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Reading in order to live

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” ― Gustave Flaubert

Notes on books I have read

This blog is simply my notes on the books I have been reading. I hope they are of passing interest to those who pass by.

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Karoo by Steve Tesich

This is an unusual novel. It is funny, satirizing the American film industry, and creating the eponymous character from a series of interior reflections which bring a superbly believable consciousness of the vacuity of modern entertainment. But it is also a dark and philosophically bleak novel, too. It is slightly sad to read that the author died just after finishing it, at the age of 54.

I say it is philosophically bleak but actually, it can be interpreted as life-affirming, in a ‘just enjoy life and love for its own sake’ sort of way.

It is very well written, with very subtle yet sharp changes of tone. Humorous but not glib. I liked it very much.

Consilience; The Unity of Knowledge by E O Wilson

This is a fascinating and brilliant book. I am sure it must have spawned a lot of academic and other commentary but it is relatively understated in its internet presence. Perhaps an example of how google does not contain all the answers, or even all the questions.

The book argues for a renewed search for the principles that underlie all aspects of existence. Thales of Miletus, the Pre-Socratic philosopher, is credited by Wilson as the first to suggest there are universal laws that underpin all the activity of the cosmos. Wilson argues that the scientific method and the discovery of universal principles in physics and chemistry point the way towards, ultimately, an explanation of all aspects of existence, including the human mind.

He does a very good job of reassuring the reader that this is not a form of determinism, and that room remains for metaphysics and morality, sociology and politics. But he makes a very powerful case for bringing biology, and sociobiology in particular, into the worlds of art, social science and philosophy. As he points out, we are creatures of our biology; we only perceive as we perceive, and not as dogs or dolphins perceive, because of our biology. So we are bound inextricably to our bodily limitations and glories and understanding them in the minutest detail must surely help us understand all that is shaped by them in the world of human perception and experience.

Actually, a wonderful book.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

An interesting novel, set in northern Scotland. The plot concerns aliens who have set up a facility for harvesting humans for meat. The book is funny and satirical at times but a bit too long. It would have made a very good short story. On the other hand, the author sustains the narrative voice very well. A diverting read.

The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were
many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as
long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer
or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the
variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and
individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find
themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war
takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough
master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their
fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the
places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been
done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their
inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the
atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary
meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless
audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent
hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak
for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to
act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness;
cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate
of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to
be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to
divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to
do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your
adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest
the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended
until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior
readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without
reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings
derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition
for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each
other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in
crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous
precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous
confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-
preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either
side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no
other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who
first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought
this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since,
considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the
palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men
are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as
ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first.
The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed
and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of
parties once engaged in contention. (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book III, Chapter 10)

The Shadow Puppet by Georges Simenon

A classic Maigret, in many ways: lots of rain in a grey, sombre Paris; a self-contained community within which a murder takes place; and a sort of inexorable process of justice being done. Maigret novels are not thrillers. There is little of the whodunit about them. They are tales of psychology, really.

Very good.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Sometimes you see so many references to a writer, so much critical applause, that you have to go and check them out afresh. I read some Chandler a few years’ ago but needed to reacquaint myself with his style.

It is brilliant. Sharp, funny and sometimes bewildering, mainly because the slang of 1930s Los Angeles has not always endured. The humanity of Philip Marlowe is worn lightly, coming through at poignant moments when he realises who the real victims in some messy situation really are.

A classic, with a finely paced ending as the significance of the high window becomes clear.

Ulysses by James Joyce

I have just finished this strange and astonishing book. I tried to read it twice before but was unable to get past one of the more abstruse sections. I was encouraged to have another go after visiting the James Joyce Museum in Trieste and meeting the young curator, who had read the book and had lines from the book tattooed on her arm. I imagine that was a first for the tattooist.

So much has been written about the book, so much literary criticism, that I am not going to attempt to add to it here, not that I am qualified to do so. But, for the practical reader, I offer the following suggestions:

  • read it quickly and in as long and as few sittings as you can. One great beauty of the book is how it repeats themes, ideas and personalities and this is hard to grasp if you keep having to read yourself into the mood, by putting down the book frequently and picking it up again;
  • some sections are very hard to follow without looking at the notes (I was reading the Penguin Annotated Student’s Edition), while others depend on keeping with the flow of the text. So I chose to look at the notes only sparingly sometimes, accepting that many references and allusions would pass me by; and
  • accept that the plot is rambling and full of digressions and seeming irrelevancies ( I am sure some readers will think everything is meaningful if only we could fully understand Joyce and others will think that some things are, simply, irrelevant) but keep going and it does start to come together, or it did for me, anyway.

The final monologue by Molly Bloom, one of the most famous parts of the book, is utterly brilliant. It is, in a sense, separate from the Odyssey-themed chapters that precede it but depends for its power on what has gone before. I found myself moved to tears by the last sentences, which does not happen with many books.

I wouldn’t recommend the book to everyone. It is a slog at times. But it is truly a work of genius and I am very glad to have read it.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

One irony of this book is that it gives a very entertaining and insightful account of how modern Russia is awash with conspiracy theories and, at the same time, offers one of its own: that Russia is a gangster state where everything is manipulated in its interests.

The difference is that the latter feels very believable, when presented in this book. The writer is a television producer who has worked extensively in Russia. His style is fast-paced and engaging. He gives the reader a series of stories that, together, suggest that modern Russia is a truly frightening and unstable place, especially so for the people who live there.

Russia and China, today, are gigantic experiments, it seems to me. Something new has emerged from the clash of capitalism with the remnants of socialism, a hybrid that throws up a lot of unpleasantness, with no stable outcome in sight. China still seems to have the ballast of its ancient civilisation, despite the attempts of the Communist Party to destroy it, whereas Russia, according to this book, is very unpredictable and spinning around all over the place. Scary.

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

I read this after seeing, and really liking, a piece by Emma Cline in a recent issue of Granta magazine, called ‘The Best New American Writing’, or something similar. So it was good that the taster format led me to this book.

What she does really, really well is create an atmosphere of menace, especially menace towards women. Her writing is unsettling. The plot concerns a cult-like community in California in the 1960s, and one person’s involvement with it. I liked the way the narrator’s perspective reflected what she didn’t know, or hinted at it, as well as what she did. It made me think, as I have often before, of how male-dominated a lot of the hippy, free love thing became. In both of the pieces I have read by Cline, her acute analysis of the psychology of her female characters is very powerful.

Very good book.

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