Tackle the Library

A blogger I follow recently wrote about his hardship in trying to find readers to review his books. Moved with compassion for his trial and seeing that his books were about topics of interest to me (Plato and the French Revolution), I purchased a couple of them myself so as to provide some reviews. What impressed me the most about the two titles was the concept behind their writing, which the author calls tackling the library. This is how you do it:

  • Pick a topic worth knowing about, that you know very little about.
  • Find the top 5 books on that topic.
    • (You don’t have to use a library, but that is often the cheapest route.)
  • Read them.
    • (This is the longest step: Oldham had 2100 pages of reading on the French Revolution and 4000 pages on Plato. I read over 12,000 pages last year, so this is certainly a plausible amount.)
  • Write a book with your newly acquired learning.

That’s it. The idea is that once you’ve read several thousand pages on a topic, you know enough to write a book about it. And I think it works: In each case, Oldham produces a 75-page book on the chosen topic that serves as a balanced introduction, with a bit of personal touch as well.

tackllibraryOf the two books I read, one was on a topic I do not know well (the French Revolution) and the other on a topic I have read and studied up on (Plato). This allowed me to judge how successfully the one works as an introduction and how accurately the other one reflects what I know about the subject. In both cases, the works met the mark. With respect to the French Revolution, I know have in mind an outline of the key events, a list of persons I want to research further, and some of the common misconceptions have been corrected or put into context. I expected to be much more critical of the book on Plato, but I found that Oldham introduces each theme in a reasonable order and treats the difficulties in such a way that readers can understand why Plato spent so much time on them. I will always recommend that someone interested go directly to the writings of Plato, but for readers daunted by those dialogues or merely curious about the ancient thinker, Oldham provides a compact summary.

More than these two books, I am intrigued by the notion of tackling the library itself and I hope to try it when I am situated more closely to an American local library. Does this method of learning appeal to you? For what topic will you attempt to tackle the library?

An odd coincidence: Jon Oldham and I were at the same high school for three years, but I don’t think we ever spoke to each other and only hardly knew of each other. Just this last summer, I was at a pancake house in Benton Harbor when he recognized me, introduced himself, and we were able exchange our appreciation for the other’s love of learning. The world seems to get smaller every day…

Check out Jon Oldham’s blog: Dare to be Wise.

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Summer reading: Ishiguro, Zola, Nabokov

With six months since my last post, I will combine several titles under a few blog posts. Though I have not written lately, I have not stopped reading!

manuelKazuo Ishiguro: Remains of the Day. I picked up this book at recommendation of blogger, not having ever talked to anyone about this author. Ishiguro was born in Japan but raised entirely in the UK, and the novel reminds one of Downton Abbey with its setting in an upscale house. The story is told by a butler. In some sense, the novel takes place over a weekend as the butler goes to visit an old acquaintance; as he goes, he reflects on his life which turns into flashback that stretch over decades of his service. One of the constant themes is the notion of excellence—what it means to be a butler of distinction—and how this at times seems to conflict with human happiness. I myself wondered how anyone could take so much pride in being a servant without something higher in mind, something beyond this world. One of the sorrows that appears is the fall into disgrace of the master: What can this mean for a servant who has given himself entirely to the service of his master, perhaps without holding any higher ideal?

I enjoyed immensely how the book unfolded. Without any sort of ostentation, the reader arrives at conclusions along with the butler as the book goes on, though perhaps realizing before he does all of the opportunities lost. The emotion it produces is a heavy sort of sorrow, and yet a very quiet one that takes place under a polite smile. I could recommend this book to anyone who wanted a quick read.

degas interior

Émile Zola: Thérèse Raquin. What a wretched book! I was in an airport bookstore and saw this novel which appeared short enough to finish during my flights, and I was planning to read Zola eventually anyway. As far as morals go, I think it is straightforward and true enough: Guilt drives out the pleasure of sin and, indeed, one sin leads to another. Furthermore, when I say it is wretched, I do not mean that it does not accomplish its end well. Zola pulls off the horror well. There is a woman who knows of a horrible crime and is unable to inform anyone due to her inability to move or speak: you feel the horror of the guilty ones who dread the possibility of her divulgence, her despair at being unable to communicate, and the dullness of the persons who suspect nothing. Overall, I do not care for the book. It is too awful for the simple message it advances. As far as problematic literary elements, I found that there was nothing necessary about its ending—it seems the book could have ended just as well at many earlier places, and I don’t see why it could not have gone on. I have not yet recommended this to anyone.

zembla

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire. This book was recommended to me about a year ago in a book store. In general, I have had little interest in Nabokov, finding the subject of his most popular work repulsive, but I happened to pick this one up in a book store. Looking inside, I surprised to find how the book was structured: it begins with a 999-line poem to which many pages of footnotes follow. And that is the book. That was enough for me to be interested! As I started to read the “footnotes”, I saw that there were three stories unfolding: that of the editor who is the author of the footnotes, that of the poem’s author, and that of the exiled ruler of Zembla who the editor wanted as the subject of the poem “Pale Fire”. Within a few pages, there was a reference to the foreword which I had skipped, so I flipped back before the poem and found that the foreword was also a fiction composed for the work! One of the things that kept the novel interesting was that each “footnote” could be entirely different: sometimes just explaining cultural reference, at other times giving a whole narrative about one or other of the persons involved. The book is funny as well. An example: Since the work is largely a commentary on the poem, the author recommends buying two copies of the book so that you can have one open to the commentary and one open to the poem—a silly recommendation when you can flip back and forth.

