Finally started to read the last volume of Plutarch’s lives

downloadPlutarch is an ancient Greek who, in the first century AD, wrote an extremely influential series of capsule histories of famous Greeks and Romans which are commonly called Plutarch’s Lives (or sometimes, Parallel Lives). And they’re basically some of the most fun biographies that you could ever read, because: a) they’re full of fun little anecdotes and quips and little details about places and customs and b) Plutarch knows exactly what the aim of these biographies is–he wants to examine these people on a moral level.

For most of the lives, he pairs two people together (often one ancient Greek with one ancient Roman) and then, after the two biographies are done, he also includes a little comparison of the two, in terms of the praiseworthiness of their actions.

What’s most interesting about Plutarch is that he includes a pretty mixed back of characters. For instance, in the current volume I just finished reading a biography of the Gracchi brothers: two Roman senators who, with the best of intentions, basically undermined the constitution of the Republic and ignored its laws and planted the seeds for the civil strife that would eventually conclude it. And now I’m reading about Demosthenes and Cicero, who both, despite their tremendous oratorical abilities and heroic intentions, also displayed no small amount of venality and false pride.

To a certain extent, Plutarch is willing to evaluate people on the basis of the magnitude of their achievements. Many of the people that he studies were tyrants or dictators. Some, such as Themistocles or Coriolanus, were traitors. And others, like Marius and Sulla, were just bloodthirsty murderers.

But Plutarch looks at them with a gentle eye.

Part of this is due to a difference in moral systems. In modern times, the main thing we care about is how kind and compassionate a person is. But in ancient times, they cared about how skillful you were and how courageous and how principles and honest and all kinds of other things. A tyrant who had a magnanimous disposition could be worthy of praise. Or the cleverness of a Themistocles could be praiseworthy. And so could the passion and integrity of a Coriolanus.

Anyway, if you read the whole thing, you basically also get the entirety of Greek and Roman history. He writes about figures from all eras: the founders of Sparta and Athens and Rome; the heroic figures from the wars between Greece and Persia; the various dictators and demogogues and generals of the Peleponnesian wars; the rise of Alexander and the history of the Greeks who resisted him; the generals who won the Punic wars; the mixed bag of figures who decimated Rome during its civil wars; and lots of others.

Actually, my one regret about reading Plutarch is that there is so much information that I simply can’t retain it all. Like, I know that I read 20 pages about Flaminus, for instance, but I can’t remember the first thing about him. Sad sad.

Anyway, I read the first two volumes (out of four) within the space of six weeks in 2010. And then I read the third volume one year later, in the spring of 2011. And then three years passed. The problem is that I really liked the two translators who did the first three volumes of the Project Gutenberg edition of Plutarch. The fourth volume, unfortunately, is by some other guy who I don’t like as much. But I recently opened it up and found it to be much more tolerable. So now I’m making my way through it.

Quick Reactions To Books That Probably Deserve Long Reactions

Okay, so sometimes I feel like I am neglecting this blog. That is not really true, I guess, but I built up quite a lot of posting in March and February, and I am getting slightly more traffic than I used to get, so I kind of feel like I owe it to you folks to post something once in awhile. Still, the heart wants what it wants, and right now what it wants is to unsystematically ramble about the books I’ve read so far in April.

The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss – I am so embarrassed to have read this book. I mean it. I was seriously considering never telling anyone that I had ever read it. It is basically about nerds who form little clubs where they try to scientifically figure out how to pick up women. And I felt compelled to mention it because this book is the most entertaining book ever. It supplants my old most entertaining book ever, which was Carolyn Jessop’s Escape (a memoir growing up in a polygamous Mormon splinter sect). Yes, I guess there is something about creepy sexual subcultures that just really appeals to me, nonfiction-wise. I am going to do my best not to explore what that means.

The Game is so amazingly ridiculous that it is hard to believe it could be real. I am convinced that everyone in this book is gay. They are so homosocial. They’re all about just bro’ing out together and forming little cliques and having all this drama with each other. All the heat and sizzle in the book comes from relationships between men. Women are barely a presence at all.

