In manifold ways 2018 was an excellent year. I traveled to places I never expected to see, I read books that had long been on my list, and in general I had a great time. In fact, I did so many things that I have a lot of catching up to do on this blog. And my major resolution is to put even more effort into my writing this year.
So, without further ago, here is an incomplete list of the places I visited that I still need to write about:
One of my resolutions is to brush up on math. I hope, first, to read about Greek mathematics, and even to see if I can penetrate a few works of Archimedes (highly unlikely). I also have a calculus textbook that I hope to use to revive my atrophying abilities (equally improbable).
Meanwhile, I have typically immoderate and unrealistic reading goals. Some hefty existentialist tomes have been weighing me down: books by Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Husserl, to name just three. There are also many classic French writers I have yet to read: Pascal, Balzac, Stendhal, Le Rouchefoucault… And then there are some ponderous and interminable history books that I are in my sights.
I should stop myself here, since I will have to eat all of these words. One thing I can be certain of, though, is that I will neither diet nor exercise.
Few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist the opportunity to read aloud.
2018 has shaped up to be an excellent year in reading. I somehow finished fifteen more books than I had the previous two years. Admittedly, many of my books this year were quite short; some of Plato’s dialogues are arguably more like pamphlets than books, and I read twelve of them this year. These slim volumes were, I hope, compensated by a few ponderous tomes. I stumbled through the two final books of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, at 1092 and 870 pages; George Santayana’s 862 page treatise on ontology; 1300 pages of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives; and finally William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, weighing in at a tedious 1614 pages. I also attempted to read a 1400 page history of New York City; but I was forced to take a break halfway through to recover from an acute overdose of urbane facts.
The two most prominent themes of this year’s reading have been art and science.
I learned about the works and lives of Picasso, Miró, and Goya, and I savored Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s sketches of brain cells, which are as much artistic as scientific achievements. I also read two books of John Ruskin’s eloquent ravings on the value, morality, and beauty of art. Henry Adams concurred with Ruskin about the superiority of medieval art, as he demonstrated in his book about Chartres. Giorgio Vasari, however, took the reverse position, arguing that the Renaissance saved Europe from centuries of barbarous art; and he proved this thesis in his reverential biographies of Renaissance painters and sculptors. But by far the most compelling book on art I read this year was a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which reveal a man of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence.
My reading in science began with two classics in the philosophy of science: Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—both excellent. But after learning the theory I wanted to know the practice; so I started blundering my way through the classics of the Copernican revolution. I began with Ptolemy’s Almagest, and followed this with Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Kepler’s Harmonies of the World, and Galileo’s Two New Sciences and Sidereus Nuncius; and I finally reached the capstone of the scientific revolution with Newton’s Principia. Looking at this list, I feel rather proud of myself; but in truth most of this “reading” consisted of flipping through pages of incomprehensible mathematics. I needed secondary sources to even achieve a basic understanding, relying on an abridged and annotated version of Ptolemy, Very Short Introductions to Copernicus and Galileo, and a popularization of Newton written by Colin Pask. And am I any the wiser for all this toil?
I had hoped to do half of my reading this year in Spanish; but with a total twenty books I did not even achieve a quarter. Luckily, many of these were excellent. Federico García Lorca’s trilogy of plays is a remarkable look at the force of tradition in rural Spain. The poetry of Antonio Machado was perhaps even more profound, with its blend of metaphysical calm and romantic sensitivity to nature. I also read two superlative novels from Spanish masters: Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós, and El árbol de la ciencia by Pío Baroja. To do my homework, I sampled Spain’s golden age, reading Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla, and Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna and El caballero de Olmedo. But the highlight of this year’s Spanish books was undoubtedly Don Quijote de la Mancha, which I read in the modernized version by Andrés Trapiello. Not that Cervantes needs any help, but Ortega’s and Unamuno’s commentaries on the Spanish masterpiece did widen my appreciation of that most infinitely entertaining of novels.
