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.

 

The Spirit of Laws - Montesquieu, Thomas Nugent

I’m not sure what can compare in the West to The Spirit of Laws before its publication in 1748.  Sure, there were the Greeks.  Plato’s Republic and Laws were extensive dialogues on constructing political systems.  But those were primary intellectual exercises.  The debate was more about the ideal rather than the practical.  Plato made some comparisons of Athenian and Spartan systems, but he was not surveying systems, he was attempting to take what was best.  Aristotle was arguably more thorough with his comparisons of constitutions in Politics, however it’s all still done with the goal of maximizing the Greek notion of virtue.

Later, there was, of course, eponymous Machiavelli, with his own realpolitik approach to governance and his advice for the most effective prince.  Freedom being only useful in placating the governed.

Then there were the Englishmen:  Hobbes and Locke.  Hobbes, unrestrained by the virtue of the Greeks, had his own pragmatic advice for those serving as the authoritative leviathan.  But Locke was different.  He gave us a hint of what was to come with Montesquieu.  His empirical approach to epistemology, along with his second Treatise on Government, echo a hundred years later in this Frenchman’s work. 

Montesquieu built on Locke’s sketched out separation of powers principle to demonstrate the check such a system can serve on historically competing governmental interests.  Whether the overlying government is a form of monarchy, republicanism or despotism, there are three powers that must be assigned:  the executive, the legislative and the judicial.  Containing and balancing these powers define the government.  But Montesquieu did not come to his conclusions a priori like his ancient Greek predecessors.  He, like Locke, was much more Baconian. Montesquieu used induction and became a political empiricist.  He surveyed the world, ancient and modern (at that time) to provide examples to draw upon.  If there was any Greek he was most like, it's Herodotus.

Like Herodotus, his impressions of far-off lands sounds naïve to the modern ear.  His stereotyping of conniving Chinese, docile Indians, and unsophisticated Africans makes his writing cringe-worthy at times.  With such general assumptions, he constructed theories of how governance in those lands must be adaptable to the character of its' people and climate.  Though fundamentally flawed in his understanding of foreign cultures, it was still an impressive attempt at recognizing that unique cultures may benefit the most from different approaches.  There is no universal “best” government.  Montesquieu was probably the first political anthropologist.

His discussions of Europe fare much better for the modern reader.  He walks the reader through countless Frankish, German and English examples of government.  Almost all of Volume II is a historical walkthrough from the Greeks and Romans to a couple generations after Charlemagne.  I’m not sure what his points are, or even if had any, but it is an impressive summary of European political development.

He thought slavery was generally bad, but made exceptions.  Based on climate.  And skin color.  Oh yeah, and he thought women weren't really up to the task of much outside the home. These ideas are not going to win many converts today.  But much can be taken from Montesquieu based on what you want.  His writings inspired the American Revolutionaries and the autocrat Catherine the Great.  Few books can accommodate such an ideological range.  His presence is still felt today.  Though we may question our ability to implement his better ideas, many still cherish the concept of separation of power and checks and balances.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany - William L. Shirer

This monster work by Shirer is a valuable relic.  As a journalist in Europe during Hitler’s rise, he brought a personal perspective to his history of the Third Reich.  He attended Nazi rallies and was inundated, along with the rest of Germany, by the Goebbels' propaganda apparatus.  He was present when Hitler accepted the surrender of France in the same railcar in which the Treaty of Versailles was signed.  The Third Reich he saw, and wrote about, was a clan-like cluster of misfits who captured the imagination and hopes of a country.


This is not a military history, it’s a psychological one.  Specific discussions of tactics and troop movements are glossed over.  The focus is on the bluffing, the bullying and relentless manipulation.  In compelling detail, he writes about the men:  Hitler’s ravings, Mussolini's docility, Goering’s avarice and many, many more.  It’s a fantastic record of motivations and personalities.  The war is just a backdrop for the increasing megalomania and corruption in the Reich.   Heavily annotated, Shirer is more interested in anecdote than historical objectivity.


I can’t recommend this book enough.  It’s not only historically important, but fascinating as well.  An unapologetic reminder of how the will of a determined few can cause incalculable destruction and that, despite all noble intentions, violence is never that far away.

             
Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It - David M. Ewalt

If you’ve ever made a saving throw against a Beholder, tried to justify a thief in plate mail or lied to your friends on how you were able to roll a natural 18 for both strength and dexterity, most Of Dice and Men will be a rehash.  A nostalgic D&D walkabout.  For the uninitiated… well, they probably won’t read it anyway.