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga – When I originally read this book, around a week ago, I had so much more to say about it. In fact, I realize now that I never wrote about The White Tiger, which I read two months ago and really loved too. Basically, both these books are supreme poverty porn. There is something deliriously intoxicating about how miserable it is possible to be in India. The beauty of Aravind Adiga is that he writes poor characters as if they were rich people transplanted into the lives of poor people. He makes the lot of a Delhi-based driver, who is richer than 75% of Indians, seem like the most miserable thing imaginable. It’s not psychologically accurate, but it is emotionally compelling.

Parallel Lives, Volume III by Plutarch – Classically educated people are huge fakers. You know how, when you read old writers, like Emerson (especially Emerson), they’re always mentioning little anecdotes from the lives of Romans and Greeks that you’ve never heard of. And these anecdotes usually illustrate some sort of moral point? Well those guys had just read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which is a collection of little anecdotes about famous Romans and Greeks that he uses to illustrate moral points.

You know, the novella length is really ideal for biography. I don’t really want to spend 100,000 words learning about some guy, even if he is an awesome guy. But sometimes I do want to know more about a person than I can find in their Wikipedia entry. The length of each of Plutarch’s lives is about perfect (15-20k words). Also, at least in the Project Gutenberg version, each volume focuses on a different part of Greek/Roman history. Volume III was about Alexander’s conquests and about Rome’s Civil Wars. It had a lot of big guys in it: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Crassus, Pompey, Cato. I liked it. I know that the right way to learn history is systematically, and not by studying the biographies of great men, but sometimes it’s fun to say ‘Screw that’ and skip straight to the exciting stories and colorful personalities.

Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – There are some authors whose work I really like, but who I never look forward to reading. I really enjoyed Coetzee’s Disgrace when I read it last year. I stayed up and finished it at like 3 AM. But I never even felt tempted to pick up anything else by him. Waiting for the Barbarians is a fantasy novel though! Well, kind of. It’s fantasy without any magic. Or worldbuilding. It’s basically like Kalpa Imperial. It’s about an unnamed magistrate at the edge of an unnamed empire that is at war with some pretty generic barbarians. It’s really hard to pin down the appeal of this book. But it is totally captivating.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde – I’ve been reading through a number of Wilde’s essays lately, and I was like, “Hmm, I am totally unfamiliar with his artistic work. If it kind of sucks, then it would be somewhat foolish to take seriously these essays about producing art and the nature of art and the awesomeness of being an artist.” So I read some of his plays. This one is amazing. You know how when you read the comedic portions of Shakespeare, you end up being kind of amazed at how quick and clever everything is, but you’re not actually amused because it’s too much work to figure out what is going on and anyway the jokes are in old-timey language so your brain cannot really interpret them as jokes and anyway a lot of the jokes are puns, which don’t really do it for modern audiences anyway? Well, reading this play is what it must have been like for one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to read one of his comedies. It is that good.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Ever since reading Emma, two years ago, I have steadily read through every single one of Austen’s books (except Pride and Prejudice) without ever being really satisfied with any of them. All of them have bits and pieces of what I liked about Emma (in this case, I found the slow, fitful plotting and some of the dialogue to be to my taste), but none of them have quite done it. I really wanted to like this one just because most people do not like it. But in the end I could not, for exactly the same reason most people can’t. Fanny Price is totally insufferable. What is her deal, seriously? What makes her so much better than everyone else? Also, the novel is severely confused about some things. If Fanny is good because she wasn’t spoiled, then why are her brothers and sisters (who grew up with much less nice stuff than she did) not good as well? Does being rich make you good? Or does being poor make you good? This book is confused. All it can say for certain is that if you put on an amateur theatrical in your house then you are totally beyond-the-pale in terms of your evilness. Oh well, I guess I will finally go read Pride and Prejudice.


The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre – I’ve been reading JLC, but somehow don’t really have anything to say. What book of his should I read next? I’ve only read this one and Call For The Dead (which I almost kind of liked better?)

