Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Spin List for March

I didn't post this in time for the spin, but I already had the list ready to go.  I haven't checked to see what #8 is in my list yet... Here goes:
  1. How German is It Abish
  2. A Death in the Family Agee
  3. Humboldt's Gift Bellow
  4. G Berger
  5. The Chaneysville Incident Bradley
  6. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain  Butler
  7. The Green Lantern Charyn
  8. The Woman in White Collins
  9. The Inheritance of Loss Desai
  10. The Reivers Faulkner
  11. The Keepers of the House Grau
  12. Snow Falling on Cedars Guterson
  13. The Way West  Guthrie
  14. Mrs. Kimball Haigh
  15. The Bone People Hulme
  16. Brave New World Huxley
  17. The Executioner's Song Mailer
  18. Lonesome Dove McMurtry
  19. Tales of the South Pacific Michener
  20. Lolita Nabakov
And the winner is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  Good gracious it's huge!  After reading the back cover, I guess it is not about a nurse.  lol

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Plato's Republic

The Republic was the most difficult book I have ever read.  It took me two months of concerted effort to complete, and I feel as if new grooves had to be dug into my brain to get the job done.  Mostly I learned that my brain wants to vociferously resist any kind of improvement of this sort.  My eyes will water and my mouth will hinge into gaping yawns after two pages.  I had to read, and re-read, then re-read again, most of the entire book.  I apparently have the attention span of a gnat.  But the more I read, the more I was drawn in.  It is not a book one just reads; it must be studied and puzzled over, discussed and studied again.  It was a transformative experience.  Mediocre reads I had previously enjoyed seem exceptionally lame now, like I have been spoiled for them.
The Republic surprised me on many levels.  Many concepts that I thought came straight out of Catholicism actually had their basis in the philosophy of Socrates.  The cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the underpinnings of Catholic social justice teaching, were directly codified by Plato.  Who knew?  And though Socrates gave lip service to “the gods,” at times, he often seemed to unify them into just one.  Also, the story of “Er” while fully supporting reincarnation, definitely gives credence to an early form of Purgatory as well.  And this is all 400 years before the birth of Christ.

I found the portion discussing the various political states very illuminating.  Socrates’ explanation of why a meritocracy will devolve into an oligarchy, which will then devolve into democracy and finally into tyranny is almost chillingly prescient.  It was very odd to see any other form of government held up as being superior to democracy, but his reasoning, of course, is very sound, since he considers democracy a sort of mob-rule.  Surprisingly, Socrates also appears to have believed somewhat in the equality of the sexes, or at least, that exceptional woman could compete on a male playing field.

The Republic is worth all the effort it took to absorb.  I understand now why it is considered a foundational work in the western literary cannon.  It is amazing that so much well-reasoned thought came from a single source.  We are lucky that it has survived, when so many other works perished.  The world would be a completely different place if everyone read Plato; it certainly deserves a place on every classicist’s short list.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Spin Review of The Known World

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 2004, set in the years prior to the Civil War in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, describes the rich tapestry of characters and events that take place after the death of black slave owner, Henry Townsend.  Purchased out of slavery during his youth by his parents, Townsend goes on to later purchase land near his former master, with whom he retains ties of esteem throughout his entire brief life.  Educated by a local freed-woman teacher so light-skinned she could go north to “pass,” Townsend does not follow the path of his free father, but rather purchases slaves to become a master himself.

Throughout the novel, Jones unflinchingly reveals the little known history of black on black slave ownership, as well as the subtle racism of lighter skinned versus darker skinned blacks.  Townsend’s widow, Caldonia, is beset by the pressures of running a plantation in the antebellum south, without the full backing of the law, which only supports freed blacks when it is convenient to do so.  Jones’ depiction of the lives of the Townsend slaves, as well as those of the local sheriff and slave catchers, creates a compelling tale that masterfully weaves in and out of time and place with touches of the surreal.  Things do not always develop as one might expect in Manchester County, some people are better than you would think, and others behave very badly indeed, and sometimes the crazy are proved to understand it best of all.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Spin #19 - The Known World

Oh no, I tried reading that one before and gave up!  I'll have to try much harder this time.

The Known World is by Edward P. Jones, and won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner.  It is my lucky #19, which I will endeavor to read before February 1, 2016.  Wish me luck.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Spin List for December 2015

Here is my spin list for December 2015.  All titles are taken from my list of 50 in 5 years.  I eliminated most of the books I did not think I could complete in a single month, though some of these would be really challenging as well.

