Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, January 2016

For the first half of the decade, I tried to read pretty much All The Things that were fit to come out of Western Civilization from the earliest times until the death of Louis XIV. I was also struck by the number of books claiming to have marked the transition into the "modern era" at the start of each year I was reading: Augustine in 2013; Machiavelli in 2014; Descartes in 2015 and Jonathan Swift as I begin the present year's plan.

A lot of this included plenty of second and third tier writing that even I didn't care much for, especially during the years (centuries) when most of the stuff presented as nonfiction was about churchy stuff.

As we get into the era of the white wigs, the good news is that the church is losing it's power to kill people for heresy (which might change if, say, Ben Carson or Ted Cruz became President) and so, beginning with Swift and Voltaire, I'm reading a lot more wit and a lot less preaching. the bad news is, with the advances in printing, there are more books covering the last 300 years than any one person could read in five, even by giving up all other activity. So, my reading this year from the rest of the 18th Century should include The Biggest Stuff and some of the "of-interest" stuff, it's going to leave out a lot. If there's something written between 1714 and 1800 that you either think I'd really enjoy or want to hear my opinions about it, please do comment with a recommendation.

And away we go...

The 18th Century Murders: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon; The Shogun's Daughter; the Iris Fan, by Laura Joh Rowland

Do you think Jenny's right?" I asked later. "Do men really want to come back inside? Is that why you make love to us?" A breath of laughter stirred the hair by my ear.
"Well, it's no usually the first thing on my mind when i take ye to bed, Sassenach. Far from it. but then..." His hands cupped my breasts softly, and his lips closed on one nipple. "I'd no say she was completely wrong either. Sometimes...aye, sometimes it would be good, to be inside again, safe Knowing we cannot, i suppose, is what makes us want to beget. If we canna go back ourselves, the best we can do is to give that precious gift to our sons, at least for a little while..." He shook himself suddenly, like a dog flinging water from its coat.
"Pay me no mind, Sassenach," he murmurred. "I get verra maudlin, drinking elderberry wine."
--from Outlander

The two spectators stood united in apprehension. At least one of them knew this death was more complicated than it seemed. They both knew it would have severe repercussions. The old woman turned to the man. her streaming eyes were so filled with grief that he couldn't meet them. she spoke in a challenging tone.
"Who wants to tell the shogun his daughter is dead?"
--from The Shogun's Daughter

Everyone expressed delight, including Reiko, but she was alarmed by the thought of her son taking on such an important, responsible position. "But he's so young and inexperienced."
"I can handle it, mother." Masahiro said, brashly confident. Teako beheld him with love, pride and trust.
"He'll have you and me to advise him and Detective Marume as his assistant. He'll learn." Sano looked at Reiko; they smiled as they remembered the hard lessons of the past and looked ahead to the challenges of the future.
"We all did," Sano said. "We all will."
---from The Iris Fan

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series isn't strictly a mystery, but it does have several murders and thrilling adventures, plus it's a TV series and therefore more topical now than a lot of other things on my list, and so I'll include it in my "enrichment' supplement to books through history. The protagonist, Claire Randall, is a WWII nurse who somehow ends up transported from 1945 Scotland to 1743 Scotland, among highland clans and British redcoats, and an ancestor of her husband's, who looks just like him but, unlike her husband, is a Grade-A shit of a man. Randall must cope with centuries-old attitudes towards women, suspicion of being a spy or a witch, and the knowledge of the carnage of Bonnie Prince Charlie's insurrection, which is looming just around the corner. There are some of the most erotic sex scenes I've encountered, as well as vicious descriptions of sexual and nonsexual physical cruelty.

The last two (so far) of Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro series take place in the 18th century, and so I read them this month instead of abandoning it in December or rushing through it. They're getting formulaic, but better written as the series progresses, and there will probably be more over time--Rowland has taken to incorporating actual historical events, such as earthquakes and high-ranking deaths of real historical people, and is clearly working toward a climax of the arc plot. The Shogun's Daughter involves a shogun's daughter whose death is actually recorded, though not as murder, and The Iris Fan is probably the biggest arc plot shift of the series to date, tying up several loose ends and bringing about an event that has been anticipated for most of the series.. I marvel that Rowland continues to evoke suspense as to whether Sano and his family will actually avoid yet another ridiculous plot to frame him for the crime he's investigating--and how the officials continue to believe him guilty until the inevitable miracle, time after time after time.

