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