Reading Adler's List

An attempt to read all the titles in Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of Western Civilization.  And some other stuff in between.


Bearing An Hourglass - Piers Anthony I don’t want to be critical of this book. I have way too many fond memories of the Incarnations of Immortality series. But, yeah, it’s pretty bad.

In fairness, trying to write about Chronos who is living in reverse to the rest of the world must have significant challenges for plot and continuity. So Piers Anthony has my respect for tackling that. However, it gets ridiculously silly in parts in a way that is both intentional and completely jarring. I’m all for space cowboys and wicked sorceresses (less so for unicorns), but it’s all just too much.
Meditations, Objections, and Replies - René Descartes, Roger Ariew Descartes tested his arguments from Meditations on First Philosophy by eliciting objections from some impressive thinkers in his day. John Duns Scotus, Marin Mersenne, Thomas Hobbes, and Antoine Arnauld among others. Some misinterpret his arguments, some make pointed objections and one is just an obnoxious dick (looking at you, Hobbes).

Descartes drafts replies and thereby adds a great deal of depth to the Meditations. He seems to relish the opportunity to elaborate on points. Sometimes, Descartes’ replies gloss over the merits of the objections but, overall, he makes a dedicated effort to address the holes in his arguments. With unabashed fondness, Arnauld’s respectful and thoughtful objections are treated most thoroughly. Descartes is rather dismissive of Hobbes and rightly so. Hobbes’ objections are less about exploring substance than preserving an air of cynical brilliance.

Descartes builds on the strength of intuitive discovery and his definitions for clear and distinct premises. These are not perfect arguments but I challenge anyone to find a more solid foundation in those thinkers that came before him. The format of the replies and the objections give use a way to eavesdrop on an intelligent conversation without the burden of moving food around on our plate and nodding thoughtfully.

The Misanthrope and Tartuffe - Molière, Richard Wilbur Tartuffe is probably one of Moliere’s most well-known plays. Mostly because of the controversy it generated in his time and its subsequent banning. The hyper-hypocritical religiosity of Tartuffe didn’t sit well with the Church. So, yeah, it’s funny. And really not that controversial since the focus is more on the superficially religious and not the faith. But zealots aren’t known for their sense of humor.

The Misanthrope is not as 17th century edgy. It satirizes the notions of romantic courtly love. Alceste attempts to navigate aristocratic society with truth. Brutal, uncompromising truth. He refuses to temper his opinions as he seeks the affections of Celimene. Sort of like an Anti-Don Juan. Not surprisingly, things don’t go well but we get to laugh at all of them.
Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy - René Descartes
…there is less perfection in works made of several pieces and in works made by the hands of several masters than in those works on which but one master has worked. Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are commonly more beautiful and better ordered than those that several architects have tried to patch up, using old walls that had been built for other purposes. pg. 7, Discourse on Method, Part Two
Upon that premise, Descartes casts aside the philosophy that had evolved for almost a millennia prior and starts over. He accepts nothing as true unless it proves to be firm and certain so that there is no occasion to put it in doubt. In this void, he describes how he comes upon his foundational premise. That one that’s on all the bumper stickers and punned for coffee mugs. From there he builds his argument for the existence of God.

Discourse briefly summarizes his process and Meditations walks through the thinking. Descartes seems to be simultaneously revered and dismissed today. And I can see why. He writes plainly and in a genuine effort to communicate his process. His willingness and discipline to reconstruct his world based on self-reflection is an admirable example of the” unexamined life is not worth living” call. And, though it is become so ubiquitous that it has lost a lot of resonance, the “I think therefore I am” premise is one of the soundest conclusions there is in all the philosophy leading up to his time. Probably after, too, but I’ve got some more reading to do before I can be comfortable with that claim.

The downside? After coming to his brilliant premise, his argument for the existence of God falls on a whole set of presuppositions. Presuppositions which he had been so diligent in discarding in the first place. From there, the foundation begins to shift and his logic bunker becomes more of a temple. But take this comment cautiously. Prior to publishing Mediations on First Philosophy, he sent out the work to others eliciting there comments. Those objections and replies were published separately. In the “Preface to the Reader” in Meditations, he “earnestly entreat the readers not to form a judgment regarding the Meditations until they have deigned to read all these objections and the replies I have made to them.”

