Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Traveller from an Antique Land

Dahlia is bounded by the Ruby Wall, 27 feet high and 9 feet think, bright red when the rays of the sun beat upon it.  It is a three day journey to cross through Dahlia on foot, more if you bring a camel.  As you traverse the city, you find many structures which are a roof, held up by four posts and no walls.  There are structures with four walls and no roof.  There are roofs with just one wall, sometimes having a door or windows set within the wall, sometimes not.  There are roofs with two walls.  If you spend many hours searching, you might find a roof with three walls down one of the twisted walkways, though I have never seen such a structure..  The roofs are always a bright blue, sometimes with streaks of white.  These structures serves as dwellings or shops or government offices.

But in the middle of the city sits a structure with a roof and four walls.  It has a doorway set in the middle of  the Northern wall and a window of painted glass set above the door.  This is the only structure in the whole of the city with a roof and four walls and it sits directly in the center of the great city.  The walls are 17.25 feet high and the roof is flat.

If a person crosses through the doorway of the structure in the center of the City, Dahlians say the traveler has gone Outside.   In every other place, a person is said to be Inside.  The structure in the center of the City is well known; one only has to say “Let us meet Outside,” to know that one should leave the city by going through the doorway in the structure in the middle of the city.  Once Outside, people go Inside by passing back through the doorway.  There are no other places in all of Dahlia that are Outside.  The rest of the City is Inside.

Now that you, Dear Reader have read about Dahlia, do you wish to visit it?  The idea of Dahlia was born when I was reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.  A student gave me the book (thanks, Lia!), and I can easily imagine her reading it and liking it.  The book is dozens of descriptions of cities which do not exist, with a framing story of Marco Polo describing the cities to Kublai Khan. 

The City descriptions are prose poems, lyrical and evocative.  There is possibly a structure to the book, but it is hard to tell.  It is the sort of book that might repay endless hours of devoted study or it might simply be what it is and no more.  Could one add another city to the book or take out one of the cities or would such an addition or subtraction fundamentally destroy the order and beauty of the book?  I have absolutely no idea.  I suspect academic papers have been written on the matter.  But, this is one of those things where academic papers may destroy what beauty the book has.  It is a hypnotic book.  You roam across the land, with hints that this is all real or this is all false or some of this is real and some is not.  Even the framing device may be real or not real. 

This is the sort of book that prompts the question: why do we tell stories?  It is an ancient question, of course.  Before thinking about this book, I thought that question might have an answer.  But having just read a seemingly endless array of stories about cities which do not exist, each one of those stories being more evocative of a place than actually describing a place, each one of those descriptions hinting at story upon story that could be told about the city, but having none of those stories actually told, after reading all that, I am not at all sure I can explain why we tell stories. 

Take the city of Melania, which shows up on page 81.  (Melania was chosen totally at random—all of the following is accurate, but I am pretty sure the same paragraph could have been written no matter which page I randomly chose.)  A page and a half description of a city.  It isn’t hard reading the description of the city to imagine a whole book of short stories coming straight out of the description on those pages.    It would be a challenge to write such a book, but then again, it is a challenge to write any book.  The book of stories from Melania, though, has the potential to be Great Art, Beautiful and Deep.  I can see that book of stories in my mind; I would like to read that book of stories.  But, Tales of Melania not only doesn’t exist, it never will exist.  Instead, we have the page and half evoking the idea of Melania and nothing more.  So, why tell about Melania?

Having read Invisible Cities, I am not even sure how to read this book.  Reading it straight through was more hypnotic than thought-provoking.  There is no forward momentum, just one description after another. And even the framing device is just one description after another.  Having read it, when I now pick it up, I can simply flip to a random page, and read it and start wondering.

Does a book that just starts you wondering provide anything to the Reader?  I can’t tell.  As I sit here puzzling over this book, I cannot figure out if this is a book I should pick up on a regular basis, read two pages, and then set down just to start imagining a city and the tales that city could tell.  A book that fosters imagination.  And therein lies my problem.  I do not know the intrinsic value of imagination.