Ewalt’s done his homework. In addition to talking about his rediscovery of the game, he gives a light history of the Gygaxian empire.  To mix things up, there are some tedious asides which dramatize Ewalt’s game experiences, but it’s a minor fault.  It's a little too "let me tell you about my character" for my tastes.  His history spans the evolution of the game from Arneson’s basement Blackmoor campaign, to the founding of TSR in Lake Geneva , to the playtesting of D&D Next.  Anyone with a favorite d20 will appreciate this story of the men who gave it a purpose.

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

There’s a lot of hype about these books and the TV series.   And for good reason.  This is some old time epic action.  Martin’s version of the Wars of the Roses plays out on his very British-looking island of Westeros.  In fitting tribute, he has Lannister and Stark in place of Lancaster and York.  Yet this is no hack historical rip-off.  Martin buries within his world a deep sense of unique history and place. 

Don’t come looking for intricate metaphors or meandering prose.  This is straight up storytelling.  And Martin does a great job.

The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability - Peter Kornbluh September 11th not only resonates for Americans. On September 11, 1973 the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile was bombed killing the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. An attack conducted by the Chilean armed forces led by Augusto Pinochet.

But The Pinochet Files is not so much a history of Allende or Pinochet. It’s a U.S. history book. It’s a history of U.S. involvement in inciting, enabling and ultimately supporting the brutal military junta which replaced a democratically elected president. It’s a story of the CIA’s involvement and America’s realpolitik justification. It’s another chapter in the duplicitous history of U.S. foreign affairs which undermines our repeated empty rhetoric of moral action. It’s another reason why we earned the world’s contempt.

The full extent of CIA involvement is still debated which, since it’s an organization defined by obfuscation, must make it a difficult opponent. However, Kornbluh does an admirable job sifting through declassified, though redacted, documents to support his claims. Dozens of pages after each chapter shows his photocopied original sources. It makes for compelling arguments and distressing truths.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History - Bret Witter, Robert M. Edsel With imperial authority, the Nazi’s repatriated German works traded away in World War I and plundered the nationalist works of the countries which fell to them. After the landings in Italy and Normandy, a small group of Allied soldiers were given the task to restore the balance. Middle aged scholars in uniform crisscrossed the Western Front to find and preserve Europe’s artistic heritage. To save what they could.

The handful of men which made up the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives operation were dispersed to different divisions and often worked alone. Speeding from site to site and enlisting local help to protect what they could. Edsel creates a compelling account of this vagabond group of scholar soldiers. He shows the war through their eyes by using personal letters and reports. Purists may have issue with Edsel’s use of dialogue in parts since it is clearly an authorial invention. I get it. It kind of bothered me, too. However, he does so minimally and in parts of little substance. He warns ahead of time that his use of dialogue was simply to help flesh out the personalities of the men. Additionally, Edsel assures the reader that such embellishments are justifiably documented.

This is not written as a textbook so don’t expect just a barrage of facts. Though there is no shortage of them. It is intended to be a story of the men who participated in this little known war effort. Men who brought a different perspective to the horror of war. They had built their careers on recognizing and appreciating beautiful things. And they brought that gentle nature to one of the most violent conflicts in the history of mankind. Even the one most well-adapted to military life, Robert Posey, seemed to stand apart. He thrived on the discipline and the regimented lifestyle. However, in one of his letters home to his wife, Alice, he writes:
”Perhaps I am just a softie. When I am billeted in a German home even for one night I go out and search for the chickens and rabbits or pets and give them water and food if possible. Generally the family has pulled out too rapidly to care for such things. I suppose the stern and the cruel ones rule the world. If so, I shall be content to try to live each day within the limits of my conscience and let great plaudits go to those who are willing to pay the price for it.” Pg. 338
They were the Renaissance men of the mid-20th century.



Tom Jones - Henry Fielding, Ross Hamilton Clever, Mr. Fielding, clever. In anticipation of criticism of his work, he dedicates the first chapter of Book XI to future critics. He lays on a guilt trip. Then he tacks on a quote from Shakespeare for added effect:
Besides the dreadful mischiefs done by slander, and the baseness of the means by which they are effected, there are other circumstances that highly aggravate its atrocious quality; for it often proceeds from no provocation, and seldom promises itself any reward, unless some black and infernal mind may propose a reward in the thoughts of having procured the ruin and misery of another. Shakespeare hath nobly touched this vice when he says,

“Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and hath been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that WHICH NOT ENRICHES HIM,
BUT MAKES ME POOR INDEED.” (pg. 463, and slightly altering Othello Act 3, Scene 3.)