It Just Doesn't Matter: Works of George Berkely
HYL. You were represented, in last night's conversation, as one who maintained the most extravagant opinion that ever entered into the mind of man, to wit, that there is no such thing as MATERIAL SUBSTANCE in the world.
PHIL. That there is no such thing as what PHILOSOPHERS CALL MATERIAL SUBSTANCE, I am seriously persuaded: but, if I were made to see anything absurd or sceptical in this, I should then have the same reason to renounce this that I imagine I have now to reject the contrary opinion.
HYL. What I can anything be more fantastical, more repugnant to Common Sense, or a more manifest piece of Scepticism, than to believe there is no such thing as MATTER?
PHIL. Softly, good Hylas. What if it should prove that you, who hold there is, are, by virtue of that opinion, a greater sceptic, and maintain more paradoxes and repugnances to Common Sense, than I who believe no such thing?
HYL. You may as soon persuade me, the part is greater than the whole, as that, in order to avoid absurdity and Scepticism, I should ever be obliged to give up my opinion in this point.
PHIL. Well then, are you content to admit that opinion for true, which upon examination shall appear most agreeable to Common Sense, and remote from Scepticism?
HYL. With all my heart. Since you are for raising disputes about the plainest things in nature, I am content for once to hear what you have to say

I read Berkley first of the major 18th century writers, to get him out of the way. His three works, A New Theory of Vision; The Principles of Human Knowledge, and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous are all pretty much the same philosophical argument, and fit together in one slim volume. Both the Harvard Classics set and the Great Books set contain a volume on "Locke/Berkley/Hume" representing British empiricism; the Harvard Classics chooses the Three Dialogues; Great Books has the Principles.. If you're going to read Berkley, I suggest the Three Dialogues. They're better written, have a certain amount of point-counterpoint character tension similar to Plato's dialogues, and, it seems to me, do a better job of explaining what Berkley's trying to prove. The other works just make him look like some kind of nutcase.

No matter which you read; Berkley exemplifies why a lot of people think philosophy is a useless thing to study and that philosophers are crazy people who can't function in the real world without someone else meeting their survival needs. Berkley was apparently so horrified at the very idea of the existence of base, unthinking MATTER in the Universe, that he felt the need to construct a world view without it, on the theory that the things that we perceive exist only as ideas created by God.

The short version:
Things we perceive are really combinations of sensory impressions; they are not proof of the things behind the impressions.
Sensory impressions are sometimes fallible (because dreams; because people with jaundice perceive yellow that is not in fact there; because intense heat cannot be felt without pain, and inanimate objects feel no pain, therefore there is no heat unless someone is there to feel it. If a tree falls unobserved, there is no sound, and all that).
If you're not at home right now, you are taking it on faith that your home even exists while you're not there.
And yet, it is absurd to believe things don't exist.
We can be sure that things exist even when unobserved, because GOD perceives all things, all the time.
This system only works if there is a God; therefore there is a God.

Evaluating this as philosophy, I ask:
Might this system be the truth? No one, or almost no one thinks so.
Is it useful? No.
Is it simple? no, it adds unnecessary hoops to jump through before we can understand things.
Is it enlightening/does it make you think? Yes.
Is it entertaining? Maybe. Berkley is one of the easier philosophers to read, easier than Locke and Hume.

Berkley never actually disproves the existence of matter; he just provides a mostly consistent alternative, that he seems to assume people will choose because the existence of unthinking, icky STUFF in the world is supposed to be abhorrent, because it isn't God. This is just strange to me. Seems to me, most people are pragmatic about metaphysics, living their lives taking the independent existence of the world and the laws of science as a given, because they consistently work. Just because coins have fallen to the ground each and every time you've dropped them before is not proof that next time they won't fall up (nor is the example of coins actually floating in a zero-g environment a useful counterargument when we're talking about how we live our day to day lives on earth), but we take it as proof because we want to get stuff done today.

Horse Sense: Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
I said, “there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. For example, if my neighbour has a mind to my cow, he has a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now, in this case, I, who am the right owner, lie under two great disadvantages: first, my lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which is an unnatural office he always attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will. The second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law. And therefore I have but two methods to preserve my cow. The first is, to gain over my adversary’s lawyer with a double fee, who will then betray his client by insinuating that he hath justice on his side. The second way is for my lawyer to make my cause appear as unjust as he can, by allowing the cow to belong to my adversary: and this, if it be skilfully done, will certainly bespeak the favour of the bench. Now your honour is to know, that these judges are persons appointed to decide all controversies of property, as well as for the trial of criminals, and picked out from the most dexterous lawyers, who are grown old or lazy; and having been biassed all their lives against truth and equity, lie under such a fatal necessity of favouring fraud, perjury, and oppression, that I have known some of them refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the faculty, by doing any thing unbecoming their nature or their office.
“It is a maxim among these lawyers that whatever has been done before, may legally be done again: and therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice, and the general reason of mankind. These, under the name of precedents, they produce as authorities to justify the most iniquitous opinions; and the judges never fail of directing accordingly.
Omigosh, I had forgotten just how awesome Gulliver's Travels is. I hadn't read it in decades.

