Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Curious and Unaccountable Things

I don’t read enough books. So I set myself a silly goal of reading 'all' the great books of western literature over the period of the next decade or so.

Even though I had a relatively light few days, it was quite the struggle to get through the reading that I’d set myself to finish off this week. Not having most of these books in paper form and having my Kindle out of action at the moment means that I can only read when I’ve got my computer open, and there are so many distractions…

This Week:

The Odyssey of Homer
Books XVII-XX

The bit with the loyal hound was less moving than I remember, which is probably why there's so few decent allusions to the scene in the art world, but I think it's still important in the zeitgiest of the Odyssey. All the half-way decent bits of Homer have some decent art, so Argos is really missing out, by my reckoning.


In these chapters Odysseus begged food off some suitors, beat up a bum, bullied some maids and repeatedly lied to his wife while pretending to be a hobo, which are the sort of par-for-the-course things you do if you’re a Greek hero.


I found it interesting how Athena repeatedly works in these chapters to make the suitors seem worse than they might otherwise be in order to goad Odysseus into killing them, and also works to ensure that none of them have a change of heart and leave before things get real. A nice reminder that Greek gods have a lot in common with their heroes. I can’t help but feel sorry for some of the suitors who seem to have good intentions, or at least the inclination to act decently. Doesn’t seem to matter, though, they’re all going to get the chop.

Book XX ends with a nice little bit of set-up for what is to come: ‘The dinner indeed had been prepared amid merriment; it had been both good and abundant, for they had sacrificed many victims; but the supper was yet to come, and nothing can be conceived more gruesome than the meal which a goddess and a brave man were soon to lay before them, for they had brought their doom upon themselves.’

Of Friendship by Francis Bacon

Again with the smattering of Latin just to make life difficult for the non-Latinists among his readers (admittedly probably a small number in this day and age), but this time I could just about puzzle out the meanings. 

Bacon disagrees with Cicero that true friendships can only be had between equals, but admits that it’s hard for leaders to find true friends. He sees the benefits of friendship in helping to ease burdens of the mind, having another mind to help solve problems, and someone to help do things that one can’t. That all seems fair enough to me, but seems a bit cold; I’m sure there’s something in friendship for friendship’s sake that Cicero got but Bacon is missing out of.

What most interested me reading this in the wake of introspective Blaugust posts by a number of my friends over the last couple of days is how much importance Bacon puts on talking to someone about what's going on in your life: 
'Neither is this second fruit of friendship, in opening the understanding, restrained only to such friends as are able to give a man counsel; (they indeed are best;) but even without that, a man learneth of himself, and bringeth his own thoughts to light, and whetteth his wits as against a stone, which itself cuts not. In a word, a man were better relate himself to a statua, or picture, than to suffer his thoughts to pass in smother.' I find it encouraging to know that so many of my friends are talking about some of their deepest worries, their struggles with depression and illness and relationships. That Blaugust has been an opportunity for some to air their thoughts, not just to the ether but to a sympathetic audience, makes me happy and I think it would make Bacon happy too.

The last section has some real corkers of quotes, but I think the most applicable to my life right now has to be one which conveys the thoughts that sneak into my head with regularity when when reading philosophy like Bacon's:  ‘Reading good books of morality, is a little flat and dead.’

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Book Five, Chapters I to IV

Surprising nobody at all in the world, it turns out that the big twist was Monsieur le Maire is... Jean Valjean! I am shocked, shocked I tell you! I had to work pretty hard to stop myself from reading ahead this week, and only the knowledge that I hadn’t done my Euclidean reading yet and had a deadline to meet convinced me to take a break.

Elements by Euclid
Book II

Well, all I can really say is that I'm trying, but I find Euclid's language extremely inaccessible. If it weren't for the guide to read alongside the translation I'm pretty confident that I wouldn't be getting any of this. With the guide, almost all of it seems vaguely managable, I think I've got it all down, more or less, though I'm pretty lousy at making my gnomons work for me and I'm not having much fun doing so. I suspect that I'm not internalising all these propositions enough to be able to properly use them later on. Maybe I need to write more of them down, or something? Certainly I need to stop approaching Euclid late at night.

