08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

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08/14/14

Re-reading Heraclitus


HeraclitusI started to re-read Haxton’s 2001 translation of Heraclitus last night. I came across references to him when reading introductory material on Montaigne recently and I wanted to flesh out my knowledge and understanding.

Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived during the transformational Axial Age, roughly contemporary with other philosophers like Gautama Buddha, Zarathustra, Confucius and Lao Tzu. He wrote a significant treatise (On Nature) consisting of three books, one on the cosmos, one on politics and the third on theology. It may have been, like the fragments, a collection of aphorisms and epigrams.

That master work vanished around the time of Plutarch ( 46-120CE) and has has long been lost. Heraclitus’ words only survive in the famous gnomic “fragments” which give but a small and incomplete glimpse into his thoughts. Still, Heraclitus was an important part of the development of Greek thought that led to Plato and Aristotle, and he influenced the later Roman philosophers and writers who still had his complete work to read.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus held that,

…(1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so that (3) everything is and is not at the same time.

Haxton’s is one of many translations into English (at the moment my sole printed version), making the fragments into a more poetic rendition than some of the more literal and drier translations. His version also includes the Greek – just in case you’re schooled in reading ancient Greek (I’m not; I took it for a semester when I started university, but found my facility for learning it was stunted…).

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08/10/14

Montaigne’s library


I read yesterday that Montaigne had a library of 1,000 books, of which he was very proud. It was his retreat – the room he went to where he wanted to get away from things and write.

Machiavelli, too, had a study with a small collection of books he treasured, albeit a much smaller selection. Both, however, treasured the classic Greek and Roman authors, the wisdom of the ages.

One thousand books is a remarkable collection, given that printing was barely a century old, and books were still quite expensive. He would have treasured every volume and known each title by heart. His library was in a round tower, so he had the bookshelves specially built to fit against the curve of the walls.

On the ceiling beams, Montaigne had sayings carved into the wood; Latin and Greek quotes from the classical authors to inspire him. One of these is from Pliny the Elder:

Solum certum nihil esse certi, Et homine nihil miserius aut superbius.

Which in English reads: Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain, And nothing is more retched or arrogant than man.

I can imagine myself in that room, with its works by Seneca and Cicero and Catullus and Aristotle looking down on the writing desk where Montaigne sat. It’s peaceful to even imagine it.

I don’t know how many books are currently in my own personal library; perhaps five or six times that number, maybe more, and I have had many, many more books pass through it in my lifetime. Many of them are mass market paperbacks, but more are hardcovers. Some are treasures 75-100 years old. Some have been with me for many decades (and in my collection are some of my father’s boyhood books, like the Boy’s Own Annuals I used to read when I was a child).

While our libraries are vastly different in subject matter and content, I think I share Montaigne’s pride in having a good, well-rounded personal library.

Whenever I go to anyone’s house, I always check their bookshelves. It may be judgmental of me, but I measure people by their libraries. Not so much by subject, but rather by seeing that they like to read, and read a lot. And books are perfect conversation starters; no one is lost for a mutual topic when you can discuss a book or an author.

Many years ago, when I was doing freelance work for a Toronto computer company, the owner told me he hadn’t read a book in years. That affected me so deeply that I have never forgotten it. I don’t think I have ever been able to say I haven’t read a book in days, let alone years. What a sad, empty existence he must have had.

07/30/14

Ruthful, funct and doleless


Crazy EnglishWhy can’t someone be clueful, only clueless? Hapful, not simply hapless? Aweless instead of just awful? Ruthful not merely ruthless? Doleless, not just doleful? Gormful, not just gormless?

We can be thoughtful or thoughtless, careful or careless, mindful and mindless. Why not ruthful and gormful? Why not the qualities of ruthiness, gormliness and doleliness?

Can we be kempt or just unkempt? Couth or just uncouth? Gruntled or just disgruntled? Shevelled or just dishevelled?* Maculate or just immaculate? Domitable, or just indomitable? Ruly or just unruly? Can we come ravelled instead of just unravelled? Can we member a corpse instead of just dismember it? Can a Wikipedia entry be an ambiguation rather than a title=”Wikipedia” href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Disambiguation” target=”_blank”>disambiguation?

If we’re not disappointed are we appointed? If not distressed are we tressed? If not discombobulated are we combobulated? If not nonplussed, are we plussed? If we’re not impeccable, are we just peccable? Can we be chalant rather than nonchalant? If we don’t want to dismantle something, can we mantle it? If we don’t disfigure a painting, do we figure it? If it’s not inevitable, is it evitable? If an event doesn’t unnerve us, is it nerving? If it’s not defunct is it funct? If an online hoax isn’t debunked, can it be bunked instead?

