perils. Richardson's instantaneous switch from a demonic, totally evil would-be debaucher to a generous saint is certainly a deus ex machina, I would say of the type that marks the most naive story-tellling.
Well, de gustibus non disputandum est.
All the President's Men
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974)
Richard Nixon was sleazy, paranoid, vindictive, and often outright dumb. His presidency was a low that has been matched and exceeded only once since.
The story of the unraveling of Watergate is a worthy tale in itself. I read it at the time. Woodword and Bernstein made a major contribution to the investigation. The course of history might have been different without these two men. Their journalism was a fascinating real-life detective story.
A Legacy of Spies
John le Carré (2017)
I put this book aside unfinished two thirds of the way through for its relentless moroseness. By most critics' estimation, including mine, John le Carré has written some of the finest spy stories in existence. He manages the thrill of solving an ultimately fair mystery with awareness of the moral ambiguities surrounding the basic notion of spying. After all, it is deceit and betrayal by its nature.
Many of his later works are, to my taste, simply dark. Of course there is pettiness and callousness and greed on "our" side, as well as "their" side. One should not give up on the very notion of decency, however, or lose sight of the people and moments of basic nobility, or abandon the political quest for "right" in one's community. It is not a theoretical or practical impossibility. Neither should one be bamboozled by real surrounding pettiness and stupidity into losing the pleasure of using one's wits and seeing others use theirs.
Le Carré, at this point in his life, seems simply to be a grouchy old man.
Kate Chopin (1899)
This is an early view of infidelity from a woman's viewpoint, considered shocking in its time. Somehow I have never read Kate Chopin until now, perhaps because in my earlier days such writing was considered unsuitable. Now, it approaches the status of a classic.
Kate Chopin has an impressive command of the craft of writing. Each phrase counts and builds. She is aware of the broad moral plane around her central character's intensely personal meditations and caprices, in welcome contrast to another book I read not long ago. There is no solution to the conflicts, either in the classical virtue of La Princesse de Clèves or in the tempestuous passion of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. The conflict is continuing, even if the life of Chopin's central character ends.
I find myself wanting to read more of Kate Chopin's work, though her output was relatively slim.
Josh Axe (2016)
My PCP told me about this book.
The human gut is colonized by a bewildering variety and number of bacteria. These have often beneficial effects, sometimes don't matter, and once in a while cause health problems. In the era of big data, we have only begun to understand bits of the situation. As always, the more we learn, the more we realize how much more we don't know.
So, I have been seeing how much Josh Axe seems to know. – Quite a bit, according to his own estimation. As I see it, some of the things he says could be true, but his book provides little ground for belief or disbelief in his various pronouncements. I consider it an utter waste of time and money.
The Last of the Mohicans
James Fenimore Cooper (1826)
I first read this book in high school, and reread it during my college days. I recall that it was a page-turner for me in those days. I re-read it recently, part of activity stirred by my shelving of books. It turned out to be a bit of a chore.
Mark Twain was severe in his criticism of Fenimore Cooper. I am finding Cooper rather amateurish, beyond his evocation of imaginary frontier scenes. These would fit well into an episode of The Lone Ranger, with stereotype Tonto. That Cooper had any direct knowledge of Native American – Indian – society, I tend to doubt.
Master of the Senate
Robert A. Caro (2002)
I really enjoyed Caro's volume on Lyndon Johnson's vice-presidency and early presidency, The Passage of Power. I am picking up things in reverse order, going back to Johnson's time in the Senate. Caro is as interested in the context as much as in the subject of his biography. His discussion of the Senate and its slowness reminds me of early civics schoollessons. It was by design of the Founding Fathers that the Senate structure did not lend itself to rapid change of any kind, and the reading helps me understand that present-day obstructiveness is hardly anything new there. Caro is a master biographer, digging deeply into the contradictions of the man Lyndon Johnson and providing a deep view of how his subject fit into his milieu.
