November Reading

A very short list of books read in November. I took part in Non-Fiction November (as last year) and that made me read less, because I have a slower reading speed with non-fiction.

Ongoing project:
Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I read a lot of this and now only have about 200 pages to go which I hope to finish this weekend. It’s fascinating but also very strange. When I’m done, I’ll write a review.

Non-Fiction:
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence.
My project for Non-Fiction November. It was super interesting, see my review here.

Howl

Poetry:
Robert Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Women Poets.
Finished this anthology that I started in July. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s amazing how many women poets were around in the 18th century. Their poetry is no worse than that of a lot of male poets who are listed in all the major literary histories, while no-one has ever heard of most of the women. Unfair!

Children’s Literature:
Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle.
A modern classic of children’s lit. Part of a trilogy and I’m certainly planning on reading the other parts too (they are already on my Kindle). I love the Chrestomanci Series and wanted to read some of Jones’ other works because they are just so quirky and imaginative. Somehow, I never came across her books as a child or a teenager, which is a pity, as I’m sure I’d have loved her books as much as I loved Joan Aiken’s works.

Keep safe, world.

From Dawn to Decadence

For non-fiction November, I wanted to read a large and hopefully fascinating tome that would last me all month, like I did last year. I chose Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Year of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. I’ve known about this book for years, but never got around to read it, so I thought this was a good time to tackle it.

I enjoyed the book very much, although I didn’t agree with every judgement of Barzun’s. Some topics I know almost nothing about (such as music) and therefore can’t tell whether Barzun gets it right or not. But that didn’t matter to me because I don’t need to judge everything. I don’t think I’ll ever know very much about the cultural history of music as that’s not a topic I’m particularly keen on, but reading about it in this book was interesting, even for a clueless reader like myself. Other topics I am more familiar with, such as literary history and general history. I still had a lot of aha moments where subjects were presented to me in a way I had never thought of before, but which I found compelling.

One subject on which I felt Barzun got it wrong was when he argues that women were historically in practice not oppressed much more than most men, because the common man used to have very few rights, too. Quite a few men and women did manage extraordinary feats despite being oppressed, I agree, but that’s only true for exceptionally talented people. It’s true that for centuries common people, men and women, were not very free, but the common man could always deem himself the master of the common woman. So, when oppressed lower class men struggled to achieve something they had to fight against all sorts of prejudices and hindrances from the ruling classes, while women always had to struggle in addition against men from their own class and against general prejudices against all women (such as that women were supposedly unfit for leadership or learning). And while men gained more and more freedom and rights as the centuries passed, these rights were not automatically extended to women. He’s also at one point rather dismissive of women’s complaints about sexual harassment in everyday life – a very male point-of-view (I guess the book was written before the #metoo-movement).

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The book is a hefty tome at 828 pages with small print, but it covers a large scope and is full of variety so that it never gets boring. The style is clear and engaging without academic jargon. Barzun looks at historical events, at literature, the arts, music, and science. There a many short biographical sketches of important and interesting men and women and numerous quotes appear as small textual inserts. There are many instances where Barzun mentions other books to read if one wants to learn more about certain developments that can only be sketched in a large overview.

I also like the themes that Barzun returned to again and again at different points in his narrative. Themes like emancipation, primitivism, scientism, self-consciousness. For instance, primitivism means the desire to return to a simpler, more authentic life – this comes up very often at different periods between 1500 and 2000. One early instance was the Protestant Reformation, where one of the aims was to return to a simpler Christianity as practiced by the early church without all the hierarchies and rules that had been accumulated by the Catholic Church. Primitivism is a romanticized view, as life in earlier years had its own complexities and issues that are ignored by the rose-tinted view from the future. It arises for various reasons and in different forms during quite a few later periods right up to the present. Whenever there’s a yearning for simplicity, primitivism is involved (which can be fruitful or a dead-end, depending on the results). Here’s what Barzun wrote about Tolstoy, who, after writing masterpieces like War and Peace turned to the simple life, a kind of primitivism:

To Tolstoy the natural man he respects is simpleminded in the good sense and ignorant in the eyes of the world. Such a man knows how to do his work and is faithful to his duty. He is humble and a Christian, but not as the Orthodox church understands the believer. The words of Jesus suffice. Tolstoy proved his integrity by ending his days living like a peasant among his former serfs, without comforts, good clothes, hygiene, or fine food.

