2019: New Years Resolutions

2019: New Years Resolutions

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:

  • Amsterdam
  • Athens
  • Boston
  • Bruges
  • Brussels
  • Chartres
  • Dublin
  • Lisbon
  • Ourense
  • Padua
  • Paris
  • Reykjavik
  • San Francisco
  • Tenerife
  • Venice

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.

Happy New Years!

2018 in Books

2018 in Books

Few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist the opportunity to read aloud.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.

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Quotes & Commentary #37: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #37: Emerson


The years teach much which the days never know.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time is curious. It is the most insubstantial of fabrics—impalpable, immaterial, invisible and ever elusive—and yet inescapably real.

Like a barren plain, time is flat and featureless.

The natural world gives time some structure. The turning of the earth about its axis gives us night and day, and the tilting of the earth’s axis gives us the seasons. The longest cycle of all is the earth’s journey around the sun, something that we are about to celebrate.

Humans, never content with nature, have added new landmarks to time’s endless uniformity. We name the seasons and divide them up into months; we name these months and divide them up into days; we name the days and give each day twenty-four hours; and each one of these hours carries with it a customary activity—eating, sleeping, working, playing.

Humans simply cannot abide the emptiness of time. We cannot tolerate time’s continuity, time’s running ever onward, forward, never pausing, never returning, time’s endless movement into the infinite future. All this makes us uncomfortable.

Thus we try to make time cyclical. As we are pushed along, we stick posts in the ground to mark our passing, and try to separate each one of these posts by the same stretch of ground. We go through the year marking the same periodic holidays and private anniversaries. The new year is our universal benchmark, the measuring post by which we all orient ourselves.

Since time is featureless, it is purely arbitrary where we place this marker. We could, if we wanted, chose to regard March 1st or September 27th as the New Year. And isn’t it absurd that we try to divide something continuous, like time, into discrete elements, like years? Isn’t it silly that we think 2016 transforms itself into 2017 in one instant, instead of gradually fading one to the other as time rolls along?

But we need structure. We need landmarks in the barren expanse to remind us how far we have gone, and how far we have to go. This is why New Year’s Eve is valuable: it gives us the chance to pause and reckon up what has come to pass, what was good, what was bad, and what we could do to preserve the good and shed the bad. It gives us the opportunity to delineate, however vaguely, the arc of our lives.

Things invisible day by day reveal themselves in this wider perspective. A mass of senseless trivialities, taken together, can reveal a design and purpose that lay buried under daily cares.

Life must be lived moment to moment; but these moments, so ordinary and unremarkable, can manifest stories of the deepest significance. These stories are our lives, viewed from afar, and we need to reread these stories every once in a while to keep ourselves on the right track. 

Have a happy near year, everyone.