Take the description of the city at the outset of this post.  I started ruminating about the book by wondering what it would be like to write a description of a city that does not exist, and so I began.  It morphed with an idea I puzzled about for a few hours months ago about whether Outside and Inside could be flipped or not.  Is it possible that by being in my office, I am outside, and everywhere else is inside?    I tried to talk with my family about this matter which seriously troubled me, but nobody else seemed to think the matter was troubling.  So, that idea worked its way into the story of the city above.  In that city, they think this way. 

But, as a city that fits within Invisible Cities, I am pretty sure it is a failure.  A city of one idea, and probably not a very interesting idea at that.  None of the Invisible Cities seem so small.

My failure to craft a city worthy of this book does not surprise me in the least, by the way. I do not think I could ever write a respectable short story, novel or even a poem.  I have always thought my creativity does not lie in that direction.  And now I wonder if perhaps my imagination does also not lie in that direction.  Why is it that I am troubled by the idea of a book that simply sparks imagination?  Why do I want Imagination to have some end beyond itself?

(Incidentally, I actually like this cover version better than the original (which I always thought was far to saccharine))

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Seeing Eye

I have long had a troubled relationship with C.S. Lewis.  I first met him as a young lad when I won a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in some Bible Trivia contest.  I really liked the Chronicles of Narnia; I read the whole series multiple times when growing up.  I started his space trilogy as soon as I heard about it, but I only made it a few chapters into volume 1 before realizing it was really boring compared to the tales of Narnia.  (Later reading confirmed that my childish impression was correct.)   Over time, I heard more and more about him; he is one of those authors evangelical Christians are supposed to like.  So, I kept reading him and kept finding him mildly disappointing.  Interesting ideas, but never anything like a slam-dunk book.  Eventually, I came to appreciate him a bit.  I really like The Abolition of Man; not a perfect book, but a book well worth reading (and, it would seem, assigning in a class).  But, even still, I have this vague sense that while Lewis is good and all, I really should like him more than I do.

So, when I was offered the chance to go to a colloquium on Lewis, I didn’t hesitate.  It’s a Liberty Fund colloquium, which means you get a set of reading, and show up for two and a half days of conversation with 15 other invited participants.  No presentations, no papers, just talking about the reading.  Liberty Fund colloquia are without a doubt the best conferences in the world.

The colloquium is in September, so a few weeks back I got a box with the reading material.  The reading turned out to be The Abolition of Man (good news—I like that book!) and a dozen other essays.  The dozen essays are scattered among 5 books. So, here I was at the start of summer with five books of Lewis essays and I figured I might as well just read them all.  Seems like a decent project to add to my summer list.

The first volume I read: The Seeing Eye.  This is a posthumous collection of otherwise not collected essays.  And, as always with such things, it is hard to review.  If you step back and ask, “What unifies these essays?,” the honest answer is “Well, Lewis never put them in a collection of essays he made during his lifetime.”  Not much of a hook there.  So, who buys a book like this?  Presumably people who just can’t enough of Lewis.  Should you read it?  Yep—if you have read everything else he wrote and just can’t get enough of Lewis.

Don't get me wrong, it isn’t a bad book at all.  There are some interesting essays in here; indeed, I didn’t detest any of the essays.  Lewis writes well—he is an easy person to read, which is presumably a part of his appeal.  It is conversational writing, and not simply because many of his essays were originally talks he gave.  It is one of those depressing facts of life that far too many people giving talks cannot manage a conversational style even when giving a talk.  So, I found the book easy and thoughtful reading.  Perfect for while having that second and third cup of coffee in the morning.

