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.

 

Don Quixote - Roberto González Echevarría, John Rutherford, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Don Quixote is actually two books written about 10 years apart. Not only are they different books, but different Don Quixotes. The first is a blundering and arrogant madman. The second is a blundering and deferential madman.

But it’s actually Sancho Panza who is the more interesting of the two. Beginning as an opportunist sidekick, he evolves into a sympathetic hero. Gullible and unheroic as he is. Cervantes seems to have more affinity for the peasant Sancho than Don Quioxte and the latter’s naïve attempt to live the chivalric code.

The humor and style is reminiscent of Rabelais, though I’m sure people that really know literature would ridicule that comparison. Don Quixote is mostly episodic, but the psychological evolution of the characters represent a turning point and is one of the reasons this is considered the first modern novel. It’s hard to be critical of book that takes such a place in the Western Canon.

Even though I didn’t enjoy most of it as much I was hoping, there are many gems. Beyond charging at windmills. My favorites, surprisingly, were the more serious lessons that Don Quixote advises Sancho on governorship. Though words of a madman, the chivalric ideal shines despite Cervantes’ desire to make a mockery of them.
When a guilty man comes under your jurisdiction, remember that he is but a wretched creature, subject to the inclinations of our depraved human nature, and insofar as you may be able to so without wrong to the other side, show yourself clement and merciful; for while the attributes of God are all equal, that of mercy shines brighter in our eyes than does that of justice. Chapter XLII
The Hobbit or There and Back Again - J.R.R. Tolkien Fantastic.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tired of the overused fantasy tropes. Searching for magic items, defeating dragons, etc. But Tolkien led the way. And despite the countless imitators who followed, his work seems as original as ever.

I appreciate all those writers recreating fantasy. Those who are getting away from the stock fiction which splices dwarves, wizards and magical items. I also recognize that Tolkien has a writing style that many find stylistically flawed. However, and maybe it’s just nostalgia from someone who was weaned on the Rankin & Bass cartoon, but nothing seems to detract from the greatness of this story.
Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art - Christopher Moore If there’s a writer out there that can make a story about the color blue funny, it’s Moore. He’s got better comedic timing on paper than most stand-up comedians on stage and he has a wickedly absurd imagination to boot. Which is why I was disappointed with Sacre Bleu.

In his Afterword, he briefly mentions how his quest to write about blue turned into his fantastical revisionism of the Impressionists. To his credit, this book could have turned into a pretentious, smirky, one-eyebrow raising bore. But it doesn’t. Moore still comes through with crassness and thinly-veiled innuendo. Mostly thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec. However, I think, at the risk of sounding like a total mouth-breather, the book is just too intelligent.

Not complicated intelligent, just a little too self-aware. It feels more like a research project than a story. I like how Moore incorporates the artist’s paintings into the plot, but at times it’s disjointed. It feels like an attempt to have history fit into the story rather than the story unfolding on its own.

Regardless, even a less than stellar Moore book is more enjoyable than most ways to spend a Saturday. And, no, I’m not going to list those above it. As always, he gets points on total creativity and appreciation for pushing the bounds of what a story can be. Sometimes things just don’t gel well.

The Works of William Harvey (Classics in Biology and Medicine)

The Works of William Harvey (Classics in Biology and Medicine) - Some people study to achieve success. Or fame. Or a sense of accomplishment. Or to post stuff on Goodreads. Harvey is one of those rare individuals who studied simply out of his love of learning. After his publication of the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, he faced severe criticism for his proposition that the arteries and veins formed a closed loop for blood circulation in the body. He refused to accept the millennia of established authority starting with Aristotle and Galen regarding the diffusion of blood through the body. Instead, he detailed his observations and experiments from which he drew his arguments.

Afterward, and years later, a good friend of his had an opportunity to review his collection of other observations which would later be published as On Generation. Reluctantly, Harvey agreed for the world to have access to his private stash of notes and learning. A world which had punished him before for his diligence and vision.

In many ways, for the modern reader (and most likely lay reader), the man is more interesting than the works. Even if we can’t follow the significance of all of Harvey’s observations, we can appreciate the discipline and drive needed to create these volumes.
The Culture of Make Believe - Derrick Jensen Jensen catalogs atrocities. Done by corporations, nations and individuals. Though divided into chapters, the substance of the book meanders through the same general theme. We are destroying what sustains us and that is madness. Mixing personal anecdotes and impressive research, Jensen’s book is part call-to- action and part self-discovery. He analyzes himself, and others, in the hope of seeing the deeply rooted “transparent bonds” which cause us to act in self-destructive ways.

I’m not sure what I really walked with after reading The Culture of Make Believe. More evidence of society’s failings. More examples of human selfishness. More stories of bigotry and oppression. Maybe for those enamored with the American ideal, this book would serve as an eye-opening read. But we all live in a cynical age. I’m not sure if such sieges on white picket houses are really the productive radical writings needed. There’s always value in reassessing why we think what we do, but isn’t the real goal to inspire change?

