Sunday, February 25, 2007

Another Thought on Walden

Aristotle famously said 'Man is by nature a political animal.' This can also be translated as 'Man is an animal, the nature of which is to live in a city'. The point is that human beings are animals, as much as we like to forget it. At least, that is what I believe. I don't think that we have dominion over the animals, in the biblical phrase, although most of us act as if we do, whether we believe it or not.
Now, Thoreau sometimes seems to believe that humans are just animals, and elsewhere to believe that humans are only animals if they are insufficiently enlightened. Compare these quotes: "Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances" sits uneasily alongside these: "We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers." and "He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established."
Desmond Morris, in his book 'The Naked Ape', makes the point that to understand human nature, you do not need to observe so-called 'primitive' human beings - any human beings will do. If you wish to observe a lion, you seek out his habitat, and observe him. So with humans. The bulk of humans live in conglomerations of varying sizes. So that is where you should go to study them. If one lion in a thousand decided to live up a tree, you would not draw conclusions about lion behaviour from that one lion.
Just as it is in my cat's nature to walk in a circle a couple of times before lying down, it is in my nature to worry about my children, put on weight in my thirties, and, eventually, to develop an interest in gardening.
Thoreau sees nature as a well balanced and perfect system. But if HE were acting according to HIS nature, he would not be in the woods at all. He would holding down a job, fretting about his mortgage and trying to get his kids into one of the better schools.
Human nature seems to be killing the planet, so I am not above humanity changing its nature as quickly as it likes. But it is not particularly comforting to think that we have got ourselves into this mess by acting entirely according to a nature bred into us by millennia of evolution. And that the well balanced and perfect system of nature has brought us to this pass.
Perhaps the hardest thing for us to believe is that nature does not care whether we survive as a species, any more than any of the others which are now extinct. Deep down, somewhere, we are sure that we are special, and that our dominion is god-given.
And it seems also to be a part of our nature to think that we have no 'nature' at all, and in fact are acting according to impulses unique to ourselves. It is only by reflection and introspection that we can recognise our natures, and act according to a 'higher nature'. It is Thoreau's paradox that the well-balanced and perfect harmony of nature has to be denied in us in order for it to be preserved in general.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Review: Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy

Get it here
This is another fable-like work from Tolstoy, and one I found more satisfying in the detail than in the overall story. The tale, such as it is, is a simple one: A money grasping businessman goes out to close a deal, taking his servant and horse with him, when the weather suggested that wiser heads would have stayed at home. After losing their way a few times, and meeting various people who are unnecessary for the plot, they become stuck, and are faced with a night in the open, during a blizzard. Without giving the end away, the businessman performs a selfless act, which changes his world view.
The problem for me was that I didn't believe the transfiguration of the man, but instead found the great realism of the background made me want to explore that further. Tolstoy displays a great ability to render a character likeness with his thumb-nail, so to speak, and I completely believed in the reality of all of the characters, which made the conclusion all the more troublesome for me. Surprisingly, I also found the god-like knowledge of the narrator jarring: he records with confidence every half-formed thought of the businessman, and shows great skill in laying bare human thought processes. I just wondered how he got to know all these facts. Of course, every novelist has to solve this problem through some trickery; its just that I wasn't fooled by Tolstoy this time: I knew it was just a man telling a story he had made up, and consequently, I could not react at an emotional level.

One extra thought: Tolstoy really has it in for businessmen, and the pursuit of wealth. Fine if you have it already. Thoreau has a very low opinion of the profit motive as well, so as a professional capitalist myself, I feel rather got at. Writers as a breed seem to take a dim view of money. Unless they inherit it. Or until they get some. So; it seems you can go after it, but you must never make the going after it look like you are trying.

Brooks Jensen reads this for Librivox with the confidence of a seasoned pro, but I had not heard his voice before. I will look out for it in future. I would love to know his views on the work, and his motivations for reading it. Perhaps I have missed something.

