Category: non-fiction

How to Read a Book (75 Books – IX)

I’ve heard of Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book here and there before, but decided to give it a read after seeing Henry Dampier’s review of it, and thinking that it may be useful, especially since I’m trying to read more (and maybe even read better) this year.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book as helpful as I thought I might, though that’s not really the fault of the authors. My main problem is simply that I’m already doing some of the things they suggest, e.g.¬† “inspectional” reading, skim- or pre-reading, or taking notes. The reminders don’t hurt, and I did pick up a few things, but I didn’t really need 336 pages of it, either.

The most relevant section for me was on syntopical reading, which involves methodically reading several books on the same subject. This would be very helpful for undertaking a research project, and to some extent I have approximated this recently, though not in such an organised fashion as they describe, and I have a hard time imagining making this my primary method of reading.

Overall, I’d highly recommend the book to high school or college students, and it is worth a quick read-through for everyone. It’s not quite on the same subject since it focuses on literature, but for those who want to read a book about reading I’ve always highly recommended Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading.

Next up on the reading list is another book about the Habsburgs, this time¬†The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815, by Charles W. Ingrao.…

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75 Books in 2015 – VI (In Praise of Shadows)

Tanizaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows is ostensibly a book-length essay in defense of traditional Japanese aesthetics, especially in architecture. He doesn’t really present a formal argument, though; instead, he presents a series of ruminations and anecdotes on topics loosely related to the main idea of the importance of shadows, darkness, and quiet in Japanese architecture. The book reminds me of taking a short, meandering walk with someone through their garden, as they relate some story of each place you come across. Some subjects include cuisine, noh and kabuki theatre, restaurant lighting, and toilets. I found this style interesting, even persuasive, but it may be the sort of “argument” that you either get or you don’t.

The book is so short, under fifty pages, that there’s no excuse not to read it if you have any interest in Japanese culture, aesthetics, or architecture, and the book’s a pleasure to read. Just to give a feel for the book, here’s Tanizaki on gold used in a priest’s garments:

I have said that lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark; and for this same reason were the fabrics of the past so lavishly woven of threads of silver and gold. The priest’s surplice of gold brocade is perhaps the best example. In most of our city temples, catering to the masses as they do, the main hall will be brightly lit, and these garments of gold will seem merely gaudy. No matter how venerable a man the priest may be, his robes will convey no sense of his dignity. But when you attend a service at an old temple, conducted after the ancient ritual, you see how perfectly the gold harmonizes with the wrinkled skin of the old priest and the flickering light of the altar lamps, and how much it contributes to the solemnity of the occasion. As with the lacquerware, the bold patterns remain for the most part hidden in darkness; only occasionally does a bit of gold or silver gleam forth.

One more excerpt, this time from his discussion of why the Japanese prefer their darker aesthetic, whereas Westerners try to bring in as much light as possible in their architecture:

But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.

So, that’s six books for the year. Next up are a couple volumes of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. After that, I’m not sure, but probably it’ll be more history.…

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75 Books in 2015 – IV (The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918)

Alright, we’re not even half a month into this challenge, and we’re bangin’ on all cylinders. My fourth completed book of the year is The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918, by A.J.P. Taylor.

Now, I’m the sort of person who can’t help but feel a fondness for the Habsburgs, but I don’t feel confident that I know enough about them, so this book was a good step in correcting that. Well, somewhat, at least – because it focuses on 1809 onwards, much of it only covers one Habsburg, Franz Joseph, who reigned from 1848-1916. Furthermore, the book is actually fairly depressing, as it covers the decline and fall of the Austrian empire. There are very few triumphs here, and there’s a lot of muddling along and compromising, trying to hold the empire together for as long as possible, yet knowing that things cannot go on forever. Indeed, if the empire hadn’t been necessary to maintain stability in this part of Europe and thus been handled with kid-gloves by its neighbours, it may well have collapsed earlier than it did. As Taylor put it, “Austria was preserved to suit the convenience of others, not by her own strength. A Great Power becomes a European necessity only when it is in decline; the truly great do not need to justify their existence.”

Taylor isn’t afraid to state his own opinion on the people and policies he covers, and the vast majority of his judgements are negative. When an Italian war seemed possible in the early Twentieth Century, for example, he writes, “A war against Italy would have given even the Habsburg Monarchy the tonic of victory; for Italy was a ridiculous imitation of a Great Power, impressive only to professional diplomats and literary visitors.” This is fine with me, though some people might find his constant negativity grating, and he does get carried away at least once, when discussing Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolph: “[H]e intended to save the Empire by a more violent dose of German liberalism, and would have paired well with Frederick III, who had similar projects for Germany. Fortunately for himself and for others, Rudolph committed suicide.”

