Tag Archives: reading

Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli


The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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Happy Talk


A recent study proved an old notion – the Pollyanna Hypothesis - that there is a “universal human tendency to ‘look on and talk about the bright side of life'” according to a team of scientists at the University of Vermont. The story was reported on Science Daily recently. Reading through newspapers, magazines, websites, music lyrics and movie titles in ten languages, the researchers concluded that “probably all human language skews toward the use of happy words.”

That struck me as counter-intuitive. Maybe it’s just my own experience with local media and bloggers, but I would have thought they’d find more negativity, especially in media and social media. I sure have.

Maybe it’s just a regionalized thing, and what happens here doesn’t reflect trends happening in the rest of the country and the world. Maybe everywhere else, media are more positive, more objective and happier (insert snort of derision here – a quick scan of headline pages from traditional/national media and media accumulators like Drudge also shows a lot of negativity…).

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The Book List Game


Classic booksIn a recent story titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read,” the eminent astrophysicist listed his top eight book titles – from a Reddit conversation that was going on back in December, 2011. Here are the books he chose back then (check the linked story above for his comments on why he picked these titles):

  1. The Bible;
  2. The System of the World, by Isaac Newton;
  3. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin;
  4. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift;
  5. The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine;
  6. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith;
  7. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu;
  8. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

I certainly can’t argue with his choices as worthy of being read, although they wouldn’t all be my top choices. I have all of them but the Newton on my bookshelves.  This list was much discussed at the time it was first released. Open Culture commented:

The list, which has generated a great deal of interest and discussion, leads you to think about the very nature of not just what constitutes essential reading, but what defines an “intelligent person.” Should every such individual really read any book in particular? Does it matter if others already acknowledge these books as essential, or can they have gone thus far undiscovered?… he makes the perhaps daring implication that an intelligent person must connect to a widely shared culture, rather than demonstrating their brainpower by getting through volume upon little-read volume, written in the most labyrinthine language, expounding on the most abstract subject matter, or grappling with the knottiest philosophical problems.

A followup discussion with other recommended titles was published by Open Culture in April 2014. And in republishing the list again after two years, it has re-opened the discussion in 2015. To which I weigh in, first by commenting on his choices.

I have a suspicion that the Bible was slipped in as a political sop to prevent him from being targeted as a godless atheist or some such name by the fundamentalists. Can’t have non-religious scientists. While I know many people who have read some part of it, I have met few who are not in the religion business (ministers, priests and rabbis) who have read it in its entirety. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, either, but have read a good deal of it in several translations.

Not that it’s a bad book to read. It formed the foundation for Western culture, law and morality until the mid-19th century and still plays a vital role in it, despite the trend to secularism these past 150 years. Just that it’s not in the same intellectual grouping as the rest and makes me wonder what his criteria were for the rest.

Actually I recommend all people should read the core of the world’s religious and spiritual literature – the Dhammapada, for example, is one of my favourite titles. The Bhagavad Gita, the Diamond Sutra, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Nag Hammadi codex, the Talmud, the Kalamas Sutra… we should all read these books so we can better understand the faiths of others and engage in informed discussion about them – not simply pursue ideologies or knee-jerk, media-induced reactions.

But I also recommend people read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens to get a look at alternative views on religion. Having no religion should be an intellectual decision, not a puff of lifestyle negativity, like a diet fad.

And that raises the question about philosophy: why are there no works by major philosophers – no Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Sartre, Voltaire… although one can suggest that Machiavelli was somewhat of one, at least a political philosopher. And why not recommend The Discourses – a more comprehensive and broader approach to power and politics – instead of The Prince?

Similarly, Gulliver’s Travels is a marvellous political and social satire that still has resonance and humour today despite almost 300 years since it was first written. But it is written in a style that is no longer popular, its humour may be too dated (and obscure) for some, and can be seen as rather too rambling. Don Quixote is as much a satire on the human condition, so why was it ignored? Was there nothing more modern that was worthy?

Choosing one work of fiction from the millions of books written is tough. Is Swift a better choice for the sole novelist than Joyce? Or Tolstoy? Hugo? Herbert? Clavell? Austen? Shelley? Melville? Conrad? Clancy? Cervantes? Dumas? Woolf? Lawrence? Achebe? Orwell? Melville? Hardy? Dickens? Each writes about the human condition, although not necessarily as a satire. And which of their works to include? Why would you pick Anna Karenina over War and Peace?  Pride and Prejudice over Sense and Sensibility?

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47 Ronin Reviewed



This week, after watching the 2013 film, 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, I had to wonder why Hollywood felt it necessary to take a powerful story, a great historical drama, and mess with it. And, of course, why they would put Keanu Reeves into a film about 18th century Japanese samurai. Or, for that matter, into any film.

