Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28: Spoke Latin First (Vol. 32, pp. 29-40)

Michel de Montaigne was born on this day in 1533, and its strange that the editors pick an unreadable essay on education for today's reading. Apparently, his education was a bit unorthodox, as he learned Latin before he learned how to speak French. I know he's written better stuff than this, so I'll let this one pass.

Friday, February 27, 2009

February 27: Poet Apostle of Good Cheer (Vol. 42, pp. 1264-1280)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on this day in 1807. Judging from how many of Longfellow's poems are included in this collection, it's easy to see how much he was loved by the 19th century tastemakers. His work is still a staple of poetry courses today, but he certainly pales when compared to the American poetry written after him.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 26: A David Who Sidestepped Goliath (Vol. 39, pp. 337-349)

The French writer Victor Hugo was born on this day in 1802, and in this piece, "A Preface to Cromwell," he sets down the manifesto of the romantic movement.

His statement that "the fruitful union of the grotesque and the sublime types that modern genius is born — so complex, so diverse in its forms, so inexhaustible in its creations; and therein directly opposed to the uniform simplicity of the genius of the ancients" is the shot that launched modernism as we now know it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25: Punished for Too Sharp a Wit (Vol. 27, pp. 133-147)

On this day in 1703, an essay by Daniel Dafoe, "The Shortest-Way with Dissenters," was censored by the royal authorities. Three centuries later, a modern reader would wonder what the fuss is about. Dafoe's contemporaries were not as sanguine, as he was fined, imprisoned and pilloried for writing this essay.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February 24: Lights and Shadows of Milton (Vol. 4, pp. 30-38)

More of John Milton's poetry today — a day where in 1662, he married his third wife, Elizabeth Marshall. Today's poems, "L' Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," are dediciated to the joys of youth and the banishment of melancholy. Needless to say, these were written pre-"Paradise Lost."

Monday, February 23, 2009

February 23: Pepys' Nose for News (Vol. 28, pp. 285-292)

February 23: Pepys' Nose for News (Vol. 28, pp. 285-292)

Samuel Pepys was born this day in 1632, and in today's reading, Robert Louis Stevenson writes a fine overview of Pepys' life and his diary that outlived him. Stevenson makes the case that Pepys was the original gossipmonger and that his curiosity drove him to dig up the dirt.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 22: An Ode For Washington's Birthday (Vol. 6, pp. 492-494)

Why, why why are we celebrating the birthday of the Father of Our Country with Scottish gibberish from Robert Burns? Whomever compiled the Reading Guide wasn't thinking, I'd say.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 21: Does Football Make a College? (Vol. 28, pp. 31-39)

Cardinal John Henry Newman was born this day in 1801, and in his essay, "The Idea of a University," he defines its prime function as "a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country." That's as good a definition as any.

Equally astute is his observation that "one generation forms another, and the existing generation is ever acting and reacting upon itself in the persons of its individual members." He believes a university should be a place where "inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and exposed, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge." It's a remarkable summation of what higher learning is about.

Friday, February 20, 2009

February 20: Voltaire Observes The Quakers (Vol. 34, pp. 65-78)

In another selection from his "Letters on the English," Voltaire turns his attention on the Quakers, who were a persecuted minority in 18th century England. Another illustration of how religious faith can be tough when you are perceived as being outside the accepted norm.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

February 19: Earthly Experience of a Chinese Goddess. (Vol. 45, pp. 693-701)

Despite the heavy pro-Protestant Christian bias of the Harvard Classics, it contains a surprising amount of material from other faiths, such as the Buddhist writings that make up today's selection. An early attempt at comparative religion, I suppose.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 18: Lasting Peace with Great Britain (Vol. 43, pp. 255-264)

Today's reading is the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed this day in 1815 and ended the War of 1812. It marked the beginning of nearly two centuries of good relations between the United Kingdom and its former colony.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 17: Death His Curtain Call (Vol. 26, pp. 199-217)

On this day in 1673, the French playwright Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière was acting in one of his plays and was suddenly stricken. He died shortly after the final curtain.

The creator of French comedy, he worked mostly for Louis XIV's court producing farces and comedies such as today's reading from "Tartuffe," the religious hypocrite who some have compared to Shakespeare's Falstaff.

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 16: Social Circles Among Ants (Vol. 11, pp. 264-268)

Now we get to the meat of Charles Darwin's work — "The Origin of Species." Today's selection covers the inner workings of an ant colony, and how the ants' instinct for making slaves can be seen in the human species as well.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15: The World Well Lost? (Vol. 18, pp. 53-69)

On this day in 44 B.C., Mark Antony offered his crown to Caesar. So, John Dryden's "All For Love," makes for a natural day-after-Valentine's Day selection and how Mark Antony sacrificed everything — his crown, his reputation and ultimately his life — for the love of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

This selection is from Act III, and contains the usual histrionics that every Elizabethian-era play seems to have.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

February 14: Love Always Young (Vol. 48, pp. 411-421)

It's Valentines Day and nothing says love quite like...Pascal?

Yes, Pascal is who was selected for this day's reading, and it's not as off the wall as you might think. In his "Discourse on the Passion of Love," he throws away the math and science that so infused his work and focused upon the greatest of all human emotions.

Thankfully, Pascal doesn't try to figure out a mathematical formula for love. He understands that "man is born for pleasure; he feels it, no other proof of it is needed." Further, "love has no age, it is always young;" it "gives intellect and is sustained by intellect." Most importantly, "the first effect of love is to inspire a profound respect."

Well, he is French, after all...