Next: 'The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Review: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I cannot remember having to reassess a book as often, and as radically as Walden. I started thinking that it was a long harangue against the world. Then I thought it was a book about the beauty of nature, which is what I had expected. And then it revealed itself, in the very last few paragraphs, to be a book about individuality, and the need of every human to be him or herself, and not follow the dictates of convention.
As such, I disown my earlier impression, which I prematurely made known. This is a beautiful, but challenging book, which I am very grateful to have read. The prose style is difficult to my ear, but it is like a dialect that is gradually acquired. Certain sentences leap out as worthy of contemplation. Others are very funny, but from a humourist with a wit as dry as dust. The whole book is quite an experience.
The first two (long) chapters were what threw me off. Thoreau seemed so full of contradictions, so angry, so shrill and bitter, that I found him very challenging, which I am sure was exactly the point. I was constantly having to justify my life choices to myself, in fact analyse every precept and principle. I found this experience uncomfortable, as this is not something I am used to doing with such rigour, at least not since I got married and had kids. Surely no-one could criticise MY life choices? I now see Thoreau as being like a sergeant in charge of some new recruits; he has to break them first before he can work with them.
The meat of the book shows the fruits of Thoreau's decision to live alone in the woods, on the banks of Walden pond. He becomes completely in tune with his environment, and develops a familiarity with natural processes which is fascinating to hear. A modern human knows their daily routine backwards, a journey to work, for example or how to work a television remote. Thoreau has that intimacy of knowledge with the bubbles in the ice on the surface of Walden pond, with the insects that live there, the feeding habits of the fish, and so on. No one piece of this knowledge is remarkable in itself, but what is remarkable is the totality of it, and the sacrifices he was willing to make, or felt it was necessary to make, to acquire it. He made me ashamed of myself. As Woody Allen said, I am at two with nature.
But the payoff is at the very end. All the way through, I was asking: "If all this is so wonderful, why did you leave after two years?" His answer, as I understand it, is that the pond is not the point. Even nature is not the point. Life is the point, and you have to drink it to the dregs. And that, whatever your Walden pond happens to be, to make sure that you inhabit it as absolutely as he did his. I intend to, with a renewed determination.

This is a solo recording, by Gordon Mackenzie, who I praised on an earlier post, and, indeed, were it not for his sympathetic reading I would never have got through the 'Boot camp' potion of the book. It is a book I will never forget, that I will recommend to others, and one which I owe the knowledge of completely to him. He has a great voice, he loves great books, and he chooses to make both free to all comers. Thank you, Gordon.

I keep having further thoughts about this book, and perhaps will post here again on some of them. However, my next book will be "Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy, another fan of Thoreau.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

In Our Time, Radio 4, UK

May I recommend that everyone interested in bookish matters, becomes a podcast-subscriber to 'In Our Time', a BBC Radio 4 programme. The website is here.
The appeal of it lies in the fact that you have three real experts on a given subject, who have a limited time to expound on it. So there is no dumbing down by having an intervening journalist trying to make it exciting for us silly people.
The archive has some great shows, but the latest is 'Heart of Darkness', which I know will be a subject close to many hearts.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Audiobook or Reading?

One of the things about hard copy books, is that they convey a lot of information before you even take them off the shelf. They may be thick, thin, tall, hard cover, paperback, in a fancy slipcase, and so on. All of these things help you make a judgement about how much they are worth, or how well put together they are. By contrast, DVDs are all the same: the printed cover might change, but the box is uniform, and the disc gives no clue (beyond the title!) as to the quality of the contents. There is no bit on the back of the box that tells you how big the budget was, or how much the stars got paid.
It strikes me that Librivox audiobooks have something of the same problem. Once a recording has ended up on your iPod, it is judged in the same way as a commercial audiobook. These recordings have a certain way of being presented, and actors you recognise from the television tend to read them.
Many Librivox audiobooks are indistinguishable from commercial ones. Others sound like a normal person reading a book in their bedroom. And because the recording is right next to Stephen Fry's on your iPod, you compare them. And you forget the vast organisation and staff behind the commercial recording, and the fact that you paid quite a bit for it, and miss the hope, love and courage of the amateur one.
If a friend decided to come to your house and read you a story, what would you expect? Would you be outraged if they cleared their throat? Or coughed? Or mispronounced a word a tiny bit? Would the kindness of the thought be diminished? Perhaps you would tartly remark that Stephen Fry could do a lot better. Probably, you would just sit back and listen to the story.
It seems a pity, to me, that both things carry the same name - audiobook. It invites a comparison that should not arise. This is not to denigrate the efforts of the readers who go to such lengths to produce such professional-sounding recordings. But it is worth remembering, as a listener, that the stated aim of the project is to record all public domain books. With or without sneezes.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Hard Copies

