Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Books Read in May 2016

Hello all! Some of the craziness of life has died down a bit and so I plan to start using this blog again regularly. Starting with this post, I will once again give my thoughts on the books I read each month and I will also soon beginning reading the Great Books of the Western World again, a project that has come to a grinding halt in recent months.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Technically, I read this book in April, but I thought I would include it since I haven't done one of these in quite a while. Ah, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. I had mixed feelings on this book. On one hand, this book was packed with great information. Covering roughly 3,000 years of history, from the unification of Egypt by Narmer to the death of Cleopatra and the absorption of Egypt into the rising Roman Empire, this book gives a fairly detailed account on nearly all of Egypt's many rulers based on the sometimes limited information we have of them. Though on the other hand, the author has some habits that I found annoying at times. He sometimes uses too much conjecture without significant evidence to back up his claims. The most glaring example for me would be his portrayal of Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh who rejected the traditional polytheistic Egyptian religion in favour of the monotheistic religion of Aten and a figure I've been fascinated by since high school. Wilkinson writes that Akhenaten's worship of Aten was really worship of his father, Amenhotep III, who was often portrayed as a sun king, and that the art produced during Akhenaten's reign was prone to exaggeration, producing the oddly shaped portraits and sculptures of Akhenaten. I have never heard it suggested that Akhenaten worshiped his father and I was always under the impression that art under Akhenaten, far from being exaggerated, emphasized realism and that the portraits of Akhenaten portrayed his actual deformities, where other Egyptian artists might gloss over another pharaoh's imperfections. He also sometimes spoke of situations in Ancient Egypt with anachronistic language that I sometimes found distracting. Also, be aware that this book is very tightly focused. This is a book about Ancient Egypt's political history, while its art, culture, religion etc. are pushed to the side. This isn't a complaint because a book covering this much material has to keep a tight focus, but be aware that additional books will be needed to gain a full picture of what Ancient Egypt was like. Despite its flaws, I think that The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is still a worthwhile read because of the sheer scope and depth of information covered and I am happy to have it as part of my collection.

Prehistoric and Egyptian Medicine by Ian Dawson

This was a short children's book about the practice of medicine before Hippocrates turned it into a discipline based on empirical evidence and the treatment of natural causes. The author takes a sensitive approach, reminding the reader that early physicians used a combination of magical rituals and treatments based on trial and error and the observed efficacy of their use. Beyond the fact that I appreciated the authors respect for the intelligence of prehistoric and Egyptian people and that this short book was full of interesting bits of information, I don't have much to say on this one.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"Paradise Lost" - John Milton

I started reading Paradise Lost, along with C. S. Lewis's excellent Preface to Paradise Lost,  a couple months ago, but it ended up sitting on the shelf for a while and I only got around to finishing it now. I had written a bunch of notes for it, but I have since lost them - which is unfortunate because Paradise Lost is one of my favourite books - so my thoughts will have to be based off of memory.

Paradise Lost has some of the most beautiful writing I've ever read. Milton creates such vivid mental landscapes of Heaven, Hell, Chaos, and Eden that it really is breath-taking. I'm no expert on poetry so even if I can't explain how, Milton's writing has a big effect on me. I'm hooked right from the beginning, with Satan and his fellow demons discussing their plans now that they have been decisively beaten and ousted from Heaven. It's the cerebral, bookish equivalent of a great opening action scene in a summer blockbuster.

The way Milton writes Satan is very fascinating and he's easily one of my favourite villains of all time. I think one of the reason why Satan is so much more interesting than the good characters is that all of his motivations and arguments seem a lot more innovative on Milton's part, while the good characters tend to rely on traditional theology. But that's the way it has to be. It was probably inevitable that Satan would be the most interesting characters. That said I think that Satan is undoubtedly the villain, the also the main character, of the story. I agree with Lewis when he says that taking Milton's anti-monarchy political views and using them as an argument that makes the rebellious Satan a hero is a misunderstanding. It seems clear from Milton's writing that he considered God his natural superior, but not Charles I.

