Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 31: Curiousity and Interest as Guide to Reading (Vol. 25, pp. 364-374)

"Learn to be good readers ... be discriminate in your reading ... read faithfully, and with your best attention, all kinds of thing which you have a real interest in."

These words were spoken by Thomas Carlyle's in his 1866 inaugural address upon assuming the position of rector of Edinburgh University. It serves, in a way, as the inspiration for Dr. Eliot and the creation of the Harvard Classics.

More reading, and more books, are what Carlyle calls for, and to that, every educated person can agree. In reading is the salvation of the world, for only through books can the flame of civilization continue to burn brightly. In an age where ignorance is exulted, only an educated people can halt the spread of stupidity.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30: Dana Meets a Tattooed Sailor (Vol. 23, pp. 77-86)

More from "Two Years Before The Mast" today, as our hero reaches Gold Rush-era California, circa 1850. Dana doesn't think much of Californians, calling them "an idle, thriftless people." He gets quite descriptive of the dress of women and his trip to Monterey. Dana comes off a bit haughty in this passage, as one might expect a Harvard man to be — the Boston Brahmin looking down his nose at the commoners.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29: These Guests Overstayed Their Welcome (Vol. 22, pp. 296-309)

We get the climax of the "Odyssey" today, when our hero returns home after his long and arduous voyage to find his home filled with freeloaders and suitors trying to make Penelope. There is enough blood and gore in this passage to satisfy the action film constituency as Odysseus kills and kills and kills some more to cleanse his happy home of the hangers-on that moved in after he first left town.

Monday, December 28, 2009

December 28: Ho! for the Spanish Main (Vol. 33, pp. 229-240)

Darwin's voyage is contrasted sharply with today's tale of Sir Francis Drake and how, in 1485, he raided the Spanish gold and silver stores to swipe the precious metals the Spanish explorers swiped from the indigenous peoples of the New World.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 27: Million-Year-Old Islands (Vol. 29, pp. 376-389)

On this day in 1831, Charles Darwin and crew set sail on the Beagle. The most famous stop on their tour, the Galapagos Islands, is recounted in today's reading. Darwin's voyage was arguably the first example of exploration without pillage, and the data he gathered greatly informed his research on evolution and natural selection.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26: Silence Cost Her a Kingdom (Vol. 46, pp. 288-300)

On this day in 1606, Shakespeare's "King Lear" had its premiere before Queen Elizabeth's court. In this sequence, Cordelia -- King Lear's dutiful daughter -- struggles with the lack of acknowledgment of her deep and abiding love for her father.

Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25: The Christmas Story (Vol. 44, pp. 357-360)

Saint Luke's version of the birth of Jesus is today's reading. His is the loveliest of the Gospel accounts of this day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24: Christmas Made a Dull Day (Vol. 35, pp. 266-270)

Today's essay from Holinshed's "Chronicles" reminds us that Christmas wasn't always the big celebration that we know and love today. In the Elizabethian era in England, Christmas was not a feast day. The Reformation eliminated that from the calendar, along with the rest of the Holy Days celebrated in the Catholic Church. It would be many years before Christmas was restored to its previous glory.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23: Saved from a Bonfire of Books (Vol. 32, pp. 121-133)

Today's author, Charles Augustus Sainte-Beuve, was born this day in 1804. He apparently was a pioneer in the field of literary criticism, so he is well-equipped to take on today's question -- "What is a classic?"

His definition is as good as anyone's: "An author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in the heart -- where all seemed known and discovered; who has exposed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time."

Thus, Saint-Beuve writes, "Such a classic may for a moment have been revolutionary; it only lashed and subverted whatever prevented the restoration of the balance of order and beauty."

Of course, this definition infuses the whole of the Harvard Classics, and it would have been a surprise if the editors did not include this essay. Saint-Beuve name-checks all the great writers and in the end concludes that only through knowledge and development of taste can one appreciate the great writers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22: Rubbing Noses in New Zealand (Vol. 29, pp. 425-434)

More from Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," this time with our hero and his crew hobnobbing with the natives during the yuletide. Compared to the authors of the previous days, Darwin is a model of clarity.