Can we be placcable, effable, trepid, ert, ane and feckful? can I rupt the proceedings? Can any love be requited? Can any heroes be sung? If I don’t dismiss you, do I miss you? If you stop your incessant chatter, does it become cessant? If I’m not an imbecile in your eyes, am I a becile? Can a tool be wieldy?

Some of these odd-seeming words have been in our language, just fallen out of favour or replaced by other terms. Ruthful, the Word Detective tells us, was in common use in the 12th until the 14th century, although it hung around as an anachronism until the 19th century.** Ruly was coined around 1400 CE, according to World Wide Words. Tools could never be wieldy, but persons could be, in the sense of being nimble (same source).

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07/13/14

The Lore of Tea


4 World-Famous Chinese Green TeasWhoa! Down the rabbit hole I tumbled this week. I started reading about tea in several books I recently purchased. What a story. What a delight! Many hours spent between the pages absorbing culture, history, types, classifications, production, terroirs and marketing.*

I’ve read bits and pieces about tea before; mostly history and cultural notes; some tidbits about specific types and specific bits I’ve gleaned from online sources. I never read any significantly detailled work about picking, grading and production previously. Nor was I fully aware of the range and depth of teas, the complex terroir of tea and the variations in (and recommendations for) making and drinking tea.**

I had a vague notion, of course. My kitchen shelves stock several boxes and packages of tea in both leaf and bag form. I know the rough difference between white, green and black teas (black which the Chinese call red tea…). I know that tea from China and tea from India and tea from Sri Lanka are different, but exactly how and why, or how they got their names and manners, I could only hypothesize.

Now I am replete with information and wide-eyed in wonder, albeit I still have a lot to learn – and I puzzle over some concepts. Perhaps not enough bookshelf space left, mind you, to be fully educated in tea, because clearly I need to buy more of these publications. (Can one ever own too many books? Yes, but only if you run out of living space.)

I am also informed about how to make a good cup of tea – temperature, container, infusor and more. I don’t have a simple method of determining water temperature (mayhap I need another kettle, one with a digital temperature setting?) but it appears the correct temperature matters a great deal to the resulting drink.

Tea History Terroirs VarietyLike most folks, I suppose, until recently tea was mostly a drink that came in a box full of bags you plunked into a cup, added boiling water, and let steep. Then came some milk.*** Maybe a touch of honey or sugar, too.

Voila: a cuppa. And several more to follow during the day.

That is, I’m learning, to tea culture what a bottle of my homemade plonk is to viniculture. Crass. Pedestrian.
Tea – real tea –  offers so much more than a bag of grocery store tea dust. And I ache to learn more about it.

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07/12/14

How to Spot a Communist


America Under CommunismAs I just learned from a recent piece on Open Culture, I must be a Communist. Based on my preference for writing (and reading), that is.

(This would definitely surprise my left-wing friends who often think I’m right of Stephen Harper… himself being so far right of the iconic Genghis Khan that it defines a memetic categorization). Damn, I’ve been exposed…

According to the piece, a 1955 manual prepared during the Second Red Scare for the U.S. First Army Headquarters helped readers identify potential “Communists.” Among these traits, the piece notes, is a preference for multi-syllabic words and long sentences (apparently Real Americans prefer a much-reduced vocabulary a la Winston’s Smith’s Newspeak and eschew the semicolon and a connector of subordinate phrases…):

While a preference for long sentences is common to most Communist writing, a distinct vocabulary provides the more easily recognized feature of the “Communist Language.” Even a superficial reading of an article written by a Communist or a conversation with one will probably reveal the use of some of the following expressions: integrative thinking, vanguard, comrade, hootenanny, chauvinism, book-burning, syncretistic faith, bourgeois-nationalism, jingoism, colonialism, hooliganism, ruling class, progressive, demagogy, dialectical, witch-hunt, reactionary, exploitation, oppressive, materialist.

This list, selected at random, could be extended almost indefinitely. While all of the above expressions are part of the English language, their use by Communists is infinitely more frequent than by the general public…

Why, I recall using the word “parsimonious” at one meeting of council only to have another councillor stop my discussion and demand to know what the word meant, never having heard it before in his life. Exposed, I was, as the Communist among them by my use of Big Words. I slunk back into my seat, afraid he might call me out. I vowed to shave my Lenin-like goatee at that moment…

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