When Adam asks the angel Raphael about the structure of the universe, Milton is vague about whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa - a sign that the Galileo controversy was relevant when Milton was writing.

*sigh* I have more to say about this book, I really do. If I ever rediscover my notes, or even re-read Paradise Lost before I'm finished the Great Books, I may do a Part 2.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I'm nearly finished Paradise Lost and I'll post my thoughts on it soon, but I'm not sure when I'll be able to read the next Great Book. Today when I was on my local library's website looking for a copy of John Locke's Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, I noticed that they have gotten rid of a good portion of the Great Books series. Frankly, this upsets me. These books should always be available at the library. Granted some of them were pretty well used, but it was better than nothing! Who knows they may buy replacements and I may be over-reacting, but as it stands I've lost my reliable source for the Great Books. The simplest thing to do would be to just buy them, but I'm a broke college student. Maybe I'll look at some other libraries, look for online versions (even though I hate reading from a screen) etc. We'll have to see...

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Macbeth" - William Shakespeare

This is about the third time I've read Macbeth so there weren't many surprises this time around, though I had forgotten how creepy it was. Some of the imagery in here is genuinely eerie. Macbeth would be a good thing to read around Halloween. 

The biggest thing I noticed this time around was the similarities between the story of Macbeth and the TV show Breaking Bad. The main character of each begins as a good person, but as the story goes on, they become more and more depraved to the point of no return. The idea of masculinity is prevalent in both stories and both Macbeth and Walter White are spurred on to commit their crimes by their fear of being unmanly. There are many things in Walter Whites' life that make him feel inadequate, but Macbeth seems to have only one major thorn in his side: his wife, Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, in sharp contrast to Walter White's wife Skyler by the way, constantly nags him and questions his manliness to the point where he has to do the terrible things she suggests to save his pride. Macbeth, who apparently loved his wife at the beginning of the play, gradually loses the love he has for her to the point where he appears apathetic when he hears news of her death. Murder, and the strong primal instinct that rises against the idea of murder, as well as the ideas of justice and consequences also play prominent roles in both stories. I wonder if there was an influence there, even if an unconscious one.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Troilus and Cresida" - Geoffrey Chaucer

Now that exams are over and summer is here, I'm hoping to get a lot more reading done over the next few months. Troilus and Cresida was definitely the most readable Great Book for a while, and I thought it was great - probably the best fictional book about love that I've ever read (not that it faces much competition). No one can write about crushes quite like medieval authors and it proves that, even though our customs change, the patterns of our thoughts and the stirring of our souls have remained more or less constant. In fact there were stretches of time when I didn't want to read because Troilus' woes reminded me too much of my own, especially towards the beginning of the book. 

The main character Troilus was a man who had rejected love all his life as something only fit for fools until Cupid exacts his revenge by causing Troilus to fall quickly and deeply in love with Cresida. Cresida, on the other hand, develops feelings for Troilus slowly and cautiously. I find it interesting that in medieval literature, it is often the male characters who are driven the most by love. It's the opposite of the modern stereotype of female characters being too dependent on the love of a man. Ladies often come to the rescue of knights in medieval literature as well, but that's a whole other story...

Pandarus got on my nerves a little bit. He seemed emotionally manipulative towards Cresida, even if he had good intentions, and he committed the unforgivable crime of giving the "plenty of fish in the sea" talk to Troilus after Cresida leaves Troy. But then there were times when he spoke genuine wisdom.

The combination of classical setting with medieval sensibilities was also interesting. Although the Troilus and Cresida shares the setting with the Iliad, the harshness of the war is removed. It often feels like Troilus is riding off to a tournament rather than a war. The rough warriors are also replaced with gentle knights.

Troilus and Cresida was just as much about Fortune as it was about love. Life inexorably goes through periods of bad, and then good, and then back to bad. Troilus loves Cresida from afar and feels sick at the thought of her never returning his love. Eventually Cresida does return his love, but is all too soon taken from Troilus by her father to the Greek camp where she surrenders he heart to Diomedes the Greek warrior.