Nabokov’s mastery of language comes forth as well. The only evidence that English is his second or third language is the ease which with he makes jokes that cross the boundaries of different languages. To accompany his invented land of Zembla he constructed at least bits of a language called Zemblan, from which he gives occasional etymologies and a few times gives an English translation from the Zemblan version of a Shakespeare play he has lying around (it was either Timon of Athens or Titus Andronicus—I can’t remember, and my copy is on the other side of the world). There are a few needlessly perverse scenes in the book but these aren’t what one remembers after reading: it’s the language, the structure and the intersection of multiple narrative. I highly recommend Pale Fire to anyone who enjoys reading.

[These titles are #21, #22 and #23 on my classic reading challenge.]

My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

Image result for reni massacreThe recommendation of this book came after watching the season finale of Shtisel, an Israeli drama about a family of Orthodox Jews living in modern-day Jerusalem. One of the characters, a twenty-something man named Akiva, loves painting and this often runs counter to the interests of his father, his work and his prospects of marriage. My Name is Asher Lev takes place 60 years ago in New York, and yet the Lev family could be next-door neighbors with the Shtisel family. Both feature characters with sidecurls and fringes, speaking Yiddish and Hebrew, observing Shabbat and the prescripts of the Talmud, and invoking often the name of the Lord—though one hears Ribbono shel Olom (Master of the Universe) in one and ha-Shem (the Name) in the other. Continue reading

Adam Bede, my last major Eliot novel

Hetty Sorrel and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs Poyser's dairyWithout unveiling anything that happens in the course of the book, I will say it becomes a page-turner only about halfway through. Early on, whenever someone asked me what I was reading, the only descriptions I could give made it sound like a simple love story with little else to offer. But it picks up. Once I hit the middle point, I soon read through the rest before anyone else had a chance to ask me about it.

To sum up a moral for the story, it is how one brief bit of carelessness can lead to evils untold, for others and for oneself; consequences that can last far longer than the original act that set them in motion and can endure even to death, and even more. Of course, what does it matter if one is careless, so long as no one finds out? Again, this book demonstrates how great are the repercussions that follow on the smallest revelation—how much more when all things are revealed? Then it will only be those who have no secrets that will be at ease and without shame. Continue reading

An Elegy for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare

Before I talk about Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare, the first winner of the Booker Man International Prize, I want to give a little background about the setting:

tsar lazar

An icon of Tsar Lazar that I found on my own journey to Serbia

One of my favorite books of all time is the vast Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a philosophically and historically packed narrative of a journey through Yugoslavia in the 1930s. The title refers to two images that appear late in the book and perhaps leave a greater impression than any other part in the book. Whereas the black lamb becomes for West an image of the ugliest aspect of the Southern Slav, the grey falcon is a symbol of their loftiest aspect, which holds eternity in greater esteem than world success, and yet not without tragedy. Partly from laziness and partly for conveying the effect of oral history, I will retell the story of the grey falcon as I remember it from Rebecca West and other sources, so as to form something of a background to Kadare’s little novel.

It is 1389 on the eve of a great battle with the Turks. The Serbs and their allies are prepared for battle in the Kosovo Field. It is in the region of Kosovo that one find the head of the Serbian Church and many of their monasteries. The Serbs were led by one known as Tsar Lazar, not a king of the royal family, but the effective ruler of Serbs.

kosovo fieldAnd so, it is said that on the eve of battle, Tsar Lazar saw in the sky a grey falcon coming from Jerusalem with a swallow in its mouth, only it was not a grey falcon, but the Prophet Elijah! And it was not a swallow, but a book written by the Mother of God which he carried with him. And so, Tsar Lazar received this book and read in it a promise and a decision. The armies may go out tomorrow for battle and obtain both victory and earthly glory. Or they can celebrate the Divine Liturgy, having every soldier receive the sacrament, and then they will go out to battle with Turks, and nearly every soldier will die, but they will thereby obtain eternal glory.

And so, Tsar Lazar ordered the beautiful carpets to be laid out, for an altar to be brought forth and set, and for the priests to vest for the Divine Liturgy. The next day, Tsar Lazar nearly every soldier on the side of the Serbs fell in battle and the Serbs became vassals to the Islamic Ottoman Empire for centuries to come. And yet the Serb identity did not die. This defeat of the Serbs was immortalized in Serbian poetry and included within this were the words of Tsar Lazar: Cursed be every Serb that does not fight for Kosovo. And so one could hear echoes of these songs ringing even in 1999, during the brief Kosovo War, as the Serbs attempted to expel the Albanians from the region of Kosovo before this action was halted by foreign intervention. Continue reading

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

wheat bouguereau“Now that I think of it, most of my girls have married men they were afraid of. I believe there is a good deal of the cow in most Swedish girls.”

O Pioneers! is the first volume of the Great Plains trilogy by Willa Cather. It centers on a Swedish family migrating to Nebraska at the turn of the century, and their struggles and triumphs, with the land and with the neighbors that surround them. She portrays not just Swedish people and customs, but also the neighboring Bohemian, French and Germans immigrants. As the novel goes on, some of the character become more “American”: only speaking English at home, leaving customs aside that attract the neighbors’ attention, and always seeking out the latest must-have invention or fad. The more charming characters are those who keep something of the old country, whether it is the old grandmother who only speaks Swedish and is afraid to use the bath tub, or the barefoot horse doctor who has vision and spells but is perfectly harmless. Continue reading

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

decline and fallThe Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh splits nearly into two parts: the first is spent in an all-boys school, the second in a prison. The two parts side-by-side give the impression that the settings are not as entirely different as one suspects. The first half of the book spends a long time introducing each of the characters and the second half of the book takes its time killing each of them off. Characters have silly names, such as Lady Circumference.

A problem with funny writing is that the joke might not make sense after a couple years, or in the case of Decline and Fall, after 90 years. Continue reading