Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad

cyberiadWhen visiting another land, there is no better souvenir than a book representing the literature of that place. So finding myself with free time in Krakow, I visited the largest bookstore I could find and started to flip through various Polish authors for a book to bring home. Milosz and Sienkiewicz both looked promising, but it was Stanislaw Lem that won the day. I might have ignored him as typical sci-fi, with the robots and astronauts on the covers, but the fact that his works were in a Modern Penguin Classics edition made me suspect there was something more going on.

For all the robots and the fantastic use of scientific terms, the book reads more like Gulliver’s Travels or The Phantom Tollbooth than anything by Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. The stories follow the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two “constructors”, and their machines which often get them into trouble. An early story involves a machine which can make anything that starts with the letter n. Everything starts well with it making neutrons and nuclei, and noses and nymphs. But then someone requests that it produce Nothing, and it starts to dismantle the entire cosmos…

The translation of the work itself is no small wonder, with all the many rhymes and word-games which appear in English, that could easily have been discarded along the way. For example, there is a poem-writing machine which takes in any criteria and then produces a perfect poem. “Have it compose a poem – a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!” And before any objections can be made, we hear:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

Even in the midst of these silly poetic exercises, Lem reflects on the meaning of poetry for mankind as he depicts robots worrying about who the greatest poet is.


That Lem is well-studied in both sciences and arts appears in each story. The title Cyberiad is an homage to other epic titles and I was pleased to learn that he wrote a work called Summa Technologiae—the title suggesting at least a familiarity with the works of Thomas Aquinas. Although he is an atheist and materialist, he does not discard human questions, but looks at them in light of his theories, even if this means arriving at something absurd or unsatisfying. There is an integrity in his approach that is refreshing, and he pokes fun at so many things that one never feels on the receiving end of a political tirade. There is also something beautiful about a world full of sentient robots using Latin to dignify their speech.

A fun-fact: Apparently the popular video game SimCity was inspired by a story in this book where the constructors make a miniature kingdom for a tyrant in order to satisfy his desire to tyrannize while saving his actual kingdom. A discussion ensues about how oppressing a tiny civilization is any better than oppressing larger one.

[This is #27 on my classics reading challenge.]


Jane Austen Miscellany

lady susanOnly smaller books are able to find their way into my schedule lately, but I am thankful that these have been excellent! The volume I most recently finished is a collection of Jane Austen miscellany: one short epistolary novel and two unfinished novels.

Lady Susan. My first question upon finishing this work: Why does no one talk about this one? Unlike the 6 major novels of Jane Austen, Lady Susan never comes up in conversations and yet it tells a story about the relations of a small social circle as well as any of her novels. What is especially impressive is that she does this all by means of letters which the characters write to one another, sometimes dissembling and sometimes manifesting their true intentions. Whereas Austen’s narrator are usually close to the mind of one character in particular, these letters have us going back and forth between two antagonistic relatives whose outward actions would not betray the extent of the drama so well as the letters. The titular Lady Susan also stands out as being perhaps the most seductive character in Austen’s novels, causing destruction and discord wherever she goes. Lady Susan is the only complete work in the collection and the only one that would appeal to all readers.

The Watsons. This incomplete work is the least interesting of the bunch, but still worth reading for an Austen fan. The characters and situations resemble those in her other works, though not matching any of them entirely. Because the novel only barely gets off the ground, it really doesn’t serve for much more than getting one more example of Austen’s writing.