Methland by Nick Reading – This is a very entertaining book. It’s about meth in small town America. I am fascinated by small towns and the way that they’ve gone, in the national consciousness, from idyllic places to hellish dystopias. But I just need to say one thing. The drug problem is over. Drug use peaked in 1980. Since then we’ve had 30 years of drug use at roughly current levels (went up a little in the 2000’s, but not nearly to 80s levels). What we have now is systemic. And we have learned to live with it. It’s not going to get worse. It’s probably not going to get better. Why do we keep pretending like drugs are something new? They are not. They are not new. They are nothing to get worried about. Oh, another problem that is totally over (briefly touched on in this book) is illegal immigration. Seriously, look at the number of illegal immigrants entering this country. That number has dropped precipitously. And you know why? There are no jobs for them here anymore. There aren’t even any jobs for us. We solved illegal immigration by becoming poor. Also, amphetamines were basically legal in the 40’s and 50’s (in the form of things like Benzedrine inhalers). Cocaine and heroin were legal in the 20s. If the drug problem is merely one of supply and demand, then why were these eras not a hellish, swirling vortex of drug abuse? I think there is a good chance that drug use actually was really high back then*, but since it doesn’t fit into our cultural narratives, we have forgotten about it.

*I mean, Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of An English Opium Eater was about getting narcotized to all hell way back in 1804. And yet, somehow, we never think of Regency England as high-tide for druggies (The reason Mr. Darcy was a jerk was probably because he was in withdrawal)

Wrap-Up Season: Predictably Good Books

Wrap-Up Season: Predictably Good Books

I don’t know about you, but whenever I get all geared up to read some classic, I’m not sure whether I want to love it or not. If I don’t love it, then I’m all like, “Pshaw, I wasn’t missing anything! Stupid literati with your “canons of literature”! This book is entirely nonessential!”

But on the other hand, that leaves me wading through an often quite long book just because Harold Bloom told me too…and who’s the stupid one in that scenario? However, these books did not pose that delightful conundrum, because they were exactly as great as they were supposed to be. Although “predictably good” is the largest category in my ranking system, there are not so many entries below, since…there’s really just not that much I can say in a paragraph other than “Wow, you know how people always say this book is good? Well it definitely is”.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I already blogged about this one, a long time back.

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow – I have a love/hate relationship with Saul Bellow. What’s not to hate? All his books are about cranky old guys who go off on pages-long pseudophilosophical rants, argue with their emasculating wives, and conduct torrid brofairs with brilliant best buddies who eventually become their enemies. But all the love I have for him is due to this book – the first I read (and the last he published [at the age of 84]) – which contains every single one of the above elements, but makes them work, somehow. I think that in many of the books I’ve read, Bellow strives for the elegiac but takes a detour into self-pity (usually managing to struggle out before the end, though). This book is content to make no judgments and to draw a really masterful portrait of Abe Ravelstein (apparently based on Bellow’s colleague Allan Bloom). It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. However, while reading the book, I did have a tendency to screw up my face, adopt a witch’s scratchy voice, and mutter “RAAAAVELLLLSTEEEEEINN”. I’m pretty sure that’s a major point in its favor.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre is totally cracked out. I kind of expected it to be a love story. It kind of wasn’t, which made me really glad, as the parts I most enjoyed were the parts without the insufferable Mr. Rochester. Like, one fourth of the book is taken up with Jane’s boarding school days, and one fourth of the book consists of a crazy interlude with these cousins she finds while she is wandering around homeless in Northern England.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Okay, this book is also definitely not a love story. I don’t know what it is. It is totally bizarre. Even the narrative frame is bizarre. A guy comes to rent a house and gets told the story of Heathcliff, etc, from his housekeeper. Also, half the novel is the continuation of the story into a second generation after most of the original cast of the story gets killed off. Totally awesome.

World War Z by Max Brooks – Okay, this is probably not in Harold Bloom’s Canon, but it definitely is in any canon of best SF books published in the last ten years. And it is one of the best. It’s very gripping.