Tearing down the world isn’t that difficult. Many already believe in the current and historical destructiveness of greed, production and waste. Shouldn’t the real discussion be on how we change, and persuade others to do the same, before we destroy ourselves?

Law, Liberty, and Psychiatry: An Inquiry into the Social Uses of Mental Health Practices

Law, Liberty and Psychiatry - Thomas Stephen Szasz We choose. Szasz is uncompromising in this belief. We are not machines and thus we always have some choice in how we act- hence we are always responsible for our conduct. pg. 135. Szasz took this position 50 years ago in response to the criminal justice system’s attempt to find causal connections to criminal behavior. A trend that has heightened beyond anything he had to deal with in his time. Today we have drug courts, mental health courts, veteran’s courts, and the list goes on and will multiply as time passes. All motivated, in Szasz’s opinion, to escape the undeniable truth of what this system does. It punishes.

However, punishment is something we, as a society, have become increasingly uncomfortable in doing. We mask our true intent behind catch-phrases for rehabilitation, protection of the public and treatment. It’s easier to judge a man if you view him as inferior. And mental illness has become a term of classification to encourage oppression.

Szasz is relentless in damning the forensic psychiatrists who have blurred their responsibilities of treating patients with assessing their patient’s risk to society. The use of mental health “treatment” facilities as alternatives to prison have become the preferred tool of oppression. An excellent example can be seen in the civil commitments of sex offenders who are deemed dangerous after finishing their prison sentences. All under the guise of commitment, and not imprisonment, people can be locked away for the rest of their lives as they receive “treatment“. If you think this is hyperbole, look at Wisconsin State Statute Chapter 980. Other states have their versions too. Psychiatrists have become wardens.

Szasz is also equally blunt in how to address these issues. If we have lock up someone against their will, we must take responsibility for why we do so. If we do not like the choices a manic schizophrenic makes, we imprison them. Maybe it’s a prison, treatment facility or hospital. But it’s still imprisonment. Szasz challenges us to make our prisons humane places instead of carving out supposedly humane facilities for those who we sympathize. By making separate facilities, we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t oppressing people. We comfort ourselves with our sensitivity and pride ourselves on our humane dispositions. We lie to ourselves.

In this age of political correctness, it’s important to have thinkers like Szasz. Thinkers who remind us that changing the way we discuss things can be an instrument for positive change but it can also mask, and further complicate, the societal faults we are unwilling to face.
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican - Galileo Galilei, Stephen Jay Gould, Stillman Drake, Albert Einstein, John L. Heilbron Salviati, Sagredo and Simplicio serve as Galileo’s vehicles to discuss the conflict between the Ptolemic/ Aristotelian universe and the Copernican. Separated into discussions over four days, Salviati is Galileo’s proxy as he disassembles Simplicio’s geocentrism to win over the undecided Sagredo.

The first day is a lively debate which sets the stage for the intellectual battle between established “scientific” belief and the persuasiveness of observable and geometric facts. With only polite restraint, Salviati rips apart the philosophers who intellectualize the world for structure instead of those who observe and interact with it to understand it. As the days progress, Salviati relies more and more upon the geometric proofs which support his position which make it difficult for those not geometrically inclined to follow the conversation. Unfortunately, the geometry eventually supersedes the writing. However, I am the first to admit that this is the weakness of the reader (like me) and not the book.

As a fairly accessible, well-documented (if not oftentimes incorrect) and engaging scientific work, it’s undoubtedly an excellent and seminal work. But if we look at this as literature, which it attempts to be through its dialogue format, it falls apart as it relies more heavily on geometric diagrams than words.
Lake of the Long Sun - Gene Wolfe Gods are unmasked and revolution foments as Wolfe continues to follow Patera Silk. Skillfully, Wolfe unfolds the mysteries behind the Whorl. The self-restraint pays off because the story maintains suspense as the book ends. Impressive imagination does not overwhelm the characters and I find it hard to cast aside the fortunes of Silk and his rabble. It’s hard to get a grasp on my overall impression of the story because both the first and second (this book) seem much more like contributing sections of a whole rather than plots with independent identities.
Shakespeare's Sonnets - William Shakespeare Shakespeare writes of making babies, the beauty of youth and the destructive influence of the “Dark Lady.” There were a couple of lines from the “Dark Lady” selection that were evocative but, for me, most of the sonnets just jumped too high and fell flat.
Railsea - China Miéville The whale is a moldeywarpe, the ocean is an endless expanse of rail and Captain Ahab is gender switched and anagrammed to become Abacat Naphi. Once again, Mieville delivers an outstanding tale- this time in a re-imagined version of Moby Dick. A tribute to the near anagrammed Melville.

However, this is no Ctrl F, Replace with cut and paste job. Melville adds new themes and motivations. The most ingenious is taking the metaphor of Moby Dick and making Railsea‘s Captain Naphi aware of it by describing her own hunt for Mocker-Jack as her “philosophy.”

Unsurprising to Mieville fans, he again delights in wordplay and bold new worlds. Railsea is a bit less dense than some of his other works and has been tagged as a Young Adult novel by many. I’m not sure I would describe it as Young Adult, but there is definitely an innocence to it; though it should not deter even the self-described hardcore who enjoy speculative fiction.

