Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Six Books

Way back when, well, actually it was in May, I noted here that I was giving a Final Lecture to the graduating seniors.  Said talk needed a point, so I went with my standard:  Read the Great books.  (That wasn’t the whole talk, though.  I also added, among other things, why economics is better than every other discipline, made fun of Amherst and Hampshire (easy targets to be sure), and explained how to make a Martini.  I wanted to add some jokes about Lynn, but in trying to think of some way to make fun of her, I realized you can’t make fun of Lynn.  Pretty annoying.  Shouldn’t it be a requirement to be a college President that it be easy to tell jokes about you?)  In the substantive part of the talk (the Great Books part—though come to think of it the How to Make a Martini part was also substantive), I added a specific suggestion.  Make a list of six books you really feel like you should have read by now, but haven’t, six books which you believe have something to teach you, six books which will make you think.  And then after making that list, promise yourself that you will read all six of those books in the next year. 

Having told a few hundred students they should do that, I figured I should probably do it myself.  So, I made my list of six books and vowed I would have them all read by the end of the summer.

Mission accomplished.  And, I am happy to report it was a great exercise.  I highly recommend it.

The six books, all previously reviewed here, in the order in which I enjoyed them:

Silas Marner
O Pioneers!
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Common Sense
Venus and Adonis
Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1

Looking back, the obvious question is: Why those six books?  No particular reason.  As noted in the reviews, in each case it was a book I really did feel a twinge of guilt that I had not yet read.  (Yes, I know feeling guilty for not reading those six books is surely a psychological problem; but no need to worry, now that I have read them, I no longer feel that twinge of guilt (well, about those books)—psychotherapy by reading books!)  The other interesting thing about that list is that if I had guessed at the outset the ranking of how much I would enjoy them, I think it would have looked like this:

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1
Venus and Adonis
O Pioneers!
Silas Marner
Common Sense

Such is the joy of reading Great Books—even though you know they will be good, sometimes they really surprise you by just how good they are.

After doing it, I highly recommend the six book exercise.  It’s fun to think of which six books you should put on your list, and then it is even more fun to read them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Come my tan-faced children

I first read Willa Cather in High School.  My Antonia was the novel; “Paul’s Case,” the short story.  I was underwhelmed.  So underwhelmed in fact that for years I was convinced I did not like Cather.  Janet started reading a lot of her, and I was really amazed at how much she liked her.  Janet finally convinced me to read Death Comes for the Archbishop.  It is amazingly good.  Then I decided that Cather wrote one good novel, but I still didn’t care for her.  Over the last few years I read My Antonia two more times.  By my third reading, I was rather impressed with the novel.  I also read The Professor’s House—despite the very promising title, it was just OK.  But, I figured I should read some more Cather; I just never got around to it.

I am happy to report that O Pioneers! is really quite good.  The thing that intrigues me the most about it, however, is trying to categorize it.  It looks like a novel (it’s around 160 pages in the Library of America volume), but it reads like a short story.  The characters are sketched out quickly and deftly; nobody here has the depth one associates with characters in a novel—instead they are all Studies on a Theme.  The background is similarly quickly sketched.  And the plot of the novel reads like several short story plots interwoven throughout.  Add to that the source of the title: Walt Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Reading that poem after finishing Cather’s book is a rather bracing experience.  The book is an extended version of the poem.  That doesn’t mean the book has the same plot as the poem—the poem has no plot.  The poem captures a spirit.  Cather’s book recaptures exactly that same spirit in a different medium.


     See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,       
      Pioneers! O pioneers!

                 O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill'd,
      Pioneers! O pioneers!

Now imagine a story which evokes that same sense of onward progress in the midst of pain and disappointment and death.   Cather’s O Pioneers! isn’t a story per se; the plot details are largely irrelevant; it is the Sense, that Pioneer Attitude, which this book captures.  When finishing it, I was ready to move to the frontier, not because I thought life would be good there—indeed, the book nicely conveys that life is miserable on the frontier—but because the frontier is the right place to be. 

     Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
      Pioneers! O pioneers!