My Antonia by Willa Cather – I kind of felt like I should mention this in the writeup somehow, because it was so good…but I can’t think of that much to say.

334 by Tom Disch – Thomas Disch is in Harold Bloom’s canon, but for his far less good novel Wings of Song (which is still really good). 334 is a series of interlinked stories about growing up in a near future (well, alternate present, since it’s basically set now [it was written in the early 70s]) with overpopulation, increased social control, etc. But the specifics of the SF scenario are not terribly important. It’s my favorite kind of dystopian-ish scenario: one that focuses on how people would actually live, and not on some crazy overthrowing-the-government or fighting-the-man situation.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I’ve been a fan of Fitzgerald ever since my Sophomore year of college, but I resisted reading The Great Gatsby because I was forced to read it in high school (I didn’t remember anything about it except that I finished it). Surprise, it turned out pretty good.

Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy – Hardy was Ramanujan’s mentor. He was also apparently a pretty good mathematician himself. Late in life, he wrote this strange, heart-breaking document defending a life spent in study of pure mathematics. The brilliancy of this work lies in its brutal specificity. He’s not defending some abstract thing, he’s defending the specific worth of mathematics, of pure, useless math with no application or utility, and of his own life and life’s work, as in this quote:

My choice was right, then, if what I wanted was a reasonable comfortable and happy life. But solicitors and stockbrokers and bookmakers often lead comfortable and happy lives, and it is very difficult to see how the world is richer for their existence. Is there any sense in which I can claim that my life has been less futile than theirs? It seems to me again that there is only one possible answer: yes, perhaps, but, if so, for one reason only:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood – I kind of thought that Berlin Stories was not a replicable feat, based as it was on the author being present at the right place, during the right epoch, with a unique insight into the subcultures of the Weimar Republic. But…it sort of was. I found the overarching loss-of-a-lover plot to be passable, and not particularly sad,  but the wealth of detail and observation and kindness in this novel surpasses that of the Berlin Stories.

Parallel Lives, Volume II by Plutarch – Okay, so, why is all of our study of the Roman Empire basically confined to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty? I mean, seriously, that might have been the height of their military-, artistic-, and insane sex-crazed dictatorship-related achievements, but I think we should definitely give some more love to the first century BC. This volume (at least in the Project Gutenberg version) goes into long detail about Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, and other such guys (with parallel explications of the lives of famous Greek tyrants like Kimon). Oh, and he talks about Cato and Aristides. A good volume, all in all (although the next one has Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, so…)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – This was definitely the best book I read this year and is perhaps my most favorite book ever. War and Peace has something like 500 named characters and maybe 30 major ones. Anna Karenina has seven major characters. It’s more than 400,000 words long. By the time it’s over, you know everything about those characters. Also, I received a major epiphany from the ending of this book. It was that good. Read the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation (the Oprah translation!). It is supposedly very good.

Democracy in America – Volume One by Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America is like pornography for the American intellectual. I’m not actually sure how true any of these observations is (or was), but it’s always great to hear a French person confirm all the things that Americans believe about ourselves. This volume is mostly about our system of government. I believe the next volume is mostly about our customs and mores, which sounds like it’s going to be totally awesome.

Wrap-Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part Two

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac – I had to read On The Road for a class in college. It was okay, you know, nothing special. A friend recommended Dharma Bums to me, it was really good. Usually when Americans do Eastern religion, it highly annoys me. But Jack Keroauc’s Buddhism is so simple, so silly, and so stupid that it’s hard to be annoyed. Yes, it is strange that he thinks of himself as a bodhisattva. But it’s incredibly endearing that he also thinks all of the cast-aways, stumblebums, and drop-outs he meets along the way are also bodhisattvas.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – Okay, so, like, I read Babbit before I read Main Street. And Babbit was really good. You know, it was all about skewering the pretensions of America’s upper middle classes. So I read this other book by Sinclair Lewis – one written before Babbit, and one which had been his first big success – which supposedly did the same thing but for the small town. And it was nothing like Babbit. It skewered the small town, but it also tried to understand the small town, and it skewered the small-town reformer, but also tried to understand the reformer. And there’s a scene near the end of the book, an interaction between a husband and wife, that surprised me so much that I had to put it down and go walk around the house and try to understand what I was reading before I could come back and finish the book. I have no idea what happened to Sinclair Lewis after he wrote this book. Somehow, in this book kindness and satire are balanced, but somehow each of his books seems to have less and less basic human kindness and more vicious satire until finally one ends up with the unpalatable mess that is Dodsworth (and, I suppose, all the books written after Dodsworth that I didn’t bother to read).

