Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I want Ron Chernow to write my biography after I die. After reading his John D. Rockefeller biography Titan I came away with an enormous admiration for Rockefeller. Likewise, I was confirmed as a Hamilton fan after reading this biography. He depicts a man who was a firm abolitionist, a person who took orphans into his home, a foe of utopian schemes, a brilliant communicator, and brave to a fault (thanks, Aaron Burr, you scoundrel).

All his life he lived with people insulting his illegitimate birth and immigrant status. He died in a duel with Vice President Burr, intentionally firing his pistol into the air in order to avoid committing murder.

Through all that, he structured a functioning republic that has lasted over 225 years. The major stain on his record is of course his sex scandal as Treasury Secretary. I am able to forgive it, since afterwards, from all we can tell, he repented and focused all his devotion on his wife and children. His widow Eliza kept his memory sacred for the next 50 years.

On rich and poor.
Hamilton did not think the rich were paragons of virtue. They has as many vices as the poor, he noted, except that their "vices are probably more favorable to the prosperity of the state than those of the indigent and partake less of moral depravity."

Writing to a Frenchman during the early part of the French Revolution.
"I dread the reveries of your philosophic politicians who appear in the moment to have great influence and who being mere speculatists may aim at more refinement than suits either with human nature or the composition of your nation." 

Inertia and stability are built in to the structure of our Constitution.
"Whoever consider the nature of our government with discernment will see that though obstacles and delays will frequently stand in the way of the adoption of good measures, yet when once adopted, they are likely to be stable and permanent. It will be far more difficult to undo than to do."

Seems true.
"Perseverance in almost any plan is better than fickleness and fluctuation."

His temper was a major personality flaw.
Without Washington's guidance or public responsibility, he had again revealed a blazing, ungovernable temper that was unworthy of him and rendered him less effective. He also revealed anew that the man who had helped to forge a new structure of law and justice for American society remained mired in the old-fashioned world of blood feuds.

Wow, I didn't know that Thomas Paine hated George Washington. This was his reaction to the famous Farewell Address, which Hamilton largely wrote.
[Paine wrote an open letter] expressing the hope that Washington would die and telling him that "the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor, whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any."

Aaron Burr also hated Washington.
[Burr replied that] "he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English."

Franklin on John Adams.
"He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses." 

Now I need to listen to the rest of the musical, which was inspired by this book.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Overall this book was a meh. It followed Amory Blaine as a child, prep schooler, collegian at Princeton, and early career man. His friendships and love interests felt disconnected, and as a character, he seemed overly intellectual and self-indulgent. Characters sometimes have long, unrealistic monologues.

These were my favorite quotes.

His youth seemed never so vanished as now in the contrast between the utter loneliness of this visit and that riotous, joyful party of four years before. Things that had been the merest commonplaces of his life then, deep sleep, the sense of beauty around him, all desire, had flown away and the gaps they left were filled only with the great listlessness of his disillusion.
Another, after he had lost his money and carefree college lifestyle.
"I detest poor people," thought Amory suddenly. "I hate them for being poor. Poverty may have been beautiful once, but it's rotten now. It's the ugliest thing in the world. It's essentially cleaner to be corrupt and rich than it is to be innocent and poor."

At the bottom:

Usually, on night like this, for there had been many lately, he could escape from this consuming introspection by thinking of children and the infinite possibilities of children -- he leaned and listened and he heard a startled baby awake in a house across the street and lend a tiny whimper to the still night. Quick as a flash he turned away, wondering with a touch of panic whether something in the brooding despair of his mood had make a darkness in its tiny soul. He shivered. What if some day the balance was overturned, and he became a thing that frightened children and crept into rooms in the dark, approached dim communion with those phantoms who whispered shadowy secrets to the mad of that dark continent upon the moon....

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Essay on Man by Alexander Pope

Though saving money is usually thought virtuous, I think we've lost the concept of miserliness. And maybe that's a problem with the 1%, not that they have so much wealth but that they fail to spend it. Instead it's heaped up in hedge funds and offshore accounts, where it's not doing anyone any good.

Alexander Pope saw miserliness as choking off a country's economic health.