So many of these rules seem self-evident to someone with a basic understanding of geometry, but I probably have that from what my betters have managed to learn from Euclid, and I guess self-evidence is not enough for a mathematician after all.

I should really pay more attention to designing concise proofs. I always was lousy at making proofs.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Chapters 1-3

My recollections of Brave New World from having to study it (ok, I didn’t have to study it, I suppose, but I chose to anyway because I was just that sort of kid) were that I hated this book with a passion, but on this attempt I’m not getting those vibes so much, at least not yet. Yes, the storytelling seems lazy in the extreme, just dumping all this background on us effectively in monologue form, but for now I’m alright with it, the somewhat clinical nature of it really does seem to suit the setting down to a T. #punachieved

The multiple threaded conversations thing still gets my goat, though.

The Stats

This week we passed the milestone of 200 pages of epic poetry, and also 200 pages of Homer… I suspect the two may be related. By the time we finish the Odyssey next week I’ll have read more Homer than anyone else except Dickens during the project (and that’s a close run thing), as we’re about to go steaming past Nabokov.

Pages last week: 123
Pages so far: 1228

Week XXII:

This week we substitute Montaigne for Bacon, and slip a little Americana in there on the side, but apart from that we’re looking at a pretty similar looking week to the last one. There won’t be much time to really get into our groove, though, as this will be the last time that we revisit the Odyssey.

The Odyssey of Homer
#gbww #fiction #greek
Books XXI-XXIV (48 pages)

Time to finish up the Odyssey and finally put the first of our really decent-sized classical works to bed. It’s about to get real. Time to get rid of some suitors, make up with the wife and get good with the gods, methinks.

Elements by Euclid
#gbww  #mathematics #greek
Book III (25 pages)

I’m still struggling with the Elements, and that fact that this book is larger than the two previous can’t possibly be good news on that front. Wish me luck.

Death of Abraham Lincoln by Walt Whitman
#new #ggb #lecture #english #short
(10 pages)

This is apparently a transcription of an annual lecture that Whitman used to give on the anniversary of Lincoln’s death. We get to read Whitman’s magnum opus Leaves of Grass later on in the project, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him as anything other than a poet, and Whitman wrote the familiar O Captain, My Captain on the same topic, so I thought it might be an interesting diversion to try out his prose a little.

Of Idleness by Michel de Montaigne
#new #gbww #philosophy #french #reallyshort
(2 pages)

We return to Montaigne and actually get into some content this time. Time to see what all the fuss is about after that weasely little introduction that he foisted on us a few readings ago. It might be interesting to contrast him with Mr. Bacon, the other philosopher we’re reading bits and pieces from every now and then.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#not_gbww #fiction #french
Book Five, Chapters V to VIII (12 pages) 

I’m starting to regret digging into Brave New World just because that having it in the line-up is making us take Les Mis in such small bites, and Hugo waffles aren’t really made for nibbling, but better consumed in large, melancholy gulps. I can only assume that at some point in the near future M. le Maire will meet our dear Fantine, but who really knows?

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
#new #not_gbww #fiction #english
Chapters 4-5 (22 pages)

I find my mind refreshingly blank on details of what comes next in Brave New World, but I can only assume that Lenina and Bernard hang out a little and we get to find out a little more about Bernard’s bizarre non-conformist tendencies.

I’d love to have company reading one or more of the texts that I’m setting out to tick off of the list this week, so if you’re keen to join in, do let me know.

Blaugust writing prompts:
1) What have you been reading?
2) Have you ever hated something when forced to study it, but had it grow on you later?
3) How have you tried to expand your horizons lately?

1 comment:

Xenesis Xenon said...

I think you're more doggedly determined than I am to read things...I find I can't get through the heavy prose that was common in older works.