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in European history. I likely will supplement it with another book covering an earlier era of the Habsburg monarchy, to see how the situation covered here arose in the first place.

Next up is more graphic novel fun (most likely either Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin or A Bride’s Story), then Tanizuki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows.…

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75 Books in 2015 – I (Iron Kingdom)

As I mentioned in the 2014 year-end post, I’m going to make an attempt at this challenge at LibraryThing to read 75 books in 2015. You can find my specific thread here, but I’ll also be sharing my progress on this weblog and use the thread mostly as a means of “officially” entering the challenge and to talk with any other LibraryThing members who care to stop by. I won’t be doing full reviews of these books; in most cases I’ll probably just share a few things I liked or didn’t, maybe a notable passage or two, and whether I recommend it or not.

I don’t have a particular strategy going in, and honestly have no idea how many books I typically read in a year. It generally takes longer than I’d like to get through prose books, which lowers my books-per-year average, but I also read a fair number of graphic novels, which typically don’t take me very long.

I probably will try to pick a few “themes” to focus my reading somewhat; with Mishima Yukio last year, I simply alternated between one of his novels and something, anything else, ending with a biography about him. So, I was able to make some progress on just one author, since every other book I read was by or about him, but didn’t get burned out, since I had several other things mixed in. This year, my first goal is to get through the stack of books I got for my birthday and Christmas; after that, I’ll probably focus on either reading more of William Shakespeare, or an array of political writers or philosophers (e.g., Joseph de Maistre and Julius Evola). We’ll see.

In any case, I finished book #1 today, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark. Recently I’ve felt that I need to deepen my knowledge of history, and I’ve seen recommendations for this one, so it seemed like a good start for that project. Clark’s writing is clear, and I appreciate that he doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind, even though Prussian history can get especially controversial around the issue of Prussian “militarism.” He says in the introduction, “The polarized judgments that abound in contemporary debate (and in parts of the historical literature) are problematic, not just because they impoverish the complexity of the Prussian experience, but also because they compress its history into a national teleology of German guilt.”

I also appreciate that he distributes his attention mostly equally across the entire time period covered by the book, rather than giving disproportionate space to, say, just the modern era. He does jump over a few subjects quickly, which is unavoidable in a one-volume history covering several centuries; there’s less about Wilhelm I and II than I’d like, for example. One small thing that annoyed me is that he uses typically uses anglicised names, so “Friedrich” is “Frederick,” “Wilhelm” is “William,” and so on.

So, that’s one book down, seventy-four to go. Next up I’ll knock out a couple graphic novels that I’ve had sitting around, then move on to a related subject with A.J.P. Taylor’s The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918.…

Read More 75 Books in 2015 – I (Iron Kingdom)

Mishima’s ‘Sun and Steel’

Mishima Yukio has quickly become one of my favourite authors. The hardest part of writing a post about him, though, is probably deciding just what to focus on, as he was tremendously prolific. In his 20-year career, he averaged at least one full novel a year, one full play a year, several short plays and short stories, as well as some essays and poems. I suppose the best place to start would be Sun and Steel, where he explains the philosophy and aesthetic that underlies his novels.

The central problem Mishima confronts is how to reconcile words, which I understand as analagous to mind or spirit, with the body, the physical world which does not depend on words and which words often cannot describe. The former he felt he mastered at a young age. After all, he made his living as a novelist, read widely, and was naturally introverted as a child.

The body he began to understand only gradually, through a handful of experiences. He relates how, as a child, he would watch religious processions of young men carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) through town, and noticed that they all looked up toward the sky as though experiencing an epiphany. He wondered what they saw and thought. Years later, he took part in such a procession, and as he felt the weight of the mikoshi on his shoulders and began marching in step with the other young men, he realised what they had all been thinking: nothing at all. They were merely gazing at the sun.

When I first read that story, it struck me as anticlimactic. However, I think it relates partly to an older Japanese tradition. Famed swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi noted (in his Book of the Five Rings) that a skilled warrior does not consciously plan his moves, but acts and reacts to an opponent by a kind of instinct. Miyamoto and Mishima refer to a kind of knowledge that does not rely on the intellect, and which words cannot quite adequately describe. While many philosophies (e.g., Confucianism) urge cultivation of the intellect, they often neglect this physical knowledge which, according to Mishima properly forms fully half of human experience.

