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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