Monday, December 21, 2009

December 21: "Madam Bubble" Not to Be Discouraged (Vol. 15, pp. 306-318)

John Bunyan's "Pilgrims Progress" is called one of the most popular books in the English language by the editors of this series. This is only so if you prefer allegory written in King James-style English. You can really see the divide between old and new when reading stuff like this and see why Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner were necessary.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

December 20: Egypt Visited by the First Reporter (Vol. 33, pp. 7-17)

The editors of the Reading Guide compare Herodotus to a modern newspaper reporter. Not quite. The beauty of good newspaper writing is that it is made up of short, active sentences filled with strong nouns and verbs and just a touch of adjectives.

Herodotus' "An Account of Egypt" may be well reported, but like much of the writing in the Harvard Classics, it is verbose and convoluted. Maybe in another time, people wrote and spoke like that. But to modern sensibilities, most of what's in the Harvard Classics is impenetrable.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

December 19: Samson Finds a Champion (Vol. 4, pp. 444-459)

On this day in 1660, the blind and impoverished John Milton was released from prison. Today, he writes of another sightless giant -- Samson, who was blinded while a captive of the Philistines. Unfortnately, this is typical Milton -- long, windy and unreadable.

Friday, December 18, 2009

December 18: For a Gentleman (Vol. 37, pp. 136-145)

"Why do we need to learn Latin?" That's been the perennial question of schoolchildren for centuries. Locke's answer, from today's essay, "Some Thoughts Regarding Education," is that it is "absolutely necessary to a gentleman," especially grammar, because you have to master grammar to speak and write properly and you might as well learn from one of the sources of the English language.

Today, Latin has virtually disappeared from our schools. Considering how poorly English is taught, it's hard to see Latin as being essential when so many students are graduating from high school unable to read and write well.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17: Dies on the Eve of Her Son's Conversion (Vol. 7, pp. 160-170)

St. Augustine again, this time telling of how fervently his mother prayed for his conversion and how she died on the eve of his acceptance of Catholicism at the age of 56. His over-the-top style does nothing for me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 16: How Man's Courtship Differs from Animal's (Vol. 24, pp. 37-48)

More from Edmund Burke's "The Sublime and The Beautiful." Today, he writes of passion and love and the difference between "men and brutes" in the pursuit of love. Burke maintains that man's ability to appreciate beauty in all of its forms and his desire for companionship is the main difference.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 15: Odysseus Talks with Ghosts (Vol. 22, pp. 145-153)

Perhaps the better title for today's reading should have been "Odysseus Goes to Hell," as Homer's hero makes a side trip to the netherworld to talk with deceased heroes of ages past.

Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14: Pastoral Poems and Politics (Vol. 40, pp. 370-379)

The 17th century poet and essayist Andrew Marvell is featured today with a group of his poems. Nothing particularly striking about his work to these eyes.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 13: To the South Seas with the Gallant Drake (Vol. 33, pp. 199-208)

Sir Francis Drake departed for the South Seas on this day in 1577, so we get more heroic narrative from the so-called Golden Age of Exploration. Of course, the heroic part depends on who's telling the story. Since Sir Francis is telling the tale, he comes off much better.

While Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and was acclaimed as the greatest seafarer of his age, any of these accounts viewed through modern eyes have to fully account for the realization that one man's "discovery" is another man's genocide in the making.

Of course, when the Harvard Classics were assembled, no one cared about the fate of the indigenous peoples who were "discovered." Historians have since corrected that oversight.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December 12: How the Glorious News was Carried to Aix (Vol. 42, pp. 1066-1068)

Robert Browning died this day in 1889, so we get the poem telling how three riders began a heroic ride from Ghent to Aix, and how only one rider survived to tell the tale.