Makes it’s kind of hard to say anything bad without feeling like a total ass.

This is a hefty volume. A long story about a boy who loves a girl, a girl who loves a boy, all the things keeping them apart and all the women the boy has “diversions” with in the meantime. Tom is virtuous at heart, but flawed enough to dance between those readers who hope for his redemption and those that think he’s a hypocrite. I suppose there’s another type too. I can’t help picturing a nerdy English-major frat house high-fiving at this pre-Victorian player. Fielding wants us to like to Tom, but not be happy with him. His failings are meant to retain humanity and highlight his admirable qualities. Similarly, each of Fielding’s characters are a mix in various measure. Some better than others, but none perfect (with the possible exception of an over-idealized Sophia). Fielding undercuts the value of social convention. He would rather us admire the humble and sincere over the chaste and superficial. For Fielding, perfection is a classical ideal, but it’s in redemption where we experience grace. As the Man of the Hill succinctly states:
True it is, that philosophy makes us wiser, but Christianity makes us better men. Philosophy elevates and steels the mind, Christianity softens and sweetens it. The former makes us the objects of human admiration, the latter of Divine love. That insures us a temporal, but this an eternal happiness. pg. 382.
Though I have no desire to filch Fielding of his good name, the story just drags. Quite simply, it’s just too long at 800 pages and I stopped caring. It became obstacles for the sake of obstacles. Overcoming each one did not produce any recognizable change in the characters until the end. It was a good couple hundred pages at the beginning and a good one hundred pages at the end, but it was a long slog between those two points.
The Essential Calvin and Hobbes - Bill Watterson I still remember that moment when his eyes began to glaze over. In all fairness, he had been at work all day, dinner was ready and I had already gone on for ten minutes. Which was a shame because I had finally reached the critical turning point. The Knights of Castle Dresser were looking down in despair at the surprise arrival of Roman legions in my model Dragonship. From the Eastern Hall they had sailed with their Viking crew to besiege the bottom drawer.

I’m sure it’s partly my fault my dad had lost interest. It’s difficult for an 8 or 9 year old to explain the intricacies of the Gobot-Greek alliance or the splendor of Castle Grayskull as the center of Imperial Rome after the fall of He-Man. But this was the key moment. Thinking frantic hand gestures would add drama, I tried to explain the tactical genius of Boba Fett in an X-Wing Fighter leading the United States Air Force to save the beleaguered Knights of the Dresser. To no avail. I had lost him to the pot roast.

I assume every kid has a similar moment. When the realization hits that the imaginative worlds in your head may not be as interesting to everyone else. I don’t know to what degree that’s normal or not. I’ve given up a long time ago trying to figure out those lines. But it’s a lonely moment. To feel alone in that so vivid world.

A few years later, I discovered Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin who was so enviably oblivious and totally immersed in the worlds of his own making. Reading it then, and reading it now, sends me back. Letting my imagination once again soar over bedroom battlefields, strange cities and alien landscapes of my own planet Gloob. But I don’t have to do it alone anymore. Spaceman Spiff is my co-pilot.


Four Novels of the 1960s - Philip K. Dick, Jonathan Lethem Sloppy brilliance rattles down from these pages. Despite the loose springs and unattached gear or two, the stories tick on. Dick desperately tries to keep up with his own handiwork as his imagination outpaces the writing.

All the stories revolve around the thought that reality is not real. Whether it’s the alternate reality of an alternately real world like in The Man in the High Castle, the drug-induced dollhouses of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or the half-life in Ubik , we are constantly challenged to question what we experience in our world. Of course, there are no answers and the questions are nothing new. But Dick’s writing deftly makes us re-wonder in a way that makes it all seem fresh and unexplored. Maybe the point is not to know. Maybe we simply are all engaged in the Sisyphean walk of Wilbur Mercer. Maybe the question is all there is and, in zen-like contemplation, we are to wonder Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It may not all be the most well thought out writing or the most expertly packaged, but it’s good. Really, really good. This is the stuff that you are left thinking about for weeks afterward. And which causes you to inspect your golden retriever for a secret electronic access panel. Or maybe that was just me.
Ice and Fire - David Wingrove It’s in this fourth book in which the series seems to hit its stride. The main players become more defined and there is finally more focus on character development rather than world building. The three previous books feel like they were just a long introduction into what looks like will be the main storyline. Now that we have a sense of the world in which Chung Kuo is set, Wingrove seems to settle in. The concurrent plots begin to breathe a little and come to life.
The Middle Kingdom - David Wingrove Now past the prequels, The Middle Kingdom begins about 100 years where Daylight on Iron Mountain left off. A new cast of characters is introduced. The legacy of the main characters from the prequels is so muted I’m not sure there was much point in learning about them. It takes awhile to get a feel for who is relevant in this new cast, but it starts to come together well at the end. Anyway, this is a massive and respectable undertaking by Wingrove and I will patiently wait and see how this all plays out.


