What I’ve Been Reading

I’m enjoying St. John’s, even though the math and science seminar is fairly difficult work. I  started with math because I knew it was the one that would give me the most grief, and I wasn’t wrong. We started with On the Nature of Things, which is one of those books that you can tell is good, but a week or two isn’t enough time to digest. I enjoyed the discussions, and I’m glad I chose to go to SJC, even though I found it hard going at times. My other seminar folks are obviously sharp as tacks: part of me feels intimidated, but I’m a first-semester first-year, and I seem to be one of the youngest students, so I’m not being overly hard on myself. Plato’s Timaeus is enjoyable, but a week doesn’t do it justice, even in the syllabus’ context. Knock on wood, but Aristotle’s Physics is the first seminar piece that I feel like I’ve a decent hold on.

I don’t know about the seminar, where we’re reading the above, but I’ll have a paper due in the SJC tutorial (where we’re reading Euclid’s Elements) before too long. Not sure what that’s going to look like, but I’ll try and share something from it, even if I just take the paper and rewrite it into a blogpost. I mentioned this before, but you absolutely want to read Euclid in a group. Usually, the tutorial is a small in-person group around a blackboard: the virtual browser-based whiteboard is a reasonable approximation.

Two observations about Euclid:

  • One of the questions that came up when we first read through the definitions and postulates was essentially “…how much do we grant Euclid?” Take the first definition,  which you can easily spend 20 minutes discussing. Definition 1 reads “A point is that which has no part.” What… does this mean? That is has no magnitude? Is it saying something about indivisibility. Does it have no attributes? Isn’t having no attributes itself an attribute? You can spend a lot of time, solo or in a group, wondering about this, but at some stage you remember that Euclid has 22 other definitions that he’d like you to look at, plus the postulates, common notions, and the propositions themselves. So, to return to the original question, at what stage do you go “…Right, I’ll give you that, onto the next one…”? This was a common theme of our early Euclid discussions, and I was reminded of it again yesterday evening with Proposition 23, the one where you construct a rectilineal angle. To paraphrase my professor: in the same way good fiction writers introduce the character of the murderer early on, before they do anything to get your notice, readers of the definitions at the beginning of Elements don’t have a sense of how useful they are. It’s only in hindsight that you see how everything comes together.
  • On a related note, I’ve started to wonder the extent to which Euclid is performing for us, in the sense that it seems like he has put a lot of thought into the order of things laid out in Book 1. Again, like a good fiction writer, the reader gets a very satisfying unravelling of the “plot” in much the same way as a good fiction plot unfurls itself. Is Euclid a showman? Or am I putting too much on the author?

Other reading…

I read Spies of No Country, by Matti Friedman, in one or two sittings over a weekend. It could be because I’m somewhat familiar with the macro events which form the backdrop to the story, but I didn’t love this. I’ve often said that it seems bananas to me when you finish an autobiography and don’t like the author: they have almost total narrative control, and a captive audience, and they still come out unlikeable. Maybe it was something similar here: Friedman had fascinating source material (and access to primary documents, it sounds like), but it still felt somewhat pedestrian. This happened, then this, then…

I also didn’t love Murder on the Links, one of the early Agatha Christie books, as much as other ones. A satisfying setup that felt like it teetered a bit, and whose denouement was about 30 pages too long. (I’m very much not a Christie expert, but it also felt like one plot point was distractingly out of character for the person involved, which took me out of the story.)

Of Mice and Men. What to say. Stellar. A cinematic book, one with the most vivid sense of place that I’ve read in living memory. I’d love to see a staged production sometime. Anyone know if there’s a good one online?

I enjoyed, with one eyebrow raised, Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers. Avner had various jobs in the administrations of Eshkol, Meir, Rabin, Begin — put another way, he was a senior diplomatic official of essentially every Israeli Prime Minister from roughly 1963 to 1983, a period which includes the Yom Kippur War and the peace treaty with Egypt. Like most political autobiographies, I found it interesting to get the inside view, and  –also like most political autobiographies– I found the constant name-dropping, the long swathes of dialogue, and the inside baseball somewhat tedious.