News Of A Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This is a non-fiction book. A brilliantly written, interestingly structured nonfiction book that is told like a novel. A novel that is not a work of magical realism. It is about the kidnapping of ten journalists by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in order to force concessions from the Colombian government. It’s a very taut, minute-by-minute account, very thrilleresque, very true-crime-esque. And like most true crime stories, the most interesting thing about it is not the crime itself, but why we bother talking about it. What made this crime so much more important, so much more interesting, than every other kidnapping that has happened in Colombia? Or murder? Or bombing?

Down And Out In London And Paris by George Orwell – When Orwell goes slumming, he really outdoes himself. He really brings the experience of hunger, of vagabondage, of working sixteen hours a day for a pittance, to life. But the thing that one appreciates the most about George Orwell is that he always wraps it up with a truism, like:

“The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, ‘What an overfed lout’; he is thinking, ‘One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.’ He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day–they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”

Now, is that true? I have no idea, but it’s truthy. It gives you the feeling that if you were just to open your eyes, you too would be able to generate well-worded truisms. It’s this tendency that I most enjoy in Orwell’s non-fiction, which I began consuming at a rapid pace after reading this book.

Parallel Lives, Vol. I by Plutarch – There was a certain era of British and American history — when Parallel Lives – which is a series of biographies of famous Greeks paired up the biographies of famous Romans, followed by a short comparison of their virtues – formed the cornerstone of a young man’s education. This becomes very clear when one reads, say, Emerson. Every single one of Emerson’s little anecdotes about Roman or Greek history comes from this book. It kind of makes you respect all those jerks a lot less. And then you realize that most of what you know about Greek or Roman history came from this book, in which Plutarch, a 2nd century Greek, basically mashed together every extant source on the lives of 50 totally baller dudes (mostly politicians and conquerors). I read a Project Gutenberg version, translated by George Long, which is one of the better translations I’ve ever read. Also, the biographies are of just the right length and level of detail, perfectly poised somewhere in between a Wikipedia article and a book.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Some seven years ago, a high school teacher of mine gave me a copy of this book, saying that I would enjoy it. Since then, I have made literally ten attempts to read it. I’ve never gotten past page twenty (where the main character’s father looks at three drops of blood from his nose that have fallen on the prayer mat and lay there like jewels). But, when I picked this book up on January 2nd of this year, I raced through it, totally gripped, and finished it at 3 AM on January 4th. I have no idea what was different this time, but I am glad to not have this book hanging over my head. Now I just have to figure out a way to give it back…

Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare – Okay, so it’s a little pretentious to read William Shakespeare, but I’ve always wanted to try to understand what the fuss is about. I read a number of his plays this year, and what I found was that there are a lot of good lines and good speeches, but that his plots are generally ridiculously contrived and, dare I say, totally arbitrary, and his characters can often be unpredictable, inconsistent, or just plain opaque. I mean, which is not to say that he’s not great fun, it’s just that I wasn’t really feeling the high emotion. However, that impression was shattered when I read H4P1. I’d seen it performed a few years back, so I was primed to like it, but still, this is an amazing play. It has none of the faults I mentioned before, and it has a number of amazing characters, Prince Hal, Henry IV, Hotspur, and, of course, Falstaff. There were even points when I cried a little. Like when Hotspur died….hey, it was sad. Stupid Bolingbrokes.

