Monday, November 16, 2015

On the Road

I'm on the road, with spotty internet access.  So I won't be able to write much until next week at the earliest.  On the plus side, I had a good long time to sit down with the remainder of the Great Books and try to figure out what approach I should take. 
If I stuck with the original plan, I would have six years left, with 18 pieces per year.  This would leave a grand total of 108 items left to be read.  But I've hacked away and trimmed the list to either 62 or 68 pieces.  (I'm still up in the air on a few of them.)  The full 68 comprise about 5000 pages of reading.  I'll post a full list when I'm home next week.
Once I decided what I still wanted to read, the question became what order should I read them in?  The project so far has been chronological within each year.  We start with the Greeks and proceed from there.  I thought about designing the same system for either a three or four year push but I've decided against that. 
Instead, I'm going to treat the list as an ala carte menu.  There are five major categories that I want to hit each year, so I'll mix it up somewhat, but I won't be bound too hard.  If other people were reading along with me, I would want some kind of system with more advance warning.  That doesn't look like it will be a problem.

I hope you're all well!  Talk to you again soon!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


I suppose this is where I should make one of my semi-regular apologies for the lack of new posts.  (I am sorry about that.  It turns out that I didn't have much to say about Moby Dick.)  An apology of that sort, though, gives hope that new posts will be appearing at a greater rate.  And I don't know if that's true.
To be completely honest, it feels like this blog, and the project that fuels it, is at a crossroads.  I don't think this is uncommon.  When I started this, four years ago, there were three other bloggers that I quickly found that were either working through a Great Books plan or had done so recently.  One of those blogs is now shuttered and the other two have been more miss than hit over the past year.
This may be a consequence of the pieces selected for year four.  They've made it harder for me to really enjoy this.  I doubt that's it, though.
The truth is, this is a very long project.  When I started this, I was a stay at home dad who was working part time while watching an infant.  That infant is now in Kindergarten.  He has a younger brother who is three.  I'm working full time in an office.  Needless to say, the demands on my time have changed quite a bit.  I can only imagine what those demands will look like six years from now.  Somehow I doubt that I'll be less busy.
We're told not to regret things, or live in the past, but I wish I'd tackled this project in my twenties.  I had absolutely gobs of time then.  Live and learn, I guess.  (I'll pass this bit of wisdom on to my kids and see if any of them take the bait.)
Two other bits of reading have set me to wondering.  This summer when I read 'A Great Idea At the Time', I learned that there was quite a bit of disagreement about what authors should be included in the Great Books and how the reading plan should be laid out.  For the first time, I looked at what was offered with a critical eye.  I haven't stopped doing so since.
The second piece was a wonderful essay from Joseph Epstein regarding reading plans.  (I can't find it anywhere online, which is a damn shame.  I may need to just type the whole thing out and post it here.)  The essay convinced me that there are inherent flaws in a structured list.  I've come to agree with that too.
Where does that leave me?  I'm trying to decide what to do going forward.  My main options are:

  • Continue for the next six years and do the original ten year plan as described.
  • Trim that plan into something like three or four years.
  • Drop the plan entirely and move to something that I'm (currently) more excited about.
Right this minute, I'm leaning towards the middle option.  That would mean jettisoning a bunch of the science.  Skipping the German school of modern philosophy.  And not reading anything else regarding psychology or epistemology.  This would leave some large holes in my understanding of Western thought.  Frankly, those are the areas that I'm not absorbing much anyway.  (There are serious drawbacks to doing this as a solo project.  I'm absolutely awestruck by anyone that can  understand German philosophers like Kant and Hegel without some kind of group effort.)
This option would leave the Greeks and the Romans.  It would leave all of the literature and epic poems.  It would leave all of the theater (which is almost entirely Shakespeare).  I would cut out some of the remaining religious works, but not all.  And it would leave me with some feeling of control over the rest of the project.

But I'm not sure what to do.  Any comments or advice is welcome.

Links to the Past

In Defense of the Lecture (especially in Humanities) link

Marcus Aurelius from a Modern perspective link

What Shakespeare can Teach us about the Simpsons link

A Very Spooky Philosophical Halloween (Existential Comics) link

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Reading for November

One piece, the second half of a book from last November.

Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (part 3 and 4) link

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Reading for November

One piece, the second half of a book from last November.

Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (part 3 and 4) link

Friday, October 16, 2015

Links to the Past

Sophocles in the Age of PTSD link

Dostoevsky and the Fiery Word link

Shakespeare's Curtain Theater found link

Galen on Science and Humanities link

The Weeping Philosopher (Existintial Comics) link

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Moby Dick - Melville

The basic story of 'Moby Dick' is fairly simple and well known.  A man, 'call me Ishmael', signs on to a whaling boat.  During the voyage, the crew discovers that the Captain, Ahab, lost his leg to a whale the previous year.  Captain Ahab is now bent on revenge.  He will seek out the whale, Moby Dick, and kill him.
When I was younger, I had a children's version of this story.  I don't remember the exact name or publisher, but the format was that of a smaller than usual paperback.  Every other page was a black and white picture, so you could flip through the book and get a fairly full telling of the story.  (I did read the text, too.)
A few years back, I created my very first book project.  I had run across a poll, asking what is the greatest American novel.  I felt some small bit of shame, because I had read so few of the books.  Over the next few years I read through them all including, for the first time, the unedited 'Moby Dick'.  (This is my long-winded way of saying that this was a reread for me.)

In many ways, the story is simple.  The summary that I mentioned up above cuts out some of the important details, like the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg.  Really, it doesn't mention any of the relationships or characters aboard the ship.  Or the philosophical musings of Ishmael that make up the heart of the book.
For instance, Melville writes about the relationship between the sea and the land.  Most of the world is covered in water, with bits of land sticking up.  Under the water are unknown and unknowable creatures, while only the land can support men.  Melville says:
For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!
Melville also interweaves chapters of narrative with full blown chapters of naturalism concerning the whale.  We learn about the whales dimensions and anatomy.  We learn something of their behavior and where they are hunted.  Melville isn't shy about disagreeing with other authors in his opinions.  He spends a great deal of time on the history of whalers and the laws regarding whaling.  (I've got a post in mind on some of his legal aspects.)  After I read this a few years back, I thought that these chapters could be skipped without too much damage to the overall impact.  I still feel that way, though I would encourage any reader to at least sample each one.  I didn't find the anatomy interesting but I did enjoy the history.  Your mileage may vary.

One of the more imposing aspects of 'Moby Dick' is that it has become synonymous with English Lit symbolism.  It may be rife with symbolism, for all I know, but if I missed it, I didn't suffer for the lack.  In other words, don't be scared off.  This book is well worth reading.