  1. "Prometheus Bound" by Aeschylus, 14 pp., c. 480 BC
  2. "Medea", "Electra", "The Orestes", "Andromache" 
    • & "Iphigenia Among the Tauri"
  3. "The Clouds", "The Birds", "The Frogs" & "The Lysistrata" 
    • by Aristophanes
  4. The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, 244 pp.
  5. The Annals by Tacitus, 188 pp., c. 109 AD
  6. The Confessions by St. Augustine, 128 pp., 398 AD
  7. King Henry the Fourth by Shakespeare, 69 pp., 1596
  8. King Lear by Shakespeare, 1608
  9. Pensees by Pascal, 184 pp., 1670
  10. The Social Contract by Rousseau, 52 pp., 1762
  11. Faust by Goethe, 294 pp., 1808
  12. The Essays of Emerson, 262 pp., 1841
  13. Barchester Towers by Trollope, 476 pp., 1857
  14. Middlemarch by Elliot, 831 pp., 1871
  15. Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, 935 pp., 1875
  16. Sons and Lovers by Lawrence, 366 pp., 1913
  17. Brave New World by Huxley, 237 pp., 1932
  18. The Reivers by Faulkner, 305 pp, 1962
  19. The Known World by Jones, 388 pp., 2003
  20. The Sea by Banville, 195 pp., 2005

Monday, November 30, 2015

Plato's "Crito"

Plato’s “Apology” and “Crito” are nearly always assigned to be read together, which makes perfect sense because they are so closely related. In “Apology,” Socrates gets sentenced to death; and in “Crito,” Socrates’ buddy, Crito, tries to convince Socrates to fly the coop before the sentence can be carried out.  There is no time to lose, since the ship from Delos has arrived, signaling that Socrates will be put to death very soon.

Socrates is reluctant to flee his own doom, but he agrees to listen to Crito, and to put to the test his arguments in favor of escape.  Crito loves Socrates, and he fears that others will believe the disgraceful idea that he would not spare the money to save Socrates’ life.  He points out that Socrates is deserting his own children, and appears to be taking the easy way out.  Crito is also concerned that Socrates fears that anyone who helps him to escape will get into trouble with the authorities, which they both agree is a possibility.

Socrates argues that the fear of what others will think should not be a consideration because the “doctrines of the multitude” are invalid, and only the opinion of the one person with complete understanding should actually be consulted.

Crito further argues that the law that condemns Socrates is unjust and should not be upheld; however, Socrates is concerned that in leaving the prison he is doing wrong against the state.  Socrates contends that he should value and obey the state which “nurtured and educated” him above even his mother and father.  He rightly points out that he had every opportunity to leave the state during his lifetime, and was even offered exile as a possible punishment during the trial, but categorically refused.  Furthermore, why would any decent state welcome a known felon such as himself?

In the end, Socrates decides that he would prefer to “depart (the world) in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws but of men.”  He tells Crito, “Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Plato's "Apology"

I just finished reading Plato’s breathtakingly unapologetic “Apology,” on the trial of Socrates.  Socrates is on trial for his life, which (spoiler alert) he loses, yet he cannot bring himself to treat the accusations against him as anything more than an interesting logic puzzle.  The charges against Socrates are two-fold:  he is accused of being a man “who speculated about the heaven above, and searched in the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause”; and “is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own.” Both charges, apparently, being capital crimes in 399 B.C. Athens.

Now Socrates, at over 70, is hopelessly arrogant.  In his youth, the Oracle of Delphi prophesized that he was the wisest of all men.  He has spent all the intervening years attempting to prove the gods false, failing miserably in the process, and alienating half of Athens while he does so.   He spends all his time quizzing politicians, poets and artisans on their respective levels of wisdom, and always finds them wanting.  He found the politicians not wise at all; the poets could not even explain their own poetry; and the artisans, while knowledgeable about their craft, made the mistake of thinking that they were wise about things they knew nothing about.  To be fair, Socrates’ enemies always thought he was putting himself forward as being the wisest of them all, but he claims nothing could be further from the case.

“…for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is … that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing, … he is only using my name by way of illustration.  He… is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.”

Socrates answers the second charge by pointing out that it would be foolish to corrupt a man, because in all likelihood, the corrupted man would harm him in turn.  His insistent questioning of his accusers brings them step by step to agreement with his thesis, thus angering them even further.  He appears genuinely confused that he is accused of not believing in gods at all, and also of believing in other gods; a charge he believes only serves to identify the illogic of his accusers.

Through the entire trial, Socrates has little to no consideration for the final verdict.  He feels that a good man should not calculate the cost of doing the right thing, even if the cost is death.  After all, no one knows if dying is a good or bad thing, so doing something bad to avoid death is clearly not wise.

Socrates is convicted, of course, and refuses to be exiled or to promise to stop his offending behavior.   He believes that death is actually either just a nice long rest, or that the gods (of whom he was convicted of not believing) shall care for him in the afterlife because he has always attempted to do their bidding.  He reminds us that avoiding unrighteousness is far more important than avoiding death, especially since death comes to all men anyway… and he’s already old!