Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 31: The Ghastly Whim of John Donne (Vol. 15, pp. 364-369)

The poet John Donne died this day in 1631, so we have Isaak Walton taking a break from writing about fishing to give an account of Donne's last days and how much pleasure he took in posing for his death mask — except that the mask was a shroud that wrapped him from head to foot. An eccentric sod, Dr. Donne was.

Monday, March 30, 2009

March 30: The Plague of Milan (Vol. 21, pp. 500-512)

More from Manzoni's "I Promessi Sposi" today, this time a vivid account of the plague that hit Milan in the 17th century and laid waste to most of the city's residents. Not exactly cheery reading.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 29: Hero and Goddess Break Engagement (Vol. 49, pp. 307-317)

The Norse version of Virgil's "Aeneid," Homer's "Odyssey" and the rest of the Greek epics, and it's just as uninteresting to this reader who has little regard for fantasy. If you are into love triangles and Norse gods and goddesses behaving badly, you might like it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

March 28: Pins and Other Points (Vol. 10: pp. 9-17)

We get the opening to Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" today, and one can see even from this snippet why his work endures as one of the cornerstones of modern economic theory. His prose is clear and unburdened by the florid style that afflicts most 18th century writers.

This selection looks at the early attempts at mechanized production, in this case, making pins. Here is where we learn about important economic principles such as the division of labor and how mechanization improved the lot of workers while increasing production.

Friday, March 27, 2009

March 27: When Is a Lie Not a Lie? (Vol. 28: pp. 277-284)

Robert Louis Stevenson checks in today with a remarkable essay entitled "Truth of Intercourse."

Stevenson writes that truth "is something more difficult than to refrain from open lies. It is possible to avoid falsehood and yet not tell the truth ... the cruelest lies are often told in silence ... to speak truth, there must be moral equality or else no respect."

He absolutely hits the mark in this essay on conversation and communication. I had not known of this piece before, but it is brilliant.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

March 26: "2,500 Years Ago, Aesop said..." (Vol. 17, pp. 21-30)

The first English language version of Aesop's Fables was published this day in 1484. To get some Aesop today is a welcome break from the heavy and unreadable stuff of the preceeding weeks.

"The Fox and The Grapes," "The Ant and The Grasshopper" and "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" are a few of today's stories and are further proof of Aesop's superior grasp of human nature and human frailties.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 25: How Conscience Makes Cowards of Us All (Vol. 46, pp. 144-158)

Here's an odd commemoration. On this day in 1616, Shakespeare drew up his will (no pun intended). To mark this occasion, we get one of the most famous passages in drama -- the "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy from "Hamlet."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24: A Queen Pleads (Vol. 42, pp. 1183-1193)

The editors of this series seemed to have a thing for King Arthur and the various and sundry legends surround him. Here, English poet William Morris, who was born this day in 1834, gives us today's selection -- Queen Guenevere defending herself before her court against some unjust charges. Arthurian nonsense, only in rhyme. Ni!

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 23: First of a Thousand Harem Stories (Vol. 16, pp. 15-24)

Our gal Scheherazade, the master storyteller, is back again in another installment of "The Thousand and One Nights." Here, we learn the secret of how she kept the sultan, King Shahriyar, occupied for nearly three years -- always leave your audience wanting more.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 22: From Puppet Show to Majestic Drama (Vol. 19, pp. 23-36)

Goethe died this day in 1832, so we get the opening to "Faust." It's not quite enough to get a feel for the play, but this legend of a philosopher selling his soul to Satan to gain unimagined power is a familiar tale to most readers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March 21: 1,000 Years of History on the Surface of a Shield (Vol. 13: pp. 280-292)

Another encounter with Virgil's "Aeneid," this time about a magic shield that Venus, Aeneas' mom, obtained from Vulcan, Aeneas' pop, by way of seductive witchery. With this magic shield, Aeneas can a thousand years into the future. Not that it does him much good.

Friday, March 20, 2009

March 20: Apples, Feathers, and Coals (Vol. 34, pp. 113-124)

Sir Issac Newton died this day in 1727, so today we have one genius, Voltaire, paying homage to another genius.

Newton's discoveries of gravity and the movement of light make him indispensable to the modern age of science. In Voltaire's words, Newton "saw the mechanism of the springs of the world."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 19: Seeing Old Egypt (Vol. 33, pp. 72-84)

Herodotus, the ancient Greeks' star reporter, made his last entry into his history on this day in 478 B.C. To mark the event, we get another selection from his "An Account of Egypt," where he shows us the sights and various wonders of that ancient civilization.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 18: New Way to Pay Old Debts (Vol. 47, pp. 859-870)

Philip Massinger died this day in 1640, so that is why his "A New Way to Pay Old Debts," is today's selection. It's a tale about a cunning uncle cheating his worthless nephew out of his fortune, and how the nephew goes about getting his position and riches back. More dreary 17th century drama from someone I've never heard of.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 17: An Old Irish Legend (Vol. 32, pp. 174-182)

For St. Patrick's Day, we get this selection from Ernest Rehan's "The Poetry of the Celtic Races" about St. Patrick and the fables and stories that surround his life. Better than green beer, I suppose.

Monday, March 16, 2009

March 16: Crabs Climb Trees? (Vol. 29, pp. 466-475)

More from Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," this time it's tales of tree-climbing crabs in the Malay jungles. They eat coconuts, of all things. The rest of the reading is a travelogue of the coral atoll that Darwin and his crew are visiting.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15: Beware the Ides of March! (Vol. 12, pp. 315-321)

Julius Caesar was warned: Don't go to the Senate chamber this day. He ignored the warning and got stabbed and hacked up for his troubles. Plutarch, one of the greatest historians of ancient times, does a great job with a familiar story.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

March 14: A Maiden's Forfeit (Vol. 35, pp. 194-200)

More Arthurian nonsense from Mallory's "The Holy Grail." The reason we're subjected to it today is that on this date in 1470, Mallory died.