Friday, December 11, 2009

December 11: The Most Dashing Figure in Athens (Vol. 12, pp. 106-117)

Plutarch again, this time writing about a giant of Athenian society. The handsome, dashing Alcibiades was beloved by his contemporaries until an incident involving the defacement of statues and the mockery of the goddesses Ceres and Prosperine.

Condemned by the people who once revered him, he fled to Sparta and transformed himself from decadent high-living Athenian into a hard-core Spartan.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

December 10: Benvenuto Boasts of Gallantry (Vol. 31, pp. 62-72)

Cellini, the Commander McBragg of the Renaissance, checks in with a story from his autobiography about going after a soldier who made a pass at his woman.

Leaping from the window, knife in hand, he appears more like a swashbuckler than an artist -- or, at least, that's his side of the story.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

December 9: Slavery's Last Stand (Vol. 43, pp. 306-312)

Today we get an interesting document, "The Compromise of 1850," which admitted California into the Union as a free state, but allowed Texas to maintain slavery.

It is among the most craven acts ever passed by Congress, and putting it into this collection serves as a reminder that our public servants are rarely so.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December 8: Dream Women Shaped His Destiny (Vol. 27, pp. 319-325)

Thomas de Quincy, yet another crazed British essayist, died this day in 1859. In today, "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow," he imagined three women were sent to him so that he might know the depths of his soul. Insane gibberish.

Monday, December 7, 2009

December 7: What Cicero Least Expected (Vol. 12, pp. 222-231)

On this day in 43 B.C., Cicero was killed by Mark Antony's soldiers. Cicero had just been named governor of Sicily and returned to Rome expecting a hero's welcome. Instead, an able statesman and superb orator was cut down by a rival.

Our ace reporter Plutarch tells a familiar story of how Cicero had to deal with the various trials and intrigues that every Roman leader seemed to face. Very few of these guys died peacefully in bed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December 6: Moralizing as a Seductive Art (Vol. 27, pp. 73-80)

The last issue of "The Spectator" was published this day in 1712. Joseph Addison, one of the English essayists who wrote for "The Tatler" and "The Spectator," is today's author. The two selections are all over the map. "The Vision of Mizra" is hallucinatory nonsense. "Westminster Abbey" is a meditation on death, and is slightly more readable. Neither are quite my style.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December 5: Poems by an Artist's Model (Vol. 42, pp. 1181-1183)

On this day in 1830, Christina Georgina Rossetti was born. She is one of the few women included in the Harvard Classics, and she supposedly was known as much for her beauty as for her poetry (as well as being Dante Rossetti's sister).

It's hard to tell how good a poet she is from the four poems they selected. They mostly dwell on death in an Emily Dickinson-like way.

And yes, Miss Dickinson's work didn't make it into the series. A modern remix of the series would probably swap Christina for Emily without a second thought.

Friday, December 4, 2009

December 4: The Queen Weds a Poor Stranger (Vol. 13, pp. 152-162)

Another sequence about Aeneas and Dido from Virgil's "Aeneid." No thank you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

December 3: Met the Gods of Ten Thousand Worlds (Vol. 45, pp. 603-612)

More religious mumbo-jumbo, this time from the non-Christian branch. "The Birth of the Buddha" is as silly as the Holy Grail sequence of yesterday.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December 2: Practical Jokes in King Arthur's Day (Vol. 35, pp. 128-134)

Sir Thomas Mallory's "The Holy Grail" makes a reappearance today. It's still just as unreadable today as it was when we last encountered it, and the images of scenes from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" overwhelm any objective attempt to read it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 1: Are Skeptics Faulty Thinkers? (Vol. 37, pp. 189-199)

The answer to that question, according to philosopher George Berkeley, is yes — when it comes to religious belief. Today's selection from "Three Dialogues" deals with the question of atheists and freethinkers, but as is the case with Berkeley's stuff, it is convoluted and hard to follow.