Who sees pale Mammon pine amidst his store,
Sees but a backward steward for the poor;
This year a reservoir, to keep and spare;
The next, a fountain, spouting through his heir,
In lavish streams to quench a country’s thirst,
And men and dogs shall drink him till they burst.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Jones. It's a good-humored 18th century novel about growing up and making some bad choices along the way.

This early passage foreshadows the story of poor Tom, who is kindhearted, noble, and prone to sleeping with cute girls, even though he loves only Sophia.
Goodness of heart, and openness of temper, though these may give them great comfort within, and administer to an honest pride in their own minds, will by no means, alas! do their business in the world. Prudence and circumspection are necessary even to the best of men.

Tom's antagonist is his brother Master Bilfil, who is apparently virtuous but who is actually coldhearted and scheming.
To say the truth, Sophia, when very young, discerned that Tom, though an idle, thoughtless, rattling rascal, was nobody's enemy but his own; and that Master Blifil, though a prudent, discreet, sober young gentleman, was at the same time strongly attached to the interest only of one single person; and who that single person was the reader will be able to divine without any assistance of ours.
Squire Western is the father of gentle Sophia. He was a bluff rustic, hard-drinking and profane, always insisting that he loved his daughter with all his heart and would gladly give her world, on one condition - that she would marry exactly whom he chose. There are shades of Jane Austen in this plot, with a parent determined to make his child's fortune through marriage, disregarding any feelings of love or attachment.

I enjoyed Fielding's side observations as much as the story. This one is about how little philosophy changes people's actions.
Philosophers are composed of flesh and blood as well as other human creatures; and however sublimated and refined the theory of these may be, a little practical frailty is as incident to them as to other mortals. It is, indeed, in theory only, and not in practice, as we have before hinted, that consists the difference: for though such great beings think much better and more wisely, they always act exactly like other men. They know very well how to subdue all appetites and passions, and to despise both pain and pleasure; and this knowledge affords much delightful contemplation, and is easily acquired; but the practice would be vexatious and troublesome; and, therefore, the same wisdom which teaches them to know this, teaches them to avoid carrying it into execution.

Fielding distinguishes between love and lust / hunger. Tom Jones hungered after many women but loved only one, but his many trials eventually taught him to tame that hunger and direct it.
What is commonly called love, namely, the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh, is by no means that passion for which I here contend. This is indeed more properly hunger; and as no glutton is ashamed to apply the word love to his appetite, and to say he LOVES such and such dishes; so may the lover of this kind, with equal propriety, say, he HUNGERS after such and such women.

The essence of wisdom, in his view:
Wisdom, in short, whose lessons have been represented as so hard to learn by those who never were at her school, only teaches us to extend a simple maxim universally known and followed even in the lowest life, a little farther than that life carries it. And this is, not to buy at too dear a price.
On boring books: "for the dullest writers, no more than the dullest companions, are always inoffensive."

And this almost sounds like a modern day supermodel.

Neither her person nor mind seemed to him to promise any kind of matrimonial felicity: for she was very tall, very thin, very ugly, very affected, very silly, and very ill-natured.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Rasselas by Samuel Johnson

Rasselas is a story about a long search for happiness, kind of like an 18th century Eat, Pray, Love. I actually haven't read that one, but I'm guessing it leads the reader to a much different conclusion.

Samuel Johnson's take is that momentary happiness is the best we can hope for. Even the best case, in which we achieve all our hopes and aren't struck down by disease or accident, will lead only to satiety and lassitude. At that point, we'll then set our minds on some new goal or experience that we can work toward.

I do think that happiness tends to come from the side, sort of life's peripheral vision. It's not something you can aim for and then expect like a paycheck. In that sense, I agree with him.

Whether you agree with him or not, his thoughts are well worth reading.

Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.

“For the hope of happiness,” said he, “is so strongly impressed that the longest experience is not able to efface it.  Of the present state, whatever it be, we feel and are forced to confess the misery; yet when the same state is again at a distance, imagination paints it as desirable." 

There are goods so opposed that we cannot seize both, but by too much prudence may pass between them at too great a distance to reach either.  This is often the fate of long consideration; he does nothing who endeavours to do more than is allowed to humanity. 

