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Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

Ferguson contends that today’s financial world is the result of four millennia of economic evolution. It is very important to the aims of this book that this metaphor is accepted. Ferguson looks at this evolution of money into the complicated financial ecosystem of today. He explores how money mutated into new tools/organisms and acquired characteristics that allowed it to meet the needs of its users/demands of its environment better. The tools that helped men make even more money or harness their own energies more efficiently were selected for as ‘fittest’ and soon took over the monetary environment.

This happened in fits and starts:

First came the invention of money itself, which is not given much attention to, probably because it is too shrouded in the mists of time (and also because the West has no unique claim on it, at any of its stages – even the more advanced forms). Then it started mutating into its various forms, conquering and occupying various niches according to functionality.

And according to Ferguson, the civilizations who had access to these new and more efficient tools were hugely benefitted and in many cases were at a decisive advantage, down to our day.

The Evolutionary Stages

1. Banks

Money, once it allowed quantification of the value of transactions soon led naturally to delayed payments and then to the institutions of lending and borrowing. These slowly grew to become banks, clearing houses for ever larger aggregations of borrowing and lending.

2. Bonds

The rulers and the lords were the biggest customers of the banks. In time governments that figured out how to utilize the credit market best thrived and their innovations led to government bonds and securitization of streams of interest payments. This matured into full-fledged bond markets by the 13th century. The rulers had great incentive to protect and regulate this amazing new source of funding! This led those governments most dependent on these markets to institute regulated public markets so as to maintain stability and security of transaction, which was in their own best interests. Transaction and discovery costs reduced drastically and areas with such markets proved extremely useful to their rulers, who could no raise money for wars much more effectively. Battles were now to be won and lost in the bond markets.

3. Stock Markets

By the seventeenth century, corporations started aping the states, a process that was not limited to only financial matters, and started to raise equity through share markets. This could only develop first in areas with already well developed bond markets and public markets and thus gave them a further advantage — the advantage derived from the financial tools now extended from wars to trade and industry. The West was rising buoyed by its financial innovations, in Ferguson’s view.

4. Insurance

With the institutions of bonds and shares prospering, the next step was to use the market to spread risk out. insurance funds and then pension funds exploited economies of scale and the laws of averages to provide financial protection against calculable risk. The corporations now had another decisive advantage in being able to have access to protection against risk and in a world where financial risk was the biggest danger any advantage there could prove world-conquering. The accumulation of financial innovations had already tipped the balance for the West and was now on its way to helping them conquer the world.

5. Real Estate

With the rise of more innovative instruments such as futures, options and other derivatives, it was now possible to increase leverage, not only for governments and corporations, but also for individual households. With government encouragement they soon increased their leverage and used that to invest more and more in real estate. This helped the western countries to have a larger and larger propertied class helping them to transition the into property-owning democracies, which, according to Ferguson, are the most robust sort.

6. Imperialism and Globalization: The Justified Culmination

Now we come to the crux of the narrative — Economies that combined all these institutional innovations – banks, bond markets, stock markets, insurance and property-owning democracy – performed better over the long run than those that did not, because financial intermediation generally permits a more efficient allocation of resources than, say, feudalism or central planning. The financial ecosystem evolved in the West was the best suited for governance and for human civilization in general. And it is for this reason that the Western financial model tended to spread around the world, first in the guise of imperialism, then in the guise of globalization, and has been vital for all sorts of progress achieved around the world — from the advance of science, the spread of law, mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap.

Ferguson has narrated the history of money as a financial evolution and thus given it the air of inevitable complexity and of progress. This makes it seem like the adoption of the ‘evolved’ financial system first by the West and them by the Rest is but a logical and inevitable choice that is for the best of the world at large.

It is noteworthy that Ferguson makes a point of using elaborate evolutionary metaphors to project the history of financial institutions in a Darwinian light.

Why?

According to this interpretation, financial history is essentially the result of institutional mutation and natural selection: Random ‘drift’ (innovations/ mutations that are not promoted by natural selection, but just happen) and ‘flow’ (innovations/mutations that are caused when, say, American practices are adopted by Chinese banks) play a part. There can also be ‘co-evolution’, when different financial species work and adapt together (like hedge funds and their prime brokers).

But market selection is the main driver. Financial organisms are in competition with one another for finite resources. At certain times and in certain places, certain species may become dominant. But innovations by competitor species, or the emergence of altogether new species, prevent any permanent hierarchy or monoculture from emerging. Broadly speaking, the law of the survival of the fittest applies. Institutions with a ‘selfish gene’ that is good at self-replication and self-perpetuation will tend to proliferate and endure.

As we can see there are certain key themes here:

a. That the survived institutions have to accepted as ‘fittest’ under Ferguson’s interpretation, and

b. That ‘selfishness’ of institutions/genes are rewarding for the species/humanity in the long run. So we should encourage the selfish imperialism of countries/the globalization of corporations today.

These are specious themes that are present in this book with a specific agenda, trying to escape notice by being presented in pseudoscientific light. And as we have seen from our discussion of how Ferguson uses the history of finance to show us how Imperialism was a good thing for the rest of the world, we can safely slot this book as another among Ferguson’s life-long attempts to come up with innovative apologetics for Empire.

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Posted by on June 7, 2015 in Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Thoughts

 

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Wishing Yourself A Good Night

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of SleepDreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

My Rating★★★☆☆

Wishing Yourself A Good Night

What do you do when you really don’t have much to tell on a subject, especially when you care a lot about it? You tell anecdotes and try to keep it interesting. Most neuroscience books these days tend to be packed with anecdotes that are weird, but on which there is no scientific consensus. The reader is left to his/her own devices on what to make of all the stories. This book is not much different. It starts with an admission that we know next to nothing about sleep – the activity that occupies 1/3rd of our lives.

The author sets off an a quest to discover more about his own sleep conditions and finds that he has fallen into a strange rabbit hole that exists just on the other side the pillow, and which most of are never aware of.

Once I started really thinking about sleep for the first time, the questions came in waves. Do men sleep differently than women? Why do we dream? Why is getting children to fall asleep one of the hardest parts of becoming a new parent, and is it this hard for everyone around the world? How come some people snore and others don’t? And what makes my body start sleepwalking, and why can’t I tell it to stop? Asking friends and family about sleep elicited a long string of “I don’t knows,” followed by looks of consternation, like the expressions you see on students who don’t know the answers to a pop quiz. Sleep, the universal element of our lives, was the great unknown. And frankly, that makes no sense.

A few take aways:

1. The Need for sleep:

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. We don’t know about sleep, and the book opens with the most obvious question of all—why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

Here we hear many horror stories of sleep-deprivation: Within the first twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, the blood pressure starts to increase. Not long afterward, the metabolism levels go haywire, giving a person an uncontrollable craving for carbohydrates. The body temperature drops and the immune system gets weaker. If this goes on for too long, there is a good chance that the mind will turn against itself, making a person experience visions and hear phantom sounds akin to a bad acid trip. At the same time, the ability to make simple decisions or recall obvious facts drops off severely. It is bound to end in severe consequences – including death. It is a bizarre downward spiral that is all the more peculiar because it can be stopped completely, and all of its effects will vanish, simply by sleeping for a couple of hours.

2. The Amount of sleep:

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

3. The Stages of Sleep:

Researchers now say that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last stop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this type of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

4. The Ideal Pattern of Sleep (that you are not following):

Natural light is the way to go. Artificial light messes up your sleep patterns and the body pays for it in the long run. Post-Edison world has come close to banishing the night, but our bodies still live in a world where sun is the only source of light, and have all sorts of troubles processing artificial light induced sleep patters. More and more health problems are being tied to unnatural sleep patterns and Light Pollution.

Example: Electric light at night disrupts your circadian clock, the name given to the natural rhythms that the human body developed over time. When you see enough bright light at night, your brain interprets this as sunlight because it doesn’t know any better. The lux scale, a measure of the brightness of light, illustrates this point. One lux is equal to the light from a candle ten feet away. A standard 100-watt lightbulb shines at 190 lux, while the lighting in an average office building is 300 lux. The body’s clock can be reset by any lights stronger than 180 lux, meaning that the hours you spend in your office directly impact your body’s ability to fall asleep later. That’s because your body reacts to bright light the same way it does to sunshine, sending out signals to try to keep itself awake and delay the nightly maintenance of cleanup and rebuilding of cells that it does while you are asleep. Too much artificial light can stop the body from releasing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.

Poor sleep is just one symptom of an unwound body clock. Circadian rhythms are thought to control as many as 15 percent of our genes. When those genes don’t function as they should because of the by-products of artificial light, the effects are a rogue’s gallery of health disorders. Studies have linked depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer to overexposure to light at night. Researchers know this, in part, from studying nurses who have spent years working the graveyard shift. One study of 120,000 nurses found that those who worked night shifts were the most likely to develop breast cancer. Another found that nurses who worked at least three night shifts a month for fifteen years had a 35 percent greater chance of developing colon cancer. The increased disease rates could not be explained as a by-product of working in a hospital.

In one of the most intriguing studies, researchers in Israel used satellite photos to chart the level of electric light at night in 147 communities. Then, they placed the satellite photos over maps that showed the distribution of breast cancer cases. Even after controlling for population density, affluence, and other factors that can influence health, there was a significant correlation between exposure to artificial light at night and the number of women who developed the disease. If a woman lived in a place where it was bright enough outside to read a book at midnight, she had a 73 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than a peer who lived in a neighborhood that remained dark after the sun went down. Researchers think that the increased risk is a result of lower levels of melatonin, which may affect the body’s production of estrogen.

There could be more discoveries on the horizon that show detrimental health effects caused by artificial light. Researchers are interested in how lights have made us less connected to the changing of the seasons. “We’ve deseasonalized ourselves,” Wehr, the sleep researcher, said. “We are living in an experiment that is finding out what happens if you expose humans to constant summer day lengths.”

5. What Should Be Your Sleep Schedule?

In the Canterbury Tales, one of the characters in “The Squire’s Tale” wakes up in the early morning following her “first sleep” and then goes back to bed. A fifteenth-century medical book, meanwhile, advised readers to spend the “first sleep” on the right side and after that to lie on their left. And a scholar in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for serious study. Sleep, it seems, wasn’t always the one long block that we consider it today.

This natural mode of sleep sounds weird to the post-Edison world of artificial lights and 6 hour sleep cycles. But it was a fact of life that was once as common as eating breakfast.

For most of human history, every night, people fell asleep not long after the sun went down and stayed that way until sometime after midnight. This was the “first sleep” that kept popping up in the old tales. Once a person woke up, he or she would stay that way for an hour or so before going back to sleep until morning—the so-called second sleep. The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dreams, urinating, or having sex. The last one was perhaps the most popular.

Experiments confirm this tendency: Thomas Wehr, who worked for the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was struck by the idea that the ubiquitous artificial light we see every day could have some unknown effect on our sleep habits. On a whim, he deprived subjects of artificial light for up to fourteen hours a day in hopes of re-creating the lighting conditions common to early humans. Without lightbulbs, televisions, or street lamps, the subjects in his study initially did little more at night than sleep. They spent the first few weeks of the experiment like kids in a candy store, making up for all of the lost sleep that had accumulated from staying out late at night or showing up at work early in the morning. After a few weeks, the subjects were better rested than perhaps at any other time in their lives.

That was when the experiment took a strange turn. Soon, the subjects began to stir a little after midnight, lie awake in bed for an hour or so, and then fall back asleep again. It was the same sort of segmented sleep that Ekirch found in the historical records. While sequestered from artificial light, subjects were shedding the sleep habits they had formed over a lifetime. It was as if their bodies were exercising a muscle they never knew they had. The experiment revealed the innate wiring in the brain, unearthed only after the body was sheltered from modern life. Not long after Wehr published a paper about the study, Ekirch contacted him and revealed his own research findings.

Numerous other studies have shown that splitting sleep into two roughly equal halves is something that our bodies will do if we give them a chance. In places of the world where there isn’t artificial light—and all the things that go with it, like computers, movies, and bad reality TV shows—people still sleep this way. In the mid-1960s, anthropologists studying the Tiv culture in central Nigeria found that group members not only practiced segmented sleep, but also used roughly the same terms of first sleep and second sleep.

6. Sleep & Performance

The places where most of the cutting edge research happens and great places to understand the importance of sleep is the Military and Sports fields – areas where human excellence, endurance and performance is pushed to the limits. It stands to reason that these fields notice the effects of sleep problems first. Many sports teams now take great trouble to make sure Light is adjusted to natural cycles, athletes get the full quota of sleep, etc. It s only a matter of time before rest of popular culture catches on – just like many health ides, diets, exercises etc.

7. Sleep Timings Change with Age:

The three basic stages of adulthood—teenage, middle age, old age—have drastically different sleep structures. Teenagers going through puberty find it impossible to fall asleep early and would naturally sleep past ten in the morning if given the choice. Their grandparents often fall asleep early in the night, but then find that they can’t stay that way for more than three or four hours at a time. Middle-aged adults typically fall between the middle of these two extremes, content to fall asleep early when circumstances allow it, yet able to pull an all-nighter when a work project calls for it. These overlapping shifts could be a way to ensure that someone in the family is always awake and keeping watch, or at least close to it. In this ancient system, it makes sense that older adults who are unable to move as fast as the rest of the family are naturally jumpy, never staying in deep sleep for long, simply because they were the most vulnerable to the unknown.

The other stage – babyhood is a time with no sleep structure at all. They sleep and wake up independent of the light/circadian rhythms. To the eternal consternation of all parents!

So human society is biologically designed to live in different time zones?!

Biology’s cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o’clock at night isn’t just a drag, but close to a biological impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o’clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body’s demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone—and then do the same thing every night, for four years. If professional football players had to do that, they would be lucky to win one game.

8. What Sort of Bed Should You Choose?

The biggest question—whether a bed should be hard or soft—has a long and confusing history. In 2008, the medical journal Spine seemed to settle the question of firmness. It found that there was little difference in back pain between those who slept on hard mattresses and those who slept on softer ones. How hard a person likes his or her bed is a personal preference and nothing more.

In fact, the bed that you find the most comfortable will most likely be the one that you are already sleeping on.

9. Forget The Bed – Sleep Hygiene Is What You Need

While a comfortable mattress may have little impact when it comes to sleep quality, there are several other aspects of the bedroom that do. Taken together, they form what specialists call sleep hygiene. Most are common sense.

– No coffee before bed / in the evening

Nor is drinking alcohol before bedtime a smart move. Alcohol may help speed the onset of sleep, but it begins to take its toll during the second half of the night. As the body breaks down the liquid, the alcohol in the bloodstream often leads to an increase in the number of times a person briefly wakes up. This continues until the blood alcohol level returns to zero, thereby preventing the body from getting a full, deep, restorative sleep.

Developing a few habits with the circadian rhythm in mind will most likely make sleep easier. Adequate exposure to natural light, for instance, will help keep the body’s clock in sync with the day-night cycle and prime the brain to increase the level of melatonin in the bloodstream, which will then bring on sleepiness around ten o’clock each night.

By the same token, bright lights—including the blue-and-white light that comes from a computer monitor or a television screen—can deceive the brain, which registers it as daylight. Lying in bed watching a movie on an iPad may be relaxing, but the constant bright light from the screen can make it more difficult for some people to fall asleep afterward.

– Walk around your house and switch off all bright lights half an hour before you sleep, including the TV, the iPad and the laptop.

Recent studies have shown that body temperature also plays an outsized role in getting decent sleep. Takes steps to have a comfortable temperature: Take a cold shower, etc.

– Even a small increase in the amount of exercise a person gets leads to measurable improvements in the time that it takes to fall asleep and stay that way. This is particularly true for older adults.

10. The Effort Is Worth Your Time

But, though its effects were subtle, devoting extra time and attention to this most basic of human needs impacted nearly every minute of my day. Because I was improving my sleep, I was improving my life. And all it took was treating sleep with the same respect that I already gave other aspects of my health. Just as I wouldn’t eat a plate of chili-cheese fries every day and expect to continue to fit into my pants, I structured my life around the idea that I couldn’t get only a few hours of sleep and expect to function properly. If there was one thing that I took away from my talks with experts more than any other, it is that getting a good night’s sleep takes work.

And that work is worth it. Health, sex, relationships, creativity, memories—all of these things that make us who we are depend on the hours we spend each night with our heads on the pillow. By ignoring something that every animal requires, we are left turning to pills that we may not need, experiencing health problems that could be tamed, and pushing our children into sleep-deprived lives that make the already tough years of adolescence more difficult. And yet sleep continues to be forgotten, overlooked, and postponed. Any step—whether it comes in the form of exercise, therapy, or simply reading a book like this one—that helps us to realize the importance of sleep inevitably pushes us toward a better, stronger, and more creative life.

Sleep, in short, makes us the people we want to be. All you have to do is close your eyes.

In addition to all the sleep advice, the best part of the book was the full-fledged dissing of poor Freud: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, scientists could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. – “None of Freud’s claims are true by any of our standards today,” Domhoff said, dipping his spoon into his yogurt. “If you look at dreams—if you really look at them like we have—then you see that it’s all there, out in the open. You don’t need any of these symbols.” He went on. “Freudians got all caught up in the idea that there were hidden meanings to our dreams. But their interpretations only worked because we share a system of figurative language and metaphor.”

The Short Summary

Too Lengthy for your tastes? Would reading such a big review eat into your sleep quota for today? Here is a Quick Summary:

1. Sleep for eight hours. Sleep is the natural repair mechanism of the body. If we mess with it, we are bound to have repair related diseases – such as cancer.
2. Follow the natural cycle and your circadian Rhythms. Dont live in perpetual jet lag conditions.
3. Sleep by around 8-9 and wake up at around 12, go back to sleep by 1 and wake by around 4-5 (add 2 hours if possible on either side)
– if you are older, you will need to sleep earlier to be able to fill your quota. it will be almost impossible to sleep late into the day as you age.
4. Avoid artificial lights while sleeping, make sure you are exposed to natural light
5. Relax yourself before sleep, make sure you get some exercise every day.
6. Don’t indulge in dangerous/delicate activities when sleep deprived. Sleep well for high performance.
7. Sleep properly to be more healthy in general – it affects all sorts of things in your body.
8. Don’t impose your sleep patterns on the rest of your family, esp when they are of another age. Dont impose adult sleep patters on kids.
9. Make sure your naps are always 90 minutes or longer. Take naps before important activities, or when stressed.

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Posted by on September 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

***

I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

description

The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

description

“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Paradharmo Bhayaavahah: Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-RelianceSelf-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

My Rating★★★★☆

Shreyaan swadharmo vigunah paradharmaat swanushthitaat; 
Swadharme nidhanam shreyah paradharmo bhayaavahah. 
~ The Bhagavad-Gita, 3.35 (Chapter 3, Verse 35)

[Better is one’s own Dharma, though devoid of merit, than the Dharma of another well discharged. Better is even death in one’s own Dharma; to attempt the Dharma of another is fraught with danger.]

I felt that Self-Reliance is a book length homage to this verse. Emerson, while talking loftily of originality seems to have not the slightest compunction in drawing heavily from oriental philosophies to achieve the grandeur that is reflected in his thoughts and writings. Of course Emerson was no stranger to the beautiful verses of Gita nor to the Upanishads. Emerson and Thoreau, both, were greatly drawn by the philosophy of The Gita. As Thoreau says, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.” Emerson has also been vocal in his praise – “The Bhagavad-Gita is an empire of thought and in its philosophical teachings Krishna has all the attributes of the full-fledged monotheistic deity and at the same time the attributes of the Upanisadic absolute.”

I just wish that the book itself had a reference to The Gita and did not depend on my memory to make the connections. Self-Reliance is a great and inspirational work, but would have been the better for quoting its own inspirations.

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Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Nabokov’s Lolita: An Appreciation

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov

My Rating★★★★★

Qualifier:

Here is the review I had planned in my earlier rambling. I had half-hoped that I would brood over it, and in due time, some blazingly original understanding of the book would shine through in a review (as it usually does!). Now enough time has passed and I have even given the book a second go-over. I am still lost. So here, for your reading pleasure, is the second-hand review, the old mish-mash of familiar thoughts, the dusty talk about beauty and about confused morality and vague hints at some hidden depth. It is just table-talk as far as Lolita is concerned. Do you really want to read it? Why don’t you read a more intelligent counter-analysis here? I warned you —

Review:

Lolita should probably be read with a french dictionary in one hand and a glass of wine on the table side and even that doesn’t guarantee that you will understand the full beauty of the prose.

Only the beauty of the language distracts one enough to get through the head-over-heals atrocities that litter the pages. At times I felt strongly that it is more of a study in beauty and aesthetics than is it about morality or on examining the pathos of society – as we want every literary book to be.

The fact that it doubles as a weird post-apocalyptic parent-daughter road-trip, where they cruise on against the dark landscape of a morally devastated world was for me only a backdrop to the exquisite ode to beauty that the book was. But, the road-trip nevertheless occupies a central position in the narrative. The Appalachian roads are the witness to the worst of the perversions – the dark moral descent. And then the tide reverses and the same roads are traversed again in a mad descent of the intellect into madness. But somehow, in that second journey Humbert gains a surer knowledge of what the relationship between beauty and innocence is and about what appreciation should be tolerated and what terminated.

The most disturbing factor about the whole reading experience was the dawning sense that the poor Lolita whom you are to pity is not so innocent after all. She represents the modern youth – who knows all the worst secrets of earth and indulges them without any sense of the absurd or evil. The innocence lost is regained due to a lack of angst at what an earlier generation considered morally base. What is not acceptable in this post-apocalyptic moral world? Apparently nothing, the worst transgressions are treated as matter of fact and the two interlopers are never discovered and even murder is committed in the midst of mad jocularity. It’s a comedy roiling in depravity, masquerading as a confession. It is as darkly-funny as ‘darkly-funny’ can get. Post-modernism marries Absurdist literature in Nabokov’s Lolita.

The fabricated foreword too gives tantalizing clues on how to decipher the novel and the protagonist – but as you finish the novel you realize that the foreword was an example of how someone who just doesn’t “get it” would view the novel. It is a negative signpost to guide you where not to go. The afterword is very factual and gives a better understanding of the book.

As the B&N site says, Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written… that is, ecstatically. The novel is indeed too perfectly crafted, you want to scream at it in disgust and you want to coo at it in adoration. It is like one of those abhorrent but so-perfect marble statues – it is beautiful enough to be feared but your eyes can never look away once fixed on its perfect form. As a fellow goodreader has said, you may not enjoy reading this book but you might enjoy having read it. Reading it is worth the time, just to marvel at what our mundane, every-day language can become in the hands of a true artist. Forget what it describes, go with the music, dance a little.

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Posted by on January 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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A Skimmable Note on Slow Reading

Slow ReadingSlow Reading by John Miedema

My Rating★★★☆☆

It is a pity that for a book that celebrates books that deserve, no demand the investment of time and all our mental and emotional faculties, it is itself barely so.

Despite its bite-sized length and lack of depth, it is still important. I would recommend potential readers to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business if you want a deeper understanding of the issues that Miedema touches on in this book.

By the way, the book is not so much about slowing down in how much you read than in reading in a more engaged way. It is against the redefinition of reading that is brought forth by the change in the mediums of reading and in the nature of the readings available as a result. It is not against readers who read a lot because they find tv boring and find intellectual stimulation more arresting. So ‘right back at you!’ to all of my friends who suggested this book to me in all sweet irony. Thanks too, of course!

For a more comprehensive review, see Richard’s review.

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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Brothers Karamazov: On Romancing The Devil

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My Rating★★★★★

On Romancing The Devil

Warning: This review might contain spoilers even outside the hidden ‘spoiler alert’ regions. I honestly am not capable of discriminating.

The book is not about the murder or about who did it, those things were very apparent before half the book was completed, the narrator taking special pains to spoil all suspense for his readers at the very beginning (harkening back to the days of greek drama and Euripides – according to whom, the effect of a story, even a whodunnit, was not in epic suspense about what was going to happen next, but in those great scenes of lyrical rhetorics in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonists reached heights of eloquence. Everything was to portend pathos, not action, which was always there only as a container for the pathos, to give it form). This was probably done so that the typical clue-seeking aspects of a mystery does not detract his reader from addressing the real, the painful questions littered all across his treatise, almost with indecent abandon. *spoiler* After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot – starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima’s prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov’s not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zosima narrative – the parallels in that story are too numerous to list out here. *spoiler ends*[After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot – starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima’s prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov’s not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zossima narrative – the parallels i that story are too numerous to list out here. (hide spoiler)]

No, this story is not about the murder or about the murderer or about his motivations or about the suspense for his final fate. The story is about the reaction – it was all about the jury. Many theories abound about how the Karamazov family represents Russia/humanity/all characters but the reality is that they represent individualities; while it is that terrible faceless jury, always adressed to and never addressed by, that represents humanity. The job of the country, the society, of the whole human race is to judge, to determine the fate of individuals based on the stories that they construct, literally out of thin air, out of the small pieces of a life that they can only ever observe. The best character sketches, fictional or otherwise can only ever be the minutest portion of a real character – but from that tiniest of slivers we build this ambiguous thing called ‘character’, as if such a thing can possibly exist for a creature as fickle-minded and forgetful of himself as man. Character of a man is the greatest myth, propagated best by novelists, as no story can proceed without a ‘constant’ man who behave with some level of predictability or with predictable unpredictability, but real life is the result of adding a minimum of three more ‘unpredictable’ as adjectives to that earlier description, to come close to describing even the simplest and most boring idiot alive. But yet we construct stories, to understand, to predict, to know how to behave, we even make up stories about ourselves so that we may have an illusion of control over who we are – so that we do not melt into the amorphous protean mass that is the rest of humanity – my story separates me from all of them. I construct, therefore I am.

These are the romances that Dostoevsky wields his best work against and the trial is a trial of reason, of reality pitted against the overwhelming circumstantial evidence in favor of romance, of the myth of character, of individuality, of cause and effect, of there being anything predictable when such a wild variable as a human mind is part of the equation, how can such an equation be anything but ‘indeterminate’ (to borrow Dostoevsky’s own expression)?

That was the grand trial, the inquisition of reason. But how can the defense stand up in favor of reality without explaining to the jury (to humanity) why they see things not as they are, that they have made up a story that is perfect but is never real as no story can ever be – as no cause can really cause a definite effect when human beings are involved? You have to tell a story to convince the jury. You have to tell a story to defend the fact that stories do not exist. A story now, about stories. Or multiple stories to show how all stories are false if only one can be allowed to be true. The only other option is that all are true, simultaneously. By proving which you include your own story in that ‘self-consuming’ super-set and doom your own argument. There is the irresolvable conflict of the trial, of the story, of the novel, of life. You cannot discredit the myth of the story without the help of a story as the jury that judges cannot understand, cannot comprehend any reality outside of a story, human beings cannot think outside their romances. They will continue to exist as prisoners to their own stories. That is why it is a comedy and not a tragedy, as no one died and no one killed and it remains akin to a sphinx setting us a riddle which he cannot solve himself. But, judgment had to be passed as the story was told. One story among many.

——–

An expanded review might follow and will try to address some of the big themes of the book, enumerated below:

1) On Fatherhood – The second big theme of the book. Possibly the real theme, the above only being my own story…

2) On Crime & the Efficacy of Punishment – On how men will always rise to be worthy of their punishment/mercy; On suffering and salvation and on how no judgement can be stronger, more effective or more damning/redemptive than moral self-judgement; On how would Ivan’s ecclesiastical courts eventually would have behaved – would they have behaved as predicted by him in his prose poem and let christ go, unlike the real court? So, in the end his alternate vision of Satan’s court is what really shown by the current judicial apparitions? But in the fable who was it that really forgave the inquisitor or the inquisitee? And in the overall story too, who forgives whom in the end? Christ or Humanity, Satan or Church, Dimitri or Russia?

3) On Collateral Damage – inflicted by the main story on side stories, on how the small side stories are over shadowed, no murdered by the main one and without any risk of conviction.

4) On the Institution of Religion– On morality and the question of the necessity of religion; On the basis for faith; On the implications of faith/lack of faith to the story one tells about oneself; On how Philip Pullman took the easy way out by expanding Dostoevsky’s story for his widely acclaimed novel; On the enormous burden of free will; On the dependence of men on the security of miracles that is the source of all hell and of all action.

5) On the Characters – On how Dostoevsky took the cream of his best-conceived characters from the universe of his creation, from across all his best works to populate his magnum opus, his story about stories, to trace out their path with the ultimate illusion of realism, with the ultimate ambition and to show/realize how it should always, always fall apart; On how he reflected the whole universe in a small lake and created a novel about all novels, disproving and affirming them simultaneously, murdering its own parents in its own fulfillment; On how they might have their Hamlets, but we have our Karamazov’s.

6) On Hope & Redemption – On how ultimately Zosima’s world view trumps the cynical aspects that dominated the book; On how Zosima predicted it all at the very beginning and apologized to Dimitri on behalf of all mankind – ‘taking everyone’s sin upon himself”, thus creating an inverted reflection of the christ figure, its image playing on both Dimitri and on Zosima for that split second and then passing on to Alyosha until finally projected back to Dimitri, in the ultimate paradox, where he becomes at last a christ figure and a buddha figure, exemplifying self-knowledge and enlightenment through true suffering; On how even the Karamazov name can be inspiring and be cause for cheers even though it represents the worst (best?) of humanity; On The Sermon at the Stone.

7) On Nihilism – On the absurdity of life and trying to explain it. But oh wait, this is what I talked of in paragraph length already.

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Ps. By the way, when you read this, keep your ears tuned towards the end – for somewhere in the distance you might hear the laugh of the Grand Inquisitor echoing faintly.

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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel ChristThe Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

My Rating★★★☆☆

Well played, Pullman.

Philip Pullman meets Alyosha and tells him his story.

Alyosha flushed. ‘But… that’s absurd!’ he cried. ‘Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of Him — as you meant it to be. And who will believe you about freedom? Is that the way to understand it? That’s not the idea of it in the Orthodox Church…. That’s Rome, and not even the whole of Rome, it’s false – those are the worst of the Catholics, the Inquisitors, the Jesuits!..’

Later Ivan came storming into Pullman’s front porch, after learning from Alyosha about the novel length expansion of his prose poem. ‘That’s plagiarism!’ cried Ivan to Pullman’s face, highly delighted. ‘You stole that from my poem! Thank you though.’

Then he turned on a surprised Alyosha and announced, ‘Get up, Alyosha, it’s time we were going, both of us.’

Pullman went back to the project he was working on, what is a little borrowing as long as you borrow from the best.

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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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How to Read and Why

How to Read and WhyHow to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

My Rating★★★★★

This book has come by some harsh criticism, especially by eminent reviewers like Terry Eagleton and fellow goodreaders. In spite of the bad reviews by goodreaders I usually take at their word, I decided to give the book a chance. With Bloom’s combination of ideas such as Shakespeare being the progenitor of all modern fiction and poetry, and of the bard also being the inventor of ‘Human” in literature and his audacious theory on all literary works being nothing more than a sort of plagiarism or a creative misreading of earlier efforts, I was sure that at the very least I would get some interesting things to read about the thirty odd literary masterpieces (and forty odd authors) that he endeavors to discuss in the book.

One of the major criticism leveled at the book by most of the reviewers I found on goodreads was about how most of his discussions on various books, especially of short stories and poems, were just recapitulations of the plots and the verses and then some banal commentary on how good they were or how moving they were. This is well captured by Terry Eagleton when he says that Bloom has no fallen into the “quote-and-dote” school of criticism. In one of his most stinging passages he remarks:

“Why does Bloom need to augment the self? ‘We read,’ he suggests, ‘not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.’ It sounds as though Harold is a bit short of mates and reads to make up for it. Perhaps he alienates them by his repeated chanting of excessively long poems.”

Turns out that the fundamental problem with the book is that it is not an essay on how to read or on why to read but it is a book about books, a book by a passionate reader about the books he loves the most – the best sort there is. It does not teach you how to read books but it is an exercise on how to talk about books you have read, how to love them, how to re-read them and how to reminisce about those old companions in the most intelligent and enamored fashion. That is what bloom demonstrates.

This book is an exercise in love – a reader talking about what he loves to read and why, converted forcefully into a book on how and why another should read – and this I feel was the reason the book got all its bad reviews. It built up the wrong expectations. Readers came to it hoping for good advice on how to read meaningfully but was treated to a long monologue on how bloom reads and why he loves it. With a better title and an explanatory subtitle, the same readers might have loved the same book that they criticized so much. Luckily for me, I did not go into it hoping for someone to teach me how to read or wondering why I should read, I am getting by well enough on those fronts; I went in hoping to discuss some of these great books and I got exactly that – a nice conversation with someone who loves books, the very best of pleasures that a reading life offers.

Ultimately, my biggest complaint is about how short the book is, how perfunctory it is – glossing over Blake and Chekov and others in the space of a few pages and treating only the smallest possible sample of their works (one). I have a strong feeling that the title of the book was fixed around midway through its writing, because from then on, probably following his editor’s orders, Bloom takes to ending each chapter with the questions of the book title, the “how” an the “why” of reading, and mostly the answers he provides are platitudes that only serve to irritate the serious reader who wants only to talk on about his favorite books and not wait for the author to come back to the discussion after giving a small meaningless speech to the public like an advertisement that intrudes on it. It feels like a sell-out and cheapens the experience.

I did not mind the many shortcomings of the book, it reminded me of old friends and gave me a few good insights from the texts quoted and many more from my own memories of reading and most valuably, it made me think of why I read them, what I experienced then and how I was changed by each of the readings. That was the great pleasure Bloom gave to me while I put up with his “teenage groupie” sticky sentimentality about Shakespeare and repeated admonitions to read poems aloud or to read to ‘expand one’s consciousness’. The “how” to read part of the book is stifling and pedantic and the “why” part of the title does not get much attention but Stuart Jeffries captures it brilliantly when he says: “Ultimately the intellectual and the sensual are married in Bloom’s notion of reading as a difficult pleasure. He calls this “the reader’s Sublime”. It is the closest to secular transcendence that we may achieve in this life – it helps us get beyond despair, loss and death. The cultivation of that difficult pleasure, finally, is why we should read.

You don’t have to agree with Bloom’s views to enjoy the book because the book is just a shared exercise in enjoying other books – you just need to have a love for the same books that Bloom discusses and the patience to put up with some commercial asides and the rest will take care of itself.

If you have read and enjoyed most of the books discussed, pick up the book and read it to reminisce with a fellow reader and you are bound to enjoy most parts of it. Bloom’s love of great literature being so contagious, it might even send you anew to Proust, to Ibsen, to Borges, to Italo Calvino, to Pynchon, to Emily Dickenson and most importantly to Shakespeare. But, if you have read very few of the works discussed and pick up the book to find a reason why you should read them, you will probably hate this book and also stay away from the wonderful classics discussed, and there could be no greater tragedy. With that caveat, take my five-star rating and my complete recommendation for reading this book.

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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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A Reading List to learn to Read Like a Literature Professor?

This reading List is reproduced from the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (Paperback) by Thomas C. Foster to act as an addendum to my review of the book ie The Cheat-Sheet

What I offer here is a list of items mentioned throughout the book, plus some others I probably should have mentioned, or would have if I had more essays to write. In any event, what all these works have in common is that a reader can learn a lot from them. I have learned a lot from them. As with the rest of this book, there is very little order or method to them. You won’t, if you read these, magically acquire culture or education or any of those scary abstractions; nor do I claim for them (in general) that they are better than works I have not chosen, that The Iliad is better than Metamorphoses or that Charles Dickens is better than George Eliot. In fact, I have strong opinions about literary merit, but that’s not what we’re about here. All I would claim for these works is that if you read them, you will become more learned. That’s the deal. We’re in the learning business. I am, and if you’ve read this far, so are you. Education is mostly about institutions and getting tickets stamped; learning is what we do for ourselves. When we’re lucky, they go together. If I had to choose, I’d take learning.

Oh, there’s another thing that will happen if you read the works on this list: you will have a good time, mostly. I promise. Hey, I can’t guarantee that everyone will like everything or that my taste is your taste. What I can guarantee is that these works are entertaining. Classics aren’t classic because they’re old, they’re classic because they’re great stories or great poems, because they’re beautiful or entertaining or exciting or funny or all of the above. And the newer works, the ones that aren’t classics? They may grow to that status or they may not. But for now they’re engaging, thought-provoking, maddening, fun. We speak, as I’ve said before, of literary works, but in fact literature is chiefly play. If you read novels and plays and stories and poems and you’re not having fun, somebody is doing something wrong. If a novel seems like an ordeal, quit; you’re not getting paid to read it, are you? And you surely won’t get fired if you don’t read it. So enjoy.

– Thomas C. Foster

Primary Works 

W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940), “In Praise of Limestone” (1951). The first is a meditation on human suffering, based on a Pieter Brueghel painting. The second is a great poem extolling the virtues of gentle landscapes and those of us who live there. There’s a lot more great Auden where those came from.

James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues” (1957). Heroin and jazz and sibling rivalry and promises to dead parents and grief and guilt and redemption. All in twenty pages.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1954). What if there’s a road but characters don’t travel it? Would that mean something?

Beowulf (eighth century A.D.). I happen to like Seamus Heaney’s translation, which was published in 2000, but any translation will give you the thrill of this heroic epic.

T. Coraghessan Boyle, Water Music (1981), “The Overcoat II”(1985), World’s End (1987). Savage comedy, scorching satire, astonishing narrative riffs.

Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac (1984). Don’t let the French title fool you; it’s really in English, a lovely little novel about growing older and heartbreak and painfully bought wisdom.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Carroll may have been a mathematician in real life, but he understood the imagination and the illogic of dreams as well as any writer we’ve ever had. Brilliant, loopy fun.

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (1979), Nights at the Circus (1984), Wise Children (1992). Subversiveness in narrative can be a good thing. Carter upends the expectations of patriarchal society.

Raymond Carver, “Cathedral” (1981). One of the most perfectly realized short stories ever, this is the tale of a guy who doesn’t get it but learns to. This one has several of our favorite elements: blindness, communion, physical contact. Carver pretty much perfected the minimalist/realist short story, and most of his are worth a look.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (1384). You’ll have to read this one in a modern translation unless you’ve had training in Middle English, but it’s wonderful in any language. Funny, heartbreaking, warm, ironic, everything a diverse group of people traveling together and telling stories are likely to be.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900). No one looked longer or harder into the human soul than Conrad, who found truth in extreme situations and alien landscapes.

Robert Coover, “The Gingerbread House” (1969). A short, ingenious reworking of “Hansel and Gretel.”
Hart Crane, The Bridge (1930). A great American poem sequence, centered around the Brooklyn Bridge and the great national rivers.

Colin Dexter, The Remorseful Day (1999). Really, any of the Morse mysteries is a good choice. Dexter is great at representing loneliness and longing in his detective, and it culminates, naturally, in heart trouble.

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Great Expectations (1861). Dickens is the most humane writer you’ll ever read. He believes in people, even with all their faults, and he slings a great story, with the most memorable characters you’ll meet anywhere.

E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1975). Race relations and the clash of historical forces, all in a deceptively simple, almost cartoonish narrative.

Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet ( Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) (1957–60). A brilliant realization of passion, intrigue, friendship, espionage, comedy, and pathos, in some of the most seductive prose in modern fiction. What happens when Europeans go to Egypt.

T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), The Waste Land (1922). Eliot more than any other person changed the face of modern poetry. Formal experimentation, spiritual searching, social commentary.
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (1986). The first of a number of novels set on a North Dakota Chippewa reservation, told as a series of linked short stories. Passion, pain, despair, hope, and courage run through all her books.

William Faulkner, The Sound and The Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Difficult but rewarding books that mix social history, modern psychology, and classical myths in narrative styles that can come from no one else.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary (1999). A comic tale of modern womanhood, replete with dieting, dating, angst, and self-help—and an intertextual companion to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1741). The original Fielding/Jones comic novel. Any book about growing up that can still be funny after more than 250 years is doing something right.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925), “Babylon Revisited” (1931). If modern American literature consisted of only one novel, and if that novel were Gatsby, it might be enough. What does the green light mean? What does Gatsby’s dream represent? And what about the ash heaps and the eyes on the billboard?

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915). The greatest novel about heart trouble ever written.

E. M. Forster, A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), A Passage to India (1924). Questions of geography, north and south, west and east, the caves of consciousness.

John Fowles, The Magus (1966), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). Literature can be play, a game, and in Fowles it often is. In the first of these, a young egoist seems to be the audience for a series of private performances aimed at improving him. In the second, a man must choose between two women, but really between two ways of living his life. That’s Fowles: always multiple levels going on. He also writes the most wonderful, evocative, seductive prose anywhere.

Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking,” “The Woodpile,” “Out, Out—” “Mowing” (1913–16). Read all of him. I can’t imagine poetry without him.

William H. Gass, “The Pedersen Kid,” “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (both 1968). These stories make clever use of landscape and weather and are wildly inventive—have you ever thought of high school basketball as a religious experience?

Henry Green, Blindness (1926), Living (1929), Party Going (1939), Loving (1945). The first of these really does deal with blindness in its metaphorical as well as literal meanings, and Party Going has travelers stranded in fog, so that’s kind of like blindness. Loving is a kind of reworked fairy tale, beginning with “Once upon” and ending with “ever after”; who could resist. Living, aside from being a fabulous novel about all the classes involved with a British factory, is the only book I know in which “a,” “an,” and “the” hardly ever appear. It’s a bizarre and wonderful stylistic experiment. Almost no one has read or even heard of Green, and that’s too bad.

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (1929). The first truly mythic American detective novel. And don’t miss the film version.

Thomas Hardy, “The Three Strangers” (1883), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). You’ll believe landscape and weather are characters after reading Hardy. You’ll certainly believe that the universe is not indifferent to our suffering but takes an active hand in it.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), “The Man of Adamant” (1837), The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Hawthorne is perhaps the best American writer at exploring our symbolic consciousness, at finding the ways we displace suspicion and loneliness and envy. He just happens to use the Puritans to do it, but it’s never really about Puritans.

Seamus Heaney, “Bogland” (1969), “Clearances” (1986), North (1975). One of our truly great poets, powerful on history and politics.

Ernest Hemingway, the stories from In Our Time (1925), especially “Big Two-Hearted River,” “Indian Camp,” and “The Battler,” The Sun Also Rises (1926), “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), A Farewell to Arms (1929), “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936), The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

Homer, The Iliad, The Odyssey (ca. eighth century B.C.). The second of these is probably more accessible to modern readers, but they’re both great. Every time I teach The Iliad I have students say, I had no idea this was such a great story.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898). Scary, scary. Is it demonic possession or madness, and if the latter, on whose part? In any case, it’s about the way humans consume each other, as is, in a very different way, his “Daisy Miller” (1878).

James Joyce, Dubliners (1914), Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (1916). First, the stories in Dubliners, of which I’ve made liberal use of two. “Araby” has so much going on in it in just a few pages: initiation, experience of the Fall, sight and blindness imagery, quest, sexual desire, generational hostility. “The Dead” is just about the most complete experience it’s possible to have with a short story. Small wonder Joyce left stories behind after he wrote it: what could he do after that? As for Portrait, it’s a great story of growth and development. Plus it has a child take a dunk in a cesspool (a “square ditch” in the parlance of the novel) and one of the most harrowing sermons ever committed to paper. Falls, rises, salvation and damnation, Oedipal conflicts, the search for self, all the things that make novels of childhood and adolescence so rewarding.

Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” (1915), “A Hunger Artist” (1924), The Trial (1925). In the strange world of Kafka, characters are subjected to unreal occurrences that come to define and ultimately destroy them. It’s much funnier than that sounds, though.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees (1988), Pigs in Heaven (1993), The Poisonwood Bible (1998). Her novels resonate with the strength of primal patterns. Taylor Greer takes one of the great road trips into a new life in the first of these novels.

D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” (1922), “The Fox”(1923), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), The Virgin and the Gypsy (1930), “The Rocking-Horse Winner” (1932). The king of symbolic thinking.

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (late fifteenth century). Very old language, but writers and filmmakers continue to borrow from him. A great story.

Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head (1961), The Unicorn (1963), The Sea, the Sea (1978), The Green Knight (1992). Murdoch’s novels follow familiar literary patterns, as the title of The Green Knight would suggest. Her imagination is symbolic, her logic ruthlessly rational (she was a trained philosopher, after all).

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1958). Yes, that one. No, it isn’t a porn novel. But it is about things we might wish didn’t exist, and it does have one of literature’s creepier main characters. Who thinks he’s normal.

Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato (1978), The Things They Carried (1990). Besides being perhaps the two finest novels to come out of the Vietnam War, O’Brien’s books give us lots of fodder for thought. A road trip of some eight thousand statute miles, to Paris no less, site of the peace talks. A beautiful native guide leading our white hero west. Alice in Wonderland parallels. Hemingway parallels. Symbolic implications enough to keep you busy for a month at your in-laws’.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Mystery of the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “The Raven” (1845), “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). Poe gives us one of the first really free plays of the subconscious in fiction. His stories (and poems, for that matter) have the logic of our nightmares, the terror of thoughts we can’t suppress or control, half a century and more before Sigmund Freud. He also gives us the first real detective story (“Rue Morgue”), becoming the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and all who came after.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1965). My students sometimes struggle with this short novel, but they’re usually too serious. If you go into it knowing it’s cartoonish and very much from the sixties, you’ll have a great time.

Theodore Roethke, “In Praise of Prairie” (1941), The Far Field (1964).

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Take your pick. Here’s mine: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, As You Like It, Twelfth Night. And then there are the sonnets. Read all of them you can. Hey, they’re only fourteen lines long. I particularly like sonnet 73, but there are lots of wonderful sonnets in there.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818). The monster isn’t simply monstrous. He says something about his creator and about the society in which Victor Frankenstein lives.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century). Not for beginners, I think. At least it wasn’t for me when I was a beginner. Still, I learned to really enjoy young Gawain and his adventure. You might, too.
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (fifth century B.C.). These plays constitute a trilogy dealing with a doomed family. The first (which is the first really great detective story in Western literature) is about blindness and vision, the second about traveling on the road and the place where all roads end, and the third a meditation on power, loyalty to the state, and personal morality. These plays, now over twenty-four hundred years old, never go out of style.

Sir Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen (1596). Spenser may take some work and a fair bit of patience. But you’ll come to love the Redcrosse Knight.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), The Master of Ballantrae (1889). Stevenson does fascinating things with the possibilities of the divided self (the one with a good and an evil side), which was a subject of fascination in the nineteenth century.

Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897). What, you need a reason?

Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” (1946). A beautiful evocation of childhood/summer/life and everything that lives and dies.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Poor Huck has come under attack in recent decades, and yes, it does have that racist word in it (not surprising in a work depicting a racist society), but Huck Finn also has more sheer humanity than any three books I can think of. And it’s one of the great road/buddy stories of all time, even if the road is soggy.

Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982). Tyler has a number of wonderful novels, including The Accidental Tourist (1985), but this one really works for my money.

John Updike, “A&P” (1962). I don’t really use his story when I create my quest to the grocery, but his is a great little story.

Derek Walcott, Omeros (1990). The exploits of a Caribbean fishing community, paralleling events from Homer’s two great epics. Fascinating stuff.

Fay Weldon, The Hearts and Lives of Men (1988). A delightful novel, comic and sad and magical, with just the right lightness of touch.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927). Explorations of consciousness, family dynamics, and modern life in luminous, subtle prose.

William Butler Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1892), “Easter 1916” (1916), “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1917). Or any of a hundred others. A medievalist professor of mine once said that he believed Yeats was the greatest poet in the English language. If we could only have one, he’d be my choice.

Fairy Tales We Can’t Live Without 

“Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Rapunzel,” “Rumpelstiltskin.” See also later uses of these tales in Angela Carter and Robert Coover.

Movies to Read 

Citizen Kane (1941). I’m not sure this is a film to watch, but you sure can read it.

The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936). Charlie Chaplin is the greatest film comedian ever. Accept no substitutes. His little tramp is a great invention.

Notorious (1946), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960). Somebody’s always copying Hitchcock. Meet the original.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) Not only a reworking of The Odyssey but an excellent road/buddy film with a great American sound track.

Pale Rider (1985). Clint Eastwood’s fullest treatment of his mythic avenging-angel hero.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Great quest stories. You know when you’re searching for the Lost Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail that you’re dealing with quests. Take away Indy’s leather jacket, fedora, and whip and give him chain mail, helmet, and lance and see if he doesn’t look considerably like Sir Gawain.