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence. Harper Perennial, 2001, p. 672.

Near the end of the book when Barzun started making judgements about the situation of Western culture during the second half of the 20th century, I found some of his ideas well-argued but others I couldn’t agree with in all or even any points (for instance, Barzun is quite critical of “the welfare state” while I feel that social security is a positive achievement). In this last part of the book, I scribbled a lot of question marks in the margin, when I found statements that I wasn’t sure about or was of a contrary opinion. I think it’s harder to make valid judgements of the times we live in as opposed to past eras (though who knows how appropriate people from the past would find our view of their culture). But these differences of opinion were stimulating. They made me think. Often, I didn’t reach a final judgement for myself on an issue, but I enjoyed getting a point-of-view about various topics that I would not otherwise have encountered.

The book has an index of subjects and one of persons. These are very useful to look up topics when I can’t remember what I’ve read and which I want to revisit (also to find the useful references to other books sprinkled throughout the text). If I read all the books recommended in the text that interest me, I’d probably be busy for the next decade. So, the book is a great resource to dip into as well as a good read from beginning to end in one go. If you are interested in cultural history, you’ll probably enjoy this work. I thought it was great.

Fun fact: Barzun wrote this book when he was in his eighties and published it in his early nineties. That’s an amazing accomplishment. I hope very much that I will stay mentally agile in old age, too (although the likelihood of me publishing such an amazing tome at any age is rather low).

Keep safe, world.

Monday Miscellanea

As you may have noticed, I’ve totally given up posting every day in November. Life got in the way – well, Curious Dog’s prepuce infection. He has to wear a body to stop him from licking his infection and he doesn’t really like it. I spent the weekend, when I wasn’t out grocery shopping, sitting reading in the living room with him instead of up in my bedroom at my computer, typing up posts. I made quite a bit of headway through my November non-fiction read From Dawn to Decadence and on my project reading The Tale of Genji. I’m halfway through the former and about two thirds through the later. They are both very interesting in quite different ways. Dawn is a cultural history of “the West” and Genji is a tale about court life in ancient Japan. Dawn covers a topic that I’m somewhat familiar with but with lots of details and interpretations new to me. Genji shows quite an alien world which I often find extremely puzzling, but it’s fascinating.

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But to return to Curious Dog. I was sitting in the living room with him so that he didn’t have to wear the body – I just stopped him when he started to lick. On Friday I chased him around the living room for about an hour with a syringe to irrigate his prepuce with an anti-bacterial liquid and I actually managed it without holding on to him at all. He just kept still by himself (he probably got fed up with being chased all the time). That was very surprising. Partner and I didn’t manage it at all on Thursday, we couldn’t hold him. He kept squirming away and the nifty way of holding him that the vet showed me did didn’t work with us. I guess we are not as practiced as the vet. But Friday was the only time I managed it, the rest of the weekend he never held still. Nevertheless, he got all his antibiotic tablets, and it looks like the infection has cleared up. One more night of wearing the body and that’s it. That’s a relief. Curious Dog was still very keen on his walks, but he was a bit off his food on a couple of days. He left kibble in his bowl, which he never does (normally it’s all gone in a few minutes). He did, however, eat it when we fed him by hand. Very odd. Maybe the tablets didn’t agree with him. Or maybe he was milking the situation because he enjoyed the extra attention (dogs do that). I don’t know, but today he ate all his food again at his usual speed and I think he’s back to normal.