Kokoro by Natsume Soeseki – So, my Kindle makes it easy to read electronic files. That means that I spend a lot of time reading various free translations on the internet. Most of the time, this turns out not to be a good idea. Often the translations are from the Victorian era and are utterly antiquated. But the free online translation of Kokoro that I read was not only good, it was totally brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted as many passages in a translated novel before. And believe me, there is no writer who is so good that his words sound good even when they’re being translated badly. So yeah, if you read Kokoro, read this version (translated by Edward McClellan, published 1957). Oh, and the book is stunning too. It’s apparently a big deal in Japan, I had never heard of it or Soeseki before coming across a mention in one of those lists of “Great Books”. But it is great, so great.

Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal – This early 19th century book has an extreme number of amazing and somewhat unique parts. The description of the Battle of the Waterloo is gripping in its utter confusion. The political maneuverings of Gina and her lover, Count Mosca, are really fun, and Gina is probably one of the only non-tragic feminist-type heroines of all of 19th century literature. And the love affair that the hero Fabrice Del Dongo gets involved in is so over the top in its ludicrousness that it’s difficult to describe. He falls in love by communicating with his jailor’s daughter through a series of improvised signals from his window.

What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – This is the crankiest book I have ever read. Late in life, Tolstoy became a religious nut and started believing: a) that all art should convey moral instruction; b) that the best art should be universally comprehensible; and c) that, hence, 99% of what was commonly termed art (including Tolstoy’s own masterpieces!) was utterly worthless. And then he proceeded to use the full force of his wit, erudition, and genius to try to prove these points, and insist that the highest art is fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and the Bible. For instance, in the course of ten pages, he briefly summarizes and dismisses the writings of about fifty aestheticians on the nature of art and beauty. And by the end of this book, you will be convinced. I mean, a day or so later, you will shake off its mesmerizing effects, but for a day, or maybe for just a few hours, you will be totally convinced.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – When I’d gotten 20% through this novel, I said, “This is the most utterly disagreeable character ever, I can’t believe that I am going to read a novel about him.” By the time I got to the end of the novel, Ignatius hadn’t changed, but I had. I was totally rooting for that jerk.

Candide by Voltaire – Some books are done a real disservice by those who would call them literature. Candide is just straight-up fun. There’s nothing else for it. It’s a romp. It’s a balls-to-the-wall, Jackass-style romp. You can read it in like two hours. I suggest you do. I read the Project Gutenberg version and it was pretty good.

Double Helix by James Watson – Alright, so Watson and Crick discovered DNA and got the Nobel prize. At the time that they did this work, Watson was my age, he was 25. And it shows. Watson tries to pimp his sister out to Crick in order to get the latter to work with him. And at one point they’re trying to get models of the DNA molecule built (like, out of metal, by a tool company), and Watson is like, “Well, we couldn’t do any work, since the models were not built yet.” And I was like, “Umm, really? So your plan is just to play around with these models like Lego blocks and literally construct a model of the DNA molecule? Really?” And then the models get built and that’s what they do. And get Nobel Prizes. Wow.

Bridge Over The San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – So, for a long time I thought that this was a book about a bunch of PoWs who were forced to build a bridge over a river in Indochina by sadistic Japanese wardens. But then I was reading an interview with David Mitchell in the Paris Review, where he cites this novel as one of  his favorites, and then I went and looked it up and realized that this novel is not about that. I was thinking of the movie Bridge Over The River Kwai. This novel is about something altogether cooler. It’s so high-concept that I can’t really do it justice. But you should read it.

The Collected Stories by Richard Yates – I blogged about this at exhaustive length

Surprisingly Good Books, Part Two

 

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac – I had to read On The Road for a class in college. It was okay, you know, nothing special. A friend recommended Dharma Bums to me, it was really good. Usually when Americans do Eastern religion, it highly annoys me. But Jack Keroauc’s Buddhism is so simple, so silly, and so stupid that it’s hard to be annoyed. Yes, it is strange that he thinks of himself as a bodhisattva. But it’s incredibly endearing that he also thinks all of the cast-aways, stumblebums, and drop-outs he meets along the way are also bodhisattvas.