The two authors who most dominated my year were Shakespeare and Plato, as I labored under the optimistic delusion that I could read both of their complete works. I still have a long way to go, of course; but any time spent with these two masters is rewarding; and I hope to continue my naive ambition next year. I read very few works of English language fiction this year, of which E.M. Forster’s Howards End was the standout work. As usual, I tried to read about New York and the United States while I was home during the summer. This lead me to pick up Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, Ron Chernow’s Titan, and Alistair Cooke’s America. None of these was as revelatory as The Power Broker, which I read last summer; but each one shed some light on my vast and aggravating homeland.
The most exciting event on Goodreads this year has been my recent ascension to the most followed reviewer in Spain, with 1,700 new followers just this month. Believe me, I’ve been as baffled as you must be. The mystery was partly solved when I investigated the list of my followers, and found that a large part bear the obvious traces of fake accounts. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly assert that I have not paid for any bot service, and I have no idea why they would choose to follow my reviews. Perhaps the computers have a taste for pretentious prose.
In any case, I would like to thank my fellow reviewers and followers, man or machine, for contributing to this excellent year of reading. You support me in my own endeavors, you inspire me with your intelligence and curiosity, and you provide me a community of thoughtful readers and writers. So may 2019 be as good a year for book enthusiasts as the this one has been.
Just as royalty and nobles have played a crucial role in Europe’s art, providing money and stability to artists, in American history very rich patrons have played an equally important role in the establishment of cultural institutions. From Carnegie, to Frick, to the Rockefellers, great business tycoons have used their enormous wealth to bring culture to the masses; and in this respect J.P. Morgan is no exception.
Unlike the above-mentioned robber barons, Morgan was not an industrialist; his specialty was money itself. A son and eventually a father of a banker, finance was in Morgan’s blood. He had dealings with every major player in business and government of the age, and was instrumental in the creation of the era’s major conglomerates: General Electric (which hailed from Thomas Edison), United States Steel (from Carnegie, Schwab, and Frick), and AT & T (from Alexander Graham Bell)—to name just a prominent few. A large man with a deformed nose, he struck the unflappable John D. Rockefeller as moody and impulsive. But this iconic money-changer and pharaonic materialist was not bereft of an appreciation of higher things.
The Morgan Library & Museum sits right in midtown Manhattan, on Madison Avenue and 36th street. The main building looks quite similar to the Frick: a severe, grey, neoclassical structure. Adjoining this is an attractive brownstone building; and the complex is completed with a sleekly modern—and rather discordant and tasteless—box of an entryway, built in 2006 to help organize the space. This is where the contemporary visitor enters and pays.
No photos are allowed inside the complex, so I am forced to rely on my paltry memory.
As one would expect, the house is richly furnished. The original entrance hall is gorgeously decorated, with Renaissance-style wall frescos and Pompeian motifs; even the floor is attractively patterned. Anyone visiting the banker would know immediately that this was financial royalty. Morgan’s study, where he made decisions that shaped the economy, is a deep shade of scarlet—the rug, the wall paper, the furniture. Morgan himself, with his handlebar mustache sitting under his bulbous nose, presides over the fireplace in the form of a portrait. Few rooms give such an indelible impression of power.
The next room accessible from the entrance hall was, I believe, previously the librarian’s office; now it contains a fine sampling of Morgan’s impressive collection of Babylonian cylinder seals. These are small circular objects made of hard stone, about an inch long, inscribed with delicately carved reliefs. They were used as a sort of signature or official seal, by rolling the seal over soft clay to create a horizontal image. Dozens of these seals were on display in the room. Since the seals themselves do not look like much, they were shown alongside an impression made with the seals, wherein the images can be clearly seen. These typically involve scenes of gods and royalty, and are quite beautiful works of art. Certainly it is a much more elegant way of indicating ownership and approval than illegibly scribbling our names.
From here I went to the central attraction of the museum: the library itself. Even if it had no books at all, it would be a beautiful space—the ceiling as richly decorated with allegorical friezes as El Escorial’s royal library. Three floors of oaken bookcases line every wall up to the ceiling, each one filled with venerable volumes covered by a protective screen. On the ground level there are display cases that showcase some of the library’s treasures. And these are beyond anything I had expected.