The weather was very dreary on the weekend. A very soft rain on Friday – CD and I got quite wet on our afternoon walk. No rain the rest of the weekend but the sun hardly got through the fog and the clouds. It grew a bit warmer, so walks were quite pleasant, but it was still very muddy. Since it was so dreary, we streamed a few episodes of München Mord (meaning “Munich Murder”, which is in German a play on München Nord which is an exist on the Autobahn: Mord = Murder, Nord = North). It’s three oddball police detectives investigating murder cases in weird ways, hindered by their superior who panders to higher-ups. It’s very quirky and has funny elements. The chief detective of the trio has a weird way of reenacting how he thinks the murder took place which makes him look crazy to most of the police department (although his method is very successful). The other two are always looking for love in the wrong places and have other character quirks. The relationship between the detectives is one of the many highlights of the series which we just really enjoy. Perfect for dingy autumn days.

We did a lot of cooking and baking. Partner made some very tasty pastries filled with shredded apple and spiced with cinnamon and I cooked a lovely vegetable soup on Saturday. On Sunday I made a mushroom, carrot and kidney bean stew in a dark beer sauce with dumplings and a purple cabbage side-dish (Partner helped). It was delicious and I made enough to last us for today as well, so Partner didn’t have to cook today for once.

Today is still dingy weather-wise, but it’s back to work, no time for films. I had a virtual training about developing a “growth mindset”. Basically, a lot of truisms about keeping an open mind and seeing possibilities instead of problems. The concept makes sense, that’s why it’s a cliché, but those type of trainings always put me into a contrary mood, where I try to come up with examples for when positivity and openness don’t help much. Which is quite hard, because most bad experiences are probably not helped by being in a negative frame of mind. Mostly I feel cynical about these trainings, because it’s the company trying to motivate us into becoming better employees: flexible, hard-working, and innovative to influence the bottom line positively and make investors happy. They always use a lot of examples from sports. How being in a “growth mindset” leads you to being more successful in your chosen sport. I don’t enjoy competitive sports, so those examples make me grumpy (I guess I’m difficult). I’ve heard these types of things so often that I’m surprised at myself for still waiting for new insights from these kinds of trainings. This time there was a refreshing point from a colleague about keeping a sense of proportion and humour to deal with difficult situations. That took me out of my cynical mood and got me to acknowledge to myself that the training was at least a change from normal work. Which, you know, nothing to be sneered at. But I don’t believe I learned anything new at all, so it wasn’t a very effective training. I’ve had very good trainings at work, I guess a dud now and then isn’t unexpected. Newer colleagues, who haven’t had such motivational trainings before, may have found it more interesting.

Keep safe, world

Another Busy Day

On the morning walk with Curious Dog it was foggy but we had a pleasant walk anyway. We met up with one of CD’s dog friends, but she was accompanying a Husky, who didn’t look too pleased to see Curious Dog. Curious Dog also wasn’t too pleased, but he apparently decided that he couldn’t take on a Husky and then pretended not to see him and instead spent five minutes sniffing all around the verge of the footpath until the other two were way ahead. It was quite funny and a lot more relaxed than if the two dogs had thrown a fit. Curious Dog is quite canny about the dogs he’ll get upset at. They can’t be too large or too many (he never gets mad at two or more dogs). He’s got two favourite enemies, one here in Bavaria and one at my place and they are both small male terriers. They hate him right back. Mostly CD is friendly with other dogs, especially if they are female.

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After the morning walk, I had to drive to the supermarket in the next village as I’d forgotten some stuff yesterday (it always happens). On the way, it was still foggy, but on my way back half an hour later the fog disappeared and the sun came out. It was quite hot in the south-facing rooms of the house. After lunch, I vacuumed everywhere and later cleaned the bathroom. Mum did the kitchen and also baked a very nice apple roll which we tasted after a stint in the garden. We didn’t do much, it was still too wet, but I cut back one of our lilacs and Mum tiedied up some potted plants. At three 3:30 p.m. the fog started coming back. By 4:00 p.m. the sun was gone, and I had another foggy walk with Curious Dog in the woods.

