Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books Read in December

It was an active month of reading.  The new job (hours and location wise) seem to lend themselves more to reading and less to web surfing.  That's a good thing, right?

Civilization and its Discontents, Freud - From the reading list.  I haven't written up a review of this yet, but I will.  The thing about Freud, I don't think that I agree with him, but he has a very interesting mind.
Last Call, Tim Powers - A reread from me.  Powers is one of my favorite current writers.  He has a knack for blending myths from various sources into something fresh and inventive.  This combines Poker/Tarot, Bugsy Seigel and Las Vegas, with stories of Adonis, Isis and various resurrection stories.  All good stuff.
The ABC Murders, Agatha Christie - What fun mysteries!  I wish I'd found her when I was younger.  This is a 'Poirot' case.  The murder is picking a new victim in a new city each month and taunting Poirot the entire time.

I've also been reading my way through Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'.  Excellent and interesting stuff, but very repetitive.  Either a god fancies a girl and turns himself into something else to bed her, or someone challenges the gods and ends up turned into something (mostly birds but sometimes a stone or a spider). 
I've also been dabbling a bit in US history.  When I'm done with the Great Books, I have another project lined up that will deal with early US history as regards to constitutional thinking.  I'm preparing by reading some of the related works.

2015 wasn't always easy for reading, but it had lots of great stuff in it!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

List of Rejects

I wanted to write about the pieces that I chucked aside from the 10 year reading list.  Broadly, they fit into the various categories of Science, Religion and German philosophers.  There are some that I feel badly about, and some, well, not so much.

  • Hippocrates
  • Galen
  • Ptolemy
  • Harvey (two pieces)
  • Darwin (two pieces)
  • James (three pieces)
  • Archimedes
  • Galileo
  • Newton
  • Huygens
  • Bacon
  • Apollonius
  • Gilbert
  • Descartes (Geometry)
  • Pascal (Experiments on Fluids etc.)
  • Fourier
  • Faraday
  • Lucretius
  • Freud (Intro to Psychology)
Of these, I feel worst about kicking out Darwin and Descartes. 

  • St Thomas Aquinas (six pieces)
  • Books of the Bible (three sections, consisting of: Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy; Job, Isaiah, Amos; Gospel of John, Romans, 1st Corinthians)
  • St Augustine (two pieces, both sections from City of God)
I feel bad about knocking out the Bible, though I have doubts that these are really the best parts to tackle.  I also feel bad about St Augustine.  I won't miss the Aquinas, though I would like to study the parts where he talks about 'just war doctrine'.  Which sounds like a separate study!

  • Kant (five pieces)
  • Hegel (two pieces)
  • Marx (three pieces)
I have a twinge of guilt about kicking out Hegel without trying him, but only a twinge.  Everything that I've read about the German schools of philosophy sounds like a serious wrong turn.  My various turns with Kant haven't changed that opinion one bit.  I should, of course, read 'Das Kapital' at some point.  But not yet.

If my math is right, these are forty-four selections.  (If anyone wants to double check the numbers, or check to see if I missed some authors, feel free to leave a comment.)  If I extend the list, I'll pick some from here but I make no promises on that. 
There.  Now I feel more free to enjoy the rest!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Upcoming Reads, Plato and Aristotle

So I go and make a big deal about how I'm going off list and what do I start with?  Some of the first selections that I would have started with even if I'd stayed with the list.  Maybe this is my way of disproving free will...
Anyway, it feels right to start off with the big guys, so that's what I'm doing.

I think I'm starting with:
Plato - Phaedo
Plato - Symposium
Aristotle - On the Soul
Aristotle - Categories
Aristotle - Metaphysics (Book VII)

Any advice on these works is appreciated.

Last week I reread the last 100 pages of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'.  (I recommend the whole book.)  In this portion of the book, the protagonist goes on a search for Quality and tangles with members of the University of Chicago in this search.  This leads him to a deep dive into Plato, Aristotle and the important thinkers that came before them in Greek thought.
One of the points that he makes is that the 'dialectic' is used more as a weapon to prove a point than in its idea sense where it uses rules to keep a discussion on track in search of the truth.  This sticks out all over in Socrates discussions.  He almost never (possibly never), hears something that changes his mind.  Instead, he turns the discussion into syllogism that aids him time and time again.  This makes him frustrating to read but so, so worthwhile.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Links to the Past

Humanities is Booming link

Moby Dick explained while on a roller-coaster link

'The Raven' with wonderful Gustave Dore illustrations link

Thoughts on Kipling's 'If' link

A Visit from St Marx (Existential Comics) link 
(Warning, this one is very dark.)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2015


I wanted to make some general comments on the list of remaining works
  • There are 58 works (if you count the works that the original list broke in two as, well, two works).  I would like to read all of the rest in the next three years.  That means roughly 20 per year.  In addition, I've broken the list into four sections.  If I can read about a third of each one per year, I should be in good shape. 
  • I don't know if that will happen or not.  One reason that I want to change over to an ala carte style is so that I can move around more than I have.  I can either do a deep dive and clean out a subject, or go for more variety.  If that means I spend a full year on Plato, Aristotle and the Greeks and Romans, then so be it.
  • I haven't broken out a page count, but I'm sure that the Literature section accounts for more than half of the overall bulk.
  • Next year, 2016, is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.  I'm tempted to hit all of his remaining works next year to honor that.  That's 13 different plays though.  The thing is, while the plays aren't difficult, they do take some time.  Especially since I strongly feel that watching them is more important than reading them.  I'm still trying to figure that out.
  • I'm leaning towards noting what I'll be reading next but I'm not sure yet.  I'm also leaning towards throwing out a small group of possible, coming soon, pieces.  That way I can ask for advice on the best way to read them, or suggestions on how to enhance them.  I'm still trying to figure that out too.
  • I'll also post a list of pieces that are in my 'might read' pile.  These are things that I would have included if I pushed the list out to four years.  I will listen to arguments for why I should read them, but I make no promises to do so.
I feel good about this.  A couple of months ago, I was ready to bag the whole project.  Now I feel excited again.  There is a ton of stuff that I'm excited to read.  And I'm sure that some other pieces will surprise me.  That's been the common way forward so far in the Great Books.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Remaining List

As I mentioned a while back, I've chosen to get away from the set lists provided for the Great Books.  Instead, I've pared down the remaining pieces.  I've kept what still looks interesting to me and thrown out whole categories of the rest.  (Condemn me if you must, I feel good about these choices.)
I've got it down to nearly 60 works.  Fewer than that, actually.  In the ten year plan, there are some longer works that are broken into chunks.  I paid attention to that while figuring out what to keep.  When I read them, I'll read them in unbroken segments though.  I won't try to divide 'War and Peace' in two and read the halves years apart.
So what am I keeping?  I've broken it into four broad categories.