Friday, February 13, 2009

February 13: The Frank Story of an Amazing Life (Vol. 31, pp. 68-80)

Another Italian author of whom I am not familiar. Benvenuto Cellini, an artist and sculptor of the 16th century, died on this date in 1570, but not before writing his "Autobiography." He was a contemporary of Michaelangelo and a first-class storyteller.

He started writing his autobiography at age 58, after he had shaved his head and entered a monastery to work on the tales of murder, passion and political and artistic creativity that marked the Renaissance. In this selection, he tells some war stories about his days as an artilleryman during the many battles of Medicis and the like.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12: Oxford Corrects Lincoln's Mistake (Vol. 43, pp. 415-420)

Today is President Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and the heading on today's reading reminds us of another story. Lincoln supposedly thought his Gettysburg Address was a failure. Today, we know it as one of the greatest speeches in American history. In Oxford, at Balliol College, Lincoln's words are cast on a bronze plaque to commemorate what that institution believes is the perfection of English prose.

Here we have the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and a letter that Lincoln wrote to a mother who lost five of her sons fighting for the Union cause. Just a taste of the prose of one of the most eloquent presidents ever.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 11: The Queen Freezes Her Philosophy (Vol. 34, pp. 5-20)

René Descartes died this day in 1650, apparently the victim of too many frozen mornings tutoring a queen.

A sad end for the man who invented modern philosophy — "I think, therefore I am" — and explained the way to discern the true and the false and find the right path in life.

Descartes' "Discourse on Method" divides the philosophic process into four elements. First, "Never accept anything for true that I did not clearly know to be such." Second, divide "each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible and as might be necessary for a solution." Third, "Conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little." Finally, "In every case, to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing is omitted."

A stunningly simple process of thinking that seems to be a lost art these days.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February 10: No Fancy for a Plain Gentleman (Vol. 34, pp. 130-140)

The heading of today's reading comes from a visit between French essayist and philosopher François Voltaire and English dramatist William Congreve. As the story goes, Congreve wanted to be regarded as only a plain gentleman. Voltaire is said have replied, "Had you been that I should never have come to see you."

In this selection from his "Letters to the English," Voltaire writes about English theatre. He blames Shakespeare's success for ruining several generations of playwrights, because so many tried to copy his style and failed miserably.

He also tried to boost his countryman, Corneille, over the Brits. Few will accept Voltaire's argument.

Monday, February 9, 2009

February 9: Rest Between Wars (Vol. 33, pp. 93-102)

The Roman historian Tacitus' "On Germany" is today's selection. You can see the outlines of what eventually became modern Germany in this account, even though he expressed surprise that the Germanic tribes that were so fierce in battle would enjoy lolling about their camps between fights.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 8: Tragic Death of a World-Famous Beauty (Vol. 6, pp. 396-406)

Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded on this day in 1587, so this means we get another dose of Robert Burns' poetic tripe in her honor.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

February 7: A Letter from a Lion (Vol. 39, pp. 206-207)

On this day in 1755, Samuel Johnson wrote a letter to Lord Chesterfield, to remind him of how he brushed Johnson off when he was a struggling writer and only got around to singing his praises well after the fact. This was at the time Johnson's "Dictionary" was published, and Johnson believed that Lord Chesterfield's praise would have meant more to him before he became a renowned writer and essayist.

Friday, February 6, 2009

February 6: Charles Lamb suggests To-days Reading (Vol. 46, pp. 73-89)

Christopher Marlowe was born this day in 1564, and the 19th century English essayist Charles Lamb is quoted in the reading guide as follows: "The reluctant pangs of abdicating royalty in 'Edward' furnished hints which Shakespeare scarcely improved in his 'Richard the Second,' and the death scene of Marlowe's King moves to pity and terror."

That death scene from Marlowe's "Edward the Second," is today's reading, and it offers more fuel to the argument that Shakespeare borrowed more than a little from Marlowe's work.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

February 5: Diamonds, Diamonds Everywhere! (Vol. 16, pp. 243-250)

Scheherazade, the master storyteller, is back with another story to keep the sultan, King Shahriyar, occupied for another night. We have our first meeting with Sinbad in this installment of "The Thousand and One Nights," as he tries to make off with some diamonds that are being guarded by venomous serpants.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

February 4: "Genius, a Secret to Itself" (Vol. 25, pp. 319-327)

On this day, the English author and social critic Thomas Carlyle died. Here he offers an essay on intelligence and posits the theory that "genius is ever a secret to itself" and that "the healthy know not of their health, but only the sick."

In other words, true intelligence just is. Only an august few possess it, and great minds are generally unconscious of their tremendous mental abilities.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

February 3: A House of Mirth and Revelry (Vol. 47, pp. 543-558)

Ben Jonson offers some mildly interesting Elizabethian-era satire from his play "The Alchemist." It doesn't do much for me, but all that means is my prejudice against drama is showing, I suppose.

Monday, February 2, 2009

February 2: "Apparel Oft Proclaims the Man" (Vol. 46, pp. 107-120)

The first dose of Shakespeare in the series' reading guide is "Hamlet." In this sequence, the ghost of Polonius raps with Ophelia for a while. Next, Hamlet consults with Horatio and Marcelus before Polonius shows up to plead for the avenging of his death. Not much more you can say about this one.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

February 1: King Arthur's Knights Find Holy Grail (Vol. 35, pp. 112-123)

It is impossible to read Sir Thomas Malory's "The Holy Grail" and not think think about the Monty Python version of King Arthur's saga — which did for knights what Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" did for westerns. To read this means conjuring up visions of the Pythons mincing through the woods. All that's missing are the Knights Who Say "Ni!"