Saturday, January 31, 2009

January 31: What "Don Quixote" Really Slew (Vol. 14, pp. 60-67)

How totally nuts was the Man of La Mancha? This introduction to Cervantes' eccentric and not quite all there amateur knight has our hero convinced that windmills are giant beasts to be slain.

This book, written in 1805, is generally considered to be the first modern novel and a satire of the tales of chivalry so popular in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, it fits the rubric of a classic — a book everyone praises and few read.

Friday, January 30, 2009

January 30: First Problem Play Popular (Vol. 8, pp. 255-266)

Sophicles' "Antigone," is today's selection, in honor of the day in 405 B.C. that he died in Athens. More impenetrable Greek drama.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 29: Visits the Land of Fire (Vol. 29, pp. 209-221)

Charles Darwin visits Tierra Del Fuego in this passage from "The Voyage of the Beagle." Unfortunately, this is an "aren't the natives weird" story, emblematic of the era of exploration where the mighty white man was out to civilize the savages. Not a good introduction to Darwin.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 28: Man's Wings (Vol. 7, pp. 242-249)

If Dante wasn't bad enough, here comes a selection from Thomas à Kempis' "The Imitation of Christ," and his statement that "a pure heart seeth the very depths of heaven and hell." This assumes one believes in the existence of these places as well as the rest of the mumbo-jumbo of organized religion. Atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are not welcome in the world of the Harvard Classics.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 27: Dante and Beatrice in Paradise (Vol. 20, pp. 267-279)

Dante, like Milton, gets a bad reputation for being unreadable, and Dante's "Divine Comedy," which is today's selection, is deserving of this status. In this snippet, our hero is schlepping through purgatory when he runs into Beatrice, a lost and unrequited love. Dante then gets into the same hallucinatory nonsense that the "Divine Comedy" is famous for.

Not exactly easy nor interesting reading, although it's interesting that the reading guide chose a less gory and graphically violent selection to introduce the reader to Dante.

Monday, January 26, 2009

January 26: In the Cradle of Civilization (Vol. 33, pp. 55-65)

January 26: In the Cradle of Civilization (Vol. 33, pp. 55-65)

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, called "the father of all storytellers," tells a tale of palace intrigues in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. There are some bizarre stories in his "An Account of Egypt," but he at least makes the effort to separate which stories have some elements of truth and which are just tall tales. In this way, you could argue that he helped to set the parameters of historical writing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

January 25: A Field Mouse Made Famous (Vol. 6, pp. 119-120, 388-394)

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, was born this day in 1759. The title refers to one of today's poems, "To a Mouse," and the story of how a Scottish farmer plowing his field accidently plows up the nest of a frightened mouse.

The Scot dialect in which Burns writes his poems is highly annoying, but the sentiment of the poem stands up — that misfortune can pop up at any time without warning and that "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley."

That's the line everyone remembers from the poem, but this sentiment is the real takeaway — "Backward cast my eye/on prospects drear!/an' forward, tho' I canna see,/I guess an' fear." In other words, we're all flying blind, wondering when the plowman will turn our lives over.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

January 24: Odysseus Silenced the Sirens (Vol. 22, pp. 165-173)

Today's selection from Homer's "Odyssey" deals with those sweetly singing voices that lured seafarers to their doom, and Odysseus' solution. He stopped up the crews ears with wax and had them tie him to the mast so they could navigate the ship past the enchanted rocks without running it aground.

Friday, January 23, 2009

January 23: Pascal Knew Men and Triangles (Vol. 48, pp. 400-411)

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, tries to impose a mathematical formula to rhetorical skills in today's selection from his essay "The Art of Persuasion."

While there is a process, I don't think it can be easily boiled down to a formula. However, he doesn't discount the human element, and the universal need to be pleased. Pascal also believes that this is less apt to be reduced to a formula; that persuasion is as much pleasing as it is convincing. That much is undoubtedly true.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 22: A King's Pleasure Now Yours (Vol. 26, pp. 77-87)

Corneille is a French playwright that I had never heard of. Today's selection, from his play "Polyeucte," is chosen for the day in 1647 he was elected to the French Academy. Corneille's style seems to be having his characters give long monologues similar to the characters in the plays of ancient Greece. Considering he was a contemporary of the Elizabethian dramatists, Corneille's style seems strangely ancient.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January 21: The Nightingale's Healing Melody (Vol. 17, pp. 301-310)

In the context of this series, Hans Christian Andersen had only been dead 35 years, making him almost a modern. He apparently hated his fairy tales, which is where he found his fame and success, and despaired that his plays, poems and novels never reached the same status.