Plato & Aristotle (The Big Guys)

Plato -
Laws (Book X)
The Sophist

Aristotle -
On the Soul (Book II ch1-3, Book III)
Metaphysics (Book XII)
Ethics (Book V)
Ethics (Book VIII - X)
Rhetoric (Book I ch 1, Book II ch 1, ch 20, Book III ch 1, ch 13-19)
Politics (Book VII - VIII)

Greeks and Romans

Homer - The Odyssey
Sophocles - Ajax, Electra
Aristophanes - Thesmophorizusae, Ecclesiazusae, Plutus
Thucydides - Peloponnesian War (Book VII - VIII)

Epicetus - The Discourses
Virgil - Aeneid
     - The Eclogues, The Georgics
Tacitus - The Histories
Plotinus -
     First Ennead
     Fifth Ennead
     Sixth Ennead
St Augustine - On Christian Doctrine


Dante -
     Divine Comedy (Hell)
     Divine Comedy (Purgatory)
     Divine Comedy (Paradise)
Chaucer - Canterbury Tales (Prologue, Knight's Tale, Millers Prologue and Tale, Reeve's Prologue and Tale, Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, Friar's Prologue and Tale, Summoner's Prologue and Tale, Pardoner's Prologue and Tale)
Rabelais - Gargantua and Pantagruel (Book III - IV)
Shakespeare -
     - Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, Twelfth Night
     - Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus
     - Othello, King Lear
     - Richard II, Henry IV (both parts), Henry V
Cervantes - Don Quixote (which the reading list broke into two parts)

Sterne - Tristam Shandy
Fielding - Tom Jones
Goethe - Faust (two parts)
Tolstoy - War and Peace (two parts)
Boswell - Life of Johnson (various sections)


Hobbes - Leviathan (part II)
     - Meditations on First Philosophy
     - Rules for the Direction of the Mind
     - Ethics (Part I)
     - Ethics (Part II)
     - Ethics (Part III)
     - Ethics (Parts IV and V)
Milton - Samson Agonistes
Pascal - The Provincial Letters
Montesquieu - The Spirit of Laws (Books I-V, VII, XI - XII)
Rousseau - Discourse on Political Economy
Locke - Letter Concerning Toleration
Mill - Utilitarianism

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Old Man and the Sea - Hemmingway

I have dim memories of reading 'The Old Man and the Sea' some twenty years ago, back in high school.  My basic memory was that a) an old man goes out fishing alone, b) catches a large fish, c) takes a very long time to bring it in and d) loses it to sharks while trying to sail home.  All of this is true, but as a synopsis, it doesn't do the story justice.
The man, Santiago, is befriended by a younger fisherman, named Manolin.  The old man has gone some long time, 84 days, without catching a fish.  He is now considered unlucky by the community.  He won't give up though, nor accept help from Manolin.  Instead, he goes out alone for an 85th day.
While out there, he catches a huge marlin.  It is so big that it tows his boat for hours and hours.  The old man passes through at least one full night where he must hold the rope as the fish pulls and pulls.  As all of this happens, Santiago has nothing but growing respect for the marlin.
Finally, the fish comes up where the old man can try to kill it.  He must maneuver carefully, so that the marlin does not throw the line.  He uses his skill and experience and is able to finish it off.  The marlin is so large, that he can't bring it into the boat.  Instead, he must tie it to the side and sail for home.
Then the sharks come.  He fights valiantly, but loses.  The sharks all take bites and soon the water is filled with blood.  More and more sharks arrive until finally there is nothing left but the skeleton. 
The old man sails into harbor after having been missing for some days.  The evidence of his long struggle is still there, tied to his boat but he has nothing else to show for it.

Santiago faces a series of brutal challenges and does his best to rise to each one.  He has lived a long life and has some reknown for his strength.  After a long stretch of bad luck, he tries to redeem himself.  He catches the biggest prize of his life and makes an incredible effort to bring it in.  He wins, but he is so far from land, that the world takes that prize before he can reap the reward.
While all of this is happening, he compares himself to his hero, DiMaggio.  DiMaggio has suffered bone spurs in his ankles and the fisherman wonders if the pain from them compares to his own pain while holding the line.  He wants to live up to his idol, and does.  And still he loses.
The thing is, if you took him out the next day and he hooked an equally big fish, he would still try to haul it in.  Even knowing that he risked the same struggle and the same ending, he would do it.  To catch the giant fish is what he knows as his rightful occupation. 
And so he does it.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Links to the Past

How London Geography Inspired 'Moby Dick' link

A 'White Whale' discovered deep in the Smithsonian link

Aristotle Understood Life Better Than You Think link

Performing Prisoners Re-Imagining of Dante link

The Coming Shakespeare Extravaganza link

Sisyphus, Adjusting to Normal Life (Existintial Comics) link

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Brave New World - Huxley

Huxley's future dystopia is notable for a number of different reasons.  He suggests a future with:
  • A class system set up by extreme behavioral conditioning of the young.  People are separated into Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc. classes at birth and then modified so that they will be able to excel at certain tasks.  Some of them are more comfortable with heat or have exceptional balance.  The classes are also separated by negative reinforcement like being taught to hate books and plants.
  • People are strongly encouraged to not like being alone.  They are taught to be with others at all times and to cast out anyone who wants time alone.  This is true on the personal level, but they're also taught to think of themselves and everyone else as an interchangeable piece of society.  No one has personal importance to themselves or others.
  • Sex is freely available.  Kids are taught erotic games.  Exclusive couples are discouraged.  People talk very freely about 'having' each other.
  • Soma.  Soma is a wonder drug that cures depression and puts one in a mildly blissful state.  It's also widely available and encouraged.  It has been engineered to give each person all of the benefits of religion, without any downside.
  • Religion has been wiped out.  So has history.  And art.  All writing and music must now be approved for the masses.  The desire is for pop art but nothing that will truly inspire.
  • Entertainment is huge.  Everyone is encouraged to see the latest 'movie' equivalent.  Everyone is encouraged to participate in athletics.  In fact, your time is wasted if you're not doing these things.
  • Mass consumption is also encouraged.  Athletic games are allowed or not allowed based in part on how manufacturing goes into their makeup.  Consumption and manufacturing must be expanded forever.
The book is excellent and disturbing at the same time.  Where Orwell envisioned a future kept in chains with fear and hate, Huxley shows easy sex and bliss, though still in chains.  This future has worked hard to keep any division or disunity from creating conflict.  The result is a large number of very smart sheep.  No longer human, because they lack the sparks of passion.
The result is unsettling. 

My compulsion with books like this is to make a comparison to modern day.  We don't have Soma and the way people are 'encouraged' to act is not nearly as overt or pervasive.  We still value art and passion, though religion and history aren't very respected.  We also don't have class barriers that are anything like what is described in the book.  (Though we seem to have a system where those at the top, politically, are given special protections...)
'Brave New World' is something that should be read and reread every ten years or so.  I'm glad that I was able to do so again.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky

I'm not quite sure how to review a book like this.  The short review is that a) I liked it and b) I would recommend it to anyone interested in a talky book with strong philosophical arguments and counter-arguments.  Probably the way to tackle something as big as 'Brothers Karamazov' is to break it up into pieces and review each piece. 
I didn't do that. 
And it's too late now.  So all that I have are some general impressions. 