That’s fair enough. I think Descartes was probably a pretty awesome guy.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art - Wassily Kandinsky I hit my artistic peak with my rendering of my uncle’s Conan the Barbarian upper arm tattoo (complete with blood splatter) when I was eight. Truly appreciating art always seemed like the province of finer souls. A secret protected on par with gypsy divination and Shamrock shakes. I guess I always thought art was beyond words. Kandinsky, in his brief book, proves otherwise. Incredibly lucid and articulate, Kandinsky leads the reader to move past an intellectual appreciation of art:
The spectator is too ready to look for a meaning in a picture- i.e., some outward connection between its various parts. Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or “connoisseur,” who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message. Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for “closeness to nature,” or “temperament,” or handling,” or “tonality,” or “perspective,” or what not. His eye does not probe the outer expression to arrive at the inner meaning. pg. 49.
With academic discipline, he explains the effects of color and form on the very non-academic soul. He effectively evokes the spiritual response to color through metaphor. It would be easy for Kandinsky to hide behind vague explanations to increase the sense of profundity in abstract art. But he doesn’t. He maps out the themes of abstraction concisely. All in an effort to go beyond meaning and aesthetic. His goal is to attune the soul to the effect of color. It’s all quite sincere and inspiring.

Racine: Five Plays

Racine: Five Plays - Jean Racine Racine tries his hand with different settings. He sets his tragedies in Rome (Britannicus and Berenice), the fall of Homeric Troy (Andromache), Greek mythology (Phedra) and the Old Testament (Athaliah). All of the plays take place within a short time and the plots center on a single conflict. With the exception of Athaliah, they follow similar patterns of love denied.

Phedra is the only one that fits the most classical definition of tragedy. Phedra attempts to subvert Fate’s decree. The Greeks were never kind to those foolish enough to think people actually controlled their destinies. The other plays are more mundane affairs. Unrequited love and human baseness. Not the most engaging storylines but good enough for a Sunday afternoon.

Supposedly, Racine was a master at the alexandrine meter and the form of his plays is where his true genius shines. Since I read his plays in the English translation from French, I’ll just assume he’s brilliant.
The Rise of Ransom City - Felix Gilman Not quite the sequel I was hoping for to the exceptional The Half-Made World. Gilman comes at the story sideways, following a minor character from the first book and focusing on the politics of the Line and the Gun swirling around him.

It took awhile, but I was able to get into it after the first 100 pages or so. The disjointed, diary-esque writing at the beginning morphs into more of a narrative later in the book which I preferred. Or maybe I just got use to the style he chose for the book and didn’t notice it as much. A lot of focus is spent on educating us on the world built around the novel. In many ways, it feels like a tour. It’s an original setting so I didn’t mind that much, but generally I prefer when the details slip out through the story rather than making frequent asides to explain the setting.

Even as the world evolves and is explained, the mystique of the Gun and the chthonic secrets of the Engines remain and keep me hoping that Gilman will write a third book.


Phèdra - Jean Racine Racine amps up the pathos from Euripides’ version of the play. Phedra transforms from Grecian homewrecker to a French victim of amour. Her forbidden love is the product of a cruel Venus. The responsibility for Hippolytus’ death shifts to her over protective nurse, Oenone. Phedra suffers as a powerless pawn who brings down the house of Theseus.
Molière Four Plays - Molière, Carl Milo Pergolizzi, Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere is a mocking master. He skewers the pretentious (The Bourgeois Gentleman, The Affected Damsels), the greedy (The Miser), and pretty much everyone in The Doctor in Spite of Himself. It’s rare that reading a play seems as smooth as a novel, but Moliere ‘s plays are unencumbered and slip by effortlessly.
Don Juan - Molière, Richard Wilbur
For myself, I’m ravished by beauty wherever I find it, and I yield at once to the sweet violence with which it takes us captive. It’s useless for me to pledge my heart and hand; the love I feel for one charming creature can’t pledge me to be unjust to others; I still have eyes for the merits of them all and I render to each one the tribute that Nature exacts of us. Pg. 14, Act One, Scene Two.
This works out as well as you'd expect. Actually, no, a bit worse.

