My partner, Andy, always says I’m crazy (probably for lots of good reasons), but in this particular instance because I’ve long had the habit of keeping a stack of books that I am reading “all at once.” Of course, what I mean by that is I pick one or the other up, depending on exactly what my mood is and what more or less appeals to me in the moment. I don’t know why this sounds so strange, but people have often remarked that it does seem odd to them, and yet it feels to me like the most natural thing in the world
Here, for example, is a list of some things I have on my reading table right now, with a few comments about each of the books and about what I find interesting in them. They are listed in no special order:
- IDEAS AND OPINIONS, Albert Einstein – here is a book for the ages, if ever there was one. Who knew that Einstein wrote and lectured widely, not only about Physics and higher Mathematics, but about a much wider swath of life’s concerns. His interests encompassed such wide-ranging topics as Good and Evil, Wealth, Society and Personality, Academic Freedom, Human Rights, Politics, Government and Pacifism, the Jewish People, Germany, and Science and Religion. In regard to the latter topic, here is one of the things he has to say: “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult, but an incomparably more worthy task. After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge.” These kinds of thoughts by the great Albert Einstein are what I read when I am tired of hearing about Vatican power politics, or about evangelical small-minded bigotry, and I want instead to be uplifted by a bit of real wisdom. Here, too, simply for your enjoyment and edification, are a few more quotes from the great man: (Speaking of Marie Curie) “Once she had recognized a certain way as the right one, she pursued it without compromise and with extreme tenacity. The greatest scientific deed of her life – proving the existence of radioactive elements and isolating them – owes its accomplishment not merely to bold intuition but to a devotion and tenacity in execution under the most extreme hardships imaginable, such as the history of experimental science has not often witnessed”; (and of Mahatma Gandhi) “(A) man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior. Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” These are phrases that ring true and remain in the mind. They are always worth reading.
- ON THE NATURE OF THINGS (De Rerum Natura), Titus Lucretius Carus – this is a long poem, written in Latin in the first century BCE* by one of the greatest proponents of what came to be known as Epicurean philosophy. Stripped of all jargon, and in its simplest form, such an approach to life consisted of living simply and frugally with a contented mind. However, it must be said that, aside from this contented mind, Lucretius also had a most inquisitive one. Read his Book I, as an example, for an amazing explanation of what the atom is, and remember that this was written well over 2,000 years ago, without the benefit of any scientific instrumentation. Basically, Lucretius’s lab consisted of nature, and of his clear-minded, dispassionate observation thereof. Due to his unparalleled deductive abilities, he was able to speak authoritatively of both matter and space (the void, as he refers to it), as well as the indestructibility of matter. Not that he claims of course that bodies themselves cannot, and do not, die; rather he speaks about their irreducibly tiniest component parts, atoms, and describes how they are themselves impervious to further disintegration. As he says, “Now physical things are either first-beginnings/Or what their congresses unite to make./As for the first-beginnings, the atoms, no force can quell them; their tough walls outlast all blows; though at first it seems doubtful that in objects/The fundamentally solid can be found.” Even though today we know that atoms themselves can be broken down into yet smaller component parts, can you imagine the power of the human mind to discern such information before science and the scientific method had its real beginnings? Lucretius does, he says, believe in the gods, but only as remote beings who are “withdrawn and far removed from our affairs.” But note that he says this at a time when blood sacrifice to propitiate those very gods was the order of the day and readily accepted by all. Instead, his advice to us is that we withdraw our consciousness from the cares and worries of the world, and apply ourselves to “the truth of reasoned theory;” and all this, rather than being “(c)rushed to the dust under the burden of Religion.” When I, therefore, wish to remember the paramount good in the life of the mind, I read Titus Lucretius Carus, born somewhere between 99 and 95 BCE and died in 55 BCE, and I revel in the simple joys of life, and in the ultimate indestructibility of the tiniest building blocks of nature.
*BCE – Before the Common Era, a phrase often used by anthropologists and other scholars (along with its counterpart CE, meaning in the Common Era), in place of the older, religiously based BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini).
- A SHORT HISTORY OF IRELAND, John O’Beirne Ranelagh – I can’t help it. My Irish roots continually show through, whether I like it or not. And though I may come from a shanty Irish background, yet I can still aspire to learning (whether I ever reach that lofty goal or not), and (dare I say it?) even to sagacity. Why not, after all, set one’s heart on the highest good, as many times as we may fall and fail in its attainment? And falling and failing is what happened in Ireland for many centuries. This book takes the long view, beginning in the seventh millennium BCE with the coming of the Gaels to the island, and goes through the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century CE, to the Viking raids that started at the end of the eight century, the onslaught of the English, with Srongbow’s invasion in 1169, the Great Famine of 1845-1852, when over a million died and another million emigrated, and finally into the modern era. Indeed, it must be said that much of the second half of the book concentrates on events that began with the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence (1919-21) and the later creation of the Irish Free State (the best deal they could get from the UK at the time, it would appear), going on to the Irish Civil War (1922-23), and finally into the more or less contemporary politics of both the South and the North. It is not a happy history, as much as the story of few people on earth can, I suppose, be considered altogether happy. But Ireland in particular seems to have suffered greatly, and for a very long time. And no one can deny the arrogance, aggression, and downright cruelty of much of what the British have done in Ireland over the centuries, which greatly contributed to, and indeed, exacerbated, that unhappiness. As a direct result of their so-called Plantation Policies, for example (begun in earnest in the 17th century under Cromwell), Protestant Scottish and English settlers eventually came to outnumber and lord it over native Irish in the North. The result was that we have the terrible bigotry and inequities that beset Northern Ireland, and which to an extent still remain to this day. It is also true that in the end there have been unspeakable atrocities aplenty on both sides. Still, it seems clear that none of this would have come about in the first place, had it not been for the direct interventionist policies of a greedy and overbearing England. Let us hope that cooler heads will prevail, and that both Northern Ireland, now truly and probably forever a part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland will live to see better and happier days.