In between vacuuming and gardening I spent an hour reading Islands of the Mad (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes part 15). I’ve read slightly less than half the novel and I have a strong hunch about why the missing person chose to go missing. I’m looking forward to finding out if my guess is correct. Annoyingly, Mary Russell doesn’t seem to get it which either means that I’m wrong or that she is obtuse. It’s kind of annoying if she’s not seeing the obvious, because she’s supposed to be a genius. Or maybe my guess is wrong in which case the author laid a false trail which would also be annoying. Still, I’m enjoying the read. It’s a nice change from my non-fiction November tome From Dawn to Decadence of which I also read more than a few pages this morning in bed because I woke up early and couldn’t fall asleep again.

After I’ve posted this perfectly unexciting report of my day, I’ll power down my notebook, dismantle my home office setup and pack everything up ready for tomorrow’s trip back to Baden-Württemberg. Our next week in Bavaria will be at the beginning of December. The second half of this year has passed so fast. It seems a few weeks ago I was moaning about the summer workload and now it’s already time to start thinking about Christmas presents and how long my vacation should be over Christmas and the new year.

Keep safe, world.

Uneventful Friday

Today I enjoyed a bit of a lie-in, reading in bed, continuing on with From Dawn to Decadence and my anthology of 18th century women poets that I started during Jane Austen July. On normal days I don’t have much time to read in bed in the mornings. I just manage a few poems before having to get up. I do have time on the weekend but have to make sure that I don’t stay too long in bed, because then the whole morning is out of whack. Walking with Curious Dog before doing anything else takes time.

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CD and I were done with our later than usual morning walk by 10 a.m. Afterwards I set out on a grocery shopping trip to pick up some stuff in town that isn’t available in the supermarket in the next village. This time I also had to pick up a new little light bulb for the fridge, as the old one had expired suddenly a couple of days ago. Oh, what an exciting errand!

The rest of the day was just as uneventful. I got back from shopping around lunch time and after lunch I spent the early afternoon reading. I’m now done with the first part of From Dawn to Decadence and have found out that the “invisible college” mentioned in my Wednesday post was a group of 16th century scholars who were later involved in the founding of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, which still exists today. This first part of the book is all about the effects on Western culture of the Reformation and the Renaissance. There was an interesting short excursion that looked back at the Middle Ages and pointed out that the period between ca. 500 and 1500 had seen the growth of a new civilization from the ruins of the Roman empire and had had its own Renaissance from 1050 to 1250. So it wasn’t all “dark ages.” I’d know that already from my historical studies at college (I studied History as the minor part of my degree, with American Literature as the major), but it was nice to be reminded.

While I enjoy reading non-fiction, I usually find it harder going than fiction. Even when I’m really interested and engaged, non-fiction is kind of tiring for me. It needs more concentration. I tend to read slower and sometimes struggle not to nod off. Today was a cloudy, damp, and cold November day where my tendency to fall asleep over my tome was very strong. Before I could do so, I took Curious Dog for his afternoon walk. That woke me up again.

I should have done some gardening in the afternoon, but it was so wet outside from all that rain yesterday that I postponed it until tomorrow when hopefully it will be a bit dryer. The house also needs to be cleaned before we leave again on Sunday, so tomorrow I won’t have that much time for reading. Maybe I will start with the next Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novel as an antidote to all that non-fiction.

I’m currently watching Farscape on Amazon Prime. It’s an Australian-American sci-fi series from the turn of the century. I watched a few episodes when they were first aired on German TV but didn’t manage to keep it up. I’m rather liking it. It’s about an astronaut from Earth who is flung through a wormhole into a strange part of the galaxy where he teams up with a few alien ex-convicts on a living spaceship (a “Leviathan”) who are on the run from militaristic so-called “peacekeepers.” The series has a very distinctive look (one of the alien characters is an animated puppet). The first season is a series of mostly stand-alone episodes but later on a story-arc develops. I’m enjoying it a lot, but it’s going to take me ages to finish it, as I only manage an episode now and again. Partner didn’t seem particularly keen on it, so I’m watching it by myself.