On a Pale Horse - Piers Anthony Magic stones, flying carpets, and a tricked out transforming Deathmobile. Piers Anthony mashed together fantasy and science fiction and came out with a recognizable alternate world in which God and the Devil battle it out for souls. A grudge match without religious mysticism. More of a public relations war.

When I first read the Incarnations of Immortality series as a kid, I was astounded at what seemed like a totally blasphemous take on God, Satan and souls. Catholicism doesn’t play around when it comes to eternal damnation. The opening book to Anthony’s greatest series introduces his pantheon of immortals with Death in paganistic interpretation of the Christian mythos. Irreverent and imaginative. I loved it then and I still do.

Novum Organum 'New Method'

Novum Organum 'New Method' - Francis Bacon In his zeal to challenge the Aristotelian teaching of his youth, Bacon swung to other extreme. Aristotle’s deductive reasoning had dominated for centuries before Bacon. Natural science was explored through the use of syllogisms based off premises arrived at by generalized observation. Once the premises were established, the inductive method was cast aside in favor of deduction. Science was solely an intellectual exercise which sought theoretical causation for effects that were observed. Hypotheses determined to be truth without experimentation.

Bacon was among those in the forefront (in Western culture) to reject that approach. He and others during the Renaissance were harshly critical of Aristotle’s incorrect conclusions and the process which led him. Maybe even more so against the countless thinkers who followed and failed to build upon Aristotle.
But if any one turn from the manufactories to libraries, and be inclined to admire the immense variety of books offered to our view, let him but examine and diligently inspect the matter and contents of these books, and his astonishment will certainly change its object: for when he finds no end of repetitions, and how much men do and speak the same thing over again, he will pass from admiration of this variety to astonishment at the poverty and scarcity of matter, which has hitherto possessed and filled men’s minds. pg. 64.
Bacon placed emphasis on the value of empirical evidence. What could be observed and documented. Unlike Aristotle, he embraced inductive reasoning. Bacon thought the first step of critical thinking in natural science was to document every instance in which a particular event occurs. He uses the example of heat. Then to document cases in which it does not occur and then to document when it occurs occasionally. From all this documentation, a hypothesis is supposed to generate organically. It’s probably no coincidence that Bacon did not contribute any new theories regarding heat or other area of natural science. The documentation could be endless if someone was diligent enough.

The current scientific method is a little more imaginative. Hypotheses are generated various ways and induction is then used to give validity. In some ways, it’s a mix of Aristotle and Bacon. Everything is better with bacon.

I can’t say it’s the most enjoyable reading, but it is significant. Bacon challenges established authority and makes an intellectually honest attempt to add to our collective knowledge. Unlike most of his Essays, Bacon contributes to the conversation more than simply recycles adages of old.
The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien Like many who grew up immersing themselves in fantasy books, movies and games, Tolkien was king. A rightfully seated, but benevolent, autocrat. Dukes and barons maintained his authority. Gary Gygax, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, hell, even Led Zeppelin. Even though he was dead almost a decade before I first paid homage, I sat obediently through the cartoon version of The Hobbit. I then received a 45 rpm record of the same. I then created my own game out of crude, #2 pencil drawn triangular dwarf and orc figures cut from wide-ruled notebook paper with which I played on my bedroom floor. I had sworn allegiance. I think I was seven.

I came to the books a few years later. I snuck into my older brother’s bedroom and stole the mass-market paperback book box set he read dutifully once a year. He wasn’t going to share so I didn’t bother to ask. I returned it and he never knew. Even now, The Lord of the Rings retains a slight taboo thrill for me even though it is a 21st century pop culture staple.

For good or bad (and there are many who wave the banner of disdain), Tolkien created the myths and set the structure underlying most fantasy fiction which came after. I’ve read some fantastic reviews on how Tolkien’s writing is racist, misogynistic, and pandering to authority and the status quo. Intellectually, I can listen, read and agree. I should be more critical of his writing. The lumbering descriptions, the lack of dramatic timing and how major plot points slide past without emphasis.