I have about one and a half thousand books by my last count (a couple of years ago), and a whole room is given over to them. However, I have found it quite disturbing to listen to an audiobook, and have no 'hard copy' of the book, to pop on the shelf like a trophy. Part of me wants to buy a copy, just so I know I have read it. But I have a 'one in, one out' policy on my book shelves now, or it will be two rooms before we know it. What to do? Maybe I should have book sized blocks of wood, and I write on the 'spine' as I finish an audiobook, to pop on the shelves. Maybe I should print out a copy, and bind it myself. Maybe I should get over it, buy a digital book reader, download all of the gutenberg project onto it, bin the hard copies, and buy a pool table.

Working through Walden

I am part of the way through Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. I tried to read it a couple of years ago, but ended up throwing it across the room, as I realised I did not have the faintest idea what he was on about. His prose style is most elliptical and confused, and he crashes through several registers of speech in every paragraph. I have also taken a profound dislike to his superior 'I am right, everybody else is wrong' brand of adolescent omniscience. Perhaps because he reminds me of myself as a young man. Or now. Ouch.
Still, I am sticking with it, because
1) It is read by the incomparable Gordon Mackenzie, who could make the telephone book sound like a cliffhanger, and because he obviously 'gets' it enough to record it, so I must have misunderstood it.
2) I understand Americans revere this book, and I wonder if it will give me any insight into the whole American 'self-reliance' thing, being as I am a European 'non-self reliance' type of guy.
Gotta ... keep ... going ...

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Review: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Get it here
Once, I tried to read Aristotle, and found it absolutely impossible. The language was so dry that it had withered away to bones and dust. An occasional sentence would stand out, but the overall work was impossible to digest, or so I found.
Then, I read a little more ABOUT the works. It seems at Old Ari’, (as he was known in Athens), left no works extant that he had written for pubic consumption. All we have are the lectures notes he had written out for his under-lecturers to use when giving lessons.
This made a lot of sense - what I had been trying to do was read the equivalent of an ancient PowerPoint presentation. If you look at the text in ancient greek, it is obvious - what we have a short sentences, bullet points. It is the translators job to try and make a complete text from this, and you can feel the strain: my copy of Aristotle's book on the soul has an introduction about three times longer than the text.
The reason I am going on about this, is not JUST to sound awfully clever and well read, whilst displaying a charming sense of my own inadequacies, (although, if that's how it comes across, I won't complain); it is because I became convinced that this book was once a set of lecture notes. There is a mathematical structure to parts of the book that suggest it would fit very well into a set of tables. Bullet points abound. I suspect many passages that seem poetic flights of fancy are in fact artifacts of the translation process. (If you translated 'a frog in my throat' into Chinese, what would you get?). As a result, you get a very compact work, with some repetition, followed by short remarks of such opaque profundity, that you cry out for a longer explanation.
The reason I had not read this book before was because I associated it with eighties business men (Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street', say) who would apply the lessons of the book to hostile takeovers. This is a mistake. This book is all about war, pure and simple, and written by a man who was wise enough to have no more relish for the fight than was absolutely necessary. It is his knowledge of human nature under fire that will stay with me, and his cold-blooded pragmatism, which rivals Macchiavelli, and surpasses him in succinctness. I also have the feeling that trying to use his lessons for the purposes of money gathering does a great disservice to the work: his highest praise is given to the generals who manage to achieve their objectives without ever having to fire a shot in anger. It is a shame he does not seem to have written 'The Art of Peace'.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Review: Three Short Works by Gustave Flaubert

Get it here!