The book is almost completely about the interplay between the brothers of the Karamazov family.  There are three brothers, by two mothers.  (And possibly a fourth by yet another mother.)  The main three are composed of a hothead, an intellectual and a mystic.  The drama comes from circumstances of money and love which intermix in awful ways. 
I said almost completely, but that isn't quite true.  The Karamazov father also drives the drama.  He is a wealthy fool who always does the wrong thing.  Sometimes his foolishness is harmless, sometimes it drives others to murder.  Murder, and the trial that goes along with it, makes up most of the second half of the book.

One of Karamazov's great themes is that of mercy.  He thinks it is wrong for the state to pull criminals away from the body of society because it reduces their chance for mercy.  He believes that the passion of ordinary people can blind them to true justice.  In fact, one thing that struck me, while reading Dostoevsky, is that the collectors of the Great Books have a blind spot.  They isolated 102 various concepts and built a Syntopicon to help readers concentrate on them.
Somehow they overlooked 'mercy'.  They don't have 'grace' or 'forgiveness' or 'atonement' either.  This concept skips by.  Which is rather incredible given its prominence in Dostoevsky's work and other fairly important pieces.  Like the Gospels(!).  The closest to 'mercy' is probably in the depths of 'justice'.  I think it deserves its own slot.

One of the criteria, that Adler and Hutchins spoke of, for identifying a Great book is its rereadability.  The 'Brothers Karamazov' clearly fits here.  I look forward to reading it again five or ten years from now.   

Friday, December 4, 2015

Books Read in November

I skipped this post for October because I spent all of the month either reading 'Moby Dick', 'The Brothers Karamazov' or bits and pieces of various stuff that isn't easy to collect.  November was a bit more straight forward.

  • Starman Jones, by Robert Heinlein - A reread, but a very welcome one. Heinlein wrote a bunch of 'juvie' books and I still revisit them as an adult. This one focuses on learning, really learning, from mistakes.
  • Brave New World by Huxley - Another reread. This should get a full post at some point. I'll just say that there is a pretty good discussion to be had comparing this with 'Fahrenheit 451' and '1984'.
  • Old Man and the Sea by Hemmingway - Still another reread but this one I had not tackled in more than twenty years. I think this one will also get its own post. Short review: still worth reading.
  • America's Game by Michael Maccambridge - While I was away, I visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (I'm a big pro football fan.) The HOF has enormous amounts of great history, but, sadly, no good history books in their gift shop. I found this book, via Amazon, and it is fantastic. Highly recommended as a one volume history of football.
I also finished the short story project ahead of schedule.  I'll write about that in a separate post.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Still Here!

That was a rather longish hiatus.  Sorry about that.  I'm back home.  I have the new job started.  I'm hoping for time to write over the next few days. 

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.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Author Timeline

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

Monday, October 5, 2015

Books Read in September

Looking back, I really didn't read much in September.  I'm not sure why.  It felt like I read quite a bit but certainly not many books.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - This book comes very highly recommended.  It's a global best seller.  Was turned into a movie.  Is on a ton of 'best' lists.  And I hated it.  Hated, hated, hated.  The entire story-telling style was incredibly gimmicky with tiny lists and definitions.  It was as if the writer couldn't bear the thought that people could immerse themselves in the story without constantly looking at the writer.  The story, itself, was interesting, but the awful writing torpedoed any quality.  If you had People magazine have a go at 'Gone with the Wind', you'd have a similarly awful result.  Yuck.

The rest of the month was spent a) reading 'Moby Dick', b) reading early American history books from American Heritage or c) nibbling around the edges of other past enjoyments.  

The short stories were a mixed bag at best this month:

Competitors, Rosenfeld - good
A Distant Episode, - not good
Wants, Plaey - ok
Goodbye My Brother, Cheever - ok
My Sly Stops for a Cup of Joe, Bull - good

I'm somehow ahead of schedule, with only 11 short stories left for the last three months.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Links to the Past

What Happened to French Thought - link

Does Literature Beef up Your Mind? link

Why Conservatives should Read Dostoevsky link

Recreation of Archimedes Sphere link

Rap Version of the Iliad? link

The Apology (Existential Comics) link

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sartre, Wilder and Death

Review of Wilder's 'Our Town' is here.

Review of Sartre's 'No Exit' is here.

I pulled both of these plays off the shelf almost at random.  I'd read 'Our Town' some twenty years ago but hadn't read 'No Exit' before.  Both are striking in different ways but they share a similarity in how they deal with being dead.  The third act of 'Our Town' takes place in a cemetery and is (mostly) peopled by the dead talking about the living.  'No Exit' features three dead people trapped in a room together making each other miserable.  But both are very, very different.

How the dead interact with life - In 'Our Town', the newly dead are seated in the spots of their graves.  They are calm and distant.  When the living come, they are aware but not excited.  Their survivors aren't very important any more, nor is the world that is still going on.  In fact, the main lesson learned is that the living don't appreciate just how good being alive is.  This is presented without envy.  If anything, it's presented with pity and remorse.
In 'No Exit', the newly dead still have some connection to the lives they've led but only until they are forgotten.  As soon as that happens, all connection is severed and they are cut off from that experience.  When that happens, it is somewhat tragic as then they are truly stuck in a room.  There is nothing calm about their demeanor.

How the dead interact with each other - 'No Exit' famously ends with the line that 'hell is other people'.  The three are trapped with each other for only about an hour in the play and they make each other miserable.  They find faults and they pick at them.  They will quickly drive each other crazy.  Forever.
Meanwhile, in 'Our Town', the residents of Grover's Corners can idly sit together without any problems.  They have the attitude of people sitting and visiting after church, which no doubt they did many, many times while still alive.  No one seems all that bothered, and this includes a man who was a drunkard that hung himself.

What they do - Wilder's cast can sit forever without problems.  In fact, the only thing that I can imagine they'd miss is having something to do.  If I was staging this, the women would be knitting while the men were endlessly whittling or something. 
The cast of 'No Exit' fret, but it's harder to imagine what they'd be doing to keep busy.  The women are veterans of countless dinner parties but these clearly aren't friendly affairs.  Their knives are ever at hand.  The man is a newspaper man, who lives by thinking and writing.  He'd be just as bored with knitting and if you offered him a chance to whittle, he'd try to kill himself with a knife.

Their intended audience - It's no exaggeration to say that 'Our Town' is very American, while 'No Exit' is very French.  It's hard to think of a switch between them.  'Our Town' wouldn't play to raves in Paris and 'No Exit' would not be a terribly popular high school play.  (Well, maybe with the students, but not with their parents.)  They both contain philosophical truths, but one invites after-play discussion over wine and cigarettes, the other over a burger and malt.  (Though come to think of it, the two plays would make a fascinating double feature or mash-up!)