So, to be a full man, one must cultivate both the body and the intellect. After a man’s gotten a library card and gym membership, though, what should he do next? Is there a way to reconcile these two types of knowledge? The question persists through several of his novels to varying extents. See, for example, Runaway Horses, the second book in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The story takes place in pre-World War II Japan, and the protaganist, Iinuma Isao, has mastered control of his body through kendo, and has also kept his spirit completely pure. This purity leads him to decide that he must, somehow, serve the emperor by protecting him from the corrupted politicians and capitalists who control Japan. His purity gives him the will and his body gives him the ability to act, and his solution is to gather like-minded comrades and then assassinate certain key figures, then commit suicide after accomplishing that mission. They hoped that their own dramatic action would inspire the rest of the nation to demand a restoration of imperial authority.

One could also relate this, of course, to Mishima’s own decision to commit suicide, and in spectacular fashion at that. Along with a few followers, he took over a military office, demanded the restoration of imperial power, and then committed suicide. His inspiration came from words, his action from the body.

 

(image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

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Orwell’s Review of ‘Mein Kampf’

In March 1940, George Orwell published a review of a translation of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf. The whole review is of at least historical interest, including the note that, since the edition had been published a year earlier, was edited from a pro-Hitler angle.

Of more lasting value, though, is Orwell’s reflection on why Hitler seemed so appealing to so many, even outside Germany. The first is familiar to many already: charisma. Hitler was not attractive, his writing clumsy, but his appearance and personality make him look like a “martyr,” in Orwell’s words, “One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to.” This seems incredible today, when reductio ad hitlerum is often taken as a valid argument, but of course that view comes with the benefit of hindsight and the effect of the public schools emphasizing the Holocaust. Some of our own modern messiahs may also age poorly, though it’s too soon to tell for certain.

Orwell finds a second point of appeal to Nazism: “Hitler has said to them [Germany] ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death.'” Sounds great, right? Sign me up!

Seriously, though, I can see the appeal. Hedonism, the mere seeking of pleasure, seems attractive for a while, but many people prefer a sense of adventure. Something glorious, historic, like what they read in history and fables; that sense of belonging to a movement greater than oneself.…

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George Orwell: Essays

This is the first of a series of posts on George Orwell. I recently bought a giant (1,300+ pages!) collection of his essays and journalism, published by Everyman’s Press. The volume itself is pretty nice, except for what appears to be fudge stains on the back. Thanks, Barnes & Noble.

Anyway, the highlights here are the essays themselves. One would expect in a volume this large that much of the content would essentially be filler. So far, though, that does not seem to be the case at all. The more famous essays I’ve encountered so far – “Politics and the English Language,” “Rudyard Kipling,” “My Country Right or Left” – have all been engaging. Surprisingly, though, even short articles and book reviews often contain still-relevant insights into the subject matter, and even reveal something of the author’s personality.

I’ll delve into all this more over the next few weeks, when I examine individual essays more closely. For now, though, I highly recommend looking into these essays yourself. Orwell is best known for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but his shorter work is almost as valuable as those novels, and probably more so for those looking to understand Orwell’s own politics.…

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The Same Man – A Brief Review

Sometimes one encounters a book whose subject matter gives the author no excuse for boring his audience. David Lebedoff has had the fortune of finding just such a topic for The Same Man, which was released earlier this year (er, last year). Most of the work is a short biography of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Now, these two at first glance may seem like an odd pair to write about in the same volume, since their personal lives and political and religious views so widely differed, and they only met each other once.

However, this is not just some random pairing, but rather a great insight on Lebedoff’s part, because the theme of the book is just how similar the two men were in their views of modernity. For all their differences, both valued the concept of objective reality while rejecting moral relativism, which have become major underlying problems of the modern world. When discussing my religion with others, I often hear the phrase “All that really matters is what you believe.” Impressing upon those people that there can only be one truth has proven surprisingly difficult, and that attitude seems to have been one that both Orwell and Waugh disapproved of.

One of the most startling parts of the book is Lebedoff’s discussion of Orwell’s statement that “One must choose between this life and the next.” Both men agreed with that, but Orwell, an atheist, chose to focus on this life and improve it. Waugh, a Catholic, felt that this world could not really be improved and thus chose to focus on the next.

Though Lebedoff’s biography and analysis of the two men’s ideas is one of the most enlightening works I’ve read lately, it does have a few minor problems. First, he too often uses the phrase “must have,” which should never appear in a work of history or biography. There are times when a biographer can only speculate about the details of an event, and sometimes he can offer a guess that seems almost certain to be accurate. It’s still a guess, though, and should be presented as such – “probably” or some other such term would be more accurate. Also, so much of the book is straight biography that there is less room for real analysis than I would like. The biography is, of course, necessary to understand the thesis behind the work, and Lebedoff is convincing in his analysis, but at 218 pages most readers could probably stand the addition of some more space to for the author to expand on his central idea.…

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