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.