Saturday, July 12, 2014

What are you reading this summer?


          Recently, on a visit to Bear, he asked me what I was reading. I fumbled through an answer, partially because I am a middle aged so and so (as is he) who can barely respond to a simple question quickly, partially because after years with of my beloved's enhanced interrogation techniques, I now respond to simple questions like a prisoner, and partially because I do read a lot of books at once, sometimes over the course of a year or more, and they do get jumbled in my aforesaid middle aged head. So, in the comfort of my den (technically, my beloved's den - but I have claimed sovereignty over the easy chair and the surrounding environs), where I can actually look at the books, and before I continue explaining why President Obama is the worst president in my lifetime, I respond to Bear thus -

          Hugo Black and the Judicial Revolution by Gerald T. Dunne.

Justice Black is a favorite of many. Certainly one of mine. I started this a few weeks ago and mostly read it while waiting for red lights to change green and the like (yes, occasionally before I get to the red light - I know, I know, I read in the car sometimes. Like you aren't all texting). Black, a Senator from Alabama, and known as a new deal lion for Roosevelt, started his Supreme Court career with a scandal when it came out that he was, in fact, a member of the Ku Klux Klan before resigning. Thereafter, in many ways, perhaps to atone to some degree, he became a lion of liberty. I am glad to revisit his cases - and this book starts with his being nominated to the high court and makes short shrift, thank God, of his upbringing - because when I first read him in law school, I was undoubtedly still a partisan family raised liberal with the first questions of whether that was what I really believed just starting to peep into my mind, perhaps during a Constitutional Law class when it occurred to me that the professor, though excellent, was rather one-sided.*

For those who are not regular readers, roughly 99.99999999999999% of the world - and I may be understating it - and who have not been subjected to my endless political blatherings, I now consider myself a moderate independent who leans (but not too far) libertarian. My main reason for believing it is that I am called a liberal by conservatives and a conservative by liberals often enough I figure I must be roughly in the middle. Throw in my obsession with liberty and . . . . But, this developed over the course of the last 30 years in dribs and drabs.

          I am not sure yet what I will think of him at this point in time, but one thing I doubt I will change my mind about was that he was one of the court's most powerful writers, and was a strong believer in stating specifically what he thought about the constitution loudly and clearly, as if he was ringing the Liberty Bell. Take this unambiguous statement:

"Compelling a man by law to pay his money to elect candidates or advocate law or doctrines he is against differs only in degree, if at all, from compelling him by law to speak for a candidate, a party, or a cause he is against. The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the Government commands."

          Wonder what he would say about Obamacare which compels a man to get health insurance or pay a penalty and precludes him from buying it at all on his own if he doesn't do it on the government's schedule or in the way the government wants. 

          Philology, 1. The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities by James Turner. I was reading The Baltimore Sun last weekend when I came across a book review that had me wanting to cheer. The book was on philology - even titled philology - one of the most exciting subjects on earth, maybe to some thousands of people, the large majority of whom, unlike me, are professionals.

          My interest in language (and philology covers language, languages and text) is equal to my interest in history. The premise of Turner's book is that philology is the historical basis of all studies in the humanities and he sets out to prove it. But, that's just the premise. In all honesty, if you are familiar with history between the renaissance and the end of the 19th century in the English speaking world, you are not surprised by that at all. For a long time in the English speaking world, the study of ancient Greek and Latin, by way of the classics, was the bulk of education, give or take a little cyphering. It is, to my thinking, really Turner's way of being able to dump on the grateful reader all kinds of knowledge about language from the earliest times to the most modern that he has learned and wants to share.  Turner, a professor at Notre Dame, teaches history and the philosophy of science. He starts his book with not only the humility that gives us a warm, tingly feeling, but with a gossamer touch in his writing style, such that it promises it will not get boring even when you swim your way through 500+ pages shot through with chapters like the humanities as taught in 19th century universities. But to spend some time on Ancient Greek and Homer and Mesopotamia and India, both testaments, and Proto-Indo-Europeans and Pericles and Old English, Old High German, Old Irish, Old Javanese, Old Norse, Old Persian, Old Provencal - and that's just the Olds - Longfellow, the Loeb Classics Library, Andrew Lang, Johannes Kepler, Hobbes and Hitler, the Grimm Brothers and Galileo, fossils, James Fraser and the Druids, and so forth and so on - I can't wait. Let me give you an example and see if you agree or if you wonder what's wrong with me? T he following paragraph made me giddy and I already knew this stuff:

          "All later textual philologists would face the same challenge as the Alexandrians: how to resolve obscurities and to correct dubious passages in a text -- or, put more abstractly, how to move from words on paper to meanings in them. And all later textual philologists would deploy the two fundamental tactics of the Alexandrians in attacking a passage under scrutiny. Look at the rest of the text. What interpretation, what wording fits most closely the author's meaning and language elsewhere? Look at the historical context. What interpretation, what wording makes most sense in terms of social customs, religious usages, legal norms, military practices, family relations, and other habits prevailing when the author wrote? And for a long time to come philologists would assert their conclusions in the Alexandrian form of the commentary, while making tools like glossaries to aid their research."