But I can’t. His world is too enjoyable. It’s too complete. Whether it’s the songs I skim over which reference obscure historical Middle-Earth events or the pages in the Appendices on language which provide instruction on the proper pronunciation of words written in Quenya, I am awed. It is a world which he dedicated his life to creating. And it is a world which I was lost in years before I even read about it.
The Major Works - Francis Bacon, Brian Vickers
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. That is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but cursorily; and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention. Pg. 81.
I’m not sure where Francis Bacon would put his own writings, but I found his collections of essays best as tasted. As Lord Chancellor to King James I, his writings reflect the measured judgment of a man acquiescent to the throne. Typical of the Renaissance training of the time, Bacon strings together quotations from classical sources to provide the authority for the points he punctuates. At times, reading becomes tedious as his points are not necessarily reasoned through as much as given weight by the authorship of his supporting quotations.

It does not mean that his points are less well taken. The advice on topics ranging from friendship to studies to tribute comes as though from experience. The supporting sources just add rhetorical flourish.

As one expects from a man devoted to public service, he sees a practical value to service:
Clearness of judgment makes men liberal, for it teacheth men to esteem of the goods of fortune not for themselves, for so they are but jailors to them, but for their use, for so they are lords over them; and it makes us to know that it is beatius dare quam accipere, the one being a badge of sovereignty, the other of subjection. Also it leadeth us to fortitude, for it teacheth us that we should not too much prize life which we cannot keep, nor fear death which we cannot shun, that he which dies nobly doth live for ever, and he that lives in fear doth die continually; that pain and danger be great only by opinion, and that in truth nothing is fearful but fear itself… pg. 71

Son of Heaven (Chung Kuo) - David Wingrove I never read the original Chungkuo series. There were 8 books released from 1989-1999. Apparently, in true Lucasfilm form, Wingrove was not content with the original series and has expanded the series and is now in the process of releasing the remastered Chungkuo edition. Over half a million words in twenty books to be released by June, 2015.

Son of Heaven clearly sets the stage for what’s to come. It’s a well-balanced mix of introduction to the characters and the near-future. Wingrove’s imagined world-destruction and world-building seem a little far-fetched (especially the futuristic database marketplace), but, if you go into it with enough suspension of disbelief, it’s an enjoyable introduction.

I couldn’t tell if the overt racism and nationalism for most of the book was a plot device or simply overt racism and nationalism. By the last quarter of the book, it’s pretty clearly a plot device so, for the pc-prone, give it a chance.

It’s intriguing enough to make me check out the second book.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern - Stephen Greenblatt I stumbled across Lucretius. He showed up after a lengthy stint with the Greeks. After the complete works of Plato and a good chunk of Aristotle. A stint of intellectual deconstruction. Cold and methodical. Lucretius, and his On the Nature of Things, was the introduction into the Roman world through Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books list. A Roman who espoused the Greek Epicurean worldview. A view not at all cold nor methodical. Instead, an indulgence in meaningful pleasure.

It’s an amazing poem. Gently defiant and lucid. And a work almost lost to history.

Which is why I was thrilled to see Greenblatt’s The Swerve. A history behind the poem, its discovery and eventual spread. Much of the book is dedicated to Poggio Bracciolini. An out of work papal secretary with an obsession with finding lost works. The biography gets a bit long and seems to divert the books focus in the middle. It starts to feel like an excessively long footnote. However, it remains interesting and the story eventually swings back to On the Nature of Things and its impact. From the overtly influenced, like Montaigne, to those who hint and leave traces of it like Machiavelli, Shakespeare and Jefferson.

Greenblatt’s writing is fluid and engaging. He is able to take what could be a dry, sparse accounting and writes with the conversational tone of a pipe-smoking storyteller. At times, he is near poetic himself. A loving tribute to a classical, oddly anachronistic, work.

Currently reading

The First and Second Discourses
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Judith R. Masters, Roger D. Masters
The Scar
China Miéville