But it's easy to see why people today remember his fairy tales. They were clearly written and infused with common sense and sound morality. Today's tale, "The Nightingale," is a meditation on humility, creativity, the difference between art and artifice and the spirit of freedom that is necessary to create beauty. It may be disguised as a simple tale for children, a fable in the tradition of Aesop, but there is much more going on in this story than meets the eye.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

January 20: "Ah! It is St. Agnes' Eve — " (Vol. 41, pp. 883-893)

Supposedly, on this day, virgins were to perform solemn ceremonies to "have visions of delights and soft adorings from their loves." Or, at least that's how John Keats would have it in his poem, "Eve of St. Agnes."

St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, died a martyr in fourth century Rome. Keats based his poem on the superstition linked to St. Agnes — that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of her feast day on Jan. 21. The virginal lass had to go to bed without any supper, undress herself and lie completely naked on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens. Only then would Mr. Right appear in her dream, kiss her and feast with her.

Monday, January 19, 2009

January 19: Poe on Poetry (Vol. 28, pp. 317-380)

On this day in 1809, Edgar Allen Poe was born. The man who gave us the detective story, perfected the mystery short story and produced America's first great poems here sets down his ideas on poetry.

In "The Poetic Principle," Poe tries to sweep away the cant associated with 19th century poetry — it has to be long, it has to have a moral, every poem should aim for truth with a capital T — and instead puts forth the radical (for the time) notion of poetry for its own sake.

Taking that a step further, Poe states that he believes poetry and truth are often incompatible and that beauty "is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

January 18: Origin of Yale "Brekekekex-Ko-ax" (Vol. 8, pp. 439-449)

Billed in the reading guide as a bit of comic relief, this selection from Artistophanes' "The Frogs" is supposed to be the ancient Greeks' version of vaudeville, with Xanthias and Dionysus yukking it up.

Unfortunately, since this is more stagecraft from ancient Greece, it is so dense that one really has to dig deep to find the humor.

As for what "Brekekekex-Ko-ax" means, that's the chorus of the frogs in his play, which apparently was swiped as a football cheer back in the day the reading guide was assembled.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

January 17: Franklin's Family Tree (Vol. 1, pp. 5-15)

On this day in 1706, ol' Ben entered the world. To mark the occasion, here's more from his "Autobiography," where he delves into the Franklin family tree and gets into the details of his youth as one of 10 children in his family. He also describes how his love of books steered him toward his first trade — printer.

Friday, January 16, 2009

January 16: The Old Woman and the Wine Jar (Vol. 17, pp. 31-44)

There are a bunch of Aesop's famed Fables in today's reading, but the focus is on this particular tale, which is short enough to print in its entirety:

You must know that sometimes old women like a glass of wine. One of this sort once found a Wine-Jar lying in the road, and eagerly went up to it hoping to find it full. But when she took it up she found that all the wine had been drunk out of it. Still she took a long sniff at the mouth of the Jar. “Ah,” she cried, "WHAT MEMORIES CLING ROUND THE INSTRUMENTS OF OUR PLEASURE."

The Harvard Classics collects 82 of Aesop's stories, and after more than 2,600 years, they hold up well. Human behavior hasn't changed all that much in a couple of millennia.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January 15: "The Moving Finger Writes" (Vol. 41, pp. 943-953)

"The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" was first published this day in 1859.

This philosophical poem is arguably the source of more aphorisms than anything else in the English language, such as the one alluded to in the title of today's reading:

"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."

The spot-on observations on life and human nature contained in this poem keep it from being just another example of the usual overwrought poetry of the age.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January 14: The First Step Toward Independence (Vol. 43, pp. 60-65)

Historians consider "The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut," adopted on this day in 1639, as the first-ever written version of the modern constitution — that is, a document that puts limits on governmental power and codifies the democratic ideal.