          You might not care how the Alexandrians, their followers and some contemporaries invented textual commentary or punctuation or grammar. I do.  If you don't, you definitely would not like the next book either -

          The Shape of Ancient Thought [comparative studies in Greek and Indian Philosophy] by Thomas McEvilley. This is somewhat similar to Philology. Why, reasonable people might ask, should we be comparing Greek and Indian philosophy? The answer is essentially that we recognize early Greece as the font of much of our civilization. I have written elsewhere of this extraordinary heritage and won't repeat it. It is well enough known. But, McEvilley, and of course others want us to consider if some of that heritage came to Greece from India. It is a tough question because whenever we deal with ancient writers we must speculate, and I have my own limits to how far I think philologists and historians should go, at least without a flashing sign saying - SPECULATION HERE! - but McEvilley makes no bones that much of what he is looking at is indeed conjecture. But, on the other hand, some is definitely not. His work is, if nothing else, well documented, and he quotes extensively. His connection of a writing of an early Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, and one of the Vedic-Upaniá¹£ads is so precise that I have no quarrel when he writes that "[t]his extraordinary parallelism is a strong and clear link between a pre-Socratic thinker and an Upaniá¹£ad." There are few places else in the world the two writings would be found put together, but once they are, the similarity is such that you can strongly believe that there was some transmission of knowledge from one culture to another, just as if we one day find a McDonald's on Mars. It likely didn't develop separately on both planets. Yet, ever the professional, he hedges and says, it might be diffusion - it might not.

          In doing so he covers much of Greek philosophy and attempts to find not only a link with India, but also a direction. This includes not just the pre-Socratics, but Platonic thought, Cynics, Skeptics, Orphics, empiricism, stoicism, etc. It's just yummy.

          As I said with philology, I realize that though this makes me happy, you might not find it enthralling, just as I'm aware that as much as I like steak rare, others don't.  And, as me pops used to say, that's what makes horse races.

          The Philosophical Writings of Peirce edited by Justus Buchler.

          Sometimes people are quite famous and then drop off the face of the earth.  For example, the philosopher Isocrates, barely known now, was once more respected and influential than Aristotle. But, he fade away except in scholarly works and Aristotle became one of the three or four most important philosophers in history, though himself with a long hiatus in the West until transmitted to us from the Muslims.

          Other creative people are unknown in their lifetime and then come into their own, long after their death. Someone like Rembrandt or Vermeer pops readily into mind. This is also true of Charles Peirce, now considered one of the more important American philosophers, but who was frozen out of a successful university career for a technically adulterous affair (his wife had already left him and a nemesis, unknown to Peirce, worked steadily against him) and mostly wrote, it seems for dictionaries or small publications like magazines. Much of it was highly technical. He never  had a book published.

          He was a scientist, mathematician, philosopher and logician and by the way, also invented that very confusing study of signs he called semiotics, later made famous by Frenchmen. But his primary field was logic. His overarching philosophy is known as fallibilism, whose main premise might seem obvious to the modern educated person, and is basic now for scientists - but it is more honored in the breach by most everyone, including scientists, in day to day argument and apparently was not that obvious to modern philosophers before him (though quite similar to the ancient philosopher Pyrrho's skepticism).

          His reputation among the most famous modern philosophers is second to none. Karl Popper is perhaps now the most revered of 20th century philosophers after Bertrand Russell. Maybe more so. He considered Peirce one of the greatest philosophers of all time.  Russell himself, though he seemed unaware of Peirce when he and Whitehead were writing their famous, Principia Mathematica a little before WWI, would write decades later that Peirce was one of the greatest logicians of the 19th century and the greatest American mind ever. Whitehead, coming across Peirce's work a decade after Principia, realized that Peirce had anticipated his own thinking. Indeed, it appears that Peirce actually anticipated digital computing nearly a century before it came to life.

             Yet, it would be very strange indeed if many Americans have heard of him at all - ever. I have been reading philosophy for most of my adult life, on and off. And I never heard of him until about six years ago. He is still that unknown.