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Assorted Links 9/28/21

  1. Good interview with Elena Ferrante.
  2. Good interview with Dr. Anika Prather.
  3. Good interview with Amor Towles.
  4. I don’t usually love Teen Vogue, but this is a good piece on Banned Books Week, which is this week.
  5. I am tentatively excited by the news that Netflix seems to have acquired the rights to Roald Dahl’s estate.
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Assorted Links 9/22/21

  1. Elle Griffin is releasing her Gothic novel on Substack, serially, for subscribers.
  2. Sally Rooney is, to put it mildly, having a moment. Interview in The Guardian on the “hell of fame.” Says Rooney, “Of course, that person could stop doing whatever it is they’re good at, in order to be allowed to retire from public life, but that seems to me like a big sacrifice on their part and an exercise in cultural self-destruction for the rest of us, forcing talented people either to endure hell or keep their talents to themselves.”
  3. Redditor breaks down why Barnes & Noble is struggling, and none of the reasons start with “A” and end with “mazon.”
  4. A few years ago, I worked my way through a couple of the most famous Agatha Christie novels, and I still read 1-2 a year. Here’s a list of contemporary references and nods to Christie’s work.
  5. On “The Scarlet Letter.”
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Assorted Links, 9/8/21

I love the fall! Excited for leaves and weather and all those good things. St. John’s has started, with my math and natural science tutorial: On the Nature of Things is tough but good, and Euclid’s Elements is excellent. I was, if I may say so, entirely correct that studying Euclid in a group, in front of a blackboard, is the correct and potentially only way to study Euclid.

  1. This blog isn’t a Mary Beard fan account, but it’s not… not a Mary Beard fan account, y’know? “Carpentry is as important as the classics” might be the closest thing to a manifesto or guiding principle that this blog has.
  2. Ross Douthat on Stephen King, summer, and the great state of Maine.
  3. “What’s the matter with book reviews?”
  4. Tangential to this blog’s focus, but I enjoyed this interview with Andrew Sullivan on his early influences, parts one and two.
  5. Life advice from Edgar Allen Poe.
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What I’ve Been Reading Recently

I’m alive! I dislike blogs that spend a lot of time clearing their throats about why they haven’t written lately: suffice to say — stuff happening, more soon.

  • A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a novel by Dominique Barbéris that I read in translation, is good but not great. I always feel with these sorts of books that I’m not clever enough for them. Very aesthetic, very strong sense of mood, but perhaps not enough plot to drive things forward. I quoted Natalie Babbitt in an earlier post and was reminded of the quote — “…like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses on its turning.” The novel feels like a lethargic summer’s day, like a fossil in amber. Beautiful, but without a whole lot of vigor.
  • I don’t always agree with him, but I found parts of Daniel Gordis’ We Stand Divided quite compelling. The New York Times has a good rebuttal where he falls short.
  • I finished Meno in two sittings, and enjoyed my first assigned reading as a St. John’s student. It’s a great intro to Socratic dialogue in terms of both style and substance. I enjoyed it both because it’s a famous work in philosophical circles (you might have heard of “Meno’s Paradox”) but also because it introduces my favorite Socratic idea thus far, that the search of truth is a worthy endeavor in and of itself, and that we shouldn’t shy away from trying to find that truth, hard as it may be.
  • I’m still in the middle of both, but I’m highly enjoying German Jerusalem, a book about the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, and A Tale of Love and DarknessAmos Oz’s.. autobiography, I guess you’d call it?
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Assorted Links, 8/12/21

  1. I haven’t listened yet, but re: my Middlemarch post, The Readers Karamazov have a podcast on Middlemarch.
  2. Everything I’ve Learned about Being a “Professional” Writer in One Post.
  3. In honor of Andrew Sullivan’s new books, here he is on the Classics. I also enjoyed his Conversation with Tyler.
  4. “Gone are the whimsical elements, and in come the suspense, the gothic and the noir. The new Latin American Boom is here, and it is being led by women.”
  5. Good piece on the internal stuff behind Random House paying more than $5 million for Cuomo’s book during the pandemic, before he resigned from office.
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Why is Middlemarch so good?

The author’s purpose was to be a generous rural historian, and this very redundancy of touch, born of abundant reminiscence, is one of the greatest charms of her work. It is as if her memory was crowded with antique figures, to whom for every tenderness she must grant an appearance.
Henry James, reviewing Middlemarch

I finished Middlemarch yesterday and I’m still digesting it. It’s a sprawling novel, following three groups and their various shenanigans. As I tweeted the other night, it doesn’t so much have a main character so much as a main ensemble. It took me a bit of digging and secondary reading to put my finger on exactly why I like it so much, but I’m starting to develop a thesis.

