Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Review: How to Achieve True Greatness by Baldesar Castiglione

How to Achieve True Greatness This is the ninth book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 29 in the list and part of series two (the blue series).

To be honest, I found 'How to Achieve True Greatness' a bit hum drum. Firstly, I was expecting to find out how to achieve true greatness, and I totally didn't!!! I didn't even find out how to achieve normal greatness (though by the looks of it, I'd have no trouble doing that with google :-)

HtATG actually reminded me quite a bit of 'The Symposium' by Plato (which I did enjoy). In 'The Symposium' a group of (noble?) men discuss love, each making speeches describing and praising it. HtATG describes a gathering of noble men with the Duchess Elisabetta Gonganza and their dialogues describing the perfect Courtier. The perfect courtier, it turns out, must be many things - cultured, well written, of noble birth. Oddly enough, though, the dialogue also descends into love by the end, with discussions of whether older men have the right to love as younger men do and the consequences of it. (I did wonder if they'd possibly divereged from the topic somewhat).

To be fair, HtATG suffers from the same editing that has affected a number of books in the Great Ideas series. HtATC is not a book in itself, but instead is cut down from Castiglione's book 'The Book of the Courtier' (Il Cortegiano). I suspected this fairly early on because the book is littered with

[. . .]

This presumably indicated that text has been cut. I think this really contributed to the lack of direction in the book and the difficulty I had in remembering who was talking about what. Further still, where the original comprises 4 'books', this only takes excerpts of the first two, which probably augments the rather aimless conclusion this book also suffers from.

HtATG also suffers from one of the least impressive covers in the Penguin Great Ideas series too. For one thing the text on the cover is most definitely not centred (even more so than it appears in the scanned image). Perhaps this off-centered-ness is indicative of Italian Renaissance literature. I suspect, however, that coming late in the second series, Penguin may have been running out of ideas...


Review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist Manifesto This is the eighth book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 13 in the list and part of series one (the red series).

I felt a bit daring reading 'The Communist Manifesto'. I was reading it on the train at one point and someone asked me if I was one!! I'm not, but I did actually enjoy the book. Firstly, even though it is about 160 years old, the society described was recognisable (unlike, for example, the society described in The Social Contract). Perhaps it was because this book was written after the industrial revolution, which was obviously a period that radically changed things. Much of the writing seems very reasonable and logical, but I always had the idea in the back in my mind that, however well communism might work in an ideal society, humans are just not ideal. I think the developments in communism since this was written demonstrate this.

The manifesto itself is pretty short, just over 50 pages, with the rest of the book devoted to prefaces from editions and then another essay by Karl Marx. The prefaces were actually really great, spanning from 1872 to 1893 (after Marx's death), and covering editions printed in England, Germany, Poland, Russia, Italy, France and more. They essentially provided a commentary of how communism evolved over those years. It was particularly interesting to read prefaces commenting on the changes in Russia. Engels and Marx were really hopeful that events in Russia would provide momentum for communism to spread across Europe. With hindsight we know this didn't happen - and also know that communism did not even persist in the USSR.

I have to say, though, I really should have left it at that. After the manifesto and the prefaces comes 'The Eighteenth Brumiare of Louis Bonaparte', an essay by Karl Marx. I read this the whole way through - to took *aaages* - far longer than reading the rest and to this day I have no idea of what it's about. Ok, I know it's about France and it has stuff about peasants and the aristocracy and Louis Bonaparte (who, if I'd read this wiki page first, I'd know was Napoleon I's uncle). I'll leave it at that...

Review: Spashdance Silver by Tansy Rayner Roberts

There's no getting over the fact that 'Splashdance Silver' is very reminiscent of the work of Terry Pratchett. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, Pratchett writes very entertaining work and 'Splashdance Silver' is also very entertaining. There's a lot going on, however - possibly one story line too many (thought I wouldn't like to be the one that decided which storyline 'walked the plank'[1]). Kassa Daggersharp has to decide whether she becomes a pirate like her recently deceased father or a witch like her (less recently deceased) mother. She goes in search of her parent's treasure accompanied by her cousin Daggar (who needs the money) and tracked by various foes (who also need the money), accidentally sets off a major magic crisis, and then still finds time to take on the new Lady Emperor and two potential love interests.

