My New Diary, 10/24/2018:
Late-Night Book Thoughts
Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
Woke some time after midnight and it’s now 1:20 AM. I was reading Wing-Tsit Chan: A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, just getting started and enjoying it, but I looked at the three books on my bedside table and saw Eugene Thacker: Infinite Resignation. And had this thought that I wanted to record here: how can I go back to that book while I have not read this one yet? How can I read obscure books when “Great Books” (“GB”) remain unread? The Source Book itself is not a GB, but it discusses and offers selections from many of the Chinese tradition. I picked it up because I wanted to get into Lao Tse, which a couple of people in the Hemlock Club are interested in or actively studying. But I smell a general principle here that I want to consider, and indeed have considered before. What about priorities? Priorities versus moods and whims.
I set priorities in my work (writing), though I don’t necessarily follow them. KM is my priority, yet it languishes even now, while I spend many hours on Twitter. I have judged between the two and found KM to be more important. But the work is odious, or at least tiresome, because the interesting part—the original writing, or the writing of the first draft—is done, or almost done. Twitter is also important because it is in pursuit of my stated mission: making a better world through my writing. Immediate efforts bring immediate rewards (Twitter); lasting efforts will bring lasting rewards (Kick Me). I want to pursue both.
But what of reading? Reading is a pleasure, and is important in a sense I don’t want to examine right now, and I cannot read everything at once, so I must make choices which are not always easy. Most often I pick up whatever appeals to me at the moment, while trying to balance needs like book club deadlines and library book due-dates—and a new “need” pops up, the Hemlock Club discussions. I have been trying to make use of Aristotle…meanwhile, I’ve begun watching the Great Courses course on Herodotus, so I’m naturally itching to get into the Landmark Herodotus that has been on the shelf for more than a year. How can I sort these things out?
Herodotus is easy: just dip into it as the lecture DVDs make it relevant. I have no intention of trying to read the whole thing right now, and it’s doubtful that I’ll ever “find time” for it. It’s eminently suited to be “going to sleep” reading, which is how I got through Eliot’s Daniel Deronda; but I have many candidates for this niche, and would rate Tocqueville over Herodotus for this, and maybe Aristotle, and the Durants, and others which come and go as they will.
Harder is Aristotle. And I just acquired another dozen “Aristotles” in the volumes of the GBWW just bought: Descartes, Rousseau, Francis Bacon, Kant, and more. Aristotle is just the tip of the iceberg that is my longing to become “well-read” in philosophy by picking up all the classics I have never much bothered with. I dip into Plato on occasion, is about all (and never the “hard ones,” like The Republic). The problem is that these classics are pretty tough to read. My tolerance for boredom is pretty low, hence I keep starting Tocqueville and keep dropping it, which I could also say of Proust.
In addition to “the philosophy problem” is the longing to read—study, even—the Constitution and the Federalist Papers and such. The thing here is my shocking ignorance. I read the first ten of the FP about twelve years ago, when I was running a GBWW Yahoo group and that was the month’s assignment; and I enjoyed that and have had the thought ever since of reading the whole series, but never pursued it. Politics now has me excited, hence the renewed interest. Tocqueville would be more fun, though, probably.
So, I have all these classics sitting around, waiting; and I should go and read the Thacker, which isn’t even grabbing me? Much of it is obscure or nonsensical, but a little of it is uniquely interesting and quirky. I’m on p. 49 and have noted six passages to copy out. Unfortunately, I also have a dozen books with noted passages to copy out that I have not dealt with.
So, a couple of conclusions: dump the Thacker and Herodotus for now, and give a minor priority to the Source Book because it might be immediately relevant to the Hemlock Club. My real priority is to finish Thomas Nagel: Mortal Questions, which is what I read on the bus and even at home from time to time, because it’s that interesting. I just don’t make much time for reading these days; despite being retired, I “never have enough time.”
Then there’s the ever-nagging question of highlighting: do it or don’t? It’s always a judgment call. I’m highlighting the Nagel, but not the Thacker, and not (so far) the SB. Anything I’m claiming to “study” should probably be highlighted, as I did recently with the valuable (but inexpensive) four-volume Philosophy in the Twentieth Century. I still haven’t finished with that—I’m on volume 3 and got derailed by Nagel for some reason, probably just a dry patch of PITTC. I am doubly reluctant to highlight a book I might quickly abandon, naturally, I suppose because it “makes me look stupid.”
Highlighting constitutes most of what I consider “studying.” I was more diligent with Purves: Neuroscience in that I added cross-references, definitions, and comments, as well as reading the whole two and a half times. I worked similarly on Bertrand Russell: An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, and it was a valuable experience, but unfortunately I no longer have the book. I would like to do as much with Aristotle and other classic philosophy, but, knowing how damnably dull most of these are, I’m reluctant. Well, take the plunge and see how it goes. The books are not especially valuable—few used books are, unless you want to buy them.
Beyond highlighting (or noting passages to copy), copying out quotes is my next step, as I did extensively with Donoghue: Arts Without Mystery. The quotes then sit in my collections and get reread occasionally, or not. That’s not much “study,” but sometimes it’s supplemented with discussions here.
Well, I’m just rambling, though rambling about books is not necessarily objectionable. As for “looking stupid,” did so on Twitter yesterday by criticizing a tweet stupidly because I hadn’t read it with sufficient attention. I apologized. And I suppose that’s the end of it. But it would be really nice if I could avoid that kind of mistake in future. Short of constantly second-guessing myself, I see no way to avoid it. Can I set a rule and stick to it? A rule like, “If you’re going to correct someone, read it twice”? Or “double-check your facts”? These are good rules and will prevent some errors, undoubtedly; the hard part will be to remember them. That’s what the A-List is for. So I added these new “rules” there. And? We’ll see. If I can remember the rule, it’s easy enough to apply it.
I took a look just now on the Internet for Plutarch’s Moralia (essays). There are a couple of print-on-demand titles available. In the past I’ve loathed P.O.D., because the formatting is usually dreadful and the print size often excessively tiny, but this one looked okay because Amazon provides a “Look Inside” on it. However, I decided against it because, who needs it right now? It’s not going away. Some of the essay titles are quite interesting, and I read one of his essays before and found it very interesting and readable, which is true of the Lives also. I never finished the Lives; reading it in prison, I was summarizing each life as I read it, because I found the details slipping away almost immediately. The summarizing really didn’t help, and I suppose they were too dull to reread. The Lives itself is not bad to read; I got the GBWW volume this week, so eventually I’ll get into it and pick it up where I left off, “Alexander,” I think.
“My reading” these days is almost exclusively philosophy, or “immediately relevant,” like book club items and library books. I should just quit library books altogether…when I find something I like and want to really get into (i.e., highlight), I generally return the book and buy a copy, or so I did with Jung. Then it sits on the shelf and—nothing. Now I have Jason Stanley: How Propaganda Works. It sounds dull, but it looks really interesting, even important. He describes his approach as “analytical philosophy,” which adds to my interest.
And now it’s 3:00 AM!
Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All right reserved.