Book Notes

As a Chinese proverb observes: There are three kinds of people in the world: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen, And those who don’t know what happened.

Readers are not in the latter category.

Foreword

For some years, I have exchanged my “book notes”, as I call them, with friends, and many have urged me to publish them.  I call them “notes” as I’m not given to pretensions about their academic excellence.  In them, I have no axe to grind, nor do I seek to criticize, but, rather, to observe.  Still, when I decided to do this website, I was again urged by a good many fellow-readers to make my Lifeosophy website a platform to circulate my notes, along with my observations on life (which any Senior should be able to do in a manner that should help many of his/her Juniors).

Although I have been reading, roughly, a book a week for fifty years, I only began making "notes" on same less than ten years ago, and I rarely do notes on books that I don't like, the exception being very popular books that seem to me to be well below par (to save others the disappointment of reading them).    As such,  at the time of launching this site, I only have only 200 or so such notes to publish.  Still, you may find some of interest.

Regardless, since I know what I know, but I do not know what you know, which well may be much more than I, as soon as time permits, I plan to open my book notes to a blog-format and invite you to contribute your personal views, hopefully rendering this Readers’ Blog as a learn-learn experience for thee and me.  For the moment, and until time and computer-gurus permit, I shall simply post my notes and hope that you find some of interest.

Before leaping into my book notes, I note that, as one who took more English Lit classes than anything else through college, I developed a profound love of the English language, prose and poetry, and, since my mid-twenties, I must have read 2000 to 3000 books.  I have felt, and still feel, starved for well-turned phrases, elegant metaphors and laconic, lucid and beautiful wording – and for interesting and/or helpful information.  There are no data not worth knowing, as all data augment our abilities to enjoy and cope with life.  Data may not convey wisdom, per se, but it does provide a foundation for it.   So, reading does for the mind what fine cuisine and divine wines can do for the pallet, adding layers of loveliness to our waking hours, as well as the sustenance to survive.   As the psychologist, Burrhus Skinner said in his Man and His Ideas (1968),  "We shouldn't teach great books; we should teach a love of reading."

School doesn't educate us; it simply points us in the direction of what we should spend a lifetime learning.  I shamelessly wasted the bulk of my school years, incongruously and inexcusably, by priding myself in doing the least work/studying possible, while staying in the general vicinity of the Dean's List.  Imagine such stupidity!  I missed the bulk of what I might have learned by "outsmarting the system", i.e., getting respectable grades by cramming!  Knowledge “crammed” for exams, of course, escapes us as quickly as we ingested it.  Post-college and law school, I was embarrassed by my self-imposed mediocre data base, hence my resolve to cure it by reading relentlessly for the rest of my days.

From books, I have sought raw knowledge to help me deal with life, and, thereafter, entertainment.  My readings have fallen into epochs in which I concentrated, more or less, in one area at a time.  In my 20's, I devoured books on self-help and sales; in my 30's, philosophy (especially metaphysics) to help me find peace, after I concluded that my religion did not; in my late 30's and 40's, I leaped into poetry and then into business, finance and politics.  In my 50's, I enjoyed science (paleontology, archeology, astronomy, lay-physics) and history, and, all along and forever since, I savored my first love: literature, reading roughly two classics to every contemporary novel, for the simple reason that, in general, the classics are infinitely more enjoyable.

Metaphysics and "The Big Questions"

The meaning of life, the pros and cons of "afterlife", the causes of life and the like drive us all to myriad inquiries and introspection.  Growing up, I was inculcated in the esoteric Christian Science faith, for which I still have boundless respect, but, when I felt compelled to leave it (as I chose to use medicine to avert my sons’ death from pneumonia), I felt lost, the proverbial rudderless ship, and, equally bad, I felt disloyal to my family, all members of which remained devout Christian Scientists, but, to be intellectually honest with myself and to protect my children, I felt compelled to move to terra firma that offered more comfortable footing; so, I devoted a good ten years to visiting all manner of churches and to reading endless metaphysics, consuming vast tomes of the scriptures of all the world’s major religions, from their original texts and some commentaries on same, including the Hindu’s voluminous Veda, the Buddhist scriptures, the Analects of Confucius, Taoism, Zen, the Koran, Scientology/Hubbard’s texts, and some 25 versions of the Christian Bible.  My library overflows with religious texts.  These readings led me into philosophy, which took me back to Socrates and forward, until, at last, finding comfort (especially in Kant, Hume, et al, and, above all, in Voltaire), but I also found great solace through the musings of Shakespeare, Dickens, the Russians and endless others, even Stephen Hawking.   While clear "answers" never appeared to me, I found peace of mind.