There's a lot of detail in the book, which is great for world building, and character development. But I actually found that many of the character's motivation muddied by a complicated back story (although it did makes Reed Cooper more interesting, particularly towards the end). I also felt the storyline lost momentum after Kassa (mostly) dealt with the 'glimmer'. This felt like the climax of the novel, when instead it continues on for some time afterwards. There's a lot of good jokes in the book, but there's also some pretty bad ones too...

There is a sequel to 'Splashdance Silver', 'Liquid Gold' and I'm interested to see where the characters end up in that tale. 'Splashdance Silver' is well written and very easy to keep engaged with. However, I think Pratchett does do it better...

[1] This is pirate humor, as appropriate for the book!!

Review: The Symposium by Plato

The Symposium This is the seventh book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 23 in the list and part of series one (the blue series).

If it wasn't for the slight mysogeny and rampant sexism in this book, I would absolutely love Plato's 'Symposium'. As it is, I can only love it with reservations (though it is pretty awesome).

The Symposium is a philosophical dialogue written by Plato sometime after 385 BC. It is a discussion on the nature of love, taking the form of a series of speeches, both satirical and serious, given by a group of men at a symposium or drinking party at the house of the tragedian Agathon at Athens.

It stars Socrates, Plato's teacher, which is interesting in itself, because, while Socrates was a real person, we only really know of him through the writings of others. It wasn't something that I'd really thought about before, until reading this wikipedia entry, where Socrates is refereed to as a character. 'But he's real!', I cried, 'Wasn't he??'. It threw me for a second, but it served a good reminder that, while Plato remains largely hidden in the text, he *is* present because he wrote it (I'm sure others didn't need this reminder).

Also included in the back is The Allegory of the Cave, which describes Socrates view of reality as we know it (shadows) and *true* reality, made of real forms. I'd actually heard of this allegory before, thanks to Sophie's World (which was my first and possibly *only* foray into philosophy), so it was good to reread relatively familiar concepts in a different context. (Although I do think many much of modern science dilutes the effect of Socrate's theory).

But why did I love 'Symposium' so much?? Well, it's all about love isn't it - and not just love - platonic love between men and their boyfriends. It's all rather sweet. Rather than a non-sexual affectionate relationship, *real* platonic love is chaste only because sexual energy has been transmogrified! Oh my! As I mentioned before, women get a pretty short shrift in these discussions, particularly in a description of humans when they were male, female or androgynous and all 'whole'. However, it was also great to hear descriptions of Socrates' life - wrestling, going to the gym and having fervent admirers such as Alcibiades. Sure, I'd seen the fun-loving representation of Socrates in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but I didn't ever take it seriously...

Anyway, I'm interested in reading more of Plato's Dialogues - perhaps not for the philosphical arguments, but to learn more about Ancient Greek life.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Review: The Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt

The Pleasure of Hating This is the sixth book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 12 in the list and part of series one (the red series).

Like most (all?) of the 'Great Ideas', I had no idea what 'The Pleasure of Hating' was about before I started it. So I was somewhat surprised to start reading the first chapter/essay ('The Fight') to find it very much in the same tone as Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat', which is fiction!! It isn't, apparently, but is instead Hazlitt's account of a fight in December 1821, between William Neate and Thomas Hickman, The Gasman (and his travel there and back). While I assumed (given the nature of the book) it wasn't fiction, and I could definitely read it as a piece of satire, it is also (apparently) a commentary on journalism (as laid out in this rather interesting post on the Penguin Classics blog), something I have to admit that I *didn't* pick up at the time.