I am very much looking forward to the the planned final volume of the five-part series.
John Buchan (1922)
John Buchan, aside from being Governor-General of Canada, was a noted writer of adventure stories still read today. His was an era when being British was a sacred identity, and enemies of England were evil incarnate. Many of his adventure stories are simply very good specimens of the genre. A few go beyond.
Huntingtower tells of the respectable, newly retired grocer Dickson McCunn, who makes a chance acquaintance with a young, rebellious poet named John Hermitage, and through that chance acquaintance becomes involved with a lonely, extra-legal combat against dark invading forces. I am struck between the resemblance to the central character of Sostiene Pereira, another mild-mannered, middle-aged man who enters the world and takes the part of a figure of the younger generation. In this country, it was the naive students of the 1960s and 1970s, after all, who spurred their elders into letting go of the war in Vietnam.
The real heroes of Huntingtower are the Gorbal Die-Hards, a band of homeless waifs who organize and carry out the struggle. Dickson McCunn, John Hermitage, and the old widow Mrs. Morran can't quite keep themselves from stepping in to support the battle, which of course ends with victory on the proper side.
John Grotzinger, Thomas H. Jordan, Frank Press, and Raymond Siever (2007)
My stonecarving work has been prompting an interest in geology. It's not just that I want to understand the physical characteristics of the rocks in my hands, although that's part of it – I want to learn more about how they came to be there.
This book is the text for the MIT introductory geology course, which is how I came to select it. Textbooks are expensive. This one, in its current edition, is $160.30 at Amazon. For my purposes, an earlier edition at about a tenth the price is fine. The time scale of geological events runs from tens of thousand of years to a billion years, so being a little out of date shouldn't hurt me too badly.
The reading has proved very interesting and informative. It turns out that the world of geology is much wider than, as I suppose I'd naively imagined, the question of identifying rocks. Like meteorology, geology is much preoccupied with things that don't have precise edges or begin at exact moments of time. It's about process. I've learned much about the big picture and gained a better understanding of how my area fits in. I'm afraid that there's much I didn't absorb at the first pass. It's a big and complex subject for study, not to be taken in with casual perusal. – I'm glad I went into it.
Robert Nozick (2001)
I haven't given much attention to philosophy for a few decades. I suppose I generally tend to believe increasingly that our minds are wired in curious ways that are mostly effective for daily life, but not necessarily good at objective, logical views of larger realities.
Nozick draws on many sources of understanding and knowledge, notably empirical ones. He remarks, there are no interesting or important metaphysical necessities. (I would generally go along with that view.) He makes much of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution. For example, he discusses ethics as principles that were selected for in evolution as cooperation for mutual benefit. He notes the role of consciousness in evaluating and assimilating experiences from different viewpoints, for instance the feel of heat from fire with its appearance. As the title of the work suggests, he feels that the "reality" of things of various sorts is demonstrated when their presence is invariant when viewed from different perspectives or by different persons. This is an insight that I find useful in everyday life. For example, I sometimes find piano keys by feeling how far my hand has moved, sometimes by feeling them with my fingertips, sometims by imagining how the keyboard looks. Sometimes my fingers just seem to learn how to find the desired keys without any conscious effort.
The discussions of the implications of relativity and quantum mechanics are provocative. It indeed turns our usual ideas of logic upsidedown if indeed whether something happens before or after something else depends on the placement of the observers. I am not sure how far phenomena at the far end of tininess or hugeness are material for our understanding of things we are more used to daling with and thinking of.
Nozick offers very provokative thought and reading. It's easy to see why he was Chair of Philosophy at Harvard.
Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips
Volume I: Through the Wild Blue Yonder (1948-50)
I am not particularly a fan of comic strips. On the rare occasions when I look at daily newspaper comics, I am put off by their silliness. Sometimes a New Yorker cartoon will make me smile. Pogo, however, is different. It continues to amuse nearly all of the time.
