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Showing posts with the label books

How Someone Should Write History

I should probably offer an excuse for talking about a book about the French Revolution, lest somebody say, "Yea but how is that, like, relevant, man?"  The answer is that much of what we call political news and "current events" is really just fighting the French Revolution all over again.

Details. Do I ever hate details in history books. Consider a book on the causes of the French Revolution: the author could grind through the legal system, economic conditions, etc. All very important of course. But what a tedious bore!

Consider the rather different approach used by Simon Schama, in "Citizens," A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Old-regime France had been no stranger to public ceremonies and spectacles. But your place near the viewing stand was controlled by the aristocratic pecking order.

Then, in the 1780s, public spectacles saw a radical change. Balloons became the high-tech rage. Once they were in the air, it all viewers had the same view.
In other wor…

The Benefits of Classic Books

At the beginning of World War II, George Orwell started an essay off, as German bombs fell in his neighborhood. It was a scary time for the Brits. His essay was full of a determined optimism. He concluded with a prophecy of how the war would go:
...but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.That sentence knocked me over, when I first read it. Looking back at it later, I wondered why it made such an impression. After all, it essentially says what the old proverb does: 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.'

Although there is some historical glamor to discovering some "new" truth, this experience reminds an individual how exciting (and more frequent) it can be to rediscover an old truth. Old truths become uninspiring as they devolve into bumper sticker slogans and one-liners. They become stale clich├ęs.

An …

When a Significant Book Strikes You

Occasionally the lyrics of a song can make a great impression on the listener. They aren't just trying to rhyme. Nor are they wailing about their frustrated lusts and infatuations. The thoughts are important and fundamental, and they managed to make them so concise that they fit into a song. Incredible!

Books can be like that, too. The 'soul' of the reader is so weary of being insignificant flotsam, rushed along by the cultural effluvium of the times. If it manages to get even a glimpse of a truthful Big Picture, then life hasn't been wasted.

That is the effect that reading a book had on me, recently. The book was Pat Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War." You may enjoy the book even if you don't agree with every opinion of his.

Here we are, a century after the 'Great War,' and we are still suffering the consequences of World Wars I and II and the Cold War. None of the fundamental assumptions of the American Empire ever get tal…

Moab Is Hopeless, But Is That So Bad?

Is there something cheerful to think about when you are in Moab, UT? Let's be playful and take it as a challenge. (And no, red rock scenery doesn't count.) So far I am drawing blanks...

1.  And yet look at all the people milling around town: they seem pleased to be here. They must be doing something right. Enjoying Moab vicariously seems like the only approach that might pay off.

To fail at this completely is still good news, if it helps me to appreciate novelists and scriptwriters. This could be a big deal to me. Just think how good they must be at putting themselves into other people's 'shoes' in order for their novel or script to be the least bit interesting!

2. Quite separate from the angle of vicarious enjoyment, there is a second approach thatties in with the book I am reading, by Siedentop. Why did early Christians choose Hope as one of their cardinal virtues? I think it is pernicious. It only leads to disappointment and disillusionment.

I came to Moab without …

The Pleasure of Meeting Intelligent People

What do people think of when they first think about intelligent people? Is it somebody with little personality who grinds away at their career all the time? Or is it somebody who appears superficially polite, but actually is snide and supercilious?

I'll bet they don't think of the pleasure an intelligent person can give to other people. Let me give you a little anecdote about being on the receiving end of this. But first you must bear the set up.

I was in Cortez Colorado, looking to buy a new Utah atlas, either the DeLorme or Benchmark version. This area caters to tourists, and it is the closest small city to the Four Corners. So you would expect it to be easy to buy an atlas for any of the four states.

Wrong. I failed to find these atlases in a half dozen places. The frustration was worsened by driving from place to place while pulling my trailer. Towing a trailer is a terrible way to knock off errands in a city.