The other essays in this volume are a little more conventionally written, and all beautifully so. The second, 'The Indian Jugglers', was probably my favourite because of the way Hazlitt slyly weaves in the real topic of the essay - the differences between cleverness and genius - into an introduction that seems to follow on in tone from 'The Fight'. I loved the way how Hazlitt touched so many different topics in this essay, finishing with the (rather charming) obituary of one John Cavanagh, a famous fives hands-player.

'On Reason and Imagination' was another favorite, arguing (rather interestingly) that:

Logic should enrich and invigorate its decisions by the use of imagination

I am a scientist and so reason generally holds sway with me. The idea that 'imagination' should play a part in decision making seemed rather novel, however when I then thought about decisions made using logic alone, but with insufficient data or too narrow a view (and there are numerous historical examples), then it seemed to make sense. Perhaps we are seeing the injection of some 'imaginations' in studies with more holistic multi-disciplinary approach, incorporating social and physical sciences. I also liked this essay because Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 'The Social Contract' was given as an example of an argument based on cold, hard reason (which I could appreciate having read it very recently because of the Great Ideas books!!), which Hazlitt argued was not appropriate for arguments based on human nature.

I have to admit that 'What is the People?' left me indifferent. However, 'On the Spirit of the Monarchy' was notable because of Hazlitt's fairly scathing attack on the monarchy (not that I disagreed). I also loved the quote at the start (not Hazlitt's) equating poets with Tories and mathematicians with Whigs, and then also to 'that wise, plodding, unpoetical people, the Dutch'. How droll! Hazlitt argues that man's craving for the Monarchy is the search for 'The One'. I have no idea whether 'The One' had the same romantic connotations as it does now, but I do wonder if mankind's 'craving' has now been transplanted to more common people - the winners of reality TV shows such as Big Brother or Pop Idol.

The collection ends with the title essay 'The Pleasure of Hating', in which Hazlitt's description of hate ranges from beautiful descriptions of his involuntary feelings towards a spider on the floor to discussions of why humans must fight and hate. I could agree with many of the statements Hazlitt makes in this essay and - all in all, I am very impressed with the collection. I'd be interested in reading more of Hazlitt's essays, although I think the work that most interests me may be 'The Spirit of the Age', a collection of portraits of his contemporaries, including Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Jeremy Bentham, and Sir Walter Scott.

(As always, there's more on Hazlitt over at Wikipedia)

Review: The Art of War by Sun-tzu

The Art of War This is the fifth book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 22 in the list and part of series two (the blue series).

For me, 'The Art of War' came at a good time. After the dense, heavy reading of 'The Social Contract', The Art of War seemed beautifully sparse.

"OMG! It's a friggin poem!!' was my immediate reaction when I first flicked through the book. It's not a poem, but the text is arranged in very short paragraphs along the left hand side of the page. There's a lot of white space which give the text a lovely sculptural feeling, which is also reflected in the layout of the cover. From a practical point of view, laying out the text in this way has made 'The Art of War' a 'slim' book, rather than the ultra-skinny book it would have been otherwise, but the layout also suits the text, and I guess was probably ultimately a product of the original way in which the text was laid out on bamboo strips (see here). I'd be interested to know whether this layout was a design choice by Penguin, or if all editions of' The Art of War' are laid out like this by default.

As to the words themselves, I found this treatise on military strategy oddly charming. It's an interesting mixture of very practical advice (for example, it discusses the amount of money you need to run an army, describes different types of terrain) and more philosophical thoughts (know your enemy and know yourself). I can't quite see how it is applied to modern business and managerial strategy, but it wasn't really looking at if from that point of view so probably missed it. I suspect that 'The Art of War' may be a book I revisit later on to spend more time thinking about the text a bit more fully, now that I have a general idea of what it is about.

The book is laid out in thirteen different sections/chapters, and comparison of the chapters titles in the book to those mentioned in the wiki page show that this translation by John Minford is relatively new. Indeed further googling shows that John Minford's translation was first published by Viking in 2002 and included both the unadorned text, plus further commentary. I think that in this case further commentary would be very valuable in gaining the most out of the text (and, actually, I think this may well turn out to be true for many of the 'Great Ideas').