Monday, November 30, 2009

November 30: "Don'ts" for Conversation (Vol. 27, pp. 91-98)

It seems to be the pattern of the reading guide that just when you are about to throw your hands up in despair over the parade of overwrought poets, obtuse philosophers and incomprehensible playwrights, a selection comes along that justifies the time spent with it.

Today is a good example of this pattern. It's Jonathan Swift's 343rd birthday, and to mark the occasion, we get "An Essay on Conversation." It is Swiftian satire at its best as he looks at the common excesses in having to talk with other people in social situations.

It holds up wonderfully after 300 years, because people still talk to much about themselves, prattle on with stories their listeners have already heard many times before, force humor into situations where none is warranted, and so on.

Swift's rule is simple: "Never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish we had rather left unsaid." Also, he advises not to interrupt or allow yourself to be interrupted. To achieve his goal of good conversation — "to entertain and improve those we are among, or to receive those benefits ourselves' — one has to apply an old Vermont aphorism — talk less and say more.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

November 29: How Ideas Originate (Vol. 37, pp. 299-303)

How do we think? In David Hume's "The Origin of Ideas," he writes that the most vivid thought is inferior to the simplest sensation, that thoughts are subordinate to sensations and that it is impossible for thoughts to emerge without the corresponding sensations.

When analyzing thoughts, Hume writes that we should look for the impressions that formed them. An almost to obvious conclusion from today's vantage point, but I imagine this might have been a revolutionary idea in the 18th century.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

November 28: Poems Made from Visions (Vol. 41, pp. 583-592)

William Blake was born this day in 1757 — the man responsible for inspiring Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats, among other overwrought English poets of the 19th century. Someone has to take the blame, I suppose.

Friday, November 27, 2009

November 27: What Land is This? (Vol. 36, pp. 191-204)

Sir Thomas More's "Utopia" is tough going, mainly because it is written in the King James version Biblical style of English and because it is written in such a convoluted way that it is gibberish to modern readers. To get even an inkling of what today's passage is about — it concerns Utopians traveling outside their society — you have to go back to the preceding pages to figure things out.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

November 26: Shakespeare Should Be Heard (Vol. 27, pp. 299-310)

Charles Lamb's "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare," makes the counterintuitive observation that the Bard's work should be read in a book rather than performed on a stage.

Lamb, a 19th century English essayist, is credited (or blamed, if you're not a fan) with reviving interest in Shakespeare's work. He believed that Shakespeare's plays "are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any dramatist whatever."

Why? Because Lamb believed their excellence stems from the way they are filled with "so much in them, which comes not under the province of acting, with which eye, and tone, and gesture, have nothing to do."

In other words, Shakespeare's writing is so strong on its own that performing the plays on stage adds little to their enjoyment.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

November 25: Cupid as Shoemaker (Vol. 47, pp. 469-483)

Today, we have Thomas Dekker's "The Shoemaker's Holiday." Dekker was a contemporary of Shakespeare's and this is supposedly his most famous work. It's the tale of Simon Eyre, a bombastic London shoemaker totally devoted to his craft to the exclusion of everything else. Eyre had little patience nor attentiveness beyond his cobbler shop. He certainly isn't the typical character of Elizabethian drama.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24: The Book That Upset Tennessee (Vol. 11, pp. 23-30)

On this day in 1859, "The Origin of Species" was published. The editors of the Reading Guide here are making a snarky allusion to the Scopes Trial, and the famous row over the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in 1925.

Even though some are still arguing about its contents, there is little debate that this book helped launch the revolution of modern science. As the Harvard Classics editors wrote, Darwin did more than gather "the ripe fruit of the labors of his predecessors" but "built on the foundations laid by others."

Darwin's theory of the evolution of organisms was not entirely new. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle offered glimpses of it and more modern philosophers from Bacon on added to the understanding that plants and animals did not just magically appear fully formed on the Earth, but changed and developed over eons.

However, it was Darwin that seized upon the idea, inspired by Malthus' theories on overpopulation, that "favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones would be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species."

This idea has never been accepted by fundamentalist Christians, who cling to the idea that God created the world in seven days and everything was ready to go from the beginning. Science proves that this is clearly untrue, yet creationism is still being taken seriously as an idea. Some organisms, apparently, still have some evolving to do.

Monday, November 23, 2009

November 23: Less Than Stardust (Vol. 48, pp. 26-36)

Pascal began writing his "Thoughts" this day in 1654. Today's selection is "Misery of Man Without God." He was apparently a Jansenist — one of the offshoots of post-Reformation Catholicism that resembled Calvinism in its insistence on grace and predestination of the soul at the expense of free will.

While Pascal wrote with fierce logic and reason — maybe with too much of these qualities — he goes spinning off into a meditation of man's place in the universe and concludes we rest somewhere between the infinite and the nothingless void.