If a sensible person were replacing a hardware or mechanical part, …

Visualizing a Book Correctly

It is a great project for a camper to wean themselves from an internet addiction. It is so strange the way you miss it most for the first day or two. When you finally debauch yourself by backsliding into Sin, you expect some huge rush of pleasure. Surprisingly you end up curling your lip and saying, "They're still talking about the same old crap. Why am I wasting my time?"

Why indeed? The benefits of cutting the daily cord are huge for a camper. They can choose so many more locations. The feeling of (soft) adventure comes back.

But 'fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue,' as the old Roman writer/poet, Horace, said. A camper has a lot of time on their hands. If you remove the internet, you have to add something else. Like what?

Books, let's say. I've never really been a good reader. I'm not referring to speed and comprehension. There has always been a problem with my... attitude. Actually it may have been lethargic visualization.

Let's take a brief d…

Metaphors with a Life of Their Own

Hopefully I will continue to do certain things right on this blog: not over-selling travel, and not over-emphasizing books. Carried to extreme, both of these things are more than merely ridiculous. They are vices.

But combine two things that don't appear to be all that related, and some magic happens. Maybe that is what thinking is all about. When travel and books are combined, some memorable pleasure can happen. It won't happen often.

'Be careful what you wish for...' is an old adage that must be in many people's Top Ten list. During the fire season in late May and June in the Southwest, I yearn almost obsessively for higher humidity, clouds, and rain. Well, we got some all right. Over the holiday weekend I spent a day or two holed up in my little camper-trailer, unable to do much of anything outdoors. Actually, what is there to do indoors, other than read books? (I had no internet connection.)

The good news is that I had an awfully good bo…

Perfection at 'Experiencing a Book'

Perfection has never been my ideal. Not everybody thinks like that. Many people may remember Curly's (Jack Palance's) speech about the beautiful woman backlit by the sun, in "City Slickers". Or consider the climax of "The Red Violin". There are other examples of worshiping perfection as an ideal from the days of chivalry, religious devotion, or military courage.

All I can say is, they are welcome to it, if that is what they want. For my part, I will continue to believe in the semi-universal S-shaped curve for Benefits versus Costs. (Notice the 'semi'.)

But it is always fun to make an exception. My recent problems with a broken leaf spring on my trailer resulted in a perfect experience of a certain type.

It was so easy to admire the competence and usefulness of the mechanic who drove the tow truck to my trailer, and then repaired it. He knew where to get the replacement part quickly, whereas I would have bounced around on the internet for hours, spendin…

Dealing with a Difficult Writer

For the umpteenth time I have started some Dostoevsky novels and short stories, only to surrender 50 pages in. Yes I know, it seems like common sense to be a good sport about this, to shrug it off, and to move on to a different writer. But it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt to a writer who has a high reputation. On the other hand, I should dismiss the opinion of the "experts" if it doesn't agree with my own experience.

Perhaps the best reason for not giving up on Dostoevsky too soon is that something might be gained by trying to explain why reading him just doesn't work for me. I used to think that his books had too much religious guilt and physical suffering in them for my tastes. Russians are pretty good at suffering, but I am not.

The more I thought about it, this time around, the more the blame went to his unsympathetic characters. I simply don't care what happens to his characters, and therefore, have no interest in the story. Don't think that I a…

Under the Sway of the Consummate Conversationalists

Very well then, I'll admit it: I am currently under the tutelage of Addison & Steele. It is a bit amusing to see the location of their writing given at the top of each 'post': "From my apartment," or "From X coffee shop," or "Y's Chocolate Shoppe." It is so similar to listing the name of the forest or town at the top of a travel blog post.

Can any modern reader not feel some envy at Addison & Steele's success at having interesting conversations with interesting characters in the shoppes? If you put these authors into a time machine, and inserted them into the average Starbuck's outlet today, what would they think? Surely they would see 300 years of civilizational decline right in front of their faces.

In post after post these authors comment on what makes for pleasant conversation between good-natured people. And they describe the failures, too.