             Fallibilism is an epistemological theory that holds that we can never really know anything for sure but are still justified on relying on our beliefs. I came across Peirce when reading Popper and was immediately attracted to his ideas as I had been arguing a form of it for years to those who argue in response to any point they don't want to accept that you can't know anything for certain or the past is no guide to the future (except for whatever beliefs they have, of course). Undoubtedly, much of our love of a philosopher comes when he agrees with us, but, since Russell and Popper are on my side, and authority counts more than reason in our world, I'm probably going to win a debate about it.

              The selections in the edition I have are from some of his most basic and easy to understand essays, with delicious titles like - The criterion of validity in reasoning? and What is a leading principle? But, in terms of complexity, they are very simple compared to his formal work. In fact, though as with any thinker (presuming you read critically), you will not agree with every point he makes, reading him, I find that he may be the philosopher of my dreams.

            Pinckney's Treaty by Samuell Flagg Bemis. This one may take a while for me to get through. If you are an American history buff, you have probably heard of Jay's Treaty,* which was signed some dozen years after the end of the Revolutionary War and tried to resolve still open issues. The treaty seemed to many Americans to greatly favor Britain, causing such outrage that Jay himself wrote that he could travel the country at night by the light of his own burning effigy. Pinckney's Treaty was not that long after Jay's, and defined the boundaries of the American and Spanish empires in North America. Not that it wouldn't be confusing as all get out just a few years later in what is called the Louisiana Purchase anyway, but it was, at the time, quite important.

*The importance of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, governor of New York, writer (one of three) of the Federalist Papers and a heavily replied upon foreign minister in early American history, is always understated. Part of the reason is he was a fairly boring person in many ways. But, also, he did not find himself at great odds with Hamilton or Jefferson, whose poison pens and personalities would castigate an adversary, but, in doing so, also make them a household name even now.

             Bemis' book won a Pulitzer Prize and is wonderfully scholarly. The writing style, regrettably, for modern times, is so mind-numbingly boring that they could use it to anaesthetize prisoners on death row before their curtain call. I will pick it up and set it down many times in the coming year. Or two.

             Relativity by Albert Einstein. Einstein himself tried to explain his theories to the rest of us idiots. Some of it is intuitive. Some of it, well, I don't get it. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that no one else figured it out until he wrote it and it was published; many physicists, even among the greatest, did not understand or accept it thereafter and it wasn't definitely proved for nearly a century. Einstein himself wrote to a friend that whether you believed in relativity theory or not seemed to depend more on your political party than what the theory actually said.

             To really understand relativity is going to take a while. I got stopped at a spot where he said - don't go on if you don't get this part. I didn't get it. So, I am going to re-read it and re-read it (and maybe seek help) until I do. At least, I hope some day I do.

             That's it right for what I'm reading now. But, there's room here for what I recently finished.             
             On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett.

             This is a true story about a rescue mission organized by former presidential candidate and billionaire Ross Perot to save two employees stuck in prison in Iran during the revolution. While reading the entire book you ask yourself - WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY DOING THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE? WERE THAY ALL CRAZY?

             It is a wonderful book and I don't know how I didn't read it years ago. As it is, it was probably sitting on my shelf for six months after I bought it, while I wondered whether I'd like it or not.

             I'm not going to say anything else about it except read it. It's an uplifting and true adventure tale involving, for the most part, ordinary business men (and one old soldier, rescue- missions-a-specialty) who perform an outlandish rescue at least as exciting as that told in Argo.

             Beowulf  translated by Tolkien (incomplete) with commentary by his son, Christopher Tolkien, who edits all of his father's unpublished works. As excited as I was to get it - and it was a decade or so long wait - I was not particularly enthralled with it. It is really written for scholars and I was more hopeful it would discuss Tolkien's debt to Beowulf in The Lord of the Rings, which it does not. The shining light was his father's original prose folktale, Sellic Spell, which created that which he felt must have at some point in time been the basis for the poem. There is an Old English version of it as well I hope to work on someday when I am up to it. The two long commentaries by Christopher did interest me, as it was mostly linguistic in nature, but I did not spend a lot of time on it as I am not an Old English scholar and I do not expect to retain most of it. The book will sell well because it is Beowulf and Tolkien, but I seriously doubt it will be well read. 

             The Secret History  by Donna Tartt.