Keep safe, world.

Non-Fiction November

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I was very engaged in this year’s Jane Austen July, with a TBR that attempted to cover all the prompts (even if loosely) and not very much with Victober (although I did read one Victorian novel, Trollope’s Phineas Finn, for which I will post a review later this month). That’s completely opposite to what I did last year, when I ignored Jane Austen July, but read a lot of Victober books. Now it’s November and, like last year, I’m reading a non-fiction tome. I’m not following any of the prompts provided by abookolive (who’s the booktuber who created Non-Fiction November – I love her channel). Last year I also didn’t follow the prompts and just read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which was great. I wanted to find something of similar length (to last me the whole month) and interest and I hit on Jacques Barzun’s cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.

The book came out in 2000, when Jacques Barzun was 93. Barzun, who died in 2012 at 104, was a historian of ideas and culture at Columbia University. He had a very wide range of interests and studied and wrote on many topics, including popular culture. After his retirement, he started work on From Dawn to Decadence at 84 and took almost a decade to finish it. It was hailed as a masterpiece. I’ve had it on my radar for a long time and now’s the time to finally read it.

Here’s what Barzun says he sets out to show in the book:

By tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought during the last 500 years, I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Harper Perennial, New York, 2001, p. xix.

Barzun shows several themes (around 10 or 12) that come up again and again, such as emancipation (gaining individual rights) and primitivism (a desire to return to simpler times and values) and others that are introduced during the course of the book (I’ve only read about 140 pages, so haven’t come across all the themes yet). He divides the book into four parts:

  1. From Luther’s Ninety-five Theses to Boyle’s “Invisible College”
    I’ve never heard of Boyle and have no idea what the “invisible college” is meant to be as I haven’t finished the first part yet.
  2. From the Bog and Sand of Versailles to the Tennis Court
  3. From Faust, Part 1, to “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2”
  4. From “The Great Illusion” to “Western Civ Has Got to Go”

At the moment I’ve read a just little more than half of the first part and I’m loving it. A lot of the historical events are familiar to me, from school and university and books, but the cultural perspectives and the way Barzun shows various overarching themes is new and fascinating. Sometimes he points out connections that seem obvious once pointed out, sometimes he makes judgements that I don’t entirely agree with. But it’s all fascinating and written in a very fluent and readable style without academic jargon.

The book is from the “dawn” of the modern Western era at around 1500, which is the traditional starting point with the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. The “decadence” of the title points out Barzun’s theory that “… in the West the culture of the last 500 years is ending” (p. xiii). I don’t know yet if I agree with the premise. Decadence is, however, not viewed as particularly negative:

But why should the story come to an end? It doesn’t, of course, in the literal sense of stoppage or total ruin. All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. […] The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. […] Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Harper Perennial, New York, 2001, p. xx.

I’m not sure that I will agree with Barzun about the ending of Western culture once I have read the book. So far, his reasons for seeing a time of decadence in our times don’t seem completely persuasive. I don’t know if it is even possible to judge such a thing accurately while living during the times. It’ll be interesting to see if Barzun touches on topics like digitalization and climate change which are of such concern today, but as far as I remember weren’t as prevalent in 2000, when the book was published. I can see some of his themes still working today (primitivism, for instance, the urge to return to a simpler way of life).

The book full of interesting tidbits. Quotes from famous or less well-known historical figures on almost every page, short biographies of influential persons, a zooming in on certain places and societies at certain times to illustrate the effects of developments. This makes for a varied reading experience that keeps the reader interested throughout this hefty tome. Barzun points out books to read if the reader wants more details on certain subjects. He also mentions where topics will be revisited in later parts of the book – you could keep jumping back and forth in the book but for this my first read I’m going to stick with reading it straight through from beginning to end.

Are you enjoying Non-Fiction November as well?

Keep safe, world