December 2015: My Reading

“There are two motives for reading a book: One, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” Bertrand Russell

I had the goal of writing a blog post each month this year and feel quietly pleased at keeping up the pace. I have made notes and lists, in all kinds of journals, for well over 30 years but they are scattered through my papers or lost. Even if no-one reads my post it will be more than what see my old journals and is a good, reflective record of books read for my personal posterity.

It has been time at busy at work and with family matters and engagements as the holidays approached but I have finished four very different books this month.

I really should have already read some of the acclaimed novels of Kazuo Ishiguro rather than commencing with The Buried Giant which interested me due to the subject matter. The post-Roman period in Britain is an interesting place for a Japanese author to set his novel and people it with characters and creatures like Lord Brennus, Querig the dragon, and Sir Gawain (of Arthurian fame).

I found the opening hard going and almost threw the book aside but the arrival of Sir Gawain really worked in my imagination. The prose is sparse and unadorned but this story of an old married couple, Axl and Marta, who cannot remember their past was growing boring until the old knight arrived. The prose did not grow any more interesting but had a steady, building effect and their meeting in a traveller’s restful glade is etched in my memory.

“A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more.”

buried

 

Ishiguro has apparently disappointed many fans with this latest book and fantasy is considered a risky genre for an established author. I read fantasy as a preferred genre but this falls somewhat short as fantasy or historical fiction.

I thought long and hard about the allegorical intentions of this novel but to be honest, I could not untangle more than a simple tale that reflects on how we have not learned about our (literary) past even remotely enough to forget it. The dragon’s breath lay heavily on the land but I am not sure why.

Maybe some other reader has a more interesting take on the book?

Non fiction

I was completely smitten by the book. I longed to read them all, and the things I read of produced new yearnings. Perhaps I might go off to Africa and offer my services to Albert Schweitzer or, decked in my coonskin cap and powder horn, I might defend the people like Davy Crockett. I could scale the Himalayas and live in a cave spinning a prayer wheel, keeping the earth turning. But the urge to express myself was my strongest desire, and my siblings were my first eager coconspirators in the harvesting of my imagination. They listened attentively to my stories, willingly performed in my plays, and fought valiantly in my wars. With them in my corner, anything seemed possible.

But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.

Patti Smith‘s memoir, Just Kids, will interest readers who like good writing, are enthusiastic about 20th century bohemians and photography, as well as the history of American popular music, especially the growth of the counter-culture centred around the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. It is a very good memoir.

I enjoyed the earlier sections of the book – until Patti meets Robert Mapplethorpe (which is a truly wonderful story of a first meeting) – where we learn of her poverty, obsessive reading and teenage pregnancy, much more than the second half. Arriving in New York in mid-1967 and living with literally no money must have taken courage but always Smith is sustained by her rich, interior life which she conveys in her characteristically powerful, minimalist style. I particularly loved learning about what she was reading and the art her friends led to in these formative years.

He invited Robert and me to come and see the work firsthand. There were flat files from floor to ceiling, metal shelves and drawers containing vintage prints of the early masters of photography: Fox Talbot, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Thomas Eakins. Being allowed to lift the tissues from these photographs, actually touch them and get a sense of the paper and the hand of the artist, made an enormous impact on Robert. He studied them intently—the paper, the process, the composition, and the intensity of the blacks. “It’s really all about light,” he said.

He began to branch out, photographing those he met through his complex social life, the infamous and the famous, from Marianne Faithfull to a young tattooed hustler. But he always returned to his muse. I no longer felt that I was the right model for him, but he would wave my objections away. He saw in me more than I could see in myself. Whenever he peeled the image from the Polaroid negative, he would say, “With you I can’t miss.”

Smith’s bohemian lifestyle is a life artfully lived but one really gets a sense of the growth of Mapplethorpe as an artist more than the memoirist. One suspects that is the intention as the book opens with his death. For me, I wished to learn more about Patti, than Robert, when reading the book. She preferred to mythologise him instead.

********

“It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not.”

“…we have access to more Roman literature – and more Roman writing in general – than any one person could now thoroughly master in the course of a lifetime.”

“Rome was the only place in the ancient Mediterranean where the state took responsibility for the regular basic food supplies of its citizens.”

“Cicero’s eloquence, even if only half understood, still informs the language of modern politics.”

spqr

SPQR by Mary Beard must be extraordinarily good as I read it straight after reading a number of books about Rome or by Romans this year with great delight, even though it covered much of the same territory. Beard’s learned take on many of the events any student knows about was refreshingly insightful and did not fall into the trap of being as certain about what really happened, or the sources, as the legions who have written about Roman history before her.

Beard is very good at pointing out the impact of possible mis-translations on meaning and historical understanding, especially with the Julio-Claudians. Maybe Caligula did not do that to his sister or order those soldiers to collect seashells. She often gives flesh to the authors of our best primary sources for the period in a way that helps one see their values, perspectives and biases.  There are many examples of Beard providing this kind of illuminating information about what we take for granted. I did not know that the first source for Julius Caesar’s assassination was written some fifty years after the dictator’s assassination. That’s like someone writing about JFK in a couple of years ago.

I notice that Mary Beard has put Roman history back at the tope of the New York Times bestseller lists. Highly recommended.

russ

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.” Bertrand Russell

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.” Albert Einstein (speaking of Russell)

A new edition of In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell gave me the opportunity to re-read this essay by possibly my favourite writer, thinker and iconoclast. If you have not read any of Russell’s huge output know that he was imprisoned for protesting at the insanity of WWI, when certainly none of his class even remotely considered it, as he did during the Vietnam War. He was agnostic (although when speaking popularly called himself an atheist) and wrote many tracts about the dangerous foolishness of religion. At 80 years of age he was still making statements of belief like:

“I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken”

Here are Russell’s writings by date published and you can find a more concise list here. He does not appear to have been idle much but then again, he almost made a century, living from 1872-1970. Russell was profoundly right when he says:

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

Enjoy your holidays!

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