             This was my review on Amazon -

             "To be fair, though I have read many novels in my life, I have trouble finishing them the last 10 years of so (excepting the cotton-candy mysteries or action novels of very few authors I occasionally read). Rarely do I find one as interesting to me as non-fiction. Even when I like a mainstream novel, I often find I lose interest as I go along. I write that because I recognize others might find them more interesting than me. This has led me to seek out a few novels that I hope will be spectacular by reading reviews. I thought this might be one. For one thing, I am very interested in ancient languages. For another, many reviews were glowing.
             But, as is often the case, I thought it was just a little better than okay. In no way would I call it a classic. However, I finished it, which is saying a lot for me. On a slightly expanded scale, I would give the book 7/10 (I say that after changing my stars back and forth from 3 to 4 a few times and finally deciding to just be generous, knowing my own disenchantment with the form).
             I looked at some other comments and many writers seemed to be very interested in her characters. I was not particularly so. There was probably no one I actually liked or wanted to know more about, even the twins (those who already read the book will know who I mean). That in itself is not a non-starter, but, if there is nothing else that particularly excites me in a work of fiction, it can be important. Even where a book is about an anti-hero or a group of villains, there is usually something charming or compelling about someone. Having someone to root for makes fiction more interesting just as it does a sporting event. I find it true of many tv dramas these days.
             I have no idea from the book whether Donna Tarrt reads ancient Greek or Latin or French as one reader suggested (I guess I could look it up). Though she includes some of this language in her book, it was actually very little and I can't say I would have wanted more (so maybe she did that well). I find reports of it sometimes overly generous. The way that she portrayed the students' interest in it and their exotic professor did help characterize them as self-indulgent and pretentious. But, it certainly did not make them more interesting to me.
             There was also the hint of hidden sexuality meant to titillate, and that's fine, but I did not think it was done especially well. I never felt I couldn't wait to know. Nothing I learned about the characters surprised me either (of course, plots are limited and it is hard to surprise people who've read a bit). Nor did I find her use of language especially gifted. Writers who succeed in these things are great writers and I can't say it about her. Though I have not read him for many years, John Irving comes to mind, as did early Le Carre and John Fowles.
             Overall, it is one of the better books I've read this year and I do give her credit. She is a good writer. But, I am not anxious to read another and I don't know if I ever will."

             I should add something to my review. I recently read an article in which the Kindle's highlighting abilities were used to determine how much of a book the average person who bought it for a reader actually read. Some, usually non-fiction, were much less than 10% - in other words, almost none of it. But, the leader was Tartt's The Goldfinch, with almost 98% read. She might just be something special and I'm just not the best judge.

             Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

             I know many people are enthralled by Salinger. I have put off reading his two classics until now and upon finding F and Z  in a book store for almost nothing, bought it. I was pretty sure I was destined to like it and finally got around to it a few months later. I was - underwhelmed. What's the big deal? The book, the best feature of which is its brevity, is about a typically screwed up family. It is more like a series of dialogues, or two actor scenes between family members working through their neuroses. It wasn't particularly insightful, the characters weren't particularly interesting and there was no real drama except whether the young woman might be depressed enough to kill herself.  Frankly, if she had to go through any more of those interminable conversations with her family, no one would blame her.

             I'm not reading The Catcher in the Rye.

             That's a pretty good round up for me. I am always reading Homer and both testaments, but it's more a study type of thing, so I won't count them or other books I've long finished and am now just making notes on.

             What are you reading this Summer?

2 comments:

  1. The Pierce book reminded me of "The Metaphysical Club", which is about Agassiz, James, Pierce and Ollie Holmes., essentially the birth of American philosophers, etc. You would love it. So what am I reading this summer? Finished the latest Bosch, the latest Reacher, "The Romantic Revolution" by Tim Flannery, who posits that the Romantic Revolution was every bit as historically important as the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution. After reading his argument my reaction is, errrr, maybe. Read "Wonders of the World" by Richard Holmes about the great scientists of the Romantic era, often overlooked because of the previous centurie's Enlightenment greats (Newton and gang). Really interesting stuff on Joseph Banks, Herschel, the great grandfather of Astronomy, and Humphrey Davies, a truly rare genius.Currently reading WWI by Keegan (boring, thus far), "A Long Argument" by Ernst Mawr (about Darwing and evolutionary science, terrific so far), "Heretics and Heroes" by Cahill (about Renaissance religious and artistic figures, awesome, so far), and "The Winter King" by Cornwell, an Arthurian novel gifted me by a hobbit I know (haven't made my mind up yet, check back in another hundred pages). Also muddling through the Quran, Newton's Principia, and Ruskin's "Stones of Venice", but those are more project/studies than "reading".

    ReplyDelete
  2. A very worthwhile list.

    ReplyDelete

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .