Social distancing and reading

War & PeaceWith every responsible, mature adult practicing social distancing and self-isolation these days, it means spending lots of time at home, alone or within the small family unit. Trying for some, but it’s the perfect time to catch up on your reading, to explore new authors, to discover the contentment of a comfortable chair, a cup of tea, and a novel. The social-distancing period can become not just a burden, but a great opportunity for immersing yourself in books.

But with so many choices, what should I read, you ask. Blogger/editor Sara Reggiani, writing from Italy in Life in Quarantine, asked, plaintively,

Stay home, read a book! yells everyone, but how am I to know which book I need amidst this din of suggestions that often seem like just another attempt to impose one’s own identity and tastes onto someone else?

A sentiment I don’t agree with: to me, every book suggestion is an opportunity to discover a new author, a new subject, a new way of expression. I do not want to impose my tastes on anyone, but I do have some suggestions, one in particular. The nature of our current solitude offers new possibilities to tackle some longer, more demanding works.

Let me digress a moment. For decades, I’ve collected books (let’s not call it hoarding, as if these were rolls of toilet paper) and put them aside to read “when I retired” as I kept telling myself. But when I actually retired, some years ago — only semi-retired, however — I found I had very little extra time on my hands, what with socializing, gardening, housework, dog and cat care, shopping, some freelance work, committee activities, writing, playing music, coffee with friends, online gaming, and so on.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I was heavily influenced in my reading by friends who discovered authors and titles sooner, then introduced me to them. That’s how I got to know (and read) Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Dickens, Bulgakov, Silverberg, Dumas, Machiavelli, and many others. But sometimes after I started to read them, I got distracted by other books, so they returned to the shelf for that imaginary, later period.

Today, with the socializing aspect of my life severely pared down, I can, at last, get to some of those books. My first recommendation is on that list. I’ll have more to discuss in later posts, but first…

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I’m Reading as Fast as I Can

Books, and more booksI don’t recall just when I started putting books aside to read, or perhaps just finish, when I retired. I had this naive, romantic idea that upon retirement, at the age of 65 or thereabouts, I would be able to spend my time puttering around the house and garden, carting a bag of books from place to place, to living out my final years in the warm glow of reading and cups of tea.

Books have long lives in my library. Putting one aside to reach for another, and then consigning it to an imagined peaceful future where I would have more time to devote to it, instead of pausing for a few months while I explored other titles, must have become a practice some time ago. I just can’t recall exactly when.

Years and years ago, I suppose; so many they blur into the haze of faded memory. Partly due, I suspect, to my habit of reading a chapter in one book, then picking up another to read some, then another and so on. Seldom since my teens have I read a book cover-to-cover at the exclusion of others. Some sit unread for months, others years, before being taken up again. I always have a dozen on the go at any time, piled beside my bed for reading at night.

Yet more booksNow and then I come across a book on my shelves that I can actually recall buying it and deliberately putting it aside for “later.” And I find others that I started and read some small number of chapters before putting the book down to finish when the mythical golden years arrived. Ah, but those years are here (more leaden than golden), and I’m still building the library, piling books upon books. Still finding new titles I want to own and, eventually, read. Still haunting bookshops and publishers’ websites.

Where did I go wrong in my retirement planning? Or, in my case, semi-retirement…

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Of dictionaries, memories, and friends

Johnson's DictionaryWhen a copy of this selection from Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary arrived last week, I was delighted, and immediately reminded of my late, and well-loved friend, Bill. He would have appreciated the book, chuckled over Johnson’s witty definitions, delighted in the words at play. We would have sat around the kitchen counter, alternately reading random definitions from the book, in between sips of wine.

Like every good writer I’ve ever known, Bill loved words, puns, wit, and the interplay of language.

Sadly, Bill died of esophageal cancer late last year, the same cancer that took my father a few years earlier. A nasty, painful, flesh-wasting disease.  Because of that, Bill and I never got to sit down and share our thoughts about this book over a glass of wine, as we had done many times over many different books, before. I saw him a couple of weeks before his death, as he lay, bedridden, in palliative care. A thin shadow of the man who used to come up for long weekends to spend time with us.

Bill was a passionate reader and we shared many books and interests in common; especially those on Napoleonic and English history. He had a passion for British naval history, and Jane Austen’s life and times, and he was a fount of knowledge about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He could quote Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Austen. He introduced us to numerous BBC dramas, comedies, and specials, and he was generous in lending his DVDs of them. He had a musical streak and we played guitar and ukulele together. And, of course, he loved words.

I was reading through this book the other night, and wondered how Johnson himself felt about friendship and death. James Boswell was his biographer, friend and companion late in his life, but did they share the same sort of closeness as I had with Bill? Boswell went off on a trip to Scotland when Johnson was sick, and was away when the latter died, in 1784. How did Johnson feel about Boswell’s absence, or Boswell and being so far away when his friend died?

Boswell’s comment on hearing of the death was, “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.” I felt similarly, when Barbara, Bill’s wife, called to tell me of passing, last year. And I felt relieved, not that he was gone, but that his suffering was finally over. I am not ashamed to admit I cried at the news.

I’d known Bill since the late 1970s-early ’80s, back when we both worked on InfoAge magazine, years even before I met Susan. Many the evening back then we stayed up late and talked, sometimes argued, and drank our wine while playing chess, go, or some wargame – at which he almost always won. He was the smartest, funniest man I ever met and my time with him – our time, really, since he was a friend to both of us – was precious.