Friday, March 13, 2009

March 13: Before Nobility Ran Tea Rooms (Vol. 21, pp. 318-332)

Count Alessandro's Manzoni's "I Promessi Sposi," a historical novel set in the Milan on the 1630s, is supposed to be a masterpiece. But the real reason why this book was included in full in this series is that it was one of Dr. Eliot's favorite books. If you're into the sumptuous life of 17th century nobles, you might like it. Otherwise, it is as dense and unreadable as anything from its era.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12: A Irish Bishop's Wit (Vol. 37, pp. 228-238)

Bishop George Berkeley was born on this date in 1685. In today's selection from "Three Dialogues," he uses two characters, Hylas and Philonious, as foils to banter about religion. Not interesting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March 11: Gain Gleaned From Suffering (Vol. 5, pp. 85-92)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was ordained as a Unitarian minister on this day in 1829, which is why today's reading indulges in the hoary myth that one pays for happiness now through suffering later and suffering now is rewarded by happiness later.

This, of course, assumes a perfectly functioning and moral world where rewards and punishments are meted out in a logical and moral way. Unfortunately, we live in a world where every act of goodness is not rewarded and every wrong is not redressed and righted. The world is absurd and illogical and it does not have a celestial referee calling penalties.

But, since the editors of this series are Christians, they'd rather present Emerson's sugarcoated view of humanity.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

March 10: Beaumont — The Adonis of Elizabethian Playwrights (Vol. 47, pp. 667-677)

A selection from Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's "Philaster." More unreadable proto-Elizabethian drama.

Monday, March 9, 2009

March 9: Common Sense and Good Manners (Vol. 27, pp. 99-103)

On this day in 1679, dueling was outlawed in England. The satirist Jonathan Swift, today's author, said he regretted this because dueling was a good way to rid the country of bores and fools.

In any event, today's reading is "A Treatise on Good Manners," and Swift observes that "pride, ill nature, and want of sense are the three great sources of ill manners." Thus, "good sense is the principal foundation of good manners." Spot on, I'd say.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 8: Dangerous Experience with a Wife (Vol. 14, pp. 307-319)

This passage from "Don Quixote" shows us how the word "lothario" entered the language. Anselmo, Lothario's pal, wants to know if his wife is faithful. He leaves town, entrusting his wife Camilla into Lothario's care. Of course, Camilla falls for Lothario and the rest of the story is the usual misery that is so much a part of literature of this era.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

March 7: Bacon Warns Judges (Vol. 3, 130-134)

Sir Francis Bacon was made Keeper of the Great Seal of England on this day in 1616. That makes today's essay, "On Judicature," particularly apt.

Bacon pointed out that judges must interpret law, not make it, and that a judge's principal duty is to "suppress force and fraud." This essay is the source for how the ethics of law came to be and where, I presume, the legal doctrine of original intent came from.

Friday, March 6, 2009

March 6: West Point's Outcast, America's First Great Poet (Vol. 42, pp. 1227-1230)

On this day in 1831, Edgar Allen Poe got booted out of West Point. To commemorate the occasion, the editors select "The Raven" for today's reading.

They call it a poem of "weirdness and despair" that is "particularly symbolic of his life." Maybe it's because this is not one of those poems about daffodils or Grecian urns or unrequited love that is the norm for 18th and 19th century poetry. "The Raven" is weirdness and despair in all its glory, topics that didn't get addressed in poetry until Mr. Poe came along.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 5: Laughed at Locks (Vol. 31, pp. 214-224)

More boasting by Cellini from his autobiography. This time, he talks up his prowess at escaping from prisons.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

March 4: Penn: Pioneer, Thinker and Builder (Vol. 1, pp. 321-330)

William Penn was granted a royal charter for Pennsylvania from King Charles on his day in 1681, so the editors selected a collection of reflections and maxims from the founder of Pennsylvania and staunch defender of Quakerism.

The editors call "Some Fruits of Solitude" a combination of "the acute common sense of Franklin" with "the spiritual elevation of Woolman." Their assessment is correct. His maxims are steeped in piety, but have a core of common sense.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March 3: For Poets and Fishermen (Vol. 15, pp. 373-382)

George Herbert, a preacher who dabbled in poetry on the side, died this day in 1633. And why should we care? Tough to say, but I think it is safe to say that Isaak Walton, the patron saint of fishermen, is justly better known writing about fishing than biographies of obscure poets.

Walton's "The Compleat Angler" should have been included in this collection ahead of this drivel.

Monday, March 2, 2009

March 2: What Sailors Do on Sunday (Vol. 23, pp. 112-119)

Richard Henry Dana's "Two Years Before The Mast" is supposed to be one of the greatest pieces of nautical literature ever written. Not being a connoisseur of this genre, I can't judge.

In today's selection, Dana tells of what sailors do when they get shore leave — drink and raise hell, of course. Sailors of the 19th century had few opportunities to get wild, but when they had them, they certainly took advantage.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March 1: Invented Richard de Coverly (Vol. 27, pp. 83-87)

The first issue of the Spectator came out this day in 1711, the first periodical devoted to essays and writing. Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison collaborated on the Spectator and its predecessor, the Tatler, but today's selection is such a trifling piece of writing that one wonders why it was even included in this collection.