 

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – Okay, so, like, I read Babbit before I read Main Street. And Babbit was really good. You know, it was all about skewering the pretensions of America’s upper middle classes. So I read this other book by Sinclair Lewis – one written before Babbit, and one which had been his first big success – which supposedly did the same thing but for the small town. And it was nothing like Babbit. It skewered the small town, but it also tried to understand the small town, and it skewered the small-town reformer, but also tried to understand the reformer. And there’s a scene near the end of the book, an interaction between a husband and wife, that surprised me so much that I had to put it down and go walk around the house and try to understand what I was reading before I could come back and finish the book. I have no idea what happened to Sinclair Lewis after he wrote this book. Somehow, in this book kindness and satire are balanced, but somehow each of his books seems to have less and less basic human kindness and more vicious satire until finally one ends up with the unpalatable mess that is Dodsworth (and, I suppose, all the books written after Dodsworth that I didn’t bother to read).

 

News Of A Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This is a non-fiction book. A brilliantly written, interestingly structured nonfiction book that is told like a novel. A novel that is not a work of magical realism. It is about the kidnapping of ten journalists by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in order to force concessions from the Colombian government. It’s a very taut, minute-by-minute account, very thrilleresque, very true-crime-esque. And like most true crime stories, the most interesting thing about it is not the crime itself, but why we bother talking about it. What made this crime so much more important, so much more interesting, than every other kidnapping that has happened in Colombia? Or murder? Or bombing?

 

Down And Out In London And Paris by George Orwell – When Orwell goes slumming, he really outdoes himself. He really brings the experience of hunger, of vagabondage, of working sixteen hours a day for a pittance, to life. But the thing that one appreciates the most about George Orwell is that he always wraps it up with a truism, like:

 

“The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, ‘What an overfed lout’; he is thinking, ‘One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.’ He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day–they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”

 

Now, is that true? I have no idea, but it’s truthy. It gives you the feeling that if you were just to open your eyes, you too would be able to generate well-worded truisms. It’s this tendency that I most enjoy in Orwell’s non-fiction, which I began consuming at a rapid pace after reading this book.

 

Parallel Lives, Vol. I by Plutarch – There was a certain era of British and American history — when Parallel Lives – which is a series of biographies of famous Greeks paired up the biographies of famous Romans, followed by a short comparison of their virtues – formed the cornerstone of a young man’s education. This becomes very clear when one reads, say, Emerson. Every single one of Emerson’s little anecdotes about Roman or Greek history comes from this book. It kind of makes you respect all those jerks a lot less. And then you realize that most of what you know about Greek or Roman history came from this book, in which Plutarch, a 2nd century Greek, basically mashed together every extant source on the lives of 50 totally baller dudes (mostly politicians and conquerors). I read a Project Gutenberg version, translated by George Long, which is one of the better translations I’ve ever read. Also, the biographies are of just the right length and level of detail, perfectly poised somewhere in between a Wikipedia article and a book.

 

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Some seven years ago, a high school teacher of mine gave me a copy of this book, saying that I would enjoy it. Since then, I have made literally ten attempts to read it. I’ve never gotten past page twenty (where the main character’s father looks at three drops of blood from his nose that have fallen on the prayer mat and lay there like jewels). But, when I picked this book up on January 2nd of this year, I raced through it, totally gripped, and finished it at 3 AM on January 4th. I have no idea what was different this time, but I am glad to not have this book hanging over my head. Now I just have to figure out a way to give it back…

 

Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare – Okay, so it’s a little pretentious to read William Shakespeare, but I’ve always wanted to try to understand what the fuss is about. I read a number of his plays this year, and what I found was that there are a lot of good lines and good speeches, but that his plots are generally ridiculously contrived and, dare I say, totally arbitrary, and his characters can often be unpredictable, inconsistent, or just plain opaque. I mean, which is not to say that he’s not great fun, it’s just that I wasn’t really feeling the high emotion. However, that impression was shattered when I read H4P1. I’d seen it performed a few years back, so I was primed to like it, but still, this is an amazing play. It has none of the faults I mentioned before, and it has a number of amazing characters, Prince Hal, Henry IV, Hotspur, and, of course, Falstaff. There were even points when I cried a little. Like when Hotspur died….hey, it was sad. Stupid Bolingbrokes.