Keep this thought always prevalent, that you are only one atom of the mass of humanity, and have neither such virtue nor vice as that you should be singled out for supernatural favours or afflictions. 
At the end of the story, the wisest people give up purposefully looking for happiness.

Imlac and the astronomer were contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Some people say this is their favorite novel. I decided to try it because it's set during the Russian Revolution, and I'd heard the CIA was even involved with getting it published during the Cold War.

My favorite parts of the book were his descriptions of nature and his mockery of early Communism.

Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.

A couple passages making fun of the revolution:

This was the time to prepare for the cold weather, to store up food and wood. But in those days of the triumph of materialism, matter had become a disembodied idea, and the problems of alimentation and fuel supply took the place of food and firewood.

I'll admit that you are Russia's liberators, the shining lights, that without you it would be lost, sunk in misery and ignorance, and I still don't give a damn for any of you, I don't like you and you can all go to the devil.

My least favorite part was, sadly, Dr. Zhivago himself. I couldn't forgive him for leaving his wife and child to have an affair with Lara, however torrid it might be. Since I disliked him, that soured me on the book as a whole.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

Someone said that everyone should read Don Quixote three times, once when young, once in middle age and once when old. I read it in my teenage years and thought it was okay but it didn't impress me like other classics did. Now, as a middle aged person, I read it again and loved it. If I read it again 30 years from now, I wonder what I'll think?

This time I read the Samuel Putnam translation. It was excellent in every way and only costs $1.99 on Kindle. It's well worth the price considering some of the awful and archaic translations available for free.

Don Quixote reminds me of one of my other favorite characters, Pickwick from Pickwick Papers. They're both older gentleman roaming around the county having miscellaneous adventures and encounters. Both are kind, noble, and somehow more innocent than everyone around them.

The great thing about Don Quixote is that it also has Sancho Panza, his down-to-earth squire and friend.

Cervantes wrote it in two parts, separated by 10 years. In the second part, the people Quixote and Sancho meet have read the first part! They're famous in a way, though they're not aware everyone is laughing at them.

Beyond the funny parts, there are interesting perspectives on sanity, reality, and morality.

Fore example, when the bachelor Quixote takes up knight-errantry, he decides he needs a lady love. Lacking anything in that department, his mind transforms a certain peasant girl he hardly knows into the beauteous lady Dulcinea. Although he's always declaring his love for her, part of him questions her reality. In the end though, it's more important to him that he show nobility of spirit, than that he be sane.

“That,” replied Don Quixote, “is a long story. God knows whether or not there is a Dulcinea in this world or if she is a fanciful creation. This is not one of those cases where you can prove a thing conclusively. I have not begotten or given birth to my lady, although I contemplate her as she needs must be.

I found these two passages especially touching, one in which Quixote talks about his friendship with Sancho and vice versa.

Don Quixote about Sancho Panza:
 “On the other hand, I would have your Highnesses know that Sancho Panza is one of the drollest squires that ever served a knight-errant. He is so sharp in his simple-mindedness that one may derive no little amusement from trying to determine whether he is in reality simple or sharp-witted. He has in him a certain malicious streak that seems to indicate he is a rogue, and from his blundering you would take him for a dunce. He doubts everything and believes everything, and just as I think he is about to tumble headlong, owing to some stupidity, he will come up with some witticism or other that sends him skyward in my estimation. The short of the matter is, I would not exchange him for another squire even though they threw in a city to boot."

Sancho Panza having a conversation with a Duchess about Don Quixote (the Duchess will give him an island to govern, as a joke):

As a result of what the worthy Sancho has told me,” she said, “there arises a question in my mind, a certain whispering in my ear which says: if Don Quixote is crazy, weak-minded, crackbrained, and Sancho his squire knows it and still continues to serve him and to cling to the empty promises his master has made him, he must undoubtedly be the more foolish and the more insane of the two; and if this is the case, my lady the Duchess, as I am sure it is, you are bound to be reproached for having given him an island to govern; for if he cannot govern himself, how can he govern others?” 
“By God, lady,” said Sancho, “you’ve spoken straight to the point; but go ahead, your Highness, and say whatever you like, as plain as you like, for I know it to be the truth. I know that if I had good sense I’d have left my master long ago. But this is my luck, my misfortune, and I can’t help following him. We’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I like him very much, he’s generous to me, he gave me his asscolts, and, above all, I’m loyal; and so it’s impossible for anything to separate us except the pick and spade. And if your Highness doesn’t want to give me that island that you promised me, well, I didn’t have it when God made me, and it may be that your not giving it to me will be all the better for my conscience.