De Magnete

De Magnete - William Gilbert Three hundred plus pages on how a magnet works. Unsurprisingly, not the most irresistible reading, but it’s a book that has to be appreciated for the time in which it was written. Detailed in his observations and specific in how to recreate his experiments, Gilbert scientifically debunks and discovers the secrets of the loadstone. Rubbing garlic on it doesn’t diminish its magnetic properties (true), heat will destroy a magnet (sort of true, if heated to Curie temp, but it’s reversible), and the planets circle the sun because of magnetism (wrong, but still impressive in that the heliocentric argument inspired Galileo).

Gilbert also spurred the use of the word electricity, and recognized it as a separate force from magnetism, when discussing the static electricity amber produces when rubbed (electricus is the Latin for “amber-like”). Even the layman like myself can appreciate the foundation Gilbert lays for those who would shortly follow him. Toward the end, it gets a bit detailed in how to reconstruct magnetic tests which I wasn’t about to do. I’m a product of my time and I recall a lot of the basics from my 5th grade science class. Ultimately, for the 21st century, it’s a long book about magnets.
Henry VIII (Shakespeare, Pelican) - Stephen Orgel, William Shakespeare Though questionably a collaboration, I hope it was. Henry VIII is somewhat lackluster in comparison to Shakespeare’s commonly thought of last play The Tempest. In a rather perfunctory manner, Queen Elizabeth and her successor, King James, are honored in this play centering on Henry’s quest for an heir. Funny how, in retrospect, Elizabeth’s birth can be viewed a s a triumph while at the time it was considered the first of a string of disappointments ultimately leading to Ann Boleyn’s beheading.

A perfect example of how history is written by the victors. Or for the victors.
Nightside of the Long Sun (Book of the Long Sun Series #1) - More of a long prologue than an independent story. The first of the four-book Long Sun series, Patera Silk is a naïve, but sympathetic guide, through Wolfe’s world of futuristic science and reinvented religion. I’m not sure I was thrilled with the book as a stand alone read, but I’m definitely intrigued with the setting Wolfe creates and how he will build on the characters and plotlines in the following books.

The Tempest (Barnes & Noble Shakespeare)

The Tempest - David Scott Kastan, Gordon McMullan, William Shakespeare It begins with a storm and ends with a promise of “calm seas, auspicious gales” Act 5, Scene 1, ln 314. Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book and in so doing suggests Shakespeare’s own impending exit from the world of playwriting.

Highly original, with no known source like most (if not all) of Shakespeare’s other plays, The Tempest was the last play he wrote on his own before the collaborations that followed. Filled with magic and treachery and love, it crams all of it into events which transpire over a few hours. During the course of the play, Prospero’s tyrannical nature becomes increasingly more justified until he becomes a stern, but fair, dispenser of power.

Sometimes there is no grand moral to take away. Sometimes there is no insight into human nature. Sometimes there is just a great story that‘s told well. That’s the Tempest.

The Winter's Tale (New Folger Library Shakespeare)

The Winter's Tale - William Shakespeare It’s Othello-lite. Jealousy without the evil and a focus on redemption instead of despair. Shakespeare starts by leading in with two Acts of tragedy then spins it into a romantic, sort of funny, comedy. It’s a pretty bold switch-up and it fits in with some of the other problem plays like Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida better than either the tragedies or comedies.

Autolycus steals the show in the way that only a good-natured rogue can. “Though I am not naturally honest, I am sometimes by chance,” Act 4, Scene 4, lns 838-839. is the sentiment that makes him the favorite. His transgressions are easily forgivable because everyone is usually better off for them.

Everyone, even the raging Leontes, is likeable to a degree in the end. It’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours though I didn’t get the same impact from this play as some of Shakespeare’s other plays. Then again, I probably wasn't meant to.
Cymbeline - Stephen Orgel, Peter Holland, William Shakespeare King Cymbeline is a supporting actor in his self-titled play. Around him whirl the plots of his queen, the petty violence of his step-son, the return journey of two prodigal sons, the romance of a princess with her low-born love, machinations of a mischievous lothario and a war thrown in for the heck of it.

Yeah, it’s a lot.

And it doesn’t really come together all that well. It’s pretty choppy and nonsensical at times. In an effort to include everything, nothing is really developed. However, like all of Shakespeare, it has it’s moments. Most notably, the dramatic efforts Iachimo takes to win his wager against Posthumus and the equally dramatic reveal at the end. The jailer in Act 5, Scene 4 also has some of the best lines in the play confined to his small part.

Many praise Imogen as one of Shakespeare’s greatest female characters. She is loyal without question and apparently devoted enough to run to her man even after he tries to have her assassinated. Not the most praiseworthy female role in Shakespeare in my opinion.

Finally, some of the best lines to take from Cymbeline, and the lines numerous subsequent artists have taken, come from the funeral in Act IV, Scene 2.
Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou the worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and at’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers, come to dust. lns. 258-263

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