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In my review for Daylight, I questioned why Wingrove did not use Pinyin. Coincidentally, at the back of this book, Wingrove provides an explanation for his use of the Wade-Giles phonetics. He believes it is a more elegant, softer and poetic system. Since he put it that way, I see it as well.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Laurence Sterne, Robert Folkenflik
Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk- so little to the stock?

Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?

Are we for ever twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track- for ever at the same pace? Chap. 1, Volume 5, pg. 273.
Say what you will- love it, hate it, ignore it- Sterne created something unique and groundbreaking with Tristram Shandy. He made something new. Something to add to the stock of literature.

But I found it tedious and really not that enjoyable. I know I’m not supposed to say that. I know it sets me up to be disregarded as a short attention-span rattled clod. But it’s true. Which doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what Sterne did; especially in the time in which he did it. He used stream of consciousness. He used references to Locke and Shakespeare. He demonstrated that time is unique to the individual and the richness of one’s life is too big for a book. He was, in the most over-used academic shorthand slang of the last decade, meta. Which is all pretty impressive today… let alone the 18th century.

But it’s still tedious. Stern disregarded convention in a whirlwind of whimsy. Conversations blend together in sentence structure hell. Spastic shifts in topics leave the reader constantly disoriented. His themes are never fully explored. Plot is secondary to digressions and quirky tangents.

“Read slowly,” I’m told by fans of the book. Savor, re-read and let yourself get carried away. This is the advice needed to appreciate the book. But why? Some books are slow going because of the weight of the ideas. Some are just written poorly. Here, Sterne is being purposefully obscure. His inspiration is Rabelais, and it shows. Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel was an oversized, satirical absurdity. Sterne simply dispenses with the satire. He’s just messing with us. And he even tells us that. He says it’s a “cock and bull” story. He’s not even trying to suggest there’s anything more. It’s a self-contained creation for the sake of creation. I guess, in that way, it’s the very definition of art.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed Easter Egg hunts and savored the jelly beans I’d find in the plastic conjoined half-ovals hidden in couch cushions and mailboxes. I’d even eat the crappy black ones. The fruits (or fruit tasting fruits) of the hunt. That’s what Tristram Shandy is to me.

Daylight on Iron Mountain

Daylight On Iron Mountain  - David Wingrove The second of the prequels to the original, and now rewritten, Chung Kuo series. This series is probably the most ambitious I’m aware of in future world-building. China rules everything in a way which makes Orwell’s Oceania look like dictator day-camp. Though not nearly comparable in nuance to 1984, Wingrove nevertheless designs a sprawling dystopia.

This is more epic writing than character driven. Characters slide in and out of the story for their significance to the plot more so than to drive it. Which is okay as long as you go into it expecting it. I never read the original series, so things may change once out of the prequel novels, but so far it seems like a massive attempt to imagine an over-the-top, Chinese dominated future. Firefly fans can think of this as backstory.

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As a side note, though it probably won’t matter to most, Wingrove chooses to use the Wade-Giles spelling instead of Pinyin when he incorporates Mandarin into the story. It seems oddly anachronistic to use an outdated spelling for a book about the future. It’s surprisingly distracting.


A Naked Singularity (Paper) - Sergio De La Pava Much like the title suggests, themes collapse in on themselves in De La Pava’s self-published 700 page novel. It revels in digressions and ambiguity. Maybe a little too self-consciously at times and there’s definitely some obscurantism going on. What was left unanswered for me at the end was whether it was done to mask the lack of cohesion in themes or whether I’m just an idiot.

Casi is a public defender and De La Pava gets the voice spot on. Which makes sense. De La Pava is a public defender as well. From the first 40 pages where Casi is working late night bail hearings, to the trial transcripts, to the meetings with clients, to the battles with the court and DA, he captures the essence of the job. Though he brushes on several layers of wit to make it all look a lot more clever.

But that’s not really what the book is about. Even though it gives some great commentary on the death penalty and justice in general, it’s background noise. The plot evolves into something more page-turning and can’t-put-down worthy though I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers. But that’s not really what the book is about either.