These are both fine, fine plays.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Reading for October

Only one:

Melville: Moby Dick link 

It's a biggie but well worth it.  (If you want to shorten it, you can scan the chapters that deal with the technical details of whales.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Links to the Past

Is the Earth really round? link

Denouncing the Classics link

Father of History link

Harry Potter and ... (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

No Exit - Sartre (69)

This is about another play from the 100 Drama series.

'No Exit' opens with a man being shown a simple room by a valet.  The valet explains that there is no need for food or sleep anymore.  The room will be closed and the only means of communicating will be with a bell that is capricious in its operation.  The man asks about the upcoming torture but there are no instruments of torture or a torturer in evidence.  We come to understand that the man is dead and he believes he is in hell.
Two women join him and they each expect torture.  They talk and discover that none of them knew each other while they were living.  Each of them feels strong guilt about actions when they were alive.  All of them suspect that one of the others is a spy of some sort and the torture will soon begin.  They distrust each other.
But they also want comfort and love.  They want reassurances that they weren't awful people while alive.  They want to know that they are still lovable and desirable.  However, they can't seem to find some easy state that allows the others to be happy.  Slowly it dawns on them that they will torture each other.  The play observes that 'hell is other people'.

I'd never read this before.  The message is simple and powerful: we make our own lives, and the lives of people around us, miserable.  Sartre doesn't offer any relief from this and perhaps he doesn't believe there is any.  While reading it, I couldn't help but think that it wouldn't be too hard for me to pick people that would make eternity hell for me.  (Certain former co-workers came to mind.)  In fact, if I was trapped in a room with two other people for all time, I don't know if there would be any possible two that would keep it from becoming hell.  What an exquisite torture Sartre has thought of.

The play is a bit of a gimmick but I don't think that is much of a strike against it.  The illusion that you must accept is a solid one and the rules are easy to grasp.  Staging this play would be relatively easy and the cast is only four people.  I don't have a feel for the popularity of the show.  It really doesn't scream for a wide audience.  I bet it made an impact though.
'No Exit' is a play that I will think about for some time.  That's what it aimed for and it struck that target hard.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Our Town - Thornton Wilder (71)

Since I'm not doing much of the actual reading for the Great Books list, I thought I'd at least dip my toe back into the 'Drama 100' list and read some plays.  To recap for those joining the broadcast midstream, there is a book called 'Drama 100' which ranks the best stage plays 1-100.  Last year I thought that I'd be able to get through about one a month and that would serve as a supplement to the Great Books list.  That schedule proved impossible to hit so I thought I would do some here and there. 
Next month, the Great Books list gives us 'Moby Dick' and that will put me back on track (hopefully for the next five plus years).

Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' is unique.  It's called the 'most performed play in America' so you may be familiar with it already, but just in case you aren't, here is what you need to know.  The play is performed with a fairly bare stage.  There is no set.  Only furniture that is moved around to suggest various places.  The story is narrated by the Stage Manager who constantly breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience. 
The setting is a small New England town in the early part of the 20th century.  It's a good town and most (but notably not all) are very happy with it.  The first act introduces us to the town and some of its people, most notably the couple we will follow throughout Emily and George.  They are about the same age and have literally grown up next door to each other.
The second act is titled 'Love and Marriage' and it shows the their wedding day.  We get an extended flashback to the time when they first realized they were in love.  The entire thing is sweet and authentic.  The third act deals with death and has a poignant message about living each day.  The dead can't help but wonder how the living fail to see each day as a miracle.  The message is interesting and well told. 
It's not hard to see why the play is widely done.  The staging is simple and inexpensive.  The cast can be fairly small or fairly large, depending on what size you want.  The story is well done and has moments of profundity.  Their are a few roles that budding actors can really get their teeth into.  This is a staple of American high schools.

I studied this play while I was in high school and haven't read it since.  Back then I read it (at least once) and saw it performed both professionally and by friends in school.  I remembered liking it and that's still true.  My enduring memory was of the bare set.  I didn't remember much of the story at all.  I was pleasantly surprised, especially with the depth of the third act.  This is a fine, fine play.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Links to the Past

Plato's Cave, animated link

In praise of shorter Great Books link

Taylor Swift Socratic Dialogue link

Translating 'Wimpy Kid' into Latin link 

What is a sandwich?   A Platonic approach link

Star Trek: but instead of normal, it's with philosophers (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Reading for September

Just in case any followers out there are doing better than me lately...

Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding link
Kant: A Critique of Pure Reason (prefaces, introduction, transcendental aesthetic) link

Monday, August 31, 2015

Books Read in August

Another busy month of non-Great Books. 

The Geographer's Library by Jon Fasman - This is something of a literary mystery with heavy historical overtones.  The main story is that of a cub reporter in a small town trying to figure out the death of a hermit professor.  That part is interesting and well done but the real interesting part is a bunch of mini histories of mystic objects.
The Martian by Andy Weir - A very fun book (and soon to be a movie).  A man is left for dead on Mars by his expedition.  He survives and now must figure out how to a) let them know that he is still alive and b) stay alive for many years until he can be rescued.  This means heavy engineering reengineering of everything.  If you enjoyed the movie 'Apollo 13' and the show 'Mythbusters', you'll like this.
The Body by Stephen King - This is the novella that became the movie 'Stand by Me'.  It's an excellent coming of age story.  The movie adaptation was very faithful to it.  This is a reread for me.  The story takes place right before school starts and that put it into my head about this time.
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick - This is a nonfiction book about the sinking of the whale ship 'Essex' in 1820.  It was the first (and one of the only) accounts of violent action towards a ship by a whale.  It very much served as an inspiration for Melville's 'Moby Dick'.  I wanted to read it before diving into it next month.  The book deals with the attack and the incredible journey that the survivors made afterwards.  It also paints a picture of life in Nantucket and on whaling ships.  It was excellent.

And then the short stories, which were all tremendous.

The Million Pound Bank Note by Twain - excellent (and the rare Twain story that I haven't read before)
The Girl by Schneour - very good
Higher and Higher by Marcus - very good (though very dark)
A Study in Emerald by Gaiman - excellent and a high point of the series
Almost Home by Bisson - very good

Year Four Reading Blues

If you've been following along this year, it won't come as a surprise that I haven't enjoyed the selections for year four.  Far too much epistemology.  I've complained that the subject in general makes my eyes glaze over and that's true.  The unrelenting focus on the one subject here has been unbearable. 
The first three years were a blast.  The first year was especially valuable.  If you don't want to commit to a ten year plan, just do the first year readings.  I also enjoyed the second and third year.  Looking ahead to year five, I'm excited for that too.  But not this year.
I'm trying to figure out which types of readings are most valuable to me, or which ones do I get the most out of.  In no particular order:
  •  The writings of Plato and Aristotle.  I'm glad each year opens up with some back and forth between them.
  • Drama and literature.  I've learned a lot about Greek drama especially.  
  • The histories.  
  • Life advice. I'm not sure how else to describe the writings of Montaigne and Aurelius.  Maybe just 'ethics'?  
  • Political theory.  Especially Locke and the other enlightenment writers.  And I'm including Mill in there too.
This covers quite a bit of what we've read.  Of the 67 pieces covered so far, more than 50 of them easily fit here.  The two categories that I haven't gotten much out of are:
  • Science.  I simply don't think you can learn as much from primary scientific sources as you can from modern writing.  If I was advising someone on how to best understand scientific history, I'd point them towards a modern day overview instead.  (Though I am intrigued by what I've heard of the Feynman lectures.)
  • Very technical philosophy.  This is especially the German philosophers but Thomas Aquinas fits here too.  Maybe an overview is a good replacement here too.  The sheer denseness of these writers will repel all but the most committed readers.  I suspect that the only way I could get something out of them would be to read in a group.
Anyway, I'm already looking forward to October and reading Moby Dick.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Links to the Past

(Can't believe how long it's been since I've done a 'links' post.  Sorry!)

