500 years of Western civilization down!
I’m so conflicted about this book. On the one hand, the topic is inherently fun and interesting, and Barzun writes elegantly (and knows everything – dude was 92 when he wrote this). The book is probably a bit too Francocentric, but so am I, so no problem there :)
What did bother me is that Barzun’s reactionary approach to the present era, which seemed born of a lack of engagement understandable in someone his age but disappointing nonetheless. Equally disturbing were the poor and often misguided explanations of some scientific concepts, which were presented with the same authority as the rest of the material in the book. [update: this review sums up my problems with the book just like a smarter person reading my mind :)]
I”m working my way through Lie Down in Darkness right now, after being stuck in the first few pages for years.
[EDIT] And…done! This goal isn’t a big priority now, but I guess the next step is tackling Barzun.
I read about half of these during my Ancient Greece kick in college, almost a decade ago ::gulp::. But I’m going to reread all of them.
Alcestis: Surprisingly fun. I was familiar with the myth behind it: King Admetus is supposed to die, but he’s buds with Apollo, so Apollo gets him out of it if someone else volunteers to take his place. His subjects won’t, his aged parents won’t, so his wife Alcestis does. But then Admetus is sad that his awesome wife died, so Hercules, who happens to be in town, goes and strong-arms Hades into giving her back.
The play contains a hilarious scene of Admetus and his father trying to out-douchebag each other; Admetus is angry that his dad, who’s an old man anyway, wouldn’t make the sacrifice, while his dad points out that he still likes life, thank you, and that Admetus just let his wife die for him without complaining. The return of Alcestis is also more disturbing and less happy than I remembered from the myth.
Medea: Done, and hard not to compare with Alcestis. Both show the plight of women in a society where women are disposable; Alcestis is the perfect martyr, while Medea flips out and becomes a despicable murderess. Fascinating.
Hippolytus and The Bacchae: These are probably the two I remember best; I just reread Hippolytus and will reread The Bacchae next. Both carry the message that overly ascetic purists who deny their irrational/animal nature are setting themselves up for a fall. In Hippolytus, the stuck-up virginal title character is punished by Aphrodite for renouncing love, but the play focuses largely on the collateral damage to his father and stepmother, the vehicles for Aphrodite’s punishment. The Bacchae, from what I remember, is more satisfying because the purist, King Pentheus, contributes more obviously to his own undoing, this time at the hands of a Dionysiac cult. So remember, everyone: drinkin’ and screwin’ are for your own good. So said the Ancient Greeks.
kinda sucks, which is why it’s been on my shelf and I haven’t read it all the way through yet. But it is peppered with some nice quotes:
“When life demands more of people than they demand of life, as is ordinarily the case, what results is a resentment of life almost as deep-seated as the fear of death.”—Tom Robbins.
“There is nothing so easy but that it becomes difficult when you do it reluctantly.”—Terence.
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” and “There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking.”—Thomas Edison.
“Be steady and well ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”—Gustave Flaubert.
“Success may have more to do with how fast you can accept and get started on the new game than with how good you got at playing any of the old ones.”—David Allen, the actual author of the book.
For the past few months, I have been plodding through Wesley Clark’s Waging Modern War at bedtime, primarily as a sleep aid. But I like this quote:
“There are only two kinds of plans: plans that might work, and plans that won’t work. There’s no such thing as the perfect plan. You have to take a plan that might work and make it work.”
If we throw out the reference books and the puzzle books, it’s actually a pretty short list. Here’s what I have left:
Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting [finished 10/07]
- Listening to Music (text from a friend’s music history class)
Wesley Clark, Waging Modern War [finished 7/07] David Allen, Ready for Anything [finished 7/07] Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Civilization [finished 9/09] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus [finished 9/07-ish]
- Guy de Maupassant, Histoires fantastiques (in progress)
Euripides, Ten Plays [finished 7/07] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago [finished 11/07] William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness (started, didn’t get too far) [finished 3/09] Emile Zola, Germinal (French version, eek) [donated 7/07] First Loves, a poetry collection [donated 7/07] Norton Anthology of American Literature [finished 1/08]
- The Complete Works of Shakespeare (in progress)
The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women [finished 8/07. the longest book I’ve ever read!]
- Volume 2 of Remembrance of Things Past (English and French)
The Complete Plays of Aristophanes (added since I first wrote this list) [finished 9/07] Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner [finished 8/07] This book my friend C. gave me about managing a lab [finished 3/08]
As you can see, it’s really not that daunting, except for the Big-Ass Anthologies. Proust comes first, and then we’ll see about the rest.
This goal definitely includes just the subset of books I have in my apartment, and not the voluminous library at my mom’s house back home. I’ve actually read (and reread!) 95% of the fiction I keep here. The problem is (a) the massive anthologies and (b) the chess books. Do you know how long it takes to read a chess book?
So we’ll see if I ever get to check this one off.
Starting with Proust and Polgar, as discussed in other goals!