Then I sobered up and remembered I like living in a quiet house and reading books.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

The Evil Empire

Does anyone remember the Cold War?  The people with whom I spend most of my working life have no memory of it; they were born after the Soviet Union dissolved.  In the last month, I read a pair of books published shortly before its demise (1987 and 1988); what a trip down Memory Lane.  As a pair, the books neatly capture the two views of the Soviets back when I was in college: 1) they are a rather nasty bunch of people, a veritable Evil Empire vs. 2) there are just misunderstood, nice people who are trying to make their way in a world dominated by the Brutish West.

1. Moscow 2042, by Vladimir Voinovich
I have had this book on my shelf for over two decades.  I was in a conversation once, where the author was mentioned as being a very funny writer.  Shortly thereafter I was at a library book sale and saw this book.  So I bought it for a quarter.  Two decades later, I read it.  (And, by the way, I have never heard the author mentioned again after that one conversation.)  Why did I read it now?  I was rearranging one of my bookshelves and it was taking up some needed real estate, so I figured I should read it to decide whether it was worth the shelf space.
            Answer: I’ll probably keep it for now, but a) I know I’ll never read it again and b) I know I’ll never refer to it again, and c) I know at some point it will end up on the free book shelf in the library.  It was good, but not even remotely Great.  I enjoyed reading it, but not enough to make me think I would ever go out of my way to read another book by the author.  It was worth thinking about, but not for a terribly long time. 
            The story is of a Russian author who has been exiled from the Soviet Union who goes forward in time to the year 2042 to see what happens to the Communists.  The story then turns into a cross between 1984, Brave New World and Utopia.  It reads like Utopia (endless descriptions of things that really aren’t that interesting) and has the same view of totalitarian empires as the other two books.  It mocks the Communists mercilessly; there isn’t a single redeeming feature of communism, and the Empire ends up looking exactly like what one could have predicted if one were in the They are an Evil Empire Camp.
            Then the book morphs into some sort of dissertation on reality and fiction, but that part is so convoluted, it isn’t ever clear whether it matters at all.  (E.g., the author in the book writes a book in his Future (from the perspective of 1982) or his past (from the perspective of 2042) entitled Moscow 2042, but the book in the book is probably not the same as the book being read, but the book in the book is an awful lot like the book being read except that it can’t be the book we are reading, but if it isn’t the book we are reading, then the book doesn’t make as much sense as it would be if the book in the book we the one we were reading.  That only scratches the surface of the problem, but I’ll spare you the rest.)
            After reading this book, I’m convinced that Soviet Union was a rather nasty and brutish regime, and that the system itself was the problem.  Then again, I believed all that before I read the book.  In fact, I believed all that when it was unfashionable on college campuses to believe that.  One of the funniest things I have encountered as a professor is hearing students state as a simple matter of fact (and one which nobody in the clasroom disagrees) that Communism is a bad thing, which was a rather controversial statement when I was in college.  That is progress.

2. The Russia House, by John Le Carre
I am not sure why I keep reading Le Carre.  His books are all the same, and the only ones I have enjoyed were the George Smiley ones.  Le Carre has a persistent tone of weariness with the world which is so deeply infused in his fiction you wonder if there is going to ever be even a single moment of pure joy for anyone in the world.  This book is all about how the Soviets were misguided fools who thought they were more powerful than they really were, while the West is dominated by brash, war-mongering spy agencies who cannot accept Reality.  I knew lots of people in college who thought like that about the Soviets and the West.  (Then there were the ones who thought the Soviets were just fantastic, amazing people who should rule the world.  I think all of them became Literature professors.) 
            So, why do I keep reading Le Carre?  I think it is because he writes well enough that I keep thinking that I’ll stumble upon a gem.  His books aren’t bad, but the whole “This is a depressing world in which forces out of my control are making really stupid decisions” tone gets really tiresome.  Granted, it is a sign of a good writer to be able to maintain that tone throughout a whole novel without the novel becoming unbearably boring.  However, I did read an attempt of his to write a novel which is not a spy novel;  The Naive and Sentimental Lover was a terrible book—again it was written well, but the book itself was a disaster.  The other intriguing thing about Le Carre is that while he writes spy novels, they are not full of unrealistic action in which our hero, invariably a middle-aged male a lot like the author of the novel, accomplishes feats which a Navy SEAL would find nearly impossible, while a gorgeous, and always younger, female falls madly in love with him.  Then again, the gorgeous younger female falls madly in love with the middle aged male protagonist of The Russia House, so I guess the only difference is the lack of action sequences.

