Reading – English

Eat Dirt
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 am 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.

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.

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.

Understanding Earth
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 varioius 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
Walt Kelly

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…

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.
The Hague
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.

The Italian,
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.

My Ántonia
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.