But, and here is the problem with the book, the best of this book is already embedded in The Abolition of Man.  Indeed, part of the book could have been labeled, “First drafts of material which will later be included in another book.”   There are other essays which read like precursors to Lewis’ book on the Psalms.  So, if you have read the other Lewis books and come to this one, do you learn anything new?  Sort of.  It is interesting to see familiar material presented in a  new way.  Every now and then there is an interesting turn of phrase that stands out.  (“Some people make allowances for local and temporary conditions in the speeches of Our Lord on a scale which really implies that God chose the time and place of the Incarnation very injudiciously.”  “It may even be the duty of some Christians to be culture-sellers.”)  But, I can’t imagine recommending this collection of essays to someone over the more completed books which were finished off later on in his life. 

Now the good thing about reading a book like this is not really the book itself, but the idle speculation to which a book like this leads you.  Halfway through that third cup of coffee, you finish an essay, stare out the window and start mulling.  What exactly is Progress? you ask yourself.  Lewis is hard on the Apostles of Progress, the charlatans who talk about Societal Evolution as if evolution always improves matters.  But set aside Lewis’ target for a second, and wonder: suppose we wanted society to progress.  What change would constitute progress?  The first instinct is to say that progress would be fixing things I don’t like about the society.  But, that is a rather amusing answer.  Does Society progress when it becomes more to my liking?  Now that is rather egocentric of me.  I am confusing “I like these things” with “A Society progresses when it has more of the things I like and it regresses when it has fewer of the things I like.”  When did I become the standard for progress?

So, if we become a little less egocentric and say society progresses when it has more of the things people like me like, then it doesn't sound quite so silly, but it still sounds weird.  So, we modify it to say society progresses when it has more of the things Enlightened People like, which is a circular argument saying the same thing. 

So, to get progress, we have to have something more abstract.  Society progresses when it has more Liberty or Equality or Fraternity?  Take the second one.  As society becomes more equal, it makes progress on being more equal.  Tautologically true.  But “society progresses when it becomes more equal” just begs the question.  Why is more equality progress?  What enthroned equality as the progressive endpoint?  Or Liberty?  Or Fraternity?  And again, we are back to the idea that society progresses when people like me like the society more.

In the absence of something outside myself establishing the goal, I am not sure what Progress means.  Does theism get around the problem?  Does Society progress when God likes it more?  That gets us into all sorts of theological problems.  Is God’s goal for this society to improve until it hits an eschatological end?  Does Society progress when it gets more like Heaven and regress when it gets less like Heaven?  If the world ends in fire and condemnation, which the New Testament seems to suggest it does, is it progress to get closer or further away from condemnation?  There seem to be a slide here from the idea of progress as found in Pilgrim’s Progress and the idea of a society progressing by…what?  What are the rules to measure the progress of a society? 

The very term “progress” implies a goal which society is either moving toward or not.  Without a stated goal, it is a meaningless term.  Calling someone “progressive” sure sounds like a compliment, but surely it matters to what end they are progressing.  When you frame it that way, you realize that every act of progress toward one goal is simultaneously an act of regress from the opposite goal.  There is no such thing as progress in the abstract.  We spend too much time talking about progress and not enough time establishing what the goal is to which the progress is occurring.

And that is where I get stuck.  As soon as you try to articulate the goal toward which a society is progressing when people talk about ”societal progress” it gets rather messy.  I suspect if the goals were stated more clearly, it would be less attractive to talk about progress.  I suspect that the very idea of “progress” is just a mask for some very muddled thinking.

I’ve been puzzling over this for a while now, which is of course the sign of a good book. At best, Lewis only hints at any of this—I have no idea if he would even recognize these ruminations as related to the essays he wrote.  I am still back at my original problem though—is Lewis worth reading or not?  I rarely find that Lewis gives me a satisfying argument for anything, but he is easy to read and make me think.  I suspect he would be happy with that characterization.  Framed this way, I too find it a positive thing to say about an author.  But, while Lewis makes me think, I always find him far too yielding of a conversation partner; when I push back against Lewis, he just yields the terrain.  Maybe I just prefer stronger-willed conversation partners.  I don’t know.  But, I do have four more books of essays this summer to sort out my Lewis Problem.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What Should I Read Next?