Here is the finest collection of manuscripts and rare books that I had ever hoped to see. To begin with, there are three Gutenberg Bibles, the first book published with moveable type in Europe, one of the most iconic books in history. While the invention of printing was, no doubt, a great advance in the history of our species, it must be admitted that the Gutenberg Bibles look rather plain next to the older, handmade ones nearby. The most famous example of these is the Morgan Bible, or Crusader Bible, a brilliantly illuminated Bible showing scenes from the Old Testament, but depicted as if it had occurred in medieval France. (Thus it is easy to mistake the images for depictions of the crusades.) The images are chaotic and violent, but no less compelling for being so; and seeing it such vivid illustrations between the cover of a book does make one a little nostalgic for the days when books were handmade.
The most ornate book in the collection—and the first in the Morgan Library catalogue, MS M.1—is a book of the gospels from the 9th century, around the reign of Charlemagne. (I admit that I cannot remember if I actually saw this book in person, but I did see it in a documentary that mentioned the library.) The cover is a mass of ornately decorated gold, encrusted with precious jewels. The amount of material wealth devoted to this single volume beggars belief—though it does seem a little ironical to decorate a book about Jesus of Nazareth, arch-enemy of the money-changers, so resplendently. While I am on the topic of ironies, I must also add a point made by the journalist Alistair Cooke, that while these super rich tycoons—Carnegie, Frick, Morgan—were buying up the treasures of Europe, they were benefiting from waves of European immigrants willing to work long hours for low wages. And so these robber barons exploited the huddled masses of Europe to buy up its treasures.
But it is difficult to be indignant for very long when you are looking at such beautiful books. The Morgan Beatus, for example, is a brilliantly illuminated copy of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, with bright yellows and reds and oranges, showing us a world redeemed and a world aflame. Then there is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a wonderful example of gothic illumination. As with so many other illuminated manuscripts, the mind boggles at the amount of time it would have taken to paint a single one of these ornate pages, much less a whole book of them. An example of this is the Farnese Hours, illuminated by Giulio Clovio over a period of nine years. Clovio was a friend of the young El Greco, during his early years in Italy, and the Greek painter created a portrait of the old Italian master, pointing to this masterpiece of Renaissance illumination. The book was completed in 1546, 100 years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed, already the waning years of the art of illumination.
Still more exciting than these beautiful books, for me, were the original manuscripts on display. These are the notebooks and pieces of paper where authors and composers first wrote down their masterpieces. Among these is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with his edits still preserved, as well as nine novels by Sir Walter Scott, including Ivanhoe. Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Lord Byron, and William Makepeace Thackeray also are in attendance; and in music there are handwritten examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and even Bob Dylan (the latter obviously not acquired during Morgan’s lifetime). It is thrilling to see the preserved handwriting of these men (and yes, they are mostly men), since they can appear so unreal behind the printed page. The artists become living, working, fallible souls when you can see them scribbling and scratching out. Even the most iconic works of art were the process of trial and error.
I must say that I was stupefied by the end of my visit. The collection had exceeded my every expectation. Few places are as inspiring as a beautiful library. The museum is a magnificent tribute to the ways that we have preserved and transmitted our culture—in all its manifold facets. From the Babylonian cylinder seals to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” humans continue to scribble, print, draw, paint, and inscribe our art and ideas for the benefit of people in distant times and faraway places.
But there was still one more thing to see. The Morgan has a temporary exhibition space, and when I visited this was dedicated to an exhibit on Henry David Thoreau. This was a stroke of luck, since I had recently finished rereading Walden.
Considering the scanty possessions that Thoreau left behind, the exposition was astonishingly complete. There was Thoreau’s writing desk, over a dozen volumes of Thoreau’s diaries, and Thoreau’s walking stick (notched so that he could measure things on his walks). Also present was every original photograph (there are only two, admittedly) taken of the man. The exhibit was filled with information about his life and extracts of his journals. Seeing his humble collections gathered all in a heap—his scribbled and illegible handwriting, his beat up desk, his pocket-sized images—spoke more eloquently of his life’s project than all the fanciful phrases he ever assembled. And just as with the original manuscripts, seeing his original possessions helped to turn Thoreau from a distant voice into a living, breathing person.