I’m not an actor, so my appreciation of their talents is only as an outsider. But Reeves seems to be pretty much a one-dimensional character. It worked in the Matrix, albeit less so in the sequels, but in films like the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he was awful. (the 1951 original remains so much better…). His breadth of emotional expression seems very limited: his face always shows an angry bewilderment.

Perhaps that flatness was thought well-suited to the stoicism expected of samurai culture. And in part it does work in the scenes of fighting and warrior bonding, but then there’s the whole love scene thing and he just doesn’t come across as the romantic lead when required.

Reeves plays a half-breed, a role not fully explained (why did the director, Carl Rinsch require a Western lead in a story that is purely Japanese?). Nor is the whole isolated-Japan-no-contact political situation fleshed out (which didn’t really alter until the Meijin era, almost two centuries later), which might explain somewhat better why Reeve’s character was shunned by the samurai (and that whole sold-into-slavery gladiator thing was a very odd inclusion, especially since slavery was banned in Japan in 1590).

The film didn’t score well at Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. It scores much lower than the black-and-white 1941 film of the same name by Kurosawa.

But to be fair, what critics like and what the public likes are often at odds with one another. And personally, I am often entertained by films that critics panned. And 47 Ronin entertained me, despite my reservations about Reeves and the Hollywood accouterments. It’s a fun film, but it could have been a great film.

Hollywood hasn’t learned that colour, action and special effects can’t make up for good storytelling, solid acting, well-written dialogue and effective directing.

This film has some of that – aside from Reeves, the acting is good, albeit straight-jacketed by the emotionally restrained period. Just not quite enough to make it a great film. The story is confused; context isn’t clear and it seems to dart around without purpose at times. The special effects detracted me (as they often do in Hollywood films) from the story.

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Jack Finney’s Time and Again


Invasion of the Body SnatchersEver read Jack Finney? I knew the name, but I never read any of his books. I knew he was the author of the 1955 pulp novel, The Body Snatchers.  This became the basis for the 1956 movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is one of my all-time favourite B-films, one I can watch almost endlessly. I like it even more than the 1978 re-make. I have both (of course), and even have have the subsequent – and less impressive – remakes: Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007). Plus a few of the below-B spinoffs like Invasion of the Pod People.

But I never got around to reading Finney’s original. Not sure why, since I’ve read in the past and still read a lot of the pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels of the 1930s-60s.

A couple of years ago, I came across an unabridged audiobook of Finney’s Body Snatchers on sale at a nearby Chapters store. I often listen to audiobooks when I travel outside town and thought this would be amusing. Instead, I was impressed by how good it was, how well written. Well above the usual pulp standards. This was the work of an accomplished, talented writer.

And I was pleasantly surprised to find I liked the audiobook better than the movie. A lot more. That’s some accomplishment. Sure, I usually prefer like books to their movies, but seldom do pulps scale the heights above their B-flicks this way.

I liked it so much, I played it for Susan – who doesn’t like the movies or the scary genres – and she agreed: it is very well written. Not scary as much as dramatic. Finney has a remarkable eye for detail.

Yesterday, on my trip to the city, I started to listen to it for a third time. It struck me again as such a well-crafted novel I decided to stop at the Chapters on the way home and see if they had a copy so I could read it. Of course, they didn’t (Chapters, I think, has gone steadily downhill as a bookstore since they decided to add geegaws and lifestyle tchotchkes to their stock at the expense of space for books…). But that store had another of his novels: Time and Again (1970). Which I bought.

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Julius Caesar: Best of the Bard?


Julius CaesarFor my money, Julius Caesar is simply Billy Shakespeare’s best ever play. I mean, what’s not to like in it? It has some stonking great speeches in it – including one of his top five ever (Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen….”) as well as a passel of memorable lines you can quote at parties (Who among my readers hasn’t passed off a quick “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” just for effect?).

Plus it has a conspiracy, a murder, a riot, a battle, and a couple of suicides to gussy up the action. Treachery, betrayal, loyalty, raw ambition, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ghosts… really: what’s not to like?

It’s short and brisk, so it can be read in an evening and the plot followed easily enough, even by a non-academic. It’s bereft of the knotty love-action that makes you scratch your head and wonder which twin is onstage and why. WS eschewed his usual love for complicated metaphors, and hidden meanings when writing it, so almost anyone can understand it.

And on top of that, it’s all about politics and Billy the Bard was in his best game when writing about politics. Like I said, what’s not to like?

And then there’s the whole mess of subtext about manliness and masculinity, about friendship and loyalty, about power, about the conflict between reason and passion, about the nature of the state and the greater good, and whether it’s okay to kill someone for a Big Reason like saving the republic.

Like every other Shakespearean play, it’s about the complexity of being human and interacting with other conflicted humans. The issues, the insights, the internal tug-of-war over ethics and morals, the passions and lusts – they were the same in his day as they are in ours, and he makes them accessible by weaving them into great stories. That’s why the Bard is still so relevant today.

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Poems That Make You Cry


Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

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