- LES FLEURS DU MAL, Charles Baudelaire – Every so often, I seem to need my “fix” of French literature. Who can deny that, along with Russian, English, Italian, Spanish, German, and now probably American literature, the writings of the French are among the jewels of world literature? As a young student living in France, I was very taken by the great 19th century poets. Rimbaud and especially Baudelaire were among my favorites. And so, from time to time, I go back to my bookcase and dig out my old copy of “Les Fleurs du Mal,” the Flowers of Evil. I suppose, if I’m being perfectly frank, these poems no longer speak to me in quite the same way they did over 45 years ago now, when I was a university student living in Strasbourg. In some ways, in fact, reading them is almost a kind of exercise in nostalgia. Still, I thrill to these enchanting lines, and remember the decadence and eroticism of Baudelaire’s poetry. Let me quote just one stanza – in French, if you will indulge me, and for those who may speak the language – as well as with the addition of my own clunky enough translation of such glorious words (from a poem entitled “La Crépuscule du Soir” – “Evening’s Twilight”):
Voici le soir charmant, ami du criminel;
Il vient comme un complice, à pas de loup; le ciel
Se ferme lentement comme une grande alcôve,
Et l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve
(Here is charming evening, friend of the criminal;
It comes stealthily like an accomplice, on wolf’s steps; the sky
Closes slowly like a huge alcove,
And impatient man is changed into a wild beast)
That last line in particular, “l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve,” is quintessential Baudelaire. Dark and brooding and verging on the demonic. I loved it when I was 21 years old, and even today it can make me shiver a little, more in memory perhaps of who I once was, than of what it has to say to me today. Still, isn’t that one of the things literature, and maybe poetry in particular, can do for us? Take us back to who we were when we first read it, celebrate that person, and possibly even, to an extent at least, breathe a sigh of relief that we are no longer he.
- THE GOLDEN ASS, Lucius Apuleius Africanus – It’s not that I’m enamored only of old Latin literature, but here is a novel (the only one to survive in its entirety from ancient Rome) that really should not be missed. It is a silly, bawdy, picaresque story of a foolish young man who, because of his inexperience and naïveté, to say nothing of his over-inquisitiveness and complete lack of good sense, gets himself changed by magic into an ass. As with all such works of this type, the overall plot is thin as a dime, but the situations and the characters are hilarious. “The Golden Ass” (“Asinus Aureus,” in Latin) is the Perils-of-Pauline of idiocy and of humorous situations cum morality tales. Apuleius apparently took at least some of his story from an earlier Greek version, now lost, but no doubt added his own commentary and hilarity, as well. He was born in what is today known as Algeria, and lived from approximately 125 to 180 CE. He had his own tragic-comic misfortunes in life, but today we are mostly glad of the harebrained story he left behind for our entertainment and enlightenment. Let me quote just a single short passage (marvelously translated by Sarah Ruden, by the way), one of many that could be related, showing the wiles of a supposedly pious wife and the simplemindedness of her cuckold husband. Here it is for your reading pleasure: “There wasn’t a single fault missing from that dame, who had nothing whatsoever to recommend her; on the contrary, every wicked passion, bar none, had flooded into a heart that was like some slimy privy. A friend in a fight but not very bright, hot for a crotch, wine-botched, rather die than let a whim pass by – that was her. She pillaged other people’s property without the slightest shame or restraint and threw money away on the lowest self-indulgence. She was in a long-running feud with trust, and in the army storming chastity.” Who would want to be married to such a wife? On the other hand, we also wind up half pitying her for the gullible imbecile of a husband she’s married to. Every low trick, every foible, every blemish, and half of the kinky idiosyncrasies humanity is capable of are represented in this rollicking and riotous read. I therefore pick up Apuleius whenever I want to be reminded of what a foolish, crackpot, crazy, and hysterically funny world we live in.
So, that’s it. These are some of the friends I have been spending my hours with of late. Let me know who your friends are, and we can compare notes. After all, that’s part of the great joy of reading, isn’t it? Letting each other know what tickles your fancy, who makes you weep, who makes you laugh, who makes you wonder, and who, in the end – let us hope, at least – occasionally may even bring a bit of the light of wisdom into our lives.