Nostalgia? I generally think that old things are like new things: Some are good, others are bad. Often, when we go back – or try to go back – to the things of our youth, we find that they're not there any more, or that they are there but hold none of the delight that they did for our childish minds. Perhaps there is a special pleasure with the very few things that it turns out we can go back to that are still there and and still hold all of the joy of our memory.
Volume II: Bona Fide Balderdash (1951-52)
Between the Woods and the Water
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1986)
Fermor wrote a well-regarded series of travelogues. This volume follows the initial A Time of Gifts, which I read several years ago.
The regard given his work is well-deserved. He is an energetic, bright-spririted and curious person, nineteen years old when was in the middle of the walking tour of Europe described here.
Ill Met by Moonlight
W. Stanley Moss (1950)]
Patrick Leigh Fermor (lower row center in photograph) was noted both as a travel writer and as a member of a group of soldiers who in World War II kidnapped a German general on the island of Crete. This book is the story of the kidnapping, largely in the text of contemporaneous diary entries by W. Stanley Moss (lower row right).
It is the story of a series of events in a war, not a clever adventure or romance. The lives of the characters were full of fleas and lice, unprotected nights in the rain, and a single set of clothes that stayed on each body nearly all of the time. Violence and death were part of the landscape.
Though an unglorified account, this book gives a sense of the boldness and spirit of adventure that animated the group. In a way, it is an appropriate counterpart for Fermor's happy foot tour across Europe.
John Halifax, Gentleman
Dinah Craik (1856)
John Halifax was widely read in the nineteenth century. I had not heard of it or its author until I recently ran across their presence on a list of English literature classics.
This is an archetypical rags-to-riches story. Through hard work, honest living, and kindess an orphan makes his way past adversity and to prosperity. It is not complex or sophisticated, but it is a very good example of a story that teaches the catechism of its culture. In that way, it is very like Soll und Haben, another book I am reading right now.
It is out of print. I ordered a copy from Amazon and found, my to my horror, that I had been sent a print-on-demand version. These things are dreadful. They print them on wide paper in small type, without the imagination to divide the page into columns for the sake of readability. I threw my new copy in the trash instantly. I read it in an electronic version, free from Project Gutenberg, for inability to find a reasonably priced real book. Sigh.
Ever Yours: The Essential Letters
Vincent van Gogh
Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, editors (2014)
Vincent Van Gogh was as prolific a writer as he was a painter. His letters, especially to his brother Theo, provide a very revealing view of his life and his artistic thought processes. There are few parallels for other artists. Many of his letters have sketches for his paintings with planned color schemes described.
Like Beethoven, Van Gogh was a passionate person, highly creative and powerful, and extremely inept socially.
What I want and set as my goal is damned difficult, and yet I don't believe I'm aiming too high. I want to make drawings that move some people…The Hague
In short, I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly. Despite my so-called coarseness – you understand – perhaps precisely because of it. It seems pretentious to talk like this now, but that's why I want to push on.
What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an oddity or a disagreeable person – someone who has and will have no position in society, in short a little lower than the lowest…
Even though I'm often in a mess, inside me there's a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings. And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistable urge. As time passes, other things are increasingly excluded, and the more they are the faster my eyes see the picturesque. Art demands persistent work, work in spite of everything, and unceasing observation.
on or about Friday, 21 July 1882
To Theo van Gogh
It took me a while to get through the 750 pages of his selected letters (there are half a dozen volumes in the complete series), but I found the reading well rewarded the effort.
The Odyssey, attributed to Homer
(about 700 B.C.)
Robert Fagles, translator (1996)
I have read The Odyssey eight times in my life, including Book I in Greek. The first of these readings was in eighth grade, the others in high school. Probably none of these count from a perspective of maturity.