Best observation here: "One must know oneself. If this does not serve to discover truth, it at least serves as a rule of life, and there is nothing better."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

November 22: How a Queen Died for Love (Vol. 13, pp. 167-177)

More from Virgil's "Aeneid," and Queen Dido's pain over being deserted by her love. Greek tragedy for those who might like it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

November 21: Bargains in Wives (Vol. 34, pp. 93-97)

Voltaire came down with smallpox in November 1723, which is why we get today's piece on smallpox innoculation. The ancient Circassians seem to have noticed that innoculating the young with the disease would prevent a worse outbreak down the road, which is why the daughters — in high demand by the sultans — were protected. The supposedly "civilized" culture of Europe took a long time to figure this out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20: Old Stories Ever New (Vol. 17, pp. 90-98)

We get the Grimm brothers' "The Valiant Little Tailor" for today's reading — a guy who turned seven dead flies and a lot of bull and bluster into a kingdom.

The Grimms may not have ever heard of the word, "chutzpah," but the tailor certainly possessed it. On sheer confidence alone, he was able to talk his way into power and riches.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

November 19: No Man Knows His Resting Place (Vol. 42, pp. 986-992)

On this day in 1850, Queen Victoria appointed Lord Alfred Tennyson poet laureate. To mark the occasion, we get an exceedingly windy poem, "Morte D'Arthur," on the death of King Arthur. Overwrought nonsense.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November 18: Apple or Son the Arrow's Mark (Vol. 26, pp. 441-449)

On this day in 1307, the most famous shot in the history of archery took place, and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller tells the story today from his play "Wilhelm Tell."

Tell was ordered to prove his prowess with a bow by taking aim from 100 yards away at his son's head, upon which rested an apple. He made the shot, but afterward, Tell told the governor who ordered him to risk his son's life that he had a second arrow reserved for him had his first shot not been true.

Tell may have gotten hauled off to prison for his bravado, but could he have done anything less? Bravery demands words like these.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November 17: At Thirty Scott Began to Write (Vol. 25, pp. 410-420)

This selection from Thomas Carlyle's "Sir Walter Scott" might be considered an ode to the late bloomer. Scott showed no signs of being a literary writer until he was 30. He was living a quiet, orderly life, but within that quiet, orderly life, Carlyle said Scott was building himself into the kind of person who's bound to succeed if given the right opportunity at the right time.

"The uttered part of a man's life, let us always repeat, bears to the unlettered unconscious part of an unknown proportion; he himself never knows it, much less do others," writes Carlyle. "Give him room, give him impulse; he reaches down to the infinite with that so straitly-imprisoned of his; and can do miracles if need be!"

Not everybody gets this chance, but Scott was fortunate enough to get his and the result was "Ivanhoe " and a flood of other works. Genius is never enough, you have to have the right circumstances to apply it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

November 16: Just Before the Gold Rush (Vol. 23, pp. 164-168)

More from Dana's "Two Years Before The Mast," but this time, our hero is on shore exploring the Presidios of California in the time just before the gold rush of 1849. It's a nice little synopsis of how the Spaniards shaped the early history of California.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

November 15: Food Profiteers 300 Years Ago (Vol. 21, pp. 450-460)

You thought you were done with "I Promessi Sposi," didn't you. Sadly, no. There's more of it today. This time, Manzoni writes about bread riots and the mass psychosis of panic that was rampant in Milan during the plague epidemic of the 1600s. The government tried to fix grain prices to discourage profiteering, but it didn't work. The scarcer food got, the more panicked the people got.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November 14: He Worried About It (Vol. 38, pp. 398-405)

Sir Thomas Lyell was born this day in 1797, so we get a welcome dose of reason after Milton and St. Augustine.

This selection from "The Uniformity of Change," continues on the theme from a few weeks ago — that natural phenomena don't just happen, but rather there are patterns and cycles that happen over time. These patterns can be seen over time based on the record left behind — fossils, sediment, rock formations. From this, we can see a definite, uniform pattern of change in the animate and inanimate worlds.

Of course, this doesn't sit well with the creationists who believe the Bible has all the answers about how our world was created. While the Harvard Classics drips with religious piety, it also carves out a significant space for science and acknowledges that there are other explanations beyond the Bible for how our world works.

Friday, November 13, 2009

November 13: When Carthage Was Monte Carlo (Vol. 7, pp. 31-38)

"Things I used to do/Lord, I won't do no more." The lyrics of that old blues song come to mind reading today's passage from the "Confessions of St. Augustine," selected this day for his birthday in 354. He recounts his wild and wicked days in Carthage, which apparently was a hot town in the fourth century. But, of course, he regrets his debauchery and finds God.

The heavy-handed morality of the Harvard Classics can be a bit stifling at times. It is easy to be mistrustful of any sect that says it has all the answers, and Christians seem to be the epitome of self-assurance. In an age when piety seems to have to replaced reason, it's hard to read stuff like St. Augustine's with a straight face.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November 12: Story of the First Dresses (Vol. 4, pp. 278-290)

More Milton, this time the story of Adam and Eve from "Paradise Lost." Since I said my piece about Milton a couple of days ago, I'll let this pass without comment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11: America's Doughboy Glorified (Vol. 42, pp. 1402-1412)

Today is Armistice Day, and the editors of the Reading Guide chose this occasion to trot out Walt Whitman and his Civil War-era poetry. (If this seems inconsistent with the 1909 publishing date of the Harvard Classics, it is because the set's reading guide that I'm using was written in 1930).