It was pure coincidence that I read both these novels this summer; I love coincidences like that.  As a picture of the end of the Cold War, these two books together are much better than either one was individually.

It’s also worth noting that the world is a much nicer place without the Soviets around.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Poor Lady Pole

While Labor Day is the real end of summer, today feels like the end.  (By the way, I have no patience for people who insist that Summer runs from June 21 through September 21.  Summer runs from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend.   No rational person disputes that fact.)  Students start arriving on campus next week.  It’ll be nice to see them. 

However, one problem with the end of summer is the list of things I meant to do this summer but haven’t yet done.  Starting with this here blog.  I have ten books sitting on my desk awaiting reviews.  So, while I try to have a nice clean desk at the start of the semester, I am going to fail this year with these books sitting here unreviewed.

The preceding does explain the book choice for today’s review:  I am picking the thickest one to make the stack noticeably smaller.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a Book Most Curious.  I spent a good chunk of the time reading it trying to figure out an author with which to compare this book.  It finally hit me:  Anthony Trollope.  It is a Victorian novel (oddly, since it was published in 2004 and takes place between 1806 and 1817, so it shouldn’t be a Victorian novel, but it is) about the whole of English Society from the highest (the King) to the lowest (rural servants), but most of the action centers on High Society.  The Napoleonic Wars play a part, and both Wellington and  Byron show up for a bit.  And right now, you, Dear Reader, are imagining a novel which is not at all like the one being discussed.

You see, this is a novel about Magic.  It has magicians and fairies.  And once again, you, Dear Reader, are imagining a novel completely unlike the one written. 

But, imagine Trollope writing a novel in which there is magic and fairies, and you get something close—even though until I read this book, I would have thought the very idea of that combination was preposterous.

The novel has an interesting conceit:  Magic is real, but nobody in England in the early 19th century remembers how to do magic.  It has become a Lost Art.  It is rediscovered by Norrell and Strange.  The novel is all about the effects of their rediscovery. 

It is a brilliantly structured novel.  The novel never once feels like a fantasy novel; it reads like historical fiction.  You can almost believe it is Straight History.  The book is littered with scholarly footnotes, explaining references made by the characters—and said footnotes come complete with full bibliographic citations—and all of this, the reference and the citations, are completely made up.  The Reader is simply assumed to have heard all about the Raven King, for example; before starting the novel, the reader is presumed to know about his 300 year reign as the great Magician-King, with Kingdoms in three different worlds.  Assorted footnotes throughout give you bits and pieces of trivia you didn’t know about him.  By the end of the book, it seems as if you have in fact heard of the Raven King many times, probably reading about him in one of those children’s books all about him.  It’s really quite brilliant, and the sure sign of a confident novelist.

Yet, for all its structural brilliance, the novel was plodding.  I enjoyed the whole thing; I can easily imagine reading it again with great pleasure.  I suspect its craft improves on the second read.  Yet, there was very little forward momentum in the book.  It just moseyed along for the first 700 pages before getting to a point where the plot sped up.  This thus became one of those books I enjoyed reading, but after any particular chapter it was easy to put down and I never felt any particular hurry to get back to it.  Yet, when I picked it up again, I was immediately interested, and read with pleasure.

Is it a book to be recommended?  Yes, but only to the type of person who is going to just read it no matter how slowly it moves.  I suspect its natural audience is people who like both High Literature and Fantasy novels.  Neil Gaiman has a cover blurb for it, but I am not sure it has the same appeal as Gaiman—it isn’t nearly as Fantastical as Gaiman.  The reader from whom I would very much like to hear is someone who likes Trollope, but not fantasy novels.  Would the magic of the book be enticing or just silly to such a reader?  Sadly, I doubt I will ever find out; as soon as said reader sees the book is about magicians, the experiment will die.