In school days, I read the translation of E.V. Rieu in a Penguin edition, which I still have. Comparing various possible versions recently, I felt that was reasonable but rather plain prose. The likelihood that I will delve back into ancient Greek deep enough to read the original seems remote. After comparing various translations in snippets and reviews, I selected Robert Fagles's. That was a very good choice, and I an enjoying the story very much. The translation is natural but very sensitive to the poetry of the scenes and the language. The Odyssey's characters are very much alive and multidimensional. At times, I really couldn't put it down.
Charlotte Brontë (1853)
Villette is from my mother's collection of favorites. George Eliot rated it very highly, and Susan Sontag named it as one of the ten most neglected novels.
Ann Radcliffe (1797)
I introduced my mother to this book, and may have given it to her. I am reading her copy, which was in the set of perhaps a dozen of her favorite books, with however no particular memory of having read it before. At this point, it is striking for structural characteristics that went entirely past me at the oblivious age when I first read it.
As a very early instance of the Gothic novel genre, it would hardly rank as great literature by the depth or subtlety of its character portrayals. (Actually, this could be said of many works counted as great literature.) Radcliffe, however, does introduce the key device of making its apparently supernatural events turn out, in the end, to have natural, explicable causes. This makes it a "thriller," a mystery story, and often a "cliff-hanger," the earliest of these that I am aware of. From other reading, I am getting interested in what makes for enduring and exciting adventure stories. I am going to pursue the roots and development of the Gothic novel further.
H is for Hawk,
Helen MacDonald (2014)
This book is a curious mix of a story of the author's bereavement after the loss of her father, her acquisition and training of a goshawk, and notes on T.H. White's The Goshawk. It has been consistently well reviewed in very diverse places. I enjoyed it myself.
The raw ingredients come from logical enough places: a child's fascination with birds and hawks in particular, a writer often read by young people, and the need of a bereaved person to find a new focus. The author is aware enough to see the contradictions in it all: the need of the hawk to kill, T.H. White's social maladjustment, and her own withdrawal from her friends for the occasion of adopting the bird.
One remark that I can relate to is that the loss of the author's father created not just the need to find new loves, but the need to be a new person who has found ways to love that had not been there before.
Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,
John Eliot Gardner (2014)
Johan Sebastian Bach is one of the few greatest musicians who have ever lived, and John Eliot Gardner is one of the foremost interpreters of his and others' work. This book is a bit biography, a bit commentary on Sebastian Bach's work.
Sadly, it appears that we don't know very much about Bach's life. The commentary on the music presupposes a much greater familiarity with his work than I have, though that is by no means trivial. The writing is marred, to my taste, with being heavily speculative, such as describing what Bach "must have felt." In the end, I have gained little from this book, though I retain the highest respect for its subject and its author.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande (2014)
Gawande understands very well that death is part of life, and that fighting to prevent it will not only become futile at a certain point, but will create unnecessary pain. Refusing to think about death will only add to the terror of the notion of it.
MODERN SCIENTIFIC CAPABILITY has profoundly altered the course of human life. People live longer and better than at any other time in history. But scientific advances have turned the processes of aging and dying into medical experiences, matters to be managed by health care professionals And we in the medical world have proved alarmingly unprepared for it.
I highly recommend this book.
Willa Cather (1918)
I picked this up from Project Gutenburg as light bedtime reading. It is that, with short chapters and a very direct appeal, but it is also very good.
The story proceeds on many different levels. The descriptions of daily life on the Great Plains are among the richest I've seen. People often didn't have very much at all, and often had experienced upheavals in their lives that drove them from Europe. Some were enterprising, some were stoic, others became lost and withdrawn. Some were heroic. Its characters change and interact with each other. Willa Cather empathizes with her characters in their rapturous moments and sad ones. A man who misled Ántonia is the closest thing there is to a “bad” person, but he is present only offstage and as a step from one place to another in her life, an event that influences its course just as a snowstorm influences her life.