“I cannot live without books.”  Thomas Jefferson wrote that.  It is unclear how he tested that hypothesis.  I have a little plaque-like thing (a plaqueoid? plaquoid?) in my office, given to me as a gift from my mother, which has that quotation on it.  I am not sure how I feel about it (the plaque-like thing).  In one way, it reminds me that I like books.  But, at the same time, it reminds me that Jefferson read a lot of books, and so maybe I should read more books, because compared to the amount I think he read, I don’t read very much at all.

Then again (self-justification for bad behavior alert), Jefferson didn’t have the internet.  In the alternate universe in which the internet does not exist, how many more books do I read per year?  It is undoubtedly not a trivial sum.  And if you think of the other alternative universe in which not only does the internet not exist, but neither does television, I suspect my current reading habits are embarrassingly slight.

I want to think I would like to live in that world in which I read more than I do.  But, then again, if I really wanted to live in that world, I could just not use any computing devices or video devices and thereby live in a facsimile of that world.  I don’t do so.  Insert axiom of revealed preference.

All of these thoughts (and, truthfully, angst) were prompted when I reread Books and the Founding Fathers by George Nash.  It’s a slim book (60 pages).  I read it when it came out, and (full disclosure) I talked with George about it when he was giving the lecture which comprises the bulk of the book, so I knew the contents even before I read it the first time.  But, I reread it because of a conversation I had a few weeks back about putting together a reading list of the books the Founding Fathers would have read and been thinking about when composing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  I knew the answer was in this slim volume with the title connecting Books and Founding Fathers.  When I reread it, I was depressed.  You can’t put together a reading list of what the Founding Fathers read.  They read…everything.  They were incredibly well read.  I spent the whole book thinking that I should really read more than I do.  I haven’t read the complete works of Cicero.  I’ve never even started Blackstone’s Commentaries.  And I am truly ashamed to acknowledge (so ashamed I almost didn’t even write this sentence) (Really, I was going to not write this sentence I am so ashamed)…I have never read…this is hard to admit in print (I am not joking)…I have never read Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws.  (There I said it.) (Maybe admitting that in public will get me to actually read it sometime soon.  (First step: Admit you have a problem.))  I haven’t read it because, well, I haven’t convinced myself I will find it inspiring.  But, it inspired Jefferson and Madison and Adams and Hamilton  and that whole crew and so shouldn’t it inspire me too?  Of course it should. It probably will.  I haven’t read the complete works of any the Founding Fathers, either. Just sticking to the realm of political philosophy, it is truly overwhelming to make a list of all the books I haven’t read.  But, the Founding Fathers read those books.  So, why shouldn’t I?

And that is just political philosophy.  It is far too overwhelming to conduct the same experiment on other branches of knowledge.  Indeed, it causes me acute pain to realize I don’t think there is any branch of knowledge that I can honestly say I could not quickly make a list of a dozen books I have not read that it really pains me to admit I haven’t read.  (And, yes, that even includes Economics.)

I’d like to be Well Read.  But, how much reading does one need to do in the Modern Age to be Truly Well Read?  I mean it is pretty obvious to me that I have read more than many people I meet, but is that the right comparison?  Reading something like Books and the Founding Fathers makes me think I have probably read a lot less than Thomas Jefferson had read.  And I am not even sure where Jefferson fits in the Well Read category.  Samuel Johnson probably read even more than Jefferson.  Thomas Aquinas?  Dante?  Now those guys are well read.  Me?  Not even in that league.

(And, lest anyone be prompted to tell me I am Well Read in some misguided charitable attempt to make me feel better about myself, I will preemptively say, “Don’t be Silly.”  This I know: I have read enough to know that I am not Well Read.)