I know Gustave Flaubert from Madame Bovary, which I enjoyed very much. However, I had always harboured some resentment towards him, as he seems to imply in this book that reading too many novels has caused his protagonist to get above herself, and, in fact, that this was at the root of her downfall. Since I have read many novels, many of them at quite a tender age, and I have yet to massively overspend on ribbon and bonnets, I considered his hypothesis to be disproven.
The Three Short Works are, in order, the life story of an outwardly unimportant old lady; a dialogue between Satan and Death; and a retelling of the legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller.
The Satanic dialogue is a prose poem, and is not to my taste, suggesting to me the kind of thing Jim Morrison might sing if he was lead singer of The Cure.
I got that one out of the way quickly, to tell you that the other two stories are utterly, utterly brilliant, and no, I am not exaggerating. The basic tale of St Julian is a standard medieval fable, which could be summarised in all its particulars in a paragraph. However, in Flaubert's hands, it is a masterpiece of descriptive power, and at times, quite unsettling. The portrait of Julian as a sadistic young man, whose desire to kill seems almost psychotic, leads, with the inevitability of destiny, to disaster, and eventual redemption.
I save the best till last, however. Entitled 'A Simple Soul' it exemplifies William Blake's claim to be able to see the world in a grain of sand. I will not spoil it for you by describing it here, but within its five chapters it contains an emotional punch that comes from nowhere and takes your breath away.
This is a solo project of David Barnes, and his reading style is the perfect complement to the material. He reads in an absolutely 'straight' manner, allowing the writing to speak for itself. This is especially important, in my opinion, for the conclusion to 'A Simple Soul'. To me, it seems to be highly ambiguous, begging the question of whether the author expects us to laugh or cry. David's reading offers no clues to his own opinion, leaving the delicious uncertainty intact for the listener to ponder, and, thus doing a great service to the text.

Next: 'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Review: A Princess on Mars by E. R. Burroughs

The problem for this book is that it has had so many imitators that its innovations have become cliches. For me, the same fate has befallen 'Citizen Kane', and, unfortunately, while intellectually I realise I am encountering a genuine original, my guts keep spotting the works which built on it. So, instead of thrilling to John Carter's heroic fist-fights, I keep seeing Captain Kirk wrestling gingerly with a man in a green suit, so as not to tear the costume. Instead of being amazed by descriptions of amazing alien life forms, I see the cantina scene in 'Star Wars'. And too often, the cheesy 80's Flash Gordon movie was foremost in my mind, complete with the 'Queen' soundtrack.
None of this is the fault of the book, which is packed with daring-do, and incident. In spite of saying this, one of the features of many of the 'Boys Own' adventure style books I have read recently, is that they start so sedately, with descriptions of boyhoods, and parentage. I suspect these pages would be the first cut by a modern editor, and it presumes a patient reader. I wondered why this was so. Perhaps books had less competition at the end of the 19th Century.
At first I was pleasantly surprised that there were several races on Mars, and each race had its own subdivisions with cultural differences. (A pet dislike of mine in the past was the lazy assumption that any planet would only have one culture across its whole surface, a la George Lucas). And then I wondered: is it the inevitable fate of any populated planet, to become one culture, given enough time? In a few thousand years, will the whole of the earth have one skin tone, one language, one culture? Would that be desirable, given the greatly reduced potential for conflict and hatred? Or are our cultural differences worth preserving? How many hundreds of languages are being lost each year? Could I save myself from hunger on 80% of the earth, knowing only the word 'MacDonalds'? Is a literary masterpiece still a literary masterpiece if no-one can read it?
Obviously, I don't really know the answers to any of these questions. I suspect that if you speak a minority language, you have a strong financial incentive to learn the language of the majority. Which suits us when it is English they learn. I just wonder how we would feel if we are suddenly expected to know Chinese or Hindi.
Here is where Burrough's Martians have it right: they all speak the same language, while retaining their separate cultural identities. Except they spend all their time fighting, so it seems makes no difference. Oh, and their global warming problem makes ours look very small beer.

Next: Gustave Flaubert, "Three Short Works"