At the same time as the characters were growing older, frontier was evolving into cultivated areas with wandering ways through them, and then the cultivated areas sprouted towns and the wandering ways gave way to straight roads. People whose lives were closely knit in very small communities go their various ways. Throughout the character of the land is always close, shaping people’s lives as much as other people around them do.
Willa Cather considered it her best book. I think it is a very good one.
Curiously, though my mother liked Cather, she never mentioned this book or had a copy of it in her library. I wonder if she knew of it. She clearly would have liked it.
In a Different Voice
Carol Gilligan (1982)
I enjoyed this well-written little book. Gilligan argues, fairly persuasively, that while men look for abstract general principles, women more often find meaning and importance in the relationships they have to particular other people around them. For instance, she observed boys and girls playing games. If a dispute about rules arose in a game boys were playing, they would argue out the rules. Often boys who weren’t taking part in the game would join into the arguments about the game. If a dispute about rules arose in a game girls were playing, they would just stop playing the game. – After all, the purpose of the game was to be enjoyment for the group, and if abstract rules were keeping people from enjoying themselves and hurting the relationships, why hang onto the rules?
I wouldn't take this view too far, but it does ring true. I hear it borne out continually in random snippets of conversations of people around me.
Thayer's Life of Beethoven
Revised and edited by Elliot Forbes (1964)
Alexander Thayer's exhaustive 19th-century Life of Beethoven is generally considered the definitive life of Beethoven and a model of objective biography. Elliot Forbes, whom I met and saw a few times, produced the definitive 20th-century edition with extensive revisions and new material. The work is a model of objective, carefully researched biography. It does not speculate about what Beethoven was thinking or attempt to interpret his music. By concentrating exclusively on primary source materials, it has an inadvertent but unavoidable focus on some aspects of his life, notably his relationships with patrons and publishers - at least as reflected in the surviving correspondence.
Beethoven was by all accounts a strange person. One report notes that he would walk out of a restaurant without thinking of paying for his meal. He could do that, and no one would call him back. After all, he was Beethoven. That was good enough for the restauranteurs, and it's good enough for me.
I learned a lot about the man from this biography. At over a thousand pages, it took a while to get through.
The Passage of Power
Robert A. Caro (2012)
This is the fourth of Caro’s planned five volumes on The Years of Lyndon Johnson. This one covers the period of Johnson’s Vice Presidency and early Presidency. It is meticulously and exhaustively researched, with a balanced but not cold or dry approach.
At the time, I had no liking or even tolerance for Johnson. He seemed crude after the Camelot of the Kennedy years, and his term was overshadowed by the Vietnam War. Now, I’m not so sure. For all of Kennedy’s inspirational abilities, he didn’t get a lot done in Washington. Johnson did, and Vietnam was something Johnson inherited, just as Barack Obama inherited Guantanamo and Afghanistan. There was no elegant escape possible.
I would very much recommend this book to those interested in the subject and times. I certainly will want to read the last volume of Caro’s series.
Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences
Howard Gardner (1983)
The notion that there is a general, unitary intelligence, such as IQ tests set out to measure, has been a controversial one. Howard Gardner has attracted much notice for his belief that there are multiple kinds of intelligence. It is not simply a question of the truism that different people are good at different things, which no one would dispute. Gardner proposes specific criteria that an “intelligence” should meet and identifies eight abilities that meet the criteria. His discussion is often discursive, depending on the topic at hand, and entertaining for that reason. For instance, in discussing music, he cites examples of recognized composers to suggest that musical facility tends to be developed precociously. For other skills, he will note how injuries to a certain part of the brain will leave a person’s functioning intact at high levels, except for a specific deficit in one area.
Gardner has believed that birth is not destiny for the various intelligences, that a person may develop abilities in fallow areas (within some limits, of course). I have found that to be true, and I believe that reading his book has helped me realize that I can draw things out of myself that I have not seen before. The enabling realization is that to do this, I need to use approaches that are different from the ones that have worked for other things.
The book is very readable, though certainly not at the popular culture level. I highly recommend it.