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Don Quixote times three

Don QuixotesAt roughly the same time Shakespeare was writing and performing King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello and Macbeth (1604-1605), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was publishing the first part (52 chapters) of his satiric novel, Don Quixote, or more properly titled (in English), The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. The second part (another 74 chapters) was published in 1615, roughly two years after Shakespeare’s final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher).

While it was probably always intended as a single novel, the decade of time between the publication of the two parts has suggested to some scholars it is really two novels (although Part 2 starts only a month after the events that close Part 1). And perhaps it should be marketed as such; the fat combined volume could easily deter readers. I know, I know: there are people who are deterred from reading by any document regardless of its length, and not just local politicians.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare died in April, 1616, Cervantes a mere day before the Bard, a notable coincidence. Four hundred years later, their contributions to literature and culture still affect us. I heard a local resident comment on “tilting at windmills” only last week. And I still find references to Sancho Panzo in my online reading.

Don Quixote is considered the first “modern” novel. I suppose that means it was not a morality tale, a Christian allegory or written as an ethical training guide to nobility. But also it’s because of the narrative thread and the complexity of the characters.

It achieved international fame almost immediately – the first part was translated into English in 1612 and has been translated many times since. The most recent translation was 2012 (Gerald J Davis). In my own library, I have three translations: John Ormsby (1885, my edition was published 2015), J. M. Cohen (1951, in Penguin books 1985) and Edith Grossman (2003 – which achieved bestseller status that year, remarkable for a book 400 years old). A fourth, translated by Montgomery (2006) is on order.
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Travels with Epicurus

EpicurusI’m sure it’s not just me who feels this way, but these days I find increasing wisdom and solace in the words of the classical authors: Seneca, Cicero, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Diogenes, Plato. The writers of classical Greece and Rome mostly attract my attention right now, although I have also read many classical Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Japanese philosophers and poets. Wisdom can be found everywhere.

It never ceases to amaze me how human emotions, perceptions and sensations have not changed over the millennia, almost in opposition to our rapidly and vastly changing technologies. Not merely in some rarefied philosophical sense, some intellectual perspective, but in everyday things: our passions, our politics, our tastes, our life and loves; the ancients knew and understood us, although Instagram and Snapchat may have baffled them.

Nor have we changed much if at all in our quest for answers to the “Big Questions” – the question of evil, of free will, how should we behave and be governed, of why anything exists, our search for meaning, for understanding, to grapple with suffering, longing and whatever future awaits us at death. Yes, some have found answers in religion and faith, but mostly these questions remain hanging. And there’e the always-dangling end-of-life question: what matters? All questions that can keep a person awake at night.

For some writers, some or even all of those questions are a philosophical dead end. A forum for word games and semantic exercises, but not solutions. Instead they focus on how we ought to live. Be here now, as Baba Ram Das famously wrote. Bring to your life a sense of belonging to the world, an earthly mindfulness to your daily life. Consider what happens today, not in the afterlife. This is what originally attracted me to Buddhism. But it also attracts me to several classical philosophers, more lately than in my past. And Epicurus is one of them.

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Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules

12 RulesFor LifeI really wanted to read this book objectively, separating it from the media hype and social media torrents of opinion and abuse that often accompany its author, Jordan Peterson. I wanted to consider it in the company of the vast number of already-published self-help or philosophical books, and the historical context in which they exist.

Sadly, I was unable to do so for one simple reason: there’s too much Jordan Peterson in it. You have to wade through far too much of him to get to the rules. He meanders quite a bit, mostly to ramble on about himself. The rules are, themselves, rather diluted by his presence.

Jordan Peterson is undoubtedly a smart, well-educated man and a reasonably good writer, but sometimes he comes across as a pompous, supercilious git. And that obfuscates the intended message, at least for me.

Peterson is, like I said, a smart man. I cannot dispute his statements on psychology or human development because he knows more about it than most of us. And he references several of his statements with citations to such awe-inspiring academic documents as “Allostasis and allostatic load implications for neuropsychopharmacology,” “Tool use induces morphological updating of the body schema” and “Dimension models of personality: The five-factor model and the DSM-5.” Who am I to argue with these sources?

For those of us on a less-lofty plane, he also references the Bible, poems of W.B. Yeats, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Lao Tse’s Tao teh ching and the Guardian newspaper. Whew. Something I can read and maybe understand. But these references don’t cover the voluminous number of claims and statements in the book. It’s full of pithy epigrams and aphorisms.

There are only 220 noted sources and no separate bibliography. Peterson makes a lot of statements that, without being referenced to a citation, are either vague generalities or simply opinions. For example:

Eco-activists, even more idealistic in their viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind. (p13-14)

I don’t know which “eco-activists” he spoke to, but that sort of romanticized, even naive (if not downright puerile) view of eco-activism doesn’t match any viewpoints I’ve heard or read from anyone who might fit that description.  And you can read a lot of them online. David Suzuki, for example, arguably Canada’s most well-known environmental activist, doesn’t say anything of the sort. His own website neatly defines his views:

We are interconnected with nature, and with each other. What we do to the planet and its living creatures, we do to ourselves.

I’ll chalk this one up as an opinion, and a politically-biased one at that. The Catholic World Report noted in its review:

Peterson wades into a muck of assertions without argument; disconnected similes and examples that insult reason; arbitrary and happenstance judgments; and implications that are dangerous in their banality.

Here are some other statements I pulled at random, also not referenced to any source or publication:
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