It's one of those wonderful books that can mean different things to you depending on your biological and mental age. I first read a sanitized version when I was quite young, and it was just a fun story about a guy's adventures in a land full of very small people. Then I read the real version in college, and discovered there were three whole nother sections of it, including one where Gulliver has the tables turned and is in a different land where everyone else is a giant, and one that's a send-up of professors with a lot of esoteric intelligence and low stats in wisdom and life skills. And that one had me laughing and thinking how remarkably clever it was.

And now I'm an adult, no longer young, and maybe feeling the same deep bitterness and cynicism that Swift must have felt when he suggested that the English might as well just encourage the Irish to eat their own children, since we weren't going to do anything else to help their lot, and when he wrote the final section, in which the homo sapiens are subhuman louts who make Trump look like a civilized gentleman, and the horses have a nobility and goodness of soul that put humans to shame. They are astonished that Gulliver has some rudimentary reasoning abilities compared to themselves. He learns a lot from listening, and longs to spend the rest of his days among them, so that he too can learn to be wise and virtuous. But he tries a little too hard to separate himself from the hideous beasts he resembles, and to deny that he is anything like them. When he describes civilization as he knows it in the Europe he came from, the Houyhnhnms are shocked and appalled. They think him as base and socially deformed as the beasts in their land, with the distinction that his people lack the physical strength and dexterity of the primitive Yahoos. Eventually, they tell him that he must leave their company, for his closeness to the level of a savage beast makes them feel unsafe. His host is shamed and derided for consorting with him. And so he goes back unwillingly to his own kind, and spends the rest of his life miserable, ashamed, unclean and half-mad with the grief of being separated from civilized beings. Just like Jonathan Swift at the end of his life. Just like me during a large part of mine.
The parallels between that and my attempts to belong to both geek culture and feminism are staggeringly bitter and painful.
It's still one of the best satires ever written, but in my cynical condition, at a time when Trump is seen as fit to be President of the Yahoos, I can't even call it dark humor. I call it bitter medicine and a mirror held up to an America that Swift described to perfection although he never lived to see it. Very highest recommendations for making one feel as wise as possible while being all fired up and gloomy.

East Meets West: The Engineer of Human Souls, by Josef Skvorecky
I waited nervously in the Jolly Miller for about twenty minutes. The interior was almost dark, as in most north american bars. I had sat down at a corner table--and when my eyes got used to the gloom, i received a shock that took me right back to Prague. Directly opposite me, at a row of tables, sat fifteen young men, all with long hair, all casually dressed, all drinking beer and staring intently straight at me. It was like being in the middle of an absurd play by Havel. My hands began to shake again, and I sat there like a hypnmotized rabbit, the focal point of fifteen indefinable, frozen stares. Then something behind me cracked, the half familiar sound of a hard fist meeting a hard chin. I swung round and absurdity became American realism. On a small platform in the corner, behind me and a little above my head, was a television set. They were killing time watching serial violence.

I'm conditioned by now to cringe whenever I'm confronted with a "comic novel' from Eastern Europe. I'm expecting Kafka or Hasek or something where the only humor in the absurd, deeply depressing situation is that you have to laugh at it in order to not cry or scream. fortunately, Skvorecky, though born and raised in Czechoslovakia, emigrated to Canada and mellowed out.

His main character is a Czech-Canadian professor of English literature whose experiences alternate between discussing the works of Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad and Lovecraft, and remembering his earlier life in the Soviet-dominated homeland such that the themes of the discussed authors intertwine with his life. I wouldn't call it funny, but i wouldn't call it absurdist or bad, either. I would call it decent food for thought.

Familiar Guy In a Strange Land: The Martian, by Andy Weir
Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. "What must it be like?" he pondered. "He's stuck out there. He thinks he's totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man's psychology?"
He turned back to Venkat. "I wonder what he's thinking right now."

* * * * * * * * * *


How come Aquaman can control whales? They're mammals! Makes no sense.

Haven't seen the movie yet, and I know nothing about it, but the original book about an astronaut trapped on the surface of Mars after surviving an accident that left the rest of humanity believing him dead, is one of the more gripping, suspenseful tales I've come across in quite a while. Ironically, the library's hold list got around to me just when I was beginning my list of 18th Century books with---Robinson Crusoe, causing Defoe to bore the living shit out of me.