V0012256 Humorous image of society ladies trying to swim, Brighton. C

Sanditon. How awful that this novel remained incomplete! From the first pages, this novel seemed different than any other work I’ve read from Austen. The characters are very eccentric: from a funny man obsessed with his town of Sanditon to his family of hypochondriacs to a literate buffoon in need of a wealthy marriage to the eventual heroine who is shocked by the vices and oddities of the people around her. The interior life of this character is markedly different from the more docile characters in Jane Austen novels. “The words  ‘Unaccountable officiousness! – Activity run mad!’ – had just passed through Charlotte’s mind – but a civil answer was easy.” And as she continues to interact with the other characters, we see her gently mocking those around while trying not to look too surprised by their irrational manners. If I had to compare this work to another of Austen’s, it probably comes closest to Northanger Abbey, but only inasmuch as it is not afraid to be a bit silly. It really is unlike her other works and might have become one of her most popular. The erudition of some characters as well as the attention to medical fashions looks to me like an anticipation of George Eliot’s novels, which is perhaps another reason I like this work so much.

In sum: I recommend Lady Susan to all, but can only recommend the other two works to fans of Jane Austen. Whereas The Watsons does not show us something different from her major novels, Sanditon indicated a major change from her other works that would have finished as something excellent.

[This work is #26 on my classics reading challenge.]

Two Poets: Aristophanes and Rilke

Since coming back to school, I have spent more time reading for my thesis than reading for leisure, but thankfully found time for these two short works.

bacchusAristophanes: The Frogs. I was at a bookstore purchasing a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad on someone’s recommendation and, noticing this little volume of Aristophanes for only a few dollars, I threw it on the checkout counter for good measure. And I’m glad I did! Shortly after I started Atwood’s take on an ancient classic, I found myself desiring to read something actually ancient and Aristophanes was ready for that purpose. And how excellent it was! I remember having to read The Clouds and The Birds in college and, though funny in parts, I was mostly put off by the vulgarity and how irreverent it was toward Socrates (someone I held in great veneration). Picking up this one, I was struck by how easy it was to imagine on stage. The early scenes of Dionysus (dressed as Hercules) bantering with his servant sounded like something that would appear on SNL in our own time. As the play goes on, Dionysus goes down to the underworld and for all of its silliness, there is actually worthy reflection on the relative merits of serious, grave literature (represented by Aeschylus) and popular literature (represented by Euripides). Aristophanes does an excellent job in presenting caricatures of these poets while also composing the poems by which they duel against each other to claim top spot in the underworld. I wonder if Dante had the works of Aristophanes and was in some way influenced when he depicted his own favorite poets in the underworld. This work did what good writing should do: It made me want to keep reading. I started looking for the plays of Euripides after this and also wanted to discover how difficult Aristophanes is to read in Greek, since I’m sure the poetry jokes have much more nuance in the original. I can easily recommend this to anyone who ever has or will read Greek drama. If you didn’t like other plays by Aristophanes, give this one a shot.


Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet. I bought this at a used bookstore in Jerusalem. I think I was buying a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and the worker couldn’t make change, and so he said I could take another book at half price, and it was Rilke’s that caught my eye. It is a series of letters which Rilke wrote to another aspiring poet, containing advice and helpful criticism. Although I did not care for all the advice, I appreciated his recommendation to spend time with things. His view was that a poet communicates something of reality, and so a poet must place himself in front of things in order to have an object to communicate. His observations on sexuality also indicate a bit of wisdom, even in the midst of folly. One example is his understanding that sex is ordered to procreation, to the begetting of the next generation, and that this is not unique to man but is common among all animals. Seeing through the sentimental and individual aspects of sexuality to the natural and universal is not something one sees so often, so I appreciate this. Another observation in this area is that even if one seeks to escape institutions (for example, that of marriage), one ends up inventing institutions all the same and being caught up in them. He sounds a bit fatalistic when he says this, but it is true observation that should encourage one to make the most of existing institutions. One last piece of advice that is worth repeating was his recommendation to avoid writing satire while feeling uninspired. He says that one should only write satire at one’s best because it is far too easy to write bad satire and does not contribute to becoming a poet. I would recommend these letters of Rilke, probably not to everyone, but to anyone who has some aspiration to be a poet.

[These works are #24 and #25 on my classics reading challenge.]

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.

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.


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