Fiction vs. Current Events

A friend confided that he was feeling no need to read fiction, as real life events seemed as interesting or even more interesting.  Having slept on that, I offered these thoughts.

While “Life is [indeed] stranger than fiction,” as the maxim goes, great fiction has always given a perspectives on life, people and issues that most of us cannot “see” or grasp on our own.  We simply don’t concentrate hard enough to analyze the layers of what we see. There is no history book that can impart the Civil War with the poignancy, transparency, depth and reality of Mitchels’ triumph, Gone with the Wind, or the French Revolution as does Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities or Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Miserables,, or Napoleon’s assault on Russia as does Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or the social malaise of 19th Century England like the works of Dickens, or grasp China more fully than through Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth or India than through E.M. Forester’s Passage to India, or learn the evils of Communism and its 70-year reign of terror in Russia more compelling than Pasternak poetically phrased it in Dr. Zhivago, or  be suffused with the touching love and laughter of little people that O’Henry and Turgenov imparted in their short stories, or present unforgettable word images better than the genius of Poe, or descry the multi-century societies and religions so grippingly depicted in a spellbinding archeological dig in The Source, and whoever can eat a turkey without recalling Dickens mouth watering descriptions in The Christmas Carol, or experience pubescent first love as unveiled in Turgenev’s First Love, or ill-fated, middle-aged-andropause-love as did Dreiser in his tragedy,  Sister Carrie, and on and on and on, piling mountains of goose bumps, tears and joy upon us.  No newspaper article or even photograph can touch the depths, the beyond-human incisiveness, the life-lessons and the beauty that these magically articulated writings will imbue in us.   Such interludes elevate our lives and make us more than we will ever likely become without the guidance of great writers, who have devoted hours to each sentence in great, classic prose, which, of course, is why all adventurous readers return to the classics, eventually.

Yes, fiction gives much more than fascinating plots/stories, intriguing and well developed characters, themes/morals to expand our life’s goals, all laced with poetic prose that bring words and feelings alive in sensory dimensions, evoking tears and laughter at will, thus awakening our sometimes stolid minds.  After being immersed in such prose, aren’t we driven to race to the next sunset and see if we can see in it what the nuances that the great author did?  Isn’t this equally true as such prose relates to the moon, ocean, a random pair of spellbinding eyes, satin skin, fluid dialect, redolent rose bud, etc., because, from what we read in great prose, it’s clear that we’ve missed so much – of everything.  Again, we “look” at life, but we rarely “see” itGreat prose teaches us to see much more than we likely ever will on our own. We need to train our eyes, mind and sensitivities.  How could we be so blind -- but we are!  Great prose can change that.

It’s true that 95% of fiction doesn’t rise to these levels, but that which does will fill libraries and renders “the game worth the candle” and elevates our lives to Elysian plateaus.  Perhaps heaven is on earth, after all!  For this reason, in my weekly book-consumption, I still alternate (at least) with classics, redirecting my compass towards excellence.  After discarding endless inferior books along the way, we stumble on something as sublime as Roberts’ Shantaram (2005) or Follett’s Pillar of the Earth, and, then, we are rewarded copiously for time squandered on mediocre works: the discovery of a rare, perfect pearl, “prose as delicate as a garnet”, as a critic curiously said of The Great Gatsby.

While we must know the gist of current events, inordinate time devoted to them is futile and unrewarding, as they are beyond our control and do not elevate our minds or our enjoyment of life.  Our lives are made more beautiful, however, through interludes with great writers – of fiction, poetry, history, philosophy, science, biography, or whatever else they lovingly craft for us.

As Thoreau sagaciously reflected,

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”

I hope that some of my illustrative book notes will interest you.

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