 

Kokoro by Natsume Soeseki – So, my Kindle makes it easy to read electronic files. That means that I spend a lot of time reading various free translations on the internet. Most of the time, this turns out not to be a good idea. Often the translations are from the Victorian era and are utterly antiquated. But the free online translation of Kokoro that I read was not only good, it was totally brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted as many passages in a translated novel before. And believe me, there is no writer who is so good that his words sound good even when they’re being translated badly. So yeah, if you read Kokoro, read this version (translated by Edward McClellan, published 1957). Oh, and the book is stunning too. It’s apparently a big deal in Japan, I had never heard of it or Soeseki before coming across a mention in one of those lists of “Great Books”. But it is great, so great.

 

Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal – This early 19th century book has an extreme number of amazing and somewhat unique parts. The description of the Battle of the Waterloo is gripping in its utter confusion. The political maneuverings of Gina and her lover, Count Mosca, are really fun, and Gina is probably one of the only non-tragic feminist-type heroines of all of 19th century literature. And the love affair that the hero Fabrice Del Dongo gets involved in is so over the top in its ludicrousness that it’s difficult to describe. He falls in love by communicating with his jailor’s daughter through a series of improvised signals from his window.

 

What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – This is the crankiest book I have ever read. Late in life, Tolstoy became a religious nut and started believing: a) that all art should convey moral instruction; b) that the best art should be universally comprehensible; and c) that, hence, 99% of what was commonly termed art (including Tolstoy’s own masterpieces!) was utterly worthless. And then he proceeded to use the full force of his wit, erudition, and genius to try to prove these points, and insist that the highest art is fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and the Bible. For instance, in the course of ten pages, he briefly summarizes and dismisses the writings of about fifty aestheticians on the nature of art and beauty. And by the end of this book, you will be convinced. I mean, a day or so later, you will shake off its mesmerizing effects, but for a day, or maybe for just a few hours, you will be totally convinced.

 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – When I’d gotten 20% through this novel, I said, “This is the most utterly disagreeable character ever, I can’t believe that I am going to read a novel about him.” By the time I got to the end of the novel, Ignatius hadn’t changed, but I had. I was totally rooting for that jerk.

 

Candide by Voltaire – Some books are done a real disservice by those who would call them literature. Candide is just straight-up fun. There’s nothing else for it. It’s a romp. It’s a balls-to-the-wall, Jackass-style romp. You can read it in like two hours. I suggest you do. I read the Project Gutenberg version and it was pretty good.

 

Double Helix by James Watson – Alright, so Watson and Crick discovered DNA and got the Nobel prize. At the time that they did this work, Watson was my age, he was 25. And it shows. Watson tries to pimp his sister out to Crick in order to get the latter to work with him. And at one point they’re trying to get models of the DNA molecule built (like, out of metal, by a tool company), and Watson is like, “Well, we couldn’t do any work, since the models were not built yet.” And I was like, “Umm, really? So your plan is just to play around with these models like Lego blocks and literally construct a model of the DNA molecule? Really?” And then the models get built and that’s what they do. And get Nobel Prizes. Wow.

 

Bridge Over The San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – So, for a long time I thought that this was a book about a bunch of PoWs who were forced to build a bridge over a river in Indochina by sadistic Japanese wardens. But then I was reading an interview with David Mitchell in the Paris Review, where he cites this novel as one of  his favorites, and then I went and looked it up and realized that this novel is not about that. I was thinking of the movie Bridge Over The River Kwai. This novel is about something altogether cooler. It’s so high-concept that I can’t really do it justice. But you should read it.

 

The Collected Stories by Richard Yates – I blogged about this at exhaustive length