The idea that "to maintain the peace and union" that there should be "an orderly and decent government, established according to God, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people," and that to accomplish this, people must come together "as one public state or commonwealth," is a modern idea, but a powerful one. These are the ideas that shaped the U.S. Constitution nearly 150 years later.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 13: Rousseau Seeks Sanctuary in England (Vol. 34, pp. 215-228)

On this day in 1766, Jean Jacques Rousseau arrived in England after fleeing France. The French at the time weren't particularly interested in his theory that men were not created free and equal.

In this selection from his "Discourse on Inequality," he explains what liberty and life really mean and how inequality undermines these essential values of human life. He maintains that man in his natural state has little inequality, but once laws and property rights and everything else associated with government enters the equation, inequality usually follows.

This is an interesting choice, coming two days after Hamilton's defense of government in "The Federalist."

Monday, January 12, 2009

January 12: What is Good Taste? (Vol. 24, pp. 11-26)

Edmund Burke was born this day in 1729, and to mark the occasion, here is a reading from his essay, "On Taste."

Burke takes on one of the great imponderables. Taste is clearly a subjective thing. What one person sees as art is what another person might see as trash. Burke defines taste as "no more than that faculty or those faculties of the mind, which are affected with, or form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts."

He believes taste belongs to the imagination. It is a function of what he calls "a greater degree of natural sensibility, or from a closer and longer attention to the object." He concludes that sensibility and judgment are central to having taste, and that education is how taste is developed.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

January 11: Hamilton -- Father of Wall Street (Vol. 43, pp. 199-207)

Alexander Hamilton was born this day in 1757, so a reading from "The Federalist" is called for. Surprisingly, there are only two selections from this work in the Harvard Classics, and these are it. He deserves far more than eight pages.

"The vigor of Government is essential to the security of liberty," wrote Hamilton in 1787. In "The Federalist," a series of newspaper articles mostly written by Hamilton, with some pieces penned by James Madison and John Jay, sought to convince readers that the adoption of the framework for a new national government they had just drawn up, the Constitution of the United States, was essential for the survival of the young nation. They believed a strong central government was preferable to the disorganized confederation of 13 states then in existence, and thankfully, they won that argument.

While Hamilton organized the Treasury Department, it is "The Federalist" that stands as his greatest achievement.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

January 10: Where Love Lies Waiting (Vol. 8, pp. 368-372)

A tale of Greek gods and royalty behaving badly as told by Euripides in "The Bacchae." Dionysus, son of Zeus, was competing with King Pantheus of Thebes for the affections of the Theban women. Dionysus had the upper hand by bewitching the women until the king interceded. Not my cup of tea.

Friday, January 9, 2009

January 9: A Treasure Hunt in Nombre de Dios (Vol. 33, pp. 135-145)

Today's selection is a celebration of Sir Francis Drake, the great English naval adventurer of the Elizabethian age. It is from "Sir Francis Drake Revived," a collection of his writings put together by Philip Nichols in 1626.

The subtitle of the volume, "Calling upon this dull or effeminate Age to follow his noble steps for gold and silver," makes clear what Nichols is up to — glorifying plunder and war.

In this case, the reading covers how Drake and 52 men raided of the Spanish treasure house in Nombre de Dios in 1572, and made off with tons of gold and silver. In the process, he avenged earlier defeats at the hands of the Spanish fleet. So celebrated was this victory that when Drake died on this day in 1596, he was buried at sea off the coast of Nombre de Dios.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

January 8: Trying the Patience of Job (Vol. 44, pp. 71-87)

The question asked here is, "What does a pious man do when everything goes wrong and his faith is tested?"

In the context of this series, the answer is that Job is held up as an example of steadfast faith in God under the worst of circumstances.

It wouldn't have occurred to Dr. Eliot that this is just another Old Testament fable designed to reinforce superstitious nonsense.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

January 7: If He Yawned, She Lost Her Head! (Vol. 16, pp. 5-13)

This is our first introduction to Scheherazade, the master storyteller who saved her skin by amusing the sultan, King Shahriyar, with her tales. It seems the sultan has a bad habit of beheading his bride from the night before. By keeping King Shahriyar's interest with her stories as to induce him to defer putting her to death, Scheherazade managed to escape the axe for a thousand and one mornings.