Obviously, it’s a multilayered novel: we move from Dorothea’s ambitions in love to Lydgate’s ambitions in work, to Mary’s (nascent) ambitions for Fred to make something of himself, to Bulstrode’s ambitions to, well, not be found out. The town, and forces upon it within and without, truly is the main character. This simultaneously lends the book a gravity and a lack of it. It’s a book of intimate concerns rather than worldly questions: “a tragedy based on unpaid butcher’s bills,” writes Henry James.

Its strong and memorable ensemble would make it a fine, ambitious novel: the subtle layering and drawing-in of these threads is masterful. But Middlemarch goes further, because it breaks out of being a novel “just” about these interpersonal concerns.

Steven Johnson, in Farsighted, notes that novels (and decisions) work on three spectrums. We can take it that what we call the high end of the spectrum (#1) below is the most volatile, and that the lower end (#3) changes most slowly.

  1. Interior monologue,
  2. Friends, family, and town gossip,
  3. What Johnson calls the “invisible churn of technological or moral history.”

Middlemarch, as a novel, is constantly moving between these three bands — internal vacillation to “what will the town think?” to (my favorite question) “what ought one do with one’s life?” and back again. As I said, we have all the central ingredients of a great love story (the will-she-won’t-she with Ladislaw) but it’s almost, almost an afterthought in the novel. Instead, we have Dorothea’s ambitions and the tensions therein, the discussions around the railroad and the latest farming techniques, the broader Reform Question, and so on. “Middlemarch never lets its reader (or its characters) settle too comfortably into those drawing-room conversations,” writes Johnson. “There is always a larger, bustling world banging on the windows.”

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Some more thoughts on the specificity of The Prince

Early impressions here.

The benefit to doing two discussion salons on the Great Books is that you read a book, discuss a book, and then discuss a book again a month later with the second group. This digestion period has been the most useful thing when it comes to reading the books, since it provides a reason to come back to my notes and assorted post-its about each work.

Having the benefit of a second go-around, I’ve clarified a lot of my first impressions about the book, especially around the broader applicability of what he’s talking about. Specifically, I realized that I was reading it as a guide for people, when really it’s about states. The Prince might more accurately be titled The Principalities or something like that.

To the extent that great “men” move history, The Prince is about how to win the game. (Not, it should be noted, a game you necessarily want to play.) Once you reframe the book to be about states and not people, from “Machiavelli’s guide to life” to “here’s how  states maintain power,” it makes a lot of sense. (I can’t remember who said this in the discussion, but a distinction was drawn between “inward philosophies” and “outward philosophies” that I think is quite useful. Most self-help is inward-facing, whereas The Prince is decidedly outward-looking.)

Ruling, to Machiavelli, is about doing the effective thing, not necessarily the most good. That, for better or worse, is a rule of the game. Within those parameters, law and force, goodwill and hatred, virtue and vice — all become dependent on context and the end result. The Prince is ultimately a book about the macro goal, about effectiveness.

The question is whether he’s right. He takes this pessimistic view of humans, openly acknowledging that some (most?) are fickle and untrustworthy and just out for their own lot. Machiavelli isn’t interested in defining personal morality, only being part of a whole. Society, to him, needs to be organized a certain way because people aren’t entirely altruistic.

I don’t have any concluding thoughts to wrap this up in — all of this is just sort of floating around in my head, probably until I either reread The Prince or until I have time to check out the secondary material in the Norton Critical Edition. This is why reading the greats is so enjoyable, though!

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Assorted Links, 8/8/21

  1. Per the Summer 2021 edition of The Sewanee Review, there is a new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the horizon. I am firmly on Team #NewTranslations, so I’m very excited by this (especially since I didn’t enjoy Metamorphoses the first time round).
  2. Electric Literature’s “Read Like a Writer.”
  3. “You know that almost nothing about the Iliad is a particularly good fit for that night, but it’s not clear if you can separate the two stories anymore.” One of the best pieces of writing I’ve read on the Iliad.
  4. Dickens on Italy.
  5. Translation/edition recommendations for Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which I think is my first SJC book!
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Assorted Links, 8/4/21

  1. You can now volunteer your expertise to help struggling Classics programs, via the Society for Classical Studies.
  2. Interview with one of the #DisruptTexts founders.
  3. Classics lecturer asks students to edit Wikipedia with what they learn, in lieu of a final paper.
  4. Some notes on Heart of Darkness.
  5. “During my reading this year, it keeps standing out to me that some of the most excellent characters in given books are the servants. Have you noticed that literature is full of stories where a servant steals the show?”
  6. Old-but-good piece on the literature purchasing habits of the French.
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