Whitman is the most modern poet included in his collection and the difference between his work and the rest of the poetry in the Harvard Classics is startling. He's not writing about nightingales or daffodils. He's not ethereal or wracked with longing.

It is poems such as today's "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" or "The Wound Dresser," that deal with death on the battlefield, or "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in The Courtyard Bloomed," written after Lincoln's assassination, that show the realness and humanity that presage the great poets of the 20th century.

Maybe my modernity is showing here, but I'd rather read Whitman than Shelley, Keats and the rest of the insipid twaddle that lie in this set's poetry volumes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10: A Poet Who Piped for his Supper (Vol. 41, pp. 509-520)

English poet Oliver Goldsmith was born this day in 1728. He apparently traveled through Belgium, France and Italy, and cadged meals in exchange for offering entertainment. We get his poem "The Deserted Village" today.

Monday, November 9, 2009

November 9: Once War Songs, Now Pious Prayers (Vol. 44, pp. 318-327)

The Psalms are the fight songs of Christianity and its true believers in times of trial. The ones in this reading — 137 through 145 – are mostly David's writings and alternate between thanksgiving and beseeching God for his blessings.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

November 8: Blind but Unconquered (Vol. 4, pp. 359-369)

John Milton died on this day in 1674. Today's passage is from his sequel to "Paradise Lost," called (naturally) "Paradise Regained."

While Milton is admittedly an acquired taste that I never acquired, his personal story is worth noting. At the time he dictated the text of what would become "Paradise Regained," he was broke and blind and living in obscurity.

He was politically on the outs when he wrote the "Paradises," since he was on the anti-monarchy side of the political and religious wars in England in the 17th century. Milton had an interesting mix of liberty and moral purity — two things that on the surface seem incompatible.

Milton is more complex than he appears. How can one be devoted to what he called "the three species of liberty which are essential to the happiness of social life — religious, domestic and civil" and be an advocate of freedom and tolerance, yet be associated with the Puritans, the folks synonymous with religious reaction and intolerance?

While the "Paradise" poems are what Milton is best known for, he was also someone who fought for ideals more closely associated with the Enlightenment. You'd never know it without reading his other works, which sadly aren't collected in the Harvard Classics and would better illuminate what kind of person he really was.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

November 7: The Voice From a Stone-Dead City (Vol. 16, pp. 100-107)

After an absence of several months, here's another selection from "The Thousand and One Nights," this time the tale of how the inhabitants of Baghdad were suddenly turned to stone.

Friday, November 6, 2009

November 6: A Genius Needs Few Tools (Vol. 30, pp. 13-21)

On this day in 1845, scientist Michael Faraday sent his scientific paper "Experimental Researches" to the Royal Society. Thus we get today's reading from a lecture he delivered in 1859, "Force of Gravitation."

You could call Faraday the precursor to Mister Wizard. Even though he was one of the best scientific minds of his time — his discovery of magneto-electricity being his top find — Faraday could also explain scientific principles in a way that kids could understand.

After wading through some of the wordy and overwritten pieces of the last few days, it's a genuine relief to read something written in plain English.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5: Costly Opinion on Divorce (Vol. 36, pp. 89-99)

William Roper's "Life of Sir Thomas More" is today's reading. Roper, who is Sir Thomas' son-in-law, wrote this in 1515 in the typically overwrought style of the era. You have to wade through a lot of excess verbiage to get to the point of the piece, which is that More was willing to stand up to King Henry VIII on the question of divorce, even though doing do so meant his death.

Standing by his principles meant more than life itself for More, which is why history looks upon him much favorably than Henry VIII.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November 4: Gold or Glory? (Vol. 26, pp. 87-97)

More from the French playwright Corneille's "Polyeducte" today, as the title character is faced with the choice of becoming a Christian and renouncing everything he has. Another one of those pro-Christian fables that the series seems to specialize in.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November 3: Letters to an Emperor (Vol. 9, pp. 404-406)

In this passage, Pliny is writing to the Roman Emperor Trajan on the efficacy of torturing Christians. The ruling power is usually ruthless in dealing with noisy minorities, since the rulers always believe they are just and right and correct in what they do. Some things never change.

Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2: Journey Through a Hot Country (Vol. 20, pp. 13-20)

More from Dante's "Inferno" today. Is there really a place called Hell? Better minds than mine have grappled with that idea. We would like to think that the wicked will eventually pay for their deeds, but lacking concrete proof of the existence of the afterlife or a divine arbiter of good and bad, I would rather see the punishment meted out here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

November 1: Last Strokes of Shakespeare's Pen (Vol. 46, pp. 397-410)

On this day in 1611, "The Tempest" was performed at Queen Elizabeth's court. It was Shakespeare's final play before his death.