I have, alas, studied philosophy, / Jurisprudence and medicine too, / And, worst of all, theology / With keen endeavor, through and through— / And here I am, for all my lore, / The wretched fool I was before.
For many years now I have been an avid autodidact. I have, alas, studied philosophy, ancient and modern, analytic and continental. I have read tomes of history and slogged my way through old poems and enormous novels. I have slammed my intellect against textbooks—physics, chemistry, psychology, economics—often to no avail. Theology, biography, books in foreign tongues, collections of essays and classics of science—I have read them all.
And yet, despite all this, a feeling of ignorance, utter and hopeless ignorance, often plagues me. And this feeling is not entirely illusory. After all, there are still huge swaths of knowledge of which I have not the faintest idea. How does a computer work? What about the history of China, Russia, India, Latin America? How do you grow corn or build a house? How do lithium batteries or Wi-Fi work? The world around me is still, in large part, mysterious. And even if I spend my whole life investigating, there simply isn’t enough time to learn it all.
This bothers me. Partially it is a feeling of being inauthentic. How can I be a citizen of a world I don’t understand? How can I act intelligently and make wise choices if so much is beyond my grasp? One need not be omniscient to live authentically, of course; and partial knowledge, being the best we mortals can ever achieve, is what we must work with. Still, it does seem that the more complex the world becomes, as the global economy weaves more and more lives into a tighter knot, the more we must learn in order to achieve even a basic understanding of the ramifications of our lives.
Thoreau felt this, I think, which is what drove him into the woods. At least there, living simply and in relative isolation, he could hope to come to grips with his world. In our post-industrial society, this is simply impossible. Take, for example, the desk that my computer is sitting on. The top is made of wood. Where was the tree cut down, where was the wood cut up, and who did this? What chemical process was used to dye the wood? And the metal legs: What kind of metal is it, where does it come from, how was it put together? Hundreds of people must have had a hand in this simple table, from its beginning as a tree, to the factory, to the truck that transported it, and the shop that finally sold it.
And this is just a table. Multiplied by all the objects in your life, you can get some idea of how enmeshed you are in relationships and technologies that you do not, and cannot, completely understand. I think this feeling of being ignorant of the sources of your own possessions, the fabric of your daily life, is part of what drives me to read.
The table example only touches on the social world. What about questions about the natural world? How does my body work, and why does it have the shape it has? Where did the universe come from and what are its properties? What is the fundamental truth of things? What is the order of reality? Human science has done an astoundingly successful job in tackling these questions. Indeed, it is by far the most successful example of human intellectual efforts. Even so, the world we have discovered is so amazingly complex that no one mind could understand it all. You have to specialize, and study for years, to hope to deeply understand even one part of it. As for the rest, we must settle for simplified versions, popular accounts, sketchy outlines. And even with this recourse, we must still learn continuously if we hope to survey everything.
The vastness of available knowledge, then, is another reason why I read. But there is still a deeper reason. This has to do with what might be called ‘existential’ questions, questions about the meaning and purpose of life. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean for a society to be just? Why are we here, what should we be doing? Questions like these driver seekers into the arms of poets, philosophers, and preachers. These are the questions that have been asked most persistently by our benighted species. We have been hoping to find our place in the universe since the very beginning. And yet, it is these questions that most trenchantly resist final answers.
Seen in this way, the quest for knowledge may seem hopeless. We may end up feeling like Faust, bitter and disappointed, after a lifetime of effort for negligible results. The utter hopelessness of this search is what, I think drives some into religions, where God serves as a universal explanation and justification, for everything and anything. It drove Faust in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the impossibility of total knowledge or final answers does not mean that we cannot achieve adequate knowledge and workable answers. Our history, our philosophy, literature, and science, has clearly proven otherwise. So instead of being bitter like Faust and selling our soul to some deity or devil, we should embrace the endlessness of the quest. After all, the world would be terribly boring if we could know everything about it.
I was fortunate enough to be featured in the lastest episode of the podcast, Thought Stack. Jon Stenstrom, its host, interviewed me about reading—how to read, what to read, why to read, when to read—and also asked me for a few writing tips. Here’s your chance to hear my sonorous voice!