Shane (1953). Without which, no Pale Rider.

Stagecoach (1939). Its handling of Native Americans doesn’t wear well, but this is a great story of sin and redemption and second chances. And chase scenes.

Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1981), Return of the Jedi (1983). George Lucas is a great student of Joseph Campbell’s theories of the hero (in, among other works, The Hero with a Thousand Faces), and the trilogy does a great job of showing us types of heroes and villains. If you know the Arthurian legends, so much the better. Personally I don’t care if you learn anything about all that from the films or not; they’re so much fun you deserve to see them. Repeatedly.

Tom Jones (1963). The Tony Richardson film starring Albert Finney—accept no substitutes. This has the one and only eating scene I’ve ever seen that can make me blush. The film, and Henry Fielding’s eighteenth-century novel, have much to recommend them beyond that one scene. The story of the Rake’s Progress—the growth and development of the bad boy—is a classic, and this one is very funny.

Secondary Sources 

There are a great many books that will help you become a better reader and interpreter of literature. These suggestions are brief, arbitrary, and highly incomplete.
   
M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (1957). As the name suggests, this is not a book to read but one to refer to. Abrams covers hundreds of literary terms, movements, and concepts, and the book has been a standard for decades.

John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean? (1961). Since it first appeared, Ciardi’s book has taught tens of thousands of us how to think about the special way poems convey what they have to say. As a poet himself and a translator of Dante, he knew something about the subject.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. Although it was published in 1927, this book remains a great discussion of the novel and its constituent elements by one of its outstanding practitioners.

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957). You’ve been getting watered-down Frye throughout this book. You might find the original interesting. Frye is one of the first critics to conceive of literature as a single, organically related whole, with an overarching framework by which we can understand it. Even when you don’t agree with him, he’s a fascinating, humane thinker.

William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970). Another primarily theoretical work, this book discusses how we work on fiction and how it works on us. Gass introduces the term “metafiction” here.

David Lodge, The Art of Fiction (1992). Lodge, an important postmodern British novelist and critic, wrote the essays in this collection in a newspaper column. They’re fascinating, brief, easy to comprehend, and filled with really fine illustrative examples.

Robert Pinsky, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (2000). The former American poet laureate can make you want to fall in love with poetry even if you didn’t know you wanted to. He also provides valuable insights into understanding poetry.

Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Another important reference book. If you want to know something about poetry, look in here.

Master Class 

If you want to put together the total reading experience, here you go. These works will give you a chance to use all your newfound skills and come up with inventive and insightful ways of seeing them. Once you learn what these four novels can teach you, you won’t need more advice. There’s nothing exclusive to these four, by the way. Any of perhaps a hundred novels, long poems, and plays could let you apply the whole panoply of newly acquired skills. I just happen to love these.
   
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861). Life, death, love, hate, dashed hopes, revenge, bitterness, redemption, suffering, graveyards, fens, scary lawyers, criminals, crazy old women, cadaverous wedding cakes. This book has everything except spontaneous human combustion (that’s in Bleak House—really). Now, how can you not read it?

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922). Don’t get me started. First, the obvious: Ulysses is not for beginners. When you feel you’ve become a graduate reader, go there. My undergraduates get through it, but they struggle, even with a good deal of help. Hey, it’s difficult. On the other hand, I feel, as do a lot of folks, that it’s the most rewarding read there is.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970). This novel should have a label: “Warning: Symbolism spoken here.” One character survives both the firing squad and a suicide attempt, and he fathers forty-seven sons by forty-seven women, all the sons bearing his name and all killed by his enemies on a single night. Do you think that means something?

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977). I’ve said so much throughout this book, there’s really nothing left, except read.

– Thomas C. Foster

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Poetry

 

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Nabokov’s Lolita

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Still dazed by the stupor of melancholy and perversion that Humbert Humbert has exposed my poor brain to. Still trying to make sense of the monster/poet/victim and of Lolita, the symbol of our age. Who exploited whom, who were the villains and who were to be punished, these thoughts are still swirling in my head; desperately trying to ascribe meaning beyond the mere acts of the novel, to read into the disparities between nature and actions. A see-saw of poetry and debauchery. I also wonder how much I missed out on due to my handicap of not knowing french.

The primary effect of this beauty and poetry is that we keep geting charmed by this old-world, aristocratic protagonist who can talk in such a poetic way and then he gently turns around and reminds us of what he is contemplating doing to that young girl and we draw back in revulsion again, only to be ensnared in his honeyed prose a few lines later. And so it goes, tiring you out and enchanting you.

So, a review will come as soon as I can reconcile the beauty of the novel with its deep, dark underbelly and some meaning that is not merely moral emerges.

That might take many readings and I am not sure that is something I am willing to put myself through. But a review, however small, helps clarify the book in my head and, for that I will try.

Another thing I want to make sense of is this – Nabokov’s account of the old newspaper story that inspired him to start a work such as Lolita presented in the novel’s afterword “On a Book Entitled Lolita” – The story was about “an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who after months of coaxing by the scientists, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” – Isn’t that just surreal? The connection with Humbert is right there at the edge of my imagination, in his own prison maybe and maybe in the prison that was his life’s lust. I don’t now, but what pleasure to ponder.

One thing I can confidently say even with my shock at the rest of the novel is that the opening paragraph is perhaps the most beautiful and alluring one I have ever read – It draws you into this perverse universe where every dark secret thought is open to scrutiny like some succubi, a beautiful mermaid or Lamia who lures you only to crucify you. The mind thrills and the eyes laze over the paragraph and you are aglow in the ecstasy the rest of the book seems to promise, thinking of the beauty that is waiting for you in those pages, the plays of language, the thrill of appreciating such wonder and you are happy that this book, Lolita, that you have heard so much about is going to be a delight. But of course, the book is just like a nymph as described in it, it tantalizes with ethereal beauty only to expose our world to the harsh reality of man’s nature – at least I think so. The book is the real Lolita not any character in it.

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Posted by on February 7, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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On Writing: A Memoir of the Book

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book is great and if you like writing, it is probably a must read.

I could write a summary of the book, it is easy enough to summarize and there are only a few important points that King presents, but then I dont want you to get it for free. 🙂 Go and read the book yourself, it is worth it.

Rude? As King says, “…if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

Here is are a few excerpts from the book that might inspire you to take my advice –

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.

Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening(or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already.

If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.

I love this book because it agrees with all my preconceptions. Feels nice to be on the right track. It is also quite inspiring when it comes to kicking you into putting on your writing cap.

I couldn’t resist putting in this anecdote about James Joyce as well:

One of my favorite stories on the subject—probably more myth than truth—concerns James Joyce. According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

“James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk):

“Seven.”

“Seven? But James . . . that’s good, at least for you!”

Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is . . . but I don’t know what order they go in!”

Of course, the book is not intended just as a writing manual. Even if you never intend to write, the memoir is a wonderful graphic tale on King’s life and like all his stories, it does not lack in imagination or entertainment.

Meanwhile, let me get down to some actual writing…

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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Thoughts

 

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