"Stories from the Thousand and One Nights," the translation of 42 pieces in this series from a much larger collection, contains such tales as "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp," "The Voyages of Sinbad," and "Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves." These are familar to most people, but in their original form, they are tough reading.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

January 6: Warned by Hector's Ghost (Vol. 13, pp. 109-127)

In the dead of night, the ghost of Hector warns Aeneas that Troy is about to be attacked. Our hero gathers up his family and flees. That's the condensed version of this selection from Virgil's "Aeneid," and you would probably wouldn't have figured this out without the synopsis from the guide. This is some of the most impenetrable, unreadable stuff in the series.

Monday, January 5, 2009

January 5: The Soaring Eagle and Contented Stork (Vol. 32, pp. 377-396)

I had never heard of Giuseppe Mazzini, a 19th century Italian writer whose main cause was the establishment of a free and united Italian Republic. He repeatedly put his life on the line for democracy, and despite arrest, exile and death threats, kept up the fight until the end of his days.

This gives today's selection, Mazzini's passionate appraisal of George Gordon Noel Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a little more weight. Like Mazzini, both men were freedom fighters. On this day in 1824, Lord Byron arrived in Greece to join its fight for independence. While not as flamboyant as Byron, Goethe fought for the emancipation of the mind.

Mazzini compared Byron to a soaring eagle — an apt comparison when one considers his romanticism — while likening Goethe to a contented stork. Stork is not as apt an analogy for Goethe, a man whose political and scientific endeavors have since been overshadowed by his wide-ranging artistic genius.

Two very different writers, but Mazzini links them together as brothers in the fight for liberty.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 4: A Flounder Fish Story (Vol. 17, pp. 83-90)

Jacob Grimm, the older of the famous Grimm brothers, was born on this date in 1785. We tend to forget how rich and perceptive their stories were. Today's selection, "The Fisherman and His Wife," is a wonderful tale of what happens when greed runs amok.

One day, a fisherman catches a talking flounder. The fish successfully pleads for its release and the fisherman goes back and tells his wife about what happened. She recognizes an opportunity to rise above the impoverished life they lead, and tells her husband to go back and find the flounder and ask him for a new cottage.

The fish returns, and grants the wish. But the wife isn't satisfied. She now wants a great stone castle. Again, the fisherman passes on the request to the flounder, and the wish is granted. But once again, the wife wants more. She wants to be king. That wish is granted. Still not enough. She wants to be an emperor, and then a Pope and then God. Even the fisherman is starting to think his beloved is asking for a bit too much, but he again goes back to seek the magical flounder.

When the fisherman tells the flounder, "She wants to be like unto God," the flounder replies, "Go to her, and you will find her back again in the dirty hovel." Alas, the Grimms don't tell us the wife's reaction to this development. Then again, they don't really need to. They more than get their point across about greed in this story.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

January 3: Cicero on Friendship (Vol. 9, pp. 16-26)

On this day in 106 B.C., Cicero was born, and in this selection, the most famous orator of Rome offers a definition of friendship.

To Cicero, friendship is "a complete accord on all subjects human and divine, joined with mutual goodwill and affection." He observed that "in the face of a true friend, a man sees as if it were a second self."

Of course, maintaining a friendship is much more difficult than outlining its qualities. Sometimes, it involves speaking hard truths. Cicero is wise enough to believe that friendship should not get in the way of honesty and that friendship should not be used to cover up acts of evil.

Friday, January 2, 2009

January 2: School Day Poems of John Milton (Vol. 4, pp. 7-18)

On this day in 1645, the first edition of Milton's collected poems was published. These verses were written when he was still in his teens. Milton is an acquired taste, and like many readers, I never acquired it.

Today's selections, "On The Morning of Christ's Nativity," written in 1629, and "A Paraphrase of Psalm CXIV," written in 1624, are filled with the overwrought piety that Milton is known for.

Fortunately, not all of Milton's writing is like this.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

January 1: Franklin's Advice for the New Year (Vol. 1, pp. 79-85)

This selection, from "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," is a fitting piece for the start of a year.

He sets down a code of moral virtues one should follow. Temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility are the virtues he believes are paramount -- so much so that he made a schedule to track whether he followed them all.

"Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve," wrote Franklin. It's hard to argue with his value system, although it does seem extreme to keep a log book as he did. I suppose it explains why Franklin lived such a long, vigorous and productive life.