Best of the Scribblers (In praise of Gibbon) link

Marathon Reading of 'Moby Dick' link

10 Reasons You should be reading the Classics link

Hypatia of Alexandra and the Seven Pre-Socratics (Existential Comics) link

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dead White Guys - Burriesci

Back in 2010, Matt Burriesci faced a life crisis.  He paired a job loss with the very premature birth of his daughter.  While moving things around for the nursery at his home, he had to shift his Great Books of the Western World set.  Upon opening the first volume, the Conversation, it sounds like he came across the ten year reading list.  He also made a promise to his new daughter that he would write a book for her before she turned eighteen.  This book is the result.
The book is divided into chapters, each one riffing on one of the pieces of reading from the first year.  He opens with Plato's 'Apology' and goes through to 'The Communist Manifesto'.  (Having worked through them just a few years ago, I could easily recognize the set and order.)  Each chapter involves a bit of Burriesci's personal history and some advice that stems from that piece.  The whole thing is to be set aside for her to read when she turns eighteen.
I liked this book a lot.  The idea behind it is inspired.  I didn't agree with all of the advice but that's hardly the point.  The best way to approach the Great Books is as an inspiration.  "Do I agree with what was said there?  Is it true or false, or (more often) partly true or false with important exceptions?"  'Be skeptical' is the early advice and that's exactly right.
I'm curious what his daughter will make of this when she reads it.  It's a tremendous gift for her and I'm a bit tempted to try and recreate this for my kids.  (I'll put that in the idea hopper.)  The most forthright advice comes in the preface where he makes a very strong argument towards a liberal education. 
The Great Books of the Western World are not interested in promoting our illusions, and they do not care about authority. They are neither gentle nor polite. They teach you how to see through illusions, and they demand that you question both yourself and your masters. Some people are afraid of that, and with good reason. And I should warn you, Violet: these books will challenge your illusions, too. At times you will be uncomfortable with what you find here. But I am reminded of Flannery O'Connor's remark: "The truth does not cahnge according to our ability to stomach it."
This has been exactly my experience too. 

I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ten Books that Shaped the World

A couple of weeks ago the Guardian published a list of books that shaped the world.  It's a list of ten, each selection was chosen by a different person.  There is no description for what they actually asked for but it does say that they are 'not of an age but for all time'.  The list:
  • The Second Sex by de Beauvoir - I haven't read this before but I've put it on my list to read soon.  If you were writing a cultural history of the 20th century, you'd certainly say that one of the key elements is that women gained more equality than at any previous time in history.  It sounds like it was one of the foundational books of feminism.  I honestly don't know how much any particular book influenced women's movements worldwide.  It seems that other mediums, especially film, may have done more.  But the movement as a whole deserves recognition and if this book fits that bill, then it wholly deserves to be on a list such as this.
  • The Analects by Confucius - I read this nearly fifteen years ago.  What struck me the most was just how much attention was given to the idea of noble bureaucrat.  The Analects is a guidebook for honest and trustworthy government administration.  It isn't hard at all to understand how a very statist idea like communism would be popular in China.  Which isn't to say that it doesn't have value even in capitalist societies like ours.  We want our officials to be honest and work for the good too.  It's just that we have a healthy skepticism about state actions.  A very worthy inclusion.
  • The Origin of the Species by Darwin - An obvious conclusion and I won't argue with it.  It's in the Great Books series but we haven't gotten to it yet.  I wonder if the amount of praise that Darwin gets is more in line with the social upheaval that he caused by questioning religion and how much because of the importance of the science involved.  But it very obviously did change the world.
  • Elements by Euclid - This is the work that set the foundations for all mathematics that followed it.  That's a big deal.  Euclid not only laid the ground rules for math but he helped engineers and architects for all time.  Another good inclusion.
  • Interpretation of Dreams by Freud - I don't think I would have chosen this.  The science is iffy and widely disrespected.  On the other hand, I guess it did 'change the world'.  For many years, psychologists had to work with within the terms that Freud had created.  Those terms and ideas still dominate art and literature.  So...maybe?
  • A Sand County by Leopold - This was completely unknown to me.  The book catalogs differences in a Wisconsin county over time.  It was chosen because 'It helped to transform what had been an essentially conservative, utilitarian conservation movement into the first stirrings of an ecologically centred green movement in the west'.  I don't know how true that is.  There has been a romantic edge to environmentalism since at least the early 19th century.  It goes to far to suggest that without this book, the movement wouldn't be in roughly the same place it is now.
  •  The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels - Well yeah, this book had a huge impact, that we're still working through today.  That isn't to say that the impact has been positive but it has very much 'changed the world'.  Of course, 'Mein Kampf' fits this exact bill too...
  • Beloved by Morrison - I haven't read this so maybe I shouldn't comment too much but I have trouble seeing how this should be included.  It has a serious anti-slavery message but it was written long after slavery was outlawed in the Western world.  The impact of 'Beloved' can't really be compared with 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', even if the quality is higher.  Having just read some Frederick Douglas, I have trouble believing that Morrison is a more important writer.  Frankly, this selection is a bit embarrassing.  
  • Comedies, Histories and Tragedies of William Shakespeare - No argument here.  No other playwright has come close to Shakespeare's global reach.  
  • Scripture - The last selection is perhaps so obvious that it was widely overlooked.  No other books in history have had as much influence on the world than the Bible, the Koran and other religious writings.  
I would have included some of the enlightenment writings on government.  The movement from monarchy to democracy was accomplished in large part because of some serious philosophical heavy lifting from Locke, Rousseau and others. 
When making a list like this, it's hard not to just keep going earlier and earlier.  It's hard to say that any book from the past fifty years or so has really changed the world.  You could argue that the most impactful book written since 1950 is something like 'Dianetics' even if history won't judge it well.  Short term trends are so chaotic that it's probably impossible to forsee just what will come out favorably. 
But this is a fun and useful exercise and I'm glad that the Guardian tried it out.

Reading for September

Two pieces and I'm not exactly filled with optimism about them.  (But I am hopeful that the content will pick back up.)

Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding link
Kant: A Critique of Pure Reason (prefaces, introduction, transcendental aesthetic) link

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Reading Update

I may as well admit this upfront, I didn't read very much of Locke this past month.  I tried and tried but I couldn't get into it.  I feel bad about it, but that's just how it is.  I'd say that the main reason I didn't read the whole thing is because I'm very tired of reading about 'epistemology'.  That's clearly the theme for Year Four and I'm hopeful that Year Five will be a full change of subject. 
The other reason is that I've got a bunch of other 'required' reading happening right now.  I've got a test coming up in a couple of months and I'm boning up on economics and grammar.  Throw in some other end of summer stuff, and a horrendous work load and I'm all done in.

I do have some posts in mind so hopefully some things will be written later in the week.  Hope everyone is doing well out there!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Author Timeline

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

If you look at the list between Bacon and Kant, you can see how the various lives intersected with each other.  There is kind of a hand off from one to one as they try to figure things out.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Reading for August

I'm not going to lie, I'm having trouble getting into this.

Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (book 2) link

Friday, July 31, 2015

Books Read in July

It was another busy month of reading.  Vacationing at the cabin really helped that along.  (My ideal vacation includes time spent reading next to a beach or a pool but a cabin with some pine trees works well too.)  What did I get to?

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett - This was the first book in a book club that I started on Facebook and it was good, but not great.  It's the story of a botched kidnapping in an unnamed South American country that turns into a lengthy hostage situation.  We learn about the hostages and the soldiers who are holding them.  They form relationships.  No one feels any urgency or has much agency.  But interesting people and many fine turns of phrase.
A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam - I reviewed this at length here, so I won't say much now.  Short review, I liked it at lot.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed - This is an autobiographical book about a young woman whose life fell apart.  Her mother died quickly of cancer.  She tore her marriage apart and dabbled in drugs.  Almost on a whim, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and faces many, many hardships.  She also spends some serious alone time which allows her to grieve.  It also gives her some confidence for the future.  An interesting book.
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut - A new one for me and one very highly regarded.  I...didn't care for it.  It came off as a too smart-ass for my taste.  The book deals with war and death and marks each death with the phrase 'and so it goes'.  Sometimes this is profound but it soon became a 'bit' and lost any serious effect.
A Literary Education, Joseph Epstein - This is a series of essays and highly enjoyable.  These included writings about his time with great literature and his thoughts on art in the modern world.  My favorite though, was an essay on Jewish jokes.  Some very good stuff.
Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson - A reread for me.  I read this mostly for the first third which is historical fiction regarding Newton's time when he was young.  That whole time period was fascinating for the scientific efforts that were unleashed.

I'm right on track with the short stories.
Penal Colony - Kafka, very good
Kola Street - Asch, good
The Things They Carried - O'Brien, excellent
Spring in Fialta - Nabakov, very good
To the New World - Metzker, ok

The O'Brien story is haunting me and I'll probably need to read the book that came out of it soon.

A good month.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Links to the Past

Why Students Avoid Literature link

Journeys with Homer link

Why Every Millennial should read John Locke link

Book Review: 'Dead White Guys' link

Who Killed Liberal Arts link

Philosophy Club (Existential Comics) link

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Great Idea at the Time - Alex Beam

Before I went up to the woods, I was tipped off on a book that was something of a history of the Great Books by Alex Beam.  Beam was asked about the Great Books by someone (around 2006 iirc) but he had never heard of the set.  He decided to investigate and ended up writing this book from a skeptical angle.  It's  a good read and I highly recommend it.  I literally laughed out loud at a discussion group within a prison.
Most of the things that I've read about the Great Books has been fairly positive, this book being a prime counter example.  Now that I'm more than a third of the way through the ten year plan, I thought I'd respond to some of the criticisms.

  • The idea of a Great Books is out of step with modern education - This is both a) true and b) not obviously the fault of the Great Books folks.  It's becoming harder and harder to simply trust that modern educators have the better part of this argument.  
  • The main promoters, Adler and Hutchins, sold the Great Books idea as a universal education - It's not.  The Great Books approach won't work for everyone and may not work for the majority of students.  That doesn't mean it doesn't have it's place.  In fact, the exact same criticism applies with equal force to the more 'modern' approach, which also obviously isn't the best fit for everyone.  
  • It's disputable that the best works were selected - This is also both true and impossible to fix.  There is no set of works that would represent the Western Canon without arguably leaving out important works or arguably leaving in some that shouldn't qualify.  So be it.  It's not difficult for a reader to go with what is presented and look for other suggestions.
  • The Great Books were picked with poor translations and bad formatting - This is a tough one for me to judge since I've read so little from the actual books in the set.  Probably 90% of what I've read has been from my Kindle or from bound books.  But it may be true.  If you're reading along with, say, the Iliad, and finding little enjoyment, look for opinions on a better translation.
  • The works selected contain too many ancient science books - I agree with this one 100%.  A modern reader can get more out of reading about Newton, Farraday etc, than they can reading from them.  Try them if you'd like, but seek out some secondary reading to really understand why they were important.
  • A 'Western' canon has little use in our multi-cultural world - I'm not sure what to do with a meta concern like this.  It's easy to look at a Great Books approach as leaving out wisdom from the rest of the world but I don't know how true that is.  If I read Plato and Aristotle, there is nothing keeping me from reading Confucius and Buddha.  In fact, I'd be surprised if the average Great Books reader wasn't more interested in reading other ancient texts than a non Great Books reader.
  • Older works don't have anything to say to a modern reader - This is similar to the previous criticism.  I disagree (of course).  This isn't to say that I look to Plato or Aristotle to solve current political issues but I absolutely do use the methods of Plato and Aristotle to get a handle on them.
  • Adler wasn't a good person/The Great Books set was a money making venture - I don't know how good Adler was.  He was certainly flawed but who isn't.  The books themselves were obviously a labor of love from Adler and Hutchins.  There was a profit motive involved but that wasn't the main driver.
  • The set of books became some kind of impressive furniture rather than a useful tool - This may have been true and maybe for the majority of users.  I don't know that this is the fault of the set makers or the books themselves.  The computer can be an amazingly useful tool or it can be a window into hours and hours of 'Farmville'.  That isn't the computers fault.
  • The topics set up in the the Syntopicon are little more than a gambit, rather than a serious tool - This is hard for me to judge.  My father found them very useful but I haven't used them much.  The exact topics (102 in all) are certainly open to criticism of inclusion/exclusion but any set of topics would have been open to the exact same criticism.  (In the book he notes that around 1990, Adler said that if they did the list now they might have included 'Equality' as a topic.  It's very possible that the topics simply need updating as time goes by.)
  • Great Books readers are a little strange - This was the one part of the book that I thought was unfair. For example, a WWII vet in the book is labeled in a picture as loving two things, the Great Books and killing japs.  That's not a fair way to sum him up.  I'm sure that any group of readers (or any other hobby!) can be made to look weird from the outside.  In this book, it felt like a series of cheap shots.
As I said though, I'd recommend the book.  I highly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reading for August

Just one, but it's a big one.

Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (book 2) link

Monday, July 20, 2015

"I Think, Therefore I Am" - Descartes

I found Descartes very interesting.  In many ways he is the bridge between ancient thought and the modern.
I resolv'd to faign, that all those things which ever entred into my Minde, were no more true, then the illusions of my dreams. But presently after I observ'd, that whilst I would think that all was false, it must necessarily follow, that I who thought it, must be something. And perceiving that this Truth, I think, therefore, I am, was so firm and certain, that all the most extravagant suppositions of the Scepticks was not able to shake it, I judg'd that I might receive it without scruple for the first principle of the Philosophy I sought.
So, in other words, even if everything that you are seeing/hearing/experiencing in life is somehow an illusion, the one thing that an individual can cling to is that the process of thought means that they must exist.  Even if life is a series of shadows on the cave wall, the idea of personal identity is the anchor that can see you through.
Descartes goes on to write about how he systematically worked to withhold the common sense belief that the things he could see were really there and the things he could hear were really making sound, etc.  The one thing that he could not talk his mind into believing was that he wasn't really there.  The idea 'I am not' makes no sense and he couldn't pretend that it did.  Whatever else was illusion, that one essential fact could not be a trick.
From this he moves on to a conclusion that is a bit more shaky:
So as it followed, that it must have bin put into me by a Nature which was truly more perfect than I, and even which had in it all the perfections whereof I could have an Idea; to wit (to explain to my self in one word) God.
This then is his second foundational statement, that his being implies a more perfect creator.  This isn't an uncommon thought though it's widely cast aside in these more modern times.  If there were rational beings that were randomly created through evolution and chance, there is no reason to think that they wouldn't suffer the same identity crises and wonder about the origins of their Nature.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Newton and Orbital Mechanics

Note: this post was written ahead of time as I'm at a cabin for the week.  If the New Horizons probe has somehow been destroyed, please just ignore that while you read this.

If you read anything about orbital mechanics (and I read enough about space exploration that I do), you begin to have a handle on the size of Newton's breakthroughs.  He really started the idea of 'falling around' something as a way to visualize gravity's effects on planets and other orbiting bodies.
The New Horizons probe is set to pass by Pluto today after years and years of travel from Earth.  On its way, it did a slingshot past Jupiter to pick up speed.  This is a fairly common maneuver for space probes and it relies directly on Newton's understanding of gravity.
So, while you see new pictures of Pluto, take a moment to thank Newton for his help.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bacon's Four Idols

I meant to write about this last month.  The most striking part of Bacon was this:
There are four classes of Idols which best men's minds. To these for distinction's sake I have assigned names, calling he first class Idols of the Tribe; the second, Idols of the Cave; the third, Idols of the Market Place; the fourth, Idols of the Theater.
Each Idol is interesting.

1. "The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in the human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men."  These are the false things that men believe because it falls in line with human experience.  The idea that the sun went around the earth falls into this category because from the simple experience of sunrise and sunset, it made sense.  It was only with direct measurements of stars and planets that the truth could be gained.
2. "The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man."  These are the individual beliefs and superstitions that everyone has.  I may believe that the wearing of a certain shirt will always bring about a good day for me, because within my memory it always has.  But without a rigorous test, I can't tell that for certain.  (And if that test was positive, it would simply set off a whole new batch of tests, etc.)
3. "There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there."  These are the things that we believe as a people, in part because that belief is strong in the people around us.  I think this happens at every work place and almost certainly happens within each industry.
4. "Lastly there are Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration.  These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion."  I think this would encompass the cultural values that are passed on through TV and movies.  Maybe through books too, though that seems more culturally scattered now.  Political beliefs probably also fall into this category, or at least are vulnerable for the same reasons.

I don't know the way to avoid all of these idols but surely the first step is to simply be aware of the pitfalls that are out there.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Links to the Past

Argument for why the Greeks were essential link

Zoomable Graph of History of Philosophy link

Why Kids are avoiding Literature link

Legacy of Descartes link

Learning Shakespeare in the Bush link

Despair Bears (Existential Comics) link

Friday, July 3, 2015

Author Timeline

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Books Read in June

June was another busy month for reading.

The Fourth Part of the World, Toby Lester - Very interesting book.  Highly recommended.  This book details how the Europeans found out about the other parts of the world.  It serves as a history of map making for the Western world.  If you've ever been interested in the Age of Exploration, this is a must read.
The Call of Cthulhu, by HP Lovecraft - I've never read any of the Cthulhu mythos before.  Very interesting stuff.  The idea of 'knowledge that man should not know' horrifies me.  But it's a fascinating horror.  Hard to look away from.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - A reread of one of my favorites.  This involves a futuristic revolution by a penal colony on the moon.  There are echoes of the American revolution but I love this book because of the questions that it asks.  Early on, a professor asks 'what is moral when done by a group of people that would be immoral if done by one'.  I've pondered this for twenty some years and I still don't have a good answer.
Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man' by Christopher Hitchens - This is part of a series about 'Books that Changed the World'.  Hitchens writes of the history of Paine and the influence that Paine's writing had on both the American and French revolutions.  Good stuff and I wish that Paine was covered in the Great Books list.
Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas by himself - Fredrick Douglas was an escaped slave who wrote about his experiences under the whip.  Some horrifying stuff and this was highly influential on the abolitionists of the day.  Full of insights.  A very necessary history of the systematic awfulness of slavery.  Wish I'd read it earlier in my life.

All in all, a very good month of reading, even beside the Great Books.  If you're looking for something to read, I'd say that any one of these five will be rewarding.

Short stories:
You Go Where it Takes You by Balingrud - good
My First Love by Nadir - excellent
Alas, Babylon by Fitzgerald - very good
Master and Man by Tolstoy - very good

This brings me to 26 read through June.  Right on target.  These deserve a more full treatment but I'd be kidding myself if I thought that I would find time to write more about these stories each month.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Readings for July

(Man, I've gotten behind.  Almost missed this!  Sorry.  Will improve.)