It’s in the digressions where the book really seeks its soul. Lengthy passages on the boxer Willifred Benitez, moments with family, non sequiters with the dudes living down the hall and the subtle influence of Television (yes, I capitalized it because he does). It’s about the pursuit of perfection which in turn is the pursuit of meaning which gets boiled down to the pursuit of our own role in all of this. A search for identity in the noise.

For the philosophy junkie, there are plenty of references which can add a layer or two and justify a major. Some explicit rationalist vs. empiricist conversations are at play through most of the book. Tantalizingly, there is a vague shift in Casi’s view and the events in the book which seemed best summed up here:
David Hume was his favorite Alyona once said. This was during one of our first real conversations, at the end of which I think we exchanged keys to our respective apartments although I almost immediately misplaced his. I said I guessed there was nothing wrong with Hume provided it was acknowledged that Descartes was The Man. At the end of the conversation I went home and made this list:

1. Descartes
2. Kant
3. Wittgenstein
4. Kripke
5. Lewis
6. Hume

A list which I would now strenuously disagree but I am merely reporting what it was at the time.Pg. 499
There’s a lot which can be read into A Naked Singularity without getting too pulled away from what is a fairly compelling plot in the middle. Sure, I would have preferred having a better sense of what de La Pava was after in the end, but there’s plenty left to chew on even if it wasn’t what he prepared.

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Note: I was impressed I wrote this without mentioning Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace.
Gulliver's Travels (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (B&N Classics) - Jonathan Swift
Here my master, interposing, said it was a pity, that creatures endowed with such prodigious abilities of mind as these lawyers, by the description I gave of them, must certainly be, were not rather encouraged to be instructors of others in wisdom and knowledge. In answer which I assured his Honour, that in all points out of their own trade they were usually the most ignorant and stupid generation among us, the most despicable in common conversation, avowed enemies to all knowledge and learning, and equally disposed to pervert the general reason of mankind in every other subject of discourse, as in that of their own profession. Pg. 264
So that’s an easy target, but Swift doesn’t content himself with just the lay-up. He takes plenty of shots. The Whigs, the Tories, well… actually all the English, the French, the Church (and the Protestants), the Schoolmen, the natural scientists (and the unnatural scientists) and, by the time he’s done with the Houyhnhnms, everyone else. Swift and satire are pretty much synonymous nowadays. He uses Gulliver’s travels in Lilliput (the land of the small people), Brobdingnag (the land of the big people), Laputa and Balnibarbu (the land of the booksmart people) and the country of the Houhynhnms (the source of the famous Mr. Ed, of course, of course) to provide cover for the domestic issues he attacks and the people he ridicules. Best to read in conjunction with the endnotes and probably some Cliffnotes to catch all the references unless you have catalogued 18th century European social conditions in your head. Clever and increasingly harsh on the mess which we proudly proclaim as civilization.


An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (World's Classics) - David Hume, Peter Millican Hume is about as level-headed as they come. He is not interested in proving things, he just wants to be honest about what we can even attempt to understand. Some things can be understood intuitively or demonstratively. Like geometry, algebra or anything else discoverable by thought alone. Then there are some things that are matters of fact. The sun rises in the morning. It rained yesterday. Hume cares mostly about how we can know these matters of fact. Because it is these matters of fact which affect us on a daily basis.

Through our senses we experience the world. As we gain experience, we learn to expect certain things. Therefore, we use induction to come to tentative conclusions. For example, the sun has risen every morning which I can remember, therefore it will rise tomorrow. There is no mental process which makes it so. We know this solely from cataloguing our experience with the world. It is a rational process, but one not based in any a priori truth. It is based on experience.

Hume accepts, without trying to explain why, that we can only make rational inferences based on our experiences. We don’t even know for sure if our experiences are accurate, but it’s the best we can do. He’s applying the scientific method to human nature. We work from a hypothesis on what we should do and how we should behave and wait until it’s disproven. Hume is not promoting metaphysics, he’s just looking for a clear understanding of how we can operate within the world we experience. He’s probably one of the first documented agnostics.

Widely held to be the last in the triumvirate of British empiricists (along with Locke and Berkeley), he synthesizes their position in clear and precise language. Though in many ways the Enlightenment philosophers broke with the Aristotelian scientific and metaphysical tradition, I can’t help seeing some parallels between Hume’s Enquiry and the underlying purpose of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Neither really try to explain the world, they just help us fumble along within it. Sometimes it’s nice to hear someone else say that nobody really knows anything, so let’s stop pretending.




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