The other thing about the book which arouses my curiosity:  will this book become Great?  It was recommended to me by someone during a conversation about the possible Greatness of Harry Potter.  I can see why.  This book too might be a Great Book.  Right now, I don’t think it is, but I would have to reread it in a few years to be sure about that. And that means I have another problem: Do I shelve this book with my Low Fiction or my High Fiction? 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Theologian

There are few pleasures comparable to picking up a copy of the Summa Theologica, opening at random and reading what Aquinas has to say.  The manner in which each question is answered, starting with the counter-arguments before stating the thesis and then countering the counter-arguments, is so convoluted that each question in the work resembles nothing so much as a little puzzle to be deciphered.  And, seeing the pairing of the Philosopher (always “the Philosopher,” not “a Philosopher”) and the other named (and thus obviously minor) philosophers along with the Truths of Scripture make the whole massive work an intellectual treat.  It’s not a book to read from beginning to end, though I have no doubt many people have done so.  In other words, the Summa Theologica is a book well worth owning and leaving in a handy place for ready reference.

Aquinas has another book of systematic theology, one I had never really looked at before.  The Summa Contra Gentiles is a four volume work (though for some, probably odd, reason, my copy has divided Volume 3 into two books).  It doesn’t have the structure of the Summa Theologica; it looks like a standard work on Philosophy.  And, it is structured quite differently—instead of mixing Faith and Reason throughout, volumes 1-3 are the attempt to show how far you can get in understanding God through Reason alone and Volume 4 is what we learn by Faith.  I’d never looked closely at the Summa Contra Gentiles—until now.

I just finished Book One: God.  Aquinas spends 300 pages proving everything we can know about God from Reason alone.  We learn that God exists—which would seem to be a necessary proof in a volume like this—if we can’t prove God exists, then we can’t prove anything about Him.  And then we learn a host of things about God—he is eternal, has no body, is unique, good, one, infinite, intelligent, truth, and wills.  Those are the sorts of things normal people might say about God.  We also learn in this book that God has no passive potency, contains no accidents, knows singulars and future contingent singulars, has an essence which is his will, and wills things other than himself with the necessity of supposition. Those are the sort of things that Aristotle, pardon, The Philosopher, might say about God.  And therein lies the virtue and the problem with this book.

It is hard not to look at a book like this with some measure of awe.  The enterprise itself is most impressive.  The very act of seeing how far you can get in describing God by virtue of reason alone seems like embarking on a rather short journey, but Aquinas believes he can get very far indeed.  And, most importantly, it is impossible to argue that believing in God is somehow irrational after reading a book like this.  You’ve been there when someone says that religious believers are all idiots who believe silly things with a blind faith unlike our hyper-sophisticated, reasonable speaker.  It is a simple matter of fact that anyone making a statement like that has never read Aquinas.  It’s not that Aquinas will convince anyone that God exists—in fact, I doubt this book would convince anyone of that, despite Aquinas’ best efforts—it’s just that after reading this book, it is would be impossible to argue that belief in God requires one to abandon Reason.  I daresay that anyone making the case that reason and religious belief don’t mix would have a very hard time even reading this book.  A very hard time. 

But, the virtue of this book is also what makes it something less than an exhilarating read.  While the Summa Theologica is a pleasure in its odd stylistic manner, the Summa Contra Gentiles reads like Aristotle.  And that isn’t a compliment.  I was once told by a philosopher that those who read philosophy divide neatly into those who like Plato and those who like Aristotle.  I am in the Plato camp.  Aristotle, for all his amazingness (and he is amazing), is a bore to read. 

Now this leaves me with a big problem for the future.  There are three more volumes in the Summa Contra Gentiles.  Do I read them?  I have the same problem with Aristotle, by the way.  I’ve read Nichomachean Ethics, Politics and Poetics. Every now and then I think I should read something else by Aristotle, but I really can’t bring myself to start him once again. Aquinas presents an additional problem—I actually enjoy perusing one of his works, so should I force myself through another one of his works?

[And, by the way, if you don't really know much about Aquinas, here is a brief introduction.]

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