I run into a related problem.  To be Well Read, how wide does one’s reading need to be?  Can one be considered Well Read if one has never read a novel or a work of political philosophy or a book on the natural sciences?  Surely having read the complete works of Aristotle and nothing else does not constitute Well Read.  But, how does it work?  If I have read some but not all of Aristotle, can I still be Well Read?  How much does one have to know about Chinese history to be Well Read?  How many comic books does one have to read to be Well Read?  And if the answer to that last question is zero, are there other categories that do not count for becoming Well Read?  Does one Jane Austen novel count for more than the Complete Works of Alan Moore in the quest to become Well Read?

I am legitimately troubled by this.  Suppose I made it my personal quest that in the next 10 years I will go from my present state to the state of being Well Read.  What do I need to spend the next 10 years reading?  Is it even possible to get there?  The possibility that the answer to that last question is “No” is quite depressing.  So, let’s drop it from consideration.  (If you pretend a possibility is impossible, then it is, by definition impossible.  Right?)  If I want to be Well Read, how should I choose my books?  Was it OK that I reread Books and the Founding Fathers or should I have spent the time reading books written by the Founding Fathers?  Was the time I spent over the weekend reading an Agatha Christie novel an aid in advancing toward my goal or did it not advance me toward the status of being Well Read?

Curiously, this blog makes me feel better about my reading.  While writing meaningless reflections of no interest to anyone about books seems to bear little resemblance to becoming Well Read, I find that pausing after a book to actively ponder it is enormously useful.  To go from passively pondering a book to actively asking “What was it about this book that was most striking?” makes the book come alive in a whole new way.  It took a long hiatus from doing this to make me realize that something was lost when I stopped doing it—I read a lot of books in that time, and some of them were memorable to be sure, but there are whole books I realize that I read but nothing about them jumps to mind.  To be Well Read surely means more than just having turned the pages of a book, it surely means to be able to recall how said book changed your thoughts.  And therein lies the utility of this here blog.  And, yes, simply typing this up and not broadcasting it to the world could theoretically serve the same purpose, but the act of thinking that someone, somewhere might read it, induces a degree of deliberateness to the reflections.  None of which explains why you, Dear Hypothetical Reader, would bother to read these ruminations.

On a related note, does listening to songs about books help make you Well Read?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Skipper Worse

Raise your hand if you have ever heard of Skipper Worse by Alexander Lange Kielland.  Anyone?  Anyone?

This novel was included in Charles Eliot’s series, Harvard Classics.  That series was intended to show that you could get the basic liberal education in a library which fit on a five foot shelf.  So, imagine the challenge—you have a mere five feet of bookshelf space and you want to put in all the classics.  So, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Plato, Aristotle. And so on.  Oh, and Kielland’s Skipper Worse.

A curious choice to put it mildly.  I had never heard of this book until a friend of mine, Chris Fauske, published a translation of the book.  Chris kept telling me the book was really good, so I finally bought I and it lingered on my bookshelf forever.  I felt guilty whenever I ran into him again that I hadn’t yet read it.  I finally did.  Chris was right; it is good.  That is what got me puzzling—why hadn’t I ever heard of Kielland or this novel in any other context?  And you can imagine my shock when I found it listed as one of the books in Charles Eliot’s (yes, Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, proponent of Great Books!) Harvard Classics.   Hard to get a bigger stamp of Great Book than that.

But, then it gets really odd:  Skipper Worse does not have its own page in Wikipedia.  Now we have a Great Book without a Wikipedia page!  I suspect this is a set of one.

And then, I discover that Harold Bloom didn’t list Kielland’s novel in the appendix of The Western Canon, which pretty much lists every work of high fiction ever written.

So, what do Charles Eliot and Chris Fauske know that the rest of the universe doesn’t?