I started the book by laughing at Quixote and Sancho, and ended it by admiring them. I can't think of many books that develop characters like that. As a Cervantes scholar said in the notes, "Don Quixote’s death is as touching and saddening as that of a person who has really existed and for whom we have felt a profound affection. ‘What a worthy madman,’ the reader exclaims to himself, ‘in this rascally world of ours where there are so many wicked ones of sound mind!’"

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Long Surrender by Burke Davis

This excellent book follows Jefferson Davis and his family from the fall of Richmond to his capture, detention, release, and eventual postwar life. It also contains side stories about the flight of the Confederate treasury and some of the Davis's cabinet members.

Weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Davis was still on the run. At first, he had wild plans to find his way to Texas and fight a prolonged guerrilla war, perhaps with help from Mexican troops. His generals convinced him the cause was ultimately lost, the people of the South knew it, and that prolonging the killing merely to save face was an offense against humanity.

One interesting thing was that immediately after the war, people in the South were more afraid of lawless and looting Confederate soldiers than Yankee troops. In fact most of the Confederate treasury was taken by its guards as order broke down. From many of those soldiers' perspectives, the last few years had been "the rich man's war and the poor man's fight" and now they wanted theirs.

Davis was captured close to the Florida border. He was imprisoned in Fort Monroe and treated in degrading ways by the officer in charge. His protest was eloquent "The war's over. The South is conquered. America is my only country. I plead against this degradation for the honor of America."

Secretary of War Stanton wanted to bring treason charges against Davis and hang him. He was advised by the Supreme Court's Chief Justice that if he brought Davis to trial, the defense would be that secession is constitutional. He thought Davis would likely win his case, bringing humiliation to the North. Secession had been proved impossible from a practical standpoint, and the North should let it rest at that.

By 1868 Davis and all the other Confederate leaders had been granted full pardons. Davis ended up living many more years, and possibly had some spicy affairs with wives of former cabinet members. But that's a tale for another day.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Vikings - A New History, by Neil Oliver

This is wide-ranging portrayal of Scandinavian history, beginning in the Bronze Age and ending with the conversion to Christianity in around 1000 A.D. I hadn't realized that Swedish Vikings went east to Russia and Constantinople, or that Russia is named for the "Rus" Vikings who ended up ruling the native Slavic population. Did you know that William the Conqueror conquered the last Anglo-Saxon king, King Harald, just two days after Harald had finally defeated a huge Viking army that had occupied England for decades? The Viking leader Hardrada asked King Harald how much of England he would give him in return for peace. Harald replied, "I will grant you seven feet of English ground, or as much more as you are taller than other men."

I also didn't realize how dark their pagan religion was, particularly its funeral rites. I won't go into it in detail, but for a suitably powerful man, a funeral could involve the brutalization and death of his servants. This is attributed to Odin, king of the Viking gods, in one of the ancient sagas:
I know that I hung 
On the tree lashed by winds 
Nine full nights, 
And gave myself to Odin, 
Myself to myself; 
On that tree 
The depth of whose roots 
No one knows. 
No bread sustained me 
Nor goblet. 
I looked down, I gathered the runes, 
Screaming I gathered them; 
And from there I fell 


I enjoyed the part about Icelandic culture, especially the first hand descriptions of eating rancid food.

My main irritation was the way he paints both the Russian and Viking conversions to Christianity in cynical political terms, much as other writers do with Constantine. It's time to retire the tired canard of the king who forces Christianity onto his unwilling subjects. It's more likely that Christianity had already made significant inroads into Viking culture through trading contacts and missionary visits.