The protagonist, Mark Watney, knows that there won't be another mission to Mars for four years. Using only abandoned NASA equipment and the inhospitable surface of Mars, he resolves to produce enough air, water and food to stay alive, and to contact NASA to let someone know he's still there. Much of the book consists of his journal, which he fully expects to be found near his desiccated remains some years after his death, and which he records with the snarkiest grim sense of humor one might expect under the circumstances.

Unknown to Watney, the people of earth learn pretty early in the book that he exists, and are watching his every move via satellite photos, with rapt fascination although they too have no way to signal him.

And then the spoilers happen. Very high recommendations.

Cultural Introduction: The Pleasures of the Imagination (English culture in the Eighteenth Century), by john Brewer
But in picaresque literature such as Captain smith's Lives of the Highwaymen, the highwayman is not a moral emblem but a person of distinction, the source of fascinated admiration, like an aristocrat or a person of exceptional talents. Many such highwaymen, like Macheath, use titles. They call themselves "Gentleman" or "Captain", and claim to act chivalrously, according to a code of honour. They are depicted as witty and gallant, elegantly dressed, handsome and sexually alluring. They seem dangerous, but are made unthreatening; they are careful in choosing their victims, courteous to those they rob, and given over to force only when necessary. Often they represent themselves as victims who have been forced on the road and into a life of crime through personal misfortune or because the times are out of joint. As the readers of such literature knew, there was a political purpose here; one of the first famous gentlemen of the road was James Hind, a Cavalier who claimed to have robbed Oliver Cromwell; many later highwaymen were portrayed as Tories or Jacobites and other victims as Dissenters, Whigs, and republicans.

This is a pretty good survey book to begin a year-long study of the 18th Century given that, from the context of historical books, everything that is deemed to "count' is overwhelmingly English, French, or "Miscellaneous Europe", and the places around the globe where they were running rampant over colonists and native peoples.

Brewer's book reminds me why, in those moments when I am so foolish as to think it might have been nice to live in ANY earlier time, I choose the England of Fielding, Sheridan, Garrick and Dr. Johnson. it can be made to seem like not such a bad place for a middle-class, intelligent white male to go to plays, gather books, and discourse at the Mitre tavern among Johnson's precursor to the Algonquin Round Table. The great minds of the age seem to be delightful personalities instead of hypocritical assholes; the diseases, the brutal habits and the stenches of the London crowds are ignored in favor of a friendly, pubby, "Oi, thank-ye, guv'nor" sort of atmosphere. where the tarts are appealing and, if the quoted text above is to be believed, even getting mugged isn't so bad.

(Mind you, in my line of work, I frequently rub elbows with addicts who sometimes turn to outlawry to support their habits. for years I've been urging them, if they intend to ignore my earlier advice to stop robbing people at all, to learn something from the gentlemen highwaymen of old and have some manners: tip your hat to the ladies, make a flowery speech assuring your frightened victims that they won't get hurt as long as they hand over their valuables, share the spoils with the less fortunate, and you'll be admired by some of the public and maybe even get some leniency if caught. the criminal world would be a better place if they listened to me, but I digress).

As the title of the book implies, Brewer is more interested in the life of the mind than in the streets; he focuses on advances in literature, art, and performance, followed by a section on life outside of London where the biographies of engraver Thomas Bewick of Newcastle, composer John Marsh of Chichester, and "bluestocking" Anna Seward of Lichfield, just to contrast country and city imaginative life.

It's over 600 pages, but don't be daunted. It's a fast read with a huge number of illustrations, might be closer to 300 pages without the pictures. Highly recommended.

The Great Full-Stop Shortage of 1662: Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
I had nobody to converse with, but now and then this neighbour; no work to be done, but by the labour of my hands; and I used to say, I lived just like a man cast away upon some desolate island, that had nobody there but himself. But how just has it been—and how should all men reflect, that when they compare their present conditions with others that are worse, Heaven may oblige them to make the exchange, and be convinced of their former felicity by their experience—I say, how just has it been, that the truly solitary life I reflected on, in an island of mere desolation, should be my lot, who had so often unjustly compared it with the life which I then led, in which, had I continued, I had in all probability been exceeding prosperous and rich

I've never done this in a Bookpost before, but in this case Kim Rollins and her outstanding Facebook note "Robinson Crusoe Is a Buffoon and a Human-Trafficking Slaveholder" has said everything I would have said, more eloquently and snarkily than I would have, and so I'm just going to give up, link to her post, and jump out the window.

See also, The Martian, above. Survival on a lush tropical island on Earth? Luxury!

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

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