Kielland is Norwegian and is part of the generation of writers that helped create Norway as a distinct country and people.  Publishing this work in 1882, he is doing for Norway much what Dickens was doing for England or Tolstoy was doing for Russia—trying to capture society as a whole in a novel.  Using this novel as the reference point (I have no other independent knowledge of Norway in the late 19th century (yeah, clearly I have a critical failing in my education—how did 1880s Norway get skipped in every class I ever took???)), Norway was caught in a real cultural crossroads as an older maritime culture met a burgeoning commercial class met an intensely devout religious class.  Poor Skipper Worse.  (Can I note how hard it was to get over the fact that “Worse” is just his last name and not the English word “worse”?)  Skipper Worse likes to sail boats.  At the start of the novel he has just completed the first-ever Norway to Rio voyage.  (Almost, but not quite as important a voyage as Diaz rounding  the Cape of Good Hope, to be sure.)  The Skipper’s ship is named The Hope of the Family (insert “Symbolism Alert”). By the end of the first chapter, you know this is going to be one of those nice novels where a maritime hero settles back into the life of his beloved homeland.  Except it isn’t.  While he was away, Norway changed.  Skipper Worse’s old life no longer exists, and he is suddenly faced with a problem.  What world should he join?  There is the grand new commercial world where Skipper Worse can become a shipping magnate running a large-scale commercial enterprise.  There is the intense new religious community where Skipper Worse can thwart the devil and all his works through a life of simplicity and intense devotion.  And there is his tavern and his old friends where he can merrily get drunk and tell tall tales, but that doesn’t really work in with either of those other two worlds.  Oh, and there is a girl.  A young girl, much younger that the Skipper.  Maybe Worse can regain his lost youth with this younger bride; all the more important because Worse’s son is, well, not a good fellow (nothing to look forward to there).  Throw is some interesting characters from the commercial and religious worlds, and you have an intriguing portrait of Norway at a slice in time when Norway has to decide what it means to be Norway.

For the scope of the novel, it is surprisingly short; just 164 pages in the Fauske translation.  Yet despite being under 200 pages, I feel like I know this town, these people.  And it breaks my heart to see them so divided, so poised on the cusp of great societal upheaval, so unprepared for what the future will bring.  These are people who are simply not prepared for the 20th century.

Another curious note, Skipper Worse is a prequel to Kielland’s earlier novel Garman & Worse.  But, for as much as I enjoyed Skipper Worse, I am not eager to read the sequel.  This is partly because I have such a quaint little picture of this town that I am not sure I want to know what happens next.  But, even more importantly, because Kielland is not exactly a household names, when you look him up on Amazon, all you find are a bunch of free Kindle versions of the books—which means translations which have now hit the public domain—which (generally) means, total hack-job translations.  In fact, you have to search by ISBN (978-0-89304-111-3) to get the Fauske translation of Skipper Worse.  Maybe if Chris ever translates the sequel, I’ll read it then.  [In the meantime, if you need a gift for a person who likes Great Books, get the Fauske translation of Skipper Worse—they are unlikely to have read it and they will enjoy it. (End commercial interlude.)]

On prequels: what is the first literary prequel ever published?  To qualify: an author needs to have written both the original and the prequel.   Retelling old myths doesn’t count—it has to be an original story followed by another original story that precedes the one already published.  I have not exhaustively thought about this, and I may be missing something really obvious, but it is just possible that Skipper Worse is the first one that would qualify.  I’d be happy to hear that this is wrong, by the way—I suddenly am quite interested in this matter.  (Don’t ask why I am interested. I have no idea why I get interested in anything.)

On Wikipedia: the lack of a Wikipedia entry on this book is more than just puzzling.  It also makes me wonder if I should take up a project about which I feel twinges of guilt all the time.  Should I be spending time each week improving Wikipedia?  I love Wikipedia—I use it all the time.  But, I often note small errors or omissions or things that it would be good to include.  I certainly know enough random, but kinda interesting things.  I could do this.  But, I never have.  Why not?  Surely working on a free, global encyclopedia is not a bad use of a half-hour a week.  Yet, I have been tortured with the idea that I should do this for years, and never once done so.  I have no idea why not.  But, I can say—creating at least a rudimentary Wikipedia page of Skipper Worse is certainly worth doing.

And a final note:  I have no idea what this even is, but it is pretty funny to discover this doing a Google search.  It’s too short to be the whole novel, but it may be episode 1.