Chaucer ends the book on a joyful, if sobering, ending. Troilus is killed by Achilles ( darn it, Achilles, first Hector and now Troilus!), and Troilus ascends to the heavens where he considers his former earthly concerns to be vanity compared with the felicity of heaven he now experiences. Troilus laughs at those who mourn him. Chaucer tells his readers to give their hearts to God rather than to unpredictable youthful passions. Much as my heart hates to admit it, I think he's right.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Summa Theologica" [Questions XC-XCVII] - Thomas Aquinas

Hello dear readers. It has been another long break since my last entry and, one again, I feel the need to assure you that I am alive and fully intend to finish the Great Books of the Western World. School and other distractions have been keeping me busy. I don't know when I will get done, though I now suspect it will take longer than the suggested 10 Year Plan, but I will get done or I will die in the attempt.

I found Thomas Aquinas far more interesting than Tacitus, but his writing is still very dense and that is art of the reason this reading took so long. Although Thomas Aquinas's Christianity provides the framework of his thought, this selection wasn't about theology per se, but about the nature of law.

Thomas Aquinas divides law into for types: 1) The eternal law i.e. the unwritten law of God, 2) The natural law i.e. a shadow of the eternal law written on our hearts, 3) Human law i.e. Civil law, and 4) Divine law i.e. the Old Law of Moses and the New Law of Christ. Natural, human, and divine law are all derivative of the eternal law. Importantly, Thomas Aquinas notes that human law shouldn't be a full reflection of eternal law and that human law permits some things that the eternal law condemns.

By the way Thomas Aquinas makes a statement that, to my mind at least, reveals the Euthyphro dilemma to be a false dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma, named after the Plato dialogue that it appears in, is as follows: "Does God command things because they are good, or are things good because God commands them?" Either "good" is subjective (e.g. God could just as easily deem murder good) or good stands apart from God and therefore, because God answers to a higher standard, God isn't God. To me Thomas Aquinas's statement "[God's] law is not distinct from Himself" settles the whole thing. God commands good because He is good.

While reading Thomas Aquinas it was easy to see the faith in the authority of books that medieval people had. He often quoted an author as an objection to or as evidence for one of his points as if the fact that the statement was found in a book must mean that it's true! And this applied to both Christian and Pagan books. Thomas Aquinas was known for his reconciliation between Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, one representing faith and the other reason.

Of course, I don't bring up Thomas Aquinas's sometimes blind faith in authority to belittle him. The way he organized and reconciled all of the ideas he was dealing with really was awe inspiring, and I ultimately agreed with most of his conclusions. I've also read some of Thomas Aquinas's other ideas, that weren't necessarily in the short segment that I read, that I think are brilliant. He definitely is one of the great thinkers of the West.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The Annals" - Tacitus

Yes, I'm still alive.

I had an extremely hard time getting through this book which is the sole reason for my extended absence. There were a few reasons I found this book hard to get through, but the main reason is that I found it really dry. Where Herodotus told history in an entertaining and story-like manner, Tacitus merely reported events matter-of-fact. It might make for a more accurate record of past events, but it's far less enjoyable to read. My eyes glazed over many, many times while reading.

Another reason that may have contributed to my dislike for the book is my persistent dislike of Rome. Maybe it's because of early exposure to the New Testament and Asterix comics, but I have a hard time seeing Rome as anything but a villain. While the Greeks weren't angels, there is enough for me to love that I have developed  a huge soft spot for them, but I have never developed such a soft spot for the Romans. Indeed, most of the "characters" in the Annals were either despicable people or their victims. The injustice was sometimes hard to read.

Still there were bright spots in the sea of monotony that was the Annals. For example the Annals is the first non-Christian source to mention Jesus, albeit in a decidedly unsympathetic light - at least regarding his followers, there is also an account of Britain's warrior queen Boudica (I was cheering on the "barbarians" in the wars mentioned), there were some interesting legal or political dilemmas, there was an endearing moment when Tacitus apologized to his readers for having to go into boring details.

So, overall, the Annals was not a favourite of mine, but I am excited to finally start moving ahead again.