Descartes: Discourse on the Method link
Newton: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (prefaces, definitions, axioms, general scholium) link

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Novum Organum - Bacon

Francis Bacon wrote 'Novum Organum' as a kind of response to Aristotle's 'Organum' which deals with logic.  Bacon wrote his 'new' piece in large part to question how we prove things. 
Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm than spoiling and putting an end to other men's efforts than good by their own.
This is a reaction to the way that science was seen as established and permanent.  The works of Aristotle (especially) and others were held as settled science and no real effort could be made to question them.  Bacon sought to change that.
I propose to establish progressing stages of certainty. The evidence of the sense, helped and guarded by a certain process of correction which follows the the act of sense I for the most part reject; and instead of it I open and lay out a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting directly from simple sensuous perception.
From this, Bacon launched the scientific method and this created an enormous bloom of science. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Readings for the Rest of Year Four

For whatever reason, this year has been top heavy in terms of number of pieces.  After July, fully 2/3rd of the number of pieces will be done.  For those interested, that comes to 66 of the 180 pieces in the full list.  Or 11/30ths.
That's a little misleading though because the heaviest reading is in the second half.  Some is easy, some not so much.  I see my nemesis, Kant, lurking there in September again.  I will at least start the reading but I no longer make any promises on finishing the old windbag.  October and November are heavy from a page count sense but they're both fiction.  (Somewhat contrary to its own narrative, I predict smooth sailing with 'Moby Dick'.)
But let me not get too far ahead of myself.  Next month brings Descartes and Newton.  When I looked at June and July and this month I cringed at the amount of science reading there would be.  Not because I don't like science but because the primary sources here can be very dusty.  Galileo and (especially) Bacon surprised me.  Hopefully July will bring pleasant surprises too.

Descartes: Discourse on the Method link
Newton: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (prefaces, definitions, axioms, general scholium) link

Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (book 2) link

Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding link
Kant: A Critique of Pure Reason (prefaces, introduction, transcendental aesthetic) link

Melville: Moby Dick link

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

James: Principles of Psychology (chapters 15 and 20) link

Friday, June 19, 2015

Links to the Past

Why the Magna Carta was signed by England's worst King link

What rights are granted by the Magna Carta? link

How you define a liberal arts education matters greatly link

Is the world starved for beauty? link

We're Losing Sight of What Art is For link

Sartre: A Show About Nothingness (Existential Comics) link

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Two New Sciences - Galileo

(This only covers the beginning of the third day.)

Two New Sciences is an interesting book, possibly more interesting for its history than for its contents.  Galileo wrote it very carefully to avoid offending a school of thought within the Catholic Church that regarded the Aristotelian model of the universe to be perfect and complete.  From my understanding, he tried very hard to simply present things without making attacks on the former reasoning.  A large part of this is showing how mathematical formulas show how things work, rather than just observing and presenting a theory to explain it.
The book takes the form of a conversation between three men, Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati.  These men discuss various theories and the three are sometimes thought to represent Galileo's thought process from young man to more experienced and older man.  This allows Galileo to present an idea and then attack and defend it.  It works pretty well.  To my (modern) eyes, it's very readable.

The section that comes up from the Great Books reading list is about whether objects accelerate or slow down(!) as they fall.  Galileo argues that they fall faster and has a spiffy geometric chart to show that the rate of acceleration is, well, geometric.  The whole thing makes sense to me and I was left with a sense of 'wait, did they really think things slowed down as they fell?'.  Apparently so.
There are two things that make this type of reading especially striking now.  First, this is all well established science now.  There is broad (unanimous?) agreement on gravity and acceleration.  This wasn't true then and in fact had still to be argued out.
The other thing is that with our modern equipment, we can easily show how things behave as they fall.  I kept thinking about Mythbusters and their use of slow motion cameras and replay.  How different things would have been if Galileo could have marched people into a theater and shown them proof!  (And yes, that gets several horses and carts confused.  The thought still occurred to me.)

I liked reading Galileo.  We return to his writings in year seven and I look forward to it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Links to the Past

Thucydides and Soccer link

Hunting for Galen's writings link

Get Your Galileo going this summer link

Crisis in Physics (Use of Scientific Method today) link

How to Save Liberal Arts Education link

Philosophy News Network (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Author Timeline

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Books Read in May

I'm a little late on this.  Sorry!  Not many this month.

Around the World in 80 Days, Verne - I'd never read this before.  Very enjoyable both in concept and especially as an historical piece.  If anyone is interested, you can now travel commercially around the world in something like 36-40 hours.
View from the Cherry Tree, Willo Davis Roberts - I think my teacher read this to us back in 5th grade and it stuck with me ever since.  This was the first murder mystery that I've ever read.  I enjoyed it this time too.
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson - This just came out a couple of weeks ago.  The idea behind the story is that the moon has broken up and will send enough stones down to earth to render it uninhabitable.  An emergency attempt is made to use the ISS and some quickly designed pods to put people into orbit.  This works but there are large problems.  At some point humanity dwindles to only seven child bearing women.  And then the story takes off.
Did I like it?  Eh.  I love Neal Stephenson but this one was far too heavy on info-dump and light on people.  It would have been much, much better broken into two books.  As it is, I can't really recommend it.

And then parts of other books.  I'm working my way through the very good 'Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (theory explained here).  I'm slowly rereading 'Les Miserables' by Victor Hugo, taking my time and savoring.
As far as short stories go, I only got to three of them this month but that still keeps me ahead of schedule.

The Dead by Joyce - good, but not as good as my expectations had led me to hope for
Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases by Gustafson - only ok
The Man to Send Rain Clouds by Silko - very good

Monday, June 1, 2015

Readings for June

Two pieces.

Galileo: Two New Sciences (third day through Scholium of Theorem II) link
Bacon: Novum Organum (Preface, Book 1) link

Friday, May 22, 2015

Links to the Past

A portrait of Shakespeare from his lifetime?  link

On not having read authors of the Great Books link

Video proof of Galileo's observations of gravity link 

Sharing Don Quixote on its 400th anniversary link

The Role of Philosophy in Physics link

Existential Office (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Readings for June

Two pieces.  I read the Galileo last night and it was very good.

Galileo: Two New Sciences (third day through Scholium of Theorem II) link
Bacon: Novum Organum (Preface, Book 1) link

Monday, May 11, 2015

Apology for Raimond Sebond

Montaigne's father handed him a large book written by Raimond Sebond and asked him to translate it from the Latin it was written in.  A short time later, his father died.  Montaigne took the wish to translate it to heart and did so. 
The book was on theology and it had gone in and out of favor with the church over time.  It sought to prove various theological beliefs through rationalistic means.  It had been attacked by other rationalists.  Montaigne took it upon himself to defend the writing.  (An 'apology' can be thought of as a 'defense'.)  He defends Sebond from rationalistic attacks by suggesting that rationalism is always limited, especially in matters of faith.  In short, his 'defense' also negates Sebond completely.
I'm not displeased with this approach, though I'm not entirely convinced either.  I do believe that there are areas of theology and faith that can't really be grappled with by straight reason.  However, I don't know that this is really a limitation of reason so much as just an area outside of its expertise.  Mathematics won't tell me which cheeseburger tastes better, but that doesn't mean that it's useless.

This is a long piece and I don't know that I'd recommend it that highly.  Montaigne is a wonderful and talented writer but, well, that's more clear in shorter pieces than this.  In fact, I've got a Treasure of Montaigne that skips it all together.  If you're interested, I thought that the pieces from Year One were stronger and more interesting.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Links to the Past

Dating eclipses of antiquity link

Obit for scholar who edited Norton Anthology link

Teaching about liberty in the middle ages link

Ovid is 'triggering' link

Harvard Classics available for download link

Crazy Christian Eights (Existential Comics) link