Should a blogger try to emulate their good-natured and polite conversations in tho…

Reviving the Periodical Essay

Awhile back I asked for suggestions from readers in finding 'eclectic' blogs, and was pleased to receive some. With hindsight I should have asked for 'modern periodical essays'. Periodical essays were popular in the 1700's. (The link to Quotidiana in the right hand margin contains personal essays.) A couple of the best known series were those of Addison & Steele and those by Samuel Johnson, Diderot, etc. The modern internet blogosphere should be rife with periodical essays. It is an enormous opportunity that is being missed.

Let's characterize a periodical essay as the short work of an observer and thinker who is 'grazing on the open range' of personal experience and human history. Typically the periodical essay begins with an observation that seemed odd enough to stimulate curiosity. The train of thought then broadens to the general, with some historical perspective.

I am reading the first series by Addison & Steele, "The Tatler", writt…

Calming the Beast in the Cabin

I'm weakening. I hate camping underneath a thunderstorm. But the mud will dry up tomorrow.

There must be readers who are sick of my praise for wet snow and cold mud in May in the American Southwest. They are probably thinking, "Put up or shut up. Move to Puget Sound if you think wetness is so great."

My sermons are an echo of the ones from William James, presented in the page-tab at the top of your screen, Summiting: Ideals and Suffering. In trying to benefit from suffering, the key word is 'non-routine.' Over the long run, suffering loses its charm. In order to be stimulated, you must somehow idealize it, and that is hard to do to something routine. The weather the Southwest is having right now is definitely non-routine.

I'm not just opining and theorizing. My bouts with cabin fever have done me some good, and hopefully for the long term.

I was forced to do things that are easy to neglect: a book that was supposed to be re-read, but somehow wasn't; cleaning …

A Brave Little Beast

A couple birds carried-on a noisy aerial dogfight over my trailer. It's not unusual for a couple small birds to get after a large raptor, but here a single small bird held forth, valiantly. The fight went on for half an hour. My dog was annoyed the entire time.

But isn't it amazing what inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras can do these days! Those two birds were up there, say, 300 feet. I took the optical zoom way out there, so far that it was hard to keep them in the frame. And yet the box turned green -- focus was achieved. And even after digital zoom was added, the photo is still pretty clear:

I am now reading Jack London's "The Sea Wolf," so my mind takes to "wind sports". I wonder if London ever wrote a couple paragraphs on something like what is in this photo, and what meaning he read into it.

Wanted: More "David Lean Style" Novels

It might be fair to describe the David Lean style movies (e.g., Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago) as consisting of a close-up drama of the main characters, usually during wars or revolutions, and with a huge landscape in the background. (Doctor Zhivago was the only one in the list that was pulled down by love triangles, adultery, and all the rest of that puke. And that wasn't really Lean's fault.)

To be a happier novel-reader I need to find books that remind me of Lean's movies. By luck I did. Tolstoy's "Hadji Murat" was written late in Tolstoy's life. The short novel took place in the same setting where young Tolstoy served in the Czar's army, the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Reading this short novel will probably make you feel like the ideal traveler, who learns about radically different ways of life, and not just silly scenery tourism. Of course there is plenty of scenery in the neighborhood, includ…

How to Appreciate a Novel by a Woman

I am here today to tell you that all things are possible in this old world of ours: I have just enjoyed a novel by a woman novelist: Charlotte Bronte's"Jane Eyre."  My goodness, one of the Bronte sisters, just the sort of book a school marm would have approved of, and thus would have been hated by most (male) youths. A freakish event like this must be explained somehow.

Actually the idea of reading this book came from my enjoyment of movie music scores. Dario Marianelli seems to have carved out a niche for himself in writing piano-intensive scores for movie renditions of Jane Austen or Bronte novels, such as the recent Jane Eyre movie. It certainly makes sense for the piano to be the main instrument here.  

In explaining why this book was enjoyable, let's start with what it doesn't have. (Recall the Latin poet, Horace, and his "Fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue.") This novel is not built around a love triangle. Surely we can agree that there are …

Blogs Can Be Improved by Blending with Books

The history of the English language is a subject that has interested me from time to time. It is rare for an Indo-European language to lack most inflections (endings on verbs and nouns), to make modular use of helper or auxiliary verbs ('If she had gone to town yesterday...'), and to lack gender.  With its history of borrowing from other languages and innovating itself -- without some centralized bureaucracy full of language police as in the French model -- it should be capable of much more.

For instance, when is somebody going to invent, and the rest of society cleave unto, a phrase or word that adequately describes 'drowning in trivia.' Trifles, distraction, minutiae, soul-sucking drivel, and other words are pretty good. But we need something better to express the debasement of human dignity and the utter destruction of the human soul that the internet now offers.

Why do smartphones and drivel-blogs take up so much of our time compared to reading classic books? I was j…

Success at Reading and Writing Fiction

My "mighty" success at reading a novel started when I was rereading Boswell's "Life of Johnson" for the umpteenth time. Why do I keep rereading this book? Is it because it is a rare example of a book that brings philosophy down from the clouds? It also makes philosophy brief enough for human conversation.

At any rate Boswell mentioned that Samuel Johnson loved Henry Fielding's "Amelia." This is surprising since Johnson stubbornly held to a low opinion of Fielding's work. Nothing quite disposes us to accept advice from somebody else like seeing them make an exception to a general position of theirs.

And so I read and enjoyed "Amelia."  It resembled "Tom Jones" actually: the surprises were a bit outlandish, and it had too much lovey-dovey. So then, why did I enjoy it?

The book is quite a sermon about not blaming "Fortune" for the consequences of our rash behaviour, especially when we are young. It seems odd to use the…

Why Do Some Enjoy Reading Fiction?

There is no point in trying to hide it: I am quite pleased with myself. I read a novel, and even enjoyed the ordeal, overall.

Still, there were times when I was bored and frustrated. The only thing that helped me through those episodes was visualizing my suffering as "noble and heroic." The half-facetiousness of this lightened my mood. Fortunately the novel would then become more interesting in a couple pages, and I could take a break from my play-acting. 

This gimmick worked all through the novel. Many times, I kept hearing a voice say, "It's a far, far better thing I do than..." But say, where did that come? Wasn't it from some novel I was forced to read in high school, and therefore, probably disliked? Rather ironic, if true.

And yet there are many people who enjoy novels, effortlessly I suppose. What is their secret? Why don't they spill it to people like me? Maybe it will help to consider one category of successful novel-readers at a time.

1. Novel-re…

Eavesdropping on a Silent Conversation

It seems like many of the experiences, that I want to post about, occur during the food-stop in the middle of a bicycle ride. Why is that? Is it the mood that cycling puts me in? It certainly seems to be true that one's appreciation of a Thing depends more on the Context of the thing, than on the thing itself.

At any rate, it happened again today. A couple of deaf people were having an animated conversation at a table in front of the window of a food stop. I could pretend to watch my unlocked bicycle just outside that window, without it being obvious that I was "eavesdropping" on their conversation in sign language. (I do not "sign.") Through my sunglasses I could watch them out of the corner of my eye.

They had each other's undivided attention. No distractions. Compare the quality of the conversation of these two "handicapped" people to the usual 'barely listening' conversation of non-handicapped people! We struggle with the crappy backgrou…

Why Read Fiction?

Now that I'm rereading a series of novels, adding up to many thousands of pages, it would certainly be nice if I actually accomplished something. The good news is that I am starting to realize that fiction has something to offer: but strangely enough, it really isn't the "story."

I admit to being a die-hard non-fiction reader. Mostly history. Many years ago, it was philosophy, until I decided that it was mere wordplay. Fiction always seemed like a waste of time. What did the plots of novels really consist of but rags-to-riches, revenge, whodunnit, mistaken identity, improbable reversals of fortune, and -- above all else -- adulterous love triangles? Yawn, especially the latter.

It was a good choice to reread Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturin" ("Master and Commander") novels because they are written more to please men than "lady novel